They afterward secured themselves in that position by teaching that it had been given to them by God.
Continuing How the Indian Caste System Began,
our selection from 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. The selection is presented in five easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in How the Indian Caste System Began.
Time: around 1200 BC
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, practicing 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 practiced 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 traveler 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-centered 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.
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