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What is a Pariah?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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A pariah is a social outcast. Originally, the word was used to refer to people in hereditary positions of low class or social status; the term is also used today to describe outcasts in general, hereditary or not. Generally speaking, the position of a pariah is undesirable, since it is accompanied with a lack or respect, authority, and access to society at large.

The term comes from the Pariah caste, a caste in some parts of India and Sri Lanaka which is akin to the Untouchables, the lowest caste in India's traditionally very rigid caste system. The term is derived from the Tamil paraiyan, which means “drummer,” with the implication that this position is hereditary and traditionally despised; paraiyan itself comes from parai, a type of drum used at Indian festivals.

Use of the word “pariah” was first recorded in English in 1613, and the term was clearly brought to Europe by British colonists. Europeans used the term incorrectly for all people of low caste in regions with caste systems, and sometimes for people without caste as well. In the 1800s, the modern sense of the word as a more general social outcast emerged, divorcing it from its traditional meaning for English speakers.

There are a number of ways to become a pariah in modern society. In many cultures, people of low economic and social class are viewed as pariahs, and they may face serious barriers as they try to work their way up in society. Lower class individuals often struggle for acceptance and equal access to services even in nations which claim to not have class systems. It is also possible to turn into a pariah, as might be the case with someone who commits a socially unacceptable act.

Once someone becomes a pariah, it can be hard to shake the label. Pariahs are often extremely ostracized, making it hard for them to establish social connections and bonds of friendship with other people. People often try to avoid socializing with pariahs both because they are viewed as socially undesirable and because they fear being linked with pariahs in the public eye. As many politicians can testify, being associated with a pariah can be devastating to a social and political career.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By turquoise — On Mar 31, 2011

@ddljohn-- The cow is holy in Hinduism, it is like a God and no Hindu should eat it. I don't know anyone who eats beef.

Some less conservative Hindus eat chicken and egg. Actually it is rare in India but I know many Hindus who eat chicken when they are abroad but will refrain from it in India. Conservative Hindus do not eat any meat, chicken or egg.

One might become a pariah if the family and cast is very conservative. For example, Brahmins are the class of priests. They pay close attention to requirements of Hinduism and will generally eat purely vegetarian, worship and fast regularly. If a Brahmin eats meat, the conservative family might outcast him or her.

The most common case of out-casting I have seen are kids who marry inter-cast or inter-religion. They are often shunned from the family. It really depends on the kind of family. Some people allow their children to intermarry and it's not a big deal. Some people who intermarry never see their parents again. It's really sad.

By ddljohn — On Mar 29, 2011

I had seen this movie about India under British rule. In that film, someone, regardless of caste became a pariah if they ate meat.

The British had started using a new type of gunpowder and the soldiers needed to rip the top of its paper packaging with their mouth in order to pour it into their guns. But there were rumors that the packaging was made with the fat of pigs and cows. The soldiers refused to rip open the packages because the Hindu soldiers didn't eat meat and the Muslim soldiers didn't eat pork. So the British colonel asked one of the Indian soldiers to do it as an example. He didn't believe the rumors so he followed the order.

A few days later, he found out that the rumors were true and that pig and cow fat was in the packaging. He would now become a pariah because he had consumed animal fat. He became an untouchable and his friends and family would not speak to him.

Are dietary restrictions in India still so strict? Will a Hindu who eats chicken or beef still become a pariah?

By burcidi — On Mar 27, 2011

I come from a Middle Eastern country where there are supposed to be no classes. But there is and I think that the biggest class distinction is not ethnic or religious, it is based on gender.

The best example I know is my mom. My parents were divorced and immediately after, my mom became a pariah. Her best friends whom she has known for twenty years, started having a negative attitude towards her. They didn't want my mom to visit them at their house, probably from jealousy of their husbands.

Here being a divorced woman is a horrible thing. Men think that you are available and will take any chance to hit on you. Women are scared, almost disgusted with you and want you to stay away. No one cares to think about the kind of person my mom is. She is a very honest, decent and spiritual person. She divorced my father because he was cheating on her.

It's just so sad that divorced women are labeled as pariahs and treated this way. Some neighborhoods are better than others though and thankfully, my mom has found more logical people to be friends with and socialize. She will still never go to a married person's house though.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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