In this treatise, Ambedkar attempts to explain the origins of untouchability. He admits there is no conclusive evidence of the birth of untouchability. However, he presents a theory that is supported by more evidence than other arguments at the time. He admits this is not a final thesis on untouchability and the subject will need more research. He also debunks theories of a popular analyst Stanley Rice.
He starts off by addressing the fact the Brahmins that normally study the subject would do little to debunk or undermine the basis of the caste system. The caste system gives them privilege. To quote Ambedkar:
It must be recognized that the selfish interest of a person or of the class to which he belongs always acts as an internal limitation which regulates the direction of his intellect.
Ambedkar begins by analyzing practices of untouchability outside of the Hindu culture. He uses examples from primitive and ancient times from all over the world. In all the cases outside of India, untouchability is:
- Caused by and action or bodily change such as puberty or pregnancy
- The untouchability was lifted after proper ceremony or time had passed
- After purification the person could return to normal life
Only in India is untouchability something someone is born into and there is no way to get out of it. Untouchability doesn’t relegate someone to lowly and unsanitary occupations as it does in India. The untouchability faced by the Dalit is unique in India.
A unique feature of Indian untouchability is that untouchables have to live in ghettos outside the city. The condition of Dalits residing in ghettos is prevalent in India and often mandated by law. Ambedkar postulates that Dalit lived on the outskirts from the beginning and their presence there has nothing to do with untouchability.
In primitive society, there were people in settle tribes and nomadic herdsmen. In ancient India, the primary source of wealth was cattle. The nomadic herdsman would follow there cattle herds along a migratory grazing path. Those that settled were able to have livestock and produce. The nomadic herdsman would raid the settled village tribesman because they had more food on average. Ancient India was in a constant state of war.
Ambedkar then postulates that those that broke ties with their original tribe would be left alone to fend for themselves. They would go to a settled tribe and live outside the village and act as watch and ward. In the event of an attack, these men would be on the front line. Ambedkar calls these ex-tribesman Broken Men.
To support his theory, Ambedkar shows a similar situation happened in Europe. In ancient Ireland and Wales, Broken Men served as watch and ward over settled estates. Those orphaned by their original people could live outside of the village. However, in Ireland and Wales, these people eventually integrated into society due to intermarriage. Untouchability prevented this from happening in India.
Even though there is no direct evidence, Ambedkar postulates that the Broken Men came to adopt Buddhism. As Buddhists, they did not see the Brahmin as superior or respect their exclusive right to religious ceremony. Hindus began to bar Buddhism from their temples, and Buddhism repaid the favor causing conflict in the communities. The tension is well documented in Hindu literature even though there is no direct connection between untouchability and Buddhism. Also when Hinduism won most of the inhabitants of India, there were those that would not let go of the Buddhist faith. The Hindus shunned the Broken men because of their religion and imposed social segregation.
Another possibility is that the Broken Men never observed the custom of making the cow sacred. All untouchable communities eat beef or make products out of cow skin. The consumption of cows was viewed as disgusting by Hindus. Beef eating caused untouchability, the act of declaring a group impure in perpetuity.
Now beef eating was not always prohibited. Early Hindu scriptures written by Manu do not ban beef eating. The prohibition came as a strategic way to win public support from Buddhist. Buddhism prohibited animal sacrifices and Hinduism did not. The public began to see the practice as wasteful and cruel. To improve Hinduism’s stance with the public, the Brahmin chose to be vegetarian and forbid their followers from eating beef. Brahmin dietary laws gave us the present classes of Brahmin, Non-Brahmin caste Hindus, and Untouchables. The earliest Hindu prohibitions on beef eating came in the 400’s AD.
The question remains as to why did the Broken Men not stop eating beef. It is possible that the Broken Men only ate cows that were already dead. Since the law was against killing a cow, the Broken Men did not violate the law. To give up beef would mean starvation. Because Dalit only had lowly professions buying other food was not feasible. Those that ate the flesh of the cow for any reason became hated once the Hindu exalted the cow.
Many Hindus believe scriptures mention untouchables and untouchability. There is one word “Asprashya” used three times in Hindu scripture that means “untouchable.” However, there is no detail in these scriptures to know why the people were untouchable or what were the rules of untouchability. Ambedkar explains that many of the other words loosely translated into “untouchable” are explaining a temporary state of impurity or merely living on the outskirts of town. The birth of untouchability came with the bans on killing cows implemented by the Gupta kings around 400 AD.
Debunking Dr. Stanley Rice
Dr. Rice postulated that the Dalit were the aboriginal race of India and that the Dravidians invaded and conquered them. After that, the Aryans from Central Asia conquered the Dravidians. Ambedkar used the same evidence as he did in Who are the Shudras to show that the names of people groups in the Hindu scripture denote people of different faiths, not races.
Further evidence that caste does not denote different races or levels of miscegenation also comes from science. Studies on the facial features show people of the same province and different castes have more similar characteristics than the reverse. Also, a survey of last names shows that lasts names are more common in regions than in castes. The commonality of last names in regions and not castes show intermarriage and intermixing happens even when the practices are strictly prohibited by law.
One piece of evidence discussed in Who are the Untouchables not discussed in Who are the Shudras was the Nagas people. Stanley postulates they were the aboriginals and Ambedkar shows they were people that worship a snake god. The Vedic term Dasa and Naga refer to the same people. Dasa denotes peoples using their king; Naga denotes the people using their god. The Naga people and their religion were pervasive throughout India, Sri Lanka, and Central Asia.
Dr. Rice also postulates that untouchability came about because of the need to segregate people doing unsanitary jobs before proper cleaning technologies existed. Ambedkar points to Hindu scriptures that show upper caste people doing unsanitary jobs and rules for them to do unsanitary jobs. Therefore there was a time when anyone could do an unsanitary job.
Notes on Manusmriti
Ambedkar mentions that a revolution happened in which Hindu kings overthrew and killed Buddhist kings. The Brahmin participated in this revolution. Their old scripture prohibited Brahmin from touching a weapon. They also considered the body of any king sacred, and regicide a sin. Manusmriti was created to change these rules to allow Brahmin to fight in the revolution.
The centrality of Manusmriti in the conflict between Buddhism and Hinduism could be a reason Ambedkar chose to burn this book publically December 25, 1927.