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Rereading History: On Ambedkar's "The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables"

Sharmistha Saha


The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables by Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is a sequel to his book The Shudras: Who They Were and How They Came to Be the Fourth Varna of the Indo-Aryan Society. The Untouchables was first published in 1948 by Amrit Book Company, New Delhi. The text is included in Volume 7 of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches published by the Education Department, Government of Maharashtra in 1990. The Untouchables is dedicated to the three eminent saints, i.e., Nandnar, Ravidas, Chokhamela, who, despite being untouchables, had “by their piety and virtue won the esteem of all” (235).

In the preface, Dr. Ambedkar confessed that his main motto was to link up various books, facts, several pieces of evidence to build up his thesis regarding the origin of untouchability. He asserted that he didn’t want to accept his thesis as the ‘last word’ and invited free criticism on it but urged them to consider it acceptable.

At first, Ambedkar had surveyed Non-Hindus to investigate the origin of untouchability by examining it from the Primitive society. He discovered that they believed in the perception of defilement through contact with specific objects, persons, events. Expected mother, Newborn Child, Initiation, Puberty, Cohabitation, specific ceremonies in marriage caused desecration, and contamination with those people as part of inviting evil forces. The most surmounted, harmful, and unlucky was the pollution by the corpse and his chattels. Advice for the profaned person and isolation for a certain period was prescribed. A dead person’s relatives were secluded for a certain time. Upper-class people especially chiefs and their belongings were regarded as sanctified. People from places like- Tonga land, Malaya Peninsula, Toda, etc believed that the mere touch of an inferior would traduce the chief’s personage and the inferior by doing so would invite dangers upon himself .“In Uganda, before building a temple, the men were given four days in which to purify themselves”(251). Purification processes like- sprinkling water, blood in the threshold, cutting hair and nails, transmuting impurity to others, etc terminated evil forces. In Ancient Greek and Roman society profanity’s reason was bloodshed, contact with the dead, sexual intercourse, childbirth, unauthorized person’s entry in consecrate places, quarreling, consuming certain foods, etc, and the purification process ‘Kapodia’ was also dictated.

Following this, in his next chapter, he researched on the Hindus and surprisingly discovered that the notion of pollution among Hindus was not different from ancient or primitive society. Following Manu Smriti ( Dharmasastra, ancient text regarding the social moral conduct of a man, written after the fall of the Maurya empire) Hindus understood physical and national pollution, communal and territorial defilement like Ancient Rome. Manu prescribed that the king being abstracted of eight deities was pure (like primitive times) and the king’s desired people ex- Kinsmen, Cow, Brahmin, Noble were exempted from impurity. Ambedkar discovered that Brahmins were pure by the statements of Manu but suffered from sullying like- birth, death, and many other fields that Non-Brahmins did not. The Family members of the dead were addressed as ‘Sapindas’, ‘Samanodakas’, and the defilement due to expiry was extended to remote relatives, king, and those who bore the corpse. Anyone associated with the person was a part of impurity. The time period of defilement for various persons unlike primitive times was mentioned too. After the ravine period, a purificatory ritual was performed to end it like an annual ‘Jatra’ where villagers buying a he-buffalo moved it around the village and immolated it. The blood was sprinkled around the village and toe meat was given away among the villagers and vegetarian Brahmin was bound to accept his share of beef. In this context, Ambedkar dragged 1935’s “The Order in Council” ’s issued list of 429 (50-60 million approx) Untouchable communities whose mere touch polluted the upper classed Hindus. Performing certain rites the upper caste Hindus released themselves from impurity. “But there is nothing which can make the Untouchables pure. They are born impure, they are impure while they live, they die the death of the impure, and they give birth to children who are born with the stigma of Untouchability affixed to them. It is a case of permanent, hereditary stain which nothing can cleanse”(266). The Hindus isolated them in a certain territory outside of the village like- ‘ghetto’. Comparing ancient and primitive societies with Hindu society he stated that Hereditary Untouchability was followed by Hindus differentiating them from Non- Hindus.

Moving on he addressed his question of untouchables’ residence on the outskirts of the village in the previous part of the book. He explored that Shastra destined the ‘Antyaja’ to live outside the village. Manu instructed the Chandals and the Shavakars to reside outside the village by following certain rules being ‘Apapatras’ – 1. Dogs and Donkeys are their only wealth, 2. Attire must be the garments of dead and criminals, 3. Have food in a broken dish given by Aryans, 4. Religious men must avoid them, 5. Their marriage, transactions should be within their caste, etc. Four types of assumptions on Shastras' standpoint regarding the Untouchable’s ‘ghetto’ at the edge of the village are made by Ambedkar. But Ambedkar questioned who the power of attorney was to declare a section as “Untouchable”. Following Sociologists, he compared present Hindus with primitive society. The primitive society being wealthy was transforming into a settled community which the nomadic tribes could not. Being jealous of the settled tribes’ wealth nomadic tribes attacked them. This continuous tribal warfare gave birth to broken men who were defeated. Ambedkar presumed that the broken getting no place to go lived at the periphery of the village and served the settled community by guarding them against Barbarians in exchange for food and shelter. But why broken lived outside is questioned by him. Maybe the notion that outside the tribal system without any blood relation, common kinship no one was allowed to live within the settled community was the reason for broken men settling at the edges.

Dr. Ambedkar inquired on the untouchable’s pre-existence as broken men and proclaimed, “the totems of the Untouchables of a particular village differ from the totems of the Hindus of the village”(278). The terms ‘Antya’, ‘Antyaga’, ‘Antyavasin’ derived from the Hindu Shastras which were presumed to have derived from the term ‘Anta’ by Hindus. ‘Anta’ meant to Hindus who was created at last. So the untouchables according to the Hindus were created at last by the divine. But according to Shastra, it was “Sudra’’, the last of the Chaturvarna whom divine created last. Hence taking the account of Shastra Ambedkar proved that Sudras are ‘Savarna’ but the untouchables are outside the Varna System as no account of them is found in the Shastras. Ambedkar opined that ‘Anta’ meant the people who lived at the boundaries or ‘Anta’ of the village and were named ‘Antyajas’ to tell their domicile. Ambedkar pictures the scenario of Untouchables from the relation between Touchable and the ‘Mahar’ community of Maharastra. Mahar lived outside the wall of every village in Maharastra claiming 52 rights from the Muslim king of Bedar in exchange for guarding the village. The most important of these were –1. Right to collect food from the village, 2. Have corns from each village after the harvest, 3. Consume villager’s dead animals' flesh etc. Ambedkar’s research had shown that the broken men belonging to another tribe lived at the periphery being declared as untouchable and remained untouchable forever.

He further questioned whether there is any existence of equality among classes anywhere. Supporting his previous commentaries and regarding this question, he looked into the thesis of Sir Henry Maine. Maine said that the Irish village was settled according to Brehon Laws of Ireland by a single tribe who were sufficient in number to constitute a political unit and had almost the same occupation under a chieftain. The entire place was not occupied by them. So towards the border the Fudhir, fugitives from other tribal lands who needed protection, place in a new tribe were permitted to rehabilitate as the chief accepted his duties towards them (Early History of Institutions, lecture 3, 92-93). Instances of Irish and Alltudes of Welsh villages of Primitive times leave no ambiguity that Untouchables of India were not alone who lived at the edge but people of other places were the same and there was no parallel class anywhere.

In the next chapter Broken men’s settlement’s disappearance is discussed. Following certain rites the non-tribesmen, broken men became tribesmen. The account of such rituals in Welsh will be found in Mr.Seebhom’s writing. Manu, to establish its superiority in chapter 10, had prescribed that a Sudra by marrying their seven generations in the Brahmin community can transform into ‘Brahmin’. Ambedkar bewailed if such amalgamation had happened then Untouchability would have ended, unlike other countries. But it did not happen because the notion is so ingrained in the Indian mind that it is hard to abolish.

To explore further the birth of untouchability old theories like racial and occupational theories are deplored by him to establish it further. For such acclamation, Mr. Rice’s hypothesis is quoted by him. Rice affirmed that the Dravidians vanquished Paraiyans and announced them ‘untouchable’, ex-communicate, ceremonially unclean. Later Paraiyans were allowed in lowly participation but at distance. They were later allowed to do menial work at the temple. Dravidians believed by including Paraiyans under their kinship and allowing them for puja was to fall under the curse of God. The Paraiyans’ taboo was unbudging. “The seal of pollution was set on his forehead; it was inherent in him as surely as the blood in his veins” (290). Hinduism had always accepted other creeds by dominating them. The Aryans invaded India unlike Dravidians and made Dravidians ‘Shudras’. From the Vedas, it is proved that Aryans were not single homogenous people. The tribal Indians divided themselves into castes. Each tribe was divided into clans and each clan became a group of family. The common totem was named ‘Gotra’ or ‘Kula’ (Hindu Customs And Their Origins, 113-115).To prove this theorem futile Ambedkar exemplified that Maharastra’s Marathas were upper caste and Mahrars were untouchable but both of them belonged to the same ‘Kula’. Ambedkar refuted the racial theory with proof.

Mr. Rice’s occupational theory claimed that the occupations of untouchable don’t defy their untouchability as the duties performed by them are found in every human society. The Aryans unlike ancient civilization believed in the notion of purity and impurity. Narada Smriti (5) mentioned Aryans' engagement in filthy professions. Aryan sages determined 4 types of labors and 15 types of slaves. Pure work was done by laborers. Scavenging, impure work was done by slaves. The slavery system was also present among the Aryans. Regardless of Varnas, one could engage in slavery but the arrival of Chaturvarna had changed it. According to Yagnavalkya the slavery system was in descending order. The law ordered 1.‘Brahmins’ to serve only ‘Brahmans’,2. ‘Kshatriya’ to serve ‘Kshatriya’ and ‘Brahmin’, 3.‘Vaishya’ served ‘Brahmins’, ‘Kshatriya’, ‘Vaishya’. All these prove that scavenging never resulted in untouchability and it was done by all at that time. So the occupational theory of untouchable’s birth is also unacceptable.

Ambedkar after consulting all the old theories delved into new theories like the contempt of Buddhism and beef-eating to perceive the origin of untouchability. The Census commission of 1910 on H.H.Aga Khan’s demand classified Hindus based on 100% Hindus or not in three categories-Hindus, Animist and Tribal, Depressed class, or Untouchables. Census board set 10 rules under Brahimical impulse. They neither investigated the root of Untouchability nor could find out that Untouchables determined Brahmins unlucky and vice-versa. In this connotation, Mr.Hemingsway, Editor of the Gazetteer of Tanjore District said, ''These casts (Parayan and Pallan or Cbakkiliyan castes of Tanjore District) strongly object to the entrance of a Brahmin into their quarters believing that harm will result to them therefrom"(314). Refuting all theories Ambedkar had accepted that Broken men were Buddhists who were rejected by Brahmins. No evidence proves it but hatred in the mind of Hindus for untouchables was instigated by Brahmins. Various Hindu Shastras prove Ambedkar’s words. Nilkant in Prayaschit Mayukha quoted from Manu, “If a person touches a Buddhist or a flower of Pachupat, Lokayata, Nastika, and Mahapataki he shall purify himself by a bath”. In Aparaksha, a Sanskrit Mricchakatika drama, Varda Harit scorn for Buddhists is found.

Smritikars declared the root of untouchability lay in consuming Cow’s Flesh. The survey of Census commission’s 10th rule on beef consumption showed that untouchables were only beef eaters. Hindus were divided into the meat-eating, the vegetarian, and the beef-eater. Veda Vyas Smriti declares, “ The Charmakars (Cobbler), the Bhatta (Soldier), Bhilla, the Rajaka (washerman), the Puskara, the Nata (actor), the Vrata, the Meda, the Chandala, the Dasa, the Svapaka, and the Kalika- these are known as Antyajas as well as others who eat cow’s flesh”. The Broken and Buddhist both consumed Beef. Brahmins had no spur with Broken Men but being Buddhist they fell prey to Brahmins. The origin of untouchability is depicted through the Brahmins used beef-eating as a palisade for their contempt against Buddhism and declared Broken Men as ‘Untouchables’.

Moving forward Ambedkar probed Beef devouring practice among the Hindus, Brahmins, Non- Brahmins, and Broken men. The touchable Hindus taking the name of Shastras had always proclaimed that butchering and consuming cow meat is sin. But Ambedkar found that Rig Veda regards Cow sacred, as for the Devi. In Aghnya cows being unfit for giving milk were prohibited to kill. But Ambedkar said that such esteem was only expected from the Agricultural community. The other Indo-Aryans were free to kill the sacred cow and had them as food. Indra in Rig Veda had instructed men to sacrifice 15+ twenty oxen to satisfy different gods. In Kamayashtris what kind of ox must be offered is instructed. Saptaha Brahamana’s verses directly prove animal propitiation and beef consumption. The Garhya Sutra’s Madhupurka is incomplete without flesh ( preferably cows or goats). Guests were called ‘Go-gnha’ by Aryans as the slaying of the cow was done at their arrival. In Samyuta Nikaya ‘Pasedi’, the king of Khosla’s Yajna’s episode is captured where uncountable animals were sacrificed. Various Buddha sutras which were written much later of Vedas and Brahamana allude to cow killing and eating practice. Various Shastras make it evident that interdiction was on excess slaughtering not on beef swallowing and it was consumed by all.

Ambedkar speculates that Non-Brahmins perhaps gave up Beef devouring by following Manu Sanhita or King Ashoka’s advice. Following Buddhism which preached against animal oblation Ashoka’s rock edict 1 says that the majesty had advised no immolation of animal neither for sacrifice nor on holidays and the king, Royal family had stopped engulfing any creatures. Pillar Edict 5 mandated a list of birds, animals which must not be exterminated. Even forests, chaffs with creatures must not be burnt and branding horses was prohibited. Ashoka being Buddhist tried to stop the immolation of 4 footed animals but he had no particular interest in a cow but various conjectures are on it. Even Manu forbade many creatures to eat but didn’t stop the slaughter of Cow. Rather made it compulsory on specific occasions. Consulting all these theories Ambedkar said that Non – Brahmins emulated the superior Brahmin and ceased the beef-eating practice when Brahmin started to worship the cow.

Ambedkar felt the necessity to go to the root of Brahmins vegetation’s reason to mitigate Non-Brahmin’s beef leaving reason. Cow being costly was butchered by Non-Brahmins only on religious day and special eves but Brahmins had beef every day. ‘Yajna’ was done by 17 Brahmin where the animal was sacrificed with pomp and splendor. It released the sacrificer from evil and Brahmins following the custom had the entire flesh of an animal which they immolated. Manu knew about beef savoring by Brahmins. Cow killing was a minor offense in Manu and no Shastra had forbidden beef-eating. Ambedkar’s research had established that the strife of 400 years between Brahminism and Buddhism is the reason for Brahmin’s vegetation. Buddhism rejected animal sacrifice and slaying of cows in the yajna. Cow immolation was so much embossed in the brain of masses (mostly cultivators) that they started to disrespect Brahminism. Enraged, Brahmins started worshipping cows instead of eating. Seeing Buddha Stupa and Buddha idol Brahmins to undercut Buddhism and to prove the excellence of Hinduism started constructing Temples and established idols of figures such as Ram, Bishnu and went against Hinduism. For Brahmins butchering and devouring cow was a sin to Shastras to demean Buddhism because Buddhism supported engulfing naturally dead animals flesh. The influence of Brahminism was such that Gupta Emperor’s Mahapataka announced cow carnage as a capital offence and equaled it to murdering a Brahmin. Ambedkar demonstrated that Hindu Brahmins went against Manu to be superficial than Buddhism transforming themselves into Vegetarian Brahmins.

Establishing the theory of Brahmins’ vegetarianism, Ambedkar moved forward to examine the untouchability of broken men due to beef-eating. Instead of making beef devouring a secular matter Brahmins dragged it into religion and declared it profane and brought differences between settled and broken. Prof. Durkhiem observed, “the good and the bad are only two opposed species of the same class, namely, morals, just as sickness and health are two different aspects of the same order of facts, life, while the sacred and the profane have always and everywhere been conceived by the human mind as two distinct classes, as two worlds between which there is nothing in common”( The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 38). Profane, women were forbidden to utter certain words or to touch sacred. Cow dead or alive remained always sacred. Ambedkar initiated that the primitive times Beef consumer broken men became unfit for the society as they were Buddhist and ate beef. They could not afford a Vegetarian’s lifestyle and food as they didn’t earn much and they couldn’t hide while carrying the dead cow. Broken’s economic condition and religion made them untouchable.

The end part of the book concluded his entire research on the birth of Untouchability. The subsistence of Untouchability is claimed by Hindus to be from ancient times. Ambedkar found Smritis enjoyed the position of untouchables. No Dharma sutras or smriti clarified in which class the Antyavasin, Antyaja, Bahaya belonged. The term ‘Asprisya’ of the Sutra, Smriti leaves an ambiguity here. It did not say who was the ‘Asprisya’.‘Antya’ mentioned in Manu whether it meant the people residing on the outskirts of the village or not and several opinions are about it. Antyajas of Mahabharata’s ‘Santi parava’ were soldiers of the army. Viramitrodaya said that 18 castes together were called Antyajas. Amarkosh (2) said that Brahmachari (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya ) while living at Guru’s house were called Antyavasin. So Asparsya, Antya, Antyavasin, Antyaja are different from today’s meaning. Dharma Sutra stated, “On touching an outcaste, a Chandala, a woman impure on account of her confinement, a woman in her courses, or a corpse and on touching persons who have touched them, he shall purify himself by bathing dressed in his clothes.” But Manu, Dharma Sutra prescribed certain rules for these people. Ambedkar considering all these concluded that the name given by Shastra and the list of Order in Council were different because Shastra bequeathed the name of impure whereas council the untouchables. If the impure were untouchables then they all had a place in it. But the council’s names were of a completely different category of people where Chamar was registered only. Ambedkar said that later impure became untouchable as the impure engulfed Beef.

The last chapter of the book brings all the result of Ambedkar’s study together and enables him to locate the time of broken men’s transformation into untouchable to find the origin of untouchable as all his previous researches proved that broken men later became untouchable. In Vedic time there was no untouchability. Dharma Sutra talked about impurity, not untouchability. “The traditional interpretation adopted by the orthodox Hindu is that the statement in Manu refers to the Untouchables, that it was the Untouchables whose status was in controversy and that it was then status which is the subject-matter of Manu’s decision”(371-372). Neither Manu nor Narada Smriti mentioned about untouchability. Hence the upper limit of untouchability couldn’t be located. To determine the lower limit of the birth of untouchability Ambedkar took Fah-Hian’s account where Chandal, the enemy of Brahmin is called evil. In the story of ‘Kadmabri’, the king Shudraka was mesmerized by the beauty of Chandal girl and no scorn is found for untouchables in the story. The Chandal girl was admired as a Chandal princess. The story writing time proves that the time was 600 AD and the notion of Untouchability was not there. So to decide the birth of untouchability, Ambedkar took the date when killing cows and eating their meat became a transgression. Not Manu but the Gupta kings, ‘champion of Hinduism’ made Cow exterminating an offence. Ambedkar opined that untouchability was born around 400 AD during the reign of the Gupta emperors.

We see that Ambedkar, to eradicate the discrimination based on one’s birth had undertaken intensive research on all the Shastras and history to find out Untouchability’s beginning to end it. Manu Smriti is one of the sources of inequality, Brahmin superiority, and no shastra gave the untouchable a place in the Varna system. The primitive societies’ impure broken men being deprived of all the facilities lived on the outskirts and accepted Buddhism but to dominate Buddhism, Brahmins targeted their food habit and isolated them even further from the society making them untouchable. The underprivileged people increased with time and faced social discrimination for a larger period of time. Untouchability is social nausea which Ambedkar wanted to annihilate and desired equal rights for everyone.

Works Cited

Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji. “The Untouchables Who Were They And Why They Became Untouchables.” Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol.7, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp. 233-382.

Author Information

Sharmistha Saha studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests include feminism and Dalit studies.



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