Today’s installment concludes How the Indian Caste System Began,
the name of our combined selection from Gustave Le Bon and William W. Hunter. The concluding installment, by William W. Hunter from Brief History of the Indian People, was published in 1880. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed six thousand words from great works of history. Congratulations!
Previously in How the Indian Caste System Began.
Time: 1200 BC
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 mediaeval 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.
This ends our selections on How the Indian Caste System Began by two of the most important authorities of this topic:
- The Civilizations of India by Gustave Le Bon published in 1887.
- Brief History of the Indian People by William W. Hunter published in 1880.
This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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