Social life and culture in the eighteenth century were marked by stagnation and dependence on the past. Despite a certain broad cultural unity that had developed over the centuries, there was no uniformity of culture and social patterns all over the country.
Nor did all Hindus and all Muslims form two distinct societies. People were divided by religion, region, tribe, language and caste. Moreover, the social life and culture of the upper classes, who formed a tiny minority of the total population, was in many respects different from the life and culture of the lower classes.
Caste was the central feature of the social life of the Hindus. Apart from the four varnas, Hindus were divided into numerous castes (jatis) which differed in their nature from place to place. The caste system rigidly divided people and permanently fixed their place in the social scale. The higher castes, headed by the Brahmins, monopolized all social prestige and privileges. Caste rules were extremely rigid.
Inter-caste marriages were forbidden. There were restrictions on inter-dining among members of different castes. In some cases persons belonging to the higher castes would not take food touched by persons of the lower castes. Castes often determined the choice of profession, though exceptions occurred on a large scale.
For example, Brahmins were involved in trade and government service and held zamindaris. Similarly, many shudras achieved worldly success and wealth and used them to seek higher ritual and caste ranking in society. Similarly, in many parts of the country, caste status had become quite fluid.
Caste regulations were strictly enforced by caste councils and panchayats and caste chiefs through fines, penances (prayaschitya) and expulsion from the caste. Caste was a major divisive force and element of disintegration in eighteenth century India. It often split Hindus living in the same village or region into many social atoms.
It was, of course, possible for a person to acquire a higher social status by the acquisition of high office or power, as did the Holkar family in the eighteenth century. Sometimes, though not often, an entire caste would succeed in raising itself in the caste hierarchy.
Muslims were no less divided by considerations of caste, race, tribe and status, even though their religion enjoined social equality on them. The Shia and Sunni nobles were sometimes at loggerheads on account of their religious differences.
The Irani, Afghan, Turani and Hindustani Muslim nobles and officials often stood apart from one another. A large number of Hindus who had converted to Islam carried their caste into the new religion and observed its distinctions, though not as rigidly as before.
Moreover, the Sharif Muslims consisting of nobles, scholars, priests and army officers looked down upon the ajlaf Muslims or the lower-class Muslims in a manner similar to that adopted by the higher-caste Hindus towards the lower- caste Hindus.
The family system in eighteenth-century India was primarily patriarchal, that is, the family was dominated by the senior male member and inheritance was through the male line. In Kerala, however, the family among Nairs was matrilineal.
Outside Kerala, women were subjected to nearly complete male control. They were expected to live as mothers and wives only, though in these roles they were shown a great deal of respect and honour.
Even during war and anarchy women were seldom molested and were treated with respect. A European traveller Abbe J.A. Dubois commented at the beginning of the nineteenth century:
“A Hindu woman can go anywhere alone, even in the most crowded places, and she need never fear the impertinent looks and jokes of idle loungers. … A house inhabited solely by women is a sanctuary which the most shameless libertine would not dream of violating.”
But the women of the time possessed little individuality of their own. This does not mean that there were no exceptions to this rule. Ahilya Bai administered Indore with great success from 1766 to 1796. Many other Hindu and Muslim ladies played important roles in eighteenth-century politics.
While women of the upper classes were not supposed to work outside their homes, peasant women usually worked in the fields and women of the poorer classes often worked outside their homes to supplement the family income. The purdah was common mostly among the higher classes in the north. It was not practiced in the south.
Boys and girls were not permitted to mix with one another. All marriages were arranged by the heads of the families. Men were permitted to have more than one wife but, except the well-off, they normally had only one.
On the other hand, a woman was expected to marry only once in her lifetime. The custom of early marriage prevailed all over the country. Sometimes children were married when they were only three or four years of age.
Among the upper classes, the evil customs of incurring heavy expenses on marriages and of giving dowry to the bride prevailed. The evil of dowry was especially widespread in Bengal and Rajputana. In Maharashtra it was curbed to some extent by energetic steps taken by the Peshwas.
Two great social evils of eighteenth-century India, apart from the caste system, were the custom of sati and the condition of the widows. Sati involved the rite of a Hindu widow burning herself along with the body of her dead husband. It was mostly prevalent in Rajputana, Bengal and other parts of northern India. In the south it was uncommon and the Marathas did not encourage it.
Even in Rajputana and Bengal it was practiced only by the families of rajas, chiefs, big zamindars and upper castes.
Widows belonging to the higher classes and higher castes could not remarry, though in some regions and in some castes, for example, among non-Brahmins in Maharashtra, the Jats and people of the hill-regions of the north, widow remarriage was quite common. The lot of the Hindu widow was usually pitiable.
There were all sorts of restrictions on her clothing, diet, movements, etc. In general, she was expected to renounce all the pleasures of the world and to serve selflessly the members of her husband’s or her brother’s family, depending on where she spent the remaining years of her life.
Sensitive Indians were often touched by the hard and harsh life of the widows. Raja Sawai Jai Singh of Amber and the Maratha General Prashuram Bhau tried to promote widow remarriage but failed.
Culturally, India showed some signs of exhaustion during the eighteenth century, but the eighteenth century was no Dark Age. Creativity of the people continued to find expression, cultural continuity with the preceding centuries was maintained and local traditions continued to evolve. At the same time, culture remained wholly traditionalist.
Cultural activities of the time were mostly financed by the Royal Court, rulers and nobles, chiefs and zamindars whose impoverishment led to their gradual neglect. The most rapid decline occurred precisely in those branches of the arts which depended on the patronage of kings, princes and nobles.
This was true most of all of Mughal architecture and painting. Many of the painters of the Mughal school migrated to provincial courts and flourished at Hyderabad, Lucknow, Kashmir and Patna. At the same time new schools of painting were born and achieved distinction.
The paintings of the Kangra and Rajputana schools revealed new vitality and taste. In the field of architecture, the Imambara of Lucknow reveals proficiency in technique but a decadence in architectural taste.
On the other hand, the city of Jaipur and its buildings are an example of continuing vigour. Music continued to develop and flourish in the eighteenth century both in the north and the south. Significant progress was made in this field in the reign of Muhammad Shah.
Poetry in nearly all the Indian languages tended to lose its touch with life and become decorative, artificial, mechanical and traditional. Its pessimism reflected the prevailing sense of despair and cynicism, while its content reflected the impoverishment of the spiritual life of its patrons, the feudal nobles and kings.
A noteworthy feature of the literary life of the eighteenth century was the spread of the Urdu language and the vigorous growth of Urdu poetry. Urdu gradually became the medium of social intercourse among the upper classes of northern India.
While Urdu poetry shared the weaknesses of contemporary literature in other Indian languages, it produced brilliant poets like Mir, Sauda, Nazir and, in the nineteenth century, that great genius Mirza Ghalib. Hindi, too, was developing throughout the century.
Similarly, there was a revival of Malayalam literature, especially under the patronage of the Travancore rulers Martanda Varma and Rama Varma. One of the great poets of Kerala Kunchan Nambiar, who wrote popular poetry in the language of daily usage, lived at this time.
Eighteenth-century Kerala also witnessed the full development of Kathakali literature, drama and dance. The Padmanabhapuram palace with its remarkable architecture and mural paintings was also constructed in the eighteenth century.
Tayaumanavar (1706-44) was one of the best exponents of sittar poetry in Tamil. In line with other sittar poets, he protested against the abuses of temple-rule and the caste system. Music, poetry and dance flourished under the patronage of the Tanjore court in the first half of the eighteenth century. In Assam, literature developed under the patronage of the Ahom kings.
Dayaram, one of the great lyricists of Gujarat, wrote during the second half of the eighteenth century. Heer Ranjha, the famous romantic epic in Punjabi, was composed at this time by Warris Shah. For Sindhi literature, the eighteenth century was a period of enormous achievement. Shah Abdul Latif composed his famous collection of poems, Risalo. Sachal and Sami were the other great Sindhi poets of this century.
The main weakness of Indian culture lay in the field of science. Throughout the eighteenth century, India remained far behind the West in science and technology. For the last 200 years western Europe had been undergoing a scientific and economic revolution that was leading to a spate of inventions and discoveries.
The scientific outlook was gradually pervading the Western mind and revolutionizing the philosophical, political and economic outlook of the Europeans and their institutions.
On the other hand, the Indians, who had in earlier ages made vital contributions to the fields of mathematics and natural sciences, had been neglecting the sciences for several centuries. The Indian mind was still tied to tradition; both the nobles and the common people were superstitious to a high degree.
The Indians remained almost wholly ignorant of the scientific, cultural, political and economic achievements of the West; they failed to respond to the European challenge. The eighteenth-century Indian rulers showed little interest in things Western except in their weapons of war and techniques of military training.
Except Tipu, they were content with the ideological apparatus they had inherited from the Mughals and other sixteenth-and seventeenth-century rulers.
There were, of course, some intellectual stirrings—no people or culture can be totally stagnant. Some changes and advances in technology were being made, but their pace was very slow and their scope severely limited, so that on the whole they were negligible compared to advances in western Europe.
This weakness in the realm of science was to a large extent responsible for the total subjugation of India by the most advanced country of the time.
The struggle for power and wealth, economic decline, social backwardness and cultural stagnation had a deep and harmful impact on the morals of a section of the Indian people. The nobles, in particular, degenerated in their private and public life. The virtues of loyalty, gratitude and faithfulness to their pledged word tended to disappear in the single-minded pursuit of selfish aims.
Many of the nobles fell prey to degrading vices and excessive luxury. Most of them took bribes when in office. Surprisingly enough, the common people were not debased to any marked extent. They continued to exhibit a high degree of personal integrity and morality.
For example, the well- known British official John Malcolm remarked in 1821:
I do not know the example of any great population, in similar circumstances, preserving through such a period of changes and tyrannical rule, so much virtue and so many qualities as are to be found in a great proportion of the inhabitants of this country. In particular, he praised “the absence of the common vices of theft, drunkenness, and violence.”
Similarly, Cranford, another European writer, observed:
Their rules of morality are most benevolent: and hospitality and charity are not only strongly inculcated but I believe nowhere more universally practiced than amongst Hindus. Friendly relations between the Hindus and Muslims were a very healthy feature of life in eighteenth-century India.
Even though the nobles and chiefs of the time fought one another incessantly, their fights and their alliances were seldom based on distinctions of religion. In other words, their politics were essentially secular. In fact, there was little communal bitterness or religious intolerance in the country.
All people, high or low, respected one another’s religion and a spirit of tolerance, even harmony, prevailed. “The mutual relations of Hindus and Muslims were those of brothers among brothers.” This was particularly true of the common people in the villages and towns who fully shared one another’s joys and sorrows, irrespective of religious affiliations.
The Hindus and the Muslims cooperated in non-religious spheres such as social life and cultural affairs. The evolution of a composite Hindu-Muslim culture, or of common ways and attitudes, continued unimpeded.
Hindu writers often wrote in Persian while Muslim writers wrote in Hindi, Bengali and other vernaculars, often dealing with subjects of Hindu social life and religion, such as Radha and Krishna, Sita and Ram, and Nal and Damyanti. The development of Urdu language and literature provided a new meeting ground between Hindus and Muslims.
Even in the religious sphere, the mutual influence and respect that had been developing in the last few centuries as a result of the spread of the Bhakti Movement among Hindus and Sufism among Muslims continued to grow. A large number of Hindus worshipped Muslim saints and many Muslims showed equal veneration for Hindu gods and saints.
Many local cults and shrines had both Hindu and Muslim followers. Muslim ruler’s nobles and commoners joyfully joined in the Hindu festivals such as Holi, Diwali and Durga Puja, just as Hindus participated in the Muharram processions and Hindu officials and zamindars presided at other Muslim festivals.
The Marathas supported the shrine of Shaikh Muinuddin Chishti in Ajmer and the Raja of Tanjore supported the shrine of Shaikh Shahul Hamid of Nagore.
We have already seen how Tipu gave financial support to the Shringeri Temple as also to other temples. It is noteworthy that Raja Rammohun Roy, the greatest Indian of the first half of the nineteenth century, was influenced in an equal measure by the Hindu and Islamic philosophical and religious systems.
It may also be noted that religious affiliation was not the main point of departure in cultural and social life. The ways of life of upper- class Hindus and Muslims converged much more than the ways of life of upper-class and lower-class Hindus or of upper-class and lower- class Muslims.
Similarly, regions or areas provided points of departure. People of one region had far greater cultural synthesis, irrespective of religion, than people following the same religion spread over different regions. People living in the villages also tended to have a different pattern of social and cultural life than that of the town dwellers.