The Question of Caste – Excerpts from Charles Sumner’s 1869 Lecture


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Charles Sumner (January 6, 1811 – March 11, 1874) was an American politician and United States Senator from Massachusetts. As an academic lawyer and a powerful orator, Sumner was the leader of the anti-slavery forces in Massachusetts.

Here we bring to you what Charles Sumner said about Caste in a lecture delivered in the Music Hall, Boston, October 21, 1869, titled “The Question of Caste”. If you are interested in the reading more, you can read the whole lecture from here.

In Hindustan, this dreadful system, which, under the name of Order, is the organization of disorder, has prolonged itself to our day, so as to be a living admonition to mankind. That we may shun the evil it entails, in whatever shape, I now endeavor to expose its true character.

The regular castes of India are four in number, called in Sanscrit varnas, or colors, although it does not appear that by nature they were of different colors. Their origin will be found in the sacred law-book of the Hindoos, the “Ordinances of Menu,” where it is recorded that the Creator caused the Brahmin, the Cshatriya, the Vaisya, and the Sudra, so named from Scripture, Protection, Wealth, and Labor, to proceed from his mouth, his arm, his thigh, and his foot, appointing separate duties for each class. To the Brahmin, proceeding from the mouth, was allotted the duty of reading the Veda and of teaching it; to the Cshatriya, proceeding from the arm, the duty of soldier; to the Vaisya, proceeding from the thigh, the duty of cultivating the land and keeping herds of cattle; and to the Sudra, proceeding from the foot, was appointed the chief duty of serving the other classes without depreciating their worth. Such was the original assignment of parts; but, under the operation of natural laws, those already elevated increased their importance, while those already degraded sank lower. Ascent from an inferior class was absolutely impossible: as well might a vegetable become a man. The distinction was perpetuated by the injunction that each should marry only in his own class, with sanguinary penalties upon any attempted amalgamation.

The Brahmin was child of rank and privilege; the Sudra, child of degradation and disability. Omitting the two intermediate classes, soldiers and husbandmen, look for one moment at the two extremes, as described by the sacred volume.

The Brahmin is constantly hailed as first-born, and, by right, chief of the whole creation. This eminence is declared in various terms. Thus it is said, “When a Brahmin springs to light, he is born above the world”; and then again, “Whatever exists in the universe is all in effect the wealth of the Brahmin.” As he engrosses the favor of the Deity, so is he entitled to the veneration of mortals; and thus, “whether learned or ignorant, he is a powerful divinity, even as fire is a powerful divinity, whether consecrated or common.” Immunities of all kinds cluster about him. Not for the most insufferable crime can he be touched in person or property; nor can he be called to pay taxes, while all other classes must bestow their wealth upon him. Such is the Brahmin, with these privileges crystallized in his blood from generation to generation.

On the other hand is the Sudra, who is the contrast in all particulars. As much as the Brahmin is object of constant veneration, so is the Sudra object of constant contempt. As one is exalted above Humanity, so is the other degraded below it. The life of the Sudra is servile, but according to the sacred volume he was created by the Self-Existent especially to serve the Brahmin. Everywhere his degradation is manifest. He holds no property which a Brahmin may not seize. The crime he commits is visited with the most condign punishment, beyond that allotted to other classes subject to punishment. The least disrespect to a Brahmin is terribly avenged. For presuming to sit on a Brahmin’s carpet, the penalty is branding and banishment, or maiming; for contumelious words to a Brahmin, it is an iron style ten fingers long thrust red-hot into the mouth; and for offering instruction to a Brahmin, it is nothing less than hot oil poured into mouth and ears. Such is the Sudra; and this fearful degradation, with all its disabilities, is crystallized in his blood from generation to generation.

Below these is another more degraded even than the Sudra, being the outcast, with no place in either of the four regular castes, and known commonly as the Pariah. Here is another term imported into familiar usage to signify generally those on whom society has set its ban. No person of the regular castes holds communication with the Pariah. His presence is contaminating. Milk, and even water, is defiled by his passing shadow, and cannot be used until purified. The Brahmin sometimes puts him to death at sight. In well-known language of our country, once applied to another people, he has no rights which a Brahmin is bound to respect.

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Such a system, so shocking to the natural sense, has been denounced by all who have considered it, whether on the spot or at a distance,—unless I except the excellent historian Robertson, who seems to find apologies for it, as men among us find apologies for the caste which sends its lengthening shadow across our Republic. I might take your time until late in the evening unfolding its obvious evil, as exposed by those who have witnessed its operation. This testimony is collected in a work entitled “Caste opposed to Christianity,” by Rev. Joseph Roberts, and published in London in 1847. I give brief specimens only. A Hindoo converted to Christianity exposes its demoralizing influence, when he says, “Caste is the stronghold of pride, which makes a man think of himself more highly than he ought to think”; and so also another converted Hindoo, when he says, “Caste makes a man think that he is holier than another, and that he has some inherent virtue which another has not”; and still another converted Hindoo, when he says, “Caste is part and parcel of idolatry and all heathen abomination.” But no testimony surpasses that of the eminent Reginald Heber, the Bishop of Calcutta, when he declares that it is “a system which tends, more than anything else the Devil has yet invented, to destroy the feelings of general benevolence, and to make nine tenths of mankind the hopeless slaves of the remainder.” Under these protests, and the growing influence of Christianity, the system is so far mitigated, that, according to an able writer whose soul is enlisted against it, “the distinctions are felt on certain limited occasions only.” These are the words of James Mill, interesting always as the author of the best work on India, and the father of John Stuart Mill. It is now admitted, that, under constraint of necessity, the member of a superior caste may descend to the pursuits of an inferior caste. The lofty Brahmin engages in traffic, yet he cannot touch “leather”; for contact with this article of commerce is polluting. But I am obliged to add that no modification leaving “distinctions” transmissible with the blood can be adequate. So long as these continue, the natural harmonies of society are disturbed and man is degraded. The system in its mildest form can have nothing but evil; for it is a constant violation of primal truth, and a constant obstruction to that progress which is the appointed destiny of man.

Change now the scene,—from ancient India, and the shadow of unknown centuries, to our Republic, born on yesterday. How unlike in venerable antiquity! How like in the pretension of Caste! Here the caste claiming hereditary rank and privilege is white, the caste doomed to hereditary degradation and disability is black or yellow; and it is gravely asserted that this difference of color marks difference of race, which in itself justifies the discrimination. To save this enormity of claim from indignant reprobation, it is insisted that the varieties of men do not proceed from a common stock,—that they are different in origin,—that this difference is perpetuated in their respective capacities; and the apology concludes with the practical assumption, that the white man is a superior caste not unlike the Brahmin, while the black man is an inferior caste not unlike the Sudra, sometimes even the Pariah; nor is the yellow man exempted from this same insulting proscription. When I consider how for a long time the African was shut out from testifying in court, even when seeking redress for the grossest outrage, and how at this time in some places the Chinese is also shut out from testifying in court, each seems to have been little better than the Pariah. In stating this assumption of superiority, which I do not exaggerate, I open a question of surpassing interest, whether in science, government, or religion.

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