Here to return to
THE Englishman has sometimes been accused of insularity. If so be it is true, you would have to take your definition from archipelago to obtain a term for the corresponding quality in the Hindu of India. For the system of caste has cut him up into a thousand little bits of exclusiveness, each instinct with insularity reduced ad absurdum.
Caste is a great social organisation which governs and directs the Hindu in every aspect and action of his daily life. He is born with it; he cannot change it; and he has oftentimes sacrificed his life rather than “break” it. It is the very breath of his nostrils. To preserve his caste is the be-all and the end-all of his career in this world; to break it is worse than the commission of any criminal offence. He will perjure himself and steal cheerfully, he will maim and murder without compunction, but the most abandoned villain will respect the laws of his caste, and yield blind obedience to its rules.
Notwithstanding that it is unreasonable and unreasoning, unjust, arbitrary, and cruel, caste is a great moral force. The average native will lie about everything except his caste; it is a restraining influence on his life, and has introduced a code of conduct (however misguided) into a character whose moral conceptions would otherwise permit it to run riot. There are those who declaim against caste, and would sweep it away — notably the missionary; there are “advanced natives” who declare that it is the real obstacle to progress in India, and has brought civilisation to a standstill; but, as one of them naively admits, “the majority of those who denounce it are men whom it has virtually repudiated.” In practice you have only to see the result of deprivation of caste in an individual to realise how great is his moral fall when the Hindu is “outcasted.” He is like an officer who has been cashiered, or a priest unfrocked; a “rank bad ‘un” who has lost all sense of self-respect, however superficial it might have been.
There are four fundamental divisions of caste — the priestly or Brahmin, the warrior, the trading, and the labouring — and these, again, are divided into sub-sections numbering some thousands. Caste is a purely Hindu institution; there is no “caste” in the sense in which we are examining it amongst the Mahomedans, Buddhists, Sikhs, and other non-Hindu races, and even amongst the Hindus themselves, there is a sub-stratum below the labouring caste which has none at all, and is termed Pariah, or outcaste.
The Brahmin, or priest, is a gilt-edged individual, who neither toils nor spins. There are twenty millions of Brahmins who represent hereditary holiness, and to flatter, feast, and fee whom is the bounden duty of all good Hindus of inferior birth. Manu, the lawgiver of Hinduism, who flourished five hundred years before Christ, assigned to the Brahmins the “duty” of “receiving gifts,” and declared them by right of birth the lords of creation, through whose benevolence the rest of the community enjoyed what they were permitted to possess. The Brahmins have lived up to the privileges conferred on them, with an undeviating exactitude during the last twenty-four centuries, and their influence is still enormous. They are the brain-power as well as the bloodsuckers of Hinduism; the Jesuits of the East. They bless, curse, absolve, expound, teach, predict, decide, and govern. Ceremonial purification is their monopoly, a most valuable one in the caste system. They are the “Zadkiel’s Almanack,” “Ready Reckoner,” “Everyman’s own Lawyer,” “Enquire Within for Everything,” and Encyclopædia Britannica, in the social and domestic life of the Hindu. When in doubt, the Hindu pays a Brahmin.
The warrior’s caste has fallen on evil days since the Arms Act deprived him of his sword, and the Pax Britannica of the opportunity to use it. His occupation is gone, for only a fraction of him can find employment in the native armies. But he swirls his bamboo staff, so to speak, tells how his ancestors fought in the good old days of foray and rapine, and retains a fierce way of twirling his moustachios. For the rest he has degenerated into an agriculturist, who ekes out a living from the soil. It is a sad come-down for a man who was a famous swashbuckler and fire-eater in his day.
On the other hand, the trading caste has thriven under the dominion of a nation of shopkeepers. Time was when, like the Jews in England, they knew what it was to have sound teeth extracted. They keep their teeth in their heads now, and begin to show them. Especially the money-lenders, who are a distinct power in the land; for much of it is mortgaged to them, and they are rack-renters, more hated than absentee landlords in Ireland. It has often been shrewdly said that if there were another rebellion in India the first thing to be consigned to the flames would be the books and archives of the usurers.
As for the labourer he is what he ever was, a mechanical, patient, ambitionless toiler, whom nor conquests nor social revolutions can put out of gear. He bows his head and bends his back and struggles along in the old groove, using the same primitive tools as his ancestors and employing the same crude methods. The crusted conservatism of this caste is second only to that of the Brahmins. The pride of the priest finds its counterpoise in the humility of the proletariat, and between them they demonstrate the maximum degrees of dignity and degradation.
The Pariah you can hardly include in Hinduism, though he has his degrees. He dwindles off into the scavenger, who is merely a sanitary machine, performing the functions of a drainpipe. And yet, absurd though it may appear, the Pariah pretends to have a caste of his own, and is quite pedantic in keeping it, and cases are not uncommon where, outcaste himself, he proceeds to “outcaste” his erring brother! The species thus arrived at is something lower than the missing-link.
All these castes are hereditary. A priest’s son is a priest; a soldier’s a soldier; a carpenter’s a carpenter; a scavenger’s a scavenger. There is no question of “What shall we do with our boys?” in Hinduism; that problem has been solved in advance for two thousand years. For a sire to start his son in any other calling but his own would be “against his caste,” and there all argument ends. For caste is both social and religious, and includes the calling as well as the creed.
The requirements and restrictions of caste are innumerable. Many of them are arbitrary, inconsistent, and even contradictory. The principal laws direct that individuals shall marry only those of their own caste, eat with their own caste, and of food cooked by a caste-fellow or a Brahmin; that no superior shall allow one of inferior caste to touch his cooked food, or even enter the room in which it is being cooked; but articles of a dry nature, such as rice, grain, and so forth, are exempt from defilement by touch so long as they remain dry. Water and other liquids are peculiarly susceptible to contamination, but rivers, reservoirs, and ponds are excepted. The higher and “clean” castes are not allowed to touch the lower or outcastes; even the brushing of garments in passing is reckoned defilement, and the shadow of the inferior is considered unclean. There are several prohibited articles of food, such as the flesh of kine, swine, and fowls, the eating or touching of which entails defilement. A person may not cross the ocean or any of the boundaries of India without being outcasted. Marriage with a widow entails similar excommunication, as does immorality in females. The immoral connections of men are not visited with retribution, though theoretically reprobated. Embracing Christianity or Mahomedanism ipso facto leads to exclusion from caste.
The punishment of being outcasted may be described as a blend of boycotting and ecclesiastical excommunication. The backslider’s friends and relatives refuse to partake of his hospitality or grant him theirs; they will not eat, drink, or smoke with him, which are far more significant acts, than as comprehended in our social philosophy. They decline to marry his children, or give him theirs in marriage, and if he have a married daughter she is debarred from visiting him. Those important functionaries, the priest, barber. and washerman, refuse to serve him. All connection with him is completely severed, and no one will assist him even at the funeral of a member of his family, which, in a land where there are no undertakers and no hearses even for the richest, lands him in a parlous predicament. It is absolute social ostracism.
Reinstatement in caste is possible in most cases after going through a ceremony of purification, which consists in swallowing a mixture compounded of the products and excrements of the cow, feasting an assemblage of caste-brethren, and feeing the Brahmins. The latter, you may be sure, are always to the fore, and their services are constantly required for ceremonial purification to atone for slight lapses or accidental slips, each and every one of which needs its expiatory procedure. The cow is a most sacred animal, — it can purge from sin and lead the way to a better world. When a Hindu is dying, he is always lifted from his bed and laid on mother earth, and in many places, the tail of a cow is guided into his faltering grasp that it may pull him to heaven. There was an old cow on my plantation in India that had performed this serviceable function for a hundred moribund coolies!
I have called caste inconsistent and contradictory, and here are a few illustrations. A caste which is accounted “clean” in one part of India may be held contrariwise in another, as for instance, the potters; the Brahmins and Rajpoots of Northern India eat the flesh of the wild pig without sustaining any pollution, though such an act would render them liable to the severest damnatory penalties in Bengal. The eye is winked at a rich Hindu who keeps a Mahomedan mistress, which would undoubtedly fix him with utter condemnation did he marry a widow of his own caste. A man may sit on his fence and see the land ploughed, and urge the ploughman to goad the team, as he often does, and yet may not plough himself, because that entails driving the bullocks, which are sacred animals. A Brahmin may eat sweetmeats or wheat with men of the warrior or trading castes, but not rice, for that is supposed to admit equality. He may blackmail a man of the labouring caste for food to take home with him to cook, but must on no account eat it in that individual’s house. The “clean castes” habitually wear shoes made out of the skins of cattle, yet would be defiled by the mere touch of the hide, or of the tanner, or the shoemaker who made the shoes. The “bearer” or valet who waits upon an English master is often of the highest caste; he may make the bed, prepare the bath, and attend to all the personal wants of his Sahib, but not bring him his food. The Hindu who tends your cows and sheep would revolt at the suggestion of grooming your horse or giving your champion-bred English fox-terrier a bath. The former duty is the function of a low-caste man, whilst only the scavengers may deal with dogs, which are held to be but one degree less defiling than swine. Per contra, the cat is sacred, and the monkey holy. I suppose there is no filthier coin in the whole wide world than the India copper anna. It is often greasy with the foulest dirt and grimy with bits of sticky tobacco, into whose composition treacle enters more largely than rum and molasses into naval plugs. But it is cleaner than the low-caste man who tenders it, notwithstanding he may be a washerman, and engaged in his avocation! His touch defiles the Brahmin, but the copper does not. Where other nations purify buildings with a coat of limewash, the Hindu plasters them with cow-dung, which is the universal disinfectant of this people who may not sit down to a meal without a preliminary bath.
But the exclusiveness of caste extends much further than this. In the ordinary transactions of life, when money passes between a low-caste and a high-caste man, the coin is thrown on the ground by the one and picked up by the other for fear of defilement; they may not stand on the sane carpet or enter the same room. The low-caste man must not cross the threshold of his superior’s house or hut; if lie wants to attract his attention, or communicate with him, he stands outside and bawls. In some parts of India, the sight of a Brahmin coming down the highway used to be the signal for men of lesser degree to clear off it. There are scores of these unclean castes, who are, however, superior to Pariahs. I may instance shoemakers, tanners, grooms, washermen, publicans, or spirit-sellers and distillers, basket-makers, weavers (in some parts held to be a “clean” caste), gipsies, and several others. No high-caste Hindu is safe in the presence of a stranger until he has asked him, “Who are you?” The answer places them at once in their proper social relation to one another, for, as I have said, caste is the one thing about which a native of India will not lie.
Conceive the shackles this imposes upon intercourse! What would life be if we had to consider of every person we met in the streets, “Is he touchable?” of every man we sat down next to in a restaurant, “Is it lawful to sit at meat with him?” For you must know that this caste prejudice is not merely disinclination or disgust, but an absolute moral law, which makes transgression an admitted abomination. It is as though a draper by accepting an invitation to dinner from a boot-maker laid himself open to expulsion from his chapel, and social ostracism by his brother drapers, whilst, if he fell in love with the bootmaker’s lovely daughter and married her, his lot must be eternal exclusion from the draper’s paradise. Locate those tradesmen in India, and I assure you that is what would happen. If, under similar conditions, one can conceive a bishop marrying a major-general’s daughter, he would infallibly lose his bishopric and be boycotted.
Caste is respected in the jails of India, where the prisoners of high caste are provided with their own cooks and water-carriers. The Brahmin felon has every respect paid to his prejudices, but — and this is where the rub comes in — when you get to the third-class railway carriage you override even such a tough obstacle as caste. Into it are bundled Brahmin and Pariah; they sit on the same seat; they rub shoulders who might not mingle shadows. “You must drop your caste,” says the railway, “if you want to travel at a farthing a mile”; and it is dropped — to be resumed again outside the station.
The Hindu cannot change his caste, though he may be expelled from it; his social status is fixed for ever at his birth, and he can only fall, never rise. Wealth cannot affect it, and this has tended to make the Hindus an ambitionless race. Nor can poverty derogate. There are hosts of Brahmin beggars who, not even in the extremity of starvation, would feed at the same table with some of the greatest princes, who, although they may rule over great territories, are by the standard of caste unclean. As you may find a swineherd dynasty in Europe, so in Hindustan there are ruling chiefs who are no more gentlefolk by birthright than the English would consider publicans and grooms to be. But whereas in the West it is possible for these to emerge from their low degree, in the East they are ever fettered to it by the chain of caste.
I have known only one instance of a Hindu trying to emancipate himself from caste. It was the case of a Rajah, who was a member of one of those low castes which are held to be unclean in a minor degree. He expended untold wealth in purchasing a beggar girl of high caste, and bribing her relatives and the Brahmins to sanction and perform a marriage ceremony between them. When she had become his wife, literally translated from the hut to the palace, and borne him a son, his courtiers put forward the claim that the son was of the same caste as his mother, and that as the Rajah had a high-caste son and a high-caste wife, he must be a high caste himself. It was a piece of impudent and shallow pleading that imposed on nobody, and created a great scandal, because it was done with the connivance of British officials. “This could never have happened under the rule of our own Rajahs,” complained the caste that had been dishonoured; for caste is accounted a brotherhood, and a slur of that sort affected every member of it. Amongst men of the same caste the appellation “brother” is universal. And in this case, the whole caste, which happened to be a small one, was subjected to much taunt and insolence for the backsliding of the few recreants who had been bribed to give their assent to the mésalliance. “Brother-in-law of a publican!” was the favourite form of abuse; a publican being an “untouchable” man, and “brother-in-law” capable of a peculiarly offensive and insulting undermeaning. The Rajah still hugs the delusion, fostered by his fawning and sycophantic courtiers, that he has ascended into the higher scale; but outside his palace there is not a man of high caste that would accept a drink of water from his hands.
Caste is as strict and particular in its alliances as Royalty. It admits of no intermarriage, and as, in practice, every Hindu is married, this hard and fast rule bears on the whole population. The obligation to see his children married is a matter which presses harder on the native than anything else. In the first place, it costs a great deal of money, and often keeps the parents impoverished for years. In some of the castes, large sums have to be paid to the bridegroom for his condescension; in other castes, chiefly the lower ones, wives have to be purchased. There are Kulin Brahmins who make a livelihood by matrimony, scores of damsels being wedded to them for their sanctity’s sake, as unattractive widows were sometimes sealed to Mormon elders. With the consummation of the marriage, the attentions of the husband cease, and the bride resides in her father’s house permanently. In the Rajpoot, which is the leading warrior caste, it is necessary for the girls to marry into a grade or section higher than their father’s. When you get to the top of this tree you will find thousands of spinsters for whom there are literally no husbands available. To have an unmarried daughter after she has reached the age of puberty is worse than a disgrace, it is a crime in the morality of the Hindus. Where the wives have to be purchased, the price often approximates two or three years’ income of the bridegroom’s father. India is a land of universal indebtedness, and the greater portion of the liability is incurred in fulfilling the obligation of the customs relating to marriage.
Within the last thirty years, caste has received many rude jars, and is much less strictly observed in the centres which Western civilisation has pierced. Railways, tramways, schools, dispensaries, and similar institutions, which are open to all, have had a great levelling effect. In the metropolitan cities, liberalism has advanced by strides. The water supply of Calcutta brought the Hindu face to face with one of the cardinal articles of his creed, which prohibited him from using any water drawn from a source touched, and hence polluted, by outcastes. The Brahmins were equal to the occasion, and a special dispensation was granted, though the ordinances of caste were manifestly violated. With the spread of education and the establishment of schools, the same question presented itself in a less acute form, and the high castes swallowed their pride and sent their sons to learn in the same schoolroom as their inferiors. Even in the jungles, a subtle change is creeping in. I have observed, in my own experience, in a district situated seventy miles from the nearest railway, a distinct diminution of caste prejudice. Here are three straws of illustration showing which way the wind blows; I remember them because by a coincidence the first scene in each happened on the same day and drew from me some rather impatient observations about caste. It was in the ‘seventies, and I was out snipe-shooting, and, having taken off my wet boots, ordered one of my coolies to carry them; he refused point blank, because it was against his caste. A little later, I asked another to hand me a flask of whisky from my tiffin-basket; he called to the groom (a low-caste man) to do so, on the plea that he would break his caste by touching anything so unclean as Glenlivet. On my return home, a third man asked me for some quinine to cure his fever; I mixed him a dose with water, whereat he shook his head and declined anything except the dry powder. In the ‘nineties, No. 1, who had blossomed into my bearer, had special charge of my boots. He was a Mian, or Rajpoot nobleman by caste, and the other servants used habitually to address him as “My Lord,” and touch his feet with their hands before salaaming to him as a mark of extra respect. No. 2 had so far overcome his prejudices that I caught him drinking my whisky. And as for No. 3 and the “dry” medicine theory, all objections to potions had ceased long before that decade, and rum and chloradyne had become a really popular dram!
As instances of the advance of civilisation and the surrender of caste prejudices, I will particularise four other things which have become fairly popular in India, at any rate where the line of rail runs and the inhabitants are not in jungle darkness. They are, soda-water, ice, umbrellas, and kerosene-oil lamps. At the first blush, they may appear absurd illustrations, but more lies behind them than is apparent on the surface. Soda-water has always been regarded as an English drink; its vernacular name is “English water,” and that alone would be sufficient to condemn it in the eyes of caste. And yet you may see it hawked about the streets and railway stations and sold in the bazaars. This betokens a revolution in religious sentiment, for the typhoid germs which Western nations believe to lurk in foul water are not so dreaded as the spiritual pollution the pious Hindu conceives he must be subjected to by the use of the purest, ay, of distilled, water, touched by a Christian. In the same way with ice, essentially an English luxury, and utterly foreign to the native of India. There are ice-factories in most of the large towns in the country, and you may often see an Aryan brother sucking away at his farthing’s worth quite complacently. It is a luxury that has entered into native life within the last few years, as the tomato and banana have in the West. But whilst such innovations mean nothing to the Anglo-Saxon, except an increase of his blessings, they imply the snapping of another link in the fetters of caste. My bearer aforesaid, who declined the boots, came in after years habitually to pilfer my snow, in which were laid to cool such abominations as tinned brawn made of calves’ heads, the very mention of which would have sent him flying to holy Gunga twenty years before. (And I may here parenthetically mention that in the hill district in which I lived, on the slopes of the Himalayas, I was always able to get a load of snow down from the mountains, even in the hottest weather, though the mercury might register 103 degrees in my verandah!)
With regard to umbrellas, thereby hangs another tale. The umbrella was as great a sign of presumed gentility in India as a silk hat and pair of gloves in London. When I first went to India, thirty years ago, a rising native thought twice before committing himself to the responsibilities of carrying an umbrella, and it was the etiquette to furl it in the presence of a superior. I have seen old Anglo-Indians of the pre-Mutiny period almost go into a fit because in passing strange natives on the high-road they were not complimented with the umbrella respectfully lowered. But in those days umbrellas were costly articles: in these they are turned out at a price which enables them to be sold by the million at something under a shilling. The consequence is that a remarkable demand has sprung up for them, and you will see a man, whose sole raiment is a bit of cloth wrapped about his loins, swaggering about under the shade of a chuttree. As for putting it down in the presence of a superior, that is a piece of politeness which has quite passed out of vogue. I can only compare the social elevation this implies to, let me say, artisans in England taking to driving in hansom cabs because, by some unexplained process, they plied at penny fares. Even that would hardly meet the case, for whereas, riding in a hansom is not forbidden to the proletariat, the carrying of an umbrella would have been considered a piece of public impertinence twenty years ago on the part of the great majority of natives, who now habitually sport them under the stimulus of Western cheapness of production. The subjection insisted on by caste is chronically flaunted by the display, by the lower orders of India, of what is, really, an insignia of respectability.
Lastly, we come to mineral-oil lamps. In an age when artificial illumination has been brought to a high stage of perfection, we are apt to forget what a civilising agent gas was in the beginning of the nineteenth century, and how it revolutionised social life. India has for countless ages been content with the dim gloom, after nightfall, provided by a cotton wick, burning in an open dish of vegetable oil; a smelling, smoking flame, only one degree better than the tallow candles by the light of which the English, less than a century ago, were accustomed to illuminate their houses. The introduction of the kerosene-oil lamp, with its glass chimney (invariably made in Germany), into the bazaars of the East is the thin end of that wedge which betokens that sunset shall no longer be the practical limit of the working-day, and promises to open extended hours of labour and recreation to the teeming millions of India, to whom, hitherto, night has meant idleness or gossip. But this is rather an innovation of custom than of caste, and of custom I shall deal more particularly in the next chapter.