UNTOUCHABILITY, a feature of the caste system prevalent in Hindu society since time immemorial, reduces certain classes and castes to a very low level in the social scale. The caste system, the origins of which can be traced to the Purusa Sukta, hymn 90, of the tenth book of the Rgveda, had, by the time of the Epics, become an inalienable part of the Varnasrama Dharma of the Aryans. While Buddhism disapproved of caste distinctions, the Bhagavad gita (IV. 13) confers divine sanction on the caste system. Again, Bhagavadgita implies the distribution of human beings into castes in accordance with their guna or qualities and karma or actions.

The lowest caste, the Sudras, were permanently relegated to the lowest position, their divinely ordained dharma or duty being to serve the dvijas or twice born as the three upper classes, Brahmans, Ksatriyas and Vaisyas, were collectively designated. Even among the Sudras there were two different categories: the untouchables whose very touch or even proximity supposedly caused pollution to the upper caste Hindus, and others who, though looked down upon and depressed, were yet tolerated and not considered untouchables.The latter comprised craftsmen and menials such as carpenters, barbers, water carriers and cooks, while the former sometimes referred to as pa.hcha.rn, the fifth caste, included scavengers, cobblers, skinners of dead animals and others who extracted alcoholic spirits and were given the despicable name of chandals. The untouchables were compelled to live in utter poverty and subhuman conditions in separate insanitary colonies or wards on the outskirts of villages or outside the city walls.

There is no place for untouch ability in Sikhism. Both the precept and practice of the Gurus condemned it along with the rest of the caste system. “All ideas of contamination of pollution by touch are superstition,” said Guru Nanak.He decried the hypocrisy of the Brahman who would not hesitate to eat the flesh of a goat killed to the accompaniment of a Muslim`s formula but would consider the entry of another person in their cooking square as contaminating (GG, 472). Elsewhere he says : “Evil thinking, hardheartedness, slander, anger these be the real untouchables.

How may one`s cooking square be unpolluted with these four seated along side” (GG, 91). Towards the so called low caste untouchables, on the other hand, the Gurus looked with compassion and preached the ennobling remedy of devotional worship of God.Guru Nanak said, “Nanak is on the side of the lowest of the low castes, and doth not envy the company of those highly placed. Thy benevolent glance, 0 Lord, falleth where the lowly are cherished” (GG, 15).

Guru Arjan, who without discrimination included the hymns of saints coming from the so called low castes in the Sikh Scripture, in his homage to the out caste devotees of God, expressed himself thus : “One of a despised caste, unknown, unrecognized, through devotion shall be honoured in all four directions… Such a one whose very touch is (now) avoided, shall have his feet scrubbed and washed by the whole creation” (GG,SK6).Hindu o orthodoxy and practice of untouch ability had never been strong in the Punjab, which being a frontier state was more open to the social egalitarianism of Islam. Yet in order to give a concrete shape to die rejection of untouch ability, die Gurus established the twin institutions of sangat (fellowship) and pangat (commensality) which allow no difference between man and man on the grounds of caste, creed, colour, sex or social status. When Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa through the rites sanctified by ceremonies of the sword, he introduced the practice of making all novitiates during the initiation to sip amrit and eat karah prasad from the same bowl.

The peculiar circumstances of the eighteenth century and the subsequent Sikh rule gave rise to a semi Sikh priestly class which took over control of Sikh theology and liturgy and brought back several non Sikh rituals and practices including caste distinction and even, to some extent, untouch ability. The Singh Sabha movement of the last quarter of the nineteenth century strove, with considerable success, to restore the old purity of religious thought and practice. A severe blow to untouch ability was, however, dealt on 12 October 1920 when members of the Khalsa Baradari, an organization of the so called low caste Sikhs, supported by progressive and reformist elements, entered the Harimandar at Amritsar and their offerings and ardas were accepted and shared by those present.

There are other factors too which have helped to loosen the stranglehold of untouch ability even on Hindu society. The afflore scence of Bhakti movement and the sant tradition from the fourteenth century onwards had already thrown up a galaxy of holy men belonging to the low and untouchable castes. One of them, Kablr, had bluntly challenged the Brahman to prove his claim to superiority over Sudras simply on the grounds of birth. “There is no caste or clan in the womb,” says Kabir, “all creation is from the Divine seed.

Tell me Pandit! Since when have you become a Brahman.If you claim to be a Brahman by birth from a Brahman woman, why didn`t you clibose a different path to come into (he world ? How are you Brahman and we Sudras ? Do you have milk in your veins against blood in ours ? He alone is called a Brahman among us who meditates upon Brahman, the Supreme Being” (GG, 3`24). Spread of liberal education and general awareness, rise of liberal religious movements of the nineteenth century, modern means of travel (trams, trains, buses where inter caste bodily contact or proximity is unavoidable), and the introduction of democracy and universal adult suffrage equating the lowest with the highest in voting strength are some of the other factors that militated against the practice of untouch ability.

Under the Constitution of India the practice of untouch ability is legally abolished. Article 17 in Part III, “Fundamental Rights,” of the Constitution of India reads : “Untouch ability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of `untouch ability` shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.”

References :

1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1975
2. Jagjit Singh, The Sikh Revolution. Delhi, 1981
3. Marenco, Ethne K., The Transformation of Sikh Society. Portland, Oregon, 1974
4. Teja Singh, Sikhism : Its Ideals and Institutions. Bombay, 1937
5. Talib, Gurbachan Singh, Impact of Guru Gobind Singh on Indian Society. Chandigarh, 1966