Varna was a hierarchical social order in ancient India, based on the Vedas. Since the Vedic corpus constitute the earliest literary source, it came to be seen as the origin of caste society. In this Brahmanical view of caste, the varnas were created on a particular occasion and have remained virtually unchanged. In the varna ordering of society notions of purity and pollution were central and activities were worked out in this context. Varna divides the society into four groups ordered in a hierarchy, the fifth being Chandala (untouchable) and therefore beyond the pale.
According to Romila Thapar, there are two views about Chandalas. One view is that they were people on the edges of settlements; they were either forced there by encroaching settlers, or requiring a habitat where they lived by hunting and food-gathering. Their language was separate and incomprehensible to the Indo-Aryan speakers. Their occupations were looked upon as extremely low; they included hunting and weaving rush-mats. Others argue that the growth of towns in the Indo-Gangetic plain resulted in the marginalization of some people, who were then forced to perform menial tasks. These were associated with pollution in the hierarchy of ritual stratification; they were then called Chandalas. Thapar argues that the two categories, Brahman at the top and Chandala at the bottom, acted as social counterweights. It ensured a permanent and subjugated labour force, with a combination of hereditary status with economic deprivation and social disabilities.
In modern Indian usage, Chandal is a general derogatory slur used to refer to a filthy, mean or low person.
- Thapar, Romila (2004). Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. University of California Press. p. 63. ISBN 9780520242258.
- Thapar, Romila (2004). Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. University of California Press. p. 154. ISBN 9780520242258.
- Biswas, A. K. (2000). The Namasudras of Bengal: profile of a persecuted people. Blumoon Books. p. viii.
Though he is physically almost practically unknown, save and except in Bengal, calling someone a Chandal is the ultimate insult and humiliation of a Hindu anywhere under the sun.
- Vivekananda. "Swami Vivekananda on Chandala". Swami Vivekananda Quotes. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
- Anna Dallapiccola, Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend, ISBN 0-500-51088-1