department of applied science we have to deal with
the unseen. All forces, whether in physics,
mechanics, or electricity, are invisible."
Alexander Mackay, Africa.
THE division of the Tamil people, over fifteen million strong, into Classes and Masses, though convenient and simple, is far too simple to be of value in giving an accurate idea of the matter as it is understood from within. As we said, it is only an outside view of things. A study of Caste from an Indian point of view is a study from which you rise bewildered.
What is Caste? What is electricity? Lord Kelvin said, on the occasion of his jubilee, that he knew no more of electric and magnetic force . . . than he knew and tried to teach his students of natural philosophy fifty years ago in his first session as Professor. We know that electricity exists, we are conscious of its presence in the phenomena of light, heat, sound; but we do not know what it is.
Nothing could more perfectly illustrate Caste. You cannot live long in a conservative part of India, in close contact with its people, without being conscious of its presence; if you come into conflict with it, it manifests itself in a flash of opposition, hot rage of persecution, the roar of the tumult of the crowd. But try to define it, and you find you cannot do it. It is not merely birth, class, a code of rules, though it includes all these. It is a force, an energy; there is spirit in it, essence, hidden as the invisible essence which we call electricity.
Look at what it does. A few months ago a boy of twelve resolved to be a Christian. His clan, eight thousand strong, were enraged. There was a riot in the streets; in one house the poison cup was ready. Better death than loss of Caste.
In another town a boy took his stand, and was baptised, thus crossing the line that divides secret belief from open confession. His Caste men got hold of him afterwards; next time he was seen he was a raving lunatic. The Caste was avenged.
It may be someone will wonder if these things are confined to one part of the field, so I quote from another, working in a neighbouring field, Tamil, but not "ours."
She tells of a poor low-caste woman who learned in her home, and believed. Her husband also believed, and both thought of becoming Christians. The village soothsayer warned them that their father's god would be angry; they did not heed him, but went on, and suddenly their baby died. This was too much for their faith then, and they both went back to idolatry.
A few years afterwards their eldest child began to learn to read, and the mother's faith revived. The soothsayer and her husband reminded her of the infant's fate, but she was brave, and let her child learn. Then her cow suddenly died. "Did we not tell you so?" they said, and for the moment she was staggered; but she rallied, and only became more earnest in faith. So the soothsayer threatened worse.
[Illustration: Cooking in a house of the Shanar Caste, always the most accessible of all Castes here, but this is a specially friendly house, or we should not have been allowed to take the photo. The small girl who is grinding curry stuff on the stone is the "Imp" of chapter xx.]
Then a Caste meeting was called to determine what could be done with this woman. The husband attended the meeting, and was treated to some rice and curry; before he reached home he was taken violently ill, and in three days he died. The relatives denounced the woman as the cause of her husband's death, took her only son from her, and entreated her to return to her father's gods before they should all be annihilated. They gave her "two weeks to fast and mourn for her husband, then finding her mind as firmly fixed on Christ as before, they sent her to Burmah."
This happened recently. It is told without any effort to appeal to the sympathies of anyone, simply as a fact; a witness, every line of it, to the power of Caste as a Doer. But there is something in the tale, told so terribly quietly, that makes one's heart burn with indignation at the unrelenting cruelty which would hound a poor woman down, and send her, bereft of all she loved, into exile, such as a foreign land would be to one who knew only her own little village. And when you remember the Caste was "low," which they took such infinite pains to guard, you can judge, perhaps, what the hate would be, the concentration of scorn and hate, if the Caste were higher or high.
But look at Caste in another way, in its power in the commonplace phases of life. For example, take a kitchen and cooking, and see how Caste rules there. For cooking is not vulgar work, or infra dig. in any sense, in India; all Caste women in good orthodox Hindu families either do their own or superintend the doing of it by younger members of the same family or servants of the same Caste. "We Europeans cannot understand the extent to which culinary operations may be associated with religion. The kitchen in every Indian household is a kind of sanctuary or holy ground. . . . The mere glance of a man of inferior Caste makes the greatest delicacies uneatable, and if such a glance happens to fall on the family supplies during the cooking operations, when the ceremonial purity of the water used is a matter of almost life and death to every member of the household, the whole repast has to be thrown away as if poisoned. The family is for that day dinnerless. Food thus contaminated would, if eaten, communicate a taint to the souls as well as bodies of the eaters, a taint which could only be removed by long and painful expiation." Thus far Sir Monier Williams (quoted as a greater authority than any mere missionary!). Think of the defilement which would be contracted if a member of the household who had broken Caste in baptism took any part in the cooking. It would never be allowed. Such a woman could take no share in the family life. Her presence, her shadow, above all her touch, would be simply pollution. Therefore, and for many other reasons, her life at home is impossible, and the Hindu, without arguing about it, regards it as impossible. It does not enter into the scheme of life as laid down by the rules of his Caste. He never, if he is orthodox, contemplates it for a moment as a thing to be even desired.
Cooking and kitchen work may seem small (though it would not be easy for even the greatest to live without reference to it), so let us look out on the world of trade, and see Caste again as a Doer there. If a merchant becomes a Christian, no one will buy his goods; if he is a weaver, no one will buy his cloth; if he is a dyer, no one will buy his thread; if he is a jeweller, no one will employ him. If it is remembered that every particular occupation in life represents a particular Caste, it will be easily understood how matters are complicated where converts from the great Trades Unions are concerned. Hence the need of Industrial Missions, and the fact that they exist.
A man wants to become a Christian, say, from the blacksmith or carpenter Caste. As a Christian he loses his trade, and he has been trained to no other. His forefathers worked in iron or wood, and he cannot attempt to learn other work. Let the Christians employ him, you say. Some do; but the question involves other questions far too involved for discussion here. And even if we discussed it, we should probably end where we began -- facing a practical problem which no one can hope to solve while Caste is what it is.
Just now this system is in full operation in the case of a lad of the brassworker Caste. He is a thoughtful boy, and he has come to the conclusion that Christianity is the true religion; he would like to be a Christian; if the conditions were a little easier he would be enrolled as an inquirer to-morrow. But here is the difficulty. His father is not strong, his mother and little sisters and brothers are his care; if he were a Christian he could not support them; no one would sell him brass, no one would buy the vessels he makes. He knows only his inherited trade. He can make fine water-pots, lamps, vases, and vessels of all sorts, nothing else. He is too old to learn any other trade; but supposing such an arrangement could be made, who would support the family in the meantime? Perhaps we might do it; we certainly could not let them starve; but it would not do to tell him so, or to hold out hopes of earthly help, till we know beyond a doubt that he is true. This is what is holding him back. He reads over and over again, "He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me," and then he looks at his father and mother and the little children; and he reads the verse again, and he looks at them again. It is too hard.
It is easy enough to tell him that God would take care of them if he obeys. We do tell him so, but can we wonder at the boy for hesitating to take a step which will, so far as he can see, take house and food and all they need from his mother and those little children?
These are some of the things which make work in India what is simply called difficult. We do not want to exaggerate. We know all lands have their difficulties, but when being a Christian means all this, over and above what it means elsewhere, then the bonds which bind souls are visibly strengthened, and the work can never be described as other than very difficult.
Or take the power of Caste in another direction -- its callous cruelty. I give one illustration from last year's life.
I was visiting in the house where the old lady lives upon whom the afflatus fell. The first time we went there we saw a little lad of three or four, who seemed to be suffering with his eyes. He lay in a swinging bag hung from the roof, and cried piteously all the time we were there. Now, two months afterwards, there he lay crying still, only his cries were so weary he had hardly strength to cry.
They lifted him out. I should not have known the child -- the pretty face drawn and full of pain, the little hands pressed over the burning eyes. Only one who has had it knows the agony of ophthalmia. They told me he had not slept, "not even the measure of a rape-seed," for three months. Night and day he cried and cried; "but he does not make much noise now," they added. He couldn't, poor little lad!
I begged them to take him to the hospital, twenty-five miles away, but they said to go to a hospital was against their Caste. The child lay moaning so pitifully it wrung my heart, and I pleaded and pleaded with them to let me take him if they would not. Even if his sight could not be saved, something could be done to ease the pain, I knew. But no, he might die away from home, and that would disgrace their Caste.
"Then he is to suffer till he is blind or dead?" and I felt half wild with the cold cruelty of it.
"What can we do?" they asked; "can we destroy our Caste?"
Oh, I did blaze out for a moment! I really could not help it. And then I knelt down among them all, just broken with the pity of it, and prayed with all my heart and soul that the Good Shepherd would come and gather the lamb in His arms!
I wonder if you can bear to read it? I can hardly bear to write it. But you have not seen the little wasted hands pressed over the eyes, and then falling helplessly, too tired to hold up any longer; and you have not heard those weak little wails -- and to think it need not have been!
But we could do nothing. We were leaving the place next day, and even if we could have helped him, they would not have let us. They had their own doctor, they said; the case was in his hands. As we came away they explained that one of the boy's distant relatives had died two years ago, and that this was what prevented any of them leaving the house, as some obscure Caste rule would be broken if they did; otherwise, perhaps they might have been able to take him somewhere for change of treatment. So there that child must lie in his pain, one more little living sacrifice on the altar of Caste.
The last thing I heard them say as we left the house was, "Cry softly, or we'll put more medicine in!" And the last thing I saw was the tightening of the little hands over the poor shut eyes, as he tried to stifle his sobs and "cry softly." This told one what the "medicine" meant to him. One of the things they had put in was raw pepper mixed with alum.
Is not Caste a cruel thing? Those women were not heartless, but they would rather see that baby die in torture by inches, than dim with one breath the lustre of their brazen escutcheon of Caste!
[Illustration: "I determined not to laugh!" That was what she said when she saw it, and she was fairly satisfied with the result of her efforts. The jewels are gold, the seeley a rich red. A woman of this type makes a fine picture, -- the strong intelligent face, the perfect arms and hands, the glistening gold on the clear brown, and the graceful dress harmonising so perfectly with the colour of eyes and hair. The one deformity is the ear, cut so as to hold the jewels, which are so heavy that one wonders the stretched lobes do not break.]
This is one glimpse of one phase of a power which is only a name at home. It is its weakest phase; for the hold of Caste upon the body is as nothing to the hold it has upon the mind and soul. It yields to the touch of pain sometimes, as our medical missionaries know; but it tightens again too often when the need for relief is past. It is unspeakably strong, unmercifully cruel, and yet it would seem as though the very blood of the people ran red with it. It is in them, part of their very being.
This, then, is Caste viewed as a Doer. It does strange things, hard things, things most cruel. It is, all who fight it are agreed, the strongest foe to the Gospel of Christ on the Hindu fields of South India.