untouchable


untouchable
untouchably, adv.
/un tuch"euh beuhl/, adj.
1. that may not be touched; of a nature such that it cannot be touched; not palpable; intangible.
2. too distant to be touched.
3. vile or loathsome to the touch.
4. beyond criticism, control, or suspicion: Modern writers consider no subject untouchable.
n.
5. Hinduism. a member of a lower caste in India whose touch is believed to defile a high-caste Hindu; Harijan.
6. a person who is beyond reproach as to honesty, diligence, etc.
7. a person disregarded or shunned by society or a particular group; social outcast: political untouchables.
8. a person or thing considered inviolable or beyond criticism: such untouchables as Social Security in the federal budget.
[1560-70; UN-1 + TOUCHABLE]

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Former classification of various low-status persons and those outside the Hindu caste system in Indian society.

The term Dalit is now used for such people (in preference to Mohandas K. Gandhi's term, Harijan, which was considered condescending by the Dalit themselves), and their plight is recognized by the Indian constitution and by legislation. The groups traditionally considered untouchable included people whose occupations or habits of life involved activities considered to be polluting, such as taking life for a living (e.g., fishermen); killing or disposing of dead cattle or working with their hides; coming into contact with human waste (e.g., sweepers); and eating flesh of cattle, pigs, or chickens. Many untouchables converted to other religions to escape discrimination. Indian law now categorizes the Dalit under the term scheduled castes and accords them certain special privileges.

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▪ Hindu social class
also called  Harijan 

      in traditional Indian society, any member of a wide range of low-caste Hindu groups and any person outside the caste system. The use of the term and the social disabilities associated with it were declared illegal in the constitutions adopted by the Constituent Assembly of India in 1949 and of Pakistan in 1953. Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand) called untouchables Harijans (“Children of the God Hari Vishnu,” or simply “Children of God”) and long worked for their emancipation. Kocheril Raman Narayanan (Narayanan, Kocheril Raman), elected president of India in 1997, was considered the first untouchable to occupy the office.

      Many different hereditary castes have been traditionally subsumed under the title untouchable, each of which subscribes to the social rule of endogamy (marriage exclusively within the caste community) that governs the caste system in general.

      Traditionally, the groups characterized as untouchable were those whose occupations and habits of life involved polluting activities, of which the most important were (1) taking life for a living, a category that included, for example, fishermen, (2) killing or disposing of dead cattle or working with their hides for a living, (3) pursuing activities that brought the participant into contact with emissions of the human body, such as feces, urine, sweat, and spittle, a category that included such occupational groups as sweepers and washermen, and (4) eating the flesh of cattle or of domestic pigs and chickens, a category into which most of the primitive tribes of India fell.

      Orthodox Hindus regarded the hill tribes of India as untouchables, not because they were primitive or pagan but because they were eaters of beef and of the scavenging village pigs and chickens. Much confusion had arisen on this issue because the unassimilated hill tribes never accepted their relegation to the ranks of the untouchables, nor did they seem to realize that their status was decided on a purely behavioral basis.

      Until the adoption of the new constitutions in independent India and Pakistan, the untouchables were subjected to many social restrictions, which increased in severity from north to south in India. In many cases, they were segregated in hamlets outside the town or village boundary. They were forbidden entry to many temples, to most schools, and to wells from which higher castes drew water. Their touch was seen as seriously polluting to people of higher caste, involving much remedial ritual. In southern India, even the sight of some untouchable groups was once held to be polluting, and they were forced to live a nocturnal existence. These restrictions led many untouchables to seek some degree of emancipation through conversion to Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism.

      The modern constitution of India formally recognized the plight of the untouchables by legally establishing their ethnic subgroups as scheduled castes (population about 80 million in the late 20th century) and scheduled tribes (about 38 million). Besides banning untouchability, the constitution provides these groups with specific educational and vocational privileges and grants them special representation in the Indian parliament. In support of these efforts, the Untouchability (Offenses) Act (1955) provides penalties for preventing anyone from enjoying a wide variety of religious, occupational, and social rights on the grounds that he is a Harijan, the name now popularly used in place of the term untouchable. Despite such measures, the traditional divisions between pure and polluted caste groups persist in some levels of Indian society, making full emancipation of these groups slow to come about.

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Universalium. 2010.

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