To be an untouchable in India or Japan is to be a part of the population that would traditionally be placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy. These untouchables are traditionally associated with occupations that are considered impure, such as waste removal and the handling of human or animal carcasses, and therefore cannot interact with other members of their society, for fear of the pollution they would spread.
In both India and Japan, there has been action against untouchability, yet there is still widespread discrimination of these people because of cultural ideals, the impure history attached to them and the traditional occupations that they are associated with. While the abolishment of caste discrimination in India in 1950 and the Buraka Liberation League in Japan has improved the lives of many people within these communities, there is still a great level of discrimination against the Indian untouchables, the Dalits, and Japanese untouchable population, the Burakumin.
A Dalit is a member of the lowest rank in the Hindu caste system and Indian society. The term, Dalit, translates to “oppressed” or “broken”, signifying that members of the Dalit caste are immediately labelled as inferior to the rest of Indian society. In India today, Dalits make up 16. 2% of its population, that number being approximately 166 million, which conveys the large spread of Dalits across the Indian population. The traditional Dalit position in Hindu society is one of great inequality in terms of their economic, social, political, and cultural rights.
The Hindu caste system is relatively based on purity, and henceforth those that are outside of this caste system are considered impure. The Dalits are untouchable for this very reason of being below the caste system, which means that a Dalit must perform duties that are also considered impure. The belief in karma is embedded in the Hindu caste system, in that if one has been polluted in their past life they will come back as a lower member of the caste system, or below the system itself.
This is shown in the sacred Hindu text, the Upanishads, when it states “… those whose conduct on earth has been foul can expect to enter a foul and stinking womb of a bitch, a pig or an outcast. ” This emphasizes how members of the Hindu caste system would be deterred of coming in contact with Dalits, for fear of being polluted and coming back as a Dalit themselves in the next life. The emphasis on purity in Hindu culture and sacred texts expresses why there is still discrimination towards Dalits amongst Hindus today, regardless of the laws placed against caste discrimination.
In traditional Hindu context, to be a Dalit is to be polluted. Since a Dalit is considered impure, then a Dalit must fulfil impure occupations that other Indians would not perform. These occupations involve any work that deals with handling any form of waste, animals and human carcases. For example, butchery is considered an impure, Dalit task, as it involves handling the parts of dead animals. Since Dalits perform tasks that are considered polluting, then in turn they are polluted themselves, which means that anything that a Dalit comes in contact with becomes tainted.
This means that any physical contact with a Dalit is considered polluting, therefore Dalits have been restricted from public areas so that these areas remain untainted. These areas included temples, schools, and also public wells, so that a Dalit could not contaminate the water. The restrictions placed on Dalits emphasizes how deprived and inescapable the life of an untouchable is. Before the prohibition of caste discrimination, a Dalit was restricted from entering schools, which meant that education was nearly impossible to receive.
This makes life for a Dalit incredibly hard to escape; as there is such a history of complete educational deprivation, whether it is spiritual or academic. Even with the laws against untouchability in India today, there are still examples across the country of Dalit discrimination in schools. Again, this is because of the inherent aversion of Dalits that is so ingrained in Hindu culture. Just as a Dalit would find their life difficult to escape because of long-term deprivation, members of other Hindu castes would find it problematic to abandon the traditional view of untouchables, because of the belief in karma.
While there is still widespread discrimination of Dalits because of the fundamental Hindu beliefs attached to untouchability, there are examples of Dalit life in India improving. Since the laws against caste discrimination were put in place, the living standards of Dalits in relation to the rest of the Indian population have become increasingly similar. These living standards involve the level of housing, access to clean drinking water, access to educational facilities, and general health and wellbeing.
This exemplifies how the laws against caste discrimination have worked in that the life of a Dalit is now relative to that of an Indian from another caste. There are examples of Dalit individuals that have overcome the caste boundaries, such as K. R. Narayanan, who became the first Dalit President of India. This example of success portrays how the lives of Indian Dalits is improving, as before these laws a Dalit could never associate themselves with Indian politics.
While there is evidence for Dalits overcoming the limitations formerly placed upon them, the identity of being a Dalit, and the impurity associated with that, remains inescapable in Indian society. The Burakumin descend from a group of outcastes in Japan which dated from 1603 until liberation in 1871. Similarly to the Dalits of India, there is a strong history of discrimination and untouchability against these people based on occupation and living standards. Just as Dalit discrimination in India continues because of generational and cultural ideals, the descendants of the Burakumin still endure discrimination even after their liberation.
The Burakumin discrimination is due to the unclean occupations that are traditionally associated with them, such as handling the carcasses of animals or humans. This again relates to the untouchability of the Dalits, as both these untouchable groups are considered polluted because of the impure occupations that they fulfilled. Unlike Indian society, Japanese society is not based on a caste system, which places the Burakumin in a complex position as outcastes.
Culturally and racially, the Burakumin are indistinguishable with the rest of the Japanese population, but are still discriminated in occupational and also nuptial matters. This conveys how untouchability has become so ingrained in the lifestyles in Japan and India, because of past experience and generational ideals that have been passed on. Before Buraka liberation, the Burakumin people were ostracised because of the unclean and polluted occupations they were associated with. Because their professions were linked to the taint of death, the Burakumin people were considered untouchable by the rest of Japanese society.
This in turn resulted in poorer living conditions, lack of educational access, and almost no involvement with the on goings of Japanese society. Just as the Dalit population was deprived of educational opportunities, the Burakumin too experienced the detrimental effects of not being able to escape their deprived living conditions. Henceforth, the Buraka Liberation League attempted and succeeded in giving access to education and economic opportunities to the Burakumin. This liberation has improved the living conditions of the Burakumin people, but discrimination against them still continues.
This discrimination is not only because of the traditional Japanese view of these untouchables, but because the Buraka Liberation League have not attempted to integrate with the mainstream Japanese population. While the League has improved what was once a society deprived of opportunity, its position as an insular community has remained the same, ironically due to the liberation itself. This is because the Buraka League oversees all association with the Japanese government and mainstream society, which means the Burakumin people are still unassimilated with the rest of their country.
This conveys that the while the lives of the Burakumin people have improved in health and economic welfare, they are still considered a separate segment of Japanese society, because of the Buraka reluctance to assimilate with the rest of Japan. It is a combination of the mainstream Japanese view of the Burakumin having an impure history of livelihood, and the current insularity that is still exhibited by modern day Burakumin communities that construct their lifestyle as one of both chosen and inescapable ostracism.
In both Japan and India, elements of the untouchable lifestyle have both changed and remained the same over time. The actions of the Indian and Japanese governments, as well as independent groups like the Buraka Liberation League have improved the once completely deprived lifestyles that Dalits and Burakumin experienced. Because the Hindu caste system is so ingrained in Indian society, the discrimination that has existed towards Dalits still remains, regardless of the anti-caste discrimination laws that the government put in place.
For a Dalit in India, there are now educational and economic opportunities that once never existed, but the inescapable discrimination against Dalits still remains because of the Hindu belief in Karma, and the pollution that is traditionally associated with being a Dalit. Like the Dalits, the lives of the Burakumin have improved in education and economic wellbeing, but because of the Buraka League’s reluctance to assimilate with mainstream Japan, and the traditional view of Burakumin being impure, the Burakumin still remain an ostracised community in Japan.
Courtney from Study Moose
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