The Culture of Discrimination
Written by Romila Thapar
Notions of the ritual purity of the Brahmana go back to the Brahmana as the Vedic ritual specialist. As I have mentioned earlier, Vedic Brahmanism had been less prominent with the rise of Puranic Hinduism. But there was a revival of Vedic rituals, legitimizing rulers in the multiple kingdoms that emerged in the post-Gupta period. This assertion of Vedic Brahmanism was initially limited to a small elite, but it grew both in numbers and in claims to extraordinary status..
The exclusion of the Avarna took the form of arguing that some communities were Asprishya, a term that came into use at this time. This dates to the early to mid centuries of the first millennium ad. But let me try and trace the evolution of what might have gone into the making of this idea, although the explanation remains historically incomplete. This is partly because social historians have not as yet focused on studying the Avarna in early Indian society. The ghettoized communities were not educated, so they have left no written records. They have to be studied by combing through the records of literate groups. If exclusion and discrimination is specifically explained and juxtaposed with whatever descriptions we have, then it might be possible to retrieve some idea of the functioning and values of this ghettoized Avarna society.
Another possible reason for the emphasis on purity and pollution at this point, could be that the requirement of legitimizing rulers in the multiple kingdoms that emerged in the post-Gupta period, may have revived to some extent, the ritual role of the Brahmana, required to perform rites of legitimation for the new royalty. Did this revival reinvigorate the theory of the maximum purity of the Brahmana, at least among the Brahmanas? Did this then require as a counterweight, the more extreme identity of the Asprishya? Exclusions of various kinds and degrees are not unknown to other societies in other parts of the world, but untouchability, as it came to be established in India, is virtually inhuman, and not resorted to by any other society. Not only is the touch of the person polluting and therefore physical contact with the person is forbidden, but what is even worse is that the pollution is inherent, is of genetic origin, since the kinsfolk are also polluted and the person is polluted from birth.
A number of communities are listed as being at the lowest levels of society and the lists differ. But the one that invariably figures is the Chandala. Vedic texts mention the Chandala as one of impure birth and a victim of a sacrificial ritual. He is not quite an untouchable since in this context he is linked to the ritual but becomes so in time. Some social codes describe him as being of mixed caste. Punishment for having sexual relations with such a one, or eating with a Chandala are severe, so apparently it was not entirely unthinkable. The Buddha had a far more humane and rational view and is reported to have said that one becomes a Chandala by one’s actions and by evil thoughts and not by birth. Buddhist narratives such as the Jataka however do reflect discrimination against Chandalas. There is also a linguistic barrier since mention is made of a Chandala-bhasha or language specific to the Chandalas and different from the generally spoken one. The Arthashastra sharpens the difference between Chandalas and other low castes and locates the habitat of the former as close to the cremation ground. The grammarians Panini and Patanjali differentiate between those Shudras that live in the settlement (anirvasita), and those that live outside (nirvasita), and the Chandala is among the latter.
Manu speaks of their descent from a mixed marriage between a Shudra father and a Brahmana mother — the worst form of hypogamy. It reads as if it was also intended as a putting down of women, in keeping with much else in Manu. It was said that the Chandala receives leftover food, wears clothes taken off corpses, and can only have iron ornaments. Only in dire hunger should food be accepted from a Chandala. This is precisely the discussion in a late chapter of the Mahabharata, which had an angular relationship with the Dharmashastras. In this episode the Sage Vishvamitra has a discussion with a Chandala during a severe famine, on the kind of meat permitted to a Brahmana, and whether it is legitimate to eat what is forbidden simply to keep the body alive. Although the Chandala tries to dissuade the sage from breaking the taboo (which Vishvamitra is about to do to assuage his hunger) he does not succeed. It is interesting that the Chandala seems to know so much about the Brahmana dharma and one wonders if this is meant as a sarcastic comment. The other explanation could be that this episode belongs to an earlier period when the social distancing between them was not so rigid and the taboos on eating forbidden food were not so severely maintained. By the mid-first millennium ad the exclusion of the Chandala and others that formed the lowest jatis was well established. Buddhist texts state that other communities generally listed as excluded tended to be Adivasis—such as Nishadas, Pukkasas, or in low occupations such as Venas and Rathakaras. Little is said about why they are low jatis. Forcing communities to live outside the settlement immediately marks them out as excluded. Had this not have been required they may over time have merged into the general population of not so low jatis.
Gradually two characteristics came to be embedded in the identity of those thought of as polluted. One was that of impurity. This increased when they were required to not only maintain the cremation grounds since a dead body was thought to be polluting, but also do the scavenging in the settlement. Curiously, the cremation ground was also the location for certain Shaiva and Tantric rituals involving corpses, and in which the upper castes participated. Did people not think about the social implication of such rituals? As for scavenging, unfortunately, the excellent system of drains that was a striking feature of Harappan cities, is not found in later cities, so scavenging became a necessity. Scavenging would not have been required in rural areas but was necessary in cities. The insistence on this category of people being polluted was partly tied into the work they were expected to do.
The inclusion of those of Adivasi origin in this group could suggest that when new areas were opened up the existing small communities from these areas were either left isolated or else were inducted as low jatis. Some recruitment would be required to maintain numbers. Because such communities were regarded as polluting they had to live outside the settlement hence their names have qualifiers such as antya and bahya and such like, meaning outside. Living outside the settlement further segregated them. The sense of there being two different societies took root—one which was regarded as polluted and therefore lived outside the settlement, and the other which lived in the settlement and was thought of as unpolluted. Some might have seen those living outside as the fifth varna but the Dharmashastras kept them distinctly separate from the categories of varnas. The society that claimed to be unpolluted and lived in the settlements has been studied in much depth but not so the other society that lives beyond the settlement. There were at least three pointed features of this definition of Otherness that differentiated the Asprishya from all the other categories of excluded groups. One was that this group had a distinct and separate physical location. As in many pre-modern cities the world over, there was a tendency for those in the same profession to cluster together and these came to be demarcated as the locations of those professions. But the Asprishya were not allowed to live in the city since they were regarded as polluted and because their profession was polluting. Their pollution was underlined repeatedly as their occupations were scavenging, carrying away dead animals, executing criminals and maintaining the cremation ground. This was a distinctly separate and physically segregated society associated with what were regarded as the impurities of death and dirt. According to some, it developed its own hierarchy of virtual jatis, as if it were an isolated clone of caste society. Why some other professions were also regarded as polluting is not explained in the texts. It is simply stated. A second feature was the constant underlining of their being permanently impure and polluted, since they had to handle what was regarded as polluting objects as viewed from the Brahmanical perspective. Pollution was not an issue with the other categories of exclusion. In this case it is not so evident in the early texts but gradually intensifies. Curiously the references to maximally polluted groups seem to coincide with the period of a revival of Brahmanical claims to being maximally pure. It is worth noting that when Megasthenes, the Greek visitor, writes about Mauryan India in the late fourth century bc , there is only a garbled description of what might have been a vague reference to caste, and no hint of anything like an untouchable category. As I have mentioned earlier, when Faxian visits in the fourth century ad , he describes how untouchables have to strike a clapper on entering the town, to indicate their presence so that the others can move away. This is in the so-called ‘golden age’ of the Guptas that the presence of the untouchable is heavily marked and emphatically defined. This was the age that has been taken for the last century, and still is, as the high point of Indian culture with a spectacular civilizational stamp. The achievements of the period especially pertaining to cultural items are frequently mentioned. But curiously the other side of the coin, the presence of the Asprishya, is ignored when describing the ‘golden age’.
The Avarnas were of mixed origin, spoke a different language in some places, and inevitably had different social customs and belief systems. Given their large numbers it can be asked whether they developed their own hierarchy of virtual jatis and whether this was a rigid or flexible structure. Was it a clone of caste society? Was it an inverted mirror image or was the inversion more important than the mirror? That the Avarna society has its own subdivisions and its own priests, perhaps from earlier times, suggests a possibly dissimilar society in earlier times..
The third feature is that the pollution is permanent. Virtually every society of the ancient world practised temporary periods of impurity especially in the context of performing rituals. Even ritual specialists could be impure for a specific time but this was not the same as being permanently untouchable. Purity was claimed by Brahmanas who were ritual specialists. But to commit people to a permanent state of pollution and impurity is unique to India and calls for far greater investigation than has been done so far. The Asprishya cannot change his jati or his varna status or work in professions other than those stipulated in the Dharmashastras. His is a distinctly separate society and he can only move along the hierarchy of his own society. This is again different from the other categories where, as we have seen, some concessions were made and varna status could be adjusted. Permanency also meant that the features of separation never changed nor were they reapplied as in the case of the Arya, the Mleccha, the Yavana and the varna. Pollution was not a temporary condition or one that could be shed by the next generation. It was permanent and was inherited because birth was from parents also regarded as polluted. This genetic factor makes it different from other categories of pollution.
Permanent pollution as a demarcation had not been linked with other excluded groups. Could the need for such permanency been a revival of claims to maximum purity by ritual specialists of a particular kind who were now figures of authority, as for example those performing legitimizing rituals for the new Kshatriyas, or were such activities too limited for such a major change? It has been pointed out that this was also the period when the demand for cow protection was more frequently mentioned in the texts and may have been linked to the enormous number of cows gifted to Brahmanas as listed in contemporary inscriptions. Together with this came a spurt in cattle raid hero stones dedicated to local heroes who had died defending the cattle of the village. Cattle breeding was clearly vital to the rural economy. But more numbers of cattle required more scavenging to clear the bovine carcasses. Prevention of the slaughter of cows, presumably addressed to the upper castes, finds more mention now. This would have affected the nutrition pattern of the lower castes and the outcastes. To ascribe genetic impurity to a set of communities calls for the investigation of this ascription. Why was the concept so widely accepted, questioned by only a handful of Bhakti sants and a few others? It reflects on the mores and values of the larger society that accepted and imposed this belief and practice. What was the ethical foundation of this thinking? If it is not apparent then it would be troubling since some other aspects of upper caste culture of these times are rightly regarded as deserving of admiration. How could such a contradiction of the ethical and the aesthetic with the unethical be acceptable to the same society? As we have seen, it has for long been held that the culture of the mid-first millennium ad and its continuation was the golden age of Indian civilization, the utopia of past times. This evaluation has been contested by historians who argue that the material culture of the Gupta age as available from excavations of settlements, was unimpressive. Nevertheless, this period saw the articulation of sophisticated philosophical schools, the high literary quality of Kalidasa and other poets, the aesthetic of Gupta sculpture and the Ajanta murals, the coming of temple architecture as well as the impressive advances in mathematics and astronomy made by Indian scholars. Some of this had started taking shape in earlier centuries and then grew to maturity when it crystallized into what is regarded as the Indian aesthetic as well as the growth of knowledge. It is worth reiterating the point I made earlier. How could this same society have internalized the idea of Asprishya and been so immune to its treatment of the men and women whom it categorized as Avarna? To declare such people to be physically so impure that they could not be touched, and not only them individually, but their entire community and its descendants, is a belief and practice that inheres to Indian society alone. One may well ask how such a severe degradation of the human person can be reconciled to such an impressive aesthetic and pursuit of thought? Surely at some point the aesthetic must touch the notion of the ethical? Are these the contradictions of a culture? Was the ethic so abstract that it did not connect with the human condition? The trite answer often heard is that it was tied into the theodicy of karma and samsara—as you act in this life so shall you reap in the next birth. This does not answer the question as it is limited to justifying the existing condition. Where did the idea of a genetically impure person come from and why did it take root? There were men and women in various traditions who rejected the segregation and did so quite forcefully in their teachings, but to little effect in terms of social regulations. Why were those who propagated an unethical discrimination in society permitted to control both religious and social functioning and that too for centuries? Is this a legitimate articulation of a utopia, the implications of which did not disturb the ethical conscience of our ancestors? Our descriptions of our golden ages of the past will have to be more realistic than they have been so far. Or, is this an example of early societies being unconcerned with questions of social equality, a concern that emerges as a feature of social thought only in modern times? That social segregation existed can be explained, but the particular justification for it is incomprehensible if not inexcusable.
Romila Thapar (born 30 November 1931) is an Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India. She is the author of several books, and is currently Professor Emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.
Courtesy: Peoples Media Advocacy & Resource Centre