Untouchability And the Caste System By B.R. Ambedkar

A Brief Introduction to the Author

B.R. Ambedkar, popularly known as Baba Saheb, was born an untouchable in a caste-ridden Hindu society and is revered for his unflinching struggle for untouchable equality and justice. After completing his studies in Columbia, he returned to India and dedicated his life to the welfare of the poorest of the poor – the Dalits. He was instrumental in the formulation of Independent India’s constitution.

Ambedkar converted to Buddhism just a month and a half before passing away peacefully on 6 December 1956 at the age of 65. In 1990, he was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour.

Summary Points

Untouchability, according to the moderate Hindu social reformers, is distinct from the caste system. They believe that untouchability can be eliminated without undermining the caste system. However, the religious Hindu is equally opposed to the abolition of untouchability as he is to the abolition of the caste system. As a result, Dr Ambedkar believes that caste and untouchability are not mutually exclusive concepts. The two are inextricably linked.

Those who argue for dealing with untouchability without undermining the caste system cite verse 4 of the Manu Smriti’s chapter X. Manu states in this verse that there are only four varnas and no fifth. This indicates that they are Shudras. Additionally, there is no prohibition against touching the untouchables. While this construction may be pleasing to the politically astute Hindu, it is not what Manu intended. Manu’s statement that there is no fifth varna implies that he does not wish to include those outside the four varnas in Hindu society. He desired that the Hindu society be comprised of only the four varnas. He refers to Bahyas or Varna Bahyas, that is, those who are not classified into one of the four varnas. If he desired to include all individuals within the four varnas, there was no reason for him to exclude some individuals. According to Manu, there are two divisions among those who are not classified into one of the four varnas. Hinas and Antayevasins are the two divisions. Thus, it is self-evident that an orthodox Hindu who believes in Manu Smriti does not consider untouchability to be inconsistent with Manu Smriti.

The average uneducated Hindu is incapable of comprehending such a convoluted argument. What he does know is that there are three barriers that he must adhere to in his social life:
1) interdining,
2) intermarriage, and
3) physically touching members of a particular class of people. The caste system is comprised of the first two barriers. Untouchability is the third type. When you ask a Hindu from a lower caste not to observe untouchability, he will respond, “Why not?” His argument will be as follows: If I am free to disregard the first two barriers, what is the harm in disregarding the third? From a psychological standpoint, caste and untouchability are inextricably linked. Untouchability is observed by caste Hindus because they believe in caste.

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Thus, hoping that untouchability can be eliminated without destroying the caste system is fruitless. According to the author, Hinduism’s social order is founded on the principle of graduated social inequality. Many people are unaware of this principle. There are the highest levels of inequality in this system of graduated inequality (the Brahmins). The higher ones are listed beneath them (the Kshatriyas). Those who are high are listed below the higher (Vaishyas). The low (Shudras) are those who are below the high, and those who are below the low are those who are lower (the Untouchables). Each of them has a grudge against the highest, but they will not unite. The higher wishes to eliminate the highest but is averse to combining with the high, the low, or the lower for fear that they will rise to his level and become his equal. The same is true for the remaining categories. Each class, except for the base class, has privileges. As a result, each class is invested in preserving the social system.

According to the author, untouchability will vanish only when the entire Hindu social order, particularly the caste system, is abolished. Each institution is sustained by a sanction of some kind. There are three types of sanctions that give an institution its life force. They fall into three categories: legal, social, and religious. The institution’s strength is contingent upon the sanction’s nature. What is the sanction for the caste system? Regrettably, legal and social sanctions are not nearly as severe as religious sanctions. Anything that is sanctioned by a religious authority becomes sacred and eternal. Caste is considered sacred and eternal by Hindus. If caste cannot be abolished, there is no hope for untouchability to be eradicated.

Questions and Answers

Q.1. Does the writer agree with the moderate Hindu social reformers that untouchability can be removed without attacking the caste system?
Ans. There is a moderate section among the Hindu social reformers.  This section believes that untouchability is different from the caste system.  If one follows this principle, it means that it is possible to remove untouchability without attacking the caste system.  But the writer thinks that caste and untouchability are not two different things.  The two are one and are inseparable.  Untouchability is only an extension of the caste system.  The two stand together and will fall together.  Thus the end of untouchability alone has no chance, according to the writer.


The writer says that every institution has some sort of sanction.  According to him, there are three kinds of sanction – legal, social and religious.  They supply the life force to an institution.  The strength of the institution depends upon the nature of the sanction. Religious sanction is stronger than legal and social and it becomes sacred and eternal.  As caste is sacred and eternal to the Hindus, the idea of hoping to remove untouchability without destroying the caste, the system is futile.  Baba Saheb does not at all agree with the moderate Hindu social reformers that untouchability can be removed without attacking the caste system.

Q.2. Why does Manu speak of the Varna Bahyas, according to the writer? What are the two subdivisions within the class of Varna Bahyas?
Ans. The writer refers to verse 4 of Chapter X of the Manu Smriti.  In this verse, Manu says that there are only four varnas and there is no fifth varna.  Based on this verse, some people interpret it like this:  the untouchables are included in the fourth varna.  They are part of the Shudras.  And as there is no objection to touching the Shudras, there could be no objection to touching the untouchables.  But the writer says that Manu speaks of Bahyas or Varna Bahyas, that is, outside the four varnas.  If Manu wanted to include all persons within the four varnas, there was no reason for him to place some people outside these varnas.  Manu himself puts these people in two subdivisions.  He calls them Hinas and Antayevasins.  According to this statement of Manu, the orthodox Hindus do not accept that the maintenance of untouchability is contrary to Manu Smriti and that its abolition is, therefore, contrary to the tenets of the Hindu religion.

Q.3 Explain the three barriers in the matter of social intercourse which the ordinary uneducated Hindu must observe.
Ans. According to the author, the average uneducated Hindu must adhere to three social conventions. They are as follows: 1) prohibition of inter-marriage, 2) prohibition of inter-dining, and 3) prohibition of physically touching a particular class of people. The caste system is comprised of the first two barriers. The third barrier establishes unapproachability. The caste Hindu is unconcerned with the quantity of barriers. He is a stickler for the barrier’s observance. When he is asked to refrain from being observed as untouchable, he inquires as to why not. He argues that if he is free to observe the first two barriers, there is nothing wrong with him also observing the third. According to the author, caste and untouchability are based on the same principle and are deeply ingrained in the Hindu psyche. In other words, there is no hope of eradicating untouchability until the caste system is abolished.

Q.4 What is the principle of graded inequality on which the Hindu social order is based?
Ans. The writer says that the Hindu social order is based on the principle of graded social inequality.  Many people do not understand this principle.  In the system of graded inequality, there is the highest (the Brahmins), the higher (the Kshatriyas), the high (the Vaishyas), the low (the Shudras) and the lower (the Untouchables).  All of them have a grievance against the highest, but they will not combine with each other. All other classes have privileges.  Only the grades of privileges are different.  Even the low is a privileged class as compared with the lower.  Therefore, each class is interested in maintaining the existing social system.

That is why the writer thinks that the caste system will never disappear from Hindu society.  And if caste cannot disappear, there cannot be any hope for untouchability to disappear.

Q.5 How is inequality different from graded inequality? What are its implications for the survival or otherwise of the social system?
Ans. Social inequality is distinct from graded inequality in the social system. There are only two classes in the first one: high and low.
However, in the latter, there are various degrees of inequality. Inequality-based social systems are frail. It is unable to sustain itself. The low orders can work together to bring down the system. None of them have a vested interest in its preservation. However, a combined attack is impossible in a social system based on graded inequality. Everybody has a beef with the highest. No class wishes to amalgamate with the lower. Each class has privileges except the one at the bottom. Because each class enjoys privilege, they are all invested in preserving the social order. That is why the author believes the caste system will never be abolished in Hindu society.

Q.6. When, according to the writer, will untouchability vanish?
Ans. Untouchability, the author believes, is merely an extension of the caste system. It is not dissimilar to caste. The two are inextricably linked. It is impossible to disentangle the two. The two are inseparable and will fall in unison. It is pointless to hope for an end to untouchability in the absence of an end to the caste system. Untouchability will vanish only with the abolition of the caste system. However, the author has no hope of accomplishing this. According to him, Hinduism’s social system is based on graduated inequality. In other words, inequality exists on a spectrum. Each has a grudge against the highest, but they will not unite. The bottom class has no privileges at all. Each of the other classes has privileges; the level of privileges varies. They are all motivated by the desire to preserve the social system. Behind the caste system are religious sanctions that have become sacred and eternal. Dr Ambedkar sees no way for caste to be abolished in Hindu society, as it has become sacred and eternal. As caste and untouchability are inextricably linked, there is no hope for the abolition of untouchability if the caste system cannot be abolished.

Q.7. What are the three kinds of sanctions which supply life force to an institution? Which of these is behind the caste system?
Ans. Each institution is sustained by a sanction of some kind. This sanction is an institution’s lifeblood. Sanctions are classified into three categories. They fall into three categories: legal, social, and religious. A institution’s vitality is contingent upon the nature of the sanction that underpins it. Legal and social sanctions are weak in comparison to religious sanctions. Whatever is sanctioned by religion becomes sacred and eternal. Thus, caste is considered sacred and eternal by Hindus. The caste system perpetuates untouchability. It is improbable that it will ever vanish. And caste will continue to exist alongside untouchability. The two are inextricably linked. They stand in unison and will fall in unison. If the caste system cannot be abolished, there is no hope for the eradication of untouchability.

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