“The removal of untouchability is a question of the purification of Hinduism. If untouchability lives, Hinduism must die,” said M.K. Gandhi famously.
Such opinions presume following three things –
1. Untouchability is systematically allowed, nay, forced by Hindu religion.
2. It is widespread across Hindus world-over and is synonymous of Hinduism
3. Untouchability is solely a Hindu phenomenon and nowhere in the world there has been untouchability.
In fact, in past couple of centuries, if not more, the above premise to implicate Hinduism has been repeated and accepted uncontested. Even Hindus believed in this themselves and indulged in unabated self-flagellation for past century or so.
While accepting it as a cardinal truth, have we as Hindus examined whether or not the premise for pronouncing Hindus guilty of demonic practice of untouchability is right? Do we know whether our religious scriptures really talk about untouchability? If yes, then what is the context? In an era when even widespread terrorism by followers of a particular religion does not make that religion bad, how come Hinduism is easily blamed for all ills without any real examination?
So let’s examine each of the three points mentioned above and decide if Hinduism as a religion is guilty of untouchability.
The Maha Upanishad in chapter 6 proclaims –
ayaM nijaH paroveti gaNanA laghu-chetasAM
udAra charitAnAM tu vasudhaiva kuTumbhakaM
[“This is my own and that a stranger” – is the calculation of the narrow-minded
For the magnanimous-hearts however, the entire earth is but a family]
Upanishads are regarded as most meaningful philosophical extracts of Veda (the most sacred text of Hinduism). When the scriptures quote an idea as lofty as the one above, how can the practice of Hinduism be so degraded as to regard some of its own members as untouchables?
Upanishads have formed the foundation of Hindu philosophy while the Veda’s provide both philosophical base as well practical guide for life of a common man. So there should be some quotations from Veda which provide basis for untouchability. If one examines the verses where “Shudra” word has appeared, we will be surprised that there has been no mention of untouchability. In Vedas Shudra word has been mentioned as fourth Varna of the Hindu Varna system. The word “Shudra” has appeared around 20 times in Vedas and in all places it has come along with other Varnas as a collective phrase. For example, in Yajurved 26.2:
“The way I gave this knowledge of Vedas for benefit of all humans, similarly you all also propagate the same for benefit of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Shudras, Vaishyas, Women and even most downtrodden. The scholars and the wealthy people should ensure that they not deviate from this message of mine.”
The closest any verse from Veda comes to discussing hierarchy of Varna is in Purusha Suktha which we examined in earlier article and it really does not mention Shudras to be untouchables or lower in any form.
Further, scholars and “well-wishers” of Hinduism often quote Manusmriti and sometime Vishnu Smriti to prove that untouchability comes from religious texts. Manusmriti and other Smritis do prohibit some social transactions based on Varna however they do not prescribe any untouchability. For example, below quotation from Manusmriti has been taken from Dr Ambedkar’s book ‘Who are Shudras”
"He (Brahmin) may not dwell in the kingdom of a Shudra nor in one full of unrighteous people, nor in one invaded by hosts of heretics nor in one possessed by low-born men.[f56]
A Brahmin who performs a sacrifice for a Shudra should not be invited to dine with other Brahmins at a Shraddha ceremony. His company will destroy all merit that which may otherwise be obtained from such a dinner”
This clearly talks about some prohibition for Brahmins to follow. But it also makes clear that Sudras were also Kings and had wealth to organize sacrificial ceremonies. In the same book, Dr. Ambedkar further gives example of Mahabharata where in one verse of Shanti Parva it says, a King should have 3 ministers from ‘Shudra’ Varna. In fact Dr Ambedkar concludes in this book that Shudras were a powerful Varna in Vedic India. Obviously a strong group cannot be untouchable by simple logic. This and many other such references from scriptures, untouchability does not seem to have any direct reference in any significant Hindu religious text.
Later in his search for a root cause of contemporary condition of Dalits, he hypothesized that Shudras were powerful aboriginal people of India before Aryans invaded. Since Aryan’s were conquerors they enslaved Shudras. However, with recent findings regarding antiquity of Vedas and few discoveries regarding Saraswati River, the Aryan Invasion theory has been proved to be a figment of imagination of few historians. If Dr Ambedkar were to research on this topic today, he would have certainly looked into socio-economic causes for conditions of Dalits. Let’s deal with this topic some other day however.
If not mandated by religious text, then why untouchability is practiced by Hindus? As a corollary, it also brings us to our second question of how really widespread was untouchability. Most of us confuse untouchability issue with Varna system. We often assume that Shudra Varna is untouchable. Is it really so? Shudra consists of 100s of modern “jatis” or castes. Most castes belonging to artisans, manual laborers, many farming castes etc. Most of these are not untouchables. In fact, as we have seen above Shudra Varna is not supposed to be untouchable as per religious texts. There are few of the castes which come under Shudra Varna like Mochi (cobblers), leather tanners or People who cleaned sewers and drains are considered untouchables. Some regard these castes as fifth Varna or people without any Varna. They are also called Dalit by Dr Ambedkar or Harijan by Gandhi.
The concept of untouchability seems to have come from the notion of purity in Hindu religion. People who have been brought up in Brahmin families know that the Puja Ghar or Mandir, observes strict rules of purity. No one can touch the God’s idols except for person of the family who needs to complete rituals like cleaning of idols, applying vermilion on it etc. In most case head male or female of the family does that. Even for him or her, the rules are strict. The worshipper needs to take bath and is not supposed to touch anyone before ritual. He or she cannot use toilet, touch any animal or eat / drink anything before the ritual is over each day. Such notion of purity which stops one to touch even family members before ritual will not allow someone to touch a person who performs ‘impure’ work such as tanning or cleaning of drain. A dogmatic follower will not just stop at not touching such people before ritual but during anytime of the day as he or she grows stricter in observance of ‘purity’. When children see such behavior from childhood, they tend to follow the path and in stricter sense. Slowly such behavior became ingrained into society.
The problem grew as the economic inequality grew with power being centered in few hands. The ‘impure’ castes did not have any appeal in front of ‘pure’ and powerful people. Slowly the ‘impure’ castes were driven out of cities and started living in the fringes not daring and not allowed to mingle with larger society. They were kept far from education which ensured that their economic condition never improved and they keep doing the same ‘impure’ work year after year and generation after generation. For such socio-economic ostracizing of a portion of their own people, Hindus are definitely responsible. However, this ostracizing happened to limited castes which performed these duties like tanning, manning of crematory or cleaning drains. Other Shudra castes did not experience this due to their relatively better economic position. So if one looked around an India of even 50 years back, masonry workers, farmers, cattle rearers and similar manual laborers were not untouchables in strict sense of word. While there was a section of India’s population which was meted out unfair treatment, the problem was surely presented in a manner so that untouchability becomes synonymous to Hinduism.
But isn’t untouchability unique to Hinduism? At least most historians would like us to believe this. In Middle ages England had a system of Gong Farmers. They were not farmers but men who would clean the human excrement from the pits of private of public privies. They used to live outside the cities and were allowed to enter inside city boundaries only between 9pm to 5am. Rest of the time they did not enter city and could not mingle with others in society. In Japan there is a community called Burakumin, which refers to the people who were associated with ‘unclean’ work like executioners, undertakers, butchers etc. This community was a marginalized community as late as 19th century Japan. They were untouchables for other communities and were forced to live outside city limits.
On the other hand, Hindus in Bali, who also follow Varna system, do not have untouchability at all. They have 90% of people belonging to Shudra Varna because everyone who is a manual laborer is a Shudra. They do change their Varna if they chose to become warrior or a priest. In a way they follow the pure Vedic Varna System with no untouchability.
Therefore, saying that untouchability is unique to Hinduism is not correct. Untouchability is a heinous crime against humanity and every effort must be taken to eradicate it. However, making it sound like a ‘Hindu’ thing is absolutely untrue.