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Untouchables
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Definition:
In Hinduism, the "Untouchables" constitute the "fifth caste" - those people who fall below the four principle castes or varna and are, in a sense, outside of the caste system altogether. Outcastes, in other words.

Being outside of the caste system means that they are also outside of society for all practical purposes. Traditionally, untouchables have only been permitted to live on the outskirts of villages and they have been prohibited from taking water from the same wells as members of higher castes. Many untouchables were only allowed to move around at night, lest the very sight of them pollute someone from a higher caste and some carried around drums to make noise and warn others before they met.

Traditionally education was, of course, prohibited - a person from the class of untouchables would never be permitted anything more, so what would be the point of advanced learning of any sort? Even reading sacred texts was kept from them - salvation was only achievable for untouchables by humbly accepting their lot in life and hoping that they live well enough to be allowed to be born into a higher caste in the next life.

Who was placed in this group? Membership in the class of untouchables is something inherited - either you are born an untouchable or you are not, and that is determined by the jobs performed by your parents. There are the Dom, who do the work for funerals, the Chamar, who work with leather, Chuhra, who are sweepers, and many others. The children of mixed-caste marriages as well as foreigners are also classified as outside the caste systems and, hence, untouchables.

Why are some people classified in such a way that they would not longer qualify as being a full member of society? In every case, the untouchables represent some sort of fundamental threat to society - in particular, a threat to the stable social order created and maintained by the caste system itself. Thus, for example, children of mixed-caste marriages are a threat because they do not clearly belong to the caste of either parent and cause a breakdown in order.

On the other hand, leather workers are a threat from a religious perspective because they have been polluted by the contact with dead cows. In some cases, the segregation based upon caste may have made some sense because those engaged in dirtier occupations could pose the threat of passing along infectious diseases. Thus, the threat of "pollution" from certain untouchables may have been more literal than figurative.

Many have worked hard to abolish the caste system entirely and, as a consequence, alleviate the problems caused for the untouchables. India's Constitution abolished the class of untouchables legally, but that hasn't been achieved in practice. Changes in terminology and even names has failed to produce a change in how other people treat those traditionally regarded as untouchable. Discrimination abounds and there is little prospect of that stopping unless Hinduism itself undergoes radical and fundamental changes itself.

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Related Resources:

What is Theism?
What is the difference between monotheism and monolatry? Between pantheism and panentheism? How about between animism and shamanism? Or theism and deism? What the heck is henotheism? For that matter, what is and is not a religion?

What is Religion?
A system of human beliefs, ideals and practices which is harder to define than it may at first appear.

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