As the rudest nations are seldom destitute of some account of the transactions of their ancestors, it is a natural subject of surprise, that the Hindus should have attained to a high pitch of civilisation, without any work that at all approaches to the character of a history15. The fragments which remain of the records of their transactions are so mixed with fable, and so distorted by a fictitious and extravagant system of Chronology, as to render it hopeless to deduce from them any continued thread of authentic narrative.
No date of a public event can be fixed before the invasion of Alexander; and no connected relation of the national transactions can be attempted until after the Mahometan conquest.
But notwithstanding this remarkable failure in the annals of the early Hindus, there is no want of information regarding their laws, manners, and religion; which it would have been the most useful object of an account of their proceedings to teach: and if we can ascertain their condition at a remote period, and mark the changes that have since taken place, we shall lose very little of the essential part of their history.
A view of the religion of the Hindus is given, and some light is thrown on their attainments in science and philosophy, by the Vedas, a collection of ancient hymns and prayers which are supposed to have been reduced to their present form in the fourteenth century before the Christian era; but the first complete picture of the state of society is afforded by the Code of Laws which bears the name of Menu, and which was probably drawn up in the ninth century before Christ16.
With that Code, therefore, every history of the Hindus must begin.
But to gain accurate notions even of the people contemporary with the supposed Menu, we must remember that a code is never the work of a single age, some of the earliest and rudest laws being preserved, and incorporated with the improvements of the most enlightened times. To take a familiar example, there are many of the laws in Blackstone the existence of which proves a high state of refinement in the nation; but those relating to witchcraft,
and the wager of battle, afford no correspondent proof of the continuance of barbarism down to the age in which the Commentaries were written.
Even if the whole Code referred to one period, it would not show the real state of manners. Its injunctions are drawn from the model to which it is wished to raise the community, and its prohibitions from the worst state of crime which it was possible to apprehend. It is to the general spirit of the Code, therefore, that we must look for that of the age; and even then, we must soften the features before we reach the actual condition of the people. I have adhered to the usual phraseology in speaking of this compilation; but, though early adopted as an unquestionable authority for the law, I should scarcely venture to regard it as a code drawn tip for the regulation of a particular state under the sanction of a government. It seems rather to be the work of a learned man, designed to set forth his idea of a perfect commonwealth under Hindu institutions. On this supposition it would show the state of society as correctly as a legal code; since it is evident that it incorporates the existing laws, and any alterations it may have introduced, with a view to bring them up to its preconceived standard of perfection, must still have been drawn from the opinions which prevailed when it was written. These considerations being premised, I shall now give an outline of the information contained in Menu; and, afterwards, a description
of the Hindus as they are to be seen in present times.
The alterations effected during the interval will appear from a comparison of the two pictures; and a view of the nation at a particular point of the transition will be afforded from the accounts which have been left to us by the Greeks.
The first feature that strikes us in the society described by Menu, is the division into four classes17 or casts (the sacerdotal, the military, the industrious, and the servile). In these we are struck with the prodigious elevation and sanctity of the Bramins, and the studied degradation of the lowest class.
The three first classes, though by no means equal, are yet admitted into one pale: they all partake in certain sacred rites, to which peculiar importance is attached throughout the code; and they appear to form the whole community for whose government the laws are framed. The fourth class and the outcasts are no further considered than as they contribute to the advantage of the superior casts.
A Bramin is the chief of all created beings; the world and all in it are his: through him, indeed,
other mortals enjoy life18; by his imprecations he could destroy a king, with his troops, elephants, horses, and cars19; could frame other worlds and regents of worlds, and could give being to new gods and new mortals.20 A Bramin is to be treated with more respect than a king21. His life and person are protected by the severest laws in this world22, and the most tremendous denunciations for the next23. He is exempt from capital punishment, even for the most enormous crimes24. His offences against other classes are treated with remarkable lenity25, while all offences against him are punished with tenfold severity26.
Yet it would seem, at first sight, as if the Bramins, content with gratifying their spiritual pride, had no design to profit by worldly wealth or power. The life prescribed to them is one of laborious study, as well as of austerity and retirement.
The first quarter of a Bramin’s life he must spend as a student27; during which time he leads a life of abstinence and humiliation. His attention should be unremittingly directed to the Vedas, and should on no account be wasted on worldly studies. He should treat his preceptor with implicit obedience, and with humble respect and attachment, which
ought to be extended to his family. He must perform various servile offices for his preceptor, and must labour for himself in bringing logs and other materials for sacrifice, and water for oblations. He must subsist entirely by begging from door to door28.
For the second quarter of his life, he lives with his wife and family, and discharges the ordinary duties of a Bramin. These are briefly stated to be, reading and teaching the Vedas; sacrificing and assisting others to sacrifice; bestowing alms, and accepting gifts.
The most honourable of these employments is teaching29. It is remarkable that, unlike other religions, where the dignity of the priesthood is derived from their service at the temples, a Bramin is considered as degraded by performing acts of worship or assisting at sacrifices, as a profession30. All Bramins are strongly and repeatedly prohibited from receiving gifts from low-born, wicked, or unworthy persons.31 They are not even to take many presents from unexceptionable givers, and are carefully to avoid making it a habit to accept of unnecessary presents32. When the regular sources fail, a Bramin
may, for a mere subsistence, glean, or beg, or cultivate, or even (in case of extreme necessity) he may trade; but he must in no extremity enter into service; he must not have recourse to popular conversation, must abstain from music, singing, dancing, gaming, and generally from everything inconsistent with gravity and composure33.q
He should, indeed, refrain from all sensual enjoyments, should avoid all wealth that may impede his reading the Vedas34, and should shun all worldly honour as he would shun poison35. Yet he is not to subject himself to fasts, or other needless severities36. All that is required is, that his life should be decorous and occupied in the prescribed studies and observances. Even his dress is laid down with minuteness; and he may easily be figured (much as learned Bramins are still) quiet and demure, clean and decent, “his hair and heard clipped, his passions subdued, his mantle white, and his body pure;” with a staff and a copy of the Vedas in his hands, and bright golden rings in his ears37. When he has paid the three debts, by reading the scriptures, begetting a son, and performing the regular sacrifices, he may (even in the second portion of his life) make over all to his son, and remain in his family house, with no employment but that of an umpire38.
The third portion of a Bramin’s life he must spend as an anchorite in the woods. Clad in bark, or in the skin of a black antelope, with his hair and nails uncut, sleeping on the bare earth, he must live “without fire, without a mansion, wholly silent, feeding on roots and fruit.” He must also submit to many and harsh mortifications, expose himself, naked, to the heaviest rains, wear humid garments in winter, and in summer stand in the midst of five fires under the burning sun39. He must carefully perform all sacrifices and oblations, and consider it his special duty to fulfil the prescribed forms and ceremonies of religion.
In the last period of his life, the Bramin is nearly as solitary and abstracted as during the third. But he is now released from all forms and external observances: his business is contemplation: his mortifications cease. His dress more nearly resembles that of ordinary Bramins; and his abstinence, though still great, is not so rigid as before. He is no longer to invite suffering, but is to cultivate equanimity and to enjoy delight in meditation on the Divinity; till, at last, he quits the body “as a bird leaves the branch of a tree at its pleasure40.”
Thus it appears that, during three fourths of a Bramin’s life, he was entirely secluded from the world, and, during the remaining fourth, besides having his time completely occupied by ceremonies
and in reading the Vedas, he was expressly debarred from the enjoyment of wealth or pleasure and from the pursuit of ambition. But a little further acquaintance with the Code makes it evident that these rules are founded on a former condition of the Bramins; and that, although still regarded as the model for their conduct, they had already been encroached on by the temptations of power and riches.
The King must have a Bramin for his most confidential counsellor41; and by Bramins is he to be instructed in policy as well as in justice and all learning42. The whole judicial authority (except that exercised by the King in person) is in the hands of Bramins43; and, although the perusal of the sacred writings is not withheld from the two nearest classes, yet the sense of them is only to be obtained through the exposition of a Bramin44.
The interpretation of the laws is expressly confined to the Bramins45; and we can perceive, from the Code itself, how large a share of the work of legislation was in the hands of that order.
The property of the sacred class is as well protected by the law as its power. Liberality to Bramins is made incumbent on every virtuous man46, and is the especial duty of a King47. Sacrifices and
oblations, and all the ceremonies of religion, in votive feasts and presents to the Bramins48, and those gifts must always be liberal: “the organs of sense and action, reputation in this life, happiness in the next, life itself, children and cattle, are all destroyed by a sacrifice offered with trifling gifts to the priests49.” Many penances may be commuted for large fines, which all go to the sacred class50. If a Bramin finds a treasure, he keeps it all; if it is found by another person, the King takes it, but must give one half to the Bramins51. On failure of heirs, the property of others escheats to the King; but that of Bramins is divided among their class52. A learned Bramin is exempt from all taxation, and ought, if in want, to be maintained by the King53.
Stealing the gold of Bramins incurs an extraordinary punishment, which is to be inflicted by the King in person, and is likely, in most cases, to be capital54. Their property is protected by many other denunciations; and for injuring their cattle, a man is to suffer amputation of half his foot55.
The military class, though far from being placed on an equality with the Bramins, is still treated with honour. It is indeed acknowledged that the sacerdotal order cannot prosper without the military, or the military without the sacerdotal; and that the prosperity of both in this world and the next depends on their cordial union56.
The military class enjoys, in a less degree, with respect to the Veisyas, the same inequality in criminal law that the Bramin possesses in respect to all the other classes57. The King belongs to this class, as probably do all his ordinary ministers58. The command of armies and of military divisions, in short, the whole military profession, and in strictness all situations of command, are also their birthright. It is indeed very observable, that even in the code drawn up by themselves, with the exception of interpreting the law, no interference in the executive government is ever allowed to Bramins.
The duties of the military class are stated to be, to defend the people, to give alms, to sacrifice, to read the Vedas, and to shun the allurements of sensual gratification59.
The rank of Veisyas is not high; for where a Bramin is enjoined to show hospitality to strangers, he is directed to show benevolence even to a merchant,
and to give him food at the same time with his domestics60.
Besides largesses, sacrifice, and reading the Vedas, the duties of a Veisya are to keep herds of cattle, to carry on trade, to lend at interest, and to cultivate the land61.
The practical knowledge required from a Veisya is more general than that of the other classes; for in addition to a knowledge of the means of breeding cattle, and a thorough acquaintance with all commodities and all soils, he must understand the productions and wants of other countries, the wages of servants, the various dialects of men, and whatever else belongs to purchase and sale62.
The duty of a Sudra is briefly stated to be to serve the other classes63, but it is more particularly explained in different places that his chief duty is to serve the Bramins64; and it is specially permitted to him, in case of want of subsistence and inability to procure service from that class, to serve a Cshetrya; or, if even that service cannot be obtained, to attend on an opulent Veisya65. It is a general rule that, in times of distress, each of the classes may subsist by the occupations allotted to those beneath it, but must never encroach on the employments of those above it. A Sudra has no class beneath him; but, if other employments fail,
he may subsist by handicrafts, especially joinery and masonry, painting and writing66.
A Sudra may perform sacrifices with the omission of the holy texts67; yet it is an offence requiring expiation for a Bramin to assist him in sacrificing68. A Bramin must not read the Veda, even to himself, in the presence of a Sudra69. To teach him the law, or to instruct him in the mode of expiating sin, sinks a Bramin into the hell called Asamvrita.
It is even forbidden to give him temporal advice70. No offence is more repeatedly or more strongly inveighed against than that of a Bramin receiving a gift from a Sudra: it cannot even be expiated by penance, until the gift has been restored71. A Bramin, starving, may take dry grain from a Sudra, but must never eat meat cooked by him. A Sudra is to be fed by the leavings of his master, or by his refuse grain, and clad in his worn-out garments72.
He must amass no wealth, even if he has the power, lest he become proud, and give pain to Bramins73.
If a Sudra use abusive language to one of a superior class, his tongue is to be slit74. If he sit on the same seat with a Bramin, he is to have a gash made on the part offending75. If he advise him about his religious duties, hot oil is to be dropped into his mouth and ears76.
These are specimens of the laws, equally ludicrous and inhuman, which are made in favour of the other classes against the Sudras.
The proper name of a Sudra is directed to be expressive of contempt77, and the religious penance for killing him is the same as for killing a cat, a frog, a dog, a lizard, and various other animals78.
Yet, though the degraded state of a Sudra be sufficiently evident, his precise civil condition is by no means so clear. Sudras are universally termed the servile class; and, in one place, it is declared that a Sudra, though emancipated by his master, is not released from a state of servitude, “for,” it is added, “of a state which is natural to him, by whom can he be divested79?”
Yet every Sudra is not necessarily the slave of an individual; for it has been seen that they are allowed to offer their services to whom they please, and even to exercise trades on their own account: there is nothing to lead to a belief that they are the slaves of the state; and, indeed, the exemption
of Sudras from the laws against emigration80, shows that no perfect right to their services was deemed to exist any where.
Their right to property (which was denied to slaves81) is admitted in many places82: their persons are protected, even against their master, who can only correct them in a manner fixed by law, and equally applicable to wives, children, pupils, and younger brothers83.
That there were some Sudra slaves is indisputable; but there is every reason to believe that men of the other classes were also liable to fall into servitude.
The condition of Sudras, therefore, was much better than that of the public slaves under some ancient republics, and, indeed, than that of the villains of the middle ages, or any other servile class with which we are acquainted.
Though the line between the different classes was so strongly marked, the means taken to prevent their mixture do not seem to have been nearly so much attended to as in after times. The law in this respect seems rather dictated by jealousy of the honour of the women of the higher classes than by regard for the purity of descents.
Men of the three first classes are freely indulged in the choice of women from any inferior
cast84, provided they do not give them the first place in their family85. But no marriage is permitted with women of a higher class: criminal intercourse with them is checked by the severest penalties86; and their offspring is degraded far below either of its parents87. The son of a Bramin, by a woman of the class next below him, takes a station intermediate between his father and mother88; and the daughters of such connections, if they go on marrying Bramins for seven generations, restore their progeny to the original purity of the sacerdotal class89; but the son of a Sudra by a Bramin woman is a Chandala, “the lowest of mortals90,” and his intercourse with women of the higher classes produces “a race more foul than their begetter91.”
The classes do not seem to have associated at their meals even in the time of Menu; and there is a striking contrast between the cordial festivity recommended to Bramins with their own class, and the constrained hospitality with which they are directed to prepare food after the Bramins for a military man coming as a guest92.
But there is no prohibition in the code against
eating with other classes, or partaking of food cooked by them (which is now the great occasion for loss of cast), except in the case of Sudras; and even then the offence is expiated by living on water gruel for seven days93.
Loss of cast seems, in general, to have been incurred by crimes, or by omitting the prescribed expiations for offences.
It is remarkable that, in the four classes, no place is assigned to artisans: Sudras, indeed, are permitted to practise mechanic trades during a scarcity of other employment, but it is not said to whom the employment regularly belongs. From some of the allotments mentioned in Chap. X., it would appear that the artisans were supplied, as they are now, from the mixed classes: a circumstance which affords ground for surmise that the division into casts took place while arts were in too simple a state to require separate workmen for each; and also that many generations had elapsed between that division and the Code, to allow so important a portion of the employments of the community to be filled by classes formed subsequently to the original distribution of the people.
15. The history of Cashmir scarcely forms an exception. Though it refers to earlier writings of the same nature, it was begun more than a century after the Mahometan conquest of Cashmir: even if it were ancient, it is the work of a small sequestered territory on the utmost borders of India, which, by the accounts contained in the history itself, seems to have been long liable to be affected by foreign manners; and the example seems never to have been followed by the rest of the Hindus.
16. See Appendix I. “On the Age of Menu.”
17. The word class is adopted here, as being used in Sir W. Jones’s translation of Menu; but cast is the term used in India, and by the old writers on that country. It is often written caste in late books, and has sometimes been mistaken for an Indian word; but it is an English word, found in Johnson’s Dictionary, and derived from the Spanish or Portuguese – casts, a breed.
18. Chap. I. 96. 100, 101.
19. Chap. IX. 313.
20. Chap. IX. 315.
21. Chap. II. 139.
22. Chap. IX. 232, and Chap. VIII. 281–283.
23. Chap. XI. 205–208. Chap. IV. 165–169.
24. Chap. VIII. 380.
25. Chap. VIII. 276. 378, 379.
26. Chap. VIII. 272. 283. 325. 377. Chap. XI. 205, 206.
27. Chap. II. 175–210.
28. These rules are now only observed by professed students – if by them.
29. Chap. X. 75, 76. 85.
30. Chap. III. 180. Chap. IV. 205. A feeling which still subsists in full force.
31. Chap. IV. 84. Chap. X. 109, 110, 111. Chap. XI. 191–197.
32. Chap. IV. 186.
33. Chap. IV. 63, 64.
34. Chap. IV. 16, 17.
35. Chap. II. 162.
36. Chap. IV. 34.
37. Chap IV. 35, 36.
38. Chap. IV. 257.
39. Chap. VI. 1–29.
40. Chap. VI. 38. to the end.
41. Chap. VII. 58.
42. Chap. VII. 43.
43. Chap. VIII. 1, 9, 10, 11, and 60.
44. Chap. X, 1.
45. Chap. XII. 108–113.
46. Chap. XI. 1–6; Chap. IV. 226–235.
47. Chap. VII. 83–86.
48. Chap. III. 123–146., especially 138. and 143.
49. Chap. XL 39, 40. Priest is the word used by Sir W. Jones throughout his translation; but as it has been shown that few Bramins performed the public offices of religion, some other designation would have been more appropriate.
50. Chap. XI. 117. 128–139.
51. Chap. VIII. 37, 38.
52. Chap. IX. 188, 189.
53. Chap. VII. 133, 134.
54. Chap. VIII. 314–316.; Chap. XI. 101.
55. Chap. VIII. 325.
56. Chap. IX. 322.
57. Chap. VIII. 267, 268.
58. Chap. VII. 54.
59. Chap. I. 89.
60. Chap. III. 112.
61. Chap. I. 90.
62. Chap. IX. 329–332.
63. Chap. 1. 91.
64. Chap. IX. 334.
65. Chap. X. 121.
66. Chap. X. 99, 100. I do not observe in Menu the permission which is stated to be somewhere expressly given to a Sudra to become a trader or a husbandman (Colebrooke, Asiatic Researches, vol. v. p. 63.). Their employment in husbandry, however, is now so common, that most people conceive it to be the special business of the cast.
67. Chap. X. 127, 128.
68. Chap. X. 109, 110, 111; Chap. XI. 42, 43.
69. Chap. IV. 99.
70. Chap. IV. 80, 81.
71. Chap. XI. 194–197; Chap. X. 111.
72. Chap. X. 125.
73. Chap. X. 129.
74. Chap. VIII. 270.
75. Chap. VIII. 281.
76. Chap. VIII. 272.
77. Chap. II. 31.
78. Chap. XI. 131, 132.
79. Chap. VIII. 414.
80. Chap. II. 24.
81. Chap. VIII. 416.
82. For one instance, Chap. IX. 157.
83. Chap. VIII. 299, 300.
84. Chap. II. 238–240.; Chap. III. 13.
85. Chap. III. 14–19.
86. Chap. VIII. 366. 374–377.
87. Chap. X. 11–19.
88. Chap. X. 6.
89. Chap. X. 64.
90. Chap. X. 12.
91. Chap. X. 29, 30. All marriages with women of lower classes is now prohibited.
92. Chap. III. 110–113.
93. Chap. XI. 153.
This collection transcribed by Chris Gage