The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (April 14, 1891 — December 6, 1956) was a Buddhist revivalist, Indian jurist, scholar and Bahujan political leader who is the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. Born into a poor Untouchable community; he spent his life fighting against the system of Hindu untouchability and the Indian caste system. He is also credited for having sparked the Dalit Buddhist movement. Ambedkar has been honoured with the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award, given for the highest degree of national service.
This article is the preface in the book The Untouchables Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? that was written by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.
By Dr. B. R. Ambedkar
January l, 1948
1, Hardinge Avenue, New Delhi
This book is a sequel to my treatise called The Shudras–Who they were and How they came to be the Fourth Varna of the Indo-Aryan Society which was published in 1946. Besides the Shudras, the Hindu Civilisation has produced three social classes whose existence has not received the attention it deserves. The three classes are:
(i) The Criminal Tribes who number about 20 millions or so;
The existence of these classes is an abomination. The Hindu Civilization, gauged in the light of these social products, could hardly be called civilization. It is a diabolical contrivance to suppress and enslave humanity. Its proper name would be infamy.
(ii) The Aboriginal Tribes who number about 15 millions; and
(iii) The Untouchables who number about 50 millions.
What else can be said of a civilization which has produced a mass of people who are taught to accept crime as an approved means of earning their livelihood, another mass of people who are left to live in full bloom of their primitive barbarism in the midst of civilization and a third mass of people who are treated as an entity beyond human intercourse and whose mere touch is enough to cause pollution?
In any other country the existence of these classes would have led to searching of the heart and to investigation of their origin. But neither of these has occurred to the mind of the Hindu. The reason is simple. The Hindu does not regard the existence of these classes as a matter of apology or shame and feels no responsibility either to atone for it or to inquire into its origin and growth.
On the other hand, every Hindu is taught to believe that his civilization is not only the most ancient but that it is also in many respects altogether unique. No Hindu ever feels tired of repeating these claims.
That the Hindu Civilization is the most ancient, one can understand and even allow. But it is not quite so easy to understand on what grounds they rely for claiming that the Hindu Civilization is a unique one. The Hindus may not like it, but so far as it strikes non-Hindus, such a claim can rest only on one ground. It is the existence of these classes for which the Hindu Civilization is responsible. That the existence of such classes is a unique phenomenon, no Hindu need repeat, for nobody can deny the fact.
One only wishes that the Hindu realized that it was a matter for which there was more cause for shame than pride.
The inculcation of these false beliefs in the sanity, superiority and sanctity of Hindu Civilization is due entirely to the peculiar social psychology of Hindu scholars.
To-day all scholarship is confined to the Brahmins. But un-fortunately no Brahmin scholar has so far come forward to play the part of a Voltaire who had the intellectual honesty to rise against the doctrines of the Catholic Church in which he was brought up; nor is one likely to appear on the scene in the future. It is a grave reflection on the scholarship of the Brahmins that they should not have produced a Voltaire.
This will not cause surprise if it is remembered that the Brahmin scholar is only a learned man. He is not an intellectual. There is a world of difference between one who learned and one who is an intellectual. The former is class-conscious and is alive to the interests of his class. The latter is an emancipated being who Is free to act without being swayed by class considerations. It is because the Brahmins have been only learned men that they have not produced a Voltaire.
Why have the Brahmins not produced a Voltaire?
The question can be answered only by another question. Why did the Sultan of Turkey not abolish the religion of the Mohammedan World?
Why has no Pope denounced Catholicism?
Why has the British Parliament not made a law ordering the killing of all blue-eyed babies?
The reason why the Sultan or the Pope or the British Parliament has not done these things is the same as why the Brahmins have not been able to produce a Voltaire.
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.
The power and position which the Brahmins possess is entirely due to the Hindu Civilization which treats them as supermen and subjects the lower classes to all sorts of disabilities so that they may never rise and challenge or threaten the superiority of the Brahmins over them.
As is natural, every Brahmin is interested in the maintenance of Brahmanic supremacy be he orthodox or unorthodox, be he a priest or a grahastha, be he a scholar or not. How can the Brahmins afford to be Voltaires, A Voltaire among the Brahmins would be a positive danger to the maintenance of a civilization which is contrived to maintain Brahmanic supremacy.
The point is that the intellect of a Brahmin scholar is severely limited by anxiety to preserve his interest. He suffers from this Internal limitation as a result of which he does not allow his intellect full play which honesty and integrity demands. For, he fears that it may affect the interests of his class and therefore his own.
But what annoys one is the intolerance of the Brahmin scholar towards any attempt to expose the Brahmanic literature. He himself would not play the part of an iconoclast even where it is necessary. And he would not allow such non-Brahmins as have the capacity to do so to play it. If any non-Brahmin were to make such an attempt the Brahmin scholars would engage in a conspiracy of silence, take no notice of him, condemn him outright on some flimsy grounds or dub his work useless.
As a writer engaged in the exposition of the Brahmanic literature I have been a victim of such mean tricks.
Notwithstanding the attitude of the Brahmin scholars, I must pursue the task I have undertaken. For the origin of these classes is a subject which still awaits investigation.
This book deals with one of these unfortunate classes namely, the Untouchables. The Untouchables are the most numerous of the three. Their existence iS also the most unnatural. And yet there has so far been no investigation into their origin.
That the Hindus should not have undertaken such an investigation is perfectly understandable. The old orthodox Hindu does not think that there is anything wrong in the observance of Untouchability. To him it is a normal and natural thing. As such it neither calls for expiation nor explanation. The new modern Hindu realizes the wrong. But he is ashamed to discuss it in public for fear of letting the foreigner know that Hindu Civilization can be guilty of such a vicious and infamous system or social code as evidenced by Untouchability.
But what is strange is that Untouchability should have failed to attract the attention of the European student of social institutions. It is difficult to understand why. The fact, however, is there.
This book may therefore, be taken as a pioneer attempt in the exploration of a field so completely neglected by everybody. The book, if I may say so, deals not only with every aspect of the main question set out for inquiry, namely, the origin of Untouchability, but it also deals with almost all questions connected with it. Some of the questions are such that very few people are even aware of them; and those who are aware of them are puzzled by them and do not know how to answer them.
To mention only a few, the book deals with such questions as: Why do the Untouchables live outside the village?
Why did beef-eating give rise to Untouchability? Did the Hindus never eat beef?
Why did non-Brahmins give up beef-eating? What made the Brahmins become vegetarians, etc.?
To each one of these the book suggests an answer. It may be that the answers given in tb book to these questions are not all-embracing. Nonetheless it will be found that the book points to a new way of looking at old things.
The thesis on the origin of Untouchability advanced in the book is an altogether novel thesis. It comprises the following propositions:
(1) There is no racial difference between the Hindus and the Untouchables;
(2) The distinction between the Hindus and Untouchables in its original form, before the advent of Untouchability, was the distinction between Tribesmen and Broken Men from alien Tribes. It is the Broken Men who subsequently came to be treated as Untouchables;
(3) Just as Untouchability has no racial basis so also has it no occupational basis;
(4) There are two roots from which Untouchability has sprung:
(a) Contempt and hatred of the Broken Men as of Buddhists by the Brahmins.
(b) Continuation of beef-eating by the Broken Men after it had been given up by others.
(5) In searching for the origin of Untouchability care, must be taken to distinguish the Untouchables from the Impure. All orthodox Hindu writers have identified the Impure with the Untouchables. This is an error. Untouchables are distinct from the Impure.
(6) While the Impure as a class came into existence at the time of the Dharma Sutras the Untouchables came into being much later than 400 A.D. These conclusions are the result of such historical research as I have been able to make. The ideal which a historian should place before himself has been well defined by Goethe who said:
"The historian's duty is to separate the true from the false, the certain from the uncertain, and the doubtful from that which cannot be accepted Every investigator must before all things look upon himself as one who is summoned to serve on a jury.
There can be no difficulty in giving effect to Goethe's direction vhen the relevant and necessary facts are forthcoming. All this advice is of course very valuable and very necessary. But Goethe does not tell what the historian is to do when he comes across a missing link, when no direct evidence of connected relations between important events is available.
He has only to consider how far the statement of the case is complete and clearly set forth by the evidence. Then he Draws his conclusion and gives his vote, whether it be that his opinion coincides with that of the foreman or not."
I mention this because in the course of my investigations into the origin of Untouchability and other inter connected problems I have been confronted with many missing links. It is true that I am not the only one who has been confronted with them. All students of ancient Indian history have had to face them. For as Mount Stuart Elphinstone has observed in Indian history "no date of a public event can be fixed before the invasion of Alexander: and no connected relation of the natural transactions can be attempted until after the Mohamedan conquest." This is a sad confession but that again does not help.
The question is: "What is a student of history to do?
Is he to cry halt and stop his work until the link is discovered?" I think not. I believe that in such cases it is permissible for him to use his imagination and intuition to bridge the gaps left in the chain of facts by links not yet discovered and to propound a working hypothesis suggesting how facts which cannot be connected by known facts might have been inter-connected. I must admit that rather than hold up the work, I have preferred to resort to this means to get over the difficulty created by the missing links which have come in my way.
Critics may use this weakness to condemn the thesis as violating the canons of historical research. If such be the attitude of the critics I must remind them that if there is a law which governs the evaluation of the results of historical results then refusal to accept a thesis on the ground that it is based on direct evidence is bad law.
Instead of concentrating themselves on the issue of direct evidence versus inferential evidence and inferential evidence versus Speculation, what the critics should concern themselves with is to examine:
(i) whether the thesis is based on pure conjecture, and
(ii) whether the thesis is possible and if so does it fit in with facts better than mine does?
On the first issue I could say that the thesis would not be unsound merely because in some parts it is based on guess. My critics should remember that we are dealing with an institution the origin of which is lost in antiquity. The present attempt to explain the origin of Untouchability is not the same as writing history from texts which speak with certainty. It is a case of reconstructing history where the are no texts, and if there are, they have no direct bearing on the question.
In such circumstances what one has to do is to strive to divine what the texts conceal or suggest without being even quit: certain of having found the truth. The task is one of gathering survivals of the past, placing them together and making them tell the story of their birth. The task is analogous to that of the archaeologist who constructs a city from broken stones or of the palaeontologist who conceives an extinct animal from scattered bones and teeth or of a painter who reads the lines of the horizon and the smallest vestiges on the slopes of the hill to make up a scene. In this sense the book Is a work of art even more than of history.
The origin of Untouchability lies buried in a dead past which nobody knows. To make it alive is like an attempt to reclaim to history a city which has been dead since ages past and present it as it was in its original condition. It cannot but be that imagination and hypothesis should pay a large part in such a work. But that in itself cannot be a ground for the condemnation of the thesis. For without trained imagination no scientific inquiry can be fruitful and hypothesis is the very soul of science. As Maxim Gorky has said 2:
"Science and literature have much in common; in both, observation, comparison and study are of fundamental importance; the artist like the scientist, needs both imagination and intuition. Imagination and intuition bridge the gaps in the chain of facts by ts as yet undiscovered links and permit the scientist to create hypothesis and theories which more or less correctly and successfully direct the searching of the mind in its study of the forms and phenomenon of nature. They are of literary creation; the art of creating characters and types demands imagination, intuition, the ability to make things up in one's own mind".
It is therefore unnecessary for me to apologize for having resorted to constructing links where they were missing. Nor can my thesis be said to be vitiated on that account for nowhere is the construction of links based on pute conjecture. The thesis in great part is based on facts and inferences from facts. And where it is not based on facts or inferences from facts, it is based on circumstantial evidence of presumptive character resting on considerable degree of probability.
There is nothing that I have urged in support of my thesis which I have asked my readers to accept on trust. I have at least shown that there exists a preponderance of probability in favour of what I have asserted. It would be nothing but pedantry to say that a pre ponderance of probability is not a sufficient basis for a valid decision.
On the second point with the examination of which, I said, my critics should concern themselves what I would like to say Is that I am not so vain as to claim any finality for my thesis. I do not ask them to accept it as the last word. I do not wish to influence their judgement. They are of course free to come to their own conclusion. All I say to them is to consider whether this thesis is not a workable and therefore, for the time being, a valid hypothesis if the test of a valid hypothesis is that it should fit in with all surrounding facts, explain them and give them a meaning which in its absence they do not appear to have.
I do not want anything more from my critics than a fair and unbiased appraisal.