The reader is reminded that this text was written nearly a hundred years ago; there was even more uncertainty then than now as to the details of Indian history. More importantly, it was written by a British national of the time (no, not by me): attitudes and biases have changed. See the orientation page.
Literature and Civilization of the Vedic and Epic Periods; the Puranas; caste.
Isolation of the oldest literature. The Vedic Indo-Aryans, whose progress has been sketched in bare outline, are known to us through their literature only, which is all, or almost all, so ancient that it cannot be illustrated either by contemporary books or from monuments. No literature in any Indo-European or Aryan language is nearly as old as the hymns of the Rigveda, which 'stands quite by itself, high up on an isolated peak of remote antiquity'; and even if some literary fragments from Egypt or Babylonia in languages of different families be as old, they do not help us to understand the Vedic scriptures. No buildings of anything like Vedic age survive in India, nor are there any contemporary material remains, except the copper tools and weapons of the north already mentioned, which may be reasonably assigned to an early stage of the Vedic period. The oldest Indo-Aryan literature, as a rule, must be interpreted by means of itself, and we must be content to learn from it alone what we can discover about the Indo-Aryans whose Rishis composed that literature. External sources of information are almost wholly wanting, but the Zend-Avesta, the scriptures of the ancient Iranians or Persians, although not so old as the Veda, contributes illustrative matter of value.
The Veda; faith and science. The oldest literature of the Indo-Aryans is known collectively as Veda, which means 'knowledge' — the best of all knowledge in Hindu eyes. It is also designated in the plurals 'the Vedas', 'the three Vedas', or 'the four Vedas'. Most Hindus accept the whole Veda, forming in itself an enormous literature, as inspired revelation (sruti) in opposition to later venerable books classed as traditional learning (smriti). But the adherents of the Ārya Samāj, and possibly those of some other sects, allow the rank of revealed matter to the hymns alone, while denying it to the rest of the Veda. The belief that the Vedas were revealed complete as they stand without any process of development seems to be widely held,1 and means for reconciling such belief with the results of scientific investigation of the documents may not be beyond the powers of human ingenuity. In these pages theories of inspiration will not be further noticed, and the Vedic literature will be treated merely as what it professes to be, the production of individual men and a few women, who composed their works at times widely separated and with varying degrees of literary power.
The Veda, regarded as literature, demands from students of humanity the most respectful attention on account of its remote antiquity, its unique character, and the light which it sheds upon p17 the evolution of mankind, especially in India. The Rigveda, as Whitney observes, contains 'the germs of the whole after-development of Indian religion and polity'.
Definition of the Veda. Opinions have varied concerning the definition of the Veda. Kautilya, in the Arthasāstra ascribed to fourth century B.C., states that
'the three Vedas, Sāma, Rik, and Yajus, constitute the triple Vedas. These together with Atharvaveda and the Itihāsaveda are known as the Vedas. . . . Purāna, Itivritta (history), Ākhyāyika (tales), Udāharana (illustrative stories), Dharmasāstra, and Arthasāstra are (known by the name) Itihāsa.'2
Kautilya's definition is wider than that ordinarily accepted, which excludes the later, although ancient literature comprised by him under the comprehensive term Itihāsa. Common usage recognizes four and only four Vedas, namely (1) the Rigveda,3 (2) the Sāmaveda, (3) the Yajurveda, and (4) the Atharvaveda.
The claim of the last named to be included in the canon has not always been recognized, and not long ago it could be said that 'the most influential Brahmans of southern India still refuse to accept the authority of the fourth Veda, and deny its genuineness'.
But for most people the Vedas are four, and must be described as such.
Contents of the Veda. The essential fundamental part of each of the four Vedas is a samhitā, or collection of metrical hymns, prayers, spells, or charms, mixed in some cases with prose passages. But certain supplementary writings are also considered by general consent to be actually part of the Vedas, and are regarded by many Hindus as inspired revelation like the samhitās. They are of considerably later date than the verses but still very ancient, and in some cases preserve the written accent, which was disused very early. They are the oldest examples of Indo-European or Aryan continuous prose composition. The Brāhmanas include certain mystic treatises called Āranyakas, or 'Forest-books', supposed 'to be 'imparted or studied in the solitude of the forest'. The Upanishads, exceeding a hundred in number, are philosophical tracts or books, 'which belong to the latest stage of Brāhmana p18 literature'. Certain of the Upanishads are the parts of the Veda best known to Hindu readers in modern days, as being the foundation of the later and more systematic Vedānta philosophy.
The Su̅tras. The Su̅tras, 'compendious treatises dealing with Vedic ritual on the one hand, and with customary law on the other', are admitted by all to rank only as traditional learning (smriti), but they are usually regarded as included in the Veda. They are written in a laboriously compressed style, sometimes approaching the structure of algebraic formulas, unintelligible without the help of authoritative commentaries. Such exaggerated value used to be attached to mere brevity of expression that a su̅tra writer was supposed to derive as much pleasure from the saving of a short vowel as from the birth of a son. The Su̅tras comprise the Srauta, dealing with the ritual of the greater sacrifices; the Grihya, explaining the ceremonial of household worship; and Dharma, treating of social and legal usage. The third section is that which mainly concerns the historian, being the foundation of the Dharmasāstras, such as the well-known Laws of Manu, so called.
Sāma- and Yajurvedas. Having enumerated the principal classes of works usually included in the Veda, we return to the metrical samhitās which are the real Veda. Only two need be noticed particularly, because the Sāma- and Yajurvedas are comparatively unimportant. The former is a hymn-book, 'practically of no independent value, for it consists entirely of stanza (excepting only 75) taken from the Rigveda and arranged solely with reference to their place in the Soma sacrifice'. The Yajurveda, which also borrows much matter from the Rigveda and exists in several forms, is a book of sacrificial prayers, and includes some prose formulas.
The Rigveda samhitā. The Rigveda unquestionably is the oldest part of the literature and the most important of the Vedas from the literary point of view. The samhitā contains 1,017 (or by another reckoning 1,028) hymns, arranged in ten books, of which the tenth certainly is the latest. The collection about equals in bulk the Iliad and Odyssey together. Books II‑VII, known as the 'family books', because they are attributed to the members of certain families, form 'the nucleus of the Rigveda, to which the remaining books were successively added'.
Difficulties of the Vedic hymns. The Vedic hymns present innumerable difficulties to the student. The language and grammar, which differ widely from those of the 'classical' Sanskrit, require profound expert investigation before the verses can be compelled to yield sense so as to permit the text to be construed. Even when a literal version in more or less grammatical English has been produced, the meaning behind the words often eludes the translator. The ideas of the Rishis are so remote from those of the modern world that the most learned Sanskritist, whether Indian or foreign, may fail to grasp them. interpretations consequently differ to an enormous extent, and after all possible has been said and done much remains obscure. Subject to such inherent difficulties and p19 to necessary limitations of space, I will try to give the reader some slight notion of the contents of the Rigveda and Atharvaveda hymnals, to indicate the nature of the poets' religion, and to draw a faint sketch of the social condition of the Indo-Aryans.
The poetry of the Veda. Professor Macdonell observes that
'by far the greatest part of the poetry of the Rigveda consists of religious lyrics, only the tenth [and latest] book containing some secular poems. . . . The Rigveda is not a collection of primitive popular poetry. . . . It is rather a body of skilfully composed hymns produced by a sacerdotal class,'
for use in a ritual which was not so simple as has been simplest supposed. The metres and arrangement are the highly artificial work of persons who may be justly called learned, although probably ignorant of the art of writing. The same competent critic holds that, although the poetry is often marred for our taste by obvious blemishes, the diction is generally simple and unaffected, the thought direct, and the imagery frequently beautiful or even noble. The poems naturally vary much in literary merit, having been composed by many diverse authors at different times. The best may be fairly called sublime, while the worst are mechanical and commonplace.
Subject-matter. Most of the hymns are invocations addressed to the gods, conceived as the powers of nature personified. Agni, or Fire, and Indra, primarily the god of thunder, and secondarily the god of battle, are the favourite deities. Indeed the religion may be regarded as being based upon fire-worship. the gods are represented as great and powerful, disposed to do good to their worshippers, and engaged in unceasing conflict with the powers of evil. The poets usually beg for material favours and seek to win the deity's good will by means of prayers and sacrifices. Nothing indicates that images were used as aids to worship. The Heaven or Sky, personified as Varuna, is the subject of striking poems, and the Sun is addressed as Su̅rya, or by other names in several compositions of much merit.
Two specimens of Rigveda poetry may help readers to form some estimate of the poetic skill of the Rishis and to appreciate their religious aspirations.
Hymn to the Dawn. The first is part of a hymn to the Dawn (Ushas), who is styled by Profess Macdonell 'this fairest creation of Vedic poetry'. The rendering is his.
To the Dawn
The tenth book. Commentators have different views concerning the exact meaning of the Rigvedic mythology, some denying that the gods addressed severally were really regarded as separate beings. However that may be, the latest book, the tenth, exhibits a somewhat advanced aspect of religious thought which prepares the way for the speculations of the Upanishads and the Vedānta. From among the many versions of the celebrated Creation Hymn, 'the earliest specimen of Aryan philosophic thought', I choose the metrical rendering by Max Müller, who wrote it with the aid of a friend.
The Atharvaveda. The Atharvaveda or Atharvana is describe as being on the whole 'a heterogeneous collection of spells . . . p21 a collection of the most popular spells current among the masses', and consequently breathing the spirit of a prehistoric age. Some of its formulas may go back to the most remote ages prior even to the separation of the Indo-Aryans from the Iranians. The fact that the book preserves so much old‑world lore makes it rather more interesting and important for the history of civilization than the Rigveda itself. But it is far inferior as literature. The Atharvaveda may now be read at small cost in the literal annotated version by Whitney as revised by Lanman. Although every line has been Englished word for word, much remains unintelligible as it stands in the translation.
A specimen spell. A specimen, selected chiefly because it is short, will illustrate the character of the spells, and the extreme obscurity of the subject-matter.
'1. I have gone about the race of snakes, as the sun about the sky, as night about living creatures other than the swan; thereby do I ward off thy poison.
2. What was known of old by priests, what by seers, what by gods; what is to be, that has a mouth — therewith do I ward off thy poison.
3. With honey I mix the streams; the rugged mountains are honey; honey is the Pārushnī [a river], the Sipālā; weal be to thy mouth, weal to thy heart.'
Such sentences read very like nonsense at first sight. They must, of course, have had a definite meaning for the author, which may be discoverable, but it is not easy to make sense of them. The spell quoted is a perfectly fair sample of the collection and the translation.
A notable poem. Fortunately, the Atharvaveda includes some compositions of a higher order, although, as Lanman observes, they are 'few indeed'. The best known of such passages, that expressing the omniscience of the heavens personified as Varuna, deserves quotation. The sentiments and diction find many echoes in the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament.
The Omniscience of Varuna
The Indo-Aryan tribes. The Indo-Aryan invasion or immigration evidently was a prolonged movement of a ib. number of tribes, five or more, apparently related one to the other, who called themselves collectively Āryas, as the Iranians did.6 The term Ārya, which seems originally to have meant merely 'kinsman', was understood in later times to imply nobility or respectability of birth, as contrasted with Anārya, 'ignoble'. The habits of the tribes, while dwelling to the west of the Indus, were those of an agricultural and pastoral people, who reckoned their wealth in terms of cows. The description of the Indo-Aryans by some writers of authority as 'nomads' is opposed to the evidence of the hymns. Many passages of the Rigveda, both in the earliest and the latest books, testify to the habitual cultivation of yava, which primarily means 'barley', but may include wheat, which is not mentioned separately.7
The tribes as they settled down in interior India naturally would have become more agricultural and less pastoral, like the Gu̅jars and Āhīrs of later ages. Some of the tribal names, as, for example, Pu̅ru and Chedi,8 survived into the Epic period, many died out. Each tribe was a group of families, and in each family the father was master. The whole tribe was governed by a Rājā, whose power was checked to an undefined extent by a tribal council. The tribes dwelt in fortified villages, but there were no towns. The details recorded suggest that the life of the people was not unlike that of many tribes of Afghanistan in modern times before the introduction of fire-arms.9
Arts of peace and war. The bow and arrow were the principal weapons, but spears and battle-axes were not unknown. Chariots, each carrying a driver and a fighting man, were employed in battle, p23 a fact which implies considerable advance in the mechanical arts. Armour was worn. The Rigvedic Indo-Aryans were also acquainted with the processes of weaving, tanning, and metallurgy, although their knowledge of iron is doubtful. We have seen that the copper implements of the Gangetic basin may reasonably be referred to Rigvedic times. Bronze tools and weapons were not ordinarily used. Gold was familiar and was made into jewellery. The tribes fought with each other when so disposed, but all united in hostility to the dark-skinned Indians, whom they despised, and whose lands they annexed.
Diet. The Indo-Aryans, while sharing the ancient Iranian veneration for the cow, felt no scruple about sacrificing both bulls and cows at weddings or on other important occasions. The persons who took part in the sacrifice ate the flesh of the victim, whether bull, cow, or horse. But meat was eaten only as an exception. Milk was an important article of food, and was supplemented by cakes of barley or wheat (yava), vegetables, and fruit.
Strong drinks. The people freely indulged in two kinds of intoxicating liquor, called soma and surā. The Parsees of Yezd and Kirmān in Persia, as well as those of the Deccan and Bombay in India, who still occasionally offer soma sacrifices, identify the plant with one or other species of Asclepias or Sarcostemma. The plants of that genus have a milky juice which can be transformed into a rather unpleasant drink. But the real soma plant may have been different, and has not yet been clearly identified.10 Surā probably was a kind of beer. Soma juice was considered to be particularly acceptable to the gods, and was offered with elaborate ceremonial. The Sāmaveda provides the chants appropriate for the ceremonies.
Amusements. Amusements included dancing, music, chariot-racing, and dicing. Gambling with dice is mentioned so frequently in both the Rigveda and the later documents that the prevalence of the practice is beyond doubt. One stanza from the well-known 'Gambler's Lament' (R. V., X.34, in Kaegi, p84) may be quoted:
My wife rejects me and her mother hates me;
The gamester finds no pity for his troubles.
No better use can I see for a gambler,
Than for a costly horse worn out and aged.
Dimness of the picture. When all possible care has been bestowed on the drawing of the outline, it must be confessed that the picture of the Indo-Aryans in the Rigvedic period remains indistinct and shadowy. The impossibility of fixing the age of the poems or of the life which they illustrate within limits defined even approximately leaves the Indo-Aryans suspended in the air, so to speak, and unconnected with any ascertained historical realities. The difficulties of the language of the poems, the strange modes of expression, and the remoteness of the ideas hinder p24 a vivid realization of the people by whom and for whom the literature was produced. The matter of the greater part of the Atharvaveda, as already observed, produces an impression of prehistoric antiquity even deeper than that produced by the Rigveda, although it is certain that the book, as a book, is later in date.
Vedic Aryans and Hinduism. However dim may be the picture of the life of the Vedic Indo-Aryans, it is plain that their religion and habits differed materially from those of Hindus in modern or even in early historical times. The detestation of cow‑slaughter and the loathing for beef, which are to‑day the most prominent outward marks of Hinduism, have been so for many centuries, perhaps for something like two thousand years. The Indo-Aryans had not those marks. It is quite certain that they freely sacrificed bulls and cows and ate both beef and horse flesh on ceremonial occasions. Nevertheless, it is true that the roots of Hinduism go down into the Rigvedic age. The pantheon, that is to say, the gods viewed collectively, although widely different from that of Hinduism, contains the germs of later Hindu developments. Even now the Vedic deities are not wholly without honour, and in southern India the Nambudri Brahmans11 of Malabar devote their lives to keeping up Vedic ritual as they understand it. The predominance of the Brahman had already begun when the Rigveda was composed, and the foundations of the caste system had thus been laid. The Yajurveda helps us to bridge the gap between the Rigveda and Hinduism. It refers to the country between the Sutlaj and the Jumna, not to the Indus basin. The god Siva is introduced under that name, while Vishnu is more prominent than in the earlier work. The old nature worship has dropped into the background, and a much more mechanical form of religion, depending on elaborate ceremonies and high skilled priests, is described.
Vedic political history. The hymns of the Rigveda contain abundant material for political history in the shape of names of kings, kingdoms, and tribes. They even describe battles and other incidents. The references occur in a manner so natural and incidental that in all probability they record a genuine tradition and are concerned with real events. But the utter impossibility of determining an even approximate chronology for either the hymns or the events mentioned in them renders the information almost valueless for historical purposes. The attempts made to connect the Vedic names with Hindu history by means of the long genealogies preserved in the Purānas and other works have failed to yield tangible results. Bharata, Sudās, Janamejaya, and other kings named in the hymns, although they may be accepted as real persons, cannot be invested with much interest from the historian's point of view.
Historical geography. The study of the geographical data in the hymns is more fruitful, and throws a certain amount of light on the course of the Indo-Aryan migration and the origins of p25 Hinduism. In fact, the accepted belief in the Indo-Aryan immigration from Central Asia depends largely on the interpretation of the geographical allusions in the Rigveda and Yajurveda. Direct testimony to the assumed fact is lacking, and no tradition of an early home beyond the frontier survives in India. The amount of geographical knowledge implied in the literature is considerable. Such knowledge in those ancient days could have been acquired only by actual travelling. The hymn 'In Praise of the Rivers (Nadī-stuti)' in the tenth book (X.75) is specially interesting as a display of geographical information. The author, while devoting his skill chiefly to the praises of the Sindhu or Indus, enumerates at least nineteen rivers, including the Ganges.
The fifth stanza, which gives a list of ten streams, small and great, in order from east to west, is remarkable:
Attend to this my song of praise, O Gangā,
Yamunā, Sarasvatī, Sutudrī, Parushnī;
Together with Asiknī, O Marudvridhā, and with
Vitastā, O Ārjikiyā, listen with Sushomā.
The names of the Ganges, Jumna, and Sarasvatī remain unchanged. The Sutudrī is the modern Sutlaj, although its course has been greatly altered. The Parushnī is supposed to be the Rāvi. The Asiknī and Vitastā undoubtedly mean respectively the Akesines or Chināb, and the Vyath or Jhelum. The Marudvridhā is the Maruwārdwan, which flows from north to south through the Maru valley of the Kashmīr-Jamu̅ State, and joins the Chināb on its northern bank at Kashtwār. The Sushomā is the Sohān in the Rāwalpindi District, and the Ārjikiyā probably is the Kanshi in the same district.
The mention of the Marudvridhā is surprising, and it is difficult to understand how a stream of so little importance, hidden away among high mountains in an almost inaccessible valley, can have come to the knowledge of the author. The list suggests matter for curious speculation.12
River changes. It is of much importance, as already observed, that careful students of early Indian history and interpreters of the Vedas or other ancient records should bear in mind the fact that the snow‑fed rivers of northern India have undergone immense changes even within historical times. The entire Indus system has been subject to tremendous transformations both in the mountains and in the plains. Earthquakes, elevations, subsidences, and landslips have affected the upper courses of the rivers, while the changes in the soft alluvium of the plains have occurred frequently on a gigantic scale and are still in progress. Some rivers, notably the Hakrā or Wahindah, which once formed the boundary between sind and Hind, have ceased to exist. Others, like the Kurram in the west and the Sarasvatī in the east, which p26 once were violent and impetuous, have dwindled into feeble, inconsiderable streams. The positions of the confluences in both the Indus and the Gangetic systems have shifted many miles. The existing delta of the Indus has been formed since the time of Alexander the Great. The whole group of rivers connected with or related to the Sutlaj has been completely transformed more than once. The Sutlaj itself has wandered over a bed •eighty-five miles in width. Illustrations of the subject might be adduced in endless detail. What has been said may suffice to inspire caution in the interpretation of ancient texts and in attempts to identify places mentioned in those texts.13
Vedāngas and Upavedas. Two supplementary sections of the vast Vedic literature which are known as Vedāngas ('members of the Veda') and Upavedas (subsidiary Vedas') may be briefly mentioned.
The Vedāngas comprise six groups of treatises written in the su̅tra style on subjects more or less closely connected with ritual or the preservation of the Vedic texts. The subjects are: (1) phonetics or pronunciation (sikshā); (2) metre (chhandas); (3) grammar (vyākarana); (4) etymology (nirukti or nirukta); (5) religious practice (kalpa); and (6) astronomy, or rather astrology (jyotisha).
The Upavedas treat of more distinctly secular subjects, namely: (1) medicine (Āyurveda); (2) war, or literally 'archery' (Dhanurveda); (3) music (Gandharvaveda); and (4) architecture and art (Arthasāstra).14
Vedānta. The term Vedānta ('end of the Veda') is now commonly applied to the philosophy taught in most of the Upanishads. So used it is interpreted to mean the 'final goal of the Veda'. In practice many people when speaking of the Vedas mean the Upanishads, and by them the Vedānta is regarded as 'the ultimate bound of knowledge'. In a more literal sense the terms means the treatises, namely, the Upanishads, appended to the end of the Brāhmanas. The concise phrase tat tvam asi, 'that art thou', is accepted as summing up the ontology of the Vedānta.
The epics. When passing from the Vedic lyrics to the Sanskrit epics we enter a new world. Not only are the grammar, vocabulary, p27 metres, and style different, but the religion has been transformed and social conditions have been profoundly modified. Before those changes can be further considered it is necessary to explain briefly the character of the epics regarded as books.
Two huge poems or masses of verses, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, are commonly described as epics.
The Rāmāyana. The Rāmāyana deserves the name of epic because it is essentially a single long narrative poem composed by one author Vālmīki, and is devoted to the celebration of the deeds of the hero Rāma with due regard to the rules of poesy. The work is in fact the first example of the Sanskrit Kāvya or artificially designed narrative poem. The simple, easily intelligible style, while free from the ingenuities and verbal gymnastics favoured by later authors, is by no means devoid of ornament. Five out of the seven books seem to constitute the epic as conceived by Vālmīki. Critics regard the first and last books as later additions. Episodes unconnected with the story are few. The grammar and language, which are remote from those of the Veda, closely approximate to those of 'classical' Sanskrit. The poem is known in three different recensions, the variations being due to the liberties taken by professional reciters. It is not possible to determine which form represents the original composed by Vālmīki, but the Bombay recension on the whole seems to preserve the oldest text. The text of narrative poems not being regarded as sacred like that of the Vedas, no obligation to preserve its purity was recognized. The seven books contain about 24,000 slokas, or 48,000 lines.
Theme of the Rāmāyana. The main theme is the story of Prince Rāma, the son of King Dasaratha of Ayodhyā by Queen Kausalyā. The jealousy of Kaikeyī, the second queen, drove Rāma into exile and secured possession of the throne for her son, Bharata. Lakshmana, the third prince, voluntarily shared the exile of Rāma and Sītā his beloved wife. The adventures of the banished prince, the abduction of Sītā by Rāvana, the giant king of Lankā, the aid given to the prince by Hanumān, king of the monkeys, the vindication of Sītā from unjust aspersions on her chastity, and a thousand other incidents are even more familiar to Hindus in every part of India than the Bible stories are to the average European Christian. The story ends happily, and Rāma shares the kingdom with Bharata.
The heroic legend thus indicated has been edited by Brahmans so as to transform the poem into a book of devotion consecrated to the service of God in the form of Vishnu. Rāma, who is pictured as an incarnation of the deity, has thus become the man‑god and saviour of mankind in the eyes of millions of devout worshippers, who have his name in the ejaculation 'Rām, Rām', continually on their lips. He is venerated as the ideal man, while his wife, Sītā, is reverenced as the model of womanhood. Hindus unacquainted with Sanskrit bathe in 'the lake of the deeds of Rām' by the help of vernacular translations or imitations, among which p28 the most celebrated is the noble poem entitled the Rām-charit mānas, composed by Tulsī Dās in the days of Akbar. The moral teaching of the Rāmāyana in all its forms tends to edification, and the influence of Tulsī Dās in particular may be truly described as wholly on the side of goodness.
The Mahābhārata. The Mahābhārata, as we possess it in two recensions, a northern and a southern, cannot be designated correctly as an epic poem. It is a gigantic mass of compositions by diverse authors of various dates extending over many centuries, arranged in eighteen books or parvans, with a supplement called the Harivamsa, which may be reckoned as the nineteenth book. The number of slokas exceeds 100,000, and the lines consequently are more than 200,000. The Harivamsa contains over 16,000 slokas. The episodes, connected by the slightest possible bonds with the original narrative nucleus, constitute about four-fifths of the whole complex mass, which has the character of an 'encyclopaedia of moral teaching' as conceived by the Brahman mind.
The epic poem. The subject of the truly epic portion of the Mahābhārata is the Great War between the Kauravas, the hundred sons of Dhritarāshtra, led by Duryodhana, and the Pāndavas, the five sons of Pāndu, brother of Dhritarāshtra, led by Yudhishthira. The poet relates all the circumstances leading up to the war, and then narrates the tale of the fierce conflict which raged for eighteen days on the plain of Kurukshetra near Thānēsar, to the north of modern Delhi and the ancient Indraprastha.15 All the nations and tribes of India from the Himālaya to the farthest south are represented as taking part in this combat of giants. The Pāndava host comprised the armies of the states situated in the countries equivalent to the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, Western Bihār, and Eastern Rājputanā, with contingents from Gujarāt in the west and from the Dravidian kingdoms of the extreme south. The Kaurava cause was upheld by the forces of Eastern Bihār, Bengal, the Himālaya, and the Panjāb. The battles ended in the utter destruction of nearly all the combatants on both sides, excepting Dhritarāshtra and the Pāndavas. But a reconciliation was effected between the few survivors, and Yudhishthira Pāndava was recognized as king of Hastināpur on the Ganges. Ultimately, the five sons of Pāndu, accompanied by Draupadī, the beloved wife of them all, and attended by a faithful dog, quitted their royal state, and journeying to Mount Meru were admitted into Indra's heaven.
The epic narrative, thus inadequately summarized, now occupies about 20,000 slokas, but in its earliest form comprised only 8,800. That fact, which is clearly recorded, proves beyond doubt the unlimited rehandling which the Mahābhārata has undergone at the hands of professional reciters, poets of different ages, and Brahman editors. The mediaeval Hindī epic, the Chand-Rāisā, has been subjected to similar treatment and expanded from p29 5,000 to 125,000 verses. The original form of that poem is said to be still in existence.
The Bhagavad-Gītā, &c. The profound philosophical poem called the Bhagavad-Gītā, which may be Englished as 'the Lord's Song', or in Edwin Arnold's phrase as 'the Song Celestial', divided into eighteen chapters or discourses, has been thrust into the sixth book of the Mahābhārata.
p30 Other notable episodes, or inserted poems, are the charming tale of Nala and Damayantī, accessible in Milman's elegant English version; the story of Sakuntalā, forming the groundwork of Kālidāsa's play; and the legend of Sāvitrī, the Hindu Alcestis.
Age of the epics. The separate heroic and legendary tales imbedded in both the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata may in some cases go back to the most remote antiquity, but both of the epics in their existing form are far later than any of the Vedic hymns, and probably posterior to all the Brāhmanas. The two epics, as Hopkins has proved in detail, are intimately related and include a large number of substantially identical verses. The language of both belongs essentially to the same period in the development of Sanskrit. Probably the greater part of the existing text of the Mahābhārata was complete by A.D. 200, but the work as a whole cannot be said to belong to any one era. The original work of Vālmīki, that is to say, Books II‑VI of the Rāmāyana, is believed by Profess Macdonell to have been completed before the epic kernel of the Mahābhārata had assumed definite shape.
The Rāmāyana not historical. Most Hindus regard the epic narratives as statements of absolute historical facts, and would not be disturbed by sceptical criticism more than the ordinary unlearned Christian is by the so‑called 'higher criticism' of the Gospels.16 Foreign scholars, and even trained Indian scholars to a large extent, naturally look upon the poets' tales in a different light. Professors Jacobi and Macdonell, for instance, regard the Rāmāyana as being neither historical nor allegorical, but a poetic creation based on mythology. That interpretation sees in Sītā ('the furrow') an earth-goddess, and in Rāma an equivalent of Indra. Such speculations may or may not be accepted, but I feel fairly certain that the Rāmāyana does not hand down much genuine historical tradition of real events, either at Ayodhyā or in the peninsula. The poems seems to me to be essentially a work of imagination, probably founded on vague traditions of the kingdom of Kosala and its capital Ayodhyā. Dasaratha, Rāma, and the rest may or may not be the names of real kings of Kosala, as recorded in the long genealogy of the solar line given in the Purānas. But the investigation of the genealogies, on which a distinguished scholar has lavished infinite pains, is inconclusive, and the story of the epic is so interwoven with mythological fiction that it is impossible to disentangle the authentic history. The attempts to fix an approximately definite date for the adventures of Rāma rest on a series of guesses and are altogether unconvincing to my mind.
The Great War. The traditional belief that the Great War of the Mahābhārata actually was fought in the year 3102 B.C., the era of Yudhishthira, is strongly held. Although that date will hardly bear criticism, most people seem to be agreed that the Poe of the original epic based his tale on the genuine tradition p31 of a real Great War, just as the author of the Iliad had his imagination guided by dim recollections of an actual siege of Troy. The story, however, has been so much edited and moralized by different hands at times widely apart that little genuine tradition can be left. Persistent local memory undoubtedly has always recognized the sites of Hastināpura on the Ganges, the original Kaurava capital, and of Indraprastha on the Jumna, the newer town founded by the Pāndavas. But nothing visible exists at either site to confirm the popular belief. Hastināpura is supposed to be marked by a small hamlet of the same name on the high bank of the Ganges in the Meerut District, and the absence of remains is explained by the theory that the ancient town has been washed away by the Ganges. Every tourist is familiar with the fact that the walled village of Indarpat, situated near the bank of the Jumna between Shāhjahān's Delhi and Humāyu̅n's tomb, is pointed out as occupying part of the site of Indraprastha. The Nigambo̅dh Ghāt, or river stairs, and the Nīlīchatrī temple farther north, near Salīmgarh, are believed to have been included in the ancient city, the northern limit of which is supposed to have extended to 'the north-eastern end of the street called Darība — almost in the heart of the modern city'.17 As at Hastināpur, no ancient remains of any sort have been found to support the identification of the site. The traditions fixing the positions of the two towns, however, may be accepted, and we may believe that a famous local war between the chiefs of Indraprastha and Hastināpura, supported severally by many tribes of northern India, opened at a very remote date. Beyond that it is difficult to go. The reasons for believing that the were, as Hopkins suggests, 'a new people from without the pale', and for discrediting the alleged relationship between them and the Kauravas, are strong and cut at the root of the whole story. If the Pāndavas were non‑Aryan hill‑men, which in my judgement is probable, the poets and editors have transformed the story of their doings to such an extent that nothing truly historical is left.
The allegation that the chiefs of all India, including even the Pāndyas from the extreme south of the peninsula, took part in the fray is absolutely incredible.18 Whether the date of the battle be placed about 3000 B.C., as some people argue, or two thousand years later, as others prefer, it is impossible that at either period distant powers like the Pāndyas or the King of Assam (Prāgjyotisha) should have been interested in the local quarrels between the Kauravas and Pāndavas, which directly concerned only a small area in the neighbourhood of the city now called Delhi. The entire framework of the story is essentially incredible and p32 unhistorical. It may be that the royal genealogies for ages before and after the Great War, as recorded in the Purānas at length and in the epics less fully, are not wholly fictitious. But even if it be admitted that the lists often give the names in the proper order with approximate correctness, and indicate the existence of certain real relations friendly or hostile between the princes of certain dynasties, we are still a long way from finding intelligible history. The attempt to construct a rationalized narrative out of the materials available rests on a series of assumptions and guesses which can never lead of conclusions of much value. I confess my inability to extract anything deserving the name of political history from the epic tales of either the Rāmāyana or the Mahābhārata.
Social conditions. Both poems describe much the same state of society; but that proposition is subject to the qualification that certain parts of the Mahābhārata retain distinct traces of early practices, such as cow‑killing and human sacrifice, which were regarded with horror when the later parts of the work were composed.19 Other features are clearly non‑Aryan, notably the polyandry of the Pāndavas, who all shared the one wife, Draupadī, after the manner of the Tibetans and certain other Himalayan tribes in the present day. The name Pāndava means 'pale-face', and the conjecture seems to be legitimate that the sons of Pāndu may have been the representatives of a yellow-tinted, Himalayan, non‑Aryan tribe, which practised polyandry. That hypothesis involves the further inference (which may be supported for other reasons) that the alleged relationship between the Pāndavas and the Kauravas was an invention of the Brahman editors who undertook to moralize the old tales and bring them all into the Aryan fold. The subject is too speculative for further discussion in this place.
When the epics were finally recast in their present shape, be the date A.D. 200 or another, the doctrine of ahimsā, or non‑injury to living creatures, had gained the upper hand. It is taught emphatically in many passages, although others, as observed above, retain memories of older practices.
The Vedic nature-worship had been mostly superseded by the cult of Brahmā, Vishnu, and Siva. New gods and goddesses unknown to the Veda, such as Ganēsa and Pārvatī, had arisen; and the Vedic deities had been reduced to a subordinate position, except Indra, who still retained high rank as the king of the heaven which warriors hoped to attain. The doctrine of rebirth, often loosely called transmigration of souls, had become generally accepted, and the belief in the incarnations of Vishnu had been formulated. The Bhagavad-Gītā, of which the date is quite uncertain, presents the Supreme Deity incarnate in the guise of corrector Krishna, who expounds the religion of duty, subject to the limitations of the four orders or varnas, in 'plain but noble language'. The tribal organization of the State is much less p33 prominent than it was in the Vedic period, and territorial kingdoms had arisen. The life of the court of Ayodhyā as depicted in the Rāmāyana is much the same as that of any old‑fashioned Hindu state in recent times. Caste was already an ancient institution, and it may be said with confidence that the atmosphere of the epic world is that of familiar Hinduism, with certain exceptions indicated above, which occur chiefly in the Mahābhārata. The kingdoms mentioned were numerous and comparatively small. But it is not safe to affirm that the political and social conditions depicted in the epics are those of any one definite age. Both works as literary compositions may be roughly placed between 400 B.C. and A.D. 200. The Rāmāyana in its original form may have been composed by Vālmīki in the earlier half of the six centuries thus indicated, and it seems probable that the redaction of the Mahābhārata to something like its present shape took place in the later half of the same period. But determination of the dates of composition of the poems, if it could be effected, would not throw any light on the historical place of Rāma, Arjuna, and the other epic heroes. They are, I think, the creatures of imagination, guided more or less by dim traditions of half-forgotten stirring events which happened 'once upon a time', but cannot be treated as ascertained facts which came into existence at any particular period. The Indian epic heroes, in short, seem to me to occupy a position like that of the Knights of the Round Table in British legend, and it is as futile to attempt the distillation of matter-of‑fact history, whether political or social, from the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana as it would be to reconstruct the early history of Britain from the Morte d'Arthur or from its modern version, the Idylls of the King.
The Purānas. The nature of the works called Purānas which have been referred to demands brief explanation. The Purānas commonly recognized in the north of India are eighteen in number. Others, about which little is known to European scholars, are used in the south. A Purāna, according to the Indian definition, best exemplified by the Vishnu Purāna, should treat of five subjects, namely, primary creation, secondary creation, genealogies of gods and patriarchs, reigns of various Manus, and the history of ancient dynasties. The treatises consequently are bulky and crowded with legendary matter of various kinds. They have been well described by Bühler as 'popular sectarian compilations of mythology, philosophy, history, and the sacred law; intended, as they are now used, for the instruction of the unlettered classes, including the upper divisions of Su̅dra varna'.20 Much of the contents comes down from remote antiquity, as the name Purāna, meaning 'old', testifies, but the books as they stand are of various dates. The Vāyu Purāna, one of the oldest, finally edited perhaps in the fourth century after Christ, is closely connected with the supplement to the Mahābhārata entitled the Harivamsa, already p34 mentioned. The Puranic genealogies of kings in prehistoric times, as intimated above, seem to be of doubtful value, but those of the historical period or Kali Age, from about 600 B.C., are records of high importance and extremely helpful in the laborious task of reconstructing the early political history of India. Each of the Purānas is more or less specially consecrated to the service of a particular form of the godhead.
Caste. The existing institution of caste is peculiar to India, is at least three thousand years old, is 'the most vital principle of Hinduism', dominating Indian social life, manners, morals, and thought; and is founded on the intellectual and moral superiority of the Brahmans, which dates from Rigvedic times. It consists essentially intention division of Hindu mankind into about three thousand hereditary groups, each internally bound together by rules of ceremonial purity, and externally separated by the same rules from all other groups. Those propositions describing the institution of caste as it exists to‑day in general terms are as accurate as any brief abstract description of an institution so complex can be.
Definition of a caste. A caste may be defined as a group of families internally united by peculiar rules for the observance of ceremonial purity, especially in the matters of diet and marriage. The same rules serve to fence it off from all the other groups, each of which has its own set of rules. Admission to an established caste in long settled territory can be obtained nowadays by birth only, and transitions from one caste to another, which used to be feasible in ancient times, are no longer possible, except in frontier regions like Manipur. The families composing a caste may or may not have traditions of descent from a common ancestor, and, as a matter of fact, may or may not belong to one stock. Race, that is to say, descent by blood, has little concern with caste, in northern India, at all events, whatever may be the case in the south. The individual members of a caste may or may not be restricted to any particular occupation or occupations. The members may believe or disbelieve any creed or doctrine, religious or philosophical, without affecting their caste position. That can be forfeited only by breach of the caste regulations concerning the dharma, or practical duty of members belonging to the group. Each caste has its own dharma, in addition to the common rules of morality as accepted by Hindus generally, and considered to be the dharma of mankind. The general Hindu dharma exacts among other things reverence to Brahmans, respect for the sanctity of animal life in varying degrees, and especially veneration for horned cattle, pre‑eminently the cow. Every caste man is expected to observe accurately the rules of his own group, and to refrain from doing violence to the feelings of other groups concerning their rules. The essential duty of the member of a caste is to follow the custom of his group, more particularly in related to diet or marriage.21 p35 Violation of the rules on those subjects, if detected, usually involves unpleasant and costly social expiation and may result in expulsion from the caste, which means social ruin and grave inconvenience.
The Hindus have not any name for the caste institution, which seems to them part of the order of nature. It is almost impossible for a Hindu to regard himself otherwise when as a member of some particular caste, or specie of Hindu mankind. Everybody else who disregards Hindu dharma is an 'outer barbarian' (mlēchchha) no matter how exalted his worldly rank or how vast his wealth may be. The proper Sanskrit and vernacular term for 'a caste' is jāti (jāt), 'specie', although, as noted above, the members of a jāti are not necessarily descended from a common ancestor. Indeed, as a matter of fact, they are rarely, if ever, so descended. Their special caste rules make their community in effect a distinct specie, whoever their ancestors may have been.
The fiction of four original castes. The common notion that there were four original castes, Brahman, Kshatriya or Rājanya, Vaisya, and Su̅dra, is false. The ancient Hindu writers classified mankind under four varnas or 'orders', with reference to their occupations, namely: (1) the learned, literate, and pretty order, or Brahmans; (2) the fighting and governing classes, who were grouped together as Rājanyas or Kshatriyas, irrespective of race, meaning by that term ancestry; (3) the trading and agricultural people, or Vaisyas; and (4) common, humble folk, day labourers, and so forth, whose business it was to serve their betters. Every family and caste (jāti) observing Hindu dharma necessarily fell under one or other of those four heads. Various half-wild tribes, and also communities like sweepers, whose occupations are obviously unclean, were regarded as standing outside the four orders or varnas. Such unclean communities have usually imitated the Hindu caste organization and developed an elaborate system of castes of their own, which may be described by the paradoxical term 'outcaste castes'.
Nobody can understand the caste system until he has freed himself from the mistaken notion based on the current interpretation of the so‑called Institutes of Manu, that there were 'four original castes'. No four original castes ever existed at any time or place, and at the present moment the terms Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Su̅dra have no exact meaning as a classification of existing castes. In northern India the names Vaisya and Su̅dra are not used except in books or disputes about questions of caste precedence. In the south all Hindus who are not Brahmans fall under the denomination of Su̅dra, while the designations Kshatriya and Vaisya are practically unknown.22
The Purusha-sukta hymn. The famous Purusha-sukta p36 hymn included in the latest book of the Rigveda (X.90), and commonly supposed to be 'the only passage in the Veda which enumerates the four castes', has nothing to do with caste. The hymn has for its subject a cosmogony or theory of creation. The poet tries to picture creation as the result of immolating and cutting up Purusha, that is to say 'embodied spirit, or Man personified and regarded as the soul and original source of the universe, the personal and life-giving principle in all animated beings'. The Vedas, horses, cattle, goats, and sheep, the creatures of the air, and animals both wild and tame are depicted as being products of that 'great general sacrifice'. The poet proceeds next to expound the creation of the human race, and finally, of the sun, moon, and elements. I quote Colebrooke's version because it is free from the effect of the prepossession of other translators, who, under the influence of Manu and his followers, have assumed the reality of a reference to the supposed 'four original castes'.
'10. Into how many portions did they divide this being whom they immolated? what did his mouth become? what are his arms, his thighs, and his feet now called?
11. His mouth became a priest [Brāhmana]; his arm was made a soldier [Rājanya]; his thigh was transformed into a husbandman [Vaisya]; from his feet sprang the servile man [Su̅dra].
12. The moon was produced from his mind; the sun sprung from his eye; air and breath proceeded from his ear; and fire rose from his mouth.
13. The subtile element was produced from his navel; the sky from his head; the earth from his feet; and space from his ear; thus did he frame worlds.'23
The general drift of the whole passage is plain enough. The verses give a highly figurative, imaginative theory of creation. Both the Brahman and fire come from Purusha's mouth, just as the servile man or Su̅dra and earth both proceed from his feet. No suggestion of the existence of caste groups is made. Mankind is simply and roughly classified under four heads according to occupation, the more honourable professions being naturally assigned the more honourable symbolical origin. It is absurd to treat the symbolical language of the poem as a narrative of supposed facts.
Distinctions between varna and jāti. Most of the misunderstanding on the subject has arisen from the persistent mistranslation of Manu's term varna as 'caste', whereas it should be rendered 'class' or 'order' or by some equivalent term.24
p37 The compiler of the Institutes of Manu was well aware of the distinction between varna and jāti. While he mentions about fifty different castes, he lays much stress on the fact that there were only four varnas. The two terms are carelessly confused in one passage (X.31) but in that only. Separate castes existed from an early date. Their relations to one another remain unaffected whether they are grouped theoretically under four occupational headings or not.
Enormous number of existing castes. My statement that three thousand distinct castes, more or less, exist at the present day is made on the authority of an estimate by Ketkar. Whether the number be taken as 2,000, 3,000, or 4,000 is immaterial, because the figure certainly is of that order. Many reasons, which it would be tedious to specify, forbid the preparation of an exact list of castes. One of those reasons is that new castes have been and still are formed from time to time. But the intricacies of the caste system in its actual working must be studied in the numerous special treatises devoted to the subject, which it is impossible to discuss in this work.
Antiquity of the institution. The assertion made on an earlier page that the institution in some of its essential features is at least three thousand years old probably errs on the side of caution. We know that caste existed before 300 B.C., because the most obvious features of the institution are noticed by the Greek authors of ascertained date; and it is reasonable to believe that castes, separated from one another by rules of ceremonial purity, as they now are, were in existence at least six or seven centuries earlier. I do not find any indication of the existence of caste in Rigvedic times. But the pre‑eminence of the 'Brahman sacrificers', which was well assured even in that remote age, is the foundation of the later caste system. The people of the Rigveda had not yet become Hindus.
The learned, priestly, and intellectually superior class of the Indo-Aryans who were called Brahmans gradually framed extremely strict rules to guard their own ceremonial purity against defilement through unholy food or undesirable marriages. The enforcement of such rules on themselves by the most respected members of the Indo-Aryan community naturally attracted the admiration of the more worldly classes of society, who sought to emulate and imitate the virtuous self-restraint of the Brahmans. It being clearly impossible that ordinary soldiers, business men, peasants, and servants could afford to be as scrupulous as saintly, or at least professedly religious Brahmans, a separate standard of dharma for each section of society necessarily grew up by degrees. Kings, for instance, might properly and must do things which subjects could not do without sin, and so on. The long-continued conflict with the aboriginal Indians, who held quite different ideals of conduct, made both the Brahmans and their imitators more and more eager to assert their superiority and exclusiveness by ever-increasing scrupulosity concerning both diet and marriage.
p38 The evolution of caste. The geographical isolation of interior India favoured the evolution of a distinct and peculiar social system. A student of the Rigveda texts, without knowledge of historical facts, might reasonably presume that the Indus basin where the immigrants first settled would have become the Holy Land of Hinduism. The Rishis never tire of singing the praises of the mighty Indus with its tributary streams. But the strange fact is that the basin of the Indus, and even the Panjāb beyond the Sutlaj, came to be regarded as impure lands by the Brahmans of interior India at quite an early date.25 Orthodox Hindus are still unwilling to cross the Indus, and the whole Panjāb between that river and the Sutlaj is condemned as unholy ground, unfitted for the residence of strict votaries of dharma. The reason apparently is that the north-western territories continued to be overrun by successive swarms of foreigners from Central Asia, who disregarded Brahmans and followed their own customs. The inroads of those foreigners blotted out the memory of the Indo-Aryan immigration from the north-west, which is not traceable either in the popular Puranic literature or in the oral traditions of the people. To the east of the Sarasvatī and Sutlaj the Indo-Aryans were usually safe from foreign invasion and free to work out their own rule of life undisturbed. They proceeded to do so and thus to create Hinduism with its inseparable institution of caste. Internally the Indian territory was broken up into a multitude of small units, each of which had a tendency towards an exclusive, detached way of living.
Effect of ahimsā on caste. The sentiment in favour of respecting animal life, technically called the ahimsā doctrine, had a large share in fixing on the necks of the people bothersome rules of conduct. That sentiment, which is known to have been actively encouraged by Jain and Buddhist teachers from about 500 B.C., probably originated at a much later date. The propagation of ahimsā necessarily produced a sharp conflict of ideas and principles of conduct between the adherents of the doctrine and the old‑fashioned people who clung to bloody sacrifices, cow‑killing, and meat eating. Communities which had renounced the old practices and condemned them as revolting impieties naturally separated themselves from their more easy-going and self-indulgent neighbours, and formed castes bound strictly to maintain the novel code of ethics.26 The Mahābhārata, as already noted, contains many p39 inconsistent passages which indicate the transition from the ancient ideas to the new. The same conflict of ideals and practice still goes on, and may be observed in many localities of both southern and northern India. The first Rock Edict of Asoka, published about 250 B.C., enables us to fix one date in the long story and to mark an early instance of the change of attitude produced by Buddhist teaching.
'Formerly, in the kitchen of His Sacred and Gracious Majesty the King each day many [hundred] thousands of living creatures were slaughtered to make curries. But now, when this pious edict is being written, only three living creatures are slaughtered daily for curry, to wit, two peacocks and one antilope — the antilope, however, not invariably. Even those three living creatures henceforth shall not be slaughtered.'
Any person acquainted with modern India does not need to be told how the habit of flesh or fish eating separates certain castes from their vegetarian brethren.
Effect of the Muhammadan conquest. It is impossible to pursue the subject, which branches off into endless ramifications. One more observation may be recorded to the effect that the process of the Muhammadan conquest, from the time of Mahmu̅d of Ghaznī, tended to tighten the bonds of caste. The Hindus, unable on the whole to resist the Muslims in the field, defended themselves passively by the increased rigidity of caste association. The system of close caste brotherhoods undoubtedly protected Hindus and Hinduism during many centuries of Muslim rule. Modern Hinduism is incapable of accepting the old legal fiction that foreign outsiders should be regarded as fallen Kshatriyas. When the compiler of the Laws of Manu was writing it seemed quite natural to treat Persians, Dards, and certain other foreign nations as Kshatriyas who had sunk to the condition of Su̅dras by reason of their neglect p40 of sacred rites and their failure to consult Brahmans (X.44). The change in the Hindu attitude towards foreigners seems to be mainly due to the Muhammadan conquest. We may take it that from the eleventh and twelves of the Christian era the caste institution has subsisted in substantially its modern form. That proposition is subject to the qualification that minor local and superficial modifications are taking place continually. But the institution as a whole remains unchanged and unshaken.
Demerits of caste. The demerits of the peculiar Hindu institution are obvious. Anybody can perceive that it shuts off Indians from free association with foreigners, thus making it difficult for the Indian to understand the foreigner, and for the stranger to understand the Indian. It is easier for the English administrator to attain full sympathy with the casteless Burman than it is for him to draw aside the veil which hides the inmost thoughts of the Chitpāwan or Nambudri Brahman. No small part of the mystery which ordinarily confines interest in Indian subjects to a narrow circle of experts is due ultimately to caste. It is not pleasant for an Englishman or Frenchman to know that, however distinguished he may be personally, the touch of his hand is regarded as a pollution by his high-caste acquaintance. Yet that is the disagreeable fact. Within India caste breaks up society into thousands of separate units, frequently hostile one to the other, and always jealous. The institution necessarily tends to hinder active hearty co‑operation for any purpose, religious, political, or social. All reformers are conscious of the difficulties thus placed in their path. Each individual finds his personal liberty of action checked in hundreds of ways unknown to the dwellers in other land. The restrictions of caste rules collide continually with the conditions of modern life, and are the source of endless inconveniences. The institution is a relic of the ancient past and does not readily adapt itself to the requirements of the twentieth century. Although necessity compels even the strictest Brahmans to make some concessions to practical convenience, as, for instance, in the matters of railway travelling and drinking pipe water, the modifications thus introduced are merely superficial. The innate antique sentiment of caste exclusiveness survives in full strength and is not weakened materially even by considerable laxity of practice. The conflict between caste regulations and modern civilization is incessant, but caste survives. Further, the institution fosters intense class pride, fatal to a feeling of brotherhood between man and man. The Malabar Brahman who considers himself defiled if an outcaste stands within twenty paces of him cannot possibly be interested in a creature so despised. The sentiment pervades all classes of Hindu society in varying degrees of intensity. Such objections to the caste institution, with many others which might be advanced, go far to justify, or at any rate explain, the vigorous denunciations of the system found abundantly in Indian literature as well as in the writings of foreigners. Four stanzas p41 by Vemana, the Telugu poet, may serve as a summary of the numerous Indian diatribes on the subject.
If we look through all the earth,
Men, we see, have equal birth,
Made in one great brotherhood,
Equal in the sight of God.
Food or caste or place of birth
Cannot alter human worth.
Why let caste be so supreme?
'Tis but folly's passing soldier. . . .
Empty is a caste-dispute;
All the castes have but one root.
Who on earth can e'er decide
Whom to praise and whom deride?
Why should we the Pariah scorn,
When his flesh and blood were born
Like to ours? What caste is He
Who doth dwell in all we see?27
The dictum of Sir Henry Maine, the eminent jurist, that caste is 'the most disastrous and blighting of human institutions' may suffice as a sample of adverse opinions expressed by European writers.
The merits of caste. The hostile critics have not got hold of the whole truth. Much may be said on the other side, which needs to be presented. An institution which has lasted for thousands of years, and has forced its passage down through the peninsula all the way to Cape Como̅rin in the face of the strongest opposition, must have merits to justify its existence and universal prevalence within the limits of India.28 The most ardent defenders of caste, of course, must admit its unsuitability for other lands. 'Thinking men', as Sir Madhava Row observed, 'must beware lest the vast and elaborate social structure which has arisen in the course of thousands of years of valuable experience should be injured or destroyed without anything to substitute, or with a far worse structure to replace it.' The institution of caste cannot be treated properly as a thing by itself. It is an integral part of Hinduism, that is to say, of the Hindu social and economic system. It is, as Ketkar justly observes, intimately associated with the Hindu philosophical ideas of karma, rebirth, and the theory of the three gunas. But such abstract ideas cannot be discussed in this place. More writers than one have observed that the chief attribute of the caste p42 system regarded historically is its stability. The Hindu mind clings to custom, and caste rules are solidified custom. That stability, although not absolute, has been the main agent in preserving Hindu ideas of religion, morals, art, and craftsmanship. The Abbé Dubois was much impressed by the services which the institution renders to social order. Monier Williams concisely observes that 'caste has been useful in promoting self-sacrifice, in securing subordination of the individual to an organized body, in restraining vice, [and] in preventing pauperism'. Similar quotations might be largely multiplied.29
The future of caste. With reference to the future, the practical conclusion is that talk about the abolition or even the automatic extinction of caste is futile. Caste within India cannot be either abolished or extinguished within a measurable time. the system grew up of itself in remote antiquity because it suited India, and will last for untold centuries because it still suits India on the whole, in spite of its many inconveniences. Hindu society without caste is inconceivable. Reformers must be content to make the best of a system which cannot be destroyed. The absolutely indispensable compromises with modern conditions will arrange themselves from time to time, while the huge mass of the Indian agricultural population will continue to walk in the ancestral ways. The Deep waters of Hinduism are not easily stirred. Ripples on the surface leave the depths unmoved.
'The Allows of Manu'. In connexion with the subject of the evolution of caste, the famous law‑book commonly called the 'Laws', or 'Code', or 'Institutes of Manu', (Mānāva-dharma-sāstra in Sanskrit) demands notice. The treatise, written in lucid Sanskrit verse of the 'classical' type, comprises 2,684 couplets (sloka) arranged in twelve chapters; and is the earliest of the metrical law‑books. It professes to be the composition of a sage named Bhrigu, who used the works of predecessors. The date of composition may lie between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200. About one‑tenth of the verses is found in the Mahābhārata.
The Laws of Manu form the foundation of the queer medley of inconsistent systems of jurisprudence administered by the Privy Council and the High Courts of India under the name of Hindu Law. The prevalent error concerning the supposed 'four original castes' rest partly, as proved above, on erroneous interpretation of the text, and partly on fictitious explanations of the facts of caste offered by the author. The early Sanskritists unduly exalted the authority of the Laws of Manu, which they regarded as veritable laws instead of the mere rulings of a text-book writer, which they actually are. the fuller knowledge of the present day sees the book in truer perspective, but the old errors still exert a baneful influence in many directions.
The books named are merely those which the author has found most useful.
The first place is due to Prof. A. A. Macdonell, A History of Sanskrit Literature (heinemann, 1900), a mastery summary of an enormous subject. Kaegi, The Rigveda, transl. by Arrowsmith (Boston, 1886), is a good small book. The metrical version of The Hymns of the Rigveda by Griffith (2 vols., 2nded., Benares, 1887) is an unpretentious work of sound scholarship. The literal translation of the Atharva Veda by Whitney and Lanman (2 vols. Harvard Or. Series, 1905) is indispensable, but difficult to understand. The History of Sanskrit Literature by Weber (transl. 2nded., Trübner, 1882) is highly technical. Max Müller's Chips from a German Workshop (vol. 1868), and India, have can it Teach us? (1883) are still of service. I have also derived benefit from Colebrooke, Miscellaneous Essays (collected ed. in 2 vols. Trübner, 1873); Manning, Ancient and Mediaeval India (with vols., 1869); and R. W. Frazer, A Literary History of India (1898). Rajendralal Mitra's essays on 'Beef in Ancient India' and cognate topics, reprinted in Indo-Aryans (London and Calcutta, 1881), are sound and important. Mr. B. G. Tilak temperately expounds an extreme theory in Orion, or Researches into the Antiquity of the Vedas (Poona, 1916).
For the Epic period, Hopkins, The Great Epic of India (New York and London, 1901), is of high authority. Epic India by C. V. Vaidya (Bombay, 1907), although a rather fanciful book, has some good points. Mr. F. E. Pargiter's papers on early Indian history in the J. R. A. S. from 1908 present novel views. See also his Dynasties in the Kali Age (1913).
The most illuminating book on castes which I have met with is The History of Caste in India by Shridar V. Ketkar (vol. I, Ithaca, N. Y., 1909; vol. II, 'An Essay on Hinduism', Luzac, London, 1911). The book apparently is not known as well as it deserves to be. The Evolution of Caste, a pamphlet by R. Shama Sastri (44 pp., s. p. c. k. Press, Madras, 1916), is a suggestive paper. A short essay entitled 'Caste in India' was published by me in East and West (Bombay, June 1913). 'Influence of the Indian King upon the growth of Caste' by H. J. Maynard (J. P. H. S., vol. VI, pp88‑100) is a novel and important essay.
Certain other writers are quoted in the notes, and a very long list of books might be given.
1 Hopkins (p3) quotes the saying:
Na hi chhandānsi kriyante, nityāni chhandānsi;
'Vedic verses are not made, they are eternal.'
2 Arthasāstra, revised translation by R. Shama Sastri (Bangalore Government Press, 1915), Book I, chaps. 3, 5, pp7, 11. Kautilya, it will be observed, places the Sāmaveda first.
3 The name Rigveda is a compound of the wonders rich and veda, ch becoming g by the rules of sandhi. Rich signifies 'any prayer or hymn in which a deity is praised. As these are mostly in verse, the terms becomes also applicable to such passages of any Veda as are reducible to measure according to the rules of prosody. The first Veda, in Vyāsa's compilation, comprehending most of these texts, is called the Rigveda; or as expressed in the Commentary on the Index, "because it abounds in such texts (rich)" ' (Colebrooke).
4 Macdonell translates better:
Desire then at the first arose within it,
Desire, which was the earliest seed of spirit.
'Also the two oceans are Varuna's paunches' (Lanman);
'The loins of Varuna are these two oceans' (Macdonell).
6 Compare the story of the gradual Hellenization of the land of Greece (Bury, chap. I, sec. 4).
7 e.g. R. V., X.134.2 'As men whose fields are full of barley reap the ripe cornº removing it in order'; and VII.67.10 'barley cut or gathered up' (Griffith). Barley is grown all over north-western India, in Afghanistan and in the Himalayan valleys up to a height of •14,000 feet. Rice, unknown to the Rigveda, is often mentioned in the Atharvaveda, e.g. IV.34, 36. But the theory that the Indians originally were nomads is supported by megasthenes, who was told that 'the Indians were in old times nomads like those Scythians who do not plough but wander about in their waggons, &c.' (Arrian, Indika, chap. 7).
8 Pu̅ru seems to be the Po̅ros of Greek authors.
9 Discussion concerning the original seat or home of the Aryans is omitted purposely, because no hypothesis on the subject seems to be established.
10 Kautilya prescribes that 'Brahmans shall be provided with forests for soma plantation' (Arthasāstra, Book II, chap. 2). See also Jātakas, Nos. 525 and 537.
11 The name is also written Nambutiri or Nāmburi.
12 See Max Müller, India, What can it Teach us (1883), pp163‑75; Stein in J. R. A. S., 1917, p91; and the translations by Griffith and others. I think the Ārjikiyā must be the Kanshi, and not as Stein suggests.
13 Students who desire to appreciate the force of the remarks in the text should read, mark, and digest Raverty's difficult memoir entitled 'The Mihrān of Sind and its Tributaries: a Geographical and Historical Study' in J. A. S. B., vol. LXI, part 1, 1892. Unfortunately the copious matter is ill arranged, so that the treatise is exceptionally hard reading. It deals chiefly with the Indus, pp297‑317; hydaspes or Vitastā, pp318‑36; Chināb, pp336‑52; Rāvi, pp352‑71; Biās, pp372‑90; Sutlaj, pp391‑418; Hakrā, pp418‑22 and 454‑66. Discussion of results occupies pp469‑508. I have learned much by repeated reading of the disquisition. For extensive changes in the rivers of the far south see The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago, 1904, p236.
14 Weber, History of Indian Literature (Trübner, 1882), pp271, 273. The term Arthasāstra has another meaning in Kautilya's work on statecraft.
15 See map on p29. The caution that the rivers have change immensely must be remembered. The map shows only the courses as in recent times.
16 'According to the Hindu notion the stories which are called mythology by Europeans are nothing short of history' (Ketkar, II.477).
17 Carr Stephen, Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi, Lu̅diāna and Calcutta, 1876, p5.
18 Compare the 'catalogue of ships' interpolated in the Iliad. As all Greece desired to be credited with a share in the Trojan war after it had been made famous by Homer, so all India claimed places in the Great War of the Mahābhārata.
19 For details and references see Vidya, p118, and Hopkins, p378.
20 Laws of Manu, S. B. E., XXV, p. xci.
21 'Caste means a social exclusiveness with reference to diet and marriage. . . . Birth and rituals are secondary' (Shama Sastri, The Evolution of Caste, p13).
22 According to the Census of 1901 for the Madras Presidency the figures are: Brahman, 3.4 per cent; Su̅dra, 94.3 - 97.7 per cent. the small residuum is made up of a few Telingas and Kanarese who called themselves Kshatriyas or Vaisyas (Richards, The Dravidian Problem, p31).
23 Colebrooke, Miscellaneous Essays, 1873, vol. I, p184.
24 'The words Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras were names of classes rather than of castes during the pre‑Buddhistic period' (Shama Sastri, p13). 'Varna, once a common name of all classes, perhaps taken from the colour of the garments that differed with different classes, as for example, white for the Brahmans, red for the Kshatriyas, yellow for the Vaisyas, and black for the Su̅dras, came to mean a caste in post-Buddhistic literature' (ibid., p44).
25 The combined testimony of the Jātakas and the Greek authors proves that in the fourth century B.C. Taxila in the north-western Panjāb still was a centre of Vedic learning. The change may have been due to the Indo-Scythian rule in the first two centuries A.C.
26 Mr. Shama Sastri, who believes the existing caste system to be of comparatively modern post-Buddhistic origin, expresses his view of the effect of Jain and Buddhist teaching in language stronger than I am disposed to use:
'It is easy to perceive that if the Brahmans of the Gupta period ceased to continue to observe the long-established custom of marrying wives from the three lower classes, it was not from any intention to preserve the purity of their blood, for it was already tainted and saturated with that of the other classes. It appears to be mainly an act of self-preservation against the charge of sexual intemperance brought by the Jaina and Buddhist monks. It is also easy to perceive that if the discontinued the immemorial custom of eating flesh and drinking liquor along with the employment of flesh-eating people as cooks in their households, it was not from any love of vegetarianism, but mainly from a determined effort to avoid the charges of intemperance and cruelty to animals brought against them by the Buddhists. Thus the passing of the Brahmans from class life into caste life was . . . brought about against the will of the Brahmans themselves; for it demands a good deal of self-denial to give up the pleasures of the bed and the table.
As a compensation for this self-denial, the reformed or reforming Brahmans apparently perceived a decided advantage accruing to themselves; for that reform moved a death-blow to the existence of Buddhism itself. . . . Thus, with the introduction of flesh and liquor as articles of diet not condemned for the common people, the Vaisyas and Su̅dras seem to have formed themselves into separate castes, following the Brahmans' (p11). Those propositions seem to me to be only slightly exaggerated expressions of important truths.
27 Gover, The Folk-Songs of Southern India, London, Trübner, 1872, p275; a charming and instructive book.
28 'The hatred which existed between the early Dravidians and the Aryans is best preserved in the Kuricchans' (a hill tribe in Malabar, corresponding to the Kuravas of the Tamil country) custom of plastering their huts with cow‑dung to remove the pollution caused by the entrance of a Brahman' (Tamil Studies, p90). The kuravas in Travancore rank very low and bury their dead (The Travancore State Manual, II.402).
29 Some of the quotations are taken from Aiya, The Travancore State Manual, 1906, vol. II, pp229 foll.
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