CASTE AND THE WOMEN OF INDIA

Everybody who keeps in touch with the slowly changing social conditions in India is convinced that the caste, the most important fetich of the Hindus, is gradually losing its hold, particularly upon the upper classes, because they cannot adjust it to the requirements of modern civilization and to the foreign customs they imitate and value so highly. Very high authorities have predicted in my hearing that caste will be practically obsolete within the next fifty years, and entirely disappear before the end of the century, provided the missionaries and other reformers will let it alone and not keep it alive by controversy. It is a sacred fetich, and when it is attacked the loyal Hindu is compelled to defend and justify it, no matter what his private opinion of its practicability and advantages may be, but, if foreigners will ignore it, the progressive, cultured Hindus will themselves discard it. The influences of travel, official and commercial relations, and social intercourse with foreigners, personal ambition for preferment in the military and the civil service, the adoption of modern customs and other agencies are at work undermining the institution, and when a Hindu finds that its laws interfere with his comfort or convenience, he is very certain to ignore them. The experience of the Maharaja of Jeypore, told in a previous chapter, is not unusual. His case is only one of thousands, for nearly every native prince and wealthy Hindu has broken caste again and again without suffering the slightest disadvantage, which has naturally made them indifferent.

Travelers see very little of this peculiar institution, and it is so complicated that they cannot comprehend it without months of study. They notice that half the men they meet on the streets have odd looking signs upon their foreheads. Ryas, our bearer, calls them "god marks," but they are entirely artificial, and indicate the particular deity which the wearer is in the habit of worshiping, as well as the caste to which he belongs. A white triangle means Krishna, and a red circle means Siva - the two greatest gods - or vice versa, I have forgotten which, and Hindus who are inclined to let their light shine before men spread on these symbols with great care and regularity. At every temple, every market place, at the places where Hindus go to bathe, at the railway stations, public buildings, in the bazaars, and wherever else multitudes are accustomed to gather, you will find Brahmins squatting on a piece of matting behind trays covered with little bowls filled with different colored ochers and other paints. These men know the distinctive marks of all the castes, and for small fees paint the proper signs upon the foreheads of their patrons, who wear them with great pride. You frequently see them upon children also; and on holidays and religious anniversaries, when the people come out for pleasure, or during special ceremonials at their temples, nearly everybody wears a "god mark," just as he would wear a badge denoting his regiment and corps at a Grand Army reunion.

The more you study the question of caste the more confusing it becomes, but it is interesting and important because it is the peculiar institution of India and is not found in any other country in the world. The number of castes is almost infinite. The 200,000,000 or more Hindus in this empire are divided into a vast number of independent, well-organized and unchangeable groups, which are separated by wide differences, who cannot eat together or drink from the same vessel or sit at the same table or intermarry. There have been, and still are, eminent and learned philosophers and social scientists who admire caste as one of the highest agencies of social perfection, and they argue that it alone has prevented the people of India from relapsing into barbarism, but foreigners in general and Christian missionaries in particular take a very different view, and many thoughtful and patriotic Hindus publicly declare that it is the real and only cause of the wretched condition of their people and the greatest obstacle to their progress. Mr. Shoshee Chunder Dutt, a very learned Hindu and author of a standard book entitled "India, Past and Present," declares that "civilization has been brought to a standstill by its mischievous restrictions, and there is no hope of its being remedied until those restrictions are removed."

It is curious to learn that the word "caste" is not Hindu at all, but Portuguese, and that instead of being an ancient feature of the Hindu religion, it is comparatively a modern idea.

The first form of religion in India was the worship of nature, and the chief gods of the people were the sun, fire, water and other natural phenomena, which were interpreted to the ignorant masses by priests, who gradually developed what is now called Brahminism, and, in the course of time, for social reasons, divided the people into four classes: First, the Brahmins, which include the priestly, the literary and the ruling portions of the population; second, the Kshatryas, or warriors, who were like the knighthoods of Europe in the middle ages; then the Vaisyas, or landowners, the farming population, and those engaged in mercantile and manufacturing industries; and finally the Sudras, or servants who attended the other castes, toiled in the fields and did the heavy labor of the community.