By Alice B. Van Doren
"Once upon a time," men and women dwelt in caves and cliffs and fashioned curious implements from the stones of the earth and painted crude pictures upon the walls of their rock dwellings. Archaeologists find such traces in England and along the river valleys of France, among the sands of Egyptian deserts and in India, where armor heads, ancient pottery, and cromlechs mark the passing of a long forgotten race. Thus India claims her place in the universal childhood of the world.
"Once upon a time," when the Stone Men had passed, a strange, new civilization is thought to have girdled the earth, passing probably in a "brown belt" from Mediterranean lands across India to the Pacific world and the Americas. Its sign was the curious symbol of the Swastika; its passwords certain primitive customs common to all these lands. Its probable Indian representatives are known to-day as Dravidians--the brown-skinned people still dominating South Indian life, whose exact place in the family of races puzzles every anthropologist. It was then that civilization was first walking up and down the great river valleys of the Old World. While the first pyramids were a-building beside the long green ribbon of the Nile and the star-gazers of Mesopotamia were reading future events from her towers of sun-dried bricks, Dravidian tribes were cultivating the rich mud of the Ganges valley, a slow-changing race. Did the lonely traveler, I wonder, troll the same air then as now to ward away evil spirits from the star-lit road? Did the Dravidian maiden do her sleek hair in the same knot at the nape of her brown neck, and poise the earthen pot with the same grace on her daily pilgrimage to the river?
"Once upon a time" Abraham pitched his tent beneath the oaks of Mamre, and Moses shepherded his father-in-law's flocks at "the back side of the desert." It was then that down through the grim passes of the Himalayas, where now the British regiments convoy caravans and guard the outposts of Empire, a people of fair skin and strange speech migrated southward to the Land of the Five Rivers and the fat plains of the Ganges. Aryan even as we, the Brahman entered India, singing hymns to the sun and the dawn, bringing with him the stately Sanskrit speech, new lore of priest and shrine, new pride of race that was to cleave society into those horizontal strata that persist to-day in the caste system. Thus through successions of Stone-Age men, Dravidian tribes, and Aryan invaders, India stretches her roots deep into the past. But while there were transpiring these
"Old, unhappy, far-off things
And battles long ago,"
where were we? The superior Anglo-Saxon who speaks complacently of "the native" forgets that during that same "once upon a time" when civilization was old in India, his ancestors, clad in deer skin and blue paint, were stalking the forests of Europe for food.
Nor did these old civilizations forbear to reach hands across the sea and share with the young and lusty West the fruits of their knowledge. On a May morning, as skillful carriers swing you up to the heights of the South India hills, there is a sudden sound reminiscent of the home barnyard, a scurry of wings across the path, and a gleam of glossy plumage; Mr. Jungle Cock has been disturbed in his morning meal. Did you know that from his ancestors are descended in direct lineage all the Plymouth Rocks and the White Leghorns of the poultry yard, all the Buff Orpingtons that win gold medals at poultry shows? Other food stuffs India originated and shared. Sugar and rice were delicacies from her fields carried over Roman roads to please the palates of the Caesars.
Besides these contributions to the world's pantry, there were gifts of the mind and spirit. To those days of long ago modern India looks back as to a golden age, for she was then in the forefront of civilization, passing out her gifts with a generous hand. Of that ancient heritage not the least part is the tradition of womanhood,--a heritage trampled in the dust of later ages, its restoration only now beginning through that liberty in Christ which sets free the woman of the West and of the East.
Much might be written on the place of the Indian woman in folk-lore epic and drama. Helen of Troy and Dido of Carthage pale into common adventuresses when placed beside the quiet courage and utter self-abnegation of such Indian heroines as Sita and Damayanti.
The story of Rama and Sita is the Odyssey of the East, crooned by grandmothers over the evening fires; sung by wandering minstrels under the shade of the mango grove; trolled by travelers jogging in bullock carts along empty moonlit roads. Sita's devotion is a household word to many a woman-child of India. Little Lakshmi follows the adventures of the loved heroine as she shares Rama's unselfish renunciation of the throne and exile to the forest with its alarms of wild beasts and wild men. She thrills with fear at Sita's abduction by the hideous giant, Ravana, and the wild journey through the air and across the sea to the Ceylon castle. She weeps with Rama's despair, and again laughs with glee at the antics of his monkey army from the south country, as they build their bridge of stones across the Ceylon straits where now-a-days British engineers have followed in their simian track and train and ferry carry the casual traveler across the gaps jumped by the monkey king and his tribe. Sita's sore temptations in the palace of her conqueror and her steadfast loyalty until at last her husband comes victorious--they are part of the heritage of a million Lakshmis all up and down the length of India.
Of the loves of Nala and Damayanti it is difficult to write in few words. From the opening scene where the golden-winged swans carry Nala's words of love to Damayanti in the garden, sporting at sunset with her maidens, the old tale moves on with beauty and with pathos. The Swayamvara, or Self Choice, harks back to the time when the Indian princess might herself choose among her suitors. Gods and men compete for Damayanti's hand among scenes as bright and stately as the lists of King Arthur's Court, until the princess, choosing her human lover, throws about his neck the garland that declares her choice. Happy years follow, and the birth of children. Then the scene changes to exile and desertion. Through it all moves the heroine, sharing her one garment with her unworthy lord, "thin and pale and travel-stained, with hair covered in dust," yet never faltering until her husband, sane and repentant, is restored to home and children and throne.
So the ancient folk-lore goes on, in epic and in drama, with the woman ever the heroine of the tale. True it is that her virtues are limited; obedience, chastity, and an unlimited capacity for suffering largely sum them up. They would scarcely satisfy the ambitions of the new woman of to-day; yet some among us might do well to pay them reverence.
Those were the high days of Indian womanhood. Then, as the centuries passed, there came slow eclipse. Lawgivers like Manu proclaimed the essential impurity of a woman's heart; codes and customs began to bind her with chains easy to forge and hard to break. Later followed the catastrophe that completed the change. The Himalayan gateways opened once more and through them swarmed a new race of invaders, passing out of those barren plains of Central Asia that have been ever the breeding grounds of nations and swooping upon India's treasures. In one hand the green flag of the Prophet, in the other the sword, these followers of Muhammad sealed for a millennium the end of woman's high estate.
All was not lost without a mighty struggle. From those days come the tales of Rajput chivalry--tales that might have been sung by the troubadours of France. Rajput maidens of noble blood scorned the throne of Muslim conquerors. Litters supposed to carry captive women poured out warriors armed to the teeth. Men and women in saffron robes and bridal garments mounted the great funeral pyre, and when the conquering Allah-ud-din entered the silent city of Chitore he found no resistance and no captives, for no one living was left from the great Sacrifice of Honorable Death.
After that came an end. Everywhere the Muhammadan conqueror desired many wives; in a far and alien land his own womankind were few. Again and again the ordinary Hindu householder, lacking the desperate courage of the Rajput, stood by helpless, like the Armenian of to-day, while his wife and daughter were carried off from before his eyes, to increase the harem of his ruler. Small wonder that seclusion became the order of the day--a woman would better spend her life behind the purdah of her own home than be added to the zenana of her conqueror. Later when the throes of conquest were over and Hindu women once more ventured forth to a wedding or a festival, small wonder that they copied the manners of their masters, and to escape familiarity and insult became as like as possible to women of the conquering race. Thus the use of the veil began.
At that beginning we do not wonder; what makes us marvel is that a repressing custom became so strong that, even after a century and a half of British rule, all over North India and among some conservative families of the South seclusion and the veil still persist. Walk the streets of a great commercial town like Calcutta, and you find it a city of men. An occasional Parsee lady, now and then an Indian Christian, here and there women of the cooly class whose lowly station has saved their freedom--otherwise womankind seems not to exist.
The high hour of Indian womanhood had passed, not to return until brought back by the power of Christ, in whose kingdom there is "neither male nor female, but all are one." Yet as the afterglow flames up with a transient glory after the swift sunset, so in the gathering darkness of Muhammadan domination we see the brightness of two remarkable women.
There was Nur Jahan, the "Light of the World," wife of the dissolute Jahangir. Never forgetful, it would seem, of a childish adventure when the little Nur Jahan in temper and pride set free his two pet doves, twenty years later the Mughal Emperor won her from her soldier husband by those same swift methods that David employed to gain the wife of Uriah, the Hittite.
And when Nur Jahan became queen she was ruler indeed, "the one overmastering influence in his life." From that time on we see her, restraining her husband from his self-indulgent habits, improving his administration, crossing flooded rivers and leading attacks on elephants to save him from captivity; "a beautiful queen, beautifully dressed, clever beyond compare, contriving and scheming, plotting, planning, shielding and saving, doing all things for the man hidden in the pampered, drink-sodden carcass of the king; the man who, for her at any rate, always had a heart." Think of Nur Jahan's descendants, hidden in the zenanas of India. When their powers, age-repressed, are set free by Christian education, what will it mean for the future of their nation?
Then there came the lady of the Taj, Mumtaz Mahal, beloved of Shah Jahan, the Master Builder. We know less of her history, less of the secret of her charm, only that she died in giving birth to her thirteenth child, and that for all those years of married life she had held her husband's adoration. For twenty-two succeeding years he spent his leisure in collecting precious things from every part of his world that there might be lacking no adornment to the most exquisite tomb ever raised. And when it was finished--rare commentary on the contradiction of Mughal character--the architect was blinded that he might never produce its like again.
All that was a part of yesterday--a story of rise and fall; of woman's repression, with outbursts of greatness; of countless treasures of talent and possibilities unrecognized and undeveloped, hidden behind the doors of Indian zenanas. What of to-day?
Meenachi of Madura, if she could become articulate, might tell us something of the life of the average girl to-day. Being average, she belongs neither to the exclusive streets of the Brahman, nor to the hovels of the untouchable outcastes, but to the area of the great middle class which is in India as everywhere the backbone of society. Meenachi's father is a weaver of the far-famed Madura muslins with their gold thread border. Her earliest childhood memory is the quiet weavers' street where the afternoon sun glints under the tamarind trees and, striking the long looms set in the open air, brings out the blue and mauve, the deep crimson and purple and gold of the weaving.
There were rollicking babyhood days when Meenachi, clad only in the olive of her satin skin with a silver fig leaf and a bead necklace for adornment, wandered in and out the house and about the looms at will. With added years came the burden of clothing, much resented by the wearer, but accepted with philosophic submission, as harder things would be later on. Toys are few and simple. The palmyra rattle is exchanged for the stiff wooden doll, painted in gaudy colors, and the collection of tiny vessels in which sand and stones and seeds provide the equivalent of mud pies in repasts of imaginary rice and curry. Household duties begin also. Meenachi at the age of six grasps her small bundle of broom-grass and sweeps each morning her allotted section of verandah. Soon she is helping to polish the brass cooking pots and to follow her mother and older sisters, earthen water-pot on hip, on their morning and evening pilgrimages to the river.
Being only an average girl, Meenachi will never go to school. There are ninety and nine of these "average" unschooled girls to the one "above the average" to whom education offers its outlet for the questing spirit. She looks with curiosity at the books her brother brings home from high school, but the strange, black marks which cover their pages mean nothing to her. Not for her the release into broad spaces that comes only through the written word. For, mark you, to the illiterate life means only those circumscribed experiences that come within the range of one's own sight and touch and hearing. "What I have seen, what I have heard, what I have felt"--there experience ends. From personal unhappiness there is no escape into the world current.
Meenachi is twelve and the freedom of the long street is hers no more. Yellow chrysanthemums in her glossy hair, a special diet of milk and curds and sweet cakes fried in ghee, and the outspoken congratulations of relatives, male and female, mark her entrance into the estate of womanhood. What the West hides, the East delights to reveal.
Now follows the swift sequel of marriage. The husband, of just the right degree of relationship, has long been chosen. The family exchequer is drained to the dregs to provide the heavy dowry, the burdensome expenditure for wedding feast and jewels, and the presentation of numerous wedding garments to equally numerous and expectant relatives. Meenachi is carried away by the splendor of new clothes and jewels and processions, and the general _tamash_ of the occasion. Has she not the handsomest bridegroom and the most expensive _trousseau,_ of this marriage month? Is she not the envy of all her former playmates? Only now and then comes a strange feeling of loneliness when she thinks of leaving the dear, familiar roof the narrow street with its tamarind trees and many colored looms. The mother-in-law's house is a hundred miles away, and the mother-in-law's face is strange.
Will Meenachi be sad or happy? The answer is complex and hard to find, for it depends on many contingencies. The husband--what will he be? He is not of Meenachi's choosing. Did she choose her father and mother, and the house in which she was born? Were they not chosen for her, "written upon her forehead" by her _Karma_, her inscrutable fate? Her husband has been chosen; let her make the best of the choice.
Will she be happy? The future years shall make answer by many things. Will she bear sons to her husband? If so, will her young body have strength for the pains of childbirth and the torturings of ignorant and brutal midwives? Will her _Karma_ spare to her the life of husband and children? In India sudden death is never far; pestilence walks in darkness and destruction wastes at noon day. The fear of disease, the fear of demons, the fear of death will be never far away; for these fears there will be none to say, "Be not afraid."
So Meenachi, the bride, passes out into the unknown of life, and later into the greater unknown of death. No one has taught her to say in the valley of the shadow, "I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." The terrors of life are with her, but its consolations are not hers.
Of widowhood I shall say little. Since the ancient days of _suttee_ when the wife mounted her husband's funeral pyre volumes have been written on the lot of the Indian widow. To-day in some cases the power of Christianity has awakened the spirit of social reform and the rigors of widowhood are lessened. Among the majority the old remains. In general, the higher you rise in the social scale, the sterner the conventions and fashions of widowhood become.
In Madras you may visit a Widow's Home, where through the wise efforts of a large-hearted woman in the Educational Department of Government more than a hundred Brahman girl-widows live the life of a normal schoolgirl. No fastings, no shaven heads, no lack of pretty clothes or jewels mark them off from the rest of womanhood. Schools and colleges open their doors and professional life as teacher or doctor offers hope of human contact and interest for these to whom husband and child and home are forever forbidden. In all India you may find a very few such institutions, but "what are these among so many?" The millions of repressed child widows still go on.
Worse is the fate of those whose _Karma_ condemns them to a life of religious prostitution. Perhaps the first-born son of the family lies near to death. The parents vow a frantic vow to the deity of the local temple. "Save our son's life, O Govinda; our youngest daughter shall be dedicated to thy service." The son recovers, the vow must be fulfilled, and bright-eyed, laughing Lakshmi, aged eight, is led to the temple, put through the mockery of a ceremony of marriage to the black and misshapen image in the inmost shrine, and thenceforth trained to a religious service of nameless infamy.
The story of Hinduism holds the history of some devout seekers after God, of sincere aspiration, in some cases of beautiful thought and life. This deepest blot is acknowledged and condemned by its better members. Yet in countless temples, under the brightness of the Indian sun, the iniquity, protected by vested interests, goes on and no hand is lifted to stay. Suppose each American church to shelter its own house of prostitution, its forces recruited from the young girls of the congregation, their services at the disposal of its worshippers. The thought is too black for utterance; yet just so in the life of India has the service of the gods been prostituted to the lusts of men.
The achievements of Christianity in India are not confined to the four million who constitute the community that have followed the new Way. Perhaps even greater has been the reaction it has excited in the ranks of Hinduism among those who would repudiate the name of Christian. Chief among the abuses of Hinduism to be attacked has been the traditional attitude toward woman. Child marriage and compulsory widowhood are condemned by every social reformer up and down the length of India. The battle is fought not only for women, but by them also. Agitation for the suffrage has been carried on in India's chief cities. In Poona not long since the educated women of the city, Hindu, Muhammadan (Islam), and Christian, joined in a procession with banners, demanding compulsory education for girls.
Of women not Christian, but freed from ancient bonds by this reflex action of Christian thought, perhaps the most eminent example is Mrs. Sarojini Naidu. Of Brahman birth, but English education, she dared to resist the will of her family and the tradition of her caste and marry a man of less than Brahman extraction. Now as a writer of distinction second only to Tagore she is known to Europe as well as to India. In her own country she is perhaps loved best for her intense patriotism, and is the best known woman connected with the National Movement.
Chiefly, however, it is among the Christian community that woman's freedom has become a fact. Women such as Mrs. Naidu exist, but they are few. Now and then one reads of a case of widow-remarriage successfully achieved. Too often, however, the Hindu reformer, however well-meaning and sincere, talks out his reformation in words rather than deeds. He lacks the support of Christian public opinion; he lacks also the vitalizing power of a personal Christian experience. It is easy to speak in public on the evils of early marriage; he speaks and the audience applauds. He knows too well that in the applauding audience there is not a man whose son will marry his daughter if she passes the age of twelve. So the ardent reformer talks on, with the abandon of the darky preacher who exhorted his audience "Do as I say and not as I do"; and hopes that in some future incarnation life will be kinder, and he may be able to carry out the excellent practices he really desires.
A Hindu girl of high family was allowed to go to college. There being then no women's college in her part of India, she entered a Government University in a large city, where there were a few other women students. Western standards of freedom prevailed and were accepted by men and women. Rukkubai shared in social as well as academic life. With a strong arm and a steady eye, she distinguished herself at tennis and badminton, and came even to play in mixed doubles, a mark of the most "advanced" social views to be found in India.
After college came marriage to a man connected with the family of a well known rajah. The husband was not only the holder of a University degree similar to her own, but a zealous social reformer, eloquent in his advocacy of women's freedom. Life promised well for Rukkubai. A year or two later a friend visited her behind the purdah (veil), with the doors of the world shut in her face. The zeal of the reforming husband could not stand against the petty persecutions of the older women of the family. "I wish," said Rukkubai, "that I had never known freedom. Now I have known--and lost."
Yet not all reformers are such. There are an increasing number whose deeds keep pace with their words. Such may be found among the members of The Servants of India Society, who spend part of the year in social studies; the remainder in carrying to ignorant people the message they have learned.
Such is the heritage of the Hindu woman of ancient freedom; centuries when traditions of repression have gripped with ever-tightening hold; to-day a new ferment in the blood, a new striving toward purposes half realized.
Of to-morrow, who can say? The future is hidden, but the chapters that follow may perhaps serve to bring us into touch with a few of the many forces that are helping to shape the day that shall be.
[Footnote 1: History of India, E.W. Thompson. Christian Literature Society, London and Madras, pp. 11-12.]
[Footnote 2: Outline of History, H.G. Wells. Vol. I, pp. 146-8.]
[Footnote 3: Outline of History, H.G. Wells, Vol. I, pp. 196-199.]
[Footnote 4: Outline of History, H.G. Wells, Vol. I, pp. 189-190.]
[Footnote 5: Ancient Times, Breasted, pp. 658-9.]
[Footnote 6: Code of Manu, Book 9, quoted Lux Christi, Mason, p. 14.]
[Footnote 7: India through the Ages, Florence Annie Steele, Routledge, pp. 95-104, 116-18.]
[Footnote 8: India through the Ages, pp. 190-200]
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