The People of India

Readily recognizable to the rest of the world as Indians, the people of the Subcontinent are of many distinguishable groups, both ethnic and religious. Social and cultural divisions as well as the ubiquitous caste system further diversify the population.

The basic characteristics of the Indian people may be attributed to the geographical isolation of the country. The well defined boundaries of high mountains and sea have sufficed to enclose a culture which has evolved with little foreign intervention for thousands of years. Even with the advent of British colonialism, Indian culture continued virtually unchanged; except that, as under other foreign rulers, the society adopted and adapted many facets of this alien society.

As big as Western Europe with all the geographical diversity implied by the highest mountains in the world to the north and an almost equatorial south, India has so many regional differences it is surprising that each region is at once familiarly Indian.


From the dawn of its history, India has been a land of numerous religions. There are at present six major faiths adhered to by large segments of the population. Hinduism and Brahmanism, an orthodox sect of Hinduism, are the most popular, accounting for around 85% of the population while Muhammadans represent the next largest group. Sikhs, Jains and Parsees, together with Christians, form large minorities and there is a tiny but stable Jewish population.

Except for occasional fanatic elements, the followers of these religions, along with those of some very ancient and obscure ones, have lived together in relative harmony. In fact the gods, shrines and holy men of each are respected by all, the special days of each religion are state holidays and there are many instances where the different faiths overlap. For a people who enjoy a parade, there are many opportunities in Indian life and the colors, sounds and smells of an Indian religious festival are never to be forgotten.

Ethnic Groups

The ethnic groups are as varied as the religions, but the population of India can probably be divided basically into four groups; the fair-skinned Europeans or Aryans, the dark-skinned Dasyu aboriginals, the Mongoloids and Negroids. Mingling of these races throughout millennia has resulted in the variety found today. Some of the distinguishable groups which have had a profound effect on the shaping of India’s history are discussed here.

The pre-Dravidians are the aboriginal inhabitants who are now to be found only in scattered primitive settlements in the more inaccessible areas. The Dravidians (pre-Aryans) occupy southern India from the coast and Sri Lanka north to the Ganges. Indo-Aryans, mainly in Kashmir, also have small isolated populations in the Punjab and Rajasthan. The Aryo-Dravidians of the Ganges River Valley are, as the name suggests, a mix of two types, as are the Scytho-Dravidians who live east and south of the Indus into Bombay. The Turko-Iranians from the northwest frontier are of the same peoples as the Asian races to the north, and the Mongol people of the northeast originally came in through China. The Mongolo-Dravidians are typically represented by the Bengalis.

Successive invasions have caused India to first be subjected by and then to absorb many disparate races. Beginning in prehistoric times these invasions were spaced far enough apart to enable such absorption while also leaving their indelible imprint on the civilization.

Around 2000 B.C. the Indo-Aryans established the eastern division of the Indo European languages in India. The next wave of invasion came when Alexander the Great swept his army northward from Greece as far as the Indus River. Bactrian invasions in the northwest and Scythians in the northeast preceded the Muhammadan domination of the west and northwest which was to result in Moslem dynasties in these areas. A constant influence along the borders were the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, the Indo-Chinese and the Parsees (Persians).

More recently the Indian people have been exposed to and infiltrated by most of the European nationalities and indeed have done their part in massive emigrations to become a part of other countries such as Africa and the British Isles.

The Caste System

Caste has always held a vital place in Indian society, in keeping with the desire of the Indo-Aryan invaders to preserve their racial purity and their status as conquerors. It had its origins in the early Sanskrit (the religious and literary language of India since around 1200 B.C.) text, the Rig Veda, which described the original creation of society from a single being, and was composed of four varna or castes. Each caste had a prescribed occupation and code of conduct. The Brahmins, who came from the original being’s mouth, were the priests; the Kshatriyas from his arms were the warriors; Vaishyas, the traders or merchants, issued from his loins; and the Shudras, laborers, were from his feet. Originally each caste was considered interdependent (as are body parts) and all vital to the whole. This is known as the varna (class) system. One’s varna was dependent on one’s karma, or accumulated deeds of past lives, it was irreversible in the present life but could be altered in successive incarnations.

The varna scheme is the classical caste system of the Hindus while the everyday social hierarchy of today, the jati, actually encompasses all the different religions and cultures of India. It serves to give every member of this complex society a place, a code of behavior and a niche. It is much more fluid and takes into account the need for coexistence of many diverse people.

Historically, outside of these schemes were two immense groups — untouchables and women. Both were “impure” and neither were considered worthy to approach God except by means of an intermediary. Obviously both groups were vital to the continuation of Indian society, bearing the burden of most of the work. Many changes have occurred in India, not the least of which is the status of women, but they are far from reaching their potential (a female prime minister notwithstanding).

Untouchables, those of impure and inferior status, usually have access to only the menial and unpleasant jobs, or their traditional duties or lifestyle assign them to this status. Usually anyone in an occupation involving the taking of any life (fisherman, slaughterers), the disposal of human wastes, or anyone who consumes the meat of cattle, some of the primitive tribes for example, would be designated untouchable. They were restricted as to the use of public buildings and facilities and even forbidden in some cases to go out in daylight.

Mahatma Gandhi championed the cause of the untouchables and in the modern constitution they were legally established as having caste and given representation in Parliament. The term Harijan is now used in preference to untouchable, many privileges have been afforded them and it is illegal to discriminate against them. In the social scene of India, however, the untouchable maintains in many respects the status he has known throughout history.

Indian Food

In India there are as many culinary variations as in any other country. Since Hindus are officially vegetarians and pork is not eaten by Moslems, most menus offer vegetarian dishes. Meats are used in many recipes, however, especially in the north. Rice is the staple everywhere, but in the north, it is varied with other grains. These are often cooked with ghee (clarified butter) or dahi (milk curd). Indian breads are delicious and varied, including roti (maize bread), nan (with toppings), chappatis (griddle cooked) and a variety of puffs such as puri and parathas. Often eaten with bread and rice is dhal, a thick soup of split lentils.

Curry is an English term referring to the wide array of spices used in cooking. It can be mild and pleasant or leave you gasping. Chicken, lamb and fish are used, fried in vegetable oil or ghee. Tandoori-style cooking, involving a marinade of yogurt and long, slow cooking in clay ovens, is not so highly spiced as curry but flavorful. Kabobs are very popular throughout northern India and the variations are numerous.

Dahi or yogurt is often eaten, being without equal in its ability to cool the mouth after a hot curry. It is used alone in meat dishes and in many desserts. Chutneys, relishes of pickled fruits and vegetables, always accompany curry.

Mahatma Gandhi

The life of Mahatma Gandhi and the history of modern India are inextricably interwoven. Many of the most vital events which have affected India in the last decades may be attributed to his influence.

Born on October 2, 1869 at Porbandar, Kathiawar on the west coast, his name was Mahandras Karamchand Gandhi. He received the name Mahatma (Great Soul) later in his life. He was the youngest child of his father’s fourth wife, his father being the dewan, or chief administrator, of Porbandar. Raised in a home steeped in religion, the worship of the Hindu god, Vishnu, together with strong elements of Jainism, which advocates nonviolence, Gandhi firmly believed in ahimsa (the practice of never causing harm to any living being), vegetarianism and fasting.

A solitary child who achieved only mediocrity at school, Gandhi was married at the age of 13 and experienced a period of active rebellion against his parents, religion and society. He recovered from this phase and passed the entrance examination to Samaldas College in Bhavnagar. Here he had to perfect his English in order to follow the lectures. He traveled to England in 1888 to join the Inner Temple, one of the law colleges of London. He became involved with a group of idealists and rebels, including Annie Besant and George Bernard Shaw, who did much to mold his future politics.

Returning to India in 1891 with a barrister’s degree, he met with little success and so took the opportunity of a year’s contract with an Indian firm in South Africa. Experiencing the prejudice shown to Indians in South Africa, Gandhi remained there to take up the cause of the Indian community, uniting them and helping to publicize the inhumane treatment shown them. He brought his wife and children back to South Africa in 1897, where he was assaulted and almost lynched by a white mob whom he later refused to prosecute. In 1899 he raised a volunteer ambulance corps of Indians, both free and indentured laborers, to help the British (who were their oppressors) during the Boer War. After victory the Indians were to be in no better position than before and, under the leadership of Gandhi, the Satyagraha (Firmness in Truth) movement was born. Jailed, flogged and persecuted, the adherents of this movement were to persist for over seven years.

His in-depth studies of comparative religion persuaded Gandhi that all religions were true, but flawed by misinterpretation. The Hindu Bhagavadgita was to have an unequaled influence on his life and work. His asceticism was to become his strength, together with his unshakable belief in his cause. His home became a second home for colleagues and those of similar beliefs. This situation gradually evolved into a community and, with the purchase of a farm near Durban and later another near Johannesburg, was to become a model for future Indian settlements. They emphasized lives of simple manual labor and a sense of community responsibility, together with study and meditation. The freedom from the bonds of ownership, bodily pleasures and comfort and the pursuit of power were to ensure a group of formidable political activists.

In returning to India in 1915, Gandhi did not immediately participate in the political arena. It was not until the February of 1919 when the British enacted the Rowlatt Bills, which severely restricted civil rights, that Gandhi was moved to renew his Satyagraha movement. The results were astounding, but far removed from the nonviolent intentions of the leader. At Amritsar in the Punjab, 400 were killed at a meeting protesting the enactment of martial law.

Within another year Gandhi had attained a powerful position of leadership and, under his guidance, the 35-year-old Indian National Congress was becoming a viable force for the nationalist cause. He taught the Indian people that their state of subjugation was not inevitable, but that it was up to them to change it. Violence was unnecessary when, by sheer force of numbers and the use of noncooperation with the government, they could, with leadership and unity, remove the influence of the British. The movement would falter on the occasions when civil disobedience was answered with violence.

Gandhi was arrested for sedition in 1922 and sentenced to six years in prison, but ill health and the necessity for an appendix operation in 1924 were responsible for his premature release after serving two years. The fragile unity between Hindu and Muslim, which had appeared during the Satyagraha movement, was to dissolve into bitterness during the leader’s incarceration. To protest against this rift and the descent into violence, Gandhi embarked on a three-week fast in the autumn of 1924.

The problems of religious factions, together with further actions by the colonial rulers excluding Indians from any decisions regarding their government, encouraged Gandhi finally to demand Dominion Status for India. As the head of the Congress, he was able to back up his demand with promises of mass boycott and noncooperation. In March of 1930 the most successful and best known of the Satyagraha campaigns was conducted against the salt tax. Gandhi and large numbers of followers marched to the government salt fields and purposefully broke the law by mining the salt. Sixty thousand people were imprisoned.

A year later the Round Table Conference in London, to which Gandhi was the sole Indian representative, was to prove a farce, especially as the worst repression in years was currently in force under Lord Willingdon. Gandhi was again imprisoned in an effort to reduce his influence, but during this time he embarked on a fast to bring attention to the plight of the Untouchables whom he named Harijans, the children of God.

In 1934 Gandhi resigned and severed contact with the Congress, concentrating his attention on his program to reconstruct India “from the bottom up.” Education, employment, the caste system and agriculture all came under his scrutiny and were included in the plan, which was run from Sevagram, a village in central India.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 the Indian Congress prepared to support Britain while bargaining for independence, but Britain was actively promoting discord between Hindu and Moslem while prevaricating on the independence question. Gandhi demanded immediate withdrawal of the British, who retaliated by imprisoning the entire leadership of the Congress, and relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly.

In 1945 the Labour Party came into power in Britain and talks were initiated between the British government, the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League. Under the Mountbatten Plan on June 3, 1947, India was partitioned into two dominions, Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.

Rioting ensued with much bloodshed and an unsurmountable refugee problem. Gandhi, while trying to bring unity, was blamed by both factions. His final fast was to bring a temporary truce to the city of Delhi, but success brought tragedy. On January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was shot down and killed by a Hindu fanatic as he went to his prayer meeting in Delhi.


One of the most visible sects in India is that of the Sikhs. They actually form a tiny minority (2% of the population of 700 million), but are so noticeable, especially in the cities, they appear to be more numerous. They wear uncut rolled-up beards and their hair, also uncut, is wound into a large turban. Most of the male members hold the surname Singh, which means lion, and the women are called Kaur, or princess.

Their religion was founded by Guru Nanak at the end of the fifteenth century as an attempt to reconcile the Islamic and Hindu beliefs. It was monotheistic and taught that anyone could be in contact with the deity by meditation and prayer. No priesthood or religious hierarchy was necessary, but a high ethical standard was required of all believers. The faith was further developed by ten gurus over the next 200 years. Since the death of the last guru in 1708, the only authority has been the “Granth Sahib,” or collection of teachings of a select group of the gurus.

Promoting democracy, individual involvement and responsibility, the Sikh faith shunned the caste system and offered women equality. The gurdwaras, or temples, always have a dependent dharmsala, or inn, where any traveler, regardless of caste or religion, can receive food and lodging with no charge, but they must leave their “caste” outside. Without the aid of priests, the adherents were encouraged to be literate and to study not only their own religion, but all religions and philosophies. Under the last guru, intense Islamic persecution made it necessary to organize a military form of discipline and, without the dietary taboos of their countrymen, they enjoyed a protein-rich diet which helped them become larger and stronger. All these factors go far to explain the unsurpassed success of the Sikhs in every facet of Indian life and indeed in any society in which they settle.

There are sub groups within the Sikh religion, one of which is the Nihang. They are recognized by their blue turbans and robes, their spears and long swords. Their function is to guard the temples. Many are farmers, but they spend two months each year riding, usually on horses, around their region guarding the temples.

Since the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb (1657-1707), the Sikhs have suffered much persecution. By the early nineteenth century they had militarized to such an extent that they held control of a large area from Kashmir to the city of Lahore in Pakistan, which became their capital. An enlightened and ecumenical state was established and was the last region to be taken over by the British. After the Sikh wars, which lost the region to the British Raj, the Sikhs were to become respected units of the British Imperial Army.

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