The Untouchables

by Andrea Hampton 


In traditional India, there is a structured caste system. The members of the lowest caste are called the untouchables. These untouchables live a life of poverty, are discriminated against, and are outsiders in their own home land. In the caste system there is four varnas: the Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and the Shudras. The untouchables were not even included in the varnas which is the different groups of the caste, instead the untouchables were avarna or out castes. A person is born into their caste which means that what ever caste a persons parents are in is the caste that they are in. As Milton Singer and Bernard Cohn explain in their book, Structure and Change in Indian Society, "In India when parents belong to the same caste, children almost invariably bilaterally inherit their caste affiliation (1968:60). They are called the untouchables because if a member of another caste touches one of them they will become polluted. As Santokh Singh Anant explains, "The word ‘untouchable’ refers to the practice of avoidance of contact with them by other caste (1972:22). The untouchables had the lowest status possible and were discriminated against by all other caste. Living at the bottom of the hierarchy, "The ‘untouchable’ in India was not only low in occupational and other privileges, but was considered unclean in the eyes of the intermediate and higher caste...(Anant 1972:22) They could not change their status. They were stuck in a life of poverty.

Purity and impurity was an important concept in India, and the untouchables were considered to be polluted. "In Hindu ideology, ritual purity or impurity constitutes the criterion generally accepted for justifying and explaining a caste’s rank," the father down the hierarchy one is the more impure they are (Cohn and Singer 1968:55). The Brahmans at the top of the caste were considered pure. However, they could be polluted if they were to come into contact with an untouchable or if they were to accept food or gifts from them. As Christoph Von Furer-Haimendorf explains, "They may not enter any part of a touchable’s house and no person of clean caste will accept any type of cooked food or even water from the hand of an untouchable" (1966:22). The untouchables were not even allowed to eat in the same room as someone of another caste because they would pollute that persons food, "The higher castes consider even the physical contact of an ‘untouchable’ with their food as polluting" (Anant 1972:73). It was as if they were infected with a highly contagious disease. If a member of a high caste does come into contact with a member of the untouchable class they would do everything possible to remove that pollution from them. For example, "Traditionally, if a caste Hindu would come into physical contact with an untouchable, he would consider himself polluted and would take a bath and sometimes even wash his clothes to remove pollution" (Anant 1972: 66) Other castes did their best to stay away from the untouchables.

In some cases the untouchables could face criminal charges if they pollute certain things with their presence. For example, "It was a criminal offense for a member of an excluded caste knowingly to pollute a temple by his presence" (Cohn and Singer 1968: 304). A member of a high caste can also be punished for doing certain things with the untouchables. For example, "Sexual intercourse and interdining with an untouchable are among the gravest offenses which a member of a clean caste can commit and excommunication is the automatic consequence" (Furer-haimendorf 1966:22). So the lower caste did most things amongst themselves. The lower caste could accept gifts from the higher caste because those gifts were considered pure. They could even eat the left overs and scraps of food from a higher caste and this was considered good for them. As Anant has pointed out, "The lower castes would accept food from the higher castes, but it was like a servant accepting food from a master" (1972: 75). In most cases the untouchables and the other caste obeyed these traditions and when they did not they either were punished by law or ostracized by the community.

The occupations that were open to the untouchables were the worst positions available. It was common for them to have jobs that included dealing with human and animal waste and dead carcasses. Since they were already considered polluted they could not become more polluted by dealing with these things. If a higher caste member dealt with these things then they would become polluted. As Martin A. Klein points out, "Scavengers, leather workers, and those who handled the dead were considered extremely polluting, and people who followed these occupations were untouchables" (1993: 113). A leather worker was considered polluting because they had to clean the hide of a dead cow and anything dead was polluting. They were stuck with these jobs, unable to move up, and they were, "... forbidden to do work of higher status or to own land" (Klein 1993:113). The occupations they had were the occupations that their parents had. They were born into these jobs.

There was no mobility offered to the untouchables. They could not change to another caste for they were to remain forever an untouchable. They had no hope for upward movement for, "Mobility was in theory and almost certainly in practice severely limited for the untouchables" (Klein1993: 113). For the most part people married with in their caste so they stayed in their caste and their children would be in the same caste. There were some instances where people would marry outside their caste or have children with some one in another caste. In these instances the people involved were punished by those of their caste and of other castes. In the case of intercaste marriages they were not seen as a marriage at all. In other words they were regarded as, " and women of different castes who simply lived together, not as married couples. Indeed, it would have been impossible for these partners to have obtained either priests or guests for a wedding ceremony, and they were not sufficiently sophisticated or motivated to think in terms of a civil marriage" (Cohn and Singer 1968: 60). It was not accepted among society that two people from different caste be married. They could expect to be shunned by society. They could however move down to untouchabilty and legally marry. As Singer and Cohn have pointed out, "If the girl flagrantly lived with an Untouchable she would be boycotted (socially isolated) by members of her own caste but could join the Untouchable caste and legally marry" (Cohn and Singer1968: 62). However, if you are in a higher caste there is not much of a desire to move down but in some cases it does happen. For the most part people only married others from their same caste.

In cases were two people from different castes had children they were also shunned by society and the children were not accepted into their parents caste. There were some options open for a child of an intercaste relationship, "Provided the parents were permitted to remain in the village, the child of a prohibited intercaste alliance in India could (1) emigrate from the area, (2) remain in the region where his ancestry was known but join an Untouchable caste, or (3) remain in the region and become a truely marginal man- an individual without caste affiliation" (Cohn and Singer 1968: 60). The child along with the parents are punished for this act.

In other instances, some people from lower caste tried to pass as people from another caste by moving to a new area where no one knows them. As Klein writes, "...One could not escape from one’s caste except by renouncing the world or by managing to deceive it: for instance, one might migrate and pass oneself off as a member of a higher caste" (1993:114). However, this was risky, and one would have to give up a lot. For example, trying to pass as another caste means, "breaking ties with kin and kith, but it would mean doing so in a society where social support from kinsmen and fellow castemen is customary, and where new intimate social relations with neighbors and associates who are not also fellow castemen are more difficult for adults to form..." (Cohn and Singer 1968: 72). This is a high price to pay because it means that they must give up their close relationships with family and fellow caste members in which they depend upon a great deal. It is more common for an untouchable to try and hide their caste affiliation rather than try and pass for another. As Singer and Cohn point out, "Untouchables who move into the white collar sector of the urban Indian society are more likely to try to hide their caste identity, to attempt to treat the question as if it were irrelevant, than to claim a false caste affiliation" (1968: 71). Though some people of the untouchable caste do sometimes try and pass as a different caste it does not happen often. The risks of being found and losing the close ties with their caste are too high.

The untouchables face a life style of poverty and being discriminated against. They were not allowed to go to many places that other caste could go to, or to dress the same as them. As Anant explains, "Until recently, they were not allowed to draw water from the common well of the village, nor were they entitled to enter the temples" (1972: 22). In some areas of India they were forced to wear certain clothes. For example they were, "...forced to go almost naked, for fear that the others may be touched by the billowing of their clothes. These and scores of other disabilities forced the untouchables into practically inhuman conditions" (Anant 1972: 22). In some cases it was like they were not even considered to be human but more like a dog with rabies. Along with being discriminated against they were also segregated. For example, "They lived in separate hamlets, drank from separate wells, had to dress meanly and behave humbly, and were denied education. These prohibitions were zealously enforces by the upper castes, the community, and the ruler" (Klein 1993: 113). The rest of society was against the Untouchable caste and showed them disrespect. For example, "...a member of an Untouchable caste must be treated by members of all other castes as untouchable simply because of his caste affiliation. Ego, a member of any Shudra or Brahman caste, expects and can demand that any Untouchable show him difference, even though ego is poor, illiterate, and unmarried, and the Untouchable is older, married, educated, and financially successful (Cohn and Singer 1968: 56). It does not matter how successful one might be with in their caste, if someone is of a higher caste they will still look down on that person and treat them as someone beneath them. For the most part the Untouchables accepted their position and lived by the rules that were set before them. As F.G. Baily states, "The untouchable in the traditional system accepts his disabilities" (1960: 191). They lived the life that the other caste forced them too, even though it was an undesirable life of poverty and discrimination.

The Untouchable caste in India were considered outcast in their own society, forced to take the worst jobs available. They were considered to be polluted and therefor all other caste avoided contact with them. They had no opportunities to move up in society. They were stuck being an untouchable for the rest of their life, many living in poverty. They were treated as if they were inferior to those lucky enough to be born into a higher class status.

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