Chitpavan Brahman - History and Cultural Relations

From the beginning of the eighteenth century to the Contemporary period, Chitpavans have played a part in the history of India far beyond their numbers. Unheard of before the late seventeenth century, the Chitpavans began their rise to fame with the appointment of Balaji Vishwanath Bhat as peshwa (prime minister) to Shahu, the grandson of the founder of the Maratha Kingdom, Shivaji. Balaji raised the office of the peshwa to de facto rule of the Maratha Empire, and from 1713 until their defeat by the British in 1818, the peshwas ruled one of the last large independent kingdoms in India. During this period, Chitpavans from the Konkan joined the military and administrative ranks of the Maratha Empire in large numbers. Chitpavans served not only in the cities of the Marathi-speaking area but also in the other kingdoms of the Maratha expansion: Gwalior, Baroda, Indore. Even after the British victory over the peshwa, one of the important Chitpavan administrative families, that of the Patwardhans, was left to rule seven small princely states in southern Maratha territory. The peshwa himself was exiled to the north lest he form a nucleus of rebellion, and the British ruled what then became part of Bombay Presidency. Nana Saheb, the heir of the peshwa, became from his exile near Kanpur (Cawnpore) one of the important figures in the 1857 rebellion against the British.

Under British rule, the Chitpavans quickly took to English education, and most of the famous names of Maratha history from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are from this caste: the early reformer and essayist Hari Gopal Deshmukh (Lokahitawadi) (1823-1892); reformers and nationalists on an all-India scale Mahadeo Govind Ranade (1842-1901) and Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915), whom Gandhi called one of his gurus; the most famous Maharashtrian woman of the nineteenth century, educator and Christian convert Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922); the radical patriot Bal Gangadhar (Lokamanya) Tilak (1856-1920); the Hindu revivalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1893-1966); orientalists Pandurang Vaman Kane (1880-1972) and Ramchandra Narayan Dandekar (b. 1909); economist D. R. Gadgil (1901-1971); Mahatma Gandhi's "spiritual successor," Vinoba Bhave (1895-1982); anthropologist Iravati Karve (1905-1970); cricketer D. B. Deodhar (b. 1891); and many others. Even Maharashtra's "terrorists" were Chitpavan, from the nineteenth-century rebel Wasudeo Balwant Phadke, through the Chapekar brothers in the 1890s, to Nathuram Vinayak Godse, Gandhi's assassin in 1948. The nationalist activities of the Chitpavans, both radical and moderate, caused considerable hatred and fear on the part of some Britons, and there are many references to the arrogant and "untrustworthy" Chitpavans in the Raj literature. Maharashtrians today are justifiably proud of the many contributions to Indian nationalism made by Chitpavans.

With the rise of Gandhi after 1920, the Maharashtra area ceased to be a main center of Indian political life, and such Chitpavan political figures as Tilak's successor, N. C. Kelkar, had little power on the national scene. The non-Brahman political movement brought the large caste of the Marathas to the fore, and it is claimed that Chitpavan N. R. Gadgil brought the non-Brahman leadership into the Indian National Congress to strengthen that chief nationalist group. The non-Brahmans then dominated by sheer numbers and a newfound sense of their importance in the previously Brahman-dominated political arena. By the time of Indian independence, no Brahman was important in the Congress party. Later Chitpavan political skill was exerted on the Left and on the Right, not in the moderate Indian National Congress. Important Socialists are S. M. Joshi (b. 1904), N. G. Goray (b. 1907), and currently Madhu Limaye (b. 1922), although these have not been as well known on the national stage as were Tilak, Gokhale, or Ranade.

Chitpavans dominated the Marathi-speaking area administratively, culturally, economically, and educationally—in fact, in every field except ritual religion—since their first appearance in western India in the late seventeenth Century until the decades just before Indian independence. This dominance eventually resulted in a strong anti-Brahman feeling that surfaced violently after the death of Gandhi in 1948 at the hands of a Chitpavan Brahman. Rioting and destruction in Bombay, Nagpur, and a belt from Pune to Kolhapur drove Chitpavans (and often other Brahmans) to large cities, out of government service, and into still more new pursuits. Most Chitpavan families now have at least one member working in professional life in Europe or the United States.

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