Untouchables are the fifth category of Hindu society, as maintained by some, and sometimes called Harijans. Others include these people with the sudras, and they may be labeled “clean” or “unclean.” Belonging to this caste are the offspring of of mixed-caste unions, tribals, and foreigners, and those of defiling occupations such as the Chamar, leather workers; Dom, scavengers and funerary specialists; Bhangi, Mahar, Ohed, Chuhra, sweepers; Paraiyan, scavengers; Koraga, basket makers; and many others.
Some, such as the Paraiyan, would carry a small drum to warn others of their approach; other, such as the Pulayan, would move about at night, and even then would have to call out to warn anyone they might meet of their presence. Some castes were so polluting that they were not only untouchable but unseeable as well, such as the Vannan of southern India whose job it was to was the clothes of other untouchables, and who might leave their homes only in darkness because to see one of them was enough to pollute a higher caste person.
The untouchables lived outside of the community boundaries, and draw water from wells of the higher castes. Education was prohibited, they were not allowed to read sacred texts, and only by patiently their humble lot in life could they expect to gain salvation. Orthodox Hindus will not eat with, marry, or work with untouchables.
The Laws of Manu define their social position as thus: “Their dwelling place shall be outside of the village, and their wealth shall consist of dogs and donkeys. Their clothes shall be garments of corpses, their food eaten from broken dishes. Their ornaments shall be of black iron, and they are condemned to wandering from place to place.”
The untouchables represented various forms of threat to the normal functioning of mainstream Hindu society, which they were cut off from. Dirty occupations carry the danger of infection and disease; mixed marriages and their offspring threatened accepted cultural norms and social stability; foreigners represented a challenge to established values and customs.
The Constitution of modern independent India has abolished untouchability in theory, but in practice, especially in rural areas, yje concept still survives. Both reformed movements and individuals have tried eradicating it, but, so far, not with much success.
Gandhi tried improving their image by giving them the name of Harijans, Children of God; officially they are termed “Scheduled Castes,” but terminology alone does not change social status. However, the Scheduled Castes have been granted more privileges, such as scholarships and college places reserved for them, and Civil Service job allocations, which have caused backlash and resentment from higher castes. Discrimination still exists toward these people despite of governmental efforts to help them. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 1007