The main river system of India depends upon the Himalayas for its supply. There are three magnificent rivers formed from this unfailing source. They are the Indus in the west, and the Ganges and the Brahmapootra in the north and east. The first of these empties into the Arabian Sea. After its birth in the Himalayas, eighteen thousand feet above the sea, it flows northwest for eight hundred and seventy miles to near the extremity of the country, then, taking a sharp turn, it makes southwest in a practically straight course for nearly a thousand miles. During this part of its course it runs parallel with, and near the boundary line of, Afghanistan. The Indus is a historic stream whose name is found in the earlier annals of our race. It abounds with crocodiles, and as a navigable stream has scarcely any value, for though it conveys to the ocean a mighty volume of water besides an annual supply of silt sufficient to form a body of land forty-two by twenty-seven miles, and forty feet deep, it cannot bear the burdens of commerce. For, after having received the water of several powerful tributaries, its basin becomes wide and flat, sweeping a broad path through a sandy region. Soon its strength is divided, schism arises in the federation, and various branches start out for themselves, taking an independent course to the sea, and thus the parent trunk is soon left without power or prestige. Truly, in union there is strength.
How many societies, churches, families, yes, and individuals, there are who have in them the elements of strength and the abilities to accomplish a great and good work, but at the point where usefulness should begin, distraction and division come in, and in consequence they become as incompetent of any real service to the world as is this great river.
The Brahmapootra rises and gathers its strength on the northern slopes of the mountains, or rather, north of the south range, and between the two great ranges which form the sys tem of mountains. It flows for more than eight hundred miles through this valley in a southeasterly direction, then turning abruptly to the south, it breaks through the mountain wall, and runs southwest across the eastern plains of India, to pour its flood into the delta of the Ganges.
The Ganges is one of the most celebrated rivers in the world. Its principal notoriety comes from the sacred venera tion in which it is held by the Hindu race. They call it by the affectionate title of ” Mai Ganga,,” or ” Mother Ganges.” All three of India’s great rivers have their sources in the same region. The general course taken by the Ganges is south. With its tributaries, it forms a magnificent water system in northern India, which is of inestimable worth to the country that would otherwise be parched and useless. For several hundred miles the lower part of the river is utilized for the purposes of commerce, though on account of the treacherous nature of the channel large boats and steamers are not used. But there are hundreds and thousands of small, clumsy boats propelled by poles in the hands of natives, by rude sails, or, as is often the case, by natives walking the shores and tugging at a rope. The business done at Calcutta, by this means repre sents a sum of more than a million dollars annually. Two or three hundred miles from the sea the river begins to divide into independent streams, which finally become a network of channels, crossing and recrossing one another at every conceivable angle, and all gradually making their way to the Bay of Bengal. This delta covers an area of country about seventyfive by one hundred and fifty miles in extent, and is called the Sunderbunds. The whole region is a rich alluvial deposit. The islands thus formed are covered by dense jungles in which tigers, other fierce animals, and serpents dwell. The channels are inhabited by alligators. But the government having done much to have this section cleared up, it now supports a large population, for the soil is adapted to the production of rice, indigo, and other commodities. The climate, as would be supposed, is unhealthful, but in a country that is so crowded as Bengal, people cannot be fastidious as to where they live.
The native people of India are ordinarily divided into two classes, aboriginals and Aryan. In regard to the former it is difficult to prove that the term is applied with strict propriety to any of the various tribes which usually come under this head. Neither history nor legend give us authentic testimony in regard to their origin or identity. Among the earlier fragments of Indian story that come to us from three thousand, perhaps four thousand, years ago, we learn that an energetic and fair-skinned people from the northwest came, through the passes in the mountains, down upon the peaceable and mild inhabitants of India, subdued the country, and became its rulers, though they did not drive out or annihilate the original inhabitants. This race of conquerors belongs to the Japhetic, or Aryan, branch of the human family. Their forefathers were also the progenitors of the Greeks and Romans, of the Teutons and the Anglo Saxons. They were our forefathers. In the old Sanskrit language which they brought with them, we have evidence of the consanguinity of the dominant Indian race and our own.
Having become attached to the country, society resolved itself into four great classes, or castes. These were first, the Brahmans, or priest class, second, the Rajput, or warrior caste, third, the Vaisyas, or tillers of the soil, and the Sudras, or servile class. The first three belonging to the Aryan race, honored themselves with the distinction of being “twice-born.” The Sudras were of the original inhabitants. They were of a distinct and dark-skinned race. They, being but ” once born,” were regarded with great contempt by their superiors. This was the beginning of that great system of caste which for ages has held the people of India as in a cast-iron mold. The system itself has broadened and strengthened in order to retain its hold upon the people, until at present it is stated, on good authority, that there are at least thirty thousand distinctions of caste recognized in India. In the Brahman caste alone there are ten thousand.
The Brahmans became philosophers and students of art and science. The standard grammar of the Sanskrit language dates from more than five hundred years before Christ. Their philosophy is older than that of Greece or Rome, and in many respects superior. Their civilization antedates the birth of the Anglo Saxon race by many more centuries than have elapsed since our race was born. The Brahmans point with great pride to their ancestry, and repudiate with scorn the epithet of “heathen” when applied to them.
The religions of India are many and diverse, but in this sketch we shall notice but a few, which, on account of their prominence, require mention. And just now we shall not stop long with this, for we are soon to get nearer views of the things of everyday life in which, from time to time, the religion of the people will attract our attention. Hinduism, the leading and most ancient religion, numbers as its votaries over one hundred and eighty-eight million. The Mohammedans have fifty million, and the two taken together comprise ninety-four per cent of the entire population of the country.
The Hindus recognize a triad of supreme deities besides an innumerable class of secondary gods. From their most ancient writings we gather the idea that the first objects of worship were the forces of nature. But in these things the Creator himself is revealed. It requires no extraordinary degree of astuteness to perceive that beyond nature there is a. primary cause, that natural objects are but the creatures of a divine power, whose harmonious actions show the unity of that power. The Brahman philosophers discerning this creative power, gave to it the name of Brahm. But they did not follow this ray of light. They worshiped him not as God, but turning their devotions to other conceptions, they thus worshiped the creature.
Brahm is regarded as little else than an abstraction. His worship is but rarely observed, there being in all India but two or three temples devoted to that purpose. Associated with Brahm are Vishnu the preserver, and Siva the destroyer. The worship of the former is cheerful. In his capacity as a saviour of his people he has passed nine incarnations, in each of which he worked out some scheme for temporal salvation. In his last mission to earth he is known as Krishna.. It is said that the Hindus cherish the expectation of one more visit to earth by this god, at which time he will restore his people, and establish his kingdom.
In this character we have one of Satan’s counterfeits of the true Saviour of mankind. All men are brought to feel their need of divine interposition, of a saving power that does not originate in human weakness, hence it is the work of the enemy to see that this want is supplied by a fraud, which in many respects must resemble the true. Our Saviour is from heaven. He has taken upon himself man’s nature, and lived and died for us. He is coming again. He will at that time raise the dead who sleep in him. He will take to himself his power and reign, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Many true-hearted Christians believe that this event is drawing near, and the Hindus, too, are now looking for the return of their king. It does seem that the truth of Jesus’ second coming would be readily received by this people who entertain such ideas. But on the other hand, this near approach to the truth is often the most dangerous of delusions, because those who hold such views are with great difficulty convinced of the necessity of the truth.
Siva is feared. His worship is frequently gruesome, and always austere. In his character he embraces the reproductive faculties as well as those of destruction. Consequently the worship of animals is associated with him. It is more nat ural for us to fear calamities than to court favors. That is, if some power will ward off the evils of life, and preserve us in health and prosperity, we will look out for the blessings. Proceeding upon this principle, the Hindus venerate Siva far more than either of his consorts. Hunter’s history of the Indian people thus concisely describes this famous and hideous monstrosity – ” Siva, at once the destroyer and reproducer, represented profound philosophical doctrines, and was early recognized as being in a special sense the god of the Brahmans. To them he was the symbol of death as merely a change of life. On the other hand, his terrible aspects, preserved in his long list of names, from the Roarer (Rudra) of the Veda to the Dread One (Bhima) of the modern Hindu pantheon, well adapted him to the religion of fear prevalent among the ruder non-Aryan races.
“Siva, in his two-fold character, thus became the deity alike of the highest and of the lowest castes. He is the Maha-deva, or great god of modern Hinduism, and his wife is Devi, pre-eminently the goddess. His universal symbol is the linga, or emblem of reproduction, his sacred beast, the bull, is connected with the same idea, a trident tops his temples. His images partake of his double nature. The Brahmanical conception of Siva is represented by his attitude as a fair-skinned man, seated in profound thought, the symbol of the fertilizing Ganges above his head, and the bull (emblem alike of procreation and of Aryan plow-tillage) near at hand. The wilder non-Aryan aspects of his character are signified by his necklace of skulls, his collar of twining serpents, his tiger skin, and his club with a human head at the end. Siva has five faces and four arms. His wife, in like manner, appears in her Aryan or Brahmanical form as Uma, ‘light,’ a gentle goddess and the type of high-born loveliness, in her composite character as Durga, a golden-colored woman, beautiful but menacing, riding on a tiger, and in her terrible non-Aryan aspects as Kali, a black fury of a hideous countenance, dripping with blood, crowned with snakes, and hung round with skulls.”
Mohammedanism had its rise in Arabia, early in the seventh century. Before it was a hundred years old, it was carried by conquest into Sind, the northwest province of India. Subsequent to 1000 A.D. a strong tide of Islamism set in toward India, and for a long time nearly submerged Hinduism, though it never subdued or conquered it. In Southern India. Hinduism always predominated, but as we proceed to the other extremity of the country, we find even at the present day Mohammedan influences continually becoming stronger, and by the time we reach Delhi the predominance is in favor of the Mussulman. Not a very amicable spirit exists between the two parties, whose hatred and jealousy not infrequently break out in bloodshed and violence.
By repeated invasions and conquests from 714 A. D. to the middle of the sixteenth century, Mohammedan power was greatly increased in India, though after each onslaught Hindu ism would recover nearly all that it had lost by the remarkable vitality which it possessed. Among these invasions the one of Timoor the Tartar, or Tamerlane, is perhaps the most noted in history. He was the first of the famous Moghuls. After his conquest of the country, he returned to Central Asia, and Hinduism soon filled again its usual place. But in 1526, Babar, a direct descendant of Timoor, overran India with an irresistible force, and established the Moghul empire, which extended to the Gangetic delta. But the Arabs, who had long lived in India, hated the new conquerors more than the Hindus, and after the death of Babar, drove his son and successor back into Asia. But the next in the Moghul line was the celebrated Akbar. He was born in 1542, and in his fourteenth year led the army of his father to decisive victory, and regained for him the throne of Delhi. He is regarded as the real founder of the Moghul empire. By conquest, but more by the wise policy of conciliation, he carried his power into Southern India. His grandson, Shah Jahan, who reigned after an interval of twenty-two years from the death of Akbar, imitating the great emperor in prowess and wisdom, extended the dominion to the south. He was the famous builder whose work we shall have opportunity to examine later on.
As before stated, the Buddhists form no considerable portion of the population of the country. But the Jains, whose principal center of numbers and worship is at Mount Abu, in Rajputana, Western India, are an off-shoot of that ancient religion, and retain much of the same forms of worship and belief. They number, according to the last census, about one hundred and twenty-two millions. Of Christians, real and nominal, there are, it is said, one million, seven hundred and fifty thousand. Of Parsees, there are eighty-five thousand, seven eighths of whom live in Bombay.