Untouchables, Religions of

views updated


UNTOUCHABLES, RELIGIONS OF . At the beginning of the twenty-first century there are well over 160 million untouchables on the Indian subcontinent. They belong to numerous jātīs at the bottom of the caste order, their low position deriving from the belief that they embody extreme impurity. Throughout the twentieth century, constitutional categories such as "depressed classes" and "scheduled castes" and the term harijan ("people of god"), coined by the nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi, have all been widely used to refer to untouchable communities in nonprejudicial ways. The practice of untouchablity was legally abolished in 1948, but the disabilities suffered and discrimination faced by untouchable individuals and groups have been only partially mitigated and have at the same time acquired new shapes in independent India. Strong links between their religious and social subordination and their widespread poverty and economic exploitation make untouchables some of the most disadvantaged groups in South Asia. Furthermore, the lowly position of the untouchables under Hinduism also extends to those sections of Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh populations that belonged to untouchable castes before their conversion. It is thus entirely meaningful to speak of the religions of untouchables, especially if the term untouchable is aligned with the word dalit ("broken" or "oppressed"), an untouchable self-description that challenges subordination and reveals the limitations of ready separations between religious-ritual patterns and social-political processes in any discussion of untouchable castes.


Discussions of untouchable religions turn on charged questions. Does the extreme impurity of the untouchables place them outside the caste order? Do they have entirely separate religions? Or, does the very ritual lowness of the untouchables hierarchically yet vitally link them to other castes through an encompassing, consensual caste ideology of purity and pollution? Is their religion, then, primarily a lower form of the one practiced by those higher up in the caste order?

When scholars such as Louis Dumont and Michael Moffatt present the untouchables as primarily reproducing the homogeneous scheme of the ritual hierarchy of purity and pollution, they ignore the other matricesfor example, of ritual kingship, colonial governance, non-Brahmanic religions, and the modern statethat shape caste. By focusing singularly on concepts of purity and pollution as cementing the caste structure, they also externalize the terms of power that inhere in caste, especially as these bear on untouchables. Finally, such emphases underplay the creation within untouchable religions of novel meanings and distinctive practices. Conversely, various scholarly and commonplace positions stressing the radical disjunction between untouchable norms and practices and the caste order tend to overlook the manner in which the ideologies and relationships of caste not only exclude untouchable peoples from several processes but also hierarchically include them in other arrangements. Furthermore, they underplay the structures of hierarchy and authority in the religions of untouchables themselves, reflected in practices of endogamy and commensality, within various occupations, and in interactions between untouchable castes.

Questions of untouchable religions do not admit singular solutions. Shaped as part of wider hierarchies and relationships of caste, which differ from one region to another, these religions show marked regional variations. Even within a particular region, untouchable religions can display distinct expressions in different locales depending on the distribution of land ownership and on arrangements of authority among castes that diverge across villages. Further, far from being static and timeless, untouchable religions have undergone profound changes as a part of historical processes such as state formation, agrarian and urban mutation, and political transformation. The salience of these religions is found precisely within such variety and change.

Exclusion and Inclusion

The extreme impurity attributed to untouchables has denied them entry into Hindu temples and the services of the Brāhma purohit (priest), has spatially segregated their living quarters at the margins of rural and urban settlements, and has excluded them from the several sets of ranked relationships, ritual exchanges, and social interactions among discrete castes that are at the core of quotidian life. Highly codified prescriptions, such as those requiring deferential bodily movements and speech patterns in the presence of members of the upper castes, have governed the appropriate conduct of untouchables in public spaces, and have frequently forbidden them the use of various markers of honor and status, from modes of transport such as elephants, horses, and palanquins to apparel and accessories such as upper-body garments, turbans, and shoes. On the other hand, the very impurity of the untouchables has included them in the practices and processes of caste. They have exclusively performed the most defiling activities, entailing contact with severely polluting substances, in rural and urban arenas: from the scavenging of waste to work with leather and labor on cremation grounds, and from cleaning toilets and clearing human excrement to rearing unclean animals such as pigs and removing the impure carcasses of sacred cattle. Some of these tasks constitute the primary occupations of discrete untouchable castes; others are undertaken by untouchables who are more generally employed as agricultural or manual laborers. This situation simultaneously defines the subordination of the untouchables and places them at the core of caste, because only they can perform such pollution-ridden yet essential activities. Unsurprisingly, the untouchable presence in the social order has been variously acknowledged: they have received customary dues, especially on ritual occasions, for their caste-sanctioned duties and their agricultural labor; their participation has been critical in ceremonies celebrating the unity of the village; and their deitieslike those of "tribal" or indigenous groups that bear an ambiguous relationship with the caste orderhave been feared as violent yet venerated as guardians of villages. Thus, untouchable religions have been integrally related both to dalit exclusion from and dalit inclusion in caste hierarchies and ritual processes.

Hierarchy, Power, and Distinction

Untouchables have not accepted and experienced such processes passively. Rather, precisely while participating in hierarchical relationships, untouchable actions and understandings have imbued their religions and caste formations with specific distinctions. The untouchable religions in all their staggering heterogeneity have emerged bound to the historical constitution of Hinduism itself. They have been shaped through the wider interplay between Brahmanic hierarchical conventions that emphasize purity and pollution within a schema positing partial continuity between the human and the divine, and non-Brahmanic Hindu traditions that manifest rather different, even contending, orientations toward hierarchy, impurity, divinity, and worship.

Specific untouchable castes have been intimately associated with particular divine beingssuch as the village goddess of smallpox (called Maiamma in South India) and Mātā Māīwho are figures that are also feared and venerated by other castes as part of non-Brahmanic Hindu traditions. The worship and festivals of the lower castes, including untouchables, emphasize the use of blood sacrifice, liquor, possession, and different degrees and various forms of bodily chastisements and self-inflicted tortures. All over India the untouchables have also venerated major Hindu gods such as Viu and Śiva as well as the formless divine, through diverse meansincluding mystic-ecstatic cults, esoteric adoration, and ascetic pietythat engage and extend various modes of bhakti (devotional) practice, often preestablished by non-Brahmanic traditions. In each of these cases, untouchable religions have displaced and interrogatedas well as negotiated and negatedconcepts of purity and impurity and established Hindu hierarchies, through ecstatic worship and possession, sensuous devotion, and pilgrimage. Sometimes this even entails religious, social, and gender inversions in which men acquire female attributes and Brāhmas become impure.

Conversely, the origin myths of untouchables all over India have subverted and rejected upper-caste representations of their ritual lowness, yet they have done so by retaining notions of their own collective impurity. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, untouchable communities such as the Satnāmīs of central India have elaborated new mythic traditions and distinctive caste/sect practices centered on their gurūs and on a formless God, and have also constructed novel depictions of deities such as Śiva and Draupadī. These innovative religious formations have questioned and contested but also reworked and reiterated the forms of power encoded in caste schemes of purity and pollution and kingly authority. Still other untouchable groups have participated in spirit cults, and while propitiating ancestors and ghosts have both articulated and reproduced labor bondage and caste hierarchy. The worship among untouchable castes of demonic figures and personal deities has negotiated yet accepted caste and ritual inequalities. This tension can also been seen in the way untouchable religions have distinctively absorbed the attributes of Hindu worship (pūjā) and sacrifice (bali) as well as the patterns of village festivals. Furthermore, untouchable membership of sects such as the Kabīrpanthīs, Dādūpanthīs, Ravidāsīs, and Rāmnāmīs has led to an elaboration of relatively egalitarian devotional practices developed precisely through a broader acceptance of caste divisions. While the untouchable religions have widely expressed the distinctions of their own actions and understandings, these have generally been articulated in relation to the ritual authority encoded within Hindu hierarchies.

Taken together, distinct yet overlapping tendencies have characterized the untouchable religions. In each case, these religions have created their own forms of faith and practice, which have variously negotiated and subverted caste hierarchies. On the one hand, discrete dispositions of the untouchable religions have far exceeded an exclusive preoccupation with Brahmanic conventions of ritual hierarchy. On the other hand, within the untouchable religions the unequal relationships and ritual power at the core of caste have also been differently reproduced, reworked, and reconfigured. These contradictory tendencies have defined the identities, resistance, and solidarities of untouchables, as well as their submission, vulnerability, and subordination. The distinct dispositions of untouchable religions have, however, far exceeded an exclusive preoccupation with ritual hierarchy. These faiths have been more concerned with the dalit struggle to achieve political and social power than with efforts to improve the untouchable's position within the ritual caste system. At the same time, within the untouchable religions the unequal relationships and ritual power at the core of caste have been reproduced and reconfigured. Taken together, these contradictory tendencies have defined the identities, resistance, and solidarities of untouchables, as well as their submission, vulnerability, and subordination.

Rites and Gender

Among untouchable castes, rites of passage associated with every life stage from birth to death suggest varying degrees of concern with ritual purity. Karin Kapadia argues in Śiva and Her Sisters that among the untouchable Paraiyar caste in southern India the puberty rituals occasioned by a girl's first menstruation show marked differences from the Brahmanic concern with the pollution and purification of the menstruating woman: instead such rites involve quintessentially non-Brahmanic attempts to safeguard "the precious, distinctively female ability to create children" (1998, p. 93) and to symbolically construct fertility as sacred female power. The implication here is that pollution motifs are less important for the untouchables. In contrast, another account, focused on a specific Paraiyar woman (see Viramma, Racine, and Racine), reveals more ambivalent and earthy orientations to purity and pollution and female sexuality. It is not only that the untouchables' elaborations of purity/impurity and auspiciousness/inauspiciousness entail varied negotiations of shifting arrangements of caste and power, but also that even when certain untouchable groups closely follow the rules governing purity and pollutionduring rites of birth and death, for examplethey do so by conjoining such observances with the distinctive symbols and practices of their own castes and sects.

Marriage and gender among the untouchables have been characterized by practices common to most lower-status and varied middle-ranked castes, such as secondary marriages for men and women, widow remarriage, the payment of a bride price (rather than dowry), and women's freedom from the requirements of physical seclusion. Yet such arrangements have been themselves embedded in wider patterns of patrilineal kinship in their regional manifestations. This has meant that even though untouchable women have often possessed a degree of autonomy to negotiate hierarchical relationships of kin and community and marriage(s) and motherhood, and even though their physical labor has been positively valued, practically and symbolically, they have nonetheless not escaped the asymmetries of gender and caste and the inequalities of ritual and class. This is reflected in a multitude of ways, from widespread depictions of women as inherently engendering yet equally subverting the religious and social order to representations of the deviant sexuality of untouchable women, and from the sexual and economic exploitation of untouchable women by upper-caste and socially superior men to attempts at controlling their bodies and labor within their communities. Within these overlapping and constraining contexts, the actions and desires of untouchable women have left their mark on untouchable religions and life-cycle rituals, as well as on wider gender arrangements and caste hierarchies.

Beyond Hinduism

Much of what has been said above concerning untouchable religions within Hinduism also holds for the other untouchables faiths. In principle, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism should have no place for caste, but in practice caste divisions in South Asia have found particular configurations within these religions. Indian Islam refers not so much to the vara distinctions of caste Hinduism, with their constitutive concerns with purity and pollution, as to the social separation between ashraf (well-born) and ajlaf (low-born) Muslims. High and low Muslims might worship together in the mosque, but in relations of marriage, commensality, and occupation they remain separate. Further, low-born Muslims who were converts from untouchable and other lower castes have distinctively understood and practiced Islam, especially by vigorously participating in popular religious traditions such as the cults of various saints whose veneration cuts across religions. The untouchables who became Sikh have created specific faiths that combine their understandings of the official doctrines and purity norms of Sikhism with popular practices of Hinduism and Islam.

In the case of Indian Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church, with an extensive membership in southern India, has historically accepted caste divisions, including their expressions in endogamy and commensality, on the grounds that these are "social" rather than "religious" mores and institutions, and has traditionally provided entirely separate or spatially segregated services for their higher and lower caste constituents. Even though Protestant churches all over South Asia have opposed caste, the taint of impurity and its attendant discrimination have clung to their untouchable members. Untouchable Christians have retained yet reworked prior practices and wider principles of caste and worship and ritual and kinship, creating distinct forms of untouchable identity and indigenous Christianityincluding novel representations of Hindu and Christian divinities in which the former can complement but also oppose the latter.

History and Politics

Historical transformations during the colonial and postcolonial periods have profoundly shaped untouchable religions. The coalescing of forms of British administration and indigenous authority from the late eighteenth century and the emergence by the mid-nineteenth century of an agrarian order clearly characterized by discrete agricultural castes together served to distinctly delineate untouchable groupings, and also led to their creation of and conversion to new faiths. Such processes among the untouchables were further heightened from the 1860s through the 1940s by the colonial state's emphasis on caste categories and religious communities in census enumeration and representative politics, by diverse non-Brahmanic movements in western and southern India, and by an increase in Christian missionary activity that challenged upper-caste authority. In this wider context, the untouchables formed caste associations and joined movements that undertook internal social reform. As they did so, they claimed a higher ritual status or contested their low position and pressed the state for concessions in high school education, government jobs, and political office. Untouchables also converted to Christianity, created distinctive forms of devotional worship, participated in the nationalist struggle, and initiated and endorsed movements to allow them entry into Hindu temples. Here the untouchables' questioning of upper-caste domination and the powerful affirmation of their identities were expressed as part of changing yet still relevant hierarchies of caste, religion, and politics.

Since the 1920s, political processes in which untouchables have participated have crucially influenced their religious and caste practices. The politics and legacy of B. R. Ambedkar have played a key role here. Belonging to the large untouchable Mahar caste of western and central India, Ambedkar received a Ph.D. from Columbia University and entrance to the bar from Grey's Inn, London, and served as chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian constitution in the 1940s. Drawing on earlier devotional and non-Brahmanic traditions of religious dissent as well as on constitutional law and rationalist individualism, Ambedkar's formulations on caste, Hinduism, and untouchable action were directly opposed to the Gandhian perspective within Indian nationalism, which condemned untouchability without renouncing the vara concept of caste. The political parties founded by Ambedkar were only partially successful and his demand that untouchables be recognized as a separate electorate drew wide criticism as a proposal that would divide both Hindus and the nation, but he nonetheless exerted significant political influence through arguing the position that discrimination against untouchables constituted the very core of castea position leading to his rejection of Hinduism in 1935. When Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956, he was followed by a significant section of his own Mahar caste as well as by members of the Jātav caste of northern India, resulting in a dalit Buddhism that has combined distinctive caste practices with the egalitarian emphases of the new faith. Increased dalit resistance to upper-caste authority has also been seen in southern India, where it has been strengthened by regional, non-Brahmanic political initiatives present since the early twentieth century. Political developments emphasizing the role of the lower-castes after the late 1970s have further extended such processes to North India. Dalits in rural and urban areas have seized upon these advances not only to participate in electoral politics but also to express their identities and articulate power relationships in local and national arenas, and in so doing have defined the changing contours of untouchable religions and caste practices in contemporary India. At the same time, precisely such dalit expressions have repeatedly led to violent higher-caste reprisals and have engendered a political reaction centered on ideologies of a homogeneous Hindu nation. The gradual emergence in late colonial and independent India of a dalit middle-class through policies of affirmative action in public education, government employment, and political office has been accompanied, especially since the 1970s, by the growth of a vigorous dalit consciousness and by creativity in literature and art drawing on experiences of widespread discrimination and religious exclusion. This assertiveness continues to be reflected in, for example, the claims of dalit women, the terms of dalit Christian theology, and campaigns for dalit human rights that draw parallels between the injustices of caste and the wounds of race, not only in South Asia but also in the dalit diaspora. Today, as in the past, the religions of untouchables play a central part in these varied negotiations of, interactions with, and challenges to ritual authority, caste hierarchy, and political power.

See Also

Vara and Jātī.


Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar. Caste, Protest, and Identity in Colonial India: The Namasudras of Bengal, 18721947. London, 1997. A case study of a lower-caste movement in undivided Bengal.

Clarke, Sathianathan. Dalits and Christianity: Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology in India. New Delhi, 1998. An important work on dalit Christianity in contemporary India.

Dangle, Arjun, ed. Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Bombay, 1992.

Deliege, Robert. The World of the "Untouchables": Paraiyars of Tamil Nadu. Delhi, 1997. An anthropological study of both Christian and Hindu members of an untouchable caste in southern India.

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and His People. Dalit Website, available from http://www.ambedkar.org.

Dube, Saurabh. Untouchable Pasts: Religion, Identity, and Power among a Central Indian Community, 17801950. Albany, N.Y., 1998. An ethnographic history of the Satnāmīs, a numerically and politically significant untouchable caste/sect. The work discusses wider theoretical questions of Hinduism, caste, gender, and power.

Dube, Saurabh. Stitches on Time: Colonial Textures and Postcolonial Tangles. Durham, N.C., 2004. Examines faith and practice among untouchable converts to Christianity and gender and law among untouchable communities in central India.

Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Translated by Mark Sainsbury. London, 1970. An anthropological classic projecting untouchables as participants in a consensual ideology of purity and pollution.

Freeman, James M. Untouchable: An Indian Life History. Stanford, Calif., 1979. A rich life-historical account of a colorful dalit man from Orissa, eastern India.

Ilaiah, Kancha. Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philososphy, Cuture, and Political Economy. Calcutta, 1996. A provocative polemic against Hinduism and caste.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Low Castes in North Indian Politics. New York, 2002. A wide-ranging survey of lower-caste, including dalit, participation in electoral politics.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Religion as Social Vision: The Movement against Untouchability in Twentieth-Century Punjab. Berkeley, Calif., 1982. Discusses the untouchable Ad Dharm movement in North India.

Kapadia, Karin. Śiva and Her Sisters: Gender, Caste, and Class in Rural South India. Boulder, Colo., 1998. A feminist ethnography that explores the interplay between gender and powerincluding considerations of marriage, ritual, kinship, possession, and reproduction in a village in southern India by examining the perspectives of both women and men of five castes, while especially focusing on the experiences of untouchable Pallar women.

Khare, R. S. The Untouchable as Himself: Ideology, Identity, and Pragmatism among the Lucknow Chamars. New York, 1984. Discusses empirical and analytical issues relating to untouchable ascetics and asceticism in North India.

Lamb, Ramdas. Rapt in the Name: The Ramnamis, Ramnam, and Untouchable Religion in Central India. Albany, N.Y., 2002.

Lorenzen, David, ed. Bhakti Religion in North India: Community Identity and Political Action. Albany, N.Y., 1995. Contains several essays on different dimensions of lower-caste devotional traditions.

Lynch, Owen M. The Politics of Untouchability: Social Mobility and Social Change in a City of India. New York, 1969. An early and important study of religious, social, economic, and political transformation among the dalit Jātav caste in post-Independence urban North India.

Mendelsohn, Oliver, and Marika Vicziany. The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty, and the State in Modern India. Cambridge, U.K., 1998. An overview of the situation of the untouchables in contemporary India.

Moffatt, Michael. An Untouchable Community in South India: Structure and Consensus. Princeton, N.J., 1979. An important ethnography that draws on Louis Dumont's emphasis on the ideological consensus of purity and pollution to examine social relations and religious structure among an untouchable caste in a southern Indian village. The work contains a valuable discussion of the debate on the relation of untouchable castes to Hindu hierarchy.

Moon, Vasant. Growing Up Untouchable in India: A Dalit Autobiography. Translated by Gail Omvedt. Introduction by Eleanor Zelliot. Lanham, Md., 2001. An account by a close associate of B. R. Ambedkar.

Omvedt, Gail. Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India. New Delhi, 1994. A historical study of dalit politics in twentieth century western and southern India.

Prashad, Vijay. Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community. New Delhi, 2000. Primarily discusses the urban Balmikis of North India in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Ram, Kalpana. Mukkuvar Women: Gender, Hegemony, and Capitalist Transformation in a South Indian Fishing Community. Sydney, 1991. A feminist ethnography set among a marginal, low status, Catholic fishing community of Kerala in southern India. The work carries critical discussions of femininity and divinity and ritual and worship in both popular Catholic and non-Brahmanic traditions.

Valmiki, Omprakash. Joothan: A Dalit's Life. Translated by Arun Prabha Mukherjee. New York, 2003. An autobiography of a dalit writer from North India.

Viramma, Josiane Racine, and Jean-Luc Racine. Viramma: Life of a Dalit. Translated by Will Hobson. London, 1997. A richly textured life-history of a remarkable dalit woman from rural southern India.

Zelliot, Eleanor. "Learning the Use of Political Means: The Mahars of Maharashtra." In Caste in Indian Politics, edited by Rajni Kothari, pp. 2969. New Delhi, 1970.

Saurabh Dube (2005)