Indian Caste The social distinctions indicated by this term are much more numerous, fixed, and exclusive in India than anywhere else. The ancient Egyptians had similar ranks, but they were not so strictly hereditary, nor did they form such impassable barriers in ordinary intercourse. SEE EGYPT. The Hindus, indeed, regard these as absolute, original, and permanent demarcations of race rather than of mere position or occupation.
1. Origin. — From a very early period the Hindu writers have propounded a great variety of speculations regarding the origin of mankind, and of the classes or castes into which their community is divided. The most commonly received of these explanations is that contained in the ancient story, of which Mr. Muir thinks no trace is found in the Rig Veda (excepting one in Purusha Slukta), but which is found in the Santi Parva of the Mahabharata, where a conversation occurs between Pururavas, the son of Ila, and Matariswan, or Vayu, the wind god. Pururavas asks, "Whence was the Brahman, and whence were the other three castes produced, and whence is the superiority of the first'?" and Vayu answers, "The Brahman was created from the mouth of Brahm, the Kshattriya from his arms, Vaisya from his thighs, and to serve these three castes the fourth caste was fashioned, and so the Sudra sprung from his feet." The sacred books of the Hindus, however, contain no uniform or consistent account of the origin of castes, but offer "mystical, mythical, and rationalistic" explanations of it, or fanciful conjecture concerning it. In the Harivansa (sec. 211, 5. 11808 sq.). Janamijaya says, "I have heard the description of the Brahma Yug, the first of the ages; I desire now to be accurately informed about the Kshatriva Age," and he receives the following answer: "Vishnu, sprung from Brahm, exalted above the power of sense, and absorbed in devotion, becomes the patriarch Daksha, and creates numerous human beings. The beautiful Brahmans were formed from all unchangeable element (akshara), the Kshattriyas from a changeable substance (kshara), the Vaisyas from alteration (vicara), and the Sudras from a modification of smoke." Another account makes the Brahmans to have been fashioned with white, red, yellow, and blue colors. Thence creatures attained in the world the state of fourfold caste, being of one type, but with different duties. Still another account (Santi Parvati of the Mahabharata, sec. 188, 189), after giving a statement of the creation of men, etc., propounds the following: "Desire, anger, fear, cupidity, grief, anxiety, hunger, fatigue, prevail in all; all have bodily secretions, with phlegm, bile, and blood; and the bodies of all decay-by what, then, is caste distinguished? ... There is no distinction of caste; the whole world is formed of Brahma; for, having been formerly created by him, it became separated into castes by means of works." In the Bhagavat Purana we read that there was formerly only one Veda, one God, one caste. Sometimes the different castes are said to have sprung from the words Bhuh, etc.; from different Vedas; from different sets of prayers- from the gods; from nonentity; from the imperishable, the perishable, and other principles. They are sometimes made to be coeval with the creation, and as having different attributes involving different moral qualities, while in other places, as in the Epic poems, the creation of mankind is described without the least allusion to the separate production of the progenitors of the four castes. Sometimes all men are the offspring of Manu. Thus it is clear that the separate origin of the four castes could not have been an object of belief among the older Hindus, while the variety and inconsistency of these accounts help us not at all in determining its origin.
Many writers have claimed for caste a trans-Himalayan origin, while others have supposed that it originated with the successive waves of emigration within the plains of India. Professor Roth thus states this view: "When the Vedic people, driven by some political shock, advanced from their abodes in the Punjaub further and further south, and drove the aborigines into the hills, and tool possession of the country lying between the Ganges, the Jumna, and the Vindhya Mountains, circumstances required and favored such an organization of society as was therein developed." On the other hand, Dr. Haug says: "From all we know, the real origin of caste appears to go back to a time anterior to the composition of the Vedic hymns though its development into a regular system with insurmountable barriers can be referred only to the latest period of the Vedic times."
2. Extent. — But, whatever may have been its origin, it is now a complex and highly artificial system, multiform in shape, and often so blended with the ordinary usages of society and the minute division of labor to which the older civilizations tend, that it is very difficult to make a complete or satisfactory analysis of it. A close inspection of the census returns to the British government in the northwest provinces of India in 1866 shows that it is very much more variable than was formerly supposed. Sometimes the minute divisions into classes seems to follow no other than the lines of the occupations of the people, and they are accordingly returned as belonging to the caste of tailors, or shop men, etc., without other discrimination. This "Blue book" thus enrolled more than three hundred distinct castes within that political division. There is, however, after a general fashion, a maintenance of the general classifications, as
(1) Brahmans, (2) Kshattriyas, (3) Vaishyas, and (4) Sudra; below which is a yet more debased class, (5) known as Pariahs, or outcasts, to be found in all portions of the country.
The four greater castes above named answer to priestly, warrior, agricultural, and artisan, or servant classes. We note in this census return hereditary priests, rope-dancers, sweepers, elephant-drivers, turban- winders, ear-piercers and cleaners, charmers, makers of crowns for idols, and even hereditary beggars and common blackguards.
3. Rules. — These castes are all hereditary, the son always following the occupation of the father, however overburdened some departments of occupation may become by the accidents of birth. No classes except the highest two are assumed to intermarry, and all eschew contact with a lower class. They do not eat together, nor cook for nor serve food to each other. This dislike of contact extends to their vessels and other utensils. The usages, however, seem often arbitrary. Smoking from the bowl of another's pipe may not be an offence if one can make a stem of his fist, but the stem or snake of the pipe must not be touched, or it is rendered worthless to all parties. It is in accordance with caste requirement that brass or copper utensils should be moved from place to place, but an earthen vessel once used for cooked food or water must not be transported to another locality. Loads may be carried on the head by some castes, on the back by some, and not at all by others. The poorest Hindu family do not wash their own clothes, yet the loin-cloth must always be washed by the wearer of it. If a Hindu were touched by a man of an inferior caste while eating, he would not only throw away all the food he had cooked, but would even spit out what might chance to be in his mouth at the instant.
The accumulation of motive for the preservation of caste purity is astounding. The slightest variation from custom is at once visited with punishment or fines, while the graver offences become the ground of expulsion literally from all human society, and of disabilities in business and disinheritance; and, believing in ancestor worship as the Hindu does, and that the happiness of his departed relatives is dependent on his performing the manes, the additional curse comes upon him of being disabled from performing these ceremonies because of caste impurity.
4. Effects. — The caste policy of India checks genius, yet as from the first the individual knows what his life business is to be, he pursues it, and attains a skill in handicraft unequalled. The Indian system tends likewise to give permanence to institutions, but it unfortunately perpetuates evils also. It has been the great hindrance to all progress, civil; political, religious, or, social, and has presented the greatest obstacles to the progress of Christianity. The railroads and other European conveniences have by some been looked upon as likely to make great innovations on caste-usage. There is already a large and well-organized portion of the population known as Brahmists who wholly ignore castes. SEE HINDUS, MODERN. There is much less of caste observance among what is considered to be an older population than the Hindu, such as the people inhabiting the Himalaya Mountains, and the "wild tribes" of Central India. See Muir's Sanskrit Texts, vol. 1 (Loud. 1868); Colebrook's Miscellaneous Essays; Wilson's Transl. Vishnu Purana; Muller, Chips, 2, 295 sq. (J. T. G.)