Notes on Purity and Pollution
in Asiatic Civilizations
THE HINDU caste system is a hierarchical ordering of the population into endogamous groups based on a scale with purity at the top and disgust or impurity at the bottom. The Brahmins at the top are the “most pure of men,” while the Untouchables are the least pure. 1
The whole system rests upon its bottom layers, the Untouchables, also known in modern times as Harijans and Scheduled Castes, as well as Outcastes. The plural “layers” is appropriate because by the beginning of the Christian era the Untouchables had created a caste system of their own, including their own outcastes. Later on, every Untouchable group imagined that there was another group lower than itself. 2 In this way a society based on inequality could gain in stability by making it possible for everybody to feel superior to somebody.
The Untouchables were for the most part excluded from the larger Aryan society made up of the twice-born castes: Brahmins (priests), kshatriya (warriors and rulers), and vaisya (merchants). Yet even if excluded and humiliated, the Untouchables were also part of Hindu society insofar as they performed tasks essential to the status of the higher castes.
The Untouchables did the hard and dirty work for the upper castes, and continue this service to a great extent even now. In recent times large numbers have been serving as landless laborers. In pre-British times their main task was the cremation of human corpses. They also served as executioners. 3 Their arduous and repulsive labors enabled the Brahmins to live purely. There is nothing exotic or especially Hindu about this arrangement. The division of labor all over the world displays roughly similar features.