What steps have been taken by the Hindu reformers to eradicate untouchability?

What steps have been taken by the Hindu reformers to eradicate untouchability?

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, 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.

Those who were engaged in unclean vocations were segregated because of this. But it is unpardonable that no steps were taken for their educational, economic and cultural upliftment. It should be remembered that such segregation was on grounds of health and sanitation; and vested economic interests helped to perpetuate the system. Religion had no hand at all in it. That the many saints born among these ‘untouchables’ were honoured by the entire society is proof enough for this contention.

Of late, there has been a general awakening in the Hindu society with regard to this problem which is also posing a danger to the solidarity of our nation. The Heads of Mathas and other Hindu religious leaders seem to be shaking off their age-old attitudes and apathies. Entry of Harijans into the temples, allowing free access to them in the religious fares and festivals, inviting them to take part in community dinners without discrimination, special efforts to propagate religion and culture among them—these are some of the programmes that are being undertaken to eradicate this evil. However, progress in this direction seems to be rather tardy and needs to be speeded up.

The panacea, however, for the problem of untouchability and the disabilities faced by the Harijans is proper education leading to right attitudes and values, as also speedy economic progress. This two-way progress, to be sure, will automatically wipe out this blot that has doggedly plagued our society over centuries.