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Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, the concept of ‘social distancing’ is on everyone’s mind. But social distancing of another sort has been practiced in South Asia for more than three thousand years. Undoubtedly, maintaining physical distance and avoiding touching others are necessary for preventing the transmission of the virus. With ‘social distancing’ being recommended as the most effective weapon against the pandemic, many have, regrettably, begun to praise the supremacy of the etiquette of the namaste for maintaining personal and social distance, with some even going so far as to extol the idea of cultural purity and the superstitions around untouchability.

Amid the promotion of handwashing in the context of the pandemic, I was surprised to find a diplomat-intellectual, in his memoir, praising the purification rites practiced by his mother. In it, he reminisces about how his mother would purify the stone pavement leading to the waterhole if someone happened to have walked on it. If a person she considered ‘dirty’ happened to sit on her compound’s wall, she would rinse the wall’s stones. And she would wash her family’s agricultural tools (sickles, baskets, spades, etc) after they were used by hired workers—most of whom would be untouchables. Moreover, she would even wash the currency notes (on the pretext of purifying them from menstrual pollution) given to her by the Gurung women who came to buy paddy from her. The intellectual lauds such archaic practices and says they derived from her mother’s attributes of beauty and purity. Some readers, and even writers, have praised those practices for being useful and sacred.

Such notions of purity are undoubtedly carryovers from the recent past that, in turn, were passed on from yet earlier times. Until the end of the Rana period in 1950, Nepalis who returned from abroad were required to report to the authorities, seclude themselves for two weeks, and obtain readmission to their caste (patiya)–by way of absolution (prayashchit) from the guilt of having been polluted through contact with foreigners (mleccha)–from the hands of the pundits who served as dharmadhikaris

During the Covid-19 pandemic, such practices of the past are being redefined as just another form of quarantining. Some people are even arguing the merits of such traditional Hindu practices by conflating the medical definition of disinfection with disinfection as it is understood in the HIndu social context. Today, some people who consider themselves right, pure, and superior are finding ways to glorify untouchability by appealing to the current acceptance of social distancing. And if one buys their argument, one could end up believing that the varna and caste system in South Asia is the greatest of isolation systems, that the distinct settlement patterns of cities and villages are the prototypes for today’s quarantines, and that the practice of untouchability and discrimination are protocols for ensuring purity and health.

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While intellectuals around the world are worrying about whether the coronavirus pandemic is a threat to human civilization, our so-called intellectuals are dead set on singing the praises of archaic customs, ranging from the etiquette to the superstitions developed by the East. They have even begun referring to the many social-distancing practices in their religion, tradition, and culture as weapons in the battle against pandemics. They seem to be essentially proclaiming not only women and Shudras as untouchables but also labelling all occupations and vocations related to manual labour as polluting. One could even conclude that that’s why during this pandemic, many landlords are evicting city-sanitation workers and health-care professionals: that is, they could be evicting their tenants because they need to safeguard their own health, purity, superiority, and sanctity.

Social virus

“One virus made all of us untouchable. Imagine how a society that has been made untouchable for thousands of years has survived.” This statement posted by Nepali cartoonist Rabin Sayami on his Facebook status references the famous Indian actor Nana Patekar. While the quote obviously highlights aspects of untouchability brought to light by the pandemic, it also alludes to how the virus of caste and untouchability has been prevalent in South Asia for thousands of years.

Most of us have been conditioned to ‘know’ whom we can touch or hold and whom we cannot; who is pure and who is impure; who is pure, sacred, superior and who is impure, profane, inferior. During this Covid crisis, we have felt the sting of a much more innocuous form of ostracization–when we are asked to not touch others, lest we infect them. But it’s only when we are perpetually at the receiving end of social practices derived from our varna-ridden psychology, which considers ‘the other’ as untouchable, that we understand the impacts of the ‘untouchability virus’, which has been prevalent for ages in the Hindu society of South Asia.

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Untouchability did not originate immediately after South Asian society developed. Various forms of discrimination emerged when society was being stratified into high and low classes. Discrimination emerged after our society’s agricultural system became complex and after the formation of cities supported by trade. Historian Romila Thapar argues that caste hierarchy derived from a combination of complex agrarian systems, commercial activities in urban areas, and issues pertaining to the seizing of land by more recent settlers from indigenous populations. “Urbanization not only demarcated the land from the city but also introduced a number of necessary although marginal occupations which were believed to be polluting and could only be carried out by uprooted groups,” she writes. “It is from these occupations and such groups that the untouchables in the main were drawn.” 

The assumption that untouchability emerged in an urban context is plausible. The settlements of Chandals outside each historical town or village in South Asia attest to this. The making of the city of Kathmandu and its settlement patterns also show that those involved in ‘polluting work’ have been relegated to the city’s margins. Manual labourers, especially those involved in polluting work and considered lowly, were allowed inside the towns only during certain hours, and when they entered the town, purification rituals had to be performed. From these premises, it can be concluded that the notion of untouchability originated with people defining some occupations as being polluting. But why are some occupations considered polluting?

Contempt for manual labour

According to historian Ram Sharan Sharma, one cause for the origin of untouchability was the disdain towards the ‘primitive’ lifestyle of aboriginal tribes. The tribals were mostly hunters and fowlers, whereas Brahman society members knew metallurgy, were involved in agriculture, and were adopting urban lifestyles. The life of the tribals was precarious and even worse than that of Shudras. “Gradually, as the upper varnas, especially of the Brahmans and the Kshatriyas, withdrew more and more from the work of primary production and tended to be hereditary in their positions and functions, they not only developed a contempt for manual work but also extended it to the hands that practiced it,” writes Sharma.

This means the aboriginal tribes’ less advanced technology, the high classes’ increasing contempt for manual labour and labourers, and the emerging ideology of purity and exclusion together led to the emergence of the notion of untouchability. This has been proven to be true in the case of the Chandals, who removed corpses. Their occupation was deemed polluting and detestable by the higher castes. Later, those involved in leather and tailoring work began to be regarded as untouchables too. In this manner, the contempt directed at the manual labour performed by the lower classes crystallized into the more reified notions of untouchability. That also means untouchability can be viewed as inhabiting one end of the spectrum as outlined by an ideology that promotes among certain classes the feeling that their occupations, activities, clothes, and food habits belong to a higher culture and that they are more civilized, purer, and superior.

Anyone who studies South Asian history and the dharmashastras discovers that members of the higher varnas, especially Brahmans, detested manual labour. Over time, it became possible for these classes to earn a living without doing manual labour. They could indulge in yoga, meditation, recitation, study, and writing and still monopolize the means of production. As a result, they began to treat those who laboured for subsistence as Shudras–lowly, inferior, contemptible people of the lower class. Sharma claims that untouchability originated at the end of the pre-Maurya period, when Buddhism emerged and developed.

From that era began the system of labelling Chandals as untouchables. Their touch was deemed polluting, which required purification by bathing (with clothes on). The very space their bodies occupied was considered impure. Even sighting them was considered inauspicious, requiring a cleansing of the beholder’s eyes. The food and drink their glance happened to take in was considered polluted. Indeed, if one were to consume the food and drink that they had looked at, one would risk being ostracized. At its most extreme, Chandals were not allowed to enter towns after sunset, and they would be beaten to unconsciousness if they did.

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The perverse tragedy of Eastern civilization is that it did not seek the natural/biological source of pollution. That, instead, it blamed the absorber of pollution (the purifier) and the act or occupation of removing pollution (the purification) for the pollution of society and state.

Untouchability, varna, caste

It is not surprising that manual labour and manual labourers are denigrated in a society and state where Brahmans are the authors of the shastras and are priests and where Kshetriyas control and exert state power. This contempt for the lower castes became ingrained in society when it got intertwined with the varna and caste system. Untouchability is umbilically related to the varna system and caste system, which are organs and appendages of Hinduism.  “Untouchability was a form of religious persecution, for this exclusion was common to Brahmanism as well as to some sramanic sects, the chandala being a category apart,” says Thapar.

Illustration by: Supriya Manandhar

The untouchability virus, which originated in the process of one group dominating another, finds many manifestations. Historically, untouchability has manifested as physical violence. Later, it mutated into—and still exists as—symbolic violence, in which the ‘othered’ are verbally stigmatized as lowly, inferior, of impure caste, tribe, or sex. It exists as a cultural mechanism for othering and excluding. According to author Braj Ranjan Mani, the ‘caste elite’ continue to perpetrate intellectual-moral violence by recasting in the language of science these archaic values of oppression, norms of exclusion, and practices of violence.

The Covid crisis seems to have birthed its latest reincarnation, in the discourse around the supremacy of the Eastern etiquette of namaste or namaskar over the Western etiquette of handshaking and embracing. But the rationale for maintaining social distancing during a pandemic is not the same as those marshaled for upholding caste purity. Our caste-minded arrogance, however, considers something or someone as innately and eternally right, pure, sacred, and superior, and others as innately and eternally wrong, polluting, profane, and inferior. Our shastras and our education do not stop us from vilifying the customs practiced by others. As a result, we feel that our cultural practices–handed down by our religion, shastras, state, society, family, and ancestors–are superior, and that it is the others’ ‘superstitions’ that should be expunged.

It’s thus not surprising that some of our so-called liberal scholars and writers are today declaring that untouchability is the most scientific karma and touch-avoidance the most civilized and sacred dharma. That leads us to ask, when such archaic ideas and writings informed by them abound, how can we ensure the future of our society?

Translated by Mahesh Raj Maharjan
This article was first published in Kantipur on April 7