Untouchables (Harijan) in Shanty Hovels Alongside River in Town Centre, Coonor, Tamil Nadu, India

 The term 'dalit' has its root in Sanskrit (Dal) which means split, break, crack, broken, cracked, trodden down, scattered, crushed or destroyed. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew verb 'dal' also means the frail one or the weak one which denotes the poor and lowly of the society. (Gutierrez, 1973:291)

Did You Know?

Hebrew words for "poor"
(http://www.lausanne.org/docs/pattaya1980/lop22app.pdf) Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1980; http://skipmoen.com/tag/poor/)

Hebrew Words Translated “Poor”

 “For the poor are with you at all times, but I am not with you at all times.”  Matthew 26:11  Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels

The four choices for Jesus’s word for “poor” are anaw, dal, rash and ebyon.

Anaw is primarily associated with the idea of affliction through oppression.  The verbal form (ana) is used more than two hundred times.  It describes the action of an enemy, pain inflicted by bondage, suffering through war and the distress of slavery.  Theologically, the word is used to describe pain and suffering as the vehicle that leads to repentance.  As an adjective, anaw “stresses the moral and spiritual condition of the godly as the goal of affliction implying that this state is joined with a suffering life rather than with one of worldly happiness and abundance.”    


Dal emphasizes the lack of material worth.  It is used to describe those who are socially weak and materially deprived.  God protects these people and promises them justice.  Dal is rarely used to describe spiritual poverty. 


 Coppes (Coppes, Leonard J., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, Chicago), 1980, p. 682.)  differentiates between ani and dal as follows:  “Unlike ani, dal does not emphasize pain or oppression; unlike ‘ebyon, it does not primarily emphasize need and unlike rash, it represents those who lack rather than the destitute.”

One who is gracious to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his good deed.” Proverbs 19:17  This verse in Proverbs uses the word dal  Dal does not emphasize pain or oppression.   It does not primarily emphasize need.  It is about those who lack rather than those who are destitute.  Hebrew has others words for spiritually poor, oppressed or destitute.  Dal is the word for those who lack something essential and can’t provide it for themselves.  Dal is usually about money. 


Rash (or rush) describes the common plight of the lower classes - to be without resources or social standing. It is used to metaphorically to describe unworthiness.  Ps. 82:3 tells us that God will answer the needs of this group and provide them with justice.


Ebyon places significance on need as opposed to affliction or weakness.  While there may be a wide variety of reasons for the poverty of these people, their social status is always a concern with God.  The Mosaic code protected these people.  They are even called God’s favored ones (Isaiah 25:4).  The majority of the occurrences of this word are in the Psalms where the word expresses the sense of those whose only remaining help must come from God.  Psalm 72:4 tells us that those who are needy in this way are God’s true spiritual people.  Their cry is the basis of God’s action (Psalm 12:5 and 70:5).

Thus each of the words translated “poor” has a spectrum of meanings.    


Not without reason does one Hebrew scholar give “wretched” as a rendering for ‘Ant, for dat, for ‘ebyôn, for hleki, and for misken; not a translation, it is a true description.


The language of poverty in the OT indicates an understanding that demands the attention of Christians. The poverty of “the wretched of the earth” is clearly shown to be caused by injustice. They are oppressed and downtrodden. (‘Am, ‘AnAw), subjected and dependent (miskn), powerless (dat), defenceless and exploited (helekâ), yearning for justice and dignity (‘ebyón). The economic poverty they experience is the result of a prior cil poverty that is politically structured and maintained. Biblically, they are powerless and poor because others are powerful and rich; they are kept dependent to conserve the position of the privileged. Most often in the OT they are also economically and materially destitute (rash), experiencing deprivation and want (mahsór). This situation they share with those not in prior social poverty but who have become dispossessed (yArash), or have fallen on hard times (mük). God knows the causes of poverty, and has not hidden from us where he stands in relation to the victims of oppression and injustice.

Sanskrit Word "Dal"



The Sanskrit word Dalit translates in descriptive sence as to “crushed underfoot”, and was adopted by Dalits to avoid the stigma of the colonial-era term “Untouchable,” and also Mahamata‟s Gandhi‟s patronizing term “Harijan”, the Children of God.

"The Dalits are known by many other names, which were/are given to them by others, mainly to despise them or to show contempt. These include: Dasa, Dasysu, Raksasa, Asura, Avarna, Nisada, Panchama, Mletcha, Svapaca, Chandala, Achchuta, Harijan, Exterior Castes, Depressed Classes, Scheduled Castes, Untouchables etc. Besides these names, there are a number of other titles or names which have been given to them at the regional language level. For example, Chura in Punjab (North West India); Bhangi or Lal-Beghi in Hindi (North India); Mahar in Marathi (Central India); Mala in Telugu, Paraiyan in Tamil, and Pulayan in Malayalam (South India)." (Nirmal)

The term Dalit as referring to those outside of the varna system (avarna) was first used by Jyotiraj Phule (1827-1890), a backward class social reformer, to describe the untouchables and outcastes of India as the oppressed and broken victims of the Hindu society.  Phule used it to describe the "outcastes" and "untouchables" as the "oppressed and crushed victims of the Indian caste system."  In the 1970’s the Dalit Panther Movement of Maharashtra confirmed this term for all the group who fall outside the four castes.

"Dalit, a term that has become synonymous with Untouchable, is the name that many Untouchables, especially politically aware individuals, have chosen for themselves. The name means "oppressed" and highlights the persecution and discrimination India's 160 million Untouchables face regularly. First used in the context of caste oppression in the 19th century, it was popularized in the 1970s by Untouchable writers and members of the revolutionary Dalit Panthers (the name was inspired by the Black Panthers of the United States). Dalit has largely come to replace Harijan, the name given to Untouchables by Gandhi, much like the Black Power movement in the United States led to the replacement of the labels colored and Negro with black. For some activists, Dalit is used to refer to all of India's oppressed peoples whether Hindus, Muslims, Christians, tribal minorities, or women."
—Heidi Schultz

Mahatma Jyotirao Govindrao Phule 

Mahatma Jyotirao Govindrao Phule  (April 11, 1827 – November 28, 1890), also known as Mahatma Jyotiba Phule was a Brahmin of Mali Caste, an activist, thinker, social reformer, writer, philosopher, theologist, scholar, editor and revolutionary from Maharashtra, India in the nineteenth century. He studied in Scottish Mission's High School at Poona. He was inspired by Thomas Paine's  book ' The Rights of Man'.  It appears that Phule stood with Paine's denial of all religions as means of oppression and calls every one to fight of justice which the true God expects from each human being.


Jotiba Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule were pioneers of women's education in India. His remarkable influence was apparent in fields like education, agriculture, caste system, women and widow upliftment and removal of untouchability. He is most known for his efforts to educate women and the lower castes as well as the masses. He, after educating his wife, opened first a school for girls in India in August 1848. In September, 1873, Jotirao, along with his followers, formed the Satya Shodhak Samaj (Society of Seekers of Truth) with the main objective of liberating the Bahujans, Shudras and Ati-Shudras and protecting them from exploitation and atrocities. For his fight to attain equal rights for peasants and the lower caste and his contributions to the field of education, he is regarded as one of the most important figures of the Social Reform Movement in Maharashtra. Dhananjay Keer, his biographer, notes him as "the father of Indian social revolution"







Jotiba Phule and his wife Savitribai Phule

Satyashodhak Samaj

On 24 September 1873, Jotirao formed 'Satya Shodhak Samaj' (Society of Seekers of Truth) with himself as its first president and treasurer

He questions:
 " if there is only one God, who created the whole mankind, why did he write the Vedas only in Sanskrit language despite his anxiety for the welfare of the whole mankind? What about the welfare of those who do not understand this language?"

Phule concludes that:
"It is untenable to say that these religious texts were God-created.
To believe so is only ignorance and prejudice.
All religions and their religious texts are man-made and they represent the selfish interest of the classes, which are trying to pursue and protect their selfish ends by constructing such books."

Phule was the only sociologist and humanist in his time that could put forth such bold ideas.
In his view, every religious book is a product of its time and the truths it contains have no permanent and universal validity. Again these texts can never be free from the prejudices and the selfishness of the authors of such books

Phule believed in overthrowing the social system in which man has been deliberately made dependent on others, illiterate, ignorant and poor, with a view to exploiting him. To him blind faith eradication formed part of a broad socioeconomic transformation. This was his strategy for ending exploitation of human beings. Mere advice, education and alternative ways of living are not enough, unless the economic framework of exploitation comes to an end

Jyotirao Phule's critique of the caste system began with his attack on the Vedas, the most fundamental texts of forward-caste Hindus. He considered Vedas as 'idle fantasies' as 'palpably absurd legends'. He considered Vedas a 'form of false consciousness'.

Savitribai  (1831 – 1897) the wife of Phule was also involved in the Women Movement,  women’s education and their liberation from the cultural patterns of the male-dominated society as mission of her life. She worked towards tackling some of the then major social problems, including women’s liberation, widow remarriages and removal of untouchability.

Go, Get Education

Be self-reliant, be industrious

Work, gather wisdom and riches,

All gets lost without knowledge

We become animal without wisdom,

Sit idle no more, go, get education

End misery of the oppressed and forsaken,

You’ve got a golden chance to learn

So learn and break the chains of caste.

                                          Throw away the Brahman’s scriptures fast.

– Poem by Savitribai Phule

At a time when even the shadow of untouchables was considered impure, when the people were unwilling to offer water to thirsty untouchables, Savitribai Phule and Mahatma Jotiba Phule opened the well in their house for the use of untouchables. It was a challenge thrown at the Brahmins to change their mindset towards untouchables. 


They took initiative to give education to downtrodden, thinking that education is necessary for the restoration of social and cultural values. Savitribai Phule started Mahila Seva Mandal in 1852, which worked for raising women’s consciousness about their human rights, dignity of life and other social issues. She went on to organise a successful barbers strike in Mumbai and Pune against the prevailing practice of shaving of widows’ heads. She also played a vital role in the Satya Shodhak Samaj movement started by his Mahatma Jotiba Phule.


The name was probably made popular by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar  .(I had discussed Ambedkars "Philosophy of Hinduism" in another book. )

As such several terms were used throughout history such as  ‘untouchables’ and ‘outcasts’ for centuries. The British administration thought that these terms were fair to the human dignity of the people and hence started to use the term “deprived classes” in 1919.

Gandhi in an attempt to find some social advantage called them “Harijans” which means "people of God"    

In 1935 the British Government defined them as “Scheduled Castes” (SC).

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Dalit Panther founder Namdeo Laxman Dhasal 

In April 1972, the Dalit Panther Party was formed in Bombay, India.  Namdev Dhasal, Raja Dhale and Arun Kamble were the original leaders of Dalit Panther, which saw its heyday in 1970s and through the 80s. This organization takes its pride and inspiration directly from the Black Panther Party of the United States. They called themselves "Panthers" because they were supposed to fight for their rights like panthers, and not get suppressed by the strength and might of their oppressors. The US Black Panther Party always acknowledged and supported the Dalit Panther Party through the US Black Panther Newspaper which circulated weekly throughout the world from 1967-1980. Its organization was modeled after the Black Panther and Shiv Sena - a militant organization. Dhasal currently holds a national office in the Indian Republican Party, which was formed by the merger of all Dalit parties. In 2006, he publicly joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's call for "Hindu brotherhood".  Apparently RSS bought them out.

 It was  the followers of the Dalit Panther Movement of Maharashtra gave currency to the term Dalit.   Dalit is the name they themselves prefer because it exactly describes their situation in the society.

 Dalit Panther emerged as a movement of radical assertion for the claim of equality against the upper caste. The movement lasted for three years from 1972-1975 and gradually lost its hold due to several subsequent splits.   Lots of reasons are given for the split of Dalit Panther including politics of power, lack of infrastructure, mismanagement of money, ego clashes between the leaders etc. An ideological difference  between Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale was probably the major cause. Dhasal chose the Maxist stand whiile Dhale was a staunch follower of Ambedkarism and Buddhism. 

Dalit Panther

Buddha, Ambedkar and Marx
All the three were atheists and rationalists of their period. 



Mahatma Gandhi declared that the untouchables were ‘Harijans’  which means ‘the people of Hari’. Gandhi's attempt was to integrate Dalits into the Hindu system. The fifth caste - avarna - the people without color - were to be brought into the fourth caste of Sudra.   He tried to integrate them into the Indian National Congress and the freedom movement. He went and stayed with them in their colonies, shared meals and performed all the tasks of cleaning along with them. In his ashram, all his followers tried to follow his thinking. Public dinners were organized in which people expressed their feelings against the practice of untouchability by eating with people of different communities.  The dalits considered the name Harijan a misnomer because it did not signify their real status since Hari was another name of the Hindu God Krishna who emphasized varna system. Within the Hindufold they are not treated even as human beings leave alone being respected as people of God. Later Hindu proponents  interpreted it to mean that the untouchables are created by lesser gods. After all there are hundreds of gods and each has their domains.   Dalits preferred Ambedkar's anti-Hindu stand and there had been a lot of struggle between Ambedkar and Gandhi in this regard.   




Mahatma Gandhi speaking to harijan workers Sevagram Ashram ; September 1940

PTI Aug 19, 2010, 09.09pm IST

NEW DELHI: A Parliamentary committee took serious note of the widespread use of the word 'Harijan' across the country and asked the government to strictly ensure its non-use, underlining that it was depreciating the status of the under-privileged sections of society.

"As such, there is widespread use of the word 'Harijan' across the country, depreciating the status of the under-privileged sections of the society," Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment said in its ninth report on action taken by government on its recommendations.