Vincent Arthur Smith.

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sadness and lost all desire for the delights of a court. He
became convinced that existence is misery leading to old age,
disease, and death, and sought an escape from the endless circle
of rebirth. Sitting under a tree near Gaya, he tried to win
salvation by the severest penance, but found no peace. At
last he saw the light, put away penance as vanity, and, going
to Benares, preached to a few disciples his three great prin-
ciples that ' all the constituents of being are transitory, are
misery, and are lacking in an ego, or permanent self (atman) '.
His philosophy was based on those doctrines, but as a moralist
he taught a lofty system of practical ethics, impressing on men
the necessity for personal striving after holiness, and laying
special stress on the virtues of truthfulness, reverence to
superiors, and respect for animal life. Like Mahavira, he
wandered for the rest of his life with his disciples through
Magadha and the neighbouring kingdoms, and, after a ministry
of forty-five years, passed away at the age of eighty at Kusina-
gara, a small town probably situated near Tribeni Ghat; at the
confluence of the Little Rapti with the Gandak. The date of
his death is uncertain, but there is good reason for believing
that the event happened in or about 487 B.C., possibly four or
five years later.

Diffusion of Buddhism. From these small beginnings arose
the great Buddhist religion, which, after many ages of success
in India, slowly died out, and almost completely disappeared
from the land of its birth about seven centuries ago. But
it still flourishes abundantly in Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Nepal,
Tibet, Mongolia, China, and Japan. The well-organized order


of monks and nuns (sangha) was the most effective instrument
in the spread of this religion, which was much helped by the
powerful patronage of Asoka.

Buddhism as a religion. Gautama, the Buddha, can hardly
be said to have had or to have taught a religion, properly so
called. He had a philosophy, the nature of which has been
indicated above, although it is impossible here to bring out the
full meaning of his principles. He also taught, as others had
taught before him, a simple, easily understood dharma or rule
of life. That rule required his disciples to aim at purity in
deed, word, and thought ; observing ten commandments
namely not to kill, steal, or commit adultery ; not to lie,
invent evil reports about other people, indulge in fault-finding
or profane language ; to abstain from covetousness, and
hatred, and to avoid ignorance. But he did not profess to
expound the relation of God to man in fact, without denying
the existence of a Supreme Deity, he ignored it. It was the
devotion of his followers to the person of Buddha which made
Buddhism a religion capable of warming the hearts of men and
women. That ardent personal devotion developed early and
ended in practically making Buddha a god, instead of a mere
dead moralist and philosopher. The primitive Buddhism, which
ignored the Divine, was known in later times as the Hina-yana,
or Lesser Vehicle of Salvation, while the modified religion,
which recognized the value of prayer and regarded Buddha
as the Saviour of mankind, was called Maha-yana, or the
Greater Vehicle. Siam, Ceylon, and Burma mostly, but by
no means exclusively, follow the primitive Hina-yana doctrine ;
the other Buddhist countries have adopted the Maha-yana
in diverse varieties, some of which in both doctrine and ritual
closely resemble certain forms of Christianity. The Pala
kings of Bengal, from the eighth to the twelfth century, also
adhered to Maha-yana Buddhism, which, as practised in
Bengal and Bihar, was not always easy to distinguish from

Causes of decay of Buddhism. The decay, like the growth,


of a religion is a complicated matter not to be described or
explained in a few sentences. But we may note that the decay
of Buddhism was extremely gradual, spread over many cen-
turies, and that it was not in any large measure the result
of active persecution. Undoubtedly, certain kings from time
to time did treat Buddhists with cruelty, but deeper causes
were at work. The principal cause, perhaps, was the con-
tinuous hostility of the Brahmans, who had never lost their
influence in India throughout the ages. We can see that the
Gupta period was marked by a strong Hindu or Brahmanical
revival which was carried further by Kumarila-bhatta in the
eighth century (see post, chapter vii). In the end, the Brahmans
defeated both Buddhism and Jainism. The Muhammadan
conquest at the end of the twelfth century happened to include
South Bihar, the province in which Buddhism then had its
strongest hold. Muslim violence at that time had much to do
with the almost sudden and complete extinction of Buddhism
in India proper. The corruptions introduced into the Saiigha,
or monastic order, by the growth of wealth in the monasteries,
no doubt had effect in lessening popular respect for the Bud-
dhist teachers. The foreign settlers who entered India in large
numbers during the fifth and sixth centuries were not much
attracted by Buddhist teaching, while they found it easy to
accept more or less fully the Hindu rule of life, and so became
converted into Hindu castes, guided by Brahmans. That
process will be discussed in chapter viii.

Jainism confined to India. Jainism never attempted distant
conquests. Although it became powerful in the south as well
as in the north for several centuries, it never spread to any
considerable extent beyond the limits of India, and now tends
to decline rather than increase in influence. Its followers
number about a million and a quarter, and are mostly found
among the trading classes of Western India and Rajputana.

Dravidian resistance to the Aryan religions. The three
northern religions Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism had to
fight a hard fight against the native ' devil-worship ' of the


Dravidian or Tamil nations in the south, who long resisted
Aryan teaching in any form. But ultimately the resistance
of the southerners was overcome, and, after the decay of
Buddhism and Jainism, Hinduism emerged triumphant, India
from end to end becoming the ' land of the Brahmans 'and
the home of caste, the specially Brahman institution.

Caste. The basis of Hindu society and of Hindu ethics or
morals is the institution known to Europeans as ' caste ' or
' the caste system '. The word caste is Portuguese ; the
thing is so peculiarly Indian that it cuts off India from the
rest of the world by a barrier far more impassable than deserts,
seas, or mountains.

In many countries, ancient and modern, distinctions of
classes, often hereditary, may be observed, which more or less
resemble the Indian institution of caste. But the resemblance
is never very close.

India alone presents now, and has presented for thousands
of years, the spectacle of hundreds or thousands of distinct com-
munities each kept apart from its neighbours by strict rules
regulating marriage, diet, and every detail of life. Moreover,
all these thousands of sections agree in regarding the people
of the rest of the world who are not Hindus as mere mlecchas
that is to say, outcasts and barbarians. Even kings and
viceroys of foreign race are so regarded from the caste point
of view.

Origins of the institution. Much ink has been spilled in
trying to find the origins of the Hindu caste system and in
offering explanations of its unique nature. The results have
not been wholly satisfactory. In fact, the subject is too
intricate to admit of summary disposal in a few words, and
any writer who professes to state in two or three sentences the
origins and nature of Indian caste misleads his readers. I will
not attempt to perform the impossible, and must content
myself with certain brief observations, true as far as they go,
which may help the junior student.

We know for certain that the system of castes was well


established in its essential features two thousand four hundred
years ago, and consequently that its beginnings must go back to
a time many centuries earlier.

It is clear that one reason why the system developed in
India so much more fully than elsewhere was the physical
isolation of the country (ante. p. 16), which forced its in-
habitants to work out for themselves their own rule of life
(dharma). Such isolation of the whole country was repeated
on a smaller scale in the interior, where each village community
stood for itself. The wide difference in feeling and habits
between the Indo- Aryans and the earlier ' aboriginal ' in-
habitants of other races had a large share in laying the founda-
tion for caste distinctions. The formation of separate castes
was helped by diversities in occupation, language, religion, and
place of residence. Some castes are in the main trade-guilds,
while some are almost identical with religious sects (sam-
pradaya). The Brahmans, the most intellectual class of the
Indo -Aryans, established their supremacy over Indian minds
at a very early date. Those Brahmans had extremely strict
notions about ceremonial purity, and an intense horror of defile-
ment. The respect for ceremonial purity, with the corresponding
horror of defilement, is really the essence of the caste sentiment.
Everybody knows that 'loss of caste ' is always due to defilement
in some shape or other. The Brahmans set the ideal of dharma,
or duty, and all other classes of the population tried to live up
to that ideal. The nearer a caste conies to the Brahman ideal
the higher it ranks, while the farther from that ideal a caste
remains, the lower it is in the social scale. So much must
suffice concerning the origins and nature of the caste system. 1

The four varnas. Brahman theory regards Hindus as
divided into four varnas, or groups of castes, according to

1 In Southern India the castes mostly represent either original tribes or
colonies of foreign settlers. Their formation does not depend much on
occupation. A Vellala, for instance, may follow any decent occupation,
and the members of the Vellala caste can do nearly everything needed to
keep a village community going.


occupation. The first varna, is that of the Brahmans, the
learned, literary class, qualified to direct religious ceremonies
and to teach and interpret the sacred scriptures. The second
varna is that of the Kshatriyas, whose business was war and
government, with the help of Brahman ministers. The third
varna is that of the Vaisyas, tradesmen and agriculturists.
The fourth is that of the Sudras, the common folk, who were
expected to be content with doing service to their betters, the
three higher varnas, called ' twice-born ' (dwija), in virtue of
certain ceremonies, not permissible for Sudras.

Brahman authors expressed the relative rank of the varnas
by saying that the Brahmans proceed from the mouth, the
Kshatriyas from the arms, the Vaisyas from the thighs, and
the Sudras from the feet of Brahma, the Creator.

Early Buddhist writers sought to exalt the Kshatriyas to the
foremost rank, speaking sometimes of ' base-born Brahmans ' ;
but in the end the Brahmans won, and now their claim to the
first place is acknowledged by all or nearly all Hindus. 1

It is a mistake to translate varna by the word caste, and
to say, as is often said, that originally there were four castes
in India. Each varna always included a multitude of separate
castes (jati). The varnas are simply a theoretical grouping of
pre-existing castes. Whether a particular caste (jati) should be
included or not in a particular varna is a matter for arbitrary
judgement. For example, the modern Kayasths claim to be
Kshatriyas, while other people regard them as Sudras. The
terms Vaisya and Sudra are not in ordinary use in Northern
India, and are to be met with only in books and in discussions
about the rank of certain castes. If any province were to be
taken, no two people would agree as to the list of castes in it
to be assigned to each varna. The number of separate castes
in the whole of India is believed to exceed three thousand. 2

1 Exceptions are the Lingayat sect in the south, and to some extent the
Jats in the north.

2 The word varna primarily means ' colour ' ? but no one could venture
to affirm that the four varnas, in the sense of caste groups, are to be actually


The good and evil of caste. The division of the Hindu popu-
lation of about two hundred millions into thousands of separate
caste compartments, the extreme reverence paid to Brahmans,
and the corresponding degradation of the lowest castes, are
facts which have obvious inconveniences and disadvantages.
The breaking up of the people into so many distinct blocks
prevents or obstructs the growth of patriotic or national feeling,
checks combination in social and public life, excites sectional
jealousies, and is hostile to all modern democratic notions.
Hinduism does not profess to regard men as equal. A Brahman
cannot possibly look on a Chamar as equal to himself, and can
hardly help feeling a certain amount of arrogance. The position
of the low castes is depressed by the servility required from
them. The inconveniences resulting from the strict enforcement
of the rules concerning ceremonial purity are felt daily, and
are a serious obstruction to the conduct of business on modern
lines. Caste is an old-world institution, constantly clashing
with the ideas and requirements of the twentieth century.

On the other hand, Hindu society is built on caste, and if
the foundation be dug away the whole structure must fall.
The system has succeeded in holding Hindu society together
throughout long ages of despotism, each caste being a power-
ful organization hard to crush. However deficient the mem-
bers of any one caste may be in sympathy for outsiders, and
however devoid of the feeling of general brotherhood, encour-
aged in different degrees by the Christian and Muslim religions,
the caste-followers at any rate hang together and support each
other in all sorts of ways. Caste is an extremely conservative
institution, and has done much to preserve Hindu tradition.
It has also secured the hereditary passing on of arts and
sciences from father to son. But it is not easy to reconcile
it with the rapid progress in material arts and appliances
which marks the present age.

distinguished by four different colouru. When a Hindu author assigns the
colours white, yellow, red, and black, to the four several varnas, he is merely
indulging his fancy without regard to facts.


Ethics or morals. The caste system hinders the acceptance
of any universal doctrine of morals. Each caste is a law unto
itself, and Hindus readily admit that actions very wrong for
one man may be quite right for another. The Bhagavad Grtd
lays down the Hindu view plainly :

' Better one's own duty (dharma), though destitute of merit,
than the duty of another well discharged. Better death in the
discharge of one's own duty : the duty of another is full of
terror ' (iii. 35). The sentiment is repeated in a later passage,
with the addition :

' He who takes action (karma) in accordance with his own
nature (bhava) does not incur sin ' (xviii. 47). Each caste is
looked on as a separate species of mankind, with its own nature,
producing action in accord with that nature.

The future of caste. Many changes in the working of the
institution have occurred during the long course of ages. For
example, the intermarriages between different varnas, as
between Brahmans and Kshatriyas, which were not uncommon
even in the early centuries of the Christian era, are no longer
permitted. The pressure of practical convenience often com-
pels people to evade or defy old-fashioned restrictions. Every-
body in India knows how railways, waterworks, and other
modern inventions have modified the rules about defilement.
But in spite of all changes on the surface, the institution
remains substantially what it was in the days of Alexander
the Great. So far as I can see, the abolition of caste in
India is impracticable, even if it be granted that the evil of
the system outweighs the good. Reformers must be content,
for many centuries to come, to accept the existence of caste as
a fact and make the best of it, by bringing the practice of
caste dharma into harmony with the conditions of modern life,
so far as may be. The British Government acts steadily on
that principle. When the authorities thoughtlessly have
violated it, as at Vellore in 1806, and in the matter of the
greased cartridges in 1857, grave trouble has resulted.

The four stages of a Brahman's life. In theory every


Brahman was supposed to divide his life into four stages
(dsrama) : first, for many years as a student ; secondly, as
a married householder ; thirdly, as a hermit in the forest ;
and fourthly, as a religious mendicant or beggar. It is hardly
necessary to add that this theory was never fully acted on,
and that it is wholly unworkable in these days.

Absorbent power of the caste system. The rigid caste system
as it exists at the present day takes notice of Hindus only ;
all outsiders, native or foreign, high or low, being regarded
as mlecchas, or casteless people. Nevertheless, the system
has always shown a wonderful power of absorption, and almost
all foreigners resident permanently in India have yielded to its
seductions. Yavanas, Sakas, Hunas, and many other swarms
of foreign immigrants have disappeared, losing their separate
existence in the sea of caste, either through being admitted
into old castes by the help of legal fictions, or through the
formation of new castes. Even Islam, the principles of which
are utterly hostile to caste distinctions, has been unable to
resist the pressure, and multitudes of Indian Muhammadans,
like their Hindu neighbours, are fast bound in the trammels
of caste, although they do not actually become Hindus, as
the descendants of earlier invaders did.

The ascetic orders and caste. The ascetic orders, whether
Jain, Buddhist, or orthodox Hindu, usually have been and still
are willing to admit to membership persons of almost any
caste, and to ignore distinctions of birth among the brethren.
Some writers erroneously have supposed Buddhism to have
been a revolt against caste, but as a matter of fact the lay
Buddhist retained his caste, just as the Jain layman does
now. It is, however, true that the free offer of the way of
salvation, made to all comers by both Buddhism and Jainism,
clashed with the Brahman doctrine that the teaching of the
highest truths should be reserved for the highest castes, and so
far both religions diminished the importance of caste dis-
tinctions. But neither Mahavlra nor Gautama sought to
abolish caste.


Materials exist. In all countries the materials for exact history of remote
ages are scanty. People used to think that practically no such materials
existed in India, but they were mistaken. Modern research has disclosed
the hidden sources of history, and experiment has proved that a fairly
consecutive narrative of the story of India before the Muhammadan inva-
sions can be written.

Official annals lost : but traces remain. Although the Brahmans who
composed most of the Sanskrit books did not care to write formal literary
histories, we must not fancy that the princes of the olden time neglected to
record their own lineage and deeds. On the contrary, every Raja took
pains to keep up a record of his genealogy and an exact chronicle of his
doings. Owing to the frequent wars and revolutions which have desolated
India, those old official records have disappeared almost everywhere. Some,
however, have been preserved in Rajputana, and Colonel Tod has shown, in
his immortal Annals of Bajasthan (1829), the good use which can be made
of the tribal chronicles kept up by official bards. Fragments of the ancient
court genealogies and annals obviously are preserved in the prefaces to many
inscriptions. In a few cases the body of the inscription recites historical
events in some detail. The most notable examples of such documents,
perhaps, are the fourth -century inscription of Samudra-gupta at Allahabad
and the Tanjore inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola at the beginning of the
eleventh century. The lists of dynasties in the Puranas must have come
from the same source, the official records of the various states. Although
most of those lists have become corrupted in course of time, a few cf them
are accurate and trustworthy.

Inscriptions. Inscriptions, even when quite short, are often invaluable
for fixing dates and the order of succession of kings. They also supply
information about details of all sorts.

Coins. The legends on corns supplement the evidence of the inscriptions,
and when interpreted by skilled experts, can be forced to yield a surprising
amount of information, concerning both political and artistic history.

Tradition in literature. Ancient tradition is recorded in literary works
of many kinds. The Buddhist, Jain, and Brahmanical books, intended
primarily for religious purposes, are full of references and allusions capable
of being used by the historian. Something can be got even out of the


grammarians' works, and several plays, notably the Mudra-Rakshasa, throw
much light on political and social history.

Buildings and works of art. The testimony of inscriptions, coins, and
recorded tradition is supported and amplified by the critical study of the
remains of ancient buildings and works of art. Careful examination of the
order in which the layers of ruins of different ages lie in excavations on old
sites is a great help in fixing the dates of remote events.

Histories. More or less formal Hindu histories are not wholly wanting.
The earliest work which can be so classed is, I think, the Harsha-charita
of Bana, written in the seventh century, to celebrate the deeds of King
Harsha of Kanauj. Works of a similar character half history and half
romance recount the doings of certain kings of Bengal and the South.
The Sanskrit book which comes nearest to the European notion of a regular
history is the Rajatarangim of Kalhana, a metrical chronicle of Kashmir,
written in the twelfth century by the son of a minister of the Raja. The
Pali chronicles of Ceylon record versions of early Indian traditions, which
deserve consideration, and many other books presenting a certain amount
of genuine history mixed with much fanciful legend exist in the literatures
of Tibet, Nepal, Assam, and other border countries.

Summary of indigenous sources. Taken as a whole, the sources of the
history of Hindu India, available in India itself, are fairly copious. They
may be summed up as, (1) Inscriptions (epigraphic); (2) Coins (numismatic);
(3) Buildings and art (archaeological) ; (4) Tradition, recorded in literature,
and (5) Histories, more or less regular, and to some extent contemporary
with the events narrated.

Foreign authors. A sixth source is opened up by the writings of foreigners,
whose works have proved specially valuable for fixing exact dates. It is
difficult, for many reasons which cannot be explained here, to fix dates
from purely Hindu evidence. The foreigners, making use of the known
chronology of their own countries, often settle problems otherwise almost
insoluble. For example, when we know that Chandragupta Maurya was
identical with Sandrak ottos, the contemporary of Alexander of Macedon,
we know approximately when Chandragupta lived, because there is no doubt
as to the dates of Alexander. Many other examples might be cited. The
foreign authors who help the Indian historian are chiefly the Greeks and
Chinese. Some of those authors travelled in India, while others compiled
books from the notes of travellers. The Roman authors, who sometimes
wrote in the Latin language, usually copied from the Greeks. The Greek
notices of India begin with Herodotus and Ktesias in the fifth century B. c.
We have next the evidence of the companions of Alexander the Great, late
in the fourth century B. c., then the testimony of Megasthenes about 300 B. c.,
and the observations of the author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea,
or ' Voyage round the Arabian Sea ', about A. D. 80. Some of the works
referred to are preserved only in fragments.

Chinese evidence. The Chinese evidence is contained both in formal


histories and in the accounts written by travellers, especially Buddhist
pilgrims. China possesses an immense historical literature of great antiquity.

Online LibraryVincent Arthur SmithThe Oxford student's history of India → online text (page 4 of 27)