Untouchability – A Curse

It would be not correct to complete an article on the caste system without discussing the concept of untouchability.

Untouchability had its origins from the enforcement of baneful customs of every person born in a certain caste to follow the occupations of that caste. These customs damaged our society immensely and immeasurably. The character system defined the Shudra caste as downtrodden and those who offered menial services to the Brahmins, Kshatriya’s and the Vaishya’s. Although the Brahmin caste were not financially wealthy in their pursuit of knowledge and teaching scriptures they were still highly regarded. Even the king stood up in respect to welcome a Brahmin to his court. Kshatriyas and Vaishya’s were powerful and wealthy and that automatically commanded respect. The Shudra caste were rendered to menial work which was important for maintenance of the society. Since the society cannot do away with such work, the Shudra’s were made to work under the fear or religion/God rather than law and this caused a lot of exploitation of this caste over many decades.

Cleanliness and Purity are two factors that dominated the concept of untouchability. Even today, when a person comes back from a cremation ground after paying respects to the dead, we consider the person “untouchable” till he/she as showered. The clothes worn to the cremation grounds are also washed separately. That is why the “Domb” caste that performs the burial of bodies or disposal of remains were considered untouchable. The Mahar’s who disposed dead animals, Dhor who de-skinned dead animals, cobblers, etc were all categorized as untouchables. Another possibility behind establishing untouchability was also the foul odors that surrounded such occupations. Even today, people working in stables and barns have a distinct odor of dung and stale milk emanating from their clothes and their bodies.

One of the literary scholars belonging to the Dhor caste said that deskinning a dead animal requires a person to experience irritating odors. This odor being one of the factors to determine untouchability cannot be denied conclusively. The work that the untouchable community was assigned was absolutely paramount to the overall society.

It is our society’s misfortune that our leaders could not address the issue of untouchability with empathy.

Here are some of the unique qualities of the Mahar and Maang clan:

1. Two of the primary traits of the Mahar clan are bravery and combative spirit. Disposal of dead animals was the primary duty of the Mahar clan. This occupation also gave them the title of untouchables. However, Mahar’s were known for their excellent handyman skills. They could protect villages, manage information of property boundaries, maintaining the barricades of the residential quarters at night and opening them up in the morning were some of their duties. During Shivaji’s reign, Mahar’s were responsible for manning the outposts. This gave them excellent detective skills and also made them efficient spies. A Mahar’s testimony was often used as tiebreaker in many property disputes during the middle ages. During Shivaji’s era, there were several Mahar who were even appointed as the chief of some villages. Kulkarni’s (belonging to Brahmin caste) were appointed as property managers and their right-hand men were Mahar’s who were also called “Kathya”. Back in the day, fields were measured based on the simplistic measuring stick. Kathya’s were often found walking around with such sticks. Just like the Kulkarni’s, Deshmukh’s and Deshpande’s were allotted land, so were the Mahar’s who worked for the establishment . In fact, the Mahar’s are the only clan among the Shudra’s that owned property. With the dawn of the Peshwa era, the caste system had become more divided and due to the unfortunate arrogance of the “upper-castes”, the Mahar’s were not able to enlist themselves in the army. The British were able to exploit this situation to their advantage. This is the undercurrent behind the British introducing the Mahar regiment.

2. The Maang community were experts in drying certain plants to make durable ropes, knots, brooms, garlands and playing musical instruments at ceremonies were their primary tasks. As decades passed, these skills became obsolete playing music for entertainment was the only relevant occupation for this community. The Tamasha, Shahiri or Dombari performances that we see in small villages is a tradition that has carried forward back from the old ages through this community. Most of the leading performers of the Tamasha that is prevalent in Maharashtra are from the Maang clan. Shahir Annabhau Sathe and Vithabai Maang Narayangaonkar are two such prominent examples.

One more example of the eccentricity and self-serving nature of man:
During the India-Pakistan partition, Hindus living in newly formed Pakistan were being deported or murdered by the Muslim community but the only community that survived in Pakistan were the Hindu Bhangi community. This is simply because who else would do all the menial work if not for the Bhangi community?

Every caste in India cultivates the values and demerits among the people. Intra-caste marriages aid in maintaining and propagating these values across decades. The prosperity and progress of a society will only happen if it contains people of all these individual and unique qualities. The caste system will definitely help as a tool to categorize such skills. The reason the caste system has lasted centuries and millennia is because it had benefited the society in some form. Times have changed now. The menial tasks that the untouchables were assigned to are no more relevant in today’s modern society. Due to the tireless efforts of social reformers in Maharashtra, at least most of this community is now educated and employable/employed. The social reformation movement in Maharashtra is a matter of pride for all Indians but there are still many communities in India where these learnings need to be applied. It is important for us to make a directed effort towards removing the “upper-lower” status system. It is human nature to form communities, man is indeed a social animal. Due to changing times and global outreaches, many of the antiquated systems are being broken but political leaders on the other hand are also playing the caste system card to their advantage thus creating a different kind of divide.

Although untouchability is no more prevalent, political and literary untouchability is on the rise. Older systems based on occupation by birth are becoming less important but new systems based on wealth and status are emerging. This in a way means that even today, the caste system is developing and relevant. Even today, the “upper-lower” caste sentiment exists in deep-rooted villages and these need to be abolished. The caste system as a structure to society is not flawed as long as you get rid of the “upper-lower” divide.

Neglecting and disregarding the Dalit and Shudra community and depriving them of
opportunities has been a grave mistake committed by the Brahmins, Kshatriya’s and Vaishya’s
. From the Middle Ages to the British Empire’s rule, their arrogance and insensitivity towards these communities took a wicked turn for the worse. The crookedness to the extent of not letting even a shadow of a downtrodden touch your body is something that should embarrass us as human beings. There is no doubt that these communities have been exploited and insulted for decades.

The hatred of the Dalit community against Brahmins, Kshatriya’s and Vaishya’s that is unfolding in India today is a result of all these past actions. To put an end to this hatred, these communities must openly accept their age-old faults so we can move forward as a society. Our forefathers were wrong and we apologize for their mistakes is the stand our generation needs to take.

There are many examples in today’s society regarding inter-caste and inter-religion relationships but such relationships can become turbulent if any such man/woman also has strong intra-religion opinions or relationships. Brahmins, Kshatriya’s and Vaishya’s must keep their ego aside and be more accepting of other caste’s while the other caste’s need to be forgiving of crime’s their ancestors had to endure if we are to move ahead as a society. Together. Many saints and social reformers in Maharashtra dedicated their lives to bring about this change.

In our opinion, befriending each other in a society will help people get rid of these pre-conceived and antiquated opinions that we hold in the confines of our mind. This is not just limited to the Hindu religion but holds true across all religions and faiths. Till we don’t develop the attitude to respect each other’s values, we will not be able to achieve harmony.

Yeshwant Marathe

Sudhir Dandekar


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