Mainstream, VOL LIII No 43 New Delhi October 17, 2015
Is Untouchability in India Created by Islam?
Monday 19 October 2015
by Kancha Ilaiah and Mohasina Anjum Ansari
Unouchability is a major social issue in India, even in the modern times. In the recent past it had also become an international issue. In 2001 at the United Nation’s Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia, held at Durban, a major discussion on caste and untouchability in South Asia took place. Several Indian organisations were pleading with the UN to recognise human untouchability as problem of international importance like racism. But the Government of the National Democratic Alliance, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, did not allow it to become part of the UN agenda. However, the modern Dalit intelligentsia is doing its best to make it an international issue so that a global network would mobilise every resource to abolish this inhuman Hindu practice.
Quite ironically, after the BJP came to power at the Centre in May 2014 the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, headed by the brahminic forces, opened a new discourse that untoucha-bility in India was an Islamic creation and such a social system did not exist before Islam settled down in India. To this effect the RSS-sponsored writings by its members are coming out and a systematic campaign is taken up to blame the Indian Muslims for this historic evil that existed in India for millennia.
This paper examines the nature of Indian society based on Alberuni’s writings in the early 11th century; it was he who had recorded many aspects of the Indian society as they were in operation by the time the Islamic culture was settling down in India. No Hindutva scholar can argue that there was a systematically recorded social history in India before Alberuni’s recording of social history was done. It is a known fact that Alberuni was a multi-discipline scholar, who did an honest job of recording his contem-porary social relations in India.
Before we examine the writings of Alberuni, specifically in relation to the caste culture of 11th century India, it is imperative to examine the position of Prophet Mohammad about social inequalities. After all, the Indian Islamic institution-building also took place based on the Quraanic principles and Prophet Mohammad’s teachings.
We also want to clear the myth that Islam came to India through the Muslim invaders like Muhammad bin Qasim, who invaded India in 715. But actually Islam came to India with a Kerala Sudra king, Cheraman Perumal, on his own going to Prophet Mohammad in around 622 and embracing Islam. Thus Cheraman Perumal was the first Muslim of India, like Prophet Mohammad was the first Muslim of the world. We have a living history of the the Cheraman Jum’ah Masjid still in existence in Methala, Kodungallur Taluk, Thrissur district built in 629.1 Islam spread in Kerala and other parts of South India much before Muhammad Qasim and others came here. Cheraman Perumal’s conversion was not a forced conversion, but it was completely choice-based, that involved pains taking voyage from India to Saudi Arabia, in search of new knowledge and spiritual liberation.
Prophet Mohammad delivered his last sermon fourteen hundred years ago. A critical issue that he puts before the human beings of all nations is as follows:
“O people! Your God is one and your forefather (Adam) is one. An Arab is not better than a non-Arab and a non-Arab is not better than an Arab, and a red (i.e. white tinged with red) person is not better than a black person and a black person is not better than a red person, except in piety.”2
Neither the Quran nor Prophet Mohammad approved caste-based gradation of human societies, nor did they anywhere indicate human untouchability could be practised. Islam played a key role in abolishing idol worship in the world, whereas Hinduism practises idol worship as its core religious belief even now. Islam has a concept of one Allah, one book (Quran) and one place of worship (mosque) for all the human beings irrespective of their caste, creed, colour and class. Equality is one of the essential tenets of Islam. Unlike the Rig Veda and Bhagvad Gita, the Quran does not accept unequal creation of human beings, nor does it accept work-based discrimination. The Quran in Surat An-Nisa 4-1 says:
“O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah, through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed Allah is ever, over you, an Observer.”3
[3:195] Their Lord responded to them: “I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female - you are equal to one another.”4
The Quran perhaps borrows the theory of equal creation of human beings from the Bible that makes in its Genesis clear that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (27)”5
In both the Bible and Quran the story of creation does not give any scope for caste-based gradation of human societies. Whereas the Rig Veda and Bhagvad Gita gave such a scope quite clearly.
As the above Quranic dictum tells, human equality is an embedded principle in Quranic teachings, whether in India or elsewhere. The Quranic teachings are not nation-specific, they are universal.
This does not mean that the Islamic societies do not suffer from class and gender, racist and casteist practices and also exploitation in different nations. But so far nobody could unearth the spiritual validation of textual evidence or practice of human untouchability in Islamic civil societies. Now the RSS is out with its imagination and tries to construct a caste cultural history within the Islamic ethos itself.
On the contrary, as we show in this paper, in ancient Hindu spiritual texts, which were claimed to have been written hundreds of years before even Islam as a religion came into existence, commanded the society to practise human untouchablility. What is repeatedly said in the Manudharma Shastra is too well known to be commented upon. It is also known that the Rig Veda and Bhagvad Gita themselves prescribed for definite practice of untouchability. Yet the RSS chose to claim that caste-based untouchability is a creation of Indian Islam; hence this needs to be refuted with serious research.
The RSS’ New Theory
Vijay Sonakar Shastri, one of the RSS functionaries, released his three books, namely, Hindu Charmakar Jati, Hindu Khatik Jati and Hindu Valmiki Jati. The forewords of these books claim that ‘Shudras’ were never untouchables, according to the Hindu scriptures. It was only after the “Islamic atrocities “during the medieval times that the untouchables, Dalits and Indian Muslims emerged.
The BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has attributed the genesis of Dalits, tribals and other marginalised groups to Muslim invasion in medieval times. Three RSS functionaries have reportedly expressed such views in forewords to the above mentioned three books. Quite surprisingly, they were released recently by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat.
In his foreword, Bhaiyyaji Joshi, Bhagwat’s number two in the RSS order, reportedly says the ‘shudras’ were never untouchables, according to the Hindu scriptures. It was only after the “Islamic atrocities” during the medieval times that the untouchables, Dalits and Indian Muslims emerged. A subtle campaign to spread such a theory among Dalits/ OBCs has been launched by various wings of the Sangh Parivar.
To make our argument in a reasonable context we provide a brief summary of these three books, as they are written in Hindi:
Hindu Charmkar Jati
The Indian social system is not only politically confused but the direction of its thinking is also flawed. We are constantly on the move forward in the political field only with the concept of vote. Race, class, distinction of creed in the country are seen in terms of high-low. In this context due to unnecessary political pressure, the contaminated aspect of historiography, expression of social topics and art and literature is emerging.
The Hindu society, which is divided into six thousand five hundred castes and more than fifty thousand sub-castes, is shedding tears. Tanner is one of the Hindu castes. In the past the entire Hindu society was organised into four Varnas, one hundred and seventeen Gothras and thirtysix castes. Before the invasion of alien Arabian invaders there were no Muslim, Sikh and Dalit (Oppressed). This is a well-researched presentation on the glorious golden dynastic history of tanning work that was held by the Hindu Tanner caste, which is based on the strong value of religion.
Assessment of the current state of the Hindu Tanner caste, the measures for their development and empowerment by society and government and recommendations is the origin of this work. With the detailed investigation especially by the descendants of the race, the tribe and family name, the contributions made by the Hindu Tanner caste in India is extremely important to mention. Each argument that the Hindu Tanner race is untouchable, impure, insulting and dispensed life is baseless, absurd and illogical. This work proves and publishes their glorious golden history.6
Hindu Khatik Jati
This work gives historical events with a vivid picture of the origin, rise and fall of the Hindu Khatik caste in the various periods. The Hindus believe their ancestors as sacrifices of the Vedic period Khatik (Brahman) first Lord of ‘Treta Yuga’, the ancestor of King Rama family Khtwag (Kshatriyas), Dwapara age, that is, prior to the Kashi Mahabharata period Or the meat businessmen sage Vyaghrah of Mithila (Vaishya) and saint Upasrav of Maharashtra of the Mughal period and saint Durbal Nath (Dalit) of Rajasthan of the British period, Today’s Khatik caste has around 1871 tribes, and recognised as sub-castes are aliases.
The strong response to looting and violence of Tamerlane was given by Khatiks of the Harsh state. Alexander’s dream of world conquest was shattered by the Khatik race.
The Hindu persecution by foreign Mughal, Ottoman rulers and Muslim invaders and jizya tax or tax for being Hindu in Hindustan on Hindus was openly opposed by the great Hindu caste Khatik. From the entry of foreign Muslim invaders in Hindusthan to rule them, consecutive attacks, when confronted if anyone strongly opposed, it was the Khatik race. The hero of the 1857 uprising against the British in Meerut, ‘Tituria’ was also a Khatik.
This work forces for contemplation in philosophy towards social harmony, positive thinking, and the entire Hindu society will receive a direction.7
Hindu Balmiki Jati
The dynastic and glorious history of the Valmiki community was forcibly locked in the room but it appears today through windows and vents of the room. Depressed Class first used in the 1931 census was the underdog word, thereafter it is normally used. Dalit cadre has Valmiki, Sudarshan, Rukhi, Makhiyar, Majhabi Sikhs etc., there are a total of 624 sub-castes in society. Despite heavy pressure of foreign Mughal, Ottoman rulers and Muslim attackers with reasons of not accepting Islam the sanctimony of Hindu hardline Hindus and to destroy their self-esteem they forced with the force of the Sword into and involved in Unclean (cleaning and scavengers) work. They agreed upon scavenging but did not accept Islam.
The sacrificing of self-interest in the interest of the religion and nation of the current Hindu castes of Valmiki, Sudarshan, Majhabi etc. is before us in black and white. Heartbreaking and touching events of the Medieval period are the essence of the book. In fact, this book is an example and written in accordance with the criteria of substantial history of historiography. Through this book Hindu Valmiki, Sudarshan, Rukhi, Makhiyar, Majhabi Sikh etc. castes along with thousands of oppressed caste cadres will get gigantic die-pride-realisation in the name of religion and country.8
Though written in Hindi, the methodological framework is faulty and the writer does not know how to handle a social and anthropological issue like the caste system and its evolution. Yet the RSS leadership chose to propagate these books as highly original books of innovative research.
Untouchability in Hindu Scriptures
It is a known fact that a large number of lower castes and tribes got converted to Islam in the late medieval and early modern period. Whereas the conflict between the Brahminic and the Dalit bahujan communities is millennia old. The Rig-Veda was said to have been composed in 1500-1200 BCE. In the Rig Veda the creation of caste/Varna system was mentioned in no uncertain terms.
Purusha Sukta: (The Hymn of God), Rigveda says:
brahmano asya mukhamaseet | bahoo rajanya: krta: |
ooru tadasya yad vaishya | padbhyam shoodro ajayata || 12 ||
[That when the Gods divided the Creator (Purusha), the Brahmana was his mouth; the Rajanya (Kshatriya) was made his arms; the Vaishya was his thighs; and the Sudra sprang from his feet.]9
This itself indicates that the caste system is there in the Hindu scripture. This divine creation theory itself tells us that the Hindu God (in whom the RSS believes) created the Indian beings unequal into different Varnas/castes. This led to justification of inequability and later for creation of human untouchability too. Once a group of human beings believe in unequal creation by God that very belief can take them to any level of degradation. The RSS does not want to address this fundamental question.
The next main Hindu scriptures that established the Brahminic ideology quite firmly are the Upanishads. They were said to have been composed around 788-820 BCE. The Upanishads (Chandogya Upanishad) declare that those whose conduct is pleasant here will enter a pleasant womb of a Brahmin, Kshatriya, or Vaisya; but those of stinking conduct will enter a stinking womb of a dog, swine, or outcast.10 The fact that the Upanishads used the notion of outcaste shows that there were outcastes by the time they were written.
The human rebirth is explained as an ethical consequence of one’s relationship to the Brahmin caste. This spiritual doctrine has not said anything about Shudras. But it creates a social structure of outcastes or untouchables.
The Bhagvad Gita has clearly mentioned about different castes and their position in the society. A careful reading of the Gita would show anyone that it fully supports the enslavement of Shudras and OBCs, a process initiated by the Rig Veda itself. (Ilaiah, 2014)11
The caste system and untouchability exist in India for millennia. In the 6th century BCE, Gautama Buddha laid the foundation of Buddhism, During Buddha’s own lifetime caste and untouchability existed quite categorically. The Buddha Sanghas also made efforts to abolish untouchability. But they succeeded only in a limited way. In the Madhura Sutta (84) of Majjhimanikedya (II 4.4) and in the Assalayana Sutta (93) of Majjhima (II 5.3), the brahamanas claim to be of superior caste (bradhmano seftho verno) and the rest are of inferior caste (hino annovanno) the brahmanas claims to have fair complexion (sukko vanno), while others are dark (kanho); the brahmanas are said to be pure. The Sangha system did not allow, as much as possible, the caste system to be operative within, but outside the Sanghas, in the general society, it was fully operative.
In Assaldyana Sutta of the Majjhima (II 149) and the Madhura Sutta, Majjhima II 87, the Buddha refutes the claim of higher caste to superiority. He was totally against this caste system by birth; his faith was on good deeds.12
‘Al-Beruni’s India’, which is a translated version of the book “Tarikh-Al-Hind” written by Al-Beruni Abu Rihan Muhammad bin Ahmed, is the first major history text that tells about the nature of the caste system by the 11th century. He accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni to India and stayed here for many years, chiefly in the Punjab region. He studied the Sanskrit language and translated into it some works from the Arabic texts. He translated two treatises into Arabic. He composed about twenty books on India. He wrote for Muslims who “want to converse with the Hindus and to discuss with them the questions of religion, Science or literature, on the very basis of their own civilisation”. (Sachau, 1910)13 His studies on Indian society and the caste system are based on participatory observations.
The untouchability in India, discussed by Sonaker, was found by Al Beruni in the early 11th century. According to him, “The Brahmins teach the Veda to the Kshatriyas. The latter learn it, but are not allowed to teach it, not even to a Brahmin, the Vaisya and Sudra are not allowed to hear it, much less to pronounce and recite it. If such a thing can be proved against one of them, the Brahmins drag him before the magistrate, and he is punished by having his tongue cut off.”
There is a change in the social structure from Al-Beruni’s times to that of ours. At that time the Vaisyas and Sudras had no right to read the Hindu scriptures. But now the Vaisyas have acquired better spiritual status as they have got dwijahood and the right to read scriptures. By and large the Sudra status has not changed in the realm of spirituality.
Al-Beruni has explained how four castes were divided in India and what kind of practices were in existence. He says: “The Hindus call their castes varna, that is, colours, and from a genealogical point of view they call them jataka, i,e, births.”14
I. The highest caste are the Brahmana, of whom the books of the Hindus tell that they were created from the head of Brahman. And as Brahman is only another name for the force called nature, and the head is the highest part of the animal body, the Brahmana are the choice part of the whole genus. Therefore, the Hindus consider them as the very best of mankind.
II. The next caste are the Kshatriya, who were created, as they say, from the shoulders and hands of the Brahmana. Their degree is not much below that of the Brahmana.
III. After them follow the Vaisya, who were created from the thigh of Brahman.
IV. The Sudra, who were created from his feet. Between the latter two classes there is not a very great distance. Much, however, as these classes differ from each other, they live together in the same towns and villages, mixed together in the same houses and lodgings.
He then goes to talk about the untouchables.
He says: “The people called Hadi, Doma (Domba), Candala, and Badhatau (sic) are not reckoned amongst any caste or guild. They are occupied with dirty work, like the cleaning of the villages and other services. They are considered as one sole class, and distinguished only by their occupations.”15
As a foreign scholar he faced several problems in studying the caste system because his communication was only with persons who could speak Sanskrit. They were basically Brahmins. The untouchables were living far away from villages and towns, because their presence in the main village/town was considered to be spiritually deadly. Even then he managed to mention some caste names that were untouchable, with a little description of their living conditions.
However, Al-Beruni describes several cultural practices of different castes. He talks about various day to-day cultural practices like how people sit, how they eat, live and behave in the society and in public places. And he felt that those practices were totally against the practices of Muslims of his own country.
He says: “Customs of each of the four castes, when eating together, must form a group to themselves, one group not being allowed to comprise two men of different castes. If in the group of the Brahmana there are two men who live at enmity with each other, and the seat of the one is by the side of the other, they make a barrier between the two seats by placing a board between them, or by spreading a piece of dress, or in some other way; and if there is only a line drawn between them, they are considered as separated. Since it is forbidden to eat the remains of a meal, every single man must have his own food for himself; for if any one of the party who are eating should take of the food from one and the same plate, that which remains in the plate becomes, after the first eater has taken part, to him who wants to take as the second, the remains of the meal, and such is forbidden.”16
Regarding the changing of the duties and practices of a person from his caste to other Al-Beruni explained the miseries or punishment given to the person. There was no scope for changing the caste or duties.
“If anybody wants to quit the works and duties of his caste and adopt those of another caste, even if it would bring a certain honour to the latter, it is a sin, because it is a transgression of the rule.”17
Al-Beruni’s account informs us of the practice of untouchablity of the Hindu social system that was multi-layered. Though the RSS ideologues are trying to explain away the practice of untouchability merely in relation to Dalit castes, it operated historically between Varna and Varna also.
The RSS ideologues do not want to engage with the existing body of language on the Indian social structure, written by both Indian and foreign scholars. On the one hand they attempt to co-opt a prominent thinker like Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who had done a lifetime work on caste and untouchability; on the other they do not want to give any credence to his scientific research and writings. They do not know the works of medieval scholars like Al-Beruni. They do not even engage severally with their own spiritual texts.
If they want to consolidate the Hindu social system by abolishing caste and untouchability, the only way is spiritual and social reform, which involves deconstructing the socio-spiritual privileges of the upper castes. But the RSS itself is headed by such upper castes who do not want serious social reforms within their own religious system. Instead they are constructing new theories that untouchability is a creation of Indian Islam. This is nothing but a historical fallacy. They cannot win an ideological battle based on fallacies and myths. Their imagination cannot become history.
1. Ilaiah, Kancha (2004), ‘Hindustan vs India’ in Asian Age, 9/1/2015.
2. The Last Sermon (Khutbah) of Prophet Muhammad, www.iqrasense.com accessed on 9-3-2015.
3. Quran, Chapter 4 surat Al-nisaa (The Women) Ayat: 1
4. Quran, Chapter 3 Surat Al-Imran Ayat: 195
5. Bible, genesis (1:27)
6. Shastri, Vijay Sonkar (2014), Hindu Charmkar Jati, Prbhat Prakashan, New Delhi.
7. Shastri, Vijay Sonkar (2014), Hindu Khatik Jati, Prbhat Prakashan, New Delhi.
8. Shastri, Vijay Sonkar (2014), Hindu Balmiki Jati, Prbhat Prakashan, New Delhi.
9. Raghavan, Geerpuram Nadadur Srinivasa (2009), Discovering the Rigveda, Gyan Publishing House. (p 72)
10. Kapoor, Subhod (2002), Encycleopedia of Vedic Philosophy, Genesis Publishing Ltd. (p. 111).
11. Ilaiah, Kancha (2004), ‘The Gita and OBCs’ in Asian Age, 9/1/2015.
12. Krishna, K. (1986), ‘Buddhism and Caste System’, The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Fairfield, USA. Vol: 9, No. 1.
13. Sachau, E (1910), Alberuni’s India vol I. Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co. Ltd., London, (pp, XXIII).
14. Ibid., p 100.
15. Ibid., p 101.
16. Ibid., p 102.
17. Ibid., p 103.
Prof Kancha Ilaiah is the Director, Al Beruni Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. Dr Mohasina Anjum Ansari is a Research Assistant at the same centre, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.