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Untouchability

The Origin Of Untouchability, The Voices Of Untouchables, The Beginnings Of "affirmative Action", The Contemporary Period

A basic idea of social grouping emerged in one of the late poems in the earliest of the Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda. In this mythic account, probably composed about three thousand years ago, the primeval man was sacrificed to make the varnas (castes): the Brahmans emerged from his head, the Kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaishyas from his thighs, and the Shudras from his feet. It is clear there is some ranking here, but the full-scale hierarchy based on degrees of purity and pollution emerged later, and untouchable castes became a category as avarnas, without varna, probably sometime after the fourth century C.E.

We find a development of this idea in the law books called Dharmashastras (300 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.). The first three varnas are known as the twice-born and are composed of Brahman priests and advisers, warriors and rulers, and merchants, all of whom undergo a ceremony in their youth admitting them into high status. Shudras, generally any caste that did manual work, were denied the privilege of studying the Vedas and were cast into a servant position. Untouchables were and are below the Shudras in any ranking, considered polluting to all and generally given the work in society that is filthy or demeaning.

In both law books and the epics, we find references to burning ghat workers, individuals who generally worked in the burning ghats with corpses and are considered unclean. A play from around the fifth century C.E., Mrichcha katika (The little clay cart) by Shudraka, includes two executioners who are actually quite intelligent and humorous but nevertheless untouchable. Burning ghat workers and executioners are two of the occupations still considered most polluting. The idea of persons who pollute was present early on, but the phenomenon of polluting castes developed later.

Parallel to the varnas and outside scripture were jatis, meaning "by birth" and also translated as castes. A jati is an endogamous group, sharing many customs and often an occupation, usually based in one language area. There were hundreds of jatis within each varna, and while untouchables were avarna, without varna, they were members of specific jatis.

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