Dalits, Harijans

General Information

Untouchables, now called Harijans, have traditionally occupied the lowest place in the caste system of Hindu India; they were called untouchable because they were considered to be outside the confines of caste. Their impurity derived from their traditional occupations, such as the taking of life and the treatment of bodily effluvia.

Such was their impurity that traditionally they were banned from Hindu temples; in parts of South India even the sight of an Untouchable was sufficient to pollute a member of a higher caste. In 1949 the Indian government outlawed the use of the term Untouchables. The group has been reclassified as the "Scheduled Castes" and has been granted special educational and political privileges. Today it is illegal to discriminate against a Harijan, yet they remain generally at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, performing the most menial roles demanded by society. They numbered an estimated 65 million in the late 1960s.

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Hilary Standing And R L Stirvat

P C Aggarwal, Halfway to Equality: The Harijans of India (1983); D P Das, The Untouchables Story (1985); J M Freeman, Untouchable: An Indian Life History (1979); J H Hutton, Caste in India: Its Nature, Function and Origins (1963); M Juergensmeyer, Religion as a Social Vision (1982); R K Kshirsagar, Untouchability in India (1982); J M Mahar, ed., The Untouchables in Contemporary India (1972); D G Mandelbaum, Society in India (1970).


General Information

Untouchables are the Harijan caste, the lowest class under Hinduism.

Caste System

General Information

Caste is a rigid social system in which a social hierarchy is maintained generation after generation and allows little mobility out of the position to which a person is born. The term is often applied to the hierarchical hereditary divisions established among the Hindus on the Indian subcontinent. The word caste was first used by 16th-century Portuguese traders; it is derived from the Portuguese casta, denoting family strain, breed, or race. The Sanskrit word is jati. The Sanskrit term varna denotes a group of jati, or the system of caste.

The traditional caste system of India developed more than 3000 years ago when Aryan-speaking nomadic groups migrated from the north to India about 1500BC. The Aryan priests, according to the ancient sacred literature of India, divided society into a basic caste system. Sometime between 200BC and AD100, the Manu Smriti, or Law of Manu, was written. In it the Aryan priest-lawmakers created the four great hereditary divisions of society still surviving today, placing their own priestly class at the head of this caste system with the title of earthly gods, or Brahmans. Next in order of rank were the warriors, the Kshatriyas. Then came the Vaisyas, the farmers and merchants. The fourth of the original castes was the Sudras, the laborers, born to be servants to the other three castes, especially the Brahman. Far lower than the Sudras - in fact, entirely outside the social order and limited to doing the most menial and unappealing tasks - were those people of no caste, formerly known as Untouchables. (In the 1930s Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi applied the term Harijans, or "children of God," to this group.) The Untouchables were the Dravidians, the aboriginal inhabitants of India, to whose ranks from time to time were added the pariahs, or outcasts, people expelled for religious or social sins from the classes into which they had been born. Thus created by the priests, the caste system was made a part of Hindu religious law, rendered secure by the claim of divine revelation.

The characteristics of an Indian caste include rigid, hereditary membership in the caste into which one is born; the practice of marrying only members of the same caste (endogamy); restrictions on the choice of occupation and on personal contact with members of other castes; and the acceptance by each individual of a fixed place in society. The caste system has been perpetuated by the Hindu ideas of samsara (reincarnation) and karma (quality of action). According to these religious beliefs, all people are reincarnated on earth, at which time they have a chance to be born into another, higher caste, but only if they have been obedient to the rules of their caste in their previous life on earth. In this way karma has discouraged people from attempting to rise to a higher caste or to cross caste lines for social relations of any kind.

The four original castes have been subdivided again and again over many centuries, until today it is impossible to tell their exact number. Estimates range from 2000 to 3000 different castes established by Brahmanical law throughout India, each region having its own distinct groups defined by craft and fixed by custom.

The complexities of the system have constituted a serious obstacle to civil progress in India. The trend today is toward the dissolution of the artificial barriers between the castes. The stringency of the caste system of the Hindus was broken down greatly during the period of British rule in India. The obligation of the son to follow the calling of his father is no longer binding; men of low castes have risen to high ranks and positions of power; and excommunication, or the loss of caste, is not as serious as it may once have been. In addition, the caste system was from time to time burst from within by ecclesiastical schisms, most notably the rise of Buddhism, itself a reaction from, and protest against, the intolerable bondage of the caste system.

In recent years considerable strides toward eradicating unjust social and economic aspects of the caste system as practiced in India have been made through educational and reform movements. The great leader in this endeavor was Mohandas Gandhi. The drafted constitution of India, which was published a few days after the assassination of Gandhi in January 1948, stated in a special clause under the heading "human rights": "Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden." Despite official attempts to improve the status of members of the lowest caste, many of whom now prefer to be referred to as Dalits (Hindi for "oppressed people"), discrimination and exploitation is still common.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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