Untouchable Overview of the Hindu Caste System

One of the last remaining formal systems of social stratification in the world, the Hindu caste system is the central topic of Untouchable. It dates back to 2,000 BC and consists of two core concepts, varna and jāti, which roughly mean “class” and “birth” respectively (“Philosophy 312”). The caste system follows a basic tenet: all men are created unequal; men are different, and fit well into different aspects of society. Ancient Hindu literature and texts have typified these aspects into four varnas (the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras). Each of these varnas have traditional duties or roles to play within society. The Dalits, more commonly known as the untouchables, exist outside the caste system (O’Neill, paragraph 3).

According to the Rig Veda, an ancient Hindu text, the world was formed from Purusa (the originator of all life) as follows:

The brahmin was his mouth, his two arms became the rajanya (kshatriyas), his thighs are what the vaisya are, and from his feet the shudra was made.

The placement of each varna on the body of Purusa symbolizes their function or job within Hindu society. From his mouth came the Brahmins who serve as the middlemen between the gods and mankind. They are the priests, teachers, and preachers. Purusa’s arms became the Kshatriyas, also known as the warrior class. They are the protectors of society and today those that compose the ruling class (i.e., politicians, the military, lawmakers). The Vaishyas were made from his thighs because like the thighs on the human body they help support the entire system. They are the producers, the farmers, the artisans, and the merchants. Finally, at the bottom are the Shudras, who came from Purusa’s feet. Similar to how the feet serve the rest of the body, the Shudras serve the other three varnas as unskilled laborers (“Philosophy 312”).

This primordial being supposedly does not claim the Dalits because they are considered “too impure, too polluted to rank as worthy beings.” As such, they exist outside of the caste system at the very bottom. Their work options are usually restricted to cleaning toilets, sweeping, or scavenging.

Jātis are complex social groups defined by a myriad of factors, including birth, tribe, job function, food habits, dress, and language. While there are only four varnas, there are thousands of jātis, which are roughly divided amongst the four varnas (Smith, “Varna and Jāti”).

Historically the caste system was enforced by four major factors: heredity, caste rules, marriage, and preferential treatment.

  • Heredity: As we see in Untouchable, the varnas are passed from generation to generation. Children inherit their caste from their parents and pass it on to their children. In this hereditary system, individuals are not allowed to change their caste.
  • Caste Rules: These rules ensured that the different varnas performed their respective duties. For example, the Brahmins were expected to read and interpret the holy texts while the Kshatriyas had to dispense justice. Each varna had different rules and regulations, though the higher ones enjoyed privileges that the lower ones did not.
  • Marriage: Wedlock between people of different varnas was prohibited in order to prevent miscegenation, or inter-mixing of the castes.
  • Preferential Treatment: The three upper classes were given privileges far above those given to the Shudras. In addition, the laws of the time were discriminatory in terms of rewards and punishments. Shudras received harsher punishments than the other three classes for the same crimes. The punishment for a Shudra might be physical torture or death whilst for a Brahmin or a Kshatriya might only have to pay a fine or perform a purification ceremony (Jayaram V).

While most of these methods of enforcing the borders carved out by the caste system have been outlawed, they have left their mark on modern Indian society. The exploitation of the lower castes by the upper castes (a process established by the unbalanced caste rules and enforced by the preferential treatment of the upper classes in the law) is the root of the many social injustices and inter-caste violence plaguing India today. Though the concept of untouchability is forbidden and there are government initiatives in place to help improve the lives of the lower castes (especially the Dalits), the stereotypes, stigmas, and hatreds created by the caste system still prevail. Many still refuse to touch Dalits, allow them to draw water from public wells, or use the same eating utensils. And, as in Untouchable, the Dalits continue to be the targets of violent hate crimes like rapes, lynching, and gun-assisted murders (O’Neill para. 4). As a result, there are several Dalit-led grassroots organizations that advocate for the rights and the protection of untouchables like Bakha and his family.