What COVID taught us: How shaucha was maligned as “untouchability”

For nearly 100 years, the practice of shaucha (Hindu cleanliness practice) has faced an endless barrage of abuse and ridicule among the pseudointellectual class of Bharat. Without pausing for a second to even consider the Hindu viewpoint, the westernised elites of Bharat tend to launch into moralistic and self-righteous rants about the backward practices of Hindus like shaucha (often wrongly translated as “untouchability”).

Brahmins are often singularly targeted for the practice of shaucha [1]. However, sociologists like M. N. Srinivas and Susan Bean have demonstrated that ritual cleanliness or ritual purity is practiced by many Hindu communities of Bharat, not just the Brahmins.

“Untouchability” itself is a curiously ambiguous term. Many times, it lends itself to misuse in the hand of mischievous Hinduphobes. For instance, people might get into situations where untouchability becomes non-negotiable. A chef carrying a hot vessel of soup might want to avoid spilling it. Because he does not welcome any physical touch, is he practicing untouchability? Also, do women who do not welcome unwanted physical contact practice untouchability? Thus, untouchability depends on the context.

The banned Bharatiya practice of untouchability must be condemned. But it is senseless to condemn the idea of untouchability itself as a universal category.

From a Hindu viewpoint, while worshipping the deity, Hindus follow the custom of bathing and being in a state of ritual purity. Also, it is a typical Hindu custom to avoid the reuse of eating utensils used by others or food which has been left over from others’ plates. It can be shown that it is absurd to demonise these Hindu cleanliness practices that have arisen out of spiritual or hygienic or just basic practical considerations.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

During the COVID pandemic, many health authorities around the world provided guidelines on how to maintain hygiene and safety when it comes to everyday personal practices. The recommendations included the importance of hygiene when it comes to handling food [2].

Throughout history, many warring tribes used to be conscious of being poisoned by their enemies. Food tasters continue to be employed by world leaders even today [3]. Thus, the practice of eating from a shared plate may have evolved among the tribes of the Arabian desert to ensure that the food is not poisoned.

Even prior to the COVID pandemic, the hygienic practices of washing hands and maintaining cleanliness had been emphasised by Allopathic western medicine. Millions of lives were saved in the western countries after doctors and hospital staff began to follow simple hygiene and general antiseptic procedures. These principles were first discovered and codified by Ignaz Semmelweis in 1846 [4].

In contrast, the Hindu cleanliness practices are millennia-old. These are uncodified rules passed through family generations which have developed out of health, cultural and religious necessities. The rules involve bathing, following basic hygienic practices around food, clothing, footwear, etc. [5]

An example of the typical cleanliness practices followed by non-vegetarian Hindus is of keeping separate vessels for cooking vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. Another typical example is to be careful to not share an eating utensil that has been used by another person.

Such Hindu practices of cleanliness might be a bit of a culture shock to someone who, for instance, comes from a culture where food is consumed from a common plate. Sadly, the westernised elites of Bharat wrongly conflated the Hindu cleanliness practices with the social evil of untouchability.

Social practice of untouchability

Many authors, including Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, have documented how the practice of untouchability had reached insane heights in Hindu society, especially during the 1700s and 1800s. The “upper castes” were not singly guilty of practicing untouchability. As Dr. Ambedkar has documented, while the lower castes suffered the most, untouchability was practiced in many groups of Bharat, including upper and lower castes [6].

However, the practice of untouchability finds no mention in the Vedas. It was never recorded in the history of Bharat until roughly after the 7th-century C.E. [7] Interestingly, this was around the same time when Bharat began to suffer barbaric Islamic invasions. Whether the two are connected is still a matter for further research.

But eventually, it took the dedicated efforts of many Hindu leaders to end untouchability. For instance, the Hindu king, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV of Mysore, was a pioneer in bringing laws to criminalize the practice of untouchability. Later, Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma of Travancore issued the Temple Entry Proclamation to end the ban on so-called low caste Hindus from entering the Hindu temples.

‘Namaste’ replaces the handshake

There are many theories that try to explain the origin of the western handshake, which is today a common way of greeting throughout the world.

One theory is that the handshake was invented because medieval Europeans did not trust each other. So, they shook hands up and down to make sure the other person wasn’t carrying any swords, concealed or otherwise [8]. Similarly, the Islamic practice of hugging could be interpreted as ensuring there are no concealed weapons hidden on the other person’s body.

On the other hand, the Hindu practice of greeting each other with Namaste has been slandered often in the past by some colonised intellectuals of Bharat [9]. The deeper meaning behind the Hindu practice of Namaste is to greet the divine spark of consciousness that is in each of us. The Hindu civilisation that developed over more than 5000 years was sufficiently sophisticated to have developed such a refined way of greeting each other.

Interestingly, today, it has become almost common knowledge that the COVID virus spreads through human touch and contact. As a result, many world leaders, including Prince Charles of the UK and President Macron of France, have been seen greeting each other with the Hindu greeting of Namaste.

Prince Charles of the UK and President Macron of France greeting each other with Namaste

Conclusion

The COVID pandemic has forced many people to adopt certain practices like maintaining basic personal hygiene as well as the practice of greeting each other with Namaste. These Hindu cleanliness practices have been unfairly characterised as “untouchability” by the smug, westernised brown sahibs of Bharat.

Now that the world has had a first-hand experience of living through a pandemic, some of the ancient traditional personal hygiene practices of Hindus have been unconsciously adopted as a basic measure to avoid the spread of the disease by most people around the world. As of today, it is not known if the Hindu cleanliness practices arose because of some ancient pandemic experienced by the Hindus’ ancient ancestors.

At the same time, it is important that the Hindu cleanliness practices of shaucha are once again rediscovered, studied, and revived among all Hindus. Getting a good understanding of and reviving the traditional cleanliness practices could help in achieving the Hindu purusharthas (goals of life) of dharma, artha (wealth), and kama (desire).

Eventually, by removing the Hinduphobic stigmas associated with cleanliness practice, Hindus could be greatly benefited in the domains of health, spirituality, and social harmony.

References:

  1. EPW. Do Indians Still Practice Untouchability? (2020)
  2. NYTimes How to Share Food Safely During the Pandemic (2020)
  3. Luthern, A. Testing for Poison Still a Profession for Some. (2009)
  4. Best M, Neuhauser. Ignaz Semmelweis and the birth of infection control (2004)
  5. Twitter thread by @jagadakka
  6. Ambedkar, B.R. The Untouchables Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948)
  7. Suvira Jaiswal (1978). “Some Recent Theories of the Origin of Untouchability; A Historiographical Assessment
  8. The History of the Handshake (2016)
  9. Kancha Illaiah ‘Hindutva Is Nothing But Brahminism’ (2002)

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About the Author

Jayant Charan
Jayant Charan is an avid reader and his main interests include fiction, society and culture. He likes to write mainly about contemporary politics.