Divya Cherian’s Merchants of Virtue: Hindus, Muslims and Untouchables in Eighteenth-Century South Asia is a compelling addition to the emerging field of quotidian caste history. Juxtaposing the figure of the “Hindu” against that of the “Muslim” and the “Untouchable,” Cherian explores the making of these identities against the backdrop of 18th century legal policy and mercantile strategies in the kingdom of Marwar.
The monograph is divided into two sections, comprising three chapters each, with an introduction, a foregrounding chapter, and an epilogue bracketing the rest of the work. In section 1, titled “Other,” Cherian traces how differences are constituted between the Hindu and the perceived non-Hindu, the latter including Muslims and Untouchables. Noting the oppositional rhetoric—both embodied and in documents—that demarcates the boundaries of these identities, the author works with bahis (long cloth-bound registers) that describe a variety of land-management, social, and legal practices and policies advanced by officials of the 18th-century Marwari court, most of whom belonged to upper caste or quasi-upper caste communities espousing vegetarianism, austerity, and ideas of purity.
The second section focuses on the transformation of a form of “merchant ethics” (15) into a universalized code of law for the Marwari Rathor state. In particular, this section affirms the enforcement of this code across caste and communal boundaries, thus reinscribing the rhetoric of difference as one meant to generate states of exception or “Others” through the maintenance of a singular cultural and social norm. These states of exception marked the terms under which identities and individuals could be excluded, and thus doubly segregated those who followed caste values against those who did not. In the remainder of the review, I do not focus on particular chapters of Cherian’s book, but instead focus on the larger argument and structural components that make it a sterling example of historical scholarship.
Cherian delicately balances two levels of argumentation across the length of the monograph. If the first section examines particular examples of state and social intervention in the making of these three identities (Hindu, Muslim, and Untouchable), the second section pulls back to address the state machinery’s larger and more diffused socio-legal authority and role across its domain. This balance is well-supported by the foregrounding first chapter, which provides a rich overview of the political and social landscape in the 18th century, particularly noting its transformation in the wake of receding Mughal power, and the shift from fraternal community-based states towards a dynastic order led by the Rathors.
While I commend Cherian’s deft handling of these multiple concerns, I am less certain the book needed to be divided into two discrete sections, since all the chapters are interrelated, mirroring and supporting larger points across the work. In fact, one of my specific misgivings about the monograph is its insistence on different scales of argumentation and contention, since the work is so clearly a sustained multi-layered history of the Rathor state and its socio-legal practices of segregation. Thus, the chapter on discipline (chapter 4) works with, and is not independent of, later chapters on austerity and chastity (chapters 6 and 7), and lends itself to a reading of the monograph in variable and discrete engagements.
Merchants of Virtue’s greatest strength lies in its careful but lively narrative exposition of the everyday systems of state and social differentiation in the 18th century Rathor kingdom. Cherian is a clear and succinct writer who understands that an economy of verbiage does not require a compromise in clarity and accessibility. Instead, her writing yields startlingly logical, well-articulated, and beautifully reasoned prose that makes reading the monograph pleasurable. Even the relative dryness of the legal registers that form much of the book’s archive is mitigated by the strong narrative voice of the historian, who showcases an uncanny talent at linking both micro and macro history in surprising and enriching ways. In chapter 3 and 4, for example, Cherian describes state-sponsored attempts to promote Vaishnav devotionalism and the overall imposition of Vaishnav-Jain ethics of non-harm (particularly against animals), both done to create regimes of “surveillance, banishments, economic dispossession, and marginalization” (15) of the Muslim and the Untouchable, often while conflating the two identities.
Cherian also weaves in a sizable body of scholarship and theorization, both historically grounded and empirically experienced, resulting in a monograph that is as illuminating about early modern South Asia as it is about the larger field of caste studies. In particular, I note the work’s resonance with the work of political theorists such as Gopal Guru (who endorses the monograph) in its insistence on studying the granularity of everyday caste experience and function. However, as a literary historian, I find Cherian’s observation that discussions of untouchability in studies of devotional poetry are limited in their potential to provide historical information to be puzzling. Certainly, there is room to claim that these studies are limited in providing particular information about how these poets see caste or experience it, but they are still part of a historical consciousness of caste, manifested through both performance and ritual as experiences and commentaries on the everyday.
I am uncertain too if Cherian’s work accommodates the impact of state action and influence upon networks of patronage and religious sectarianism—topics discussed by Valerie Stoker in her work on Vijayanagara, and by Elaine Fisher in her work on early modern Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu sources. This does not, however, detract from the relevance and significance of Merchants of Virtue, which stands as a powerful rebuttal to the binary of primordialism and colonial construction that colors discussions about caste and caste history, particularly in the current South Asian political climate.
Divya Cherian’s Merchants of Virtue is a vibrant and engaging intervention in the historiography of South Asia and caste history. Its strong arguments, rich analysis of historical sources, and careful scholarship will prove stimulating for scholars of South Asia, South Asian religions, history, the social sciences, and archival studies.