Aspṛśyatā or untouchability, as it has been practised during the last few centuries, is definitely a blot on the Hindu society. Even after its abolition by the Indian constitution (vide art. 17) it conti-nues to linger on, especially in the rural areas, due to age-old prejudices and lack of enlightenment brought about by the absence of proper education.
Neither in the Vedas nor in the earlier dharmaśāstras do we find any sanction for this abominable practice. Though carmamnas (tanners of hides), caṇḍālas and paulkasas, vaptas (barbers) and others who have been included in the lists of aspṛśyas by the later works, have been mentioned, they had been considered as śūdras only.
While describing the need to maintain physical cleanliness and ceremonial purity on certain occasions, a kind of aspṛśyatā has been advocated in our secondary scriptures. For instance: The following persons were declared as aspṛśyas and coming into contact with them would oblige one to take a bath:—those in sūtaka and aśauca (observing ceremonial impurity brought about by birth or death of close relatives in a 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 the clothes like butchery or removing night-soil, sinners and criminals.
It is interesting to note that the very 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 dharmaśāstras like the Smṛtyarthasāra of Śrīdhara (A. D. 1200) permit the aspṛśyas to enter temples. They were permitted to worship the images of the avatāras or incarnations of Viṣṇu and were expected to follow the moral code. They were also free to practise devotion to God through nāmajapa (repetition of the divine name) and singing devotional songs. Quite a few great saints of Hinduism belonged to the caste of the untouchables and were honoured by the entire society.
It is rather, difficult to say when exactly untouchability became a rigid and fossilised system. What began as a segregation of persons engaged in unclean vocations due to reasons of health and sanitation, might have been perpetuated by vested economic interests, by gradually denying them educational, economic and cultural upliftment. It was purely a social phenomenon and had nothing to do with Hindu religion.
The list of names of various castes and subcastes included under the aspṛśya groups seems to have grown quite long in course of time. In practice, it was taken to such ridiculous proportions that even if the shadow of an untouchable fell on a person of the higher castes, it was polluting!
In modern times, eradication of the system of untouchability engaged the minds of great leaders like Mahātmā Gāndhī and Nārāyaṇa Guru. The diffusion of good education and culture, impressing upon everyone of the equality of all persons before the law and God, can help in this onerous task. If the more educated persons in these castes take greater interest in uplifting their less fortunate brothers and sisters, the pace of reformation of the society would be quicker.