Ancient History & Civilisation


The monarchy—Law—The Code of “Manu”—Development of the caste system—Rise of the Brahmans—Their privileges and powers—Their obligations—In defense of caste

Because the roads were poor and communication difficult, it was easier to conquer than to rule India. Its topography ordained that this semi-continent would remain, until the coming of railways, a medley of divided states. Under such conditions a government could have security only through a competent army; and as the army required, in frequent crises, a dictatorial leader immune to political eloquence, the form of government which developed in India was naturally monarchical. The people enjoyed a considerable measure of liberty under the native dynasties, partly through the autonomous communities in the villages and the trade guilds in the towns, and partly through the limitations that the Brahman aristocracy placed upon the authority of the king.51 The laws of Manu, though they were more a code of ethics than a system of practised legislation, expressed the focal ideas of India about monarchy: that it should be impartially rigorous, and paternally solicitous of the public good.52 The Mohammedan rulers paid less attention than their Hindu predecessors to these ideals and checks; they were a conquering minority, and rested their rule frankly on the superiority of their guns. “The army,” says a Moslem historian, with charming clarity, “is the source and means of government.”53Akbar was an exception, for he relied chiefly upon the good will of a people prospering under his mild and benevolent despotism. Perhaps in the circumstances his was the best government possible. Its vital defect, as we have seen, lay in its dependence upon the character of the king; the supreme centralized authority that proved beneficent under Akbar proved ruinous under Aurangzeb. Having been raised up by violence, the Afghan and Mogul rulers were always subject to recall by assassination; and wars of succession were almost as expensive—though not as disturbing to economic life—as a modern election.*

Under the Moslems law was merely the will of the emperor or sultan; under the Hindu kings it was a confused mixture of royal commands, village traditions and caste rules. Judgment was given by the head of the family, the head of the village, the headmen of the caste, the court of the guild, the governor of the province, the minister of the king, or the king himself.55 Litigation was brief, judgment swift; lawyers came only with the British.56 Torture was used under every dynasty until abolished by Firoz Shah.57 Death was the penalty for any of a great variety of crimes, such as housebreaking, damage to royal property, or theft on a scale that would now make a man a very pillar of society. Punishments were cruel, and included amputation of hands, feet, nose or ears, tearing out of eyes, pouring molten lead into the throat, crushing the bones of hands and feet with a mallet, burning the body with fire, driving nails into the hands, feet or bosom, cutting the sinews, sawing men asunder, quartering them, impaling them, roasting them alive, letting them be trampled to death by elephants, or giving them to wild and hungry dogs.58

No code of laws applied to all India. In the ordinary affairs of life the place of law was taken by the dharma-shastras—metrical textbooks of caste regulations and duties, composed by the Brahmans from a strictly Brahman point of view. The oldest of these is the so-called “Code of Manu.” Manu was the mythical ancestor of the Manava tribe (or school) of Brahmans near Delhi; he was represented as the son of a god, and as receiving his laws from Brahma himself.59 This code of 2685 verses, once assigned to 1200B.C., is now referred vaguely to the first centuries of our era.60Originally intended as a handbook or guide to proper caste behavior for these Manava Brahmans, it was gradually accepted as a code of conduct by the entire Hindu community; and though never recognized by the Moslem kings it acquired, within the caste system, all the force of law. Its character will appear to some extent in the course of the following analysis of Hindu society and morals. In general it was marked by a superstitious acceptance of trial by ordeal,* a severe application of the lex talionis, and an untiring inculcation of the virtues, rights and powers of the Brahman caste.63 Its effect was to strengthen enormously the hold of the caste system upon Hindu society.

This system had grown more rigid and complex since the Vedic period; not only because it is in the nature of institutions to become stiff with age, but because the instability of the political order, and the overrunning of India by alien peoples and creeds, had intensified caste as a barrier to the mixture of Moslem and Hindu blood. In Vedic days caste had been varna, or color; in medieval India it became jati, or birth. Its essence was twofold: the heredity of status, and the acceptance of dharma—i.e., the traditional duties and employments of one’s native caste.

The head and chief beneficiaries of the system were the eight million males of the Brahman caste.64 Weakened for a while by the rise of Buddhism under Ashoka, the Brahmans, with that patient tenacity which characterizes priesthoods, had bided their time, and had recaptured power and leadership under the Gupta line. From the second century A.D. we find records of great gifts, usually of land, to the Brahman caste.65 These grants, like all Brahman property, were exempt from taxation until the British came.66a The Code of Manu warns the king never to tax a Brahman, even when all other sources of revenue have failed; for a Brahman provoked to anger can instantly destroy the king and all his army by reciting curses and mystical texts.67 It was not the custom of Hindus to make wills, since their traditions required that the property of the family should be held in common, and automatically descend from the dying to the surviving males;68* but when, under the influence of European individualism, wills were introduced, they were greatly favored by the Brahmans, as an occasional means of securing property for ecclesiastical purposes.70 The most important element in any sacrifice to the gods was the fee paid to the ministrant priest; the highest summit of piety was largesse in such fees.71Miracles and a thousand superstitions were another fertile source of sacerdotal wealth. For a consideration a Brahman might render a barren woman fecund; oracles were manipulated for financial ends; men were engaged to feign madness and to confess that their fate was a punishment for parsimony to the priests. In every illness, lawsuit, bad omen, unpleasant dream or new enterprise the advice of a Brahman was desirable, and the adviser was worthy of his hire.72

The power of the Brahmans was based upon a monopoly of knowledge. They were the custodians and remakers of tradition, the educators of children, the composers or editors of literature, the experts versed in the inspired and infallible Vedas. If a Shudra listened to the reading of the Scriptures his ears (according to the Brahmanical law books) were to be filled with molten lead; if he recited it his tongue was to be split; if he committed it to memory he was to be cut in two;73 such were the threats, seldom enforced, with which the priests guarded their wisdom. Brahmanism thus became an exclusive cult, carefully hedged around against all vulgar participation.75 According to the Code of Manu a Brahman was by divine right at the head of all creatures;76 he did not, however, share in all the powers and privileges of the order until, after many years of preparation, he was made “twice-born” or regenerate by solemn investiture with the triple cord.77 From that moment he became a holy being; his person and property were inviolate; indeed, according to Manu, “all that exists in this universe is the Brahman’s property.”78 Brahmans were to be maintained by public and private gifts—not as charity, but as a sacred obligation;79 hospitality to a Brahman was one of the highest religious duties, and a Brahman not hospitably received could walk away with all the accumulated merits of the householder’s good deeds.80* Even if a Brahman committed every crime, he was not to be killed; the king might exile him, but must allow him to keep his property.83 He who tried to strike a Brahman would suffer in hell for a hundred years; he who actually struck a Brahman would suffer in hell for a thousand years.85 If a Shudra debauched the wife of a Brahman, the Shudra’s property was to be confiscated, and his genitals were to be cut off.86 A Shudra who killed a Shudra might atone for his crime by giving ten cows to the Brahmans; if he killed a Vaisya, he must give the Brahmans a hundred cows; if he killed a Kshatriya, he must give the Brahmans a thousand cows; if he killed a Brahman he must die; only the murder of a Brahman was really murder.87

The functions and obligations that corresponded to these privileges were numerous and burdensome. The Brahman not only acted as priest, but trained himself for the clerical, pedagogical and literary professions. He was required to study law and learn theVedas; every other duty was subordinate to this;89 even to repeat the Vedas entitled the Brahman to beatitude, regardless of rites or works;90 and if he memorized the Rig-Veda he might destroy the world without incurring any guilt.91 He must not marry outside his caste; if he married a Shudra his children were to be pariahs; for, said Manu, “the man who is good by birth becomes low by low associations, but the man who is low by birth cannot become high by high associations.”92 The Brahman had to bathe every day, and again after being shaved by a barber of low caste; he had to purify with cow-dung the place where he intended to sleep; and he had to follow a strict hygienic ritual in attending to the duties of nature.93 He was to abstain from all animal food, including eggs, and from onions, garlic, mushrooms and leeks. He was to drink nothing but water, and it must have been drawn and carried by a Brahman.94 He was to abstain from unguents, perfumes, sensual pleasure, coveteousness, and wrath.95 If he touched an unclean thing, or the person of any foreigner (even the Governor-General of India), he was to purify himself by ceremonial ablutions. If he committed a crime he had to accept a heavier punishment than would fall upon a lower caste: if, for example, a Shudra stole he was to be fined eightfold the sum or value of his theft; if a Vaisya stole he was to be fined sixteen-fold; a Kshatriya, thirty-twofold; a Brahman, sixty-fourfold.96 The Brahman was never to injure any living thing.97

Given a moderate observation of these rules, and a people too burdened with the tillage of the fields, and therefore too subject to the apparently personal whims of the elements, to rise out of superstition to education, the power of the priests grew from generation to generation, and made them the most enduring aristocracy in history. Nowhere else can we find this astonishing phenomenon—so typical of the slow rate of change in India—of an upper class maintaining its ascendancy and privileges through all conquests, dynasties and governments for 2500 years. Only the outcast Chandalas can rival them in perpetuity. The ancient Kshatriyas who had dominated the intellectual as well as the political field in the days of Buddha disappeared after the Gupta age; and though the Brahmans recognized the Rajput warriors as the later equivalent of the old fighting caste, the Kshatriyas, after the fall of Rajputana, soon became extinct. At last only two great divisions remained: the Brahmans as the social and mental rulers of India, and beneath them three thousand castes that were in reality industrial guilds.*

Much can be said in defense of what, after monogamy, must be the most abused of all social institutions. The caste system had the eugenic value of keeping the presumably finer strains from dilution and disappearance through indiscriminate mixture; it established certain habits of diet and cleanliness as a rule of honor which all might observe and emulate; it gave order to the chaotic inequalities and differences of men, and spared the soul the modern fever of climbing and gain; it gave order to every life by prescribing for each man a dharma, or code of conduct for his caste; it gave order to every trade and profession, elevated every occupation into a vocation not lightly to be changed, and, by making every industry a caste, provided its members with a means of united action against exploitation and tyranny. It offered an escape from the plutocracy or the military dictatorship which are apparently the only alternatives to aristocracy; it gave to a country shorn of political stability by a hundred invasions and revolutions a social, moral and cultural order and continuity rivaled only by the Chinese. Amid a hundred anarchic changes in the state, the Brahmans maintained, through the system of caste, a stable society, and preserved, augmented and transmitted civilization. The nation bore with them patiently, even proudly, because every one knew that in the end they were the one indispensable government of India.

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