Category Archives: d. The Untouchables

Dalits and the Dalit Movement

Just as in any functioning society, Hindus in India are organized into groups, and the daily interactions that go on within the groups are facilitated by the social class to which one belongs. While outsiders studying the system may see it as extreme and difficult to understand, Hindu lives have functioned within the social system they know and participate in. The caste system in India dates back as far as around 1400 BC, when the Vedic Aryans migrated into Punjab, India and enslaved the groups already inhabiting the land, including the Dravidians. Before migrating to India, the Aryans already had a system of clan divisions, and when they conquered the people they met in India they segregated them from themselves by race, calling themselves the “Arya Varna” (meaning “master class”), and the slaves the “Dasa Varna” (meaning “slave cast”) (Raj 2-3). This simple distinction was the basis for the system that would grow and develop, eventually forming the modern caste system used by Hindus in India today. The social system, based on ethnic, economic, and religious segregation, divides the people into four main classes, or varna. In Sanskrit, varna means “colour”, and it was speculated that this emphasized the segregation of the coloured races, dating back to the Aryans and the conquered peoples. However, this has since been challenged, and it has been suggested that colour was simply used as a means to distinguish people, not relating to ethnicity at all, but more in the way that one could distinguish the color “pink” from “purple” or “white” from “black” (Varna 2016).

The class system is set up with a basis of four main classes (or varnas): the Brahmins, the Ksatriyas, the Vaisyas, and the Sudras. Each class functions according to the expectations they know to be true for their class; expectations which have both evolved and emerged as the history of Hinduism developed. The origins of the four specific varnas are unclear, and different myths and stories have arisen depicting their creation. In one hymn, the Purusasukta, the varnas are said to have developed from the parts and limbs of Purusa. In this depiction, the Brahmin are said to have come from the mouth, the Ksatriya from the arms, the Vaisya from the legs, and the Sudra from the feet (Davis 52). This imagery clearly demonstrates the places each class holds in society. The four classes are also mentioned in the Rg Veda (one of the most influential Hindu texts), but in the form of three classes called Brahma, Ksatra, and Visa (Ghurye 44). The Brahmin class is the uppermost class, consisting of the elite priests. The Brahmin are responsible for the upholding of dharma, as they themselves are held to a high standard of moral behavior. The Brahmins are distinguished from the Ksatriyas by their ritual knowledge. A Brahmin is able to perform rituals, and can offer up prayers for others, especially in the matter of protection of his king (Ghurye 47). The Ksatriyas form the militant class of India. They are able to carry weapons and it is expected that they would protect the rest of the people in this way. There are some stories of Ksatriyas acting as priests, and the tensions between the Brahmins and the Ksatriyas led to conflict every now and then as they each challenged the authority of the other class. Still, the two classes are known to work closely with each other in order to ensure the function and protection of daily society (Ghurye 50). The Vaisyas constitute the third class, known to be farmers and labourers. This class, best known as “the tenders of cattle”, are in a position of uncertainty. The two upper classes can easily be grouped together, as they both display their authority over Indian society, but the Vaisyas can be grouped either up or down, depending on the behaviour or the situation being analyzed (Ghurye 63). In some situations they are seen as an upper class, while in others they are grouped along with the lowest class, the servants. This makes the lines between the classes hard to distinguish at times, and certainly provides an insight into the complexity and difficulty that comes along with trying to understand the caste system. The fourth class is the Sudras, the lowest of the four. The Sudras are a class destined for tedious, unskilled labour, and service of the upper three classes (Davis 52). Participation and placement in the classes are determined by Jati, meaning one’s birth group, from the Sanskrit word “jata”, meaning “born” or “brought into existence” (Jati 2016). In this way, it is understood that birth determines one’s place in the caste system.

Not included in the four varnas are a fifth class, a class so low in the caste system that they are referred to as “Untouchables”, and therefore excluded from the four-varna system. This class, the Dalits, occupy the lowest of the low in Hindu Indian society, and are highly discriminated against in all aspects of life. They are segregated and given the label of poor status in the economy, politics, employment, and so much more (Kaminsky and Long 156-157). As an outsider analyzing the system, it is important to acknowledge the role that the Dalits play in the interactions among the groups, but from a Hindu point of view, the Dalits are totally unacknowledged (Sadangi 18). The people that occupy this class are viewed by the rest of the classes as polluting, and are therefore given the “polluting” tasks in daily life. Ritual purity is an extremely important concept in Hinduism, and tasks are typically assigned levels of purity or pollution. It is of utmost importance that the upper classes maintain their ritual purity, especially the Brahmins, as they need to be ritually pure in order to perform their rituals. The tasks that are too polluting for the four varnas to participate in are given to the Dalits, as they are already polluted in their fundamental status. Besides occupation, Dalits are excluded from all aspects of daily life of Hindus of the other classes, including social and sexual contact, and eating. Contact between the Dalits and the four varnas is controlled and regulated, and eating among the groups is completely and wholly separated (Shrawagi 2006).

While there are multiple terms used today to describe the “untouchables”, including Harijan, the term “Dalit” itself, although in existence for hundreds of years, was not always used to classify the excluded class, and was popularised fairly recently by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (Mohanty and Malik 114). Ambedkar effectively attacked the Indian caste system in his adult life, basing his entire campaign on the sole foundation of social equality (Jagannathan 2015). Born a Dalit himself, Ambedkar has successfully created a new definition for the term “Dalits” as a group of people who are “economically abused, politically neglected, educationally backward, and oppressed in religious and cultural ground because of caste discrimination in society” (Mohanty and Malik 114). The Dalit movement in India really began when India gained independence, but the Dalits were still denied any independence or equality in the new society (Sutradhar 91). This desire for equality urged members to begin pushing back against the upper classes. The upper classes traditionally starved the Dalits in social interaction, education, and the economy, believing that if they could maintain their powerless position in society and prevent them from furthering their education of equality and human rights that they could prevent any notions of dissent against the system, and continue to render the Dalits defenseless against the discrimination imposed on them (Sutradhar 94). However, the Dalits, after enduring centuries of abuse and oppression, began to feel angry about their position in society. They were working the land and serving the upper classes with no enjoyment of the fruits of their own labour. Thus, the Dalit movement was born, and fostered in the minds of those fighting for equality among the classes.

Jyotiba Phule was the first to emphasize the importance of the education of Dalits when it came to the Dalit’s movement, recognizing that with education would come the ability to reason and develop rationale, as well as the ability to carve out a place for oneself in politics and the socio-economic world (Sutradhar 96). This sentiment was carried even further by Dr. Ambedkar, who (along with another great thinker, Gandhi) fought for Dalits’ equality. While Ambedkar deeply desired equality among the classes, he recognized the importance of the caste system in daily social structure, and acknowledged the fact that a whole organization of society cannot change overnight without total chaos and disarray ensuing soon after. In this way, he recognized the need for separate-caste marriages, and pushed for smaller movements toward equality. By doing so, he hoped that eventually the Hindu caste system could gradually transition from one embedded in inequality to one with equality at the forefront, redefining daily interactions and social structures.

The Dalit movement is one that has been going on for years, heightening especially in the 1970’s, but is largely ignored in the grand scheme of things (Sutradhar 97). The feelings of exclusion and oppression felt by the Dalits in India continue to motivate them to keep quiet. The feelings of embarrassment and dedication to the caste system that is so deeply entrenched in Hindu thought and beliefs, and the acceptance of the way things are prove to be huge obstacles in the continuation and growth of the movement, not only in India, but on the world stage. Still, thinkers such as Phule, Ambedkar, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan fed the fire that drives the movement. Radhakrishnan had spoken out against the caste system directly, attacking its values. He emphasized the need to abolish the system (and the idea of untouchability) in order to achieve a modern nation with democracy and human rights for all (Minor 386). Today, in a world so focused on human rights, equality, and liberty of all people, the Dalits movement begs for people all over the world to recognize the needs of their friends in India. In order to see change there must be pressure put on the Indian government both nationally and internationally, and Dalits must come together with non-Dalits in order to achieve a global movement to push for human rights in India to transcend the caste system (Bishwakarma 2015). Until then, over one-sixth of the population of India will continue to live in oppression under the caste system, born into the fate of a Dalit life (Overview of Dalit Human Rights Situation nd).



Bishwakarma, Dil (2015) “ICDR President’s Opening Statement from First Global Conference.” International Commission for Dalit Rights. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Davis, Marvin (1983) Rank and Rivalry: The Politics of Inequality in Rural West Bengal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ghurye, Govind S. (1969) Caste and Race in India. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd.

Jagannathan, R. (2015) “Rescuing Ambedkar from Pure Dalitism: He Would’ve Been India’s Best Prime Minister.” Firstpost. Accessed February 28, 2016.

— “Jati.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Edited by Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 28, 2016.

Kaminsky, Arnold P., and Roger D. Long (2011) India Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic. California: ABC-CLIO.

Minor, Robert N. (1997) “Radhakrishnan as Advocate of the Class/Caste System as a Universal Religio-Social System.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 1.2. Springer. 386-400.

Mohanty, Panchanan, and Ramesh C. Malik (2011) Ethnographic Discourse of the Other: Conceptual an Methodological Issues. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. Accessed February 6, 2016.

 Raj, Ebenezer S (1985) “The Origins of the Caste System.” Transformation 2.2. London: Sage Publications Ltd. 10-14.

Sadangi, Himansu Charan (2008) Emancipation of Dalits and Freedom Struggle. Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.

Shrawagi, Rohit (2006) Purity vs. Pollution. Accessed February 28, 2016.

Sutradhar, Ruman (2014) “Dalit Movement in India: In the Light of Four Dalit Literatures.” IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences. 91-97.


Related Topics for Further Interest



Dharma Sastras



Havik Brahmins


Laws of Manu






Rg Veda



Websites Related to the Topic

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights


Article written by: Jennie Elder (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Untouchables

The Untouchables Within the Hindu varna (class system) the Untouchables or Candalas are a group of individuals who are regarded as outcastes and contaminating to the other members of society. These individuals live on the outskirts of society and perform “polluting” labours (Rodrigues 114). Due to the nature of their occupations, the Untouchables are not identified with any specific class of Hindu society and are considered outcastes. In both ancient and contemporary India, the Untouchables have struggled to secure their place within Hindu society and fight discrimination.

There are many theories surrounding the origin of the Untouchables. While the exact source of the Untouchables is unclear, it is believed that they emerged in the later Vedic period of 1000- 600 B.C.E (Yamazaki 3) when the Aryans travelled northward up the Ganga basin and formed an agricultural society. During this time, the Brahmins (priestly class) placed a great emphasis on purity. This emphasis “gave rise” to a group of individuals, known as the Untouchables, who were considered impure, due to the work they performed (Yamazaki 11).

The orthodox Hindu tradition claims that the origins of the class system emerged from the early Aryan scripture of the Rg Veda in the mythological hymn, the Purusa Sukta (Rodrigues 102). The hymn tells of the sacrifice of the great cosmic being Purusa, by the Hindu gods. During this sacrifice, Purusa’s body is divided amongst the gods forming the four Hindu classes. From his head came the priestly class of the Brahmins, from his arms came the noble/warrior class of the Ksatriya, from his thighs came the merchant class Vaisya, and from his feet the Sudras (Rodrigues 102). The origin of the Untouchables is not linked to the myth of Purusa and therefore they do not have a place in the configurations of the varna system.

The status of the Untouchables is said to arise from the tasks they perform (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 7). In Hindu society, the Untouchables perform daily tasks that are polluting such as “removing human waste/remains, skinning dead animals, cremating the dead, tanning leather, and washing clothes” (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 12). These daily tasks are considered defiling and unsanitary causing the Untouchables to be in a constant state of pollution. In traditional Hindu society, the Untouchable can transfer temporarily their pollution to members of the higher varnas, through contact. Such contact includes touching, talking to, or looking an Untouchable in the eye (Yamazaki 12). Although contact with an Untouchable diminishes one’s purity, it can be restored through a series of purification rituals. These rituals include bathing, praying, and depending on the degree of contact, the closest being intercourse, through “more difficult penances such as fasting” (Yamazaki 12).

In ancient India the Untouchables, being a permanently polluted people were segregated from the rest of Hindu society, and therefore “maintained their own tribal organization and lived as tight communities on the outskirts of villages or communities” (Yamazaki 15). According to the Dharma Sastra text, Laws of Manu, the Untouchables, were supposed to wear the clothing of the dead, ornaments of steel, eat from broken dishes without utensils, and live a nomadic life (Nirula 13). The Laws of Manu further assert that dogs and donkeys are the only wealth the Untouchables may acquire (Nirula 12). It is important to note, however, that not all Untouchables conform to the regulations in the Laws of Manu.

Scholars maintain that discrimination against the Untouchables has been an embedded practice within ancient and contemporary Hindu society (Mendelsohn and Vicziany 1). Discriminatory practices towards the Untouchables include, living in seclusion form the rest of society, exclusion from religious (Brahministic) practices (Yamazaki 12) and exclusion from cremating their dead in the same location as other members of Hindu society (Nirula 105). Along with discrimination, violence against the Untouchables has been based on their associated with “dark forces and evil spirits” (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 46). Historically ‘traditional’ violence against the Untouchables has included rape, assault, and beatings (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 46). For instance, in 1973 in the Sahara District of Bihar, after the death of a boy from a snake bit, three women and a male untouchable were accused of bringing about the boy’s death by using witchcraft. They were forced to the boy’s home where the untouchable women were told to bring the boy back to life. However, after insisting that they had no part in the boy’s death, the women and man were removed of their clothing and were then beaten and kicked repeatedly. After this led to no results, the family of the boy persisted in using hot irons to brand the “untouchables” (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 46)

In the 20th century in order to improve the status of the Untouchables, political leader Mohandas Gandhi 1869-1948, (Woodcock 2,15) believed that the language of the oppressed and social structures surrounding the Untouchables should change. In 1933, Gandhi developed the term “Harijan” meaning “people of God” to replace the label “untouchable”. While this term proved acceptable, it soon lost support with India’s population, as it appeared illogical to take a despised class and elevate it to a position that it did not otherwise hold (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 3). The commonly used term in contemporary India derives from the ancient Hindu Sanskrit language, “Dalt”’ meaning “oppressed” (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 3-4). Today, the Government of India uses the terms “Scheduled Caste” when referring to the Untouchables (Nirula 104)

Apart from attempting to change their identity, Gandhi also employed his political status to improve life for the Untouchables. In the late 1920’s during his first political campaign, he travelled to western India and attempted to force the Hindu temples to open their doors to the Untouchables (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 77). On September 3rd 1932, Gandhi organized the All India Anti-Untouchablilty League, later renamed the Servants of the Untouchable Society (Zelliot 86). The purpose of Gandhi’s organization was to devote itself to removing the malevolence associated with the Untouchables through peaceful means and securing access for the Untouchables to public facilities such as wells, roads, and temples. In 1933-1934, Gandhi travelled throughout India collecting funds for the Servants of the Untouchables Society and lecturing against the unfair treatment the Untouchables received from the hands of society (Zelliot 87). Finally, on November 29, 1948 after Gandhi’s death, untouchability was abolished (Zelliot 69). While Gandhi and other politicians may have abolished untouchablility, poverty and discrimination remains a hindrance to the Untouchable’s attempts to increase their status (Zelliot 95).

References and Further Recommended Readings

Mendelsohn, Oliver, and Marika Vicziany (1998) The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and State in Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge Univer¬sity Press.

Rodrigues, Hilary (2006) Hindusim- The Ebook. Journal of Buddist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Singh, Nirula (2005) Dalits: A Bruised Dignity, The Pure and the Impure. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation

Yamazaki, Gen’ichi (1999) “Social discrimination in Ancient India and its Transition to the Medieval Period” In Japanese Studies on South Asia No. 1: Caste System, Untouchability and the Depressed. Kotani, H. (Ed) New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors.

Zelliot, Eleanor (1998) “Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Study in Leadership” In The Untouchables in Contempary India. Mahar, Michael (Ed) New Delhi: Rawat Publications.

Related Topic for Further Investigation

All India Anti-Untouchablilty League






Mohandas Gandhi


Rg Veda

Servants of the Untouchables Society




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Written by Sarah Kujat (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.