Division of society based on the nature and nurture of the individuals as also their professions is a phenomenon found in many parts of the civilized world. In the special context of India’s ancient history when races and cultures battled and blended, this division also took a unique shape. This is known as the ‘jātipaddhati’ or caste system. Jāti also means birth. Since children usually adopted the professions of their fathers and forefathers, caste came to acquire a functional character in a self-contained economy and a social structure, based on traditional values.
The varṇa system from which caste is supposed to have originated was a simple division based on guṇa (natural characteristics) and karma (action, acts, vocation). This gradually developed into a labyrinth of jātis and upajātis or castes and sub-castes most of which were grouped under an umbrella term called the ‘śūdras.’ Even among such castes, a few were pushed to the lowest rung of the social ladder because of their unclean food habits and amoral attitude which were unacceptable to the rest of society. Hence the name ‘antyaja’ (‘the last-born’). Probably for the same reason they were also considered aspṛśyas or untouchables. However, neither in the Vedas nor in the earlier smṛtis and dharmaśāstras have they been treated as such, but only as śūdras. The practice of untouchability seems to be a post-Vedic phenomenon.
Some of the castes branded as antyajas are: caṇḍāla, rajaka (the washerman), carmakāra (worker in hides), buruḍa (bamboo worker), kaivarta (the fisherman) and bhilla (of a forest-tribe or a hill-tribe).
During the medieval ages, these castes had often risen in social status due to their organization and wealth.
Though caste barriers have existed in some form all along at social levels, birth in a low caste has never been considered a bar to spiritual enlightenment as depicted in the story of Dharmavyādha (vide Mahābharata, Vanaparva, 210). Indian history is replete with stories of great saints, who, though born as antyajas, rose to very high spiritual states and were recognized and respected as such by the society. To mention only a few: Kaṇṇappa, Raidās, Cokkameḷa, Nandanār and Tiruppāṇi.
Eradication of untouchability which is a social curse, has been attempted by several religious and social leaders in India throughout the centuries. The success, however, has not been proportionate to the efforts put forth. Economic, educational and cultural upliftment of the masses is the only solution to this social malady. Since independence the Indian Constitution has positively forbidden the observance, in any form, of untouchability and these socially disabled communities are being given special consideration in matters of education and employment, and, many economic benefits.
See also ASPṚŚYATĀ.