In selecting the following discussion of caste in South Asia from the complete Blackwood's article, which appears elsewhere on this site, I have added paragraphing for easier reading and illustrations by Indian artists of the approximately the same period of earlier. I have added the epigraph below from Margaret Haskell’s Glimpses of Hidden IndiaGeorge P. Landow]

Caste is unpleasantly strong in Delhi. Thus, at the post office, one very hot day, I was offered a glass of water by the Brahmin post-master; and, not wishing to offend him, I took a seat on a raised platform beside his chair, and waited. The water did not come, and I grew tired of waiting; but the post-master would not hear of my going away, and kept saying, 'Its coming; its coming directly.' At last a man appeared with a glass of water; and then I was told that the neighbourhood had been seemed to find a native Christian, as no high caste Hindu would give a glass of water to a feringhi. — Margaret Haskell’s Glimpses of Hdden India (1909), p. 192.

India is truly a land of marvels, but the greatest wonder of all is the gigantic system of social subdivision and exclusiveness, by which the national unity has been fractured, individual action fettered, and community of feeling rendered impossible. Rich and poor, noble and roturier, in all countries have been chary of intermingling; but nowhere can be found anything to the least degree parallel to the system of caste as it exists in India. Its ramifications spread over the whole country; no one is too great or too small not to be embraced by its fetters. It seems a national monomania —  for even the Pariahs, or outcasts, have instituted castes for themselves! In origin and essence, caste is not a religious but a social usage; nevertheless, for thirty centuries its social character has been lost sight of in the religious character which has been superimposed upon it. When they settled in India as conquerors, the Hindoos, like most ancient nations, consisted of three well-defined classes — priests, warriors, and the industrial class; while below them spread the conquered Soodra race, whom they regarded much as Frankish barons of the middle ages regarded the vilains or serfs of the countries which they entered as lords.

As it was convenient for the dominant Hindoos, and especially for the priestly class, to perpetuate and intensify this social gradus, in due time the Brahmins, by wresting texts and inventing fables, succeeded in giving this classification a sanction expressly divine. Brahma, they feigned, created four distinct kinds of men: first, the Brahmins, who came from his mouth; second, the military class, who emanated from his arms; third, the agricultural and mercantile classes, who originated from his body; and fourth, the labouring classes, who were produced from his feet. All history is full of examples of such procedure. In a certain stage of society, wherever any social usage or distinction is found to work well for the dominant or priestly class, an effort is always made (sometimes in perfect good faith) to procure for it a divine authority, and so put the usage or principle beyond the reach of cavil and opinion: just as the divine right of kings, the infallibility of the Pope, the celibacy of the Romish priesthood, &c., are points or principle of which the greater part of enlightened Europe still believes to be founded on the Scriptures, and thus enjoined by God himself.

The first division of caste established in India were wide and simple, and, though tyrannical towards the Soodras or conquered people, not very fettering. But in the thirty centuries which have elapsed since then, the system has increased most fatally in its complexity, — and this in circumstances which might have been expected to produce a different result, and which consequently prove that the system finds some strong echo in the Hindoo character. Two of the original castes, the second and third, have almost disappeared; and for all practical purposes the entire Hindoo race might now be divided into the two great castes of Brahmins and Soodras. Whence, then, the complexity? The caste of the Brahmins, although now comprising about forty modifications, in some respects preserves its unity; but the Soodras have split up into an endless number of subdivisions, each of which considers itself, and is considered by the other, quite as divinely sanctioned as were the original castes. The preservation of caste by each and all of these manifold subdivisions of the population, is now the most practical point in the Hindoo religion. It is true that the religious character of caste is a mere fiction, — but the Hindoo does not so regard it; and a Roman Catholic may as soon be argued out of his belief in the infallibility of the Pope, or of the divine sanction for priestly celibacy, as the Hindoo be convinced that caste is of merely human origin, and therefore to be maintained or rejected according to the dictates of his own reason or choice. Moral guilt has no effect in producing loss of caste; but each caste is fettered by rules of the most absurd kind, any transgressions of which makes a man an outcast, and is esteemed a more heinous crime than even murder.

Like other usages of Indian life, the prescriptions of caste are modified by locality. To the Brahmins all animal food, except that of fishes and kids, is forbidden; yet in some districts they will eat the flesh of any animal, if only (as is the case with all Hindoos) it is not killed with their own hands. In southern India, too, they partake, without scruple, of spirituous liquors, although these are in general only allowed to Pariahs. Hindoos consider themselves defiled by contact with feathers; but among the tribes at the foot of the Himalayas, who are in other respects strict Hindoos, this prejudice does not exist. Where every little class is resolved to hedge itself in by particular distinctions, many of these distinctions must be of the most arbitrary and trivial character. Many castes are only to be known from one another by the cut and colour of their clothes, the shape and arrangement of their trinkets, or some other equally frivolous and unimportant distinction. The Rajpoots, and many other castes, eat mutton, venison, and fish; while beef, pork, and fowls, are held by them in abomination; but with some castes pork is prohibited. "The Rohillas will submit to be flogged within an inch of their lives with a leathern martingale, but to be struck with a whip or cane would be an indelible disgrace, and very likely to be resented with a bullet or a stab. Collies will carry any load, however offensive, upon their heads; bid them carry a man for a few paces, and, though it be a matter of life and death, they will answer you that it is the business of another caste."7

As further specimens of the absurd and vexatious character of caste-regulations, take the following: — 

Left: Seated blacksmith with tonsured hair, using tools in front of furnace. 119 x 83 mm. Middle: Seated male butcher with meat hanging on hooks, in front of a goat head. 123 x 89 mm. Right: Seated female fishmonger (the top of her sari is not painted). 119 x 83 mm. All three dated 1780-1858. Watercolor gouache on mica. New York Public Library Digital Collections. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

A native carpenter must not use grease to his saw; a native smith must only work with his body in a particular position; a native sawyer must only cut wood according to a certain fashion; they must only eat a particular kind of food, cooked in a particular manner and at a particular time, and in a particular kind of vessel; the lowest caste man will not allow another of his fellows to see him eat; no man will drink even water out of another's vessel, and every one carries about with him his own little brass pot. No stranger must cross the threshold of his little hut for fear of defiling it, and low caste men must not approach nearer than a certain number of paces to persons of higher caste; his miserable garments must be worn only in a particular manner; he will not take a morsel of any kind of refreshment from a person of a different creed, even if ever so destitute; he will not allow a man of inferior caste to take water from the same well as himself. If of high caste, he will never drink from a public pump or fountain; he will not touch a dead body, or the bone of an animal; he will not allow salt, or vinegar, or any kind of spirit, to enter his mouth; neither will he eat anything that has life. In many places whole villages are set apart for particular castes, and no stranger is allowed even to walk into the village, if they can prevent him. If he meets with any accident, he cannot go to the European hospitals, nor allow a European doctor to enter his house. He must not enter a new workshop, not even a new shed, nor use a new tool, without the performance of a ceremony, such as sacrificing a black sheep, and smearing its blood upon all around."8

Caste is the great incubus upon India. It is the most serious barrier to the inroad of new ideas, and the inauguration of a better state of society. Caste, such as it now prevails, could only have grown up in a country where the means of locomotion were rare, and where tribal diversities of race fostered the spirit of isolation; and the spread of railways, the growth of free thinking, and increased intercommunion, which are marking the British rule, must in the end prove subversive of this pernicious and most obstructive system. Probably a perception of this truth had no small influence in inciting the Brahmins, who benefit most by the principle of caste, to the late revolt, as the only means of averting the subversion of their social status and privileges. But this revolt, by directing special attention to the subject of caste, cannot fail to accelerate its overthrow. It is the greatest obstacle which European civilisation encounters in India, and it will be a happy day for the Hindoos themselves when they abandon it. But how to proceed against it is, we confess, a difficult and serious question; for every part of the system is regarded as equally divine, and myriads of the Hindoos would rather perish than violate it.


“The Religions of India.” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. 82 (December 1857): 743-67. [Complete text].

Last modified 9 December 2018