A couple of recent threads got me wondering this. Is the name shudra still used for the lowest caste in Hinduism? I thought Gandhi renamed them harijans (“children of God”) and in the 1948 the stigma of “untouchables” was abolished. Is shudra still the popular term used and the stigma is no more? Or is term harijan used? Or is the stigma of shudras being “untouchable” still common-place?
It depends upon whether you live in a Metropolitan area (read overcrowded slum) and have had experience with dollars. People in that situation tend to stifle their hereditary beliefs. Rubes in the country tend to cling to them. Same as anywhere else, including here. Gandhi was far enough ahead of his time to suffer the consequences of the illiterati.
Slight terminology confusion here: sudras are the lowest of the four canonical Hindu major social groups or varnas: brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya, sudra. So sudras are not untouchable; that “distinction” is reserved for groups considered so degraded as to be outside the caste system entirely. Here’s an excerpt on the topic from Burton Stein’s A History of India:
The modern legal designation for these lowest groups is “scheduled castes,” also called “dalits” (“oppressed”) or by Gandhi’s term “Harijan”. There are constitutional protections and affirmative action provisions for dalits, so many of them now have attained quite a high social status and of course are not treated as untouchable by most of those around them (though I’ve heard stories from Indian colleagues of striking examples of persistent anti-dalit prejudice). As tcb points out, this new flexibility doesn’t cut much ice for groups in more traditional patches of society.
The same blend of mobility and tradition holds for non-dalits in the four varnas. Indian society is legally without caste restrictions, so theoretically anyone can be or do anything they choose; in practice, you still see areas dominated by members of the appropriate varna, so that scholars (and priests, of course) tend to be from brahmana families, career military officers from ksatriya ones, merchants in vaisya jatis, and servants and artisans among the sudras.
So yes, the lowest varna still has the name (and often the traditional status) of “sudra”, but sudras technically rank above untouchables, now called “scheduled castes” or “dalits” more often than “Harijans.”
How “Dacoits” figure into this? I gather the term is applied to wandering banditti, who are not well thought of. Are they necessarily of this lowest caste, or is being a Dacoit considered more of an occupation (dishonorable, to be sure) rather than a social class/caste?
Good question, JCH, and hard to answer, for me at least. Here’s what Stein has to say about it:
So dacoits were considered, at least by themselves, to be a separate jati (probably not a high-caste one, although I wonder if some dacoit groups might have identified themselves with ksatriya warrior images). But thagi is also described, especially in its inception, as a secret inter-caste religious fraternity that practiced crime as a devotional act. This article from the Yale Journal of Criticism says:
(Beware of reading the whole article if you are allergic to pomo jargon: it’s full of phrases like “to (re)cast it as a problem of impersonation/mimicry and the transactions of colonial reading”—igg.)
Nowadays, dacoity seems to operate more like organized crime in the western world, and people get mixed up in it not because of jati obligations but because they want money or fell afoul of the law in a different way. Some famous dacoits of recent years are mentioned in this article.
So dacoity and thagi have been sometimes lumped into the same category, although thagi is more about secret ritual murder and its practitioners at least in theory observed no caste distinctions during these rites, whereas dacoity seems more associated with ordinary banditry and even attained jati status. At present, ritual thagi is AFAIK extinct, and dacoity is a more “modern” and caste-independent “profession” at least in urban India, although I bet that bands of “traditional” dacoits still holding up trains and buses in more remote areas are more likely to be part of hereditary criminal castes. And those castes are probably officially sudras, although I’d guess some of them might well have originated as dalit groups.
Ram Ram. Can I go home now?