Theories of Origin of Untouchability

Theories of Origin of Untouchability

The origins of untouchability lie deep in India’s ancient past and the evidence of those origins provided by the archaeological and literary sources now available is, at best, circumstantial. Consequently, scholars have been forced to engage in considerable speculation in their efforts to reconstruct the past history of untouchability. What we now have are not hard and clear facts but a variety of competing theories, all of which have proved difficult to substantiate in a convincing manner.

The dominant view traces the origins of Untouchability to the Aryans themselves and to their ways of relating to the peoples of India with whom they came into contact. The Aryans, a set of related and highly self-conscious tribes sharing a common language and religion, began their invasions of India from the northwest around 1500 B.C. For centuries they remained in seemingly constant conflict with the indigenous peoples, whom they looked down upon as culturally inferior and shunned as ritually unclean. Once conquered by superior military technology, some of these peoples withdrew into regions as yet unoccupied by the Aryans, while others were incorporated as separate and inferior castes within Aryan-dominated society. In post Rig-Vedic literature there are more frequent references to primitive forest-dwellers who were kept on the fringes of Aryan society in the conquered regions. Among these were the Candala. Although the Candala were severely stigmatised in the later Vedic age, it was only in the period between 600 B.C. and 200 A.D. that untouchability appears as such (Webster, 1994:2). In the Dharmasutras and in Kautilya’s Arthasastra the Candala are treated as untouchable and the “mixed caste theory” of the origins of untouchability is enunciated. However, it is in the Manusmriti that this theory, as well as the varna theory and the classification of castes in a hierarchy based on occupation and degree of pollution, receives its classic statement.

According to Manu, the ancient Indian law-giver, untouchability is the punishment for miscegenation, between a member of a high caste and that of a low caste or an outcaste. The children of such an unequal pair become untouchables, and the greater the social gap between the two parents, the lower the status of their children. The consequences are also more severe if the mother is of the superior caste. To Manu a degraded occupation is not the cause of untouchability, rather untouchability condemns a person to a low and impure occupation.

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