The untouchables

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readMar 28, 2018

Synopsis : This blog is about the plight of the untouchables in India and elsewhere who are slowly gaining their rights that have been denied them for centuries by the upper caste Brahmins and what the future holds for them.

Source: Google photo of untouchable woman cleaning toilets

There was a time when the Hindus stratified their society based on the trade the people were involved in so the Brahmins occupied the highest level because they were the sole dispenser of knowledge .They alone could read the Vedas and opened schools to teach other Brahmins the ancient texts in Sanskrit and to become teachers themselves later. Next to the Brahmins were the warrior caste that was called the Kshatrias who were responsible for the military protection of the kingdoms and were trained in the martial art by the Brahmin gurus but only the selected few of noble families were thus trained who in their turn trained others like the soldiers.

The third caste was that of the tradesmen called Vaishyas who were not educated in the Bhahmin schools but knew enough of math to keep their records and run their business but it is the last caste called the Sudras who are the subject of this blog today. They were relegated to the lowest in the caste rankings and were the untouchables because they cleaned the toilets, swept the streets and carried off the dead animals and did all the other things that others of superior caste did not.

This caste distinction was arbitrary and was designed by the Brahmins to keep to themselves all the power and prestige that came with their superior position in the society not to mention money and property and keep others in their place who had to be always subservient to the ruling class of Brahmins. The Brahmins kept them uneducated deliberately so that they could not compete with them in any way or challenge their authority in the society. They invented numerous rules and laws to protect their privileges and added more rules as their list of privileges grew that made them super powerful.

There is a story from MahaBharata which is the Hindu epic story of the Kauravas and Pandavas and their battle for supremacy where a Brahmin guru who trained the princes in the martial art went to the forest with his students in tow for hunting and practicing their skills in archery. Their dogs also followed them and started to bark furiously at something or someone deep in the forest but came back with a mouth full of arrows. Now the Guru named Drone was very surprised at this skill of the archer and wanted to find him and learn where he had learned such skills because none of his students were this proficient.

He found a young boy practicing his archery in front of a statue of Drone himself who said that he had silenced the dogs because they were disturbing him during his practice so Drone asked him who he was .He said that he was a tribal boy of low social standing who could not get admitted to the archery school of Drone so he built a statue of Drone and practiced his skills in the archery. Now Arjun was the favorite of his teacher and became very jealous of the tribal boy called Ekalavya and asked his teacher to demand a token of tribute from the tribal boy.

The cruelty of this story is that the teacher then asked the boy to cut off his thumb to give it to him as a tribute so the boy did so rendering his hand useless. This was suggested by Arjun who did lot like anyone better than him.

The Brahmins were very good at keeping others in their place to safeguard their own status and made sure that everyone followed the rules so this caste system worked for centuries. The Brahmins being the educated people who ran schools for other elites were exalted by all the kings and queens who paid them gifts in gold and land because the Brahmins were even higher in status than the kings and queens.

I give you this background about the origin of the untouchables that has divided the Hindus since a long time about what to do with the lowest of the low caste of the untouchables because they still cannot accept that all human beings are equal no matter what trade they are in and must be treated with compassion and fairness. The untouchables suffered under this arbitrary rule imposed on them for centuries and were abused by the higher caste people until the Moslem invaders came to India and declared that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God so must become Moslems and follow the dictates of Koran.

So many millions of the low caste people converted some willingly and others were forced to do so creating the huge Moslem population in India that led to many riots, massacres and wars that redefined the political borders of the vast subcontinent called India. Some even wanted to return to their original faith but the high nose Hindu Brahmins said that reconversion was forbidden so they vowed to become a perpetual thorn on the side of the Hindus.

We now come to the present period when we see that the so called untouchables are going through a transformation due to many steps taken by the government that encourages their education and reserves a certain percentage of all government jobs for them if they are educated. Vir Savarkar fought very hard for their right to be treated fairly and compelled the Brahmins to admit them into places of worship that was previously forbidden to them. Thus slowly the untouchables now called the schedule caste people gained the rights denied them for centuries by the higher caste people. They fought elections and won to become parliamentarians and one of them has now become the President of India.

But the deeply entrenched caste system is easier to get rid of through legislation than in reality so most Brahmins still practice them and will not allow an untouchable to caste even their dirty shadow on them that makes them impure. Gandhi and Ambedkar fought hard for the low caste people for limited rights although Gandhi himself was a believer in the caste system so could not demand an abolition of the system as such.

So what has changed? I think most people do not even realize that the World Bank had something to do with the change in the status of the untouchables. They funded the improvement of the sewer system in many towns where the old system was slowly replaced by the flush toilets thus freeing the janitors who were the untouchables from their dirty job of cleaning toilets. I myself built a flush toilet in my parent’s house with a huge septic tank when there was no sewer line nearby. The others who helped uplift the untouchables were the Moslems and later the evangelical Christians because there are no untouchables in their religion.

Still there are a large number of such people who continue to be treated abominably by the upper caste Hindus who resist any reform in the system of caste differentiation because they believe in it and practice it.

Source : Google photo of Twa children in Burundi who are the untouchables.

To treat a human being in the abominable way is no longer acceptable anywhere no matter what their culture and tradition dictates. But I have seen the same thing in Africa where the Twa people in Burundi and Rwanda are treated like animals and are not allowed to live among the Hutus and Tutsis so these poor uneducated people live in grass huts at the outskirt of villages and somehow make a pitiful living working as carpenters and blacksmiths.

We find this sort of social stratification in many parts of the world where even today there are House of Lords and commons in England and the old bourgeoisie in Europe still thrives although not to the extent like elsewhere. I have always admired people who through their example have tried to be social reformers like Vir Savarkar and Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar and Swami Vivekananda. The founder of Brahmo Samaj in Bengal was the Thakur family of Rabindra Nath that explained that there has to be a new way of treating people like humans who have equal rights and equal place in the society but were ridiculed by the traditional Hindus who considered them as renegades who did not believe in their caste system and tried to reform the rigid system. The Brahmos were the equivalent of the protestant movement in Europe notably in Germany. Thus the Brahmo Samaj people have remained in the fringes as their movement never really caught on due to strong resistance from others.

Vidya Sagar and Raja Ram Mohan Roy pushed for the marriage of young widows and offered educational and job opportunities to them when the Hindus treated the widows with scorn and ridicule for getting married again. They were the real social reformers of their time but the most un appreciated people even today are the untouchables who are trying hard to be appreciated because they are now getting education and jobs that were denied them for centuries.

The aversion to doing the dirtiest work like cleaning toilets by the upper caste Hindus was the main reason for the social degradation of the untouchables. Someone had to do it so they created the caste system that gave these people the lowest status if at all in their society and made sure that they stayed in their caste so the marriage to upper caste people was prohibited. Once you are born in a caste, you remain there for ever no matter how much education you get and improve your life. It is like the children of former slaves in Africa are still treated with scorn by others although it is not limited to Africa. The white supremacists in the USA still look down on the blacks because they are the descendants of slaves that their forefathers owned.

Buddha preached 2500 years ago that all human being deserve fair and equal treatment irrespective of their trades but it came into the conflict with the strict Brahmins who saw it as a threat to their supremacy so instead of treating Buddhism as a separate religion, they assimilated it into their own religion albeit with the caveat that the caste system stays. Thus Buddhism practically disappeared from India and spread elsewhere in the world.

The Hindus and the Buddhists are not evangelists like the Christians or the Moslems so they did not force people to become Hindus or Buddhists. Those who became converted in other countries did it out of their own volition because they saw something good in it although unequal treatment of a fellow human being was not one of them.

The future:

Source: Google photo of untouchable children studying to improve their status in the Hindu society

Now I see a change in the attitude of some people in India who grudgingly admit that the caste system has outlived its usefulness and needs to conform to the needs of a modern society where everyone should have equal opportunity in education and jobs so that the country as a whole can make progress. But they will stop short at social mixing with the untouchables so the intermarriage is still a taboo that no one wants to break. I know people who have married outside their religion and are somehow accepted but a person of higher caste marrying an untouchable woman is unheard of because of strong social disapproval.

Strangely enough some religious leaders were strong advocates of equal rights for everyone so among them we know of Swami Dayananda Saraswati who formed the Arya Samaaj ( Society of Aryas) that helps poor people get married at no cost and dowry . They perform mass marriage from time to time and even help find suitable bride or groom for each other so these are some of the steps taken by the social reformers who are trying to chip away at the foundation of the caste system that breeds inequality among people.

Source : Google photo of Swami Dayananda Saraswati

Dayananda Saraswati (12 February 1824–30 October 1883) was an Indian religious leader and founder of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movements of the Vedic dharma. He was also a renowned scholar of the Vedic lore and Sanskrit language. … He was a sanyasi (ascetic) from boyhood, and a scholar.( Source : Wikipedia)

I think the future generation will come to realize that rigid people must change with the time or else their system will come under greater scrutiny by the new, young and educated generation that wants to do away with the old system and bring about greater equality to all people so perhaps there will come a time when there will be no more untouchables. The pressure to change is on so I think it is only a matter of time while in the meantime, the diehard Brahmins continue their old ways.

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Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.