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18.6 Caste in India

If now we turn eastward from this main development of civilization in the world between Central Asia and the Atlantic, to the social development of India in the 2000 years next before the Christian era, we find certain broad and very, interesting differences. The first of these is that we find such a fixity of classes in process of establishment as no other part of the world can present. This fixity of classes is known to Europeans as the institution of caste;[1] its origins are still in complete obscurity, but it was certainly well rooted in the Ganges valley before the days of Alexander the Great. It is a complicated horizontal division of the social structure into classes or castes, the members of which may neither eat nor intermarry with persons of a lower caste under penalty of becoming outcasts, and who may also ?lose caste? for various ceremonial negligences and defilements. By losing caste a man does not sink to a lower caste; he becomes outcast. The various subdivisions of caste are very complex; many are practically trade organizations. Each caste has its local organization which maintains discipline, distributes various charities, looks after its own poor, protects the common interests of its members, and examines the credentials of newcomers from other districts. (There is little to check the pretensions of a travelling Hindu to be of a higher caste than is legitimately his.) Originally, the four main castes seem to have been:

The Brahmins — the priests and teachers;

The Kshatriyas — the warriors;

The Vaisyas — herdsmen, merchants, moneylenders, and landowners;

The Sudras;

And, outside the castes, the Pariahs.

But these primary divisions have long been complicated by subdivision into a multitude of minor castes, all exclusive, each holding its members to one definite way of living and one group of associates. In Bengal the Kshatriyas and Vaisyas have largely disappeared. But this is too intricate a question for us to deal with here in any detail.

Next to this extraordinary fission and complication of the social body we have to note that the Brahmins, the priests and teachers of the Indian world, unlike so many Western priesthoods, are a reproductive and exclusive class, taking no recruits from any other, social stratum.

Whatever may have been the original incentive to this extensive fixation of class in India, there can be little doubt of the role played by the Brahmins as the custodians of tradition and the only teachers of the people in sustaining it. By some it is supposed that the first three of the four original castes, known also as the “twice born”, were the descendants of the Vedic Aryan conquerors of India, who established these hard and fast separations to prevent racial mixing with the conquered Sudras and Pariahs. The Sudras are represented as a previous wave of northern conquerors, and the Pariahs are the original Dravidian inhabitants of India. But these speculations are not universally accepted, and it is, perhaps, rather the case that the uniform conditions of life in the Ganges valley throughout long centuries served to stereotype a difference of classes that have never had the same steadfastness of definition under the more various and variable conditions of the greater world to the west.

However caste arose, there can be no doubt of its extraordinary, hold upon the Indian mind. In the sixth century B.C. arose Gautama, the great teacher of Buddhism, proclaiming, “As the four streams that flow into the Ganges lose their names, as soon as they mingle their waters in the holy river, so all who believe in Buddha cease to be Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras”. His teaching prevailed in India for some centuries; it spread over China, Tibet, Japan, Burmah, Ceylon, Turkestan, Manchuria; it is today the religion of a large fraction of the human race, but it was finally defeated and driven out of Indian life by the vitality and persistence of the Brahmins and of their caste ideas.

[1]From casta, a word of Portuguese origin; the Indian word is varna, colour.

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