The Vaishya are the third of four castes in Indian society. Traditionally, they have composed the merchant class, and they have also provided for Indian society in general through alms giving and the construction of temples, hospitals, and other public facilities. Members of the Vaishya have traditionally been in an awkward position in society, since they are among the lower ranking of the castes, yet they form a crucial part of society. This led historically to some bitterness on the part of the Vaishya.
The word “Vaishya” is derived from a word which means “to live,” and the caste was originally focused on farming, agriculture, and trading. As the caste system developed, the Vaishya deviated from their agricultural pursuits, focusing on trade as merchants, skilled labor, and land ownership. Members of this caste have traditionally been wealthy, as a result of their occupations, and the caste has also traditionally valued education, especially religious education in the hopes of becoming twice born, an important accomplishment in Hindu life.
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As a merchant community, the Vaishya helped India to expand and become a formidable economic force in its own right. Many members of this caste were also behind the development of Indian industrialism in the 20th century, with prominent Vaishya forming major corporations which continue to be economic powerhouses in India. The caste has also traditionally placed a value on artisanship and technical education.
Since the Vaishya have long been associated with wealth, the caste has also historically been expected to participate in charity and alms giving. Many Indian temples were constructed with Vaishya funds, along with other structures which are meant to benefit society in general. The Brahmin caste may have encouraged this social and religious charity in the hopes of defusing the power which often comes with wealth.
Although Vaishya were wealthy and often well respected, they were in the lower part of the caste system. The resentment which this fostered lead to Vaishya-based support of many revolutionary movements and religions. The spread of religions such as Buddhism which reject the notion of caste was enhanced through Vaishya conversion and funds, and the Vaishya were also behind numerous reform-oriented political figures such as Gandhi. Thanks to legislation and social reforms, the caste system no longer holds the power in India that it once did, although many traditionally Vaishya families have continued to participate in trade and economics, capitalizing on centuries of family experience.