Is Untouchability Still Practised in India?

Years ago, while I was in USA, a journalist friend of mine, Catherine, asked my date of birth during an evening informal gathering of colleagues. “You don’t have to tell exact year, if it is a secret…” she said smilingly.

I told her my date of birth.

“Ah – no wonder you shy away from getting hugged and avoid hand-shakes…”

“I don’t think he would mind if you hug him, Cathi…” my Chinese friend Liu laughed and said aloud, “Isn’t it Uday, you wouldn’t mind good looking chics like Cathi hugging you?”

“Oh Liu, did you think he is a vegetable as he is a vegetarian?” another person hit at him (I don’t remember his name. He was a European).

“Guys…I am serious here. I am practicing zodiac astrology and cross-checking its evidences…” Catherine said.

“Cathi, why did you say like that? Your observation appears correct. I shy away from touching people and would not feel comfortable when unknown people hug me. But, as a professional journalist and traveller I have no other go but to adjust with it…” I told her.

“You are a typical Virgo…Your Zodiac sign is Virgo… That’s why you dislike being touched by people…”

“Exception is always given to good looking Indian girls, right Uday?” Liu commented.

I ignored him and told Catherine: “I don’t think it has anything to do with Zodiac signs. I have also researched on astrology and found it’s just a fake. My father is not Virgo. But I don’t think he would like to be touched by unknown people. So are my siblings. None of them are Virgo. So there is no logic in what you said…”

“Ah – they still practice untouchability there in India, don’t you Uday? You must be from that ‘Hindi Brahman’ caste,” the European asked.

“You are talking about caste based practices of untouchability which is a different subject altogether. Yes, there is untouchability in some parts of India. Even today, in some houses, food is served to the servants in separate plates, not used by anyone else or guest! The discrimination, which was unheard in Vedic India, has come into practice here during the last 15 centuries, thanks to the foreign influx of ideas. You can see many such wrong practices like apartheid all around the world. Slavery still exists in many Middle-East and African countries. Untouchability is a curse, a social sin, thoroughly rejected and quite unacceptable in the present. It’s illegal in India,” I told him and added: “However, your observation is NOT true. Untouchability is not related to Hindu Brahmin caste. Since Brahmin bashing has been a favourite game in India, they are becoming scapegoat for everything…”

“It is related to caste system, isn’t it?” Catherine asked.

“Yes. The current social caste system is based on birth. There are upper and lower castes among Hindus. The so-called higher caste looks down upon the next lower cast. There are Muslims and Dalit-Muslims; Christians and Dalit Christians. In some Churches, they wouldn’t allow burial of low caste converts – so untouchability and discrimination are not just a caste and religion issue….”I said.

“But why should there be untouchability, all should be treated equal…” Liu asked.

“Yes, some are more equals in India…” the European commented.

“It has been our tradition for the last 5000 years that we always either say Namaste or do Namaskar instead of shaking hands with each other. We fold hands and bow. That’s how we had been greeting each other. People do the same thing in between the same caste too… So, there is no discrimination in wishing each other with respect. Hugging and touching were not part of our culture. So it is normal that people do not physically cling to each other. Except for few Western mimics, nobody would even kiss in the public. You people should be tolerant towards a tradition which belongs to 1000s of years ago…” I said.

“Interesting topic, can you explain about it further? I also have heard a lot about Indian caste system and untouchability.” Catherine asked.

“As said, the untouchability is not related to any specific caste or religion. It is practiced inside a house and even between family members. For instance, when my father finishes his bath and walk towards the prayer room, we wouldn’t touch him. That’s a tradition inside the house, how can it be linked to caste-based untouchables? We have never practised untouchability based on caste. Untouchability was practiced among us in terms of cleanliness and heigine, that’s all.”

“He has a point there. After your bath, would you hug a person who is smelly?” Cath asked the European.

“Yes, he has a point there….” the European nodded.

“You asked about Brahmin caste. All Brahmins are not priests. Probably 2-3 % among Brahmins would be priests. When a Brahmin priest takes bath and puts sandal paste on his body as part of rituals related to the vigraha (worshipping deity), other Brahmins are not supposed to touch. Even his own family members or assistants would not touch him. It’s part of tradition and nothing to do with so-called propagated untouchability. There are millions of non-Brahmin priests too – they also follow the same tradition.”

“What’s wrong in such traditions? Let people follow traditions as long as it doesn’t hurt any. When your priest or Rabbi wear vestments (attire) to conduct mass, would you go and hug him? You will keep a safe distance respectfully. It’s like that only….” Liu explained.

“So all stories of untouchability in India are bogus?”

“No. Caste based discrimination still exists in many parts of India. Ignorant people still practice such nonsense to satisfy their superiority complex, arrogance and ego. Caste-based untouchability has long been legally banned, out of practice for quite long. However, in some rural areas it may exist between castes – it has nothing to do with Brahmanism and Hinduism. It is just an ignorant and wrong practice by a section of people with Hindu names. When a section of Islamic fanatics rape innocent Yazidi girls, you don’t blame entire Islam religion or sub-caste in it, do you? Similarly, when Catholic Church in the USA pays huge penalty for the convicted pedophilic priests, you wouldn’t say all Catholic priests are sex-starved maniacs, would you? Yes, a section of Hindus may follow such non-sense practices…”

“I appreciate your point of view, Uday…it’s different and good answer…” Liu said. He is very much attracted to Indian culture and traditions.

“If untouchability still exists in India, you should blame it on the leaders and political parties in India, who were not able to create awareness even after 70 years of Independence in India. Most of the political parties here are caste-based. All political parties directly or indirectly support such caste systems to exploit people in the name of castes. Indian constitution doesn’t approve it and as an Indian I do not support it…”I said.

“So, it is because of the rulers the untouchability exists….”

“Yes, there was no caste system in India in the past till invaders converted Hindus into a caste based society and the colonial administration began a policy of discrimination by reserving a certain percentage of government jobs on caste basis. They have intentionally taken away merit based system. The poor are not benefited by this system. The politically strong castes got the benefits, hence they promote untouchability. But the real socially backward castes like Scheduled Castes (Dalit) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi) and economically backward castes like Brahmins are suffering in India…”

“I don’t understand the complex political-caste equation in India. How much ever I try, I don’t understand a bit…”Liu said.

“It really is too complex and complicated. It’s not really a caste, religion issue. It’s purely political issue. Until and unless India adopts merit based system, untouchability will exist in many forms. The merit should be given importance in life, not the religion and caste.” I told him.

“Yes, all religions are troublesome. There are 4500 denominations (caste) in Christianity in spite of same God, same messiah, and same holy book. They fight each other for market share and business. There are at least known 7-8 denominations in Islam and some of them kill each other. So I would wonder if Hindus wouldn’t have such divisions, especially when it has multiple and contradictory beliefs…”Cath said.

“But Semitic Holy book like Bible and Quran do not allow caste system…” the European reminded.

“Similarly, the Vedas, the foundation stones of Sanatan Dharma, DO NOT advocate the caste system. In fact, Vedas CONDEMN birth-based discrimination.”

“So, caste and untouchability came into being by human greed and insecurity…”Liu said.

“Exactly….So nothing – religion or ideologies – can claim or allege anything. Nobody can take a holier-than-thou approach. As long as human beings are involved some sort of manipulation and corruption can exist…”I said.

When you tarnish Indians and its history you should ask yourself. Am I qualified to question it? Am I really aware about the truth? Do I believe in equality? You had the worst evils like Apartheid, racial segregation and discrimination based on skin colour all over the world. When other religions point out social evils in Hinduism, they forget massacring millions innocent people by calling them infidels or kafirs! Those ideologies who claim equality and socialism also killed millions of innocent people. Such cruel discrimination has existed at every point of time in the history. You cannot single out Indians or Hindus for that.

I am NOT justifying untouchability. I am just explaining the facts. Untouchability should disappear from our mind. We should cross over beyond caste, religion, creed and race and think like a human being. We should see the entire world as one family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam).

Recently, a reader asked me: “Udayji is there any scientific basis for untouchability? I heard that priests have positive energy after touching the Vigraha…”

“I also heard a lot of such fake science stories propagated apologetic Hindus – stories like positive energy, aura, Kirlian photography for justifying the untouchability. There is NO science or logic in it. Our Vedic science won’t approve such things. I can go only by facts as facts are sacred for me. You won’t get any electric shock by touching anybody. Originally untouchability may have raised out of hygiene, manners and habits. Later it might have developed as an anachara (malpractices)…”

“When did it start in India?” he asked.

“No one knows exactly or the ones that knew didn’t record it in writings. No ancient scriptures talk about it. So we don’t know…Some tribes in Africa go to the extent of even killing an intruder. The origin of this practice could possibly due to some event which happened long ago when an outsider spread a new disease in a tribal community. Similarly even today, many governments resort to quarantine. Why does Trump want to secure USA and makes its citizens untouchables? Such discrimination exists everywhere. We should not allow such discrimination in our mind – that’s all we can do. If there are people who want to touch each other, let them. If anyone believe that during some kind of ritual, pooja, vrata, even his family members shouldn’t touch him, why do you want to touch him?”

5000 years ago when our ancestors met each other they said: “Namaste.”

They said it with a slight bow and hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards, thumbs close to the chest. This gesture is called Añjali Mudrā or Pranamasana. This is the easiest yoga posture. Why can’t we practice it today? After all, it is beneficial for the doers and does not hurt anybody, right?

Udaylal Pai
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