For Budhists As
The Root Of Untouchability
By B. R.
THE Census Reports for India
published by the Census Commissioner at the interval of every ten years
from 1870 onwards contain a wealth of information nowhere else to be
found regarding the social and religious life of the people of India.
Before the Census of 1910 the Census Commissioner had a column called
Population by Religion. Under this heading the population
was shown (1) Muslims, (2) Hindus, (3) Christians, etc.
The Census Report for the
year 1910 marked a new departure from the prevailing practice. For the
first time it divided the Hindus under three separate categories, (i)
Hindus, (ii) Animists and Tribal, and (iii) the Depressed Classes or
Untouchables. This new classification has been continued ever since.
This departure from the practice
of the previous Census Commissioners raises three questions. First is
what led the Commissioner for the Census of 1910 to introduce this new
classification. The second is what was the criteria adopted as a basis
for this classification. The third is what are the reasons for the growth
of certain practices which justify the division of Hindus into three
separate categories mentioned above.
The answer to the first question
will be found in the address presented in 1909 by the Muslim Community
under leadership of H.H. The Aga Khan to the then Viceroy, Lord Minto,
in which they asked for a separate and adequate representation for the
Muslim community in the legislature, executive and the public services.
In the address there occurs
the following passage:
"The Mohamedans of India
number, according to the census taken in the year 1901 over sixty-two
millions or between one-fifth and one-fourth of the total population
of His Majestys Indian dominions, and if a reduction be made
for the uncivilised portions of the community enumerated under the heads
of animist and other minor religions, as well as for those classes who
are ordinarily classified as Hindus but properly speaking are not Hindus
at all, the proportion of Mohamedans to the Hindu Majority becomes much
larger. We therefore desire to submit that under any system of representation
extended or limited a community in itself more numerous than the entire
population of any first class European power except Russia may justly
lay claim to adequate recognition as an important factor in the State.
"We venture, indeed,
with Your Excellencys permission to go a step further, and urge
that the position accorded to the Mohamedan community in any kind of
representation direct or indirect, and in all other ways effecting their
status and influence should be commensurate, not merely with their numerical
strength but also with their political importance and the value of the
contribution which they make to the defence of the empire, and we also
hope that Your Excellency will in this connection be pleased to give
due consideration to the position which they occupied in India a little
more than hundred years ago and of which the traditions have naturally
not faded from their minds."
The portion italicised by
me has a special significance. It was introduced in the address to suggest
that in comprising the numerical strength of the Muslims with that of
the Hindus the population of the animists, tribals and the Untouchables
should be excluded. The reason for this new classification of 'Hindus'
adopted by the Census Commissioner in 1910 lies in this demand of the
Muslim community for separate representation on augmented scale. At
any rate this is how the Hindus understood this demand
Interesting as it is, the first question as to why the Census Commissioner
made this departure in the system of classification is of less importance
than the second question. What is important is to know the basis adopted
by the Census Commissioner for separating the different classes of Hindus
into (1) those who were hundred per cent Hindus and (2) those who were
The basis adopted by the
Census Commissioner for separation is to be found in the circular issued
by the Census Commissioner in which he laid down certain tests for the
purpose distinguishing these two classes. Among those who were not hundred
percent Hindus were included castes and tribes which:
(1) Deny the supremacy of
(2) Do not receive the Mantra from a Brahmin or other recognized Hindu
(3) Deny the authority of the Vedas.
(4) Do not worship the Hindu gods.
(5) Are not served by good Brahmins as family priests.
(6) Have no Brahmin priests at all.
(7) Are denied access to the interior of the Hindu temples.
(8) Cause pollution (a) by touch, or (b) within a certain distance.
(9) Bury their dead.
(10) Eat beef and do no reverence for the cow.
Out of these ten tests some
divide the Hindus from the Animists and the Tribal. The rest divide
the Hindus from the Untouchables. Those that divide the Untouchables
from the Hindus are (2), (5), (6), (7), and (10). It is with them that
we are chiefly concerned.
For the sake of clarity it
is better to divide these tests into parts and consider them separately.
This Chapter will be devoted only to the consideration of (2), (5),
The replies received by the
Census Commissioner to questions embodied in tests (2), (5) and (6)
reveal (a) that the Untouchables do not receive the Mantra from a Brahmin;
(b) that the Untouchables are not served by good Brahmin priests at
all; and (c) that Untouchables have their own priests reared from themselves.
On these facts the Census Commissioners of all Provinces are unanimous.
Of the three questions the
third is the most important. Unfortunately the Census Commissioner did
not realise this. For in making his inquiries he failed to go to the
root of the matter to find out: Why were the Untouchables not receiving
the Mantra from the Brahmin? Why Brahmins did not serve the Untouchables
as their family priests? Why do the Untouchables prefer to have their
own priests? It is the why of these facts which is more
important than the existence of these facts. It is the why
of these facts which must be investigated. For the clue to the origin
of Untouchability lies hidden behind it.
Before entering upon this
investigation, it must be pointed out that the inquiries by the Census
Commissioner were in a sense one-sided. They showed that the Brahmins
shunned the Untouchables. They did not bring to light the fact that
the Untouchables also shunned the Brahmins. Nonetheless, it is a fact.
People are so much accustomed to thinking that the Brahmin is the superior
of the Untouchables and the Untouchable accepts himself as his inferior;
that this statement that the Untouchables look upon the Brahmin as an
impure person is sure to come to them as a matter of great surprise.
The fact has however been noted by many writers who have observed and
examined the social customs of the Untouchables. To remove any doubt
on the point, attention is drawn to the following extracts from their
The fact was noticed by Abbe
Dubois who says:
"Even to this day a Pariah is not allowed to pass a Brahmin Street
in a village, though nobody can prevent, or prevents, his approaching
or passing by a Brahmin's house in towns. The Pariahs, on their part
will under no circumstances, allow a Brahmin to pass through their paracherries
(collection of Pariah huts) as they firmly believe it will lead to their
Mr. Hemingsway, the Editor
of the Gazetteer of the Tanjore District says:
"These casts (Parayan
and Pallan or Chakkiliyan castes of Tanjore District) strongly object
to the entrance of a Brahmin into their quarters believing that harm
will result to them therefrom."
Speaking of the Holeyas of
the Hasan District of Mysore, Captain J.S.F. Mackenzie says:
"Every village has its
Holigiri as the quarters inhabited by the Holiars, formerly agrestic
serfs, is called outside the village boundary hedge. This, I thought
was because they were considered as impure race, whose touch carries
defilement with it."
Such is the reason generally
given by the Brahmins who refuse to receive anything directly from the
hands of a Holiar, and yet the Brahmins consider great luck will wait
upon them if they can manage to pass through the Holigiri without being
molested. To this Holiars have a strong objection, and, should a Brahmin
attempt to enter their quarters, they turn out in a body and slipper
him, in former times, it is said, to death. Members of the other castes
may come as far as the door, but they must not enter the house, for
that would bring the Holiar bad luck. If, by chance, a person happens
to get in, the owner takes care to tear the intruder's cloth, tie up
some salt in one corner of it, and turn him out. This is supposed to
neutralise all the good luck which might have accrued to the trespasser,
and avert any evil which ought to have befallen the owner of the house.
What is the explanation of
this strange phenomenon? The explanation must of course fit in with
the situation as it stood at the start, i.e., when the Untouchables
were not Untouchables but were only Broken Men . We must ask why the
Brahmins refused to officiate at the religious ceremonies of the Broken
Men? Is it the case that the Brahmins refused to officiate? Or is it
that the Broken Men refused to invite them? Why did the Brahmin regard
Broken Men as impure? Why did the Broken Men regard the Brahmins as
impure? What is the basis of this antipathy?
This antipathy can be explained
on one hypothesis. It is that the Broken Men were Buddhists. As such
they did not revere the Brahmins, did not employ them as their priests
and regarded them as impure. The Brahmin on the other hand disliked
the Broken Men because they were Buddhists and preached against them
contempt and hatred with the result that the Broken Men came to be regarded
We have no direct evidence
that the Broken Men were Buddhists. No evidence is as a matter of fact
necessary when the majority of Hindus were Buddhists. We may take it
that they were.
That there existed hatred
and abhorrence against the Buddhists in the mind of the Hindus and that
this feeling was created by the Brahmins is not without support.
Nilkant in his Prayaschit
Mayukha a verse from Manu which says:
"If a person touches
a Buddhist or a flower of Pachupat, Lokayata, Nastika and Mahapataki,
he shall purify himself by a bath."
The same doctrine is preached
by Apararka in his Smriti. Vradha Harit goes further and declares entry
into the Buddhist Temple as sin requiring a purificatory bath for removing
How widespread had become
this spirit of hatred and contempt against the followers of Buddha can
be observed from the scenes depicted in Sanskrit dramas. The most striking
illustration of this attitude towards the Buddhists is to be found in
the Mricchakatika. In Act VII of that Drama the hero Charudatta and
his friend Maitreya are shown waiting for Vasantasena in the park outside
the city. She fails to turn up and Charudatta decides to leave the park.
As they are leaving, they see the Buddhist monk by name Samvahaka. On
seeing him, Charudatta says:
"Friend Maitreya, I
am anxious to meet Vasantsena ... Come, let us go. (After walking a
little) Ah ! here's an inauspicious sight, a Buddhist monk coming towards
us. (After a little reflection) well, let him come this way, we shall
follow this other path. (Exit.)"
In Act VIII the monk is in
the Park of Sakara, the King's brother-in-law, washing his clothes in
a pool. Sakara accompanied by Vita turns up and threatens to kill the
monk. The following conversation between them is revealing:
"Sakara: Stay, you wicked
Monk: Ah! Heres the
kings brother-in-law! Because some monk has offended him, he now
beats up any monk he happens to met.
Sakara: Stay, I will now
break your head as one breaks a radish in a tavern. (Beats him).
Vita: Friend, it is not proper
to beat a monk who has put on the saffron-robes, being disgusted with
Monk: (Welcomes) Be pleased,
Sakara: Friend, see. He is
Vita: What does he say?
Sakara: He calls me lay brother
(upasaka). Am I a barber?
Vita: Oh! He is really praising
you as a devotee of the Buddha.
Sakara: Why has he come here?
Monk: To wash these clothes.
Sakara: Ah! you wicked monk.
Even I myself do not bathe in this pool; I shall kill you with one stroke."
After a lot of beating, the
monk is allowed to go. Here is a Buddhist monk in the midst of the Hindu
crowd. He is shunned and avoided. The feeling of disgust against him
is so great that the people even shun the road the monk is travelling.
The feeling of repulsion is so intense that the entry of the Buddhist
was enough to cause the exit of the Hindus. The Buddhist monk is on
a par with the Brahmin. A Brahmin is immune from death penalty. He is
even free from corporal punishment. But the Buddhist monk is beaten
and assaulted without remorse, without compunction as though there was
nothing wrong in it.
If we accept that the Broken
Men were the followers of Buddhism and did not care to return to Brahmanism
when it became triumphant over Buddhism as easily as other did, we have
an explanation for both the questions. It explains why the Untouchables
regard the Brahmins as inauspicious, do not employ them as their priest
and do not even allow them to enter into their quarters. It also explains
why the Broken Men came to be regarded as Untouchables. The Broken Men
hated the Brahmins because the Brahmins were the enemies of Buddhism
and the Brahmins imposed untouchability upon the Broken Men because
they would not leave Buddhism. On this reasoning it is possible to conclude
that one of the roots of untouchability lies in the hatred and contempt
which the Brahmins created against those who were Buddhist.
Can the hatred between Buddhism
and Brahmanism be taken to be the sole cause why Broken Men became Untouchables?
Obviously, it cannot be. The hatred and contempt preached by the Brahmins
was directed against Buddhists in general and not against the Broken
Men in particular. Since untouchability stuck to Broken Men only, it
is obvious that there was some additional circumstance which has played
its part in fastening untouchability upon the Broken Men. What could
that circumstance have been? We must next direct our effort in ascertaining
(Excerpted from Chapter 9
of B.R. Ambedkars 1948 work The Untouchables: Who Were They and
Why They Became Untouchables? as reprinted in Volume 7 of Dr. Babasaheb
Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, published by Government of Maharashtra
1990. Copyright: Secretary, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra.)