The concept of untouchability has long played a role in the Hindu CASTE system of socioeco-nomic organization. Members of certain low-status castes were considered polluting and not allowed to touch any person of the upper castes, particularly BRAHMINS and members of the warrior and merchant castes. This practice was exagger-ated even further in parts of South India, where certain people were considered unseeable and had to stay out of sight of the upper castes.
   The history of untouchability no doubt tracks the rise of ARYAN cultural domination of India. There is evidence to suggest that certain tribal groups and peoples last integrated into the Aryan fold became classified as “out-castes” or the “fifth caste” (where the Aryans had a fourfold class system from great antiquity). The custom is sup-ported by a very complex social conception of “POLLUTION” related to occupation. Purity is seen to reside in certain types of activity such as teach-ing and recitation of the VEDAS, and in habits such as VEGETARIANISM, while such essential social tasks as sweeping, the collecting of refuse, the removal of carrion animals, and the production of leather are considered severely polluting.
   Caste, more properly jati, or birth, is in fact directly related in most cases to occupation, so untouchability is generally conferred by birth. (However, certain polluting situations within the family context, such as having someone recently die in the household, make any person, whatever the caste, polluting or “untouchable” for a limited time.)
   It should be noted that almost all of the major freedom fighters in India who sought indepen-dence from Britain denounced the notion of caste and called for the abolition of untouchability. MOHANDAS KARAMCHAND GANDHI was most notable in this regard. He coined the term harijan (those born of God) to relieve the stigma from untouch-ables. The constitution of India was written by an untouchable (who also became a Buddhist), Dr. Babasaheb R. Ambedkar (1891–1956). In the set-ting up of India’s central and state governments, untouchables were given designated quotas of positions, including parliamentary seats, to guar-antee their advancement.
   Today, India’s untouchables have taken an increasingly militant political stance. They prefer to call themselves Dalit (the oppressed). Many of them have converted to Buddhism, following Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion in late life. Buddhism was always opposed to caste notions and preached spiritual equality.
   Further reading: B. R. Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables (Bombay: Thacker, 1946); Mark Jurgensmeyer, Religion as Social Vision: The Movement against Untouchability in 20th Century Pun-jab (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); J. Michael Mahar, ed., The Untouchables in Contemporary India (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1972); Elea-nor Zelliot, “Dalit—New Cultural Context of an Old Marathi Word,” in Clarence Maloney, ed., Language and Civilization Change in South Asia. Vol. 11, Contributions to Asian Studies (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978), pp. 77–97.

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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