To quote a well known leader of India, “If Untouchability is not wrong, nothing is wrong in the world.” Untouchability refers to treating certain class of persons as so lowly that even to come in physical contact with them is regarded unclean. Paradoxially, Untouchability is an unfortunate, and relatively a more recent, anomaly in Hindu Dhrama. Classical Hindu Dharma proclaims, “The world is One family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam)”. According to the Hindu view, “The entire creation is pervaded by the presence of Ishwar (God),” and “Every human soul is a part of God or the Ultimate Soul (Paramatma). Hence there is no room for treating any human being as low and Untouchable. It goes without saying, therefore, that any wrong practice or tradition that has crept in the Hindu society must be corrected quickly. Indeed, many saints and social leaders including Narsinha Mehta (15th Century), Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) and many, many others all over India, emphasized the need to rid society of this blemish and to bring about the emancipation of people affected by it.
There is no word as “Untouchable” in the dictionary – at least in the Webster American dictionary. “Harijan” (God’s People) was the name given by Mahatma Gandhi, in an effort to emancipate the Untouchables. Untouchability remained a black spot in the vast and luminous fabric of the Hindu social system for centuries. In ancient India, a system of association of professional and occupational work and responsibilities existed for long. These responsibilities were yoked to the basic character and aptitude of the individual. This system, referred to as the Varna Vyavastha, made a distinction in the professions of Brahmin (teacher, religious guide), Kshatriya (ruler, soldier), Vaishya (trader, farmer) and Shudra (servant, menial worker), on the basis of the individual’s qualification and inherent aptitude, not on the basis of birth or lineage. Over centuries, this class system degenerated into the caste system: an individual being automatically assigned to a caste group mainly on the basis of heredity.
The class system as practiced in the earlier centuries was an outcome of a stable agricultural society. In the past, there were schools for scholarly learning, but for learning professional and occupational skills, the family was the best resource. Thus a cobbler’s son became a cobbler because he adopted the profession most easily and conveniently learnt from his father. Still, individual choice had its place. Over a period of time, this system became rigid because of generations living in the same place, practicing the same profession. Thus the practice of class association by birth was born. The element of Untouchability is a much later aberration in Hindu society, particularly on account of the need for basic public sanitation, for example. Earlier, people used to go to a field or forest to answer the call of nature. With formation of towns and cities, the system of removing human waste from residential houses and areas by a certain group of people followed. Instead of appreciating the services provided by the janitorial workers involved, people classified them as Untouchables. The original motivation obviously must have been cleanliness, prevention of diseases, and protection of public health. Regardless, the Hindu society has committed a great crime against their brothers and sisters providing such basic services by calling them, and treating them as, Untouchables. With modern technological developments in automated waste disposal and sanitation, this type of manual sanitary services are no longer required in most places. However, the stigma pertaining to such group of people continues, especially in villages where old customs die hard. Nevertheless, this stigma is rapidly disappearing in most urban areas. VHPA appeals to the Hindu leaders in India to actively work on eliminating this inhuman and degrading practice from Indian society.
In short, a byproduct of the ‘Varna Vyavastha’ or class system of ancient India, Untouchability represents a momentous social experiment gone awry. A rational philosophy of division of labor based on individual inclination and family expertise became derailed over time into a rigid hierarchy of compartmentalization of men and women into numerous castes and subcastes, the lowest rung thereof becoming labeled and literally treated as Untouchables.
After gaining Independence in 1947, India developed and adopted a Constitution based on the principles of a Sovereign Democratic Republic. The hallmark of this new Constitution was Equality of individuals in the eyes of the law, and equal opportunities. Naturally, to implement the principle of equality, the caste system needed to be abrogated and, at least in principle, abolished in Government hiring, promotions, etc. Evidence of betterment of the so-called Backward Classes and castes including Harijans appears throughout the country. Many high-level Government and private sector posts as well as electoral posts at State and Central levels continue to be filled by members of such classes. The inherent social barriers between classes are also breaking down with industrialization. People of different classes learn together in non-segregated schools, live together in apartment complexes, eat together in hotels and restaurants, and work together in offices and factories.
A lingering phenomenon of caste-based discrimination is the practice of arranging marriages within the same caste. This practice is also slowly losing its hold. Yet, the task is not finished; much remains to be done toward a complete eradication of the caste systems and its deleterious effects.
In spite of continuing positive developments, a subtle level of discrimination on the basis of caste continues, the laws notwithstanding. This relates to the part of human nature and it can be changed only slowly, through education. More education, more opportunities to move away from the place of birth, and more exposure to the world at large can eventually stamp out the centuries-old orthodox thinking and aberrant social behavior pattern from the masses. Law did not enforce the caste system and it cannot therefore be fully removed by laws. It can only be diluted through education, economic opportunities, and social consciousness.
In fairness, it should be recognized that some form of societal discrimination between groups has existed in most societies, and continues to do so now. The class system was not the cause of India’s downfall, though it has had serious deleterious effects. It served its purpose at some point in history. Hindu society has been resilient over centuries and it will readjust to new realities. VHPA, on its part, would like to accelerate the process and India’s march to a yet brighter future.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) of America (VHPA), regards Untouchability in its original form largely a matter of the past. VHPA condemns the earlier practice of Untouchability among Hindus and seriously regrets any lingering visage of it within India. Outside India, the notion of Untouchability among the Hindus is practically nonexistent. Even in India, Untouchability has been largely eliminated but wherever it is found, we should all strive to stop such practice. VHPA will spare no effort in continuing to march in this direction and seeks to completely eradicate any trace of this unbecoming practice among Hindus everywhere in the world.