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Untouchables (“Dalits” of modern India) in Ancient India

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

Discrimination agaisnt Shudras – The Ancient India did not sanctify discrimination. According to Bhagwat Gita, four Varnas were based On attributes (Guna) and Deeds (Karma). Rishis/sages (‘Intellectuals’ according to modern thinking) were accorded the highest status. The two most popular epics ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ were composed by Valmiki (a Shudra according to present ranking) and Ved Vyasa (a backward caste). And both are revered by all Hindu community. The present birth-based caste discrimination is more recent than is told by vested interests.

Ambedkar himself acknowledges in his famous book, ‘Who were Shudras?’ that in ancient times, India had widely respected Shudras rulers as well. And the oppressive and scriptural verses justifying discrimination and casteism were included into the texts later. 

Arvind Sharma, a Professor in McGill University says that caste rigidity and discrimination emerged in ‘Smriti’ during period from after the birth of Jesus Christ and extending up-to 1200 CE. During Medieval Period, it was challenged by Bhakti movement led by many Sufi saints.  At that time, some powerful empires led by Shudra rulers like Kakatiyas emerged. Caste discrimination became rigid once again during British rule

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

Criteria of ranking in social hierarchy – In ancient India, 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.  

Not a framework of hierarchical layers, but a series of vertical parallels – 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.

Importance of self restraint and self discipline in ancient India – 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.

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.

Lower strata of society in ancient India – In ancient India, conquered groups were kept under the category of ‘Shudras’. Individuals or groups engaged in unclean occupations, clinging to the practices, which were not considered respectable under the category of untouchables, and persons born illegitimately or the groups clinging to anti-social activities were treated as outcastes. All these sections of society were given lower status in the Hindu 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.

Who were Shudras? – Socially, those groups were put amongst Shudras, who belonged to service class, helped upper castes in their work or functioned in different areas under the guidance of upper castes  of the three Varnas.. They were doing all sorts of menial work under their guidance, therefore socially they were given lower stratus in Hindu community, .

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

How to gain respect in society? – -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.

Nobody was prevented to rise the scale of society in ancient India? – 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.

Hinduism or its practices are responsible for Shudra’s isolation – 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.

Beginning of the troubles for lower strata of Indian society – 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.

Rise of White-collared jobs during British rule and its effects on lower strata of society – 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.

Process of Industrialization and modernization had 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.

Lower strata victim of circumstances – 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.                                                                                                                 Winding up – In the end it can be repeated, what in the First Backward Class Commission Report, Kaka Kalelkar (Chairman of the Commission) had commented, 

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.” BCCI, para III.


December 5, 2016 Posted by | Social and political values and systems | | 7 Comments


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