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Origins of the Caste System

In their early colonies on the Indus, each father was priest in his family, yet the Chieftain, or Lord of the Settlers, called in some man specially learned in holy offerings to conduct the great tribal sacrifices. Such men were highly honored, and the famous quarrel which runs throughout the whole Veda sprang from the claims of two rival sages, Vasishtha and Viswamitra, to perform one of these ceremonies. The art of writing was unknown, and the hymns and sacrificial words had to be handed down by word of mouth from father to son. It thus happened that the families who learned them by heart became, as it were, the hereditary owners of the liturgies required at the most solemn offerings to the gods. Members of these households were chosen again and again to conduct the tribal sacrifices, to chant the battle-hymn, to implore the divine aid, or to pray away the divine wrath. Even the Rig-Veda recognises the importance of these sacrifices. The hymns became a valuable family property for those who had composed or learned them. The Rig-Veda tells how the prayer of Vasishtha prevailed 'in the battle of the ten kings,' and how that of Viswdmitra 'preserves the tribe of the Bharats.' The potent prayer was termed brahma, and he who offered it, brahman. Woe to him who despised either!

As the Aryans moved eastwards from the Indus, some of the warriors were more fortunate than others, or received larger shares of the conquered lands. Such families had not to till their fields with their own hands, but could leave that work to be done by the aboriginal peoples whom they subdued. In this way there grew up a class of warriors, freed from the labor of husbandry, who surrounded the chief or king, and were always ready for battle. It seems likely that these kinsmen and companions of the king formed an important class among the early Aryan tribes in India, as they certainly did among the ancient branches of the race in Europe, and still do at the petty courts of India. Their old Sanskrit names, Kshattriya, Rajanya, and Rajbansi, mean 'connected with the royal power,' or 'of the royal line'; their usual modern name Rajput means 'of royal descent.'

A section of the people laid aside their arms, and devoted themselves to agriculture or other peaceful pursuits. The sultry heats of the Middle Land must also have abated their old northern energy, and led them to love repose. Those who, from family ties or from personal inclination, preferred a soldier's life, had to go beyond the frontier to find an enemy. Distant expeditions of this sort could be undertaken much less conveniently by the husbandman than in the ancient time, when his fields lay on the very border of the enemy's country, and had just been wrested from it. Such expeditions required and probably developed a class of soldiers, whose presence was not constantly needed at home for tilling the land. The old warrior companions and kinsmen of the king formed a nucleus round which gathered the more daring spirits, and laid the foundation of a military caste.

These three classes gradually became distinct castes; intermarriage between them ceased, and each kept more and more strictly to its hereditary employment. But they were all recognised as belonging to 'Twice-born,' or Aryan race; they were all present at the great national sacrifices; and all worshipped the same Bright Gods. Beneath them was a fourth or servile class, called Sudras, remnants of the vanquished aboriginal tribes whose lives had been spared. These were 'the slave-bands of black descent,' the Dasas of the Veda. They were distinguished from their 'Twiceborn' Aryan conquerors as being only 'Once-born,' and by many contemptuous epithets. They were not allowed to be present at the great national sacrifices, or at the feasts which followed them. They could never rise out of their servile condition; and to them was assigned the severest toil in the fields, and all the hard and dirty work of the village community.

Of the four Indian castes, three had a tendency to increase. The Aryan conquests spread, more aboriginal tribes were reduced to serfdom, as Sudras. The warriors, or Kshattriyas, would constantly receive additions from the more wealthy or enterprising members of the cultivating class. When an expedition or migration went forth to subdue new territory, the whole colonists would for a time lead a military life, and their sons would probably all regard themselves as Kshattriyas. In ancient times, entire tribes, and at the present day the mass of the population throughout large tracts, thus claim to be of the warrior or Rajput caste. Moreover, the kings and fighting-men of aboriginal races who, without being conquered by the Aryans, entered into alliance with them, would probably assume names of the warrior or Kshattriyan rank. The Brahmans, in their turn, seem at first to have received into their body distinguished families of Kshattriya descent. In later times, too, sections of aboriginal races were 'manufactured' into Brahmans. The Vaisya or cultivating caste did not tend, in this manner, to increase. No one felt ambitious to win his way into it, except perhaps the poor Sudras, to whom any change of condition was forbidden. The Vaisyas themselves tended in ag early times to rise into the more honorable warrior class; diminish.

A long contest raged between the priests and warriors for the chief place in the Aryan commonwealth. The Brdhman caste seems to have grown out of the families of Rishis who composed the Vedic hymns, or were chosen to conduct the great tribal sacrifices. In aftertimes, the whole Brahman population of India pretended to trace their descent from Seven Rishis. But the composers of the Vedic hymns were sometimes kings or distinguished warriors rather than priests; indeed, the Veda itself speaks of these royal Rishis (Rdjarshis). When the Brahmans put forward their claim to the highest rank, the warriors or Kshattriyas were slow to admit it; and when the Brahmans went a step further, and declared that only members of their families could be priests, or gain admission into the priestly caste, the warriors disputed their pretensions. In later ages, the Brahmans, having the exclusive keeping of the sacred writings, effaced from them, as far as possible, all traces of the struggle.

The quarrel between the two sages Viswamitra and Vasishtha, which runs through the whole Veda, is typical of this struggle. Viswamitra stands as a representative of the royal-warrior rank, who claims to perform a great public sacrifice. The white-robed Vasishtha represents the Brahmans or hereditary priesthood, and opposes the warrior's claim. In the end, Viswamitra established his title to conduct the sacrifice; but the Brahmans explain this by saying that his virtues and austerities won admission for him into the priestly family of Bhrigu. He thus became a Brahman, and could lawfully fill the priestly office. Viswamitra serves as a typical link, not only between the priestly and the worldly castes, but also between the sacred and the profane sciences. He was the legendary founder of the art of war, and his equally legendary son Susruta is quoted as the earliest authority on Indian medicine.

In some of the Aryan tribes the priests apparently failed to establish themselves as an exclusive order. Indeed, the four castes, and especially the Brahman caste, seem only to have obtained their full development amid the plenty of the Middle Land (Madhya-deska), watered by the Jumna and the Ganges. The earlier Aryan settlements to the west of the Indus remained outside the caste system; the later Aryan offshoots to the south and east of the Middle Land only partially carried that system with them. But in the Middle Land itself, with Delhi as its western capital, and the great cities of Ajodhya and Benares on its eastern frontier, the Brahmans grew by degrees into a compact, learned, and supremely influential body, the makers of Sanskrit literature. Their language, their religion, Aryan and their laws, became in after times the standards aimed at throughout all India.

The Brahmans were a body of men who, in an early stage of history, bound themselves by a rule of life the essential precepts of which were self-culture and self-restraint. As they married within their own caste, begat children only during their prime, and were not liable to lose the finest of their youth in war, they transmitted their best qualities in an ever-increasing measure to their descendants. The Brahmans of the present day are the result of 3,000 years of hereditary education and self-restraint; and they have evolved a type of mankind quite distinct from the surrounding population. Even the passing traveller in India marked them out, alike from the bronze-cheeked, large-limbed, leisure-loving Rajput or warrior caste of Aryan descent; and from the dark-skinned, flat-nosed, thick-lipped low-castes of non-Aryan origin, with their short bodies and bullet heads. The Brahman stood apart from both, tall and slim, with finely modelled lips and nose, fair complexion, high forehead, and slightly cocoa-nut shaped skull the man of self-centred refinement.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:13:52 ZULU