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Untouchables in India?

Pathetic condition of untouchables at Present
It is a humanitarian obligation to think about untouchables, majority of whom are still weak and poor and far away from the main stream. Government and sensitive people should plan for their uplift. However, Dalit leaders and their supporters  criticize caste system vehemently and hold it responsible for keeping 750 million untouchable Hindus – dalits, tribals and other backward classes – poor, “subjugated, discriminated against and humiliated.” “Technologies for human survival …. were all developed by lower castes”, but “upper castes took away the fruits of their labour and invention.” “In the hearts of the oppressed castes, there is anger and hatred.” ‘Social-justice’ demands their emancipation by ending all kind of discrimination.

But for ending all kind of discrimination and removing social and economic imbalances, the path od reverse discrimination should not be adopted. The Government has to pay equal attention to the elite sections of society, as well. While uplifting the submerged section of society, the Government should not let down the advanced sections of society or block their way to progress/advancement. In 1955, Chairman Kaka Kalelkar, Chairman, First Backward Class Commission, commented in his note of dissent, ““It would be well, if representatives of the Backward classes remembered that whatever good they find in the Constitution and the liberal policy of the Government, is the result of the awakened conscience of the upper classes themselves. Whatever Government is doing by way of atonement is readily accepted and acclaimed by the nation as a whole. The upper classes have contributed their share in formulating the policies of the Government Removal of untouchability, establishment of equality and social justice, special consideration for backward classes, all these elements found place in the Constitution without a single voice of dissent from the upper classes.”

Untouchables in ancient India?

Existence of Shudras (at present referred as untouchables or out-castes) was recognized, as early as, Pre Mauryan Period (6th century BC to 3rd century BC). Though given a lower status, they were always an integl part of Hindu society. They performed essential social and economic tasks as well as in agricultural sector.

An ideological attack and blame on Hinduism and its caste system

British rulers made purposely an ideological attack on Indian society. They developed a complex in the minds of Indian intellectuals about efficacy of caste system. British rulers portrayed caste-system as “discriminatory,” “iniquitous,” “exploitative,” “oppressive” “barbarous,” “uncivilized” and “highly stratified”. They held caste system responsible for evil social practices, feudalistic attitude, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions sustained by a unique set of rituals, and whimsical concept of purity and pollution. They criticize caste-system as “discriminatory,” “iniquitous,” “exploitative,” “oppressive” “barbarous,” “uncivilized” and “highly stratified”. They hold it responsible for evil social practices, feudalistic attitude, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions sustained by a unique set of rituals, and whimsical concept of purity and pollution.

Practices and values of Hindu society and its caste system are regarded as problematic and complicated. Indian society is being portrayed as a ‘caste-ridden society’ and caste for all the miseries of submerged sections of society. It could vary from illiteracy to creating disparities of power, wealth and culture, escalation of violence, crimes and corruption leading the nation towards disintegration, discrimination and exploitation of weaker, unprivileged sections of society to forcing destitution on vast number of people.

What is Hindu society?

Hindu society and its caste system is blamed for all the agonies of untouchables. Before entering into any discussion let us be clear, what is Hindu society, what are its values and systems? The word ‘Hindu’ was derived from Sindhu river and defines a geographical area. Hindu society comprises of all People living across Sindhu river. However, every person living in this area has multiple identity like ‘geographical identity’, ‘national identity’, ‘provincial identity’, ‘local identity’, ‘social identity’, ‘religious identity’, ‘occupational identity’ and so on and so forth. A single identity can not be imposed on him. All Indians together are known in Arabic as ‘Hindi’, in Persian as ‘Hindustani’, ‘Indian’ in English and ‘Bhartiya’ in Hindi. ‘Hindu’ identity is not only a religious identity based on following specific rituals and scriptures, but a country identity too.

Hindu society is very vast. Supreme Court has said in its judgement that it is a ‘way of life’. It is its basic mosaic culture that binds all Indians together. One of its basic tenets is ‘tolerance’ and it has always adopted a path of assimilation.

Hindus concedes validity to all the religions and communities-Tolerance is most evident in the field of religion. Hinduism concedes validity to all the religions and does not lay down strictures against any faith or reject any religion or its god as false. That is why, all the twelve major religions of the world and more than 4000 social groups popularly known as ‘caste’ are present and flourishing in India without much hindrance. Hindu faith in an all pervading omnipresent god, multiplicity of god and goddesses as representing some portion of the infinite aspect of the Supreme Being, inspires it to accommodate people of all faiths.

No conversions – Hinduism has adopted the path of assimilation. Its main religion Hinduism does not believe in conversion or imposing its beliefs, practices and customs on others. It has neither repulsed any trend vehemently, nor allowed others to sweep its own established culture off the roots.

Truth, Ahimsa, peace and non-aggression – Tolerance is not confined to religion alone. It is seen everywhere in the Indian way of life. Firm belief in the principles, ‘Live and let live’, ‘to each according to his needs and from each according to his capacity’, ‘simple living and high thinking’ and faith in Truth, Ahimsa, peace and non-aggression have always been the part of Hindu ethos.

Whole world is one family – ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, the whole world is one family Indians is the hallmark of Hindu culture. In the past, people endure injustice and unfairness until they are pushed right to the wall.

Ranking of different castes – In ancient India, ranking of numerous social groups (castes) was not done by putting them within a framework of hierarchical layers of social order, each fitting neatly below the other, but more or less as a series of vertical parallels. All local groups, whether high or low, living in an area mutually depended, cared and supported each other in fulfilling different kind of needs of the society. All people living in a village or city, were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. There was hardly any room for any section of society to consider itself, as being placed in greater or lesser disadvantageous position with reference to another. Concept of forwards or backwards or feeling of exploitation of lower strata by upper castes was almost non-existent at that time.

Encouraged self restraint and self discipline – Every section of society was supposed to lead a self restraint and self disciplined life in all respect, be it in the matter of daily routine, occupation or inter caste relationship. There was no hard and fast rule of ranking various castes. It did segmental ranking of different caste groups according to relevance and contribution of their occupations to society. Usefulness of a profession to society as a whole, conduct and way of living of different people were the factors to determine social, economic or political status of a group in society vis-a vis others.

Considerations of self-discipline, hygiene, cleanliness, morality, knowledge and spiritual standards were given importance in their ranking. Higher a caste, purer it was considered, and greater were the self-restrictions on its behavior through rituals. Brahmins commanded respect of the whole society. They were put under maximum restrictions – to lead a simple life, devoted to the spiritual and intellectual pursuits and denied accumulation of wealth.

Then who were “Shudras”? – People clinging to the practices, which were not considered respectable, Conquered groups, individuals or persons born illegitimately or the groups clinging to anti-social activities were treated as ‘Shudras’. They were engaged in menial work and were given lowest status in the society. Breaking the caste rules meant loss of caste, meaning complete ostracism or having no place in the society. Permanent loss of caste – out-caste- was considered to be the greatest catastrophe for an individual, short of death penalty. By the beginning of Christian era, the out-castes themselves developed caste hierarchy and had their own out-castes. Socially, they were put amongst the lower strata of Hindu community doing all sorts of menial work and serving the upper castes of the three Varnas.

Instead of holding others responsible, Hindu Dharma taught that “Adharma” (immoral behavior), “Alasya” (laziness) and Agyan (ignorance) were to be blamed for all evils, exploitation and miseries of people.

Respect not based on control of power or wealth – Respect to a person or group was never given on the basis of material success or control of power. Sir John Shore (Sir John Shore, the Governor General of India during the period 1793-1798) had observed that Hindus regarded Britishers at par with the lowest natives despite their being so powerful and the ruling community. Similarly Brahmins associated with unclean jobs like, Mahabrahmins performing last rites, have also been treated, more or less like Shudras and have been put at the bottom of the social structure. There were instances when non-Brahmins or Harijans served as priests of temples of goddesses like Sita or Kali, where all castes made offerings.

Live examples of Shudras getting respect of whole society – Many studies have shown that Hinduism never prevented Shudras or others to rise in the scale of society or to earn respect of the society. In many parts of the country, people belonging to lower strata held position of power/superior status or earned respect of Hindu society. Many warrior kings of Shudra and tribal origin sought Brahmins’ help to acquire Kshatriyas status for themselves. Many Shudras were accepted and revered as philosophers or spiritual teachers like Lord Rama, a king, ate half-eaten berries of Shabri – an untouchable. Lord Krishna’s foster parents Nand and Yashoda, who in today’s classification would be called OBC, get more respect than his real Kshatriya parents from Hindu society. Vashishtha, the principal of the conservative school of Brahmanism, was the son of Uravshi, a prostitute. Vishwamitra, the maker of the very Gayatri Mantra, the quintessence of the Vedic Brahmanism, was a Kshatriya. Aitreya, after whom the sacramental part of Rig-Veda is named as Aitreya Brahamana, was the son from a non-Aryan wife of a Brahman sage. Vyasa of Mahabharata fame and Balmiki, the original author of Ramayana, both untouchable according to present standards, were not ashamed of his origin and are highly respected persons all over India. In middle ages, Sant Ravidas, Namdev, Tukaram, Malika, Sunderdas and several other saints, belonging to lower ranks, earned the same respect as any higher caste saint. There had been instances of people of lower ranks becoming kings.

Masses reconciled if not contended – As far as masses were concerned, the system always kept them reconciled, if not contended in the past. It kept all the sections of society united under one umbrella despite of their diversity and gave the society stability, continuity and prosperity.

Therefore, it is not fully correct that Hinduism or its practices are responsible for Shudra’s isolation, deprivation, exploitation, low social status, inhuman treatment by caste Hindus, their low status in traditional Hindu Society, or forced them to do menial, unsavory and unclean jobs.

Start of troubles for ‘Shudras’ – All troubles of lower strata of society started after the downfall of Hindu Raj and old Hindus values. Continuous invasions by Turks, Afghans and Mughals who earlier drained out the wealth of the nation to foreign lands and afterwards made India their homeland and ruled the country for centuries. It resulted in Hinduism turning inwards and observing all the rituals rigidly and blindly to save its distinct identity under foreign rule. Afterwards, feudalistic attitude, extravagance and luxurious life style of Mughal rulers and those at the helm of authority, increased the disparity between the rulers and the ruled.

Discrimination during British rule – Again, in nineteenth century during British rule, modernization an industrialization process has made many traditional occupations obsolete or less paying or were regarded more hazardous and more time consuming. White collared jobs gained importance. Modernity taught people to escape from menial work and discredit manual work. More, a person withdrew from physical labor, more civilized, honored and qualified he was regarded by modern society. The British apathy towards indigenous skills, knowledge and occupations pushed millions of rural artisans, craftsman and small scale farmers, for whom work was essential for survival, backwards in a very subtle manner. It resulted in discrediting many traditional occupations and in destruction of Indian handicrafts and cottage industry. It scattered efforts, sense of direction and manufacturing skills of millions of artisans, craftsman, weavers etc. A few of them joined modern occupations. Majority belonging to different groups could neither enter modern sector, nor could stick to their traditional occupations considering menial work derogatory and lost their creativity, sense of achievement and pride. Masses had no option, but to either join band of agricultural laborers, industrial workers, and marginal labor and increase number of poor and unemployed. Outcome of such a change has been casualty of workers first, afterwards their work style, commitment, motivation and culture.

Untouchables of modern times

“It would be well, if representatives of the Backward classes remembered that whatever good they find in the Constitution and the liberal policy of the Government, is the result of the awakened conscience of the upper classes themselves. Whatever Government is doing by way of atonement is readily accepted and acclaimed by the nation as a whole. The upper classes have contributed their share in formulating the policies of the Government Removal of untouchability, establishment of equality and social justice, special consideration for backward classes, all these elements found place in the Constitution without a single voice of dissent from the upper classes.” iv

Conclusion – Therefore, it can be said that it was not the malice of upper castes, but the circumstances, that pushed untouchables and others away from the mainstream. Suffering from centuries old enslavement, suppression and ostracism deteriorated severely the condition of lower strata of society, stopped growth of their personality and made them dependent on others for their livelihood.

Latasinha's Weblog

 

Existence of Shudras (at present referred as untouchables or out-castes) was recognized, as early as, Pre Mauryan Period (6th century BC to 3rd century BC). Though given a lower status, they were always an integral part of Hindu society. They performed essential social and economic tasks as well as in agricultural sector.

In ancient India, Ranking of different castes was not done by putting them within a framework of hierarchical layers of social order, each fitting neatly below the other, but more or less as a series of vertical parallels. All local groups, whether high or low, living in an area mutually depended, cared and supported each other in fulfilling different kind of needs of the society. All people living in a village or city, were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. There was hardly any room for any…

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August 30, 2014 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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