In transcribing the following paragraphs from the Internet Archive online version of The Imperial Gazetteer’s entry on Hindustan, I have expanded the abbreviations for easier reading and added paragraphing and links. This mid-Victorian reference work has substantial sections on both India and Hindustan, and it is not always clear how Victorians distinguished between the two. The title-page bears the date 1856, but internal evidence in various entrees makes clear that the text dates from 1851 or 1852. This discussion of British India has particular importance because it immediately precedes the 1857 Mutiny.— George P. Landow]

The Brahminical religion dates, no doubt, from a very remote epoch. It acknowledges a self-existent Supreme Being, who, however, is held by it to take no concern in the government of the universe; this is delegated to his triune manifestation Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva who are respectively emblematical of the creating, preserving, and destroying powers. To Brahma except amongst a sect termed the Jaugams, who inhabit chiefly the south of India there is but one temple dedicated, which is situated near Ajmeer, in Kajpootana. The great bulk of the Hindoo population are Vaishnevas, or followers of Vishnu; or Saivas, votaries of Siva; besides which divinities, a vast multitude of inferior deities are worshipped their number amounting, according to the Brahmins, to 333,000,000

Figures of a great many of these deities and their attributes are sculptured in the temples, and retained as household gods in the dwell ings of the people, to receive daily adoration; and however, at first, the Hindoo pantheon might have merely represented emblematically the forces of nature, and changes in material bodies, it has given rise to the most gigantic and degrading system of idolatry in the world.

The temples and worshippers of Siva, the destroyer, are far more numerous than those of any other Hindoo idol; and his worship, like that of the goddess Kali or Doorga, is, at certain periods, marked by acts nnd sacrifices of the most brutal and savage kind. The worship of Vishnu, the preserver which is chiefly prevalent in Bengal and Orissa and that of Krishna, the representative of the sun, are unpolluted by any such barbarities. The votaries of Siva and Vishnu are distinguished by certain coloured marks on the forehead; those of the Shiva sect being horizontal, and those of the Vaishnevas perpendicular.

The supremacy of the Brahmins, and the doctrine of metempsychosis, or of the transmigration of the soul, after death, into the bodies of animals or human beings, for a long series of ages, according to the purity or impurity of previous life, are leading dogmas of the Brahminical faith. Pilgrimages to remote and holy places, penances, and offerings to the priesthood, are held in high esteem; the avoidance of impure or forbidden food, especially the flesh of the cow, and the preservation of caste, are amongst the most important moral duties enjoined on the Hindoo.

In no country does the religion of the inhabitants appear so prominent, in every act, as in Hindoostan. It pervades the entire frame of civil society, and mixes itself up with every concern of life public, private, and domestic. The whole of Indian theology is professedly founded on the Vedas, four in number, and believed by the Hindoos to have been revealed by Brahma himself; but, practically, the Puranas and the Institutes of Menu, compositions of later dates, and which insist more strongly on the supremacy of the priesthood, are the basis of the existing Brahminical system. Further on, will be found a few specimens from these productions, showing the spirit in which they have been composed.

The institution of caste, so characteristic of society through out nearly the whole of India, cannot be considered entirely peculiar to that region, since prejudices of rank and position prevail even in Europe, in many curious respects, similar to those which divide the classes of the population in Hindoostan; but nowhere are such prejudices and distinctions pursued to such ramifications, and in so arbitrary and often merciless a manner, as in that portion of the globe under consideration.

In the outset, the Hindoos are divided into four great classes or castes the Brahmins, or sacerdotal class; the Kslietriyas, warriors and rulers; the Vaisyas, capitalists, traders, and farmers; and the Sudras, labourers, artizans, and menial servants. These divisions are hereditary, impassable, and indefeasible. The three first classes are termed twice born, and are fabled to have sprung respectively from the mouth, the breast and arm, and the thigh of Brahma, while the Sudras, at an immeasurable distance below the rest, are deemed only once born, and to outcasts, or of no rank whatever; and some are so utterly abominable that a Brahmin is defiled by coming within their shadow! Purity of caste is incapable of acquisition; and the Mahratta chieftain, besides others who, at various times, have have sprung from the foot of the divinity. But, in addition to the foregoing, there are a vast number of subdivisions constituting so many different castes, originating in intermarriages of the four great orders, or dependent on the employments, trades, or professions they pursue some of which (as indeed in Europe), are held to be much more honourable and worthy than others; and, in addition, a very large number amongst the population, particularly in certain districts, are å acquired sovereign dominion, have been still held to be no more than Sudras, or of the servile class. The Brahmins are regarded as greatly superior to the rest of the population, and are distinguished by wearing a certain cord termed the thread; they may engage in warlike or literary pursuits, and some others are held not derogatory to their dignity; but they are mostly attached to the pagodas, and live by giving instruction, or on the alms of the charitable and devout. The following passages will denote what obsequious reverence the Brahmins claim for their order: A Brahmin, whether learned or ignorant, is a powerful divinity. (Institutes of Menu, vol. ix., pp. 316, 317.) Those excellent Brahmins who are guilty of such crimes as theft, are offenders against themselves, not others.

Brahmins are masters of the Kshetriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras; they are masters of one another, and to be worshipped, being earthly gods. xx.) Whatever exists in the universe is all in effect, though not in form, the wealth of the Brahmin, since the Brahmin is entitled to it all by his primogeniture and eminence of birth. . . The Brahmin eats but his own food, wears but his own apparel, and bestows but his own in alms. . . He alone deserves to possess the whole earth. (Ibid.)

A remarkable section of the religious orders is formed by the fakeers or mendicant monks. They dress in rags, and live in filth and perpetual poverty on the alms of the faithful; practise on themselves the most unheard-of descriptions of ascetic tortures; perform pilgrimages; pretend to the gift of prophecy; and, though held in high veneration by the mass of the people, they are of the most abandoned habits, and the greatest of Hindoo cheats and deceivers.

Left: Hindoo Weaver and Winder of Thread.Right: Fakeer and Woman of Low caste. Both reproduced in the Imperial Gazetteer entry from Solvyns’ Costumes of Hindustan. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The military profession is held to be nearly as honourable as the sacerdotal; the Vaisyas or mercantile classes are regarded with much less consideration. Contrary to the opinion commonly entertained, there is nothing to prevent the son of a potter from becoming a worker in metals, or the son of a washerman from becoming a weaver; but occupations usually depend on hereditary descent. Thus, amongst the mixed castes, the Vaidya, whose function is medical, is the son of a Brahmin by a woman of the Vaisya class; the Vaidelia is the descendant of a Vaisya father and a Brahmini cal mother, and his business is to wait on women; the Vena, the offspring of a Vaideha and a Vaidya, is a musician; the Abhira, descended from a Brahmin and a Vaidya, is a cow herd; and the Kayasfha, born of a Vaisha and a Sudra, is a writer.

Agricultural employments are generally held to be creditable, as are ordinary trades, except those of fishermen, furriers, and others having to do with animals and animal products; as also those which are concerned with spirituous liquors, which are abstained from by the pure castes. Burners of the dead, and public executioners, are held to be wholly impure; and basket and mat makers, in some districts, as that of Patna, for instance, are considered so despicable that they are not allowed to enter the villages.

With all these fine drawn diversities of rank and respectability, the division into superior and inferior castes is not attended in Hindoostan "with any feeling of humiliation on the part of the latter. Every caste, and subdivision of a caste, forms a little distinct society in the general community. Its members enjoy the sense of equality among themselves, whilst their position, in all respects, towards the other members of the general community, is determined before their birth. The divine origin of castes being universally admitted, there is no ground for personal animosity. The members of the higher castes feel no malice or pity for, but rather indifference towards, those of the lower, nor the latter any envy or hatred of the former. Each caste has peculiar notions of purity and uncleanness by which their manner of living and general conduct is regulated; and men of all castes are found serving together, with equal discipline and efficiency, in the ranks of the Anglo-Indian armies.

Degradation of caste follows the use of forbidden food, and the eating, drinking, or intermarrying with persons of a lower caste (which, it may be said, is, in a minor degree, the case even in Europe.) To avert the penalties of such intermarriages, the Jharejahs of Cutch, and the Rajpoot military tribes, continue to destroy a great number of their female children soon after birth. Such are a few of the peculiarities of the social system of the Hindoos. It cannot be wondered at that, with a debasing superstition, and institutions that have oppressed and split its people into a multitude of unsympathizing sections, India, with a vast population and abundant resources, should have been, during all its history, the prey of one invader after another.

The institution of caste, thus arbitrarily stereotyped upon the Hindoos, has produced a multitude of monstrous anomalies which pervade the whole framework of society in India. In one caste, and one alone, the females are permitted to cohabit, or form matrimonial alliances with Europeans; from another caste, a certain proportion of the females, regarded as incapable of marriage, are contributed to be brought up as bayaderes, nautch, or dancing-girls in the Brahminical temples, where they minister to the appetites of the priesthood. Some of the population, following the destinies which their descent has marked out for them, have become illustrious as thieves, highwaymen, or professional assassins, without thereby losing consideration or respect from their compatriots. Amongst these, the Thugs have been the most conspicuous; they are robbers, united by religious or superstitious ties, who mainly subsist by strangling and plundering travellers; their secret practice of murder excited the interference of the British government, lately which it is believed that Thuggee, in the territories under its control, has been nearly extirpated.

The Hindoos mostly burn their dead, but some, like the aboriginal tribes, practise burial; in other castes, the dead are consigned to the water.; of the Ganges, or other rivers; and in some districts, as Bahar, according to Hamilton, persons when about to die are turned into the open air, and exposed to any weather. Slavery is very general, as is inheritance by adoption. On the Malabar coast, in southwest India, sovereignties, property, &c., descend in the female line, so that not a man’s own children, but his sister’s, or those of his nearest female relative, become his heirs. But despite of all sorts of incongruities in the Hindoo social system, the internal government of the villages and communities is remarkable for its perfect organization and adaptation to the requirements of the people (see INDIA BRITISH). India is, in fact, a land of contradictions; and the most childlike inanity and consummate wisdom, are to be met with in its institutions, side by side.

Other Forms of Religion in South Asia

Abyssinians in Gujerat, Armenians, Jews, Tartars, some Malays, and Europeans of various nations, with considerable number of native descendants of Portuguese settlers, make up nearly the remainder of the motley population of India. Goa, I>amaun,and Diu, all in west India, belong to the Portuguese; Pondichery, Chandernagore, and a few smaller settlements on the Coromandel coast, to the French; and Tranquebar, on the same coast, to the Danes; but, with these exceptions and Nepaul and Bootan, states which are still independent, as well as Buddhist the whole of India is substantially under the British dominion. >/p>


Blackie, Walker Graham. The Imperial Gazetteer: A General Dictionary of Geography, Physical, Political, Statistical and Descriptive. 4 vols. London: Blackie & Son, 1856. Internet Archive online version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 7 November 2018.

Last modified 10 December 2018