The Root of Untouchability
Posted by bethechange on March 18, 2006
That Buddhism and Hinduism are antithetical to each other….Contempt For Budhists As The Root Of Untouchability
–By B. R. Ambedkar
THE Census Reports for India published by the Census Commissioner at the
interval of every ten years from 1870 onwards contain a wealth of
information nowhere else to be found regarding the social and religious
life of the people of India. Before the Census of 1910 the Census
Commissioner had a column called ‘Population by Religion’. Under this
heading the population was shown (1) Muslims, (2) Hindus, (3) Christians,
The Census Report for the year 1910 marked a new departure from the
prevailing practice. For the first time it divided the Hindus under three
separate categories, (i) Hindus, (ii) Animists and Tribal, and (iii) the
Depressed Classes or Untouchables. This new classification has been
continued ever since.
This departure from the practice of the previous Census Commissioners
raises three questions. First is what led the Commissioner for the Census
of 1910 to introduce this new classification. The second is what was the
criteria adopted as a basis for this classification. The third is what are
the reasons for the growth of certain practices which justify the division
of Hindus into three separate categories mentioned above.
The answer to the first question will be found in the address presented in
1909 by the Muslim Community under leadership of H.H. The Aga Khan to the
then Viceroy, Lord Minto, in which they asked for a separate and adequate
representation for the Muslim community in the legislature, executive and
the public services.
In the address there occurs the following passage: “The Mohamedans of
India number, according to the census taken in the year 1901 over
sixty-two millions or between one-fifth and one-fourth of the total
population of His Majesty’s Indian dominions, and if a reduction be made
for the uncivilised portions of the community enumerated under the heads
of animist and other minor religions, as well as for those classes who are
ordinarily classified as Hindus but properly speaking are not Hindus at
all, the proportion of Mohamedans to the Hindu Majority becomes much
larger. We therefore desire to submit that under any system of
representation extended or limited a community in itself more numerous
than the entire population of any first class European power except Russia
may justly lay claim to adequate recognition as an important factor in the
“We venture, indeed, with Your Excellency’s permission to go a step
further, and urge that the position accorded to the Mohamedan community in
any kind of representation direct or indirect, and in all other ways
effecting their status and influence should be commensurate, not merely
with their numerical strength but also with their political importance and
the value of the contribution which they make to the defence of the
empire, and we also hope that Your Excellency will in this connection be
pleased to give due consideration to the position which they occupied in
India a little more than hundred years ago and of which the traditions
have naturally not faded from their minds.”
The portion italicised by me has a special significance. It was introduced
in the address to suggest that in comprising the numerical strength of the
Muslims with that of the Hindus the population of the animists, tribals
and the Untouchables should be excluded. The reason for this new
classification of ‘Hindus’ adopted by the Census Commissioner in 1910 lies
in this demand of the Muslim community for separate representation on
augmented scale. At any rate this is how the Hindus understood this
Interesting as it is, the first question as to why the Census Commissioner
made this departure in the system of classification is of less importance
than the second question. What is important is to know the basis adopted
by the Census Commissioner for separating the different classes of Hindus
into (1) those who were hundred per cent Hindus and (2) those who were
The basis adopted by the Census Commissioner for separation is to be found
in the circular issued by the Census Commissioner in which he laid down
certain tests for the purpose distinguishing these two classes. Among
those who were not hundred percent Hindus were included castes and tribes
(1) Deny the supremacy of the Brahmins. (2) Do not receive the Mantra
from a Brahmin or other recognized Hindu Guru. (3) Deny the authority of
the Vedas. (4) Do not worship the Hindu gods. (5) Are not served by good
Brahmins as family priests. (6) Have no Brahmin priests at all. (7) Are
denied access to the interior of the Hindu temples. (8) Cause pollution
(a) by touch, or (b) within a certain distance. (9) Bury their dead.
(10) Eat beef and do no reverence for the cow.
Out of these ten tests some divide the Hindus from the Animists and the
Tribal. The rest divide the Hindus from the Untouchables. Those that
divide the Untouchables from the Hindus are (2), (5), (6), (7), and (10).
It is with them that we are chiefly concerned.
For the sake of clarity it is better to divide these tests into parts and
consider them separately. This Chapter will be devoted only to the
consideration of (2), (5), and (6).
The replies received by the Census Commissioner to questions embodied in
tests (2), (5) and (6) reveal (a) that the Untouchables do not receive the
Mantra from a Brahmin; (b) that the Untouchables are not served by Brahmin
priests at all; and (c) that Untouchables have their own priests reared
from themselves. On these facts the Census Commissioners of all Provinces
Of the three questions the third is the most important. Unfortunately the
Census Commissioner did not realise this. For in making his inquiries he
failed to go to the root of the matter to find out: Why were the
Untouchables not receiving the Mantra from the Brahmin? Why Brahmins did
not serve the Untouchables as their family priests? Why do the
Untouchables prefer to have their own priests? It is the ‘why’ of these
facts which is more important than the existence of these facts. It is the
‘why’ of these facts which must be investigated. For the clue to the
origin of Untouchability lies hidden behind it.
Before entering upon this investigation, it must be pointed out that the
inquiries by the Census Commissioner were in a sense one-sided. They
showed that the Brahmins shunned the Untouchables. They did not bring to
light the fact that the Untouchables also shunned the Brahmins.
Nonetheless, it is a fact. People are so much accustomed to thinking that
the Brahmin is the superior of the Untouchables and the Untouchable
accepts himself as his inferior; that this statement that the Untouchables
look upon the Brahmin as an impure person is sure to come to them as a
matter of great surprise. The fact has however been noted by many writers
who have observed and examined the social customs of the Untouchables. To
remove any doubt on the point, attention is drawn to the following
extracts from their writings.
The fact was noticed by Abbe Dubois who says: “Even to this day a Pariah
is not allowed to pass a Brahmin Street in a village, though nobody can
prevent, or prevents, his approaching or passing by a Brahmin’s house in
towns. The Pariahs, on their part will under no circumstances, allow a
Brahmin to pass through their paracherries (collection of Pariah huts) as
they firmly believe it will lead to their ruin.”
Mr. Hemingsway, the Editor of the Gazetteer of the Tanjore District says:
“These casts (Parayan and Pallan or Chakkiliyan castes of Tanjore
District) strongly object to the entrance of a Brahmin into their quarters
believing that harm will result to them therefrom.”
Speaking of the Holeyas of the Hasan District of Mysore, Captain J.S.F.
Mackenzie says: “Every village has its Holigiri as the quarters inhabited
by the Holiars, formerly agrestic serfs, is called outside the village
boundary hedge. This, I thought was because they were considered as impure
race, whose touch carries defilement with it.”
Such is the reason generally given by the Brahmins who refuse to receive
anything directly from the hands of a Holiar, and yet the Brahmins
consider great luck will wait upon them if they can manage to pass through
the Holigiri without being molested. To this Holiars have a strong
objection, and, should a Brahmin attempt to enter their quarters, they
turn out in a body and slipper him, in former times, it is said, to death.
Members of the other castes may come as far as the door, but they must not
enter the house, for that would bring the Holiar bad luck. If, by chance,
a person happens to get in, the owner takes care to tear the intruder’s
cloth, tie up some salt in one corner of it, and turn him out. This is
supposed to neutralise all the good luck which might have accrued to the
trespasser, and avert any evil which ought to have befallen the owner of
What is the explanation of this strange phenomenon? The explanation must
of course fit in with the situation as it stood at the start, i.e., when
the Untouchables were not Untouchables but were only Broken Men. We must
ask why the Brahmins refused to officiate at the religious ceremonies of
the Broken Men? Is it the case that the Brahmins refused to officiate? Or
is it that the Broken Men refused to invite them? Why did the Brahmin
regard Broken Men as impure? Why did the Broken Men regard the Brahmins as
impure? What is the basis of this antipathy?
This antipathy can be explained on one hypothesis. It is that the Broken
Men were Buddhists. As such they did not revere the Brahmins, did not
employ them as their priests and regarded them as impure. The Brahmin on
the other hand disliked the Broken Men because they were Buddhists and
preached against them contempt and hatred with the result that the Broken
Men came to be regarded as Untouchables.
We have no direct evidence that the Broken Men were Buddhists. No evidence
is as a matter of fact necessary when the majority of Hindus were
Buddhists. We may take it that they were.
That there existed hatred and abhorrence against the Buddhists in the mind
of the Hindus and that this feeling was created by the Brahmins is not
Nilkant in his Prayaschit Mayukha a verse from Manu which says: “If a
person touches a Buddhist or a flower of Pachupat, Lokayata, Nastika and
Mahapataki, he shall purify himself by a bath.”
The same doctrine is preached by Apararka in his Smriti. Vradha Harit goes
further and declares entry into the Buddhist Temple as sin requiring a
purificatory bath for removing the impurity.
How widespread had become this spirit of hatred and contempt against the
followers of Buddha can be observed from the scenes depicted in Sanskrit
dramas. The most striking illustration of this attitude towards the
Buddhists is to be found in the Mricchakatika. In Act VII of that Drama
the hero Charudatta and his friend Maitreya are shown waiting for
Vasantasena in the park outside the city. She fails to turn up and
Charudatta decides to leave the park. As they are leaving, they see the
Buddhist monk by name Samvahaka. On seeing him, Charudatta says: “Friend
Maitreya, I am anxious to meet Vasantsena … Come, let us go. (After
walking a little) Ah ! here’s an inauspicious sight, a Buddhist monk
coming towards us. (After a little reflection) well, let him come this
way, we shall follow this other path. (Exit.)”
In Act VIII the monk is in the Park of Sakara, the King’s brother-in-law,
washing his clothes in a pool. Sakara accompanied by Vita turns up and
threatens to kill the monk. The following conversation between them is
“Sakara: Stay, you wicked monk.
Monk: Ah! Here’s the king’s brother-in-law! Because some monk has offended
him, he now beats up any monk he happens to meet.
Sakara: Stay, I will now break your head as one breaks a radish in a
tavern. (Beats him).
Vita: Friend, it is not proper to beat a monk who has put on the
saffron-robes, being disgusted with the world.
Monk: (Welcomes) Be pleased, lay brother.
Sakara: Friend, see. He is abusing me.
Vita: What does he say?
Sakara: He calls me lay brother (upasaka). Am I a barber?
Vita: Oh! He is really praising you as a devotee of the Buddha.
Sakara: Why has he come here?
Monk: To wash these clothes.
Sakara: Ah! you wicked monk. Even I myself do not bathe in this pool; I
shall kill you with one stroke.”
After a lot of beating, the monk is allowed to go. Here is a Buddhist monk
in the midst of the Hindu crowd. He is shunned and avoided. The feeling of
disgust against him is so great that the people even shun the road the
monk is travelling. The feeling of revulsion is so intense that the entry
of the Buddhist was enough to cause the exit of the Hindus. The Buddhist
monk is on a par with the Brahmin. A Brahmin is immune from death penalty.
He is even free from corporal punishment. But the Buddhist monk is beaten
and assaulted without remorse, without compunction as though there was
nothing wrong in it.
If we accept that the Broken Men were the followers of Buddhism and did
not care to return to Brahmanism when it became triumphant over Buddhism
(Excerpted from Chapter 9 of B.R. Ambedkar’s 1948 work The Untouchables:
Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? as reprinted in Volume 7
of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, published by Government
of Maharashtra 1990. Copyright: Secretary, Education Department,
Government of Maharashtra.)
More Articles By Ambedkar:
Broken Men, The Pre-Untouchables
Untouchability, The Dead Cow And The Brahmin