Ancient History & Civilisation


Sexual modesty—Hygiene—Dress—Appearance—The gentle art among the Hindus—Faults and virtues—Games-Festivals—Death

It will seem incredible to the provincial mind that the same people that tolerated such institutions as child marriage, temple prostitution and suttee was also pre-eminent in gentleness, decency and courtesy. Aside from a few devadasis, prostitutes were rare in India, and sexual propriety was exceptionally high. “It must be admitted,” says the unsympathetic Dubois, “that the laws of etiquette and social politeness are much more clearly laid down, and much better observed by all classes of Hindus, even by the lowest, than they are by people of corresponding social position in Europe.”164 The leading rôle played by sex in Occidental conversation and wit was quite alien to Hindu manners, which forbade any public intimacy between men and women, and looked upon the physical contact of the sexes in dancing as improper and obscene.165 A Hindu woman might go anywhere in public without fear of molestation or insult;166 indeed the risk, as the Oriental saw the matter, was all on the other side. Manu warns men: “Woman is by nature ever inclined to tempt man; hence a man should not sit in a secluded place even with his nearest female relative”; and he must never look higher than the ankles of a passing girl.167

Cleanliness was literally next to godliness in India; hygiene was not, as Anatole France thought it, la seule morale, but it was made an essential part of piety. Manu laid down, many centuries ago, an exacting code of physical refinement. “Early in the morning,” one instruction reads, “let him” (the Brahman) “bathe, decorate his body, clean his teeth, apply collyrium to his eyes, and worship the gods.”168 The native schools made good manners and personal cleanliness the first courses in the curriculum. Every day the caste Hindu would bathe his body, and wash the simple robe he was to wear; it seemed to him abominable to use the same garment, unwashed, for more than a day.169 “The Hindus,” said Sir William Huber, “stand out as examples of bodily cleanliness among Asiatic races, and, we may add, among the races of the world. The ablutions of the Hindu have passed into a proverb.”170*

Yuan Chwang, 1300 years ago, described thus the eating habits of the Hindus:

They are pure of themselves, and not from compulsion. Before every meal they must have a wash; the fragments and remains are not served up again; the food utensils are not passed on; those which are of pottery or of wood must be thrown away after use, and those which are of gold, silver, copper or iron get another polishing. As soon as a meal is over they chew the tooth-stick and make themselves clean. Before they have finished ablutions they do not come in contact with each other.172

The Brahman usually washed his hands, feet and teeth before and after each meal; he ate with his fingers from food on a leaf, and thought it unclean to use twice a plate, a knife or a fork; and when finished he rinsed his mouth seven times.173 The toothbrush was always new—a twig freshly plucked from a tree; to the Hindu it seemed disreputable to brush the teeth with the hair of an animal, or to use the same brush twice:174 so many are the ways in which men may scorn one another. The Hindu chewed almost incessantly the leaf of the betel plant, which blackened the teeth in a manner disagreeable to Europeans, and agreeable to himself. This and the occasional use of opium consoled him for his usual abstention from tobacco and intoxicating drinks.

Hindu law books give explicit rules for menstrual hygiene,175 and for meeting the demands of nature. Nothing could exceed in complexity or solemnity the ritual for Brahman defecation.176 The Twice-born must use only his left hand in this rite, and must cleanse the parts with water; and he considered his house defiled by the very presence of Europeans who contented themselves with paper.177 The Outcastes, however, and many Shudras, were less particular, and might turn any roadside into a privy.178 In the quarters occupied by these classes public sanitation was confined to an open sewer line in the middle of the street.179

In so warm a climate clothing was a superfluity, and beggars and saints bridged the social scale in agreeing to do without it. One southern caste, like the Canadian Doukhobors, threatened to migrate if its members were compelled to wear clothing.180 Until the late eighteenth century it was probably the custom in southern India (as still in Bali) for both sexes to go naked above the waist181 Children were dressed for the most part in beads and rings. Most of the population went barefoot; if the orthodox Hindu wore shoes they had to be of cloth, for under no circumstances would he use shoes of leather. A large number of the men contented themselves with loin cloths; when they needed more covering they bound some fabric about the waist, and threw the loose end over the left shoulder. The Rajputs wore trousers of every color and shape, with a tunic girdled by aceinture, a scarf at the neck, sandals or boots on the feet, and a turban on the head. The turban had come in with the Moslems, and had been taken over by the Hindus, who wound it carefully around the head in varying manner according to caste, but always with the generosity of a magician unfurling endless silk; sometimes one turban, unraveled, reached a length of seventy feet.182 The women wore a flowing robe—colorful silksari, or homespun khaddar—which passed over both shoulders, clasped the waist tightly, and then fell to the feet; often a few inches of bronze flesh were left bare below the breast. Hair was oiled to guard it against the desiccating sun; men divided theirs in the center and drew it together into a tuft behind the left ear; women coiled a part of theirs upon their heads, but let the rest hang free, often decorating it with flowers, or covering it with a scarf. The men were handsome, the young women were beautiful and all presented a magnificent carriage;183 an ordinary Hindu in a loin cloth often had more dignity than a European diplomat completely equipped. Pierre Loti thought it “incontestable that the beauty of the Aryan race reaches its highest development of perfection and refinement among the upper class” in India.184 Both sexes were adept in cosmetics, and the women felt naked without jewelry. A ring in the left nostril denoted marriage. On the forehead, in most cases, was a painted symbol of religious faith.

It is difficult to go below these surface appearances and describe the character of the Hindus, for every people harbors all virtues and all vices, and witnesses tend to select such of these as will point their moral and adorn their tale. “I think we may take as their greatest vice,” says Père Dubois, “the untrustworthiness, deceit and double-dealing . . . which are common to all Hindus. . . . Certain it is that there is no nation in the world which thinks so lightly of an oath or of perjury.”185 “Lying,” says Westermarck, “has been called the national vice of the Hindus.”186 “Hindus are wily and deceitful,” says Macaulay.187 According to the laws of Manu and the practice of the world a lie told for good motives is forgivable; if, for example, the death of a priest would result from speaking the truth, falsehood is justifiable.188 But Yuan Chwang tells us: “They do not practice deceit, and they keep their sworn obligations. . . . They will not take anything wrongfully, and they yield more than fairness requires.”189 Abu-1 Fazl, not prejudiced in favor of India, reports the Hindus of the sixteenth century as “religious, affable, cheerful, lovers of justice, given to retirement, able in business, admirers of truth, grateful, and of unbounded fidelity.”190 “Their honesty,” said honest Keir Hardie, “is proverbial. They borrow and lend on word of mouth, and the repudiation of a debt is almost unknown.”191 “I have had before me,” says a British judge in India, “hundreds of cases in which a man’s property, liberty and life depended upon his telling a lie, and he has refused to tell it.”192 How shall we reconcile these conflicting testimonies? Perhaps it is very simple: some Hindus are honest, and some are not.

Again the Hindus are very cruel and gentle. The English language has derived a short and ugly word from that strange secret society—almost a caste—of Thugs which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries committed thousands of atrocious murders in order (they said) to offer the victims as sacrifices to the goddess Kali.193 Vincent Smith writes of these Thugs (literally, “cheats”) in terms not quite irrelevant to our time:

The gangs had little to fear, and enjoyed almost complete immunity; . . . they always had powerful protectors. The moral feeling of the people had sunk so low that there were no signs of general reprehension of the cold-blooded crimes committed by the Thugs. They were accepted as part of the established order of things; and until the secrets of the organization were given away, . . . it was usually impossible to obtain evidence against even the most notorious Thugs.193a

Nevertheless there is comparatively little crime in India, and little violence. By universal admission the Hindus are gentle to the point of timidity;194 too worshipful and good-natured, too long broken upon the wheel of conquest and alien despotisms, to be good fighters except in the sense that they can bear pain with unequaled bravery.195 Their greatest faults are probably listlessness and laziness; but in the Hindus these are not faults but climatic necessities and adaptations, like the dolce far niente of the Latin peoples, and the economic fever of Americans. The Hindus are sensitive, emotional, temperamental, imaginative; therefore they are better artists and poets than rulers or executives. They can exploit their fellows with the same zest that characterizes the entrepreneureverywhere; yet they are given to limitless charity, and are the most hospitable hosts this side of barbarism.196 Even their enemies admit their courtesy,197 and a generous Britisher sums up his long experience by ascribing to the higher classes in Calcutta “polished manners, clearness and comprehensiveness of understanding, liberality of feeling, and independence of principle, that would have stamped them gentlemen in any country in the world.”198

The Hindu genius, to an outsider, seems sombre, and doubtless the Hindus have not had much cause for laughter. The dialogues of Buddha indicate a great variety of games, including one that strangely resembles chess;199* but neither these nor their successors exhibit the vivacity and joyousness of Western games. Akbar, in the sixteenth century, introduced into India the game of polo,* which had apparently come from Persia and was making its way across Tibet to China and Japan;202 and it pleased him to playpachisi (the modern “parchesi”) on squares cut in the pavement of the palace quadrangle at Agra, with pretty slave-girls as living pieces.203

Frequent religious festivals lent color to public life. Greatest of all was the Durga-Puja, in honor of the great goddess-mother Kali. For weeks before its approach the Hindus feasted and sang; but the culminating ceremonial was a procession in which every family carried an image of the goddess to the Ganges, flung it into the river, and returned homeward with all merriness spent.204 The Holt festival celebrated in honor of the goddess Vasanti took on a Saturnalian character: phallic emblems were carried in parade, and were made to simulate the motions of coitus.205 In Chota Nagpur the harvest was the signal for general license; “men set aside all conventions, women all modesty, and complete liberty was given to the girls.” The Parganait, a caste of peasants in the Rajmahal Hills, held an annual agricultural festival in which the unmarried were allowed to indulge freely in promiscuous relations.206 Doubtless we have here again relics of vegetation magic, intended to promote the fertility of families and the fields. More decorous were the wedding festivals that marked the great event in the life of every Hindu; many a father brought himself to ruin in providing a sumptuous feast for the marriage of his daughter or his son.207

At the other end of life was the final ceremony—cremation. In Buddha’s days the Zoroastrian exposure of the corpse to birds of prey was the usual mode of departure; but persons of distinction were burned, after death, on a pyre, and their ashes were buried under a tope or stupa—i.e., a memorial shrine.208 In later days cremation became the privilege of every man; each night one might see fagots being brought together for the burning of the dead. In Yuan Chwang’s time it was not unusual for the very old to take death by the forelock and have themselves rowed by their children to the middle of the Ganges, where they threw themselves into the saving stream.209 Suicide under certain conditions has always found more approval in the East than in the West; it was permitted under the laws of Akbar to the old or the incurably diseased, and to those who wished to offer themselves as sacrifices to the gods. Thousands of Hindus have made their last oblation by starving themselves to death, or burying themselves in snow, or covering themselves with cow-dung and setting it on fire, or allowing crocodiles to devour them at the mouths of the Ganges. Among the Brahmans a form of hara-kiri arose, by which suicide was committed to avenge an injury or point a wrong. When one of the Rajput kings levied a subsidy upon the priestly caste, several of the wealthiest Brahmans stabbed themselves to death in his presence, laying upon him the supposedly most terrible and effective curse of all—that of a dying priest. The Brahmanical lawbooks required that he who had resolved to die by his own hand should fast for three days; and that he who attempted suicide and failed should perform the severest penances.210 Life is a stage with one entrance, but many exits.

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