The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 1/The Formation of the Castes in India

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The Great Events by Famous Historians
Author:Gustave Le Bon and Author:W. W. Hunter, translated by Chauncey C. Starkweather
The Formation of the Castes in India

THE FORMATION OF THE CASTES IN INDIA

B.C. 1200

GUSTAVE LE BON[1]
W.W. HUNTER

The institution of caste was not peculiar to India. In Rome there was a long struggle over the connubium. Among the Greeks the right of commensality, or eating together, was restricted. In fact, the phenomena of caste are world-wide in their extent. In India the priests and nobles contended for the first place. India had progressed along the line of ethnic evolution from a loose confederacy of tribes into several nations, ruled by kings and priests, and the iron fetters of caste were becoming more rigidly welded. At first the father of the family was the priest. Then the chiefs and sages took the office of spiritual guide, and conducted the sacrifices. As writing was unknown, the liturgies were learned by heart, and handed down in families. The exclusive knowledge of the ancient hymns became hereditary, as it were. The ministrants increased in number, and thus sprang up the powerful priestly caste.
Then the warrior class arose and grew strong in numbers and power, becoming differentiated from the agriculturists, and forming the military caste. The husbandmen drifted into another caste, and the three orders were rigidly separated by a cessation of intermarriage.
At the bottom came the Sudras, or slave bands, the servile dregs of the population. In course of time, from various influences, the third class became almost eliminated in many provinces. From the cradle to the grave these cruel barriers still intervene between the strata of the people, relentless as fate and insurmountable as death.

GUSTAVE LE BON[edit]

In ancient times the power of kings [in India] was only nominal. In the Aryan village, forming a little republic, the chief, bearing the name of rajah, was secure in his fortress, exercising full sway. Such was the political system prevailing in India through all the ages, and which has always been respected by the conquerors, whoever they might be. So, for so many centuries back we see arise the first elements of an organization which still endures.

We find here also the beginnings of that system of castes, which, at first indistinct and floating, when the classes sought only to be distinguished from each other, was to become so rigid, when it was constituted under the influence of ethnological reasons, as to dig fathomless abysses between the races.

In the Vedas may be traced the progression of the distance between the priests and the warriors, at first slight, and then increasing more and more. The division of functions did not stop there. While the sacrificing priest was consecrating himself more exclusively day by day to the accomplishment of the sacred rites and to the composition of hymns; while the warrior passed his days in adventurous expeditions or daring feats, what would have become of the land and what would it have produced if others had not applied themselves without ceasing, to cultivate it? A third class became distinct, the agriculturists.

In one of the last hymns of Rig Veda these three classes appear, absolutely separated and already designated by the three words Brahmans, Kchatryas, Vaisyas.

The fourth class, that of the Sudras, was to arise later and to include the mass of conquered peoples when the latter joined the circle of Aryan civilization. The classes, hitherto mingling, now became rigidly separated castes.

The most important of these divisions, and that which was first formed, was the one between the priests and the warriors. The Brahmans, intermediaries between men and the gods, soon became more and more exacting, and finally considered themselves as entirely superior beings and were accepted as such.

The distinction between the warriors and the agriculturists also soon became marked, arising doubtless rather from a difference in fortune than in functions.

The war chief, who returned laden with booty, covered himself with rings of gold, rich vestments, and gleaming arms. He became "rajah," that is to say "shining," for such was the meaning of the word at the Vedic epoch.

Still no absolute barrier between the classes had arisen. They mingled to offer sacrifices, and sometimes ate in common.

Heredity of office and profession began to be established. The sacred songs were handed down in families, as were also the functions of the sacrificers. And here among the Vedic Aryans are seen in process of elaboration the germs of the institution which later gained so much power in India and which dominates it still with apparent immutability.

The system of castes has been the corner-stone of all the institutions of India for two thousand years. Such is its importance, and so generally is it misunderstood, that it will be well briefly to explain its origins, sources, and consequences. A system, the result of which is to permit a handful of Europeans to hold sway over two hundred and fifty millions of men deserves the attention of the observer.

The system of castes has existed for more than twenty centuries in India. It doubtless had its origin in the recognition of the inevitable laws of heredity. When the white-skinned conquerors, whom we call Aryans, penetrated India, they found, in addition to other invaders of Turanian origin, black, half-savage populations whom they subjugated. The conquerors were half-pastoral, half-stationary tribes, under chiefs whose authority was counterbalanced by the all-powerful influence of the priests whose duty it was to secure the protection of the gods. Their occupations were divided into classes, that of Brahmans or priests, Kchatryas or warriors, and Vaisyas, laborers or artisans. The last class was perhaps formed by the invaders anterior to the Aryans, whom we have just mentioned.

These divisions corresponded, as is evident, to our three ancient castes, the clergy, the nobility, and the third estate. Beneath these classes was the aboriginal population, the Sudras, forming three quarters of the whole population.

Experience soon revealed the inconveniences which might rise from the mixture of the superior race with the inferior ones, and all the proscriptions of religion tended thereafter to prevent it. "Every country which gives birth to men of mixed races," said the ancient law-giver of the Hindus, the sage Manu, "is soon destroyed together with those who inhabit it." The decree is harsh, but it is impossible not to recognize its truth. Every superior race which has mingled with another too inferior has speedily been degraded or absorbed by it.

The Spaniards in America, the Portuguese in India, are proofs of the sad results produced by such mixtures. The descendants of the brave Portuguese adventurers, who in other days conquered part of India, fill to-day the employments of servants, and the name of their race has become a term of contempt.

Imbued with the importance of this anthropological truth, the Code of Manu, which has been the law of India for so many centuries, and which, like all codes, is the result of long anterior experiences, neglects nothing to preserve the purity of blood.

It pronounces severe penalties against all intermingling of the superior castes between themselves, and especially with the caste of the Sudras. There are no frightful threats which it does not employ to keep the latter apart.

But in the course of the centuries nature triumphed over these formidable prohibitions. Woman always has her charms, no matter how inferior she may be in caste. In spite of Manu, crossings of caste were numerous, and one need not travel India throughout to perceive that, to-day, the populations of all the races are mixed to a large extent. The number of individuals white enough to prove that their blood is quite pure is very restricted. The word caste, taken in its primitive sense, is no longer a synonym of color, as it used to be in Sanscrit, and, if caste had had only formerly prevailing ethnological reasons to invoke, it would have had no reason for continuing. In fact, the primitive divisions of caste have long since disappeared. They were replaced by new divisions, the origin of which is other than the difference of races, except in the case of the Brahmans, who still form the less mixed portion of the population.

Among the causes which have perpetuated the system of castes, the law of heredity has furthermore continued to play a fundamental part. Aptness is inevitably hereditary among the Hindus, and, also inevitably, the son follows the profession of the father. The principle of heredity of the professions being universally admitted, there has resulted the formation of castes as numerous as the professions themselves, and to-day in India castes are numbered by the thousand. Each new profession has for an immediate consequence the formation of a new caste.

The European who comes to India to live soon perceives to what an extent the castes have multiplied in observing the number of different persons whom he is obliged to hire to wait on him. To the two preceding causes of the formations of castes, the ethnological cause, now very weak, and the professional, which is still very strong, are added political office, and the heterogeneity of religious beliefs.

The castes springing from political office might, strictly speaking, be placed in the category of professional castes, but those produced by diversity of religious beliefs should be attached to none of the preceding causes. In theory, that is, only judged by the reading of books, all India would be divided into two or three great religions only. But practically these religions are very numerous. New gods, considered as simple incarnations of ancient ones, are born and die every day, and their votaries soon form a new caste as rigid in its exclusions as the others.

Two fundamental signs mark the conformity of castes, and separate from all the others the persons belonging to them. The first is that the individuals of the same caste cannot eat except among themselves. The second is that they can only marry among themselves.

These two proscriptions are quite fundamental, and the first not less than the second. You may meet by the hundreds in India Brahmans who are employed by the government in the post-office and railway service, or even Brahmans who are beggars. But the humble functionary or wretched mendicant would rather die than sit at table with the viceroy of India.

The quality of Brahmans is hereditary, like a title of nobility in Europe. It is not a synonym of priest, as is generally believed, because it is from this caste that priests are recruited. This caste was formerly so exalted that the rank of royalty was not sufficient to enable one to aspire to the hand of a Brahman's daughter.

The Hindu would rather die than violate the laws of his caste. Nothing is more terrible than for him to lose it. Such loss may be compared to excommunication in the middle ages, or to a condemnation for an infamous crime in modern Europe. To lose his caste is to lose everything at one blow, parents, relations, and fortune. Every one turns his back upon the culprit and refuses to have any dealings with him. He must enter the casteless category, which is employed only for the most abject functions.

As to the social and political consequences of such a system, the only social bond among the Hindus is caste. Outside of caste the world does not exist for him. He is separated from persons of another caste by an abyss much deeper than that which separates Europeans of the most different nationalities. The latter may intermarry, but persons of different castes cannot. The result is that every village possesses as many groups as there are castes represented.

With such a system union against a master is impossible. This system of caste explains the phenomenon of two hundred and fifty millions of men obeying, without a murmur, sixty or seventy thousand strangers[2] whom they detest. The only fatherland of the Hindu is his caste. He has never had another. His country is not a fatherland to him, and he has never dreamed of its unity.

W.W. HUNTER[edit]

At a very early period we catch sight of a nobler race from the northwest, forcing its way in among the primitive peoples of India. This race belonged to the splendid Aryan or Indo-Germanic stock from which the Brahman, the Rajput, and the Englishman alike descend. Its earliest home seems to have been in Western Asia. From that common camping-ground certain branches of the race started for the east, others for the farther west. One of the western offshoots built Athens and Sparta, and became the Greek nation; another went on to Italy, and reared the city on the Seven Hills, which grew into Imperial Rome. A distant colony of the same race excavated the silver ores of prehistoric Spain; and when we first catch a sight of ancient England, we see an Aryan settlement fishing in wattle canoes, and working the tin mines of Cornwall. Meanwhile other branches of the Aryan stock had gone forth from the primitive Asiatic home to the east. Powerful bands found their way through the passes of the Himalayas into the Punjab, and spread themselves, chiefly as Brahmans and Rajputs, over India.

The Aryan offshoots, alike to the east and to the west, asserted their superiority over the earlier peoples whom they found in possession of the soil. The history of ancient Europe is the story of the Aryan settlements around the shores of the Mediterranean; and that wide term, modern civilization, merely means the civilization of the western branches of the same race. The history of India consists in like manner of the history of the eastern offshoots of the Aryan stock who settled in that land.

We know little regarding these noble Aryan tribes in their early camping-ground in Western Asia. From words preserved in the languages of their long-separated descendants in Europe and India, scholars infer that they roamed over the grassy steppes with their cattle, making long halts to raise crops of grain. They had tamed most of the domestic animals; were acquainted with iron; understood the arts of weaving and sewing; wore clothes, and ate cooked food. They lived the hardy life of the comparatively temperate zone; and the feeling of cold seems to be one of the earliest common remembrances of the eastern and the western branches of the race.

The forefathers of the Greek and the Roman, of the English and the Hindu, dwelt together in Western Asia, spoke the same tongue, worshipped the same gods. The languages of Europe and India, although at first sight they seem wide apart, are merely different growths from the original Aryan speech. This is especially true of the common words of family life. The names for father, mother, brother, sister, and widow are the same in most of the Aryan languages, whether spoken on the banks of the Ganges, of the Tiber, or of the Thames. Thus the word daughter, which occurs in nearly all of them, has been derived from the Aryan root dugh, which in Sanscrit has the form of duh, to milk; and perhaps preserves the memory of the time when the daughter was the little milkmaid in the primitive Aryan household.

The ancient religions of Europe and India had a common origin. They were to some extent made up of the sacred stories or myths which our joint ancestors had learned while dwelling together in Asia. Several of the Vedic gods were also the gods of Greece and Rome; and to this day the Divinity is adored by names derived from the same old Aryan word (deva, the Shining One), by Brahmans in Calcutta, by the Protestant clergy of England, and by Roman Catholic priests in Peru.

The Vedic hymns exhibit the Indian branch of the Aryans on their march to the southeast, and in their new homes. The earliest songs disclose the race still to the north of the Khaibar pass, in Kabul; the later ones bring them as far as the Ganges. Their victorious advance eastward through the intermediate tract can be traced in the Vedic writings almost step by step. The steady supply of water among the five rivers of the Punjab led the Aryans to settle down from their old state of wandering half-pastoral tribes into regular communities of husbandmen. The Vedic poets praised the rivers which enabled them to make this great change—perhaps the most important step in the progress of a race. "May the Indus," they sang, "the far-famed giver of wealth, hear us; [fertilizing our] broad fields with water." The Himalayas, through whose southwestern passes they had reached India, and at whose southern base they long dwelt, made a lasting impression on their memory. The Vedic singer praised "Him whose greatness the snowy ranges, and the sea, and the aerial river declare." The Aryan race in India never forgot its northern home. There dwelt its gods and holy singers; and there eloquence descended from heaven among men; while high amid the Himalayan mountains lay the paradise of deities and heroes, where the kind and the brave forever repose.

The Rig-Veda forms the great literary memorial of the early Aryan settlements in the Punjab. The age of this venerable hymnal is unknown. Orthodox Hindus believe, without evidence, that it existed "from before all time," or at least from 3001 years B.C. European scholars have inferred from astronomical data that its composition was going on about 1400 B.C. But the evidence might have been calculated backward, and inserted later in the Veda. We only know that the Vedic religion had been at work long before the rise of Buddhism in the sixth century B.C. The Rig-Veda is a very old collection of 1017 short poems, chiefly addressed to the gods, and containing 10,580 verses. Its hymns show us the Aryans on the banks of the Indus, divided into various tribes, sometimes at war with each other, sometimes united against the "black-skinned" aborigines. Caste, in its later sense, is unknown. Each father of a family is the priest of his own household. The chieftain acts as father and priest to the tribe; but at the greater festivals he chooses some one specially learned in holy offerings to conduct the sacrifice in the name of the people. The king himself seems to have been elected; and his title of Vis-pat, literally "Lord of the Settlers," survives in the old Persian Vis-paiti, and as the Lithuanian Wiez-patis in east-central Europe at this day. Women enjoyed a high position; and some of the most beautiful hymns were composed by ladies and queens. Marriage was held sacred. Husband and wife were both "rulers of the house" (dampati); and drew near to the gods together in prayer. The burning of widows on their husbands' funeral pile was unknown; and the verses in the Veda which the Brahmans afterwards distorted into a sanction for the practice, have the very opposite meaning. "Rise, woman," says the Vedic text to the mourner; "come to the world of life. Come to us, Thou hast fulfilled thy duties as a wife to thy husband."

The Aryan tribes in the Veda have blacksmiths, coppersmiths, and goldsmiths among them, besides carpenters, barbers, and other artisans. They fight from chariots, and freely use the horse, although not yet the elephant, in war. They have settled down as husbandmen, till their fields with the plough, and live in villages or towns. But they also cling to their old wandering life, with their herds and "cattle-pens." Cattle, indeed, still form their chief wealth—the coin in which payment of fines is made—reminding us of the Latin word for money, pecunia, from pecus, a herd. One of the Vedic words for war literally means "a desire for cows." Unlike the modern Hindus, the Aryans of the Veda ate beef; used a fermented liquor or beer, made from the soma plant; and offered the same strong meat and drink to their gods. Thus the stout Aryans spread eastward through Northern India, pushed on from behind by later arrivals of their own stock, and driving before them, or reducing to bondage, the earlier "black-skinned" races. They marched in whole communities from one river valley to another; each house-father a warrior, husbandman, and priest; with his wife, and his little ones, and his cattle.

These free-hearted tribes had a great trust in themselves and their gods. Like other conquering races, they believed that both themselves and their deities were altogether superior to the people of the land, and to their poor, rude objects of worship. Indeed, this noble self-confidence is a great aid to the success of a nation. Their divinities—devas, literally "the shining ones," from the Sanscrit root div, "to shine"—were the great powers of nature. They adored the Father-heaven,—Dyaush-pitar in Sanscrit, the Dies piter or Jupiter of Rome, the Zeus of Greece; and the Encompassing Sky—Varuna in Sanscrit, Uranus in Latin, Ouranos in Greek. Indra, or the Aqueous Vapor, that brings the precious rain on which plenty or famine still depends each autumn, received the largest number of hymns. By degrees, as the settlers realized more and more keenly the importance of the periodical rains to their new life as husbandmen, he became the chief of the Vedic gods. "The gods do not reach unto thee, O Indra, nor men; thou overcomest all creatures in strength." Agni, the God of Fire (Latin ignis), ranks perhaps next to Indra in the number of hymns addressed to him. He is "the Youngest of the Gods," "the Lord and Giver of Wealth." The Maruts are the Storm Gods, "who make the rock to tremble, who tear in pieces the forest." Ushas, "the High-born Dawn" (Greek Eos), "shines upon us like a young wife, rousing every living being to go forth to his work." The Asvins, the "Horsemen" or fleet outriders of the dawn, are the first rays of sunrise, "Lords of Lustre." The Solar Orb himself (Surya), the Wind (Vayu), the Sunshine or Friendly Day (Mitra), the intoxicating fermented juice of the Sacrificial Plant (Soma), and many other deities are invoked in the Veda—in all, about thirty-three gods, "who are eleven in heaven, eleven on earth, and eleven dwelling in glory in mid-air."

The Aryan settler lived on excellent terms with his bright gods. He asked for protection, with an assured conviction that it would be granted. At the same time, he was deeply stirred by the glory and mystery of the earth and the heavens. Indeed, the majesty of nature so filled his mind, that when he praises any one of his Shining Gods, he can think of none other for the time being, and adores him as the supreme ruler. Verses may be quoted declaring each of the greater deities to be the One Supreme: "Neither gods nor men reach unto thee, O Indra!" Another hymn speaks of Soma as "king of heaven and earth, the conqueror of all." To Varuna also it is said, "Thou art lord of all, of heaven and earth; thou art king of all those who are gods, and of all those who are men." The more spiritual of the Vedic singers, therefore, may be said to have worshipped One God, though not One alone.

"In the beginning there arose the Golden Child. He was the one born lord of all that is. He established the earth and this sky. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?

"He who gives life, he who gives strength; whose command all the Bright Gods revere; whose shadow is immortality, whose shadow is death. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?

"He who, through his power, is the one king of the breathing and awakening world. He who governs all, man and beast. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?

"He through whom the sky is bright and the earth firm; he through whom the heaven was established, nay, the highest heaven; he who measured out the light and the air. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?

"He who by his might looked even over the water-clouds; he who alone is God above all gods. Who is the God to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?"

While the aboriginal races buried their dead in the earth or under rude stone monuments, the Aryan—alike in India, in Greece, and in Italy—made use of the funeral-pile. Several exquisite Sanscrit hymns bid farewell to the dead:—"Depart thou, depart thou by the ancient paths to the place whither our fathers have departed. Meet with the Ancient Ones; meet with the Lord of Death. Throwing off thine imperfections, go to thy home. Become united with a body; clothe thyself in a shining form." "Let him depart to those for whom flow the rivers of nectar. Let him depart to those who, through meditation, have obtained the victory; who, by fixing their thoughts on the unseen, have gone to heaven. Let him depart to the mighty in battle, to the heroes who have laid down their lives for others, to those who have bestowed their goods on the poor." The doctrine of transmigration was at first unknown. The circle round the funeral-pile sang with a firm assurance that their friend went direct to a state of blessedness and reunion with the loved ones who had gone before. "Do thou conduct us to heaven," says a hymn of the later Atharva-Veda; "let us be with our wives and children." "In heaven, where our friends dwell in bliss—having left behind the infirmities of the body, free from lameness, free from crookedness of limb—there let us behold our parents and our children." "May the water-shedding Spirits bear thee upward, cooling thee with their swift motion through the air, and sprinkling thee with dew." "Bear him, carry him; let him, with all his faculties complete, go to the world of the righteous. Crossing the dark valley which spreadeth boundless around him, let the unborn soul ascend to heaven. Wash the feet of him who is stained with sin; let him go upward with cleansed feet. Crossing the gloom, gazing with wonder in many directions, let the unborn soul go up to heaven."

By degrees the old collection of hymns, or the Rig-Veda, no longer sufficed. Three other collections or service-books were therefore added, making the Four Vedas. The word Veda is from the same root as the Latin vid-ere, to see: the early Greek feid-enai, infinitive of oida, I know: and the English wisdom, or I wit. The Brahmans taught that the Veda was divinely inspired, and that it was literally "the wisdom of God." There was, first, the Rig-Veda, or the hymns in their simplest form. Second, the Sama-Veda, made up of hymns of the Rig-Veda to be used at the Soma sacrifice. Third, the Yajur-Veda, consisting not only of Rig-Vedic hymns, but also of prose sentences, to be used at the great sacrifices; and divided into two editions, the Black and White Yajur. The fourth, or Atharva-Veda, was compiled from the least ancient hymns at the end of the Rig-Veda, very old religious spells, and later sources. Some of its spells have a similarity to the ancient German and Lithuanian charms, and appear to have come down from the most primitive times, before the Indian and European branches of the Aryan race struck out from their common home.

To each of the four Vedas were attached prose works, called Brahmanas, in order to explain the sacrifices and the duties of the priests. Like the Four Vedas, the Brahmanas were held to be the very word of God. The Vedas and the Brahmanas form the revealed Scriptures of the Hindus—the sruti, literally "Things heard from God." The Vedas supplied their divinely-inspired psalms, and the Brahmanas their divinely-inspired theology or body of doctrine. To them were afterward added the Sutras, literally "Strings of pithy sentences" regarding laws and ceremonies. Still later the Upanishads were composed, treating of God and the soul; the Aranyakas, or "Tracts for the forest recluse;" and, after a very long interval, the Puranas, or "Traditions from of old." All these ranked, however, not as divinely-inspired knowledge, or things "heard from God" (sruti), like the Vedas and Brahmanas, but only as sacred traditions—smriti, literally "The things remembered."

Meanwhile the Four Castes had been formed. In the old Aryan colonies among the Five Rivers of the Punjab, each house-father was a husbandman, warrior, and priest. But by degrees certain gifted families, who composed the Vedic hymns or learned them off by heart, were always chosen by the king to perform the great sacrifices. In this way probably the priestly caste sprang up. As the Aryans conquered more territory, fortunate soldiers received a larger share of the lands than others, and cultivated it not with their own hands, but by means of the vanquished non-Aryan tribes. In this way the Four Castes arose. First, the priests or Brahmans. Second, the warriors or fighting companions of the king, called Rajputs or Kchatryas, literally "of the royal stock." Third, the Aryan agricultural settlers, who kept the old name of Vaisyas, from the root vis, which in the primitive Vedic period had included the whole Aryan people. Fourth, the Sudras, or conquered non-Aryan tribes, who became serfs. The three first castes were of Aryan descent, and were honored by the name of the Twice-born Castes. They could all be present at the sacrifices, and they worshipped the same Bright Gods. The Sudras were "the slave-bands of black descent" of the Veda. They were distinguished from their "Twice-born" Aryan conquerors as being only "Once-born," and by many contemptuous epithets. They were not allowed to be present at the great national sacrifices, or at the feasts which followed them. They could never rise out of their servile condition; and to them was assigned the severest toil in the fields, and all the hard and dirty work of the village community.

The Brahmans or priests claimed the highest rank. But they seemed to have had a long struggle with the Kchatryas, or warrior caste, before they won their proud position at the head of the Indian people. They afterward secured themselves in that position by teaching that it had been given to them by God. At the beginning of the world, they said, the Brahman proceeded from the mouth of the Creator, the Kchatryas or Rajput from his arms, the Vaisya from his thighs or belly, and the Sudra from his feet. This legend is true so far that the Brahmans were really the brain power of the Indian people, the Kchatryas its armed hands, the Vaisyas the food-growers, and the Sudras the down-trodden serfs. When the Brahmans had established their power, they made a wise use of it. From the ancient Vedic times they recognized that if they were to exercise spiritual supremacy, they must renounce earthly pomp. In arrogating the priestly function, they gave up all claim to the royal office. They were divinely appointed to be the guides of nations and the counsellors of kings, but they could not be kings themselves. As the duty of the Sudra was to serve, of the Vaisya to till the ground and follow middle-class trades or crafts; so the business of the Kchatryas was to fight the public enemy, and of the Brahman to propitiate the national gods.

Each day brought to the Brahmans its routine of ceremonies, studies, and duties. Their whole life was mapped out into four clearly defined stages of discipline. For their existence, in its full religious significance, commenced not at birth, but on being invested at the close of childhood with the sacred thread of the Twice-born. Their youth and early manhood were to be entirely spent in learning the Veda by heart from an older Brahman, tending the sacred fire, and serving their preceptor. Having completed his long studies, the young Brahman entered on the second stage of his life, as a householder. He married, and commenced a course of family duties. When he had reared a family, and gained a practical knowledge of the world, he retired into the forest as a recluse, for the third period of his life; feeding on roots or fruits, practising his religious duties with increased devotion. The fourth stage was that of the ascetic or religious mendicant, wholly withdrawn from earthly affairs, and striving to attain a condition of mind which, heedless of the joys, or pains, or wants of the body, is intent only on its final absorption into the deity. The Brahman, in this fourth stage of his life, ate nothing but what was given to him unasked, and abode not more than one day in any village, lest the vanities of the world should find entrance into his heart. This was the ideal life prescribed for a Brahman, and ancient Indian literature shows that it was to a large extent practically carried out. Throughout his whole existence the true Brahman practised a strict temperance; drinking no wine, using a simple diet, curbing the desires; shut off from the tumults of war, as his business was to pray, not to fight, and having his thoughts ever fixed on study and contemplation. "What is this world?" says a Brahman sage. "It is even as the bough of a tree, on which a bird rests for a night, and in the morning flies away."

The Brahmans, therefore, were a body of men who, in an early stage of this world's history, bound themselves by a rule of life the essential precepts of which were self-culture and self-restraint. The Brahmans of the present India are the result of 3000 years of hereditary education and temperance; and they have evolved a type of mankind quite distinct from the surrounding population. Even the passing traveller in India marks them out, alike from the bronze-cheeked, large-limbed, leisure-loving Rajput or Kchatryas, the warrior caste of Aryan descent; and from the dark-skinned, flat-nosed, thick-lipped low castes of non-Aryan origin, with their short bodies and bullet heads. The Brahman stands apart from both, tall and slim, with finely-modelled lips and nose, fair complexion, high forehead, and slightly cocoanut shaped skull—the man of self-centred refinement. He is an example of a class becoming the ruling power in a country, not by force of arms, but by the vigor of hereditary culture and temperance. One race has swept across India after another, dynasties have risen and fallen, religions have spread themselves over the land and disappeared. But since the dawn of history the Brahman has calmly ruled; swaying the minds and receiving the homage of the people, and accepted by foreign nations as the highest type of Indian mankind. The position which the Brahmans won resulted in no small measure from the benefits which they bestowed. For their own Aryan countrymen they developed a noble language and literature. The Brahmans were not only the priests and philosophers, but also the lawgivers, the men of science and the poets of their race. Their influence on the aboriginal peoples, the hill and forest races of India, was even more important. To these rude remnants of the flint and stone ages they brought in ancient times a knowledge of the metals and the gods.

As a social league, Hinduism arranged the people into the old division of the "Twice-born" Aryan castes, namely, the Brahmans, Kchatryas, Vaisyas; and the "Once-born" castes, consisting of the non-Aryan Sudras and the classes of mixed descent. This arrangement of the Indian races remains to the present day. The "Twice-born" castes still wear the sacred thread, and claim a joint, although an unequal, inheritance in the holy books of the Veda. The "Once-born" castes are still denied the sacred thread; and they were not allowed to study the holy books, until the English set up schools in India for all classes of the people. But while caste is thus founded on the distinctions of race, it has been influenced by two other systems of division, namely, the employments of the people, and the localities in which they live. Even in the oldest times, the castes had separate occupations assigned to them. They could be divided either into Brahmans, Kchatryas, Vaisyas, and Sudras; or into priests, warriors, husbandmen, and serfs. They are also divided according to the parts of India in which they live. Even the Brahmans have among themselves ten distinct classes, or rather nations. Five of these classes or Brahman nations live to the north of the Vindhya mountains; five of them live to the south. Each of the ten feels itself to be quite apart from the rest; and they have among themselves no fewer than 1886 subdivisions or separate Brahmanical tribes. In like manner, the Kchatryas or Rajputs number 590 separate tribes in different parts of India.

While, therefore, Indian caste seems at first a very simple arrangement of the people into four classes, it is in reality a very complex one. For it rests upon three distinct systems of division: namely, upon race, occupation, and geographical position. It is very difficult even to guess at the number of the Indian castes. But there are not fewer than 3,000 of them which have separate names, and which regard themselves as separate classes. The different castes cannot intermarry with each other, and most of them cannot eat together. The ordinary rule is that no Hindu of good caste can touch food cooked by a man of inferior caste. By rights, too, each caste should keep to its own occupation. Indeed, there has been a tendency to erect every separate kind of employment or handicraft in each separate province into a distinct caste. But, as a matter of practice, the castes often change their occupation, and the lower ones sometimes raise themselves in the social scale. Thus the Vaisya caste were in ancient times the tillers of the soil. They have in most provinces given up this toilsome occupation, and the Vaisyas are now the great merchants and bankers of India. Their fair skins, intelligent faces, and polite bearing must have altered since the days when their forefathers ploughed, sowed, and reaped under the hot sun. Such changes of employment still occur on a smaller scale throughout India.

The system of caste exercises a great influence upon the industries of the people. Each caste is, in the first place, a trade-guild. It insures the proper training of the youth of its own special craft; it makes rules for the conduct of the caste-trade; it promotes good feeling by feasts or social gatherings. The famous manufactures of mediæval India, its muslins, silks, cloth of gold, inlaid weapons, and exquisite work in precious stones—were brought to perfection under the care of the castes or trade-guilds. Such guilds may still be found in full work in many parts of India, Thus, in the northwestern districts of Bombay all heads of artisan families are ranged under their proper trade-guild. The trade-guild or caste prevents undue competition among the members, and upholds the interest of its own body in any dispute arising with other craftsmen.

In 1873, for example, a number of the bricklayers in Ahmadabad could not find work. Men of this class sometimes added to their daily wages by rising very early in the morning, and working overtime. But when several families complained that they could not get employment, the bricklayers' guild met, and decided that as there was not enough work for all, no member should be allowed to work in extra hours. In the same city, the cloth dealers in 1872 tried to cut down the wages of the sizers or men who dress the cotton cloth. The sizers' guild refused to work at lower rates, and remained six weeks on strike. At length they arranged their dispute, and both the trade-guilds signed a stamped agreement fixing the rates for the future. Each of the higher castes or trade-guilds in Ahmadabad receives a fee from young men on entering their business. The revenue derived from these fees, and from fines upon members who break caste rules, is spent in feasts to the brethren of the guild, and in helping the poorer craftsmen or their orphans. A favorite plan of raising money in Surat is for the members of the trade to keep a certain day as a holiday, and to shut up all their shops except one. The right to keep open this one shop is put up to auction, and the amount bid is expended on a feast. The trade-guild or caste allows none of its members to starve. It thus acts as a mutual assurance society and takes the place of a poor-law in India. The severest social penalty which can be inflicted upon a Hindu is to be put out of his caste.

Hinduism is, however, not only a social league resting upon caste—it is also a religious alliance based upon worship. As the various race elements of the Indian people have been welded into caste, so the simple old beliefs of the Veda, the mild doctrines of Buddha, and the fierce rites of the non-Aryan tribes, have been thrown into the melting-pot, and poured out thence as a mixture of precious metal and dross, to be worked up into the complex worship of the Hindu gods.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. Translated from the French by Chauncey C. Starkweather.
  2. English.