India’s caste system has been around for centuries and is a very important part of the Hindu culture (Vallabhaneni 361). No other country can compare to the complexity of this system (Vallabhaneni 362). This caste or jati system determines where someone stands in society. People are placed into these castes when they are born because of the lineage of their family members, if one’s parent is born a Brahmin then they shall be a Brahmin as well. There are four different classes or varnas involved in the system; the highest ranking members are called Brahmins (Sultana and Subedi 19). The Brahmins are considered the purest of all people and are the priests or educators who have the sacred knowledge of the Hindu culture. They are expected to spread their dharmic knowledge to others to help them achieve steps in one’s spiritual life. The second highest rank is known as the Ksatriyas, the kings or warriors (Sultana and Subedi 19). Their job is to protect society and keep the order inline. The third group are the Vaisyas; these are the merchants or farmers who work in trade and agriculture (Sultana and Subedi 19).
These three groups, which are the three highest varnas, are considered to be ‘twice-born’ meaning they undergo spiritual rebirth and induction during adolescence. The fourth and final class is known as the Sudras (Sultana and Subedi 19). Considered to be at the bottom of the system, Sudras are the working class such as servants. The Sudras are known to serve the upper three varnas. There is one more group that does not belong in the caste system, known as Untouchables, who is considered so polluted that they do not have a place in the caste system (Sultana and Subedi 19). In the book Untouchable, it explains how people in the caste system treat each other. Bakha, the main character in the book, is part of the Untouchable group (Anand 3). Throughout the book, he explains his experiences of being an Untouchable and how it affects him and his family. Untouchable is able to portray to the reader what it is like to be an Untouchable in the Hindu caste system.
In Untouchable, Bakha is an eighteen-year-old boy in a family of five. His father, Lakha, is the head of their job of sweepers, in Bulashah, where they live (Anand 3). He has a sister, Sohini and brother, Rakha. He also had a mother but she had died when he was younger. Leaving Bakha to now look after the family since he was the oldest (Anand 6). Bakha is the one who has to get up early each morning and work as his brother tends to be distracted and occupied playing in the streets (Anand 14). His father, Lakha, is ageing and tends to stay home while the boys work. Lakha is known to be a ‘bully’ to Bakha, abusing him with verbal insults if Bakha is not doing what Lakha wants him to be doing (Anand 6-8). Other parts in the book, Lakha is able to support Bakha through his experiences of horrific attacks for being an Untouchable (Anand 67).
Throughout Bakha’s daily life, he is involved in many disputes about him being an Untouchable. In one incident that occurred, Bakha, being an Untouchable, is forbidden to enter temples because of how impure he is and if he was to enter, he would pollute it. Bahka was a curious boy and decided to observe a ritual happening in the temple without realizing that he was too close. Someone caught him and notified everyone (Anand 50). After going through many incidents of him being terrorized and threatened for being an Untouchable, Bakha has to start announcing his presence around other people to let them know a polluted being was around (Anand 41). He is called a scavenger, a pig, a dog and many other vicious insults (Anand 51). Bakha hates that he is an Untouchable and how the other castes treat people like him (Anand 42). At times, Bakha forgets he is an Untouchable, he does not remember that if he comes into contact with people they can become impure (Anand 119). He wishes that he could leave the world because of how unlucky he is and what he has to go through while being so impure to society (Anand 105). He wants a better life where he can be treated like an actual human being with respect.
Later on in the book, Bakha, has an encounter with the ‘Great Soul’, Gandhi. Bakha was very intrigued with Mahatma Gandhi as he had never seen or heard him speak before (Anand 125). Gandhi did not agree with the name and loss of rights to the Untouchables, so he renamed them Harijans, he did this because he wanted to remove the label of ‘untouchability’ (Anand 124). This opened up Bakha’s eyes as he realized that he wanted something to change about the way he was being treated; he wanted to follow Gandhi’s vision (Anand 138). Bakha believed that with Gandhi’s teachings that his life for him and other Untouchables could turn out differently (Anand 121).
The caste system is a way of life for Hindus. They believe this system guides Hindu society as a whole as it benefits how they all interact in their daily lives (Raheja 497). This jati system of varnas is considered to be a social institution that people are born into without being able to switch groups (Sultana and Subedi 21). Each one of these groups has its own customs, rules, etc that they need to follow and live by (Raheja 502). There is this obsession of purity that Hindus want to acquire in their life. This division of groups among the Hindus not only shows the different customs or rules but also shows the differences between wealth, status and knowledge. Brahmins, who are the highest varna, separate themselves from the second group, Ksatriyas, by having this essential spiritual knowledge such as dharma that aids society (Raheja 501). They have to have this ability for them to be able to perform rituals to the Gods and Goddesses properly. The Brahmins are dominant in the caste system. Ksatriyas, do not have this spiritual essence but they do have the power to control the social order and protect it as they are the kings and warriors of this caste system (Raheja 501). This power over the social order is what separates them from the Vaisyas; the merchants and landowners. Vaisyas are the people that help bring the money to the society (Carlsson, Gupta and Johansson-Stenman 52). The Sudras, the bottom rank of the class system, are distinguished from the other varnas as the servants and working class who do not bring a lot to society. Their job is to help benefit the upper three classes. With the Untouchables, it is a whole other story because they are not considered to belong to the caste system at all because they are so polluting in the Hindu culture.
Untouchable: the word itself means “should not be touched.” This group is considered the outcaste of society. They do not belong anywhere and are segregated for their status. These people are known to be in poverty (Deliège 535) and they also work jobs that are considered extremely impure to the Hindu society. “They think we are dirt because we clean their dirt” stated Bakha in the book because he is a sweeper and toilet cleaner, two of the most polluting jobs someone can have (Anand 67). One other polluting job to have is the cremation of bodies during the Antyesti (last sacrifice or death ritual) because death is considered to be an impurity in Hinduism. This is why they are known to be Untouchables, as it is impure to be in contact with them since they are involved in these fields of work. The Untouchables is a very complex group that is divided into different jatis (Deliège 535). In India the terms that are now used to describe the Untouchables are either ‘Harijans’, meaning the people of God, ‘Scheduled Castes’ or Dalits, meaning oppressed (Deliège 535). These groups of people are so greatly discriminated that they are unable to be in the same places as their superior higher caste members. They are forbidden to wear jewellery or exquisite clothing, cannot enter the streets and houses of the higher castes and cannot access their own town’s water supply as they will pollute it (Deliège 535). The higher castes loathe the Untouchables and treat them like they are filth. In India today, there is a rise of a demand for rights for the Untouchables as they are fed up with being treated like dirt (Deliège 535).
Untouchable displays the very accurate situations that the Indian Untouchable caste has to go through in their daily lives (Anand 38). These people are treated inhumanely because of the rank they were born into. The caste system is able to distinguish people from each other in many ways but it is a way of life and an ancient tradition for the Hindu people. This order of differential hierarchy has been around for over a thousand years and not only is it a religious necessity but it is also an aid to keep society in a social structural system (Arunoday 1). Certain occupations can and cannot be achieved in these classes, for example, an Untouchable is unable to work in the trade or agriculture as they can pollute the crops and water that can disrupt the trade system in the town or village by making impure. The caste system determines social status right at a person’s birth. In the caste system the social status of an individual at birth is permanent; if one’s father is a Sudra, the son would also be a Sudra (Carlsson, Gupta and Johansson-Stenman 55). They are unable to avoid this socially and religiously structured society (Vallabhaneni 361). With this system, Hindus are not even allowed to marry outside of their varna. They must marry someone who belongs in their class. The caste system is a key aspect that helps portray the identity of someone in Indian society. (Carlsson, Gupta and Johansson-Stenman 54). With this system, it shows the differences between certain activities each class has access to. For example, an Untouchable is allowed to be educated but since they are in such poverty, schools are unable to run. Also, with education, there is a great deal of discrimination and bullying an Untouchable can receive from other children. Every single Hindu belongs in one of the castes in this complex system: it does not matter if they want to or not, it is a way of life in Indian society.
Bibliography and Related Readings
Anand, Mulk (1935) Untouchable. City: Penguin Classics.
Carlsson, Fredrik. Gupta, Gautam. Johansson-Stenman, Olof (2008) “Keeping up with the Vaishyas? Caste and relative standing in India.” Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 61, No. 1: 52-73.
Deliège, Robert (1993) “The Myths and Origin of the Indian Untouchables.” Man, New Series, Vol. 28, No.3: 533-549.
Raheja, Gloria (1988) “India: Caste, Kingship, and Dominance Reconsidered.” Annu Rev Anthropology, 17: 497-522.
Vallabhaneni, Madhusudana (2015) “Indian Caste System: Historical and Psychoanalytic Views.” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol 75, No.4: 361-381.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. London: Routledge.
Sultana, Habiba. Subedi, D.B (2016) “Caste System and Resistance: The Case of Untouchable Hindu Sweepers in Bangladesh.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol 29, No. 1: 19-32.
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This article was written by Mollie Kennedy (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.