This series has six easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Corelating Racial Characteristics with Caste Membership.
While other civilizations had classes of their peoples, no other had the rigidity or the durability class division as India. Europe had abolished the serf system centuries ago. Russia freed the serfs in the nineteenth century while China did so in the twentieth. India’s caste system remains.
The Indian Caste System is a peculiarity of world history and world civilization. How did it begin?
The selections are from:
- The Civilizations of India by Gustave Le Bon published in 1887.
- Brief History of the Indian People by William W. Hunter published in 1880.
For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. There’s one installment by Gustave Le Bon and five installments by William W. Hunter.
We begin with Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931). He was a pioneering French sociologist.
Time: around 1200 BC
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, today, 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.
William W. Hunter begins here.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history