How dividing lines between untouchable outcastes and other outcastes merged and all came to be treated as untouchables

Crowd of National Conference of Dalit/low caste activists during a rally in New Delhi, Dec. 5 2006By Oliver D’Souza*

There is an eternal debate as to what led to the formation of the Sudra Varna and the Avarnas (outcastes), with various theories being put forth, suggesting that it was the end result of invasion by foreign aggressors. It was common practice then and is so even now (ISIS) for aggressors and invaders to subjugate all conquered populations and make them adhere to the invaders social, economic and often religious system. Scholars generally concur that prior to the Aryan invasion, Indian society was a horizontal one, rather than the vertical one of caste.

At the same time, you have the Hindutva brigade attempting to mislead the public by stating false reasons that led to the creation of the Sudras and the Dalits, including imposition by Muslim Invaders, division of labour et al.

But while the argument of the saffron outfits is rubbish and there is some truth in the other factors that led to the creation of the Sudra Varna and the Outcastes, it is not the only reason that led such creation.

Here I quote from my book on the Dalits in India:

Essentially, the caste system and the plight of the Dalits began around 1500 BC, after the Aryans migrated to ancient India 1. Before the Aryans came from South Europe and North Asia, there were ethnic communities of other origins in India, some of them dating back to several millennia.

The Aryans, primarily consisting of warrior tribes and following the pastoral life, occupied various areas of North India, plundering and enslaving the local prosperous agricultural communities, weakened by the collapse of Harappa, which along with Mohenjodaro was the cradle of the Indus valley civilization. Other locals, including various tribes, withdrew eastwards and southwards, towards the jungles, mountains and deeper into the mainland.

Subsequently, the Aryans initially assimilated themselves into a three strata social, economic and religious order known as ‘Varna System’ meaning system based on the ‘colour of the face’.

The first was of the warriors called ‘Kshatriya,’ while the second was of the priests called ‘Brahmins.’

Later, the Brahmins replaced the Kshatriyas for the top spot, allegedly on the orders of the deity ‘Vishnu’, who was punishing the Kshatriyas for their tyrannical rule.

The third strata were of the traders and farmers called ‘Vaisya.’

The enslaved population, on the other hand, remained segregated from the Aryan habitations as outcastes.

Despite such segregation of the locals from the Aryans, metisation continued for close to a millennium, from the absolute sexual right the Aryans had over their women slaves. The mixed-Aryan communities thus formed, along with the pure local communities, were outcastes for centuries before the Aryans included them in the caste system, by creating the ‘Sudra Varna’. These were the Adwiji, the once-born (born of one Aryan parent) referred to in the ‘Dharma Sastras’.

Although the partial Aryan-descent is cited as the reason for including the Sudras into the caste system, it is also generally concurred that the other reason was the advantage of numbers.

Classical Outcastes

Unlike the mixed-breed Aryans, (earlier clubbed as outcastes along with the local communities but later included into the caste system as Sudras), the pure local communities remained outcastes and continue to do so even today. Manusmriti indicates the ethnic composition of these outcastes:

“All those tribes in this world, which are excluded from (the community of) those born from the mouth, the arms, the thighs, and the feet (of Brahman), are called Dasyus, whether they speak the language of the Mlekkhas (barbarians) or that of the Aryans.”

The reference of ‘Dasyus’ (slaves) is to the communities which did not originate from the head, hands, thighs and feet of Brahma – the local communities.

There are competing theories as to why the local communities became outcastes, while Manu himself gives the impression that being an outcaste was a consequence of Aryans intermixing with local communities, in violation of caste order.

The work of scholars including JH Hutton, Dr BR Ambedkar, Stephen Fuchs and Swami Vivekananda Bharathi, among others, however, indicates that religion and race were the two reasons for according outcaste status to the local communities.

Anthropologist Swami Agenanda Bharti indicates the religious basis when he says, “There is no doubt that the ling worship and related phallic cults were autochthonous in India; the strong antipathy towards them which we find in the first mandala of the Rig Veda represents Aryan antagonism at a very early date.”

At the same time, the Rig Veda says, “The black skin, the hated of Indra, were swept out of heaven. 8 At first, the racist term ‘black skin’ seems to apply to the Sudras and the outcastes as well, but all Sudras were not of dark complexion because intermingling with the Aryans gave rise to fair complexioned children as well, as seen among the Sudras even today. Rather it is a reference to the locals, who were indeed dark complexioned.

This racial aspect and the fact that the partially ‘Aryan’ Sudras were later included in the caste system, presents racial purity as the other reason for excluding the local communities from the caste system and making them outcastes.

Manusmriti, however, also indicates that caste Hindus too could become outcastes by violating caste laws, such as marriage, occupational and religious laws, but this seems to be an interpolation after the Sudra Varna was formed, before which even the Sudras (Adwiji) were outcastes.

Classical Untouchables

Often, the impression is created that all the local communities were designated as Untouchable Outcastes in India following the creation of the Sudra Varna. This is true to the extent that they were all excluded from religious, economic and social participation that the caste Hindus were entitled to and were physically segregated. In this sense, they became Untouchables, not after the creation of the Sudra Varna, but before it, together with the Sudras, from the time the initial segregation of the partial-Aryan and local ethnic communities occurred.

Says Anthropologist KR Hanumanthan, “The initial segregation marked the beginning of Untouchability in the sub-continent.”

However, Manusmriti, while describing the outcastes in the post-Sudra Varna creation phase indicates that, Untouchability, as in the strict sense of ‘human touch’ or ‘physical contact’, was apportioned to specific communities within the outcaste communities:

“But the dwellings of Kandalas and Svapaks shall be outside the village, they must be made Apapatras (outcastes), and their wealth shall be dogs and donkeys.”

The specific communities, in this case, are the ‘Kandalas’ (scavengers) and ‘Svapaks’ (cleaners) but also extending to other communities professing similarly considered ‘polluting’ occupations, as indicated by other ‘Dharam Sastras,’ such as ‘Vyas Smriti’.

The conclusive answer to the question whether classical Untouchability led to so-called polluting occupations associated with the outcastes, or whether such occupations led to classical Untouchability, lies buried deep in ancient India as archaeological and anthropological evidence is limited.

Over time, though, the dividing lines between the Untouchable outcastes and the other outcastes have merged and literally all the outcaste communities came to be treated as Untouchables, and their occupations looked upon as ‘polluting’ ones, as is the case even today as revealed by daily Indian newspapers.

Courtesy: Oliver D’Souza is a journalist, author and human rights activist. His book ‘Truth About Dalits’ won the LISA ‘Book of The Year’


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