Well before films glamourised movie stars as giant killers, almost every caste, in old fashioned India, claimed some kind of martial status. The link between Kshatriyas, muscle tone and weaponry is well known, but it is not as if other castes don’t claim a similar profile. For instance, the Baniyas are frequently presented as crafty, chatur, peace-seeking merchants, but many of their origin tales spin a different story. In these legends (or, jati puranas) Baniyas come through as heat-seeking warriors; brave and fearless, never dodgy peddlers.

This is actually to be expected, and had it been otherwise that would have been quite unusual. For some reason, humans everywhere want to be remembered as fighters. Like our Ranjits and Vishwajeets, some of the commonest European names, such as Vladimir, Ludwig, Louis and Richard mean conqueror, brave, vanquisher, and so forth. Once we factor that in, it becomes easier to accept the Baniya version of the self as ruler and warrior, prone, on occasions, to recklessness too.

As almost everybody aspires to be a warrior, king and conqueror, it is hardly surprising that there is no consensus in India’s four caste model (or chaturvarna) on who is a true Kshatriya. From earthy Jats and Marathas, to princelings and their hangers on, such as the Rajputs and Thakurs, a wide range of castes call themselves ‘Kshatriyas’, but without a shred of mutual admiration. The chaturvarna model has cushion enough to absorb all this, but it begins to wobble once Baniyas reject the Kshatriya tag and yet claim battle readiness.

The Khandelvals and Maheshwaris, two major Rajasthani Baniya castes, notwithstanding their claimed Rajput ancestry, found the Kshatriya practice of animal sacrifice a real turn off. Their sensitivities were so repulsed that many of them went the distance and dumped Hinduism to become Jains. Yet, through all this they held on to their identity as rulers with high-order kingly qualities. In retrospect, they were probably the first to imagine non-violent leadership.

Many origin tales of North Indian Banyias also assert that they were once kings, and that too of civilisational hubs like Ayodhya, Kaushambi and Mathura. The Agarwals have a similar origin myth. They trace their descent from King Agrasen, hence Agrawal. This view received a contemporary fillip when the famous 19th century poet Bharatendu Harishchandra endorsed it and by the fact that in the early 1800s Jaisalmer actually had a Baniya king.

The Subornobaniks of Bengal consider themselves to be more Aryans than the usual Brahmins or Kshatriyas, because they once walked over the fire with Goddess Anayaka. Burnished thus, their skin colour became way lighter than the darker people in the neighbourhood, inspiring their enmity and ill will. In the west, Khandoba, the principal God of the Marathas, is always represented on horseback with both his wives. Of the two, the one in front is more valourous, and she is a Baniya.

It is roughly the same in South India too. The Kaikkoolars (also known as Segunthar Mudaliyar), who are otherwise identified as merchants and weavers, see themselves as creations of Shiva, with Murugan as their specific God. Legend has it that from the anklet of Parvati (Shiva’s consort) nine jewels broke free out of which came the original nine Kaikkoolar warriors. They were blessed with such powers that even Shiva depended on them to tune out his arch rival Suurubatman. Incidentally, Murugan, the Kaikkoolar chief deity, was a reputed hunter, lived dangerously in the hills and possessed the ‘rajasik’, or Kshatriya, trait, of keeping a large retinue of women.

From all of this it is very obvious that Baniyas find the chaturvarna classification unacceptable as it places them after the Kshatriyas and Brahmins. But subscribe to the Vedic hierarchy and the association of merchants with ‘cunning’ is as commonplace as lentils and rice. On the other hand, if we were to seriously consider how Baniyas view themselves, then a completely different set of qualities will have to be served up. Why, in the South Gujarat district of Sabarkantha, the term ‘shahukar’ does not signify a mean money lender (another caricature), but a large hearted, honest person.

Nor is it always a big deal to be a Brahmin either. From Punjab to Travancore, many communities consider this caste to be inauspicious. For example, Kuricchans, of West Kerala, had an established protocol to ward off evil should a Brahmin ever enter their homes. In Punjab, even minor misfortunes, like a tractor engine seizure, spontaneously leads one to a memory check. Was there a Brahmin somewhere along the way to the farm? The Anavils of Gujarat believe that their ancestor was Chanakya, the instructor-in-chief of Kshatriyas, and this places them well above the garden variety priests, who often pretend to be superior.

We should take serious offence when caste stereotypes degrade Dalits, but that ought to alert us to many other forms of community slurs that are routinely in circulation. This is why any reference to the chaturvarna system is bound to put off somebody. Imagine coming out of the barber’s chair with short hair standing up everywhere and there is nothing you can do about it – caste jokes hurt much more.

At the end of the day, consider this: was Gandhi, the Baniya, a crafty merchant or a noble ruler? Does the answer lie in some sacred text or should a person’s life be an open book?