Ancient History & Civilisation


Changing India—Economic changes—Social—The decaying caste system—Castes and guilds—Untouchables—The emergence of woman

That a man unfamiliar with English till almost fifty should write English so well is a sign of the ease with which some of the gaps can be bridged between that East and that West whose mating another poet has banned. For since the birth of Tagore the West has come to the East in a hundred ways, and is changing every aspect of Oriental life. Thirty thousand miles of railways have webbed the wastes and ghats of India, and carried Western faces into every village; telegraph wires and the printing press have brought to every student the news of a suggestively changing world; English schools have taught British history with a view to making British citizens, and have unwittingly inculcated English ideas of democracy and liberty. Even the East now justifies Heraclitus.

Reduced to poverty in the nineteenth century by the superior machinery of British looms and the higher calibre of British guns, India has now turned her face reluctantly towards industrialization. Handicrafts are dying, factories are growing. At Jamsetpur the Tata Iron and Steel Company employs 45,000 men, and threatens the leadership of American firms in the production of steel.34 The coal production of India is mounting rapidly; within a generation China and India may overtake Europe and America in lifting out of the soil the basic fuels and materials of industry. Not only will these native resources meet native needs, they may compete with the West for the markets of the world, and the conquerors of Asia may suddenly find their markets gone, and the standards of living of their people at home severely reduced, by the competition of low-wage labor in once docile and backward (i.e., agricultural) lands. In Bombay there are factories in mid-Victorian style, with old-fashioned wages that bring tears of envy to the eyes of Occidental Tories.* Hindu employers have replaced the British in many of these industries, and exploit their fellow men with the rapacity of Europeans bearing the white man’s burden.

The economic basis of Indian society has not changed without affecting the social institutions and moral customs of the people. The caste system was conceived in terms of a static and agricultural society; it provided order,” but gave no opening to unpedigreed genius, no purchase to ambition and hope, no stimulus to invention and enterprise; it was doomed when the Industrial Revolution reached India’s shores. The machine does not respect persons: in most of the factories men work side by side without discrimination of caste, trains and trams give berth or standing-room to all who can pay, cooperative societies and political parties bring all grades together, and in the congestion of the urban theatre or street Brahman and Pariah rub elbows in unexpected fellowship. A raja announces that every caste and creed will find reception at his court; a Shudra becomes the enlightened ruler of Baroda; the Brahma-Somaj denounces caste, and the Bengal Provincial Congress of the National Congress advocates the abolition of all caste distinctions forthwith.36 Slowly the machine lifts a new class to wealth and power, and brings the most ancient of living aristocracies to an end.

Already the caste terms are losing significance. The word Vaisya is used in books today, but has no application in actual life. Even the term Shudra has disappeared from the north, while in the south it is a loose designation for all non-Brahmans.37 The lower castes of older days have in effect been replaced by over three thousand “castes” that are really guilds: bankers, merchants, manufacturers, farmers, professors, engineers, trackwalkers, college women, butchers, barbers, fishermen, actors, coal miners, washermen, cabmen, shop-girls, bootblacks—these are organized into occupational castes that differ from our trade-unions chiefly in the loose expectation that sons will follow the trades of their fathers.

The great tragedy of the caste system is that it has multiplied, from generation to generation, those Untouchables whose growing number and rebelliousness undermine the institution that created them. The Outcastes have received into their ranks all those who were enslaved by war or debt, all the children of marriages between Brahmans and Shudras, and all those unfortunates whose work, as scavengers, butchers, acrobats, conjurors or executioners was stamped as degrading by Brahmanical law;38 and they have swollen their mass by the improvident fertility of those who have nothing to lose. Their bitter poverty has made cleanliness of body, clothing or food an impossible luxury for them; and their fellows shun them with every sense.* Therefore the laws of caste forbid an Untouchable to approach nearer than twenty-four feet to a Shudra, or seventy-four feet to a Brahman;40 if the shadow of a Pariah falls upon a man of caste, the latter must remove the contamination by a purifying ablution. Whatever the Outcaste touches is thereby defiled, In many parts of India he must not draw water from the public wells, or enter temples used by Brahmans, or send his children to the Hindu schools.42 The British, whose policies have in some degree contributed to the impoverishment of the Outcastes, have brought them at least equality before the law, and equal access to all British-controlled colleges and schools. The Nationalist movement, under the inspiration of Gandhi, has done much to lessen the disabilities of the Untouchables. Perhaps another generation will see them externally and superficially free.

The coming of industry, and of Western ideas, is disturbing the ancient mastery of the Hindu male. Industrialization defers the age of marriage, and requires the “emancipation” of woman; that is to say, the woman cannot be lured into the factory unless she is persuaded that home is a prison, and is entitled by law to keep her earnings for herself. Many real reforms have come as incidents to this emancipation. Child marriage has been formally ended (1929) by raising the legal age of marriage to fourteen for girls and to eighteen for men;43 suttee has disappeared, and the remarriage of widows grows daily;‡ polygamy is allowed, but few men practise it;45 and tourists are disappointed to find that the temple dancers are almost extinct. In no other country is moral reform progressing so rapidly. Industrial city life is drawing women out of purdah; hardly six per cent of the women of India accept such seclusion today.46 A number of lively periodicals for women discuss the most up-to-date questions; even a birth-control league has appeared,47 and has faced bravely the gravest problem of India—indiscriminate fertility. In many of the provinces women vote and hold political office; twice women have been president of the Indian National Congress. Many of them have taken degrees at the universities, and have become doctors, lawyers, or professors.48 Soon, no doubt, the tables will be turned, and women will rule. Must not some wild Western influence bear the guilt of this flaming appeal issued by a subaltern of Gandhi to the women of India?—

Away with ancient purdah! Come out of the kitchens quick! Fling the pots and pans rattling into the corners! Tear the cloth from your eyes, and see the new world! Let your husbands and brothers cook for themselves. There is much work to be done to make India a nation!49

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