Question 29. All thoughtful people are agreed that untouchability is a blot on the Hindu Society. Is there any authority for such discrimination in the Sastras? If not, how did this practice develop? What steps have been taken by the Hindu reformers to eradicate this evil?
There are no two opinions about the urgent need for eradication of untouchability which is universally considered as a blot on the Hindu society. Neither in the Vedas nor in the Dharmasastras do we find any sanction for this abominable practice. While describing the need to maintain physical cleanliness and ceremonial purity on certain occasions, a kind of untouchability has been advocated by our scriptures. However, this untouchability has nothing to do with the brand which the Hindu society has been stupid enough to enforce during the last few centuries.
To clarify: The following persons have been declared as untouchable and coming into contact with them will oblige one to take a bath: those in the Sutaka and Asaucha (observing ceremonial impurity brought about by birth or death in the family), a woman in her monthly courses, those who have not washed their hands after food, those engaged in trades which soil the body and clothes like butchery or removing night soil, those who have forsaken their duties as enjoined in the Varna Ashrama Dharma, sinners and criminals and so on.
It is interesting to note that the same scriptures have shown immense wisdom in ordaining that even such untouchability, need not be observed in holy places and on holy occasions like a Rathotsava (temple car festival) or during national emergencies. Some of the Dharmasastras go to the extent of permitting even the lowest of the castes and sections of the society (whom we call Harijans today) to enter into temples. Hence it can be safely asserted that the untouchability current in our society is the handiwork of selfish people with a myopic vision.