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.

Gradually these grand divisions became divided into sections or social groups. Trades, professions, tribes and clans, and particularly those who worshiped the same god, naturally drifted together and were watchful of their mutual interests. As there are as many gods in the Hindu pantheon as there are inhabitants of India, these religious associations are very numerous. Occupation is not a sign of caste. Every caste, and particularly the Brahmins, have members in every possible occupation. Nearly every cook in India is a Brahmin, which is a matter of almost imperative necessity, because no man can partake of food cooked or even touched by persons of lower caste. The Brahmins are also more numerous than any other caste. According to the recent census they number 14,888,000, adult men only being counted. The soldier caste numbers more than 10,000,000, the farmer caste and the leather workers have nearly as many. Nearly 20 per cent of the population of India is included in those four castes, and there are forty or fifty sub-castes, each having more than 1,000,000 members.

There are more than 1,800 groups of Brahmins, who have become so numerous and so influential that they are found everywhere. The number in the public service is very large, representing about 35 per cent of the entire mass of employes of the government in every capacity and station, and they have the largest proportion of educated men. It is a popular delusion that every Brahmin is a priest, when the fact is that they are so numerous that not more than a small percentage is employed in religious functions. But for more than 2,000 years they have maintained their superiority unchallenged. This is not only due to their pretensions, but to their intellectual force. They have been the priests, the writers, the rulers, the legislators of all India, because of their force of character and mental attainments, and will always preserve their supremacy through the same forces that enabled them to acquire it.

The laws of caste, as explained by Mr. Shoshee Chunder Dutt, the Hindu writer referred to above, provide:

1. That individuals cannot be married who do not belong to the same caste.

2. That a man may not sit down to eat with another who is not of his own caste.

3. That his meals must be cooked either by persons of his own caste or a Brahmin.

4. That no man of an inferior caste is to touch his cooked rations, or the dishes in which they are served, or even to enter his cook room.

5. That no water or other liquid contaminated by the touch of a man of inferior caste can be made use of - rivers, tanks and other large sheets of water being, however, held to be incapable of defilement.

6. That articles of dry food, excepting rice, wheat, etc., do not become impure by passing through the hands of a man of inferior caste so long as they remain dry, but cannot be taken if they get wet or greased.

7. That certain prohibited articles, such as cows' flesh, pork, fowls, etc., are not to be taken.

8. That the ocean or any other of the boundaries of India cannot be crossed over.

The only acts which now lead to exclusion from castes are the following:

1. Embracing Christianity or Mohammedanism.

2. Going to Europe, America or any other foreign country.

3. Marrying a widow.

4. Throwing away the sacred thread.

5. Eating beef, pork or fowl.

6. Eating food cooked by a Mohammedan, Christian or low caste Hindu.

7. Officiating as priest in the house of a low caste Sudra.

8. By a female going away from home for an immoral purpose.

9. By a widow becoming pregnant.

When a Hindu is excluded from caste his friends, relatives and fellow townsmen refuse to partake of his hospitality; he is not invited to entertainments in their houses; he cannot obtain wives or husbands for his children; even his own married daughters cannot visit him without running the risk of being excluded from caste; his priest and even his barber and washerman refuse to serve him; his fellow caste men ostracize him so completely that they refuse to assist him even in sickness or at the funeral of a member of his household. In some cases the man excluded from caste is debarred from the public temples.

To deprive a man of the services of his barber and his washerman is becoming more difficult these days, but the other penalties are enforced with more or less rigor.

They tell us that foreigners cannot appreciate the importance of caste. Murray's guide book warns the traveler to remember that fact, and says that the religion of the Hindu amounts to little more than the fear of demons, of the loss of caste and of the priests. Demons have to be propitiated, the caste rules are strictly kept and the priests presented with gifts. Great care has to be taken not to eat food cooked by a man of inferior caste; food cooked in water must not be eaten together by people of different castes, and castes are entirely separated with regard to marriage and trade. A sacred thread of cotton is worn by the higher castes. Washing in the sacred rivers, particularly the Ganges, and especially at Allahabad, Benares, Hardwar and other exceptionally holy spots, is of efficacy in preserving caste and cleansing the soul of impurities.

"The traveler should remember," says the guide book, "that all who are not Hindus are outcasts, contact with whom may cause the loss of caste to a Hindu. He should not touch any cooking or water holding utensil belonging to a Hindu, nor disturb Hindus when at their meals; he should not molest cows, nor shoot any sacred animal, and should not pollute holy places by his presence if any objection is made. The most sacred of all animals is the cow, then the serpent, and then the monkey. The eagle is the attendant of Vishnu, the bull of Siva, the goose of Brahma, the elephant of Indra, the tiger of Durga, the buffalo of Rama, the rat of Ganesh, the ram of Agni, the peacock of Kartikkeya, the parrot of Kama (the god of love), the fish, the tortoise and boar are incarnations of Vishnu, and the crocodile, cat, dog, crow, many trees, plants, stones, rivers and tanks are sacred."

Nevertheless, Brahmins are very clever in dodging an issue when it is necessary for their convenience. For example, when a modern water supply was introduced for the first time into a city of India the problem arose, How could the Hindus use water that came from hydrants, in face of the law which prohibited them drinking it from vessels which may have been touched by people of another caste? After much reflection and discussion the pundits decided that the payment of water rates should be considered an atonement for violating the ordinances of their religion.

There has been some improvement in the condition of women in India, and it is due almost entirely to the Christian missionaries who have brought about reforms which could not have occurred otherwise, although, at the same time, the spirit of modern progress has not been without its influence upon the native families. Remarkable instances have occurred in which native women have attained distinction in literature, scholarship and science. Several have passed university entrance examinations; a few have obtained degrees. In 1903 there were 264 women in collegiate institutions throughout the empire, more than has ever been known before. There has been a gradual increase in their number. In 1893-4 there were only 108; two years later there were 110. In 1898-9 the number jumped to 174, and in 1900-1 it reached 205, hence you will see that the advance has been normal and regular and there have been no steps backward. The greatest progress has been in the southern part of the empire, where women are less secluded and the prejudice against their education is not so strong. Nevertheless 99 per cent of the women of India are absolutely illiterate, and among the total of 144,409,000 only 1,433,000 can read and write; 75 per cent of them can do no more. If a census were taken of those who can read and understand an ordinary novel or a book of travel the total would be less than 250,000, and counted among the literates are all the girls now in school who have advanced as far as the first reader.

In the United Provinces, the richest and proudest of India, where the arts and sciences have advanced quite rapidly among men, only 56,000 women out of a total of 23,078,000 can read and write, and that, as I said before, includes the girl children in the schools. In the Punjab Province, which lies in the north, out of a total of 12,369,000 women and girls only 42,000 can read and write and at least 50 per cent of them are under 12 years of age. The total number of girls now attending school in India is only 446,282 out of a total population of 144,409,000 women, but even this small number shows most encouraging improvement during the last ten years. In 1893-4 the girls in school were only 375,868, but since then there has been a gradual increase every year - 400,709 in 1897-8, 425,914 in 1899-1900 and 429,645 in 1900-01. In the Central Province, which ought to be one of the most progressive in India, out of a total female population of 23,078,000 only 20,821 girls altogether are in school.

But this does not fairly indicate the influence of women in India, where they take a larger and more active share in the responsibilities of the family and in the practical affairs of life than one would suppose. The mother of a family, if she is a woman of ability and character, is always the head of the household, and the most influential person in it, and as long as she lives she occupies the place of honor. Women often manage estates and commercial affairs, and several have shown remarkable executive ability and judgment. Several of the native states have been ruled by women again and again, and the Rannee of Sikkim is to-day one of the most influential persons in India, although she has never been outside of the town in which she lives.

An American lady told me of a remarkable interview she recently had with the granddaughter of Tipu, the native chief who, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, gave the English the hardest struggle they ever had in India. He was finally overcome and slain, and his territory is now under English rule, but his family were allowed a generous pension and have since lived in state with high-sounding titles. His granddaughter lives in a splendid palace in southern India, which she inherited from her father, and is now 86 years old. She cannot read or write, but is a women of extraordinary intelligence and wide knowledge of affairs, yet she has never been outside of the walls that surround her residence; she has never crossed the threshold of the palace or entered the garden that surrounds it since she was a child, and 90 per cent of her time, day and night, has been spent in the room in which she was born. Yet this woman, with a title and great wealth, is perfectly contented with her situation. She considers it entirely appropriate, and thinks that all the women in the world ought to live in the same way.

The influence she and other women of old-fashioned ideas and the conservative classes have is the chief obstacle to progress, for they are much more conservative than the men, and much more bigoted in their ideas. She does not believe that respectable women ought to go to school; she does not consider it necessary for them to read or write, and thinks that all women should devote themselves to the affairs of their households and bear children, duties which do not require any education. The missionaries who work in the zenanas, or harems, of India tell me that the prejudice and resistance they are compelled to overcome is much stronger and more intolerant among women than among men, for the former have never had an opportunity to see the outside of their homes; have never come in contact with foreigners and modern ideas, and are perfectly satisfied with their condition. They testify that Hindu wives as a rule are mere household drudges, and, with very rare exceptions, are patterns of chastity, industry and conjugal fidelity, and they are the very best of mothers.

Here and there a husband or a father is found who is conscious of the disadvantages under which the women of his family are laboring and would be glad to take upon himself the duty of instructing his wife and daughters, yet is prevented from doing so because the latter prefer to follow the example of their foremothers and remain ignorant.

While such conditions prevail it is impossible for the government to take any steps for the promotion of education among women, but a notable reform has been conducted by English women of India under the leadership of the Marchioness of Dufferin, Lady Curzon, and the wives of other viceroys, by supplying women doctors and hospitals, because, as you understand, men physicians are not permitted to enter zenanas except upon very rare occasions and then only in the most liberal of families. Nor are women allowed to be taken to hospitals. There are excellent hospitals and dispensaries in every part of India, but women are not permitted to participate in their benefits, and an untold amount of unnecessary suffering is the result. Some years ago, inspired by Lady Dufferin, an association was formed to provide women doctors, hospital nurses, and establish, under the direction of women exclusively, hospitals for the treatment of women and girls. This association is non-sectarian and no religious services or conversations are allowed. The movement has received active encouragement from both the imperial government and the local authorities, and by the latest returns is responsible for 235 hospitals and dispensaries, 33 women doctors with degrees from the highest institutions of Europe, 73 assistants, and 354 native students and trained nurses, who, during the year 1903, took care of nearly a million and a half of women and girls who needed treatment and relief. This does not include many similar institutions that are maintained by the various missionary boards for the same purpose. Taking both the civil and religious institutions together, the women of India are now well supplied with hospitals and asylums.

Scattered over the country under the care of zealous and devoted Christian women are a large number of homes for widows, and no one who has not lived in India can appreciate the importance of such institutions and the blessing they offer, for the situation of widows is pitiable. Formerly they were burned upon the funeral pyres of their husbands. It was an ancient custom, adopted from the Scythian tribes, who sacrificed not only the wives, but the concubines and slaves and horses upon the tombs of their dead lords.

The British government forbade "suttee," as widow burning was called, and although we hear that it is still practiced occasionally in remote parts of the empire, such an act would be punished as murder if the police were to learn of it. But the fate of some thousands of widows is worse than death, because among the superstitious Hindus they are held responsible for the death of their husbands, and the sin must be expiated by a life of suffering and penance. As long as a widow lives she must serve as a slave to the remainder of the family, she must wear mourning, be tabooed from society, be deprived of all pleasures and comforts, and practice never-ending austerities, so that after death she may escape transmigration into the body of a reptile, an insect or a toad. She cannot marry again, but is compelled to remain in the house of her husband's family, who make her lot as unhappy and miserable as possible.

The Brahmins prohibit the remarriage of widows, but in 1856 Lord Canning legalized it, and that was one of the causes of the mutiny. The priests and conspirators told the native soldiers that it was only a step toward the abolition of all their rites and customs. The law, however, is a dead letter, and while there have been several notable marriages of widows, the husband and wife and the entire family have usually been boycotted by their relatives, neighbors and friends; husbands have been ruined in business and subjected to every humiliation imaginable.

If you will examine the census statistics you will be astonished at the enormous number of widows in India. Out of a total of 144,000,000 women in 1901, 25,891,936 were widows, of whom 19,738,468 were Hindus. This is accounted for by child marriage, for it is customary for children five years of age and upwards to become husbands and wives. At least 50 per cent of the adherents of Brahminism are married before they are ten years old and 90 per cent before they are fifteen. This also is an ancient custom and is due to several reasons. Fathers and mothers desire to have their children settled in life, as we say, as early as possible, and among the families of friends they are paired off almost as soon as they are born. The early marriage, however, is not much more than a betrothal, for after it takes place, usually with great ceremony, the children are sent back to their homes and remain under the care of their parents until they reach a proper age, when the wife is conducted with great rejoicing to the home of her husband, and what is equivalent to another marriage takes place. This occurs among the highly educated and progressive Hindus. They defend the custom as wise and beneficial on the theory that it is an advantage for husband and wife to be brought up together and have their characters molded by the same influences and surroundings. In that way, they argue, much unhappiness and trouble is prevented. But in India, as everywhere else, the mortality is greatest among children, and more than 70 per cent of the deaths reported are of persons under ten years of age. Those who are married are no more exempt than those who are not, which explains the number of widows reported, and no matter how young a girl may be when her husband dies she can never have a second.

Widowers are allowed to marry again and most of them do. There are only 8,110,084 widowers in all India as against nearly 26,000,000 widows.

Of course there are many native homes in which widows are treated kindly and receive the same attention and are allowed the same pleasures as the other women of the family, but those who understand India assert that they are exceptional, and hence asylums for those who are treated badly are very much needed. This is a matter with which the government cannot deal and the work is left entirely to the Christian missionaries, who establish homes and teach friendless widows to become self-supporting.