Swami Vivekananda on Caste

The process of demonizing Hindu Dharma began in the colonial times. British colonialists ridiculed Hindu “natives” for ritualism, idol worship, and superstition, and casteism. Caste was the most frequently used weapon for belittling Hindu Dharma. Even today, western “thinkers” and Bharatiya commentators afflicted by the colonial hangover continue to use caste fault-lines for bashing Hindu Dharma.

Swami Vivekananda is one of the universally accepted certified authorities on Hindu Dharma. Therefore, understanding his views on caste is imperative in the face of challenges from forces both within who continue to believe that caste is hereditary and forces from out who wish to break Bharat along caste fault-lines.

Swami Vivekananda distinguished between the original caste system which he postulated was quality based and the latter kind which he called the caste system in its “degenerate form.”

Original caste system:

Under the original varna system, Swami Vivekananda said, a person’s caste was defined by the qualities or gunas he or she possessed. The presence of the combination of the three gunas: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas determined whether a person was a Brahman, a Kshatriya, a Vaishya, or a Shudra. There is clear proof of caste being based on quality in the Bhishma Parwa and in stories of Ajagarhas and of Uma and Maheshwar.

Caste, he said, exists in every society which is composed of elements which are skilled at different occupations. Bharat’s caste system he said, aimed at elevating all to a higher level so that at some point, there would be no separate castes. The manner in which European civilizations had flourished, on the other hand was to exterminate others so that they could live.

In his view, the original system was flexible as exemplified by Parshuram and Bhishma. Individuals could and did transcend the caste they were born in, and acquire a caste suitable for their aptitude and proclivities. Similarly, there was flexibility and vertical mobility in terms of whole communities too. Thus, certain communities which had managed to elevate all their members to the higher consciousness had earned the right to be included among the Brahman fold. In certain cases, the norm was to transcend the birth caste taking all the members of the community along.

He suggested that there was evidence that social order evolved for the better, over time. Thus, privileges granted to the Chandala caste, for example, increased over the ages. Early on, Shudras were not allowed to listen to the Vedas but later Smritis said Shudras who try to imbibe Brahmin qualities should be encouraged.

In fact, in his view, Bharat’s societal structure of caste in its original form was laudable because while all over the world, the man of the sword (Kshatriya) holds the highest honour, in Bharat this honour goes to the Brahman (not the hereditary Brahman but one who has the qualities of a man of peace, a man of God).

“Degenerated” caste system:

Swami Vivekananda described caste as a natural order. Citing examples, he said that one person can mend shoes, another can govern. Each can’t do what the other person can.  However, the one who governs isn’t superior to the one who mends shoes and does not earn the right to “trample on the head” of the other. This, he opposed.

The son of a Brahman is not necessarily a Brahman.” The spiritual make up of man determines what caste he is since “every individual is a centre for the manifestation of a certain force.”

Even a Chandala can expound philosophy to a Brahman, Swami Vivekananda believed. “Most of the Upanishadas were written by Kshatriyas—most of our great teachers have come from Kshatriyas—Ram and Krishna and Buddha worshipped as incarnations of God were Kshatriyas.”

Caste on the principle of birth is bondage…” he said.

Just as Brahmans are above the set law, similarly, all individuals and communities who reach this higher consciousness can transcend the set societal laws. The Brahman here is the one “who has killed all selfishness and who lives and works to acquire and propagate wisdom and power of love.” If and when a whole country is composed of such Brahmans, no law enforcement is needed to govern the citizens. This, he stated, is true of the Satya Yuga, when all society is composed of just one caste, the Brahmans.

In fact, Swami Vivekananda postulated that since the time of the Upanishads, nearly all the great teachers have wanted to break caste in its degenerate state. The original caste was according to him, a “glorious institution.”

He quoted Shri Krishna’s words in the Gita, “He who sees the Supreme Lord dwelling alike in all beings…… he sees indeed.”

He felt that it was ironical that “No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism and no religion on earth treads upon the poor and low in such a fashion as Hinduism.

He believed that it was necessary to preach “the wonderful idea of sameness and omnipresence of the Supreme Soul for the amelioration and elevation of the human race” in Bharat and elsewhere.

 “Why must one who commits a murder be praised and another who steals an apple be hanged? This must go.”

Caste as a social order, not a part of religion

An important distinction he made was between religion and social degeneration. Given the challenges posed to Hindu Dharma by evangelical faiths, this distinction needs to be highlighted.

All the reformers in India made the serious mistake of holding religion accountable for all the horrors of priest-craft and degeneration and went forth to put down the indestructible structure; and what was the result. Failure! Beginning from Buddha to Ram Mohan Roy, everyone made the mistake of holding caste to be a religious institution, and tried to pull down religion and caste all together, and failed.”

Caste and institutions appear to be linked with religion, but are not so. “Caste is a social custom.”

Caste is now simply a crystallized social institution which after doing its service is now filling the atmosphere of India with its stench and can only be removed by giving back the people their lost social individuality.”

For furthering his case about the necessity to separate religion from prevailing societal structures and norms, Swami Vivekananda discussed the Vedas and Smritis and explained that Hindu scriptures (Shastras) contained two kinds of truths:

1) Those based on eternal nature of man and dealing with man’s eternal nature with God, soul, and nature.

2) Local circumstances and environments of the time, social institutions of the period.

The Vedas contain the first kind of truths. The second kind are found in the Smritis, Puranas, etc. “We must remember that for all periods, the Vedas are the final goal and authority and if the Puranas differ in any respect from the Vedas, that part of the Puranas has to be rejected without mercy..”

This means that: 1) those Hindus who are defensive believing that the caste system was innate to Hindu Dharma, should cease to be defensive about prevailing societal structures of previous times, and 2) those who persistently believe that they belong to the caste they were born into, irrespective of their gunas and spiritual make up, should snap out of these archaic ideas.

Where do you find the Indian society standing still?” He said that caste and rituals would change and so would forms but the substance and principle would not change. Other than the Vedas, all books must change. He felt that a certain Smriti is powerful for one age, another for another age.

Eternal truth will never change, it is there for all times, but the Smritis that generally speak about local circumstances change in the course of time. “This you have to always remember that because a little social custom is going to be changed, you are not going to lose your religion.”

Evolving Social Structure:

Still, he was grateful that the “degenerate” caste system received a body blow due to British rule. He spoke of North India where one could find Brahman “wine distillers, shopkeepers, and shoemakers…”each man is now free to choose what livelihood he wants.

The English government has been the instrument brought over by the Lord, to break your crystallized civilization.” Customs had already changed and as time passed, more of these would go. “Sages will direct society into better channels –as per the necessity of the age.”

Vociferous about doing away with caste, he said, “Let us be as progressive as any nation that ever existed and at the same time, as faithful and conservative towards our tradition as Hindus alone know to be.

Linking the notion of eliminating birth-based caste with compassion for lower classes, he was a self-confessed socialist who felt that elevating lives of the lowest oppressed classes was the only way in which a society could progress. He gave examples of preachers such as Ramanuja, Shankara, Nanak, Chaitanya, and Kabir, all of whom had compassion for the lower classes, the outcaste (pariah).

Priesthood’s role in caste and blind ritualism

He was forceful also in his criticism of priests and priesthood. He faulted priests for preaching that “people can enter the Holy of the Holies only with the permission of the priests,” and attributed this to an “immense thirst for power.”

Of priests of the time he said, “They describe simple truths in roundabout ways.”

He lauded the true Brahmans of the earlier ages though, crediting them with bringing on the onset of spiritual development in Bharat. “The foundation of priestly power rests on intellectual strength and not on the physical strength of arms. Therefore, with the supremacy of priestly power, there is a great prevalence of intellectual and literary culture.” Due to the Brahman’s devotion, learning, wisdom, and renunciation “universal welfare and good is nursed by his spiritual power.”

But over time, true renunciation was replaced by “concealment, extreme selfishness, hypocrisy.” He attributed this to human nature being what it is.  “They (Brahmans) began to arrogate powers and privileges to themselves.” Soon society became such that “even the wickedest Brahman was to be worshipped.” He felt this was natural since any group is reluctant to give up its privileges and tries to preserve them in all possible ways.

Equally critical of superstition and blind ritualism, he said priesthood had made Hindu society to become “Caught in the endless thread of the of the net of infinite rites, ceremonies, and customs, which it spread on all sides, as external means for purification of the body and mind, with a view to keeping society in the iron grasp of these innumerable bonds—the priestly power, thus hopelessly entangled from head to foot, is now asleep in despair!”

An individual’s desire to progress becomes impossible to achieve if he remains “trammelled in the shackles of priesthood.” “Priest-craft is the bane of India” and “priests should be rooted out.”

Hindu Priesthood and Conversion

In fact, conversion of lower classes to Christianity he felt was a by-product of the degenerated version of priesthood.

To what ludicrous state are we brought if a Bhangi comes to anybody as a Bhangi, he will be shunned as the plague, but no sooner does he get a cupful of water poured upon his head with some mutterings of prayer by a Padri, and get a coat on his back no matter how threadbare, and come into a room of the most orthodox Hindu—I don’t see the man who dare refuse him a chair and a hearty shake of the hands. Irony can go no further!”

Travancore, which Swami Vivekananda described as “the most priest-ridden” referring to Hindu priests, was a place where, by his estimates, nearly a fourth of the lower classes, adding up to lakhs, had been converted to Christianity by the Padris. (Hindu) priest-craft, he felt was cruel and heartless and religion goes down as priest-craft arises. Vedanta, he stated, says that “privileges must be given up, only then will true religion come to us”.

This essay is sourced from the book “Caste, Culture and Socialism,” which is a compilation of “excerpts on this subject in a systematized form” from Swami Vivekananda’s message on caste “scattered all over the pages of his works.”

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About the Author

Anuradha
Independent development research professional with educational background in Economics and Journalism. Spiritual and glad to be born a Hindu. Twitter handle: @Si_lv_er