Though the Hindus have preserved their customs more entire than any other people with whom we are acquainted, and for a period exceeding that recorded of any other nation; yet it is not to be supposed that changes have not taken place in the lapse of twenty-five centuries.
I shall now attempt to point out those changes; and, although it may not always be possible to distinguish such of them as may be of Mahometan origin, I shall endeavour to confine my account to those features, whether in religion, government, or manners, which still characterise the Hindus.
I shall preserve the same order as in the Code, and shall commence with the present state of the classes.
It is, perhaps, in the division and employment of the classes that the greatest alterations have been made since Menu.
Those of Cshetrya and Veisya, perhaps even of Sudra, are alleged by the Bramins to be extinct; a decision which is by no means acquiesced in by those immediately concerned. The Rajputs still loudly assert the purity of their descent from the Cshetryas, and some of the industrious classes claim the same relation to the Veisyas. The Bramins, however, have been almost universally successful, so far as to exclude the other classes from access to the Vedas, and to confine all learning, human and divine, to their own body.
The Bramins themselves, although they have preserved their own lineage undisputed, have, in a great measure, departed from the rules and practice of their predecessors. In some particulars they are more strict than formerly, being denied the use of animal food308, and restrained from intermarriages
with the inferior classes; but in most respects their practice is greatly relaxed. The whole of the fourfold division of their life, with all the restraints imposed on students, hermits, and abstracted devotees, is now laid aside as regards the community; though individuals, at their choice, may still adopt some one of the modes of life which formerly were to be gone through in turn by all.
Bramins now enter into service, and are to be found in all trades and professions. The portion of them supported by charity, according to the original system, is quite insignificant in proportion to the whole. It is common to see them as husbandmen, and, still more, as soldiers; and even of those trades which are expressly forbidden to them under severe penalties, they only scruple to exercise the most degraded, and in some places not even those309. In the south of India, however, their peculiar secular occupations are those connected with writing and public business. From the minister of state down to the village accountant, the greater number of situations of this sort are in their hands, as is all interpretation of the Hindu law, a large share of the ministry of religion, and many employments (such as farmers of the revenue, &c.), where a knowledge of writing and of business is required.
In the parts of Hindostan where the Mogul
system was fully introduced, the use of the Persian language has thrown public business into the hands of Mussulmans and Cayets310. Even in the Nizam’s territories in the Deckan the same cause has in some degree diminished the employment of the Bramins; but still they must be admitted to have everywhere a more avowed share in the government than in the time of Menu’s Code, when one Bramin counsellor, together with the judges, made the whole of their portion in the direct enjoyment of power.
It might be expected that this worldly turn of their pursuits would deprive the Bramins of some part of their religious influence; and accordingly it is stated by a very high authority311 that (in the provinces on the Ganges, at least) they are null as a hierarchy, and as a literary body few and little countenanced. Even in the direction of the consciences of families and of individuals they have there been supplanted by Gosayens and other monastic orders312.
Yet even in Bengal they appear still to be the objects of veneration and of profuse liberality to the laity313. The ministry of most temples, and the conduct of religious ceremonies, must still remain with them; and in some parts of India no diminution
whatever can be perceived in their spiritual authority. Such is certainly the case in the Maratta country, and would appear to be so likewise in the west of Hindostan314. The temporal influence derived from their numbers, affluence, and rank, subsists in all parts; but, even where the Bramins have retained their religious authority, they have lost much of their popularity. This seems to be particularly the case among the Rajputs315, and is still more so among the Marattas, who have not forgiven their being supplanted in the government of their country by a class whom they regard as their inferiors in the military qualities which alone, in their estimation, entitle men to command.
The two lowest classes that existed in Menu’s time are now replaced by a great number of casts of mixed, and sometimes obscure, descent, who, nevertheless, maintain their divisions with greater strictness than the ancient classes were accustomed to do, neither eating together, nor intermarrying, nor partaking in common rites. In the neighbourhood of Pima, where they are probably not particularly numerous, there are about 150 different casts316. These casts, in many cases, coincide with trades; the goldsmiths forming one cast, the carpenters
another, &c. This is conformable to Menu, who assigns to each of the mixed classes an hereditary occupation.
The enforcement of the rules of cast is still strict, but capricious. If a person of low cast were to step on the space of ground cleared out by one of the higher classes for cooking, the owner would immediately throw away his untasted meal, even if he had not the means of procuring another.
The loss of cast is faintly described by saying that it is civil death. A man not only cannot inherit, nor contract, nor give evidence, but he is excluded from all the intercourse of private life, as well as from the privileges of a citizen. He must not be admitted into his father’s house; his nearest relations must not communicate with him; and he is deprived of all the consolations of religion in this life, and all hope of happiness in that which is to follow. Unless, however, cast be lost for an enormous offence, or for long continued breach of rules, it can always be regained by expiation; and the means of recovering it must be very easy, for the effects of the loss of it are now scarcely observable. It occurs, no doubt, and prosecutions are not unfrequent in our courts for unjust exclusion from cast; but in a long residence in India I do not remember ever to have met with or heard of an individual placed in the circumstances which I have described.
The greatest change of all is, that there no longer exists a servile class. There are still praedial
slaves in the south of India, and some of the mountain and forest districts elsewhere. These may possibly be the remains of the ancient Sudras, but in other parts of the country all classes are free. Domestic slaves form no exception, being individuals of any class reduced by particular circumstances to bondage.
Though scrupulous genealogists dispute the existence of pure Sudras at the present day, yet many descriptions of people are admitted to be such even by the Bramins. The whole of the Marattas, for instance, belong to that class. The proper occupation of a Sudra is now thought to be agriculture; but he is not confined to that employment, for many are soldiers; and the Cayets, who have been mentioned as rivalling the Bramins in business and every thing connected with the pen, are (in Bengal at least) pure Sudras, to whom their profession has descended from ancient times317.
The institution of casts, though it exercises a most pernicious influence on the progress of the nation, has by no means so great an effect in obstructing the enterprise of individuals as European writers are apt to suppose. There is, indeed, scarcely any part of the world where changes of condition are so sudden and so striking as in India318.
A new cast may be said to have been introduced by the establishment of the monastic orders.
The origin of these communities can only be touched on as a matter of speculation.
By the rules of Menu’s Code, a Bramin in the fourth stage of his life, after having passed through a period of solitude and mortification as an anchoret319, is released from all formal observances, and permitted to devote his time to contemplation. It is probable that persons so situated might assemble for the purpose of religious discussion, and that men of superior endowments to the rest might collect a number of hearers, who would live around them without forming any religious community. Such, at least, was the progress from single monks to cenobites, among the early Christians. The assemblies of these inquirers might in time be attended by disciples, who, though not Bramins, were of the classes to whom the study of theology was permitted, each, however, living independently, according to the practice of his own class. This would seem to be the stage to which
these religious institutions had attained in the time of Alexander, though there are passages in the early Greek writers from which it might be inferred that they had advanced still further towards the present model of regular monastic orders320. Unless that evidence be thought sufficient, we have no means of conjecturing at what period those assemblages formed themselves into religious communities, subject to rules of their own, distinct from those of their respective classes. The earliest date to which the foundation of any monastic order can be traced in the Hindu books is the eighth century of our aera; and few of those now in existence are older than the fourteenth321. Some orders are still composed of Bramins alone, and a few among them may be regarded as the representatives of the original societies adverted to in the last page; but the distinguishing peculiarity of the great majority of the orders is, that all distinctions of cast are levelled on admission. Bramins break their sacerdotal thread; and Cshetryas, Veisyas, and Sudras renounce their own class on entering an order, and all become equal members of their new community. This bold innovation is supposed
by Professor Wilson to have been adopted about the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth century.
The Hindu orders do not present the same regular aspect as similar fraternities in Europe, and do not so easily furnish marked characteristics to distinguish them from the rest of mankind or from each other. There is not even a general name for the class, though that of Gosayen (which, in strictness, should be confined to one subdivision) is usually applied to the whole. They can all be recognised by their dress, as all wear some part of their clothes (generally the turban and scarf) of a dirty orange colour, except a few, who go quite naked; all are bound by some vows; and all accept (though all do not solicit) charity.
These are, perhaps, the only particulars which can be asserted of them all; but by far the greater number have many other features in common. An order generally derives its character from a particular spiritual instructor, whose doctrines it maintains, and by whose rules of life the members are bound. Many of these founders of orders have been likewise founders of sects; for which reason, the tenets of Gosayens are seldom purely orthodox. They vary greatly in numbers, some being confined to a small knot of votaries in one part of the country, and others spread in numbers over all India.
Most of them possess convents, to which, in some cases, landed property is attached. They
derive an additional income from the contribution’s of devout persons, from money collected by begging, and, in many cases, from trade, which is often carried on openly, but more frequently in a covert manner. These convents are all under a mohant (or abbot) who is generally elected by his own community or by the other mohants of the order; but who is sometimes hereditary, and often named by his predecessor. Admission into an order is not given until after a probation of a year or two. The novice is, in a manner, adopted by a particular instructor, or guru, who has often several such disciples; all subject, as well as the guru himself, to the head of the convent. One order in Bengal admits of males and females living in one convent, but under strict vows of chastity.
Many of the Gosayens who belong to convents nevertheless spend much of their lives in wandering about, and subsist by begging. Other Gosayens lead an entirely erratic life; in some cases still subordinate to mohants, and, in others, quite independent and free from all rules, except such as they impose on themselves. But among these last are to be found some of the most austere religionists; those, in particular, who retire to the heart of forests, and live entirely unconnected with mankind, exposed to the chance of famine, if no charitable person should think of them, and to still greater danger from the beasts of prey that alone inhabit those wild and solitary tracts322.
Few of the orders are under “very strict vows; and they have no attendance on chapels, general fasts, vigils, or other monkish observances. Most are bound to celibacy; but many allow their members to marry, and to reside with their families like laymen. One order, particularly devoted to Crishna in his infant form, hold it to be their duty to indulge in costly apparel and choice food, and to partake of every description of innocent enjoyment; and these tenets are so far from lowering their character that their influence with their followers is unbounded, and they are amply supplied with the means of living according to their liberal notions of religious duty.
Some orders, however, differ widely from these last: such are those of which individuals hold up one or both arms until they become fixed in that position, and until the nails grow through the hands; those who lie on beds of spikes, who vow perpetual silence, and who expose themselves to other voluntary mortifications.
Some few affect every sort of filth and pollution, and extort alms by the disgust which their presence creates, or by gashing their limbs with knives.
Others, as has been said, go naked, and many nearly so. Of this description are the Nagas, who serve as mercenary soldiers, often to the number of several thousands, under their own leaders.
These people do not profess to take arms for the advancement of their religion, but serve any chief for hire; and are, in general, men of violent and profligate habits, but with the reputation of desperate courage. Their naked limbs smeared with ashes, their shaggy beards, and their matted hair, artificially increased and twisted round the head, give a striking appearance to these martial devotees. When not hired, they have been known to wander about the country, in large bands, plundering and levying contributions. In former days the British possessions were more than once threatened or invaded by such marauders.
But these armed monks sometimes assemble in great numbers, without being formed into bands or associated for military service; and the meeting of large bodies of opposite sects has often led to sanguinary conflicts. At the great fair at Hardwar, in 1760, an affray, or rather a battle, took place between the Nagas of Siva and those of Vishnu, in which it was stated, on the spot, that 18,000 persons were left dead on the field323. The amount must, doubtless, have been absurdly exaggerated, but it serves to give an idea of the numbers engaged.
One description of Gosayens, of the sect of Siva, are Yogis (see p. 224.); and attempt, by meditation, and by holding in the breath, and other mummeries, to procure a union with the Divinity. The lowest of this class pretend to work miracles; and some are even professed mountebanks, who go
about the country with monkeys and musical instruments, and amuse the populace with juggling and other tricks of dexterity. Another sort is much more remarkable. These profess to be enthusiastic devotees, and practise their imposture, not for money, but to increase their reputation for sanctity. Among them are persons who manage, by some contrivance hitherto unexplained, to remain seated, for many minutes, in the air, at as great a distance from the ground as four feet, with no other apparent support but what they derive from slightly resting on a sort of crutch with the back of one hand, the fingers of which are all the time employed in counting their beads324.
Among the Gosayens there are, or have been, some few learned men: many are decent and inoffensive religionists, and many respectable merchants; but many, also, are shameless and importunate beggars, and worthless vagabonds of all descriptions, attracted to the order by the idle and wandering life which it admits of. In general, the followers of Vishnu are the most respectable, and those of Siva the most infected by the offensive qualities of the class. It is to the credit of the good sense of the Hindus that these devotees fall off in public esteem exactly in proportion to the extravagance and eccentricity of their observances.
The veneration of some of the Vaishnava sectarians for their mendicant directors is carried to an almost incredible pitch. In Bengal, some of them consider their spiritual guide as of superior importance, and entitled to greater regard than their deity himself325. The want of a common head to the Hindu religion accounts for the lax discipline of many orders, and the total absence of rules among single Beiragis and Yogis, and such lawless assemblages as those formed by the military Nagas.
The same circumstance has preserved the independence of these orders, and prevented their falling, like the monks of Europe, under the authority of the ecclesiastical body; and to their independence is to be ascribed the want of concord between them and the sacerdotal class. The rivalry thus engendered might have produced more serious effects; but the influence which the Bramins derive from their possession of the literature and law of their nation has had an operation on the orders, as it has on other Hindus; and, in recognising the Code of Menu, and the religious traditions of their country, they could not withhold their acknowledgment of the high station to which the class had raised itself by the authority of those writings.
308. Some casts of Bramins in Hindostan eat certain descriptions of flesh that has been offered in sacrifice. In such circumstances flesh is everywhere lawful food; but, in the Deckan, this sort of sacrifice is so rare that probably few Bramins ever witnessed it.
309. Ward, vol. i. p. 87.
310. A cast of Sudras; see page 108. of this volume.
311. Professor Wilson, Asiatic Researches, vol. xvii. pp. 310, 311.
312. Ibid. vol. xvii. p. 311.
313. Ward’s Hindoos, vol. i. p. 68–71.
314. Tod’s Rajasthan, vol. i. pp. 511, 512.
315. Ibid.; and see also Malcolm’s Central India, vol. ii. p. 124.
316. Steele, Summary of the Laws and Customs of Hindoo Casts, preface, p. xi.
317. Colebrooke, Asiatic Researches, vol. v. p. 58.
318. The last Peshwa had, at different times, two prime ministers: one of them had been either an officiating priest or a singer in a temple (both degrading employments), and the other was a Sudra, and originally a running footman. The Raja of Jeipur’s prime minister was a barber. The founder of the reigning family of Holcar was a goatherd; and that of Sindia, a menial servant; and both were Sudras. The great family of Rastia, in the Maratta country, first followed the natural occupations of Bramins, then became great bankers, and, at length, military commanders. Many similar instances of elevation might be quoted. The changes of professions in private life are less observable; but the first good Hindu miniature painter, in the European manner, was a blacksmith.
319. See p. 27. of this volume.
320. See Appendix III. It appears, in the same place, that these assemblies included persons performing the penances enjoined to Bramins of the third stage of life (or anchorets), who, by the strict rule laid down for them, were bound to live in solitude and silence.
321. It may, perhaps, be construed into an indication of the existence of such orders in Menu’s time, that in Book V. v. 89. funeral rites are denied to heretics, who wear a dress of religion unauthorised by the Veda.
322. Mr. Ward on the Hindoos, vol. iii. p. 342.; where he states that he was informed, on a spot on Sager island, that six of these hermits had been carried off by tigers in the preceding three months.
323. Captain Raper, Asiatic Researches, vol. ii. p. 155.
324. The most authentic account of one of these is quoted by Professor Wilson, Asiatic Researches, vol. xvii. p. 186., from a statement by an eye-witness in the Asiatic Monthly Journal for March, 1829.
325. Professor Wilson, Asiatic Researches, vol. xvi. p. 119. The above account is chiefly from Professor Wilson’s essay in vols. xvi. and xvii. of the Asiatic Researches; with some particulars from Ward’s Hindoos, and some from the account of the Gosayens in the Appendix to Steele’s Summary. See Appendix, on “Changes in Cast.”
This collection transcribed by Chris Gage