Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Old and new times for the Hindoo

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2718355Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX — Old and new times for the Hindoo
1863Harriet Martineau


Sir Charles Trevelyan has sent us a state paper, which is not only of strong interest in itself, but which stimulates the minds of readers to a retrospect which is as good as an epic poem. Under the prosaic name of a Budget, we are presented with an invitation to look back through a hundred generations, and see how the vast population of India lived in the days of their country’s greatness, and what is the prospect for those hundreds of millions of people of a better lot than their ancestors ever enjoyed. I, for one, find the invitation irresistible; and I shall indulge,—not in writing about finance for readers who can study that view in the newspapers of the day,—but in seeking glimpses of the life of the people of Hindostan, ages before they knew of the existence of our country and nation, and in observing whether, in fact, “the former times were better than these” for the Hindoos, and whether, on the whole, they owe to England the most adversity or prosperity.

Our first glimpse of the country is very dim and uncertain. Of the southern half of the great peninsula of India in the old days we indeed know nothing, except that it was despised by the inhabitants of Hindostan Proper, in comparison with their own holy land. We first find the people of the plains, from the Vindhya mountains northwards, looking up with fear and admiration to the great range of the Himalayas,—the Abode of Snow, as they called it,—where they supposed the gods to reside. The proudest part of the inhabitants liked to talk of their ancestors having come down through those mountains from a country beyond, where the common men were heroes and sages: but there is no knowing how much truth there was in the boast. However it might be with the proud, it is pretty clear that the plains were full of a humbler people from time immemorial;—a people who tilled the soil, and made garments, and did the rough work of life. Under the social system, which is the first we know of the Hindoos, these aborigines were regarded as the lowest class, under the name of the Sudra caste; and they met with much the same treatment that the aborigines of newly discovered countries always do meet with from the wiser and stronger race of men who are able to reduce them to subjection.

At this stage, we see the inhabitants spread over the plains, and in the valleys of the hilly parts, living a more prosperous life than in after ages, but still, according to our notions, a very uncomfortable one. Their religion entered into all their concerns, causing an infinity of trouble and anxiety, without any sufficient compensation of comfort and welfare. It introduced order, certainly; but it left no room for progress. For some generations it seems to have kept everybody quiet under the rule of priests and kings: and, by appointing the hard work of life to be done by a race of virtual slaves, Hindoo legislators secured for the higher classes leisure for study, and for the cultivation of the finer arts of life. This could not last for ever, while numbers were increasing and multiplying; and at the best it did not secure the general welfare.

We can hardly imagine a territory so vast,—as large as half-a-dozen European kingdoms in one,—without any such thing as a town, except two or three capital cities. The people lived rather more thickly within reach of any good spring of water; or where two or three tracks ran near together: and we know that they met at such points owing to the prohibitions of the priests and the law about celibate young men, and any respectable people enjoying themselves at the doors of bakehouses, or under any well-known tree, or at the cistern of the neighbourhood, or at public spectacles. It is clear that there was sociability elsewhere than at religious festivals, though there were no towns. How the buying and selling was managed we can only conjecture: but there was certainly a good deal of wealth in the citizens’ families,—especially in gold, jewels, and embroidery. But the bulk of the people had no property beyond the cotton wrapper which they wore, and the bench or mat on which they sat, and the bowl from which they ate their rice. The most important feature in the whole case to us, is the enormous destruction of human life, at short intervals. The best lot that lay before all but the higher castes was to live out life in a bamboo hut, in a wood or among the tall grass, with rice enough to eat, spiced with peppers from the jungle, and a new wrapper when needed, picked from the cotton-plant, spun at home, and woven in the pit under the tree. This was all that any man had to look forward to for himself or his children; for nobody could, under any circumstances, rise above the fortune to which he was born, or make property, or use it if he got it. On the other hand, no man expected so good a lot as even this. Every few years there came an awful famine, under which high and low died off together. Sometimes there was a flood; and then the people might be seen driven together on any rising ground, waiting in hunger till the waters went down, and knowing that they should find everything washed away,—huts, and crops, and everything,—when they returned. Oftener there was drought: and then the country was strewn with corpses, and reeking with the stench of the mortality. In these calamities all classes suffered; for the gold and jewels would not buy rice or grain when none was growing. Such was life to the multitude during a thousand years of a civilisation supposed to have been the foremost in the world in its day.

In course of time we observe great changes. There are great men who are lords of ten towns, or twenty, or a hundred or more; and the inhabitants of these settlements are parcelled out among different occupations, which they and their children are to pursue for ever and ever. The village watchman’s family is to keep the watch of the village to the end of the world; and so on. Here is more organisation, a fuller distribution of industry, somewhat more variety in daily life, and further facility for making gains and enjoying them,—if the inclination were once roused: but there is no evidence that the stimulus operated: and the evils of famine remained; and to these was in time added war, and great suffering and death from religious pilgrimages and festivals.

Some sort of trade they must have had, though we hear nothing of commercial transactions, or of any money beyond the rudest currency, answering to the cowry cash of Africa. There was a sale of Indian products by Arabs and Chinese in foreign lands; and these traders carried back woollen cloth, gold and silver, brass, tin and lead, coral, glass, antimony, and perfumes, and some wines. There was a use of these things among the higher classes, and they were paid for by the fine cotton fabrics of India, by silk cloth and thread, dyes, spices, sugar and aromatics, gems, and sometimes female slaves. There must have been ox-carts and pack-oxen on the roads, and boats on the rivers, carrying these commodities between the interior and the coast: but the traders were themselves a caste, and no chance was opened to any order of men by the expansion of any industry but their own, because no man could choose or change his own lot. He was locked into his own niche in the social fabric. There he might be starved, or killed off by pestilence, or seized on for the service of a war; he might suffer any amount of evil, but he could obtain no good for himself or his children after him. He was the slave of ignorance and of superstition,—of the officers set over him and of the priests. Yet there was worse in store for him. The time came when he was deprived of the negative good of a quiet life.

When the Greeks penetrated into Hindostan they found a country and people externally prosperous. The territory contained a multitude of kingdoms—above a hundred, we are told—and the kings were warlike. The soldiery were a caste of themselves, but everybody could suffer from warfare. Everybody paid taxes,—and heavy ones,—and all were subject to ravage by invasion. Kings and chiefs rode on elephants, and glittered with gems, and spent fortunes in perfumes and rich garments ; but the bulk of the population was toiling on as of old. One great good was the provision of public works,—the cisterns and aqueducts by which the people and their land were supplied with water; the good road and resting-places for travellers ; the fine approaches to the chief rivers, and the defences of towns and villages. On the other hand, we hear of the evil of usury,—the curse of Indian industry to this day. Heavy taxes and the claims of village potentates must be supposed the causes of the pressure under which men seem to have been always borrowing money which they could never repay. The process makes the modern Hindoo into a hopeless slave, and the same cause must have produced the same effect in the ancient days.

All this time there was, instead of any principle of nationality like that of the Chinese, a peculiar religion which comprehended the entire population of the vast territory, but admitted of a division into kingdoms, and of the wars which always arise out of such a state of things. A new period arrived when the separate kingdoms were not only invaded and overrun by enemies, but required to listen to the preaching of a strange faith. In the eighth century the Mohammedans were treating the Brahmins as Brahmins had never been treated before. The Arabs had for some time carried on marauding practices on the western coasts of India,—especially by stealing beautiful native women from Scinde for slaves. The impending calamity of a more complete invasion was far more terrible than the fiercest feuds among the native potentates, and the horrors were found in fact to be so dreadful, that most of the inhabitants let the Moslems have their way; so that they were soon settled in the country as its masters.

The poor Hindoos thought they had reached the lowest point of misery when the proud enemy came clustering about their towns, or sweeping like a whirlwind over their plains. At first the great towns resisted: but the fighting men were all slaughtered, and their families sold for slaves: and the rest of the people were compelled to change their religion or pay heavy tribute. Dreary centuries of confusion followed. Hindoo princes here and there joined the conquerors against their neighbours: Hindoo ministers served the newcomers, and forsook their old masters and their old faith: insurrections broke out, and sometimes succeeded for so long a time that the old way of life seemed to be restored, and the intruders to be driven out: and then they came back again, full of wrath and cruelty. The mass of the people suffered most, as in all such cases. There was a show of grandeur and prosperity which fed the pride of rulers: splendid architecture began to arise,—tombs, mosques and palaces, in addition to the pagodas of the old religion: there were more jewels and embroideries, and silk and feather fineries than ever in the courts of princes, conquered and conquering: the great public works were sometimes destroyed in war; and whether they were restored or left in ruins the misery to the labourers was great. If the cultivator or artisan was not ruined by drought, he was made a slave of at the works. The old evils remained amidst the new ones;—no man could rise in life, except a few political or mercantile adventurers; there was no object in life for any man; and the famines became more frequent and terrible than ever when war-blasts swept over the plains, laying all waste. The great reservoirs were breached, and the waters flowed away in the hot sands: the clumps of fruit-trees were cut down, and shade and food were gone: springing crops were trampled down; and the villagers did not venture into their fields to try what could be done. It is no wonder that human life has been held cheap in India; for, during all recorded time, death has made singular havoc with the Hindoos, from birth upwards. Sometimes the peasantry were hunted like wild beasts, and even slaughtered like game in a battue. This was when their numbers were troublesome, or their attachment was suspected, or their fields were coveted. Any of them who had spirit enough fled into the jungle or the hills, and became marauders. From century to century the history is dreary in the extreme: and any one who studies it hears with astonishment the notions of foreign censors of the British occupation of India. That our possession of India should be blamed is natural and reasonable enough; but nothing can be wilder than the supposition that the inhabitants were a peaceful and prosperous and contented people, living under rulers who treated them well, and made a nation of them. A study of any one century of Indian wars, after the Mohammedans gained a footing in the country, would satisfy anybody that any intervention which should stop the process of the extermination of the helpless and spiritless by the desperate and barbarous, must be a blessing.

To pass rapidly over the period last preceding our intrusion into India,—those were the days of the horrors of the predatory tribes, which, like the Pindarries, made a periodical havoc of the richest districts they could reach. Hundreds of horsemen would show themselves in some neighbourhood, where the crops were ripening, and would sweep away everything. They took whatever they could carry, burned the villages, tortured first and then slew the men, women, and children, and rode on further to commit the same ravages. Changing their horses as they went, they kept up their raid for weeks together, and rode thousands of miles,—rarely meeting with any effectual opposition, and always growing more audacious with success. Besides these, there were enemies always prowling among the country populations,—the Dacoits, who rank as the most barbarous banditti of any known country; and the Thugs, who practised the murder of travellers as a religious observance.

Under such lack of security to person and property, industry and commerce could not prosper; and both sank so low that the statesmen and scholars of the foremost kingdoms looked back a thousand years for the period of the greatness of their princes and people. Whatever may have been the abuses perpetrated in the country by the selfishness, violence, and greed of the Englishmen who established a footing in India (and it is scarcely possible to speak too strongly in the case), it is manifestly true that a handful of our countrymen could not have had their own way among a people so fortunate, innocent, and favoured as some foreign commentators on the Mutiny of 1857 have imagined. European adventurers found a population sunk in an ignorance and corruption which no description could convey to Christian readers. The confusion introduced by time and events into their religion had only subjected them more slavishly to their priests, and intensified their submission to their idols. Nothing was improving, and wherever it was possible things were going back. More corpses strewed the way after the great pilgrimages. The famines and plagues spread further and became more frequent as more districts lapsed into waste, and more towns fell into ruin. Nothing shows more plainly the apathetic condition into which the people at large were sunk than the sincere and long-continued belief of the India Company’s officers of all classes and orders that the spiritlessness of the Hindoo temper, and the fixity of Hindoo habits, rendered it impossible for trade ever to expand. The Company knew exactly what 150,000,000 of Hindoos wanted to buy, and what India had to sell; and the Company would transact all that sort of business for ever. As it was with the Hindoo a hundred generations before, so it was with the Hindoo of the present century. The mass of the people wanted nothing more than their two cotton wrappers, their mat to lie on, their pot to boil rice in, and their bowl to eat it out of. The upper classes might have more wants, but they were as fixed in their habits, and their trade might be calculated as easily from century to century as from season to season. I remember now the sensation of reading Bishop Heber’s remark on this, when his Journals came out. He took leave to doubt on this point which was considered so completely settled. In the course of his travels, he thought he perceived signs of the Hindoos being much like the rest of the world in the matter of getting hold of what pleases them. He told us that, the sense of security once established, and the stimulus of hope, desire, ambition once imparted, Hindoos would show as strong a liking for the good things of life as other people. The point has long been proved; for, when the trade with India was once thrown open, an expansion began which has gone on more and more rapidly ever since. There are still districts where the white man’s face has never been seen: and there are wide regions where the white man’s goods are not known, even by report; but, wherever a regular communication is established, the demand for European commodities is such as to have occasioned an expansion of the banking system and the use of a paper currency. We have seen that there was once no money, but a representative of it, as rude as that of Central Africa. By degrees the process of exchange has grown and refined till it is now found to be a rude and troublesome method to carry loads of gold and silver money, and bank notes are eagerly and confidently adopted.

There are many more interesting signs of the times than this: and perhaps the shortest and truest way of looking at the case of the Hindoos is by glancing at the state in which the recent Budget finds them. Former annual estimates, before the Company began to share its action in India with the rest of the world, suggested little to tell about the people. The revenue came chiefly from the land; and except as far as the seasons and the harvests varied, there was no change from one period to another. The cultivators never grew richer; for their creditor, the money-lender, took care of that; and they could not grow poorer; for they were always in debt to the usurer. They could not be taxed in anything but their salt; for there was nothing else that they could be caught buying; and, during the heaviest operation of the salt monopoly, tens of thousands every year of the vegetarian population of those unhealthy tropical regions died of sheer want of salt to their rice, grain and vegetables. Now there are taxes on foreign commodities, and even on income: and the revenue is improving so fast and so much that the salt is to be an open commodity, and the income-tax is to be soon removed. And how has this improvement come about? Why, everything seems to be improving; and the people certainly work much harder than they ever did before.

And why do they work harder? Because they see a prospect now of ridding themselves of debt first, and then of rising in the world.—How is that? First, wages are high; and a man can easily earn double what he ever before asked or thought of desiring.—What makes the pay so good? The scarcity of hands from the increase of employment. And then, again, the hope of rising is not only from the usurer being got rid of, but from the new chances of buying land; and for those who cannot buy there is a prospect of a permanent settlement of the rent, provided they can bring up the fertility of their land to a certain point. After that, they may make as much more out of the soil as they can, and it will be all their own.

Those who see the energy which these cultivators are putting into their work can assure us that it is not in the power of the native religion and its priests to keep the people down, if good government is set up against it. These people who are paying rent and taxes, and shaking off the money-lender, and buying European commodities, and striving to get American cotton seed, in order to bid for English custom, are the same Hindoos who have been trampled upon for two thousand years, by any who chose to come and tread them under foot. It is common to hear the strength of the country ascribed to the Mohammedan element: but the Faithful are now only one-eighth, if so much, of the population. They were the main strength of the Mutiny, in their expectation that the Prophet was to overthrow the Christian rule; but the Hindoos have strength enough to grow and prosper, very rapidly, without help from their old conquerors.

I have spoken mainly of the labouring class, because it constitutes, even more than in Europe, the mass of the population. But the progress is no less marked in all classes. At the Council Boards in all the three Presidencies, native councillors now sit, in consultation about the making of laws, and the choice of a policy. In the capitals, young Hindoo gentlemen are taking honours at college, and qualifying themselves for the liberal professions: and merchants who have made their fortunes are combining to sustain schools for the education of—not their sons only, but their daughters. In the country, the fertility of whole districts is reviving, as the waters are brought back to their old channels, or made to fill once more the long empty reservoirs. Wherever the modern canals are opened famine is banished; and wherever the swamp is parted into dry land and running water, pestilence disappears also. On the Indus and other great streams, grain, and the goods which buy grain, are carried by steam so fast and far that hunger is routed out from remote places where it never thought to be pursued. Railways not only bring tens of thousands of gazers, but thousands of travellers; and it is the third-class carriage which pays the best,—showing how the lowest orders have learned the benefits of locomotion.

In the estimates for the coming year’s expenditure, nine millions and upwards are set down for outlay on public works (including railway guarantees). These works being reproductive in the highest degree, they will soon pay for themselves; and then there will be less taxation, while the revenue increases in all its branches:—in other words, there will be a new start in the popular fortunes, which need receive no check while there is any part of that vast country unreached and undeveloped. Every new work brings out some new element of wealth,—as we see now in the new value of forests, wastes, and soils which nobody thought of using before. Thus, there really seems to be wealth enough coming to light and to use to make the fortunes of not only all Hindoos, but a great many Englishmen.

There is something better than this, however. The fearful superstition of these people has been the dead weight, the discouragement, the despair, ever since we had to do with them. I need not explain why missionary effort is scarcely any relief to any rational mind. We probably all see why missionary effort has really no chance against such a system as that of the Hindoos. But we begin to see how the Hindoo system must undergo change under the operation of so rapid an influx of civilisation as the priests have now to witness. Well might the Brahmins hold that consultation a few years since, which seemed to me at the time so profoundly significant,—about how far the merit of pilgrimages is affected by the introduction of railroads. Every monstrous observance and requisition of their idolatrous system will in due course be overthrown or dislocated by new knowledge and new arts, as the painful pilgrimage in heat, hardship, and hunger, is inoffensively made absurd by the present fact of a railway and its trains.

The education of girls is perhaps the most portentous fact of all. The whole training of children will be changed, from the next generation onwards, wherever the bold step is adventured.

I might go on for page after page, comparing the Hindoo life of to-day with that of all former ages known to us: but I may stop here; for the importance of the view is in the strength of the contrast, and not in the number of the particulars in which it may be traced. The first step has been taken in the direction of native participation in the government. If this goes on till there is some sort of real union between the two races who are living under the same crown, the woes of India are over. There is much to do yet, before we can confidently anticipate such an issue: but much has been actually effected, even towards that great end, by the extinction of the rivalries and wars of barbaric governments, by the proposal of equal law and justice for all orders of the people, and by the complete throwing open of industry and enterprise to the ability and inclination of the whole multitude of the inhabitants of India.

Surely, now, no Hindoo, but some Nana Sahib, sulking in the frontier forests, or some fanatical priest looking down from his temple aloft on the busy world below, will say that for India “the former days were better than these.”

From the Mountain.