Was Swami Vivekananda a casteist? Did he vouch for caste based discrimination in the society? While there are a lot of instances where he denounced such systems, I reproduce here a few of Swami Vivekananda’s utterances on the issue so that we at least empower ourselves with his thoughts before making inferences. All these excerpts are taken from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda which is a collection of his lectures, conversations, letters, and writings.
He could never make peace with this aspect of Adi Shankara’s teachings.
Swamiji: Shankara’s intellect was sharp like the razor. He was a good arguer and a scholar, no doubt of that, but he had no great liberality; his heart too seems to have been like that. Besides, he used to take great pride in his Brahmanism — much like a southern Brahmin of the priest class, you may say. How he has defended in his commentary on the Vedanta – sutras that the non – brahmin castes will not attain to a supreme knowledge of Brahman! And what specious arguments! Referring to Vidura he has said that he became a knower of Brahman by reason of his Brahmin body in the previous incarnation. Well, if nowadays any Shudra attains to a knowledge of Brahman, shall we have to side with your Shankara and maintain that because he had been a Brahmin in his previous birth, therefore he has attained to this knowledge? Goodness! What is the use of dragging in Brahminism with so much ado? The Vedas have entitled any one belonging to the three upper castes to study the Vedas and the realisation of Brahman, haven’t they? So Shankara had no need whatsoever of displaying this curious bit of pedantry on this subject, contrary to the Vedas. And such was his heart that he burnt to death lots of Buddhist monks-by defeating them in argument! And the Buddhists, too, were foolish enough to burn themselves to death, simply because they were worsted in argument! What can you call such an action on Shankara’s part except fanaticism? But look at Buddha’s heart! Ever ready to give his own life to save the life of even a kid — what to speak of “[(Sanskrit)]– for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many”! See, what a large – heartedness what a compassion!
Disciple: Can’t we call that attitude of the Buddha, too, another kind of fanaticism, sir? He went to the length of sacrificing his own body for the sake of a beast!
Swamiji: But consider how much good to the world and its beings came out of that ‘fanaticism’ of his — how many monasteries and schools and colleges, how many public hospitals and veterinary refuges were established, how developed architecture became — think of that. life of the people. In a sense, he was the living embodiment of true Vedanta.
He denounced all forms of unfair discrimination, including caste!
The disciple is an orthodox Hindu. Not to speak of prohibited food, he does not even take food touched by another. Therefore Swamiji sometimes used to refer to him as “priest”. Swamiji, while he was eating biscuits with his breakfast,said to Swami Sadananda, “Bring the priest in here.” When the disciple came to Swamiji, he gave some portion of his food to him to eat. Finding the disciple accepting it without any demur, Swamiji said, “Do you know what you have eaten now? These are made from eggs.”
In reply, the disciple said, “Whatever may be in it, I have no need to know; taking this sacramental food from you, I have become immortal.” Thereupon Swamiji said, “I bless you that from this day all your egoism of caste, colour, high birth, religious merit and demerit, and all, may vanish for ever!”
He appreciated the progress that could be achieved in absence of caste botheration.
In the West I have found that those who are in the employment of others have their seats fixed in the back rows in the Parliament, while the front seats are reserved for those who have made themselves famous by self – exertion, or education,or intelligence.
In Western countries there is no botheration of caste. Those on whom Fortune smiles for their industry and exertion are alone regarded as leaders of the country and the controllers of its destiny. Whereas in your country, you are simply vaunting your superiority in caste, till at last you cannot even get a morsel of food! You have not the capacity to manufacture a needle, and you dare to criticise the English! Fools! Sit at their feet and learn from them the arts, industries, and the practicality necessary for the struggle for existence. You will be esteemed once more when you will become fit. Then they too will pay heed to your words. Without the necessary preparation, what will mere shouting in the Congress avail?
He understood the power that remained unharnessed because of caste discrimination.
The peasant, the shoemaker, the sweeper, and such other lower classes of India have much greater capacity for work and self – reliance than you. They have been silently working through long ages and producing the entire wealth of the land, without a word of complaint. Very soon they will get above you in position. Gradually capital is drifting into their hands, and they are not so much troubled with wants as you are. Modern education has changed your fashion, but new avenues of wealth lie yet undiscovered for want of the inventive genius. Never mind if they have not read a few books like you — if they have not acquired your tailor-made civilisation. What do these matter? But they are the backbone of the nation in all countries. If these lower classes stop work, from where will you get your food and clothing? If the sweepers of Calcutta stop work for a day, it creates a panic; and if they strike for three days, the whole town will be depopulated by the outbreak of epidemics. If the labourers stop work, your supply of food and clothes also stops. And you regard them as low – class people and vaunt your own culture!
He underlined the import of caste system and the necessity of taking everyone together.
Engrossed in the struggle for existence, they had not the opportunity for the awakening of knowledge.They have worked so long uniformly like machines guided by human intelligence, and the clever educated section have taken the substantial part of the fruits of their labour. In every country this has been the case. But times have changed. The lower classes are gradually awakening to this fact and making a united front against this, determined to exact their legitimate dues. The masses of Europe and America have been the first to awaken and have already begun the fight. Signs of this awakening have shown themselves in India, too, as is evident from the number of strikes among the lower classes nowadays. The upper classes will no longer be able to repress the lower, try they ever so much. The well – being of the higher classes now lies in helping the lower to get their legitimate rights.
Disciple: Sir, what you say is true, but there yet seems to be a wide gulf between the higher and lower classes. To bring the higher classes to sympathise with the lower seems to be a difficult affair in India.
Swamiji: But without that there is no well – being for your upper classes. You will be destroyed by internecine quarrels and fights — which you have been having so long. When the masses will wake up, they will come to understand your oppression of them, and by a puff of their mouth you will be entirely blown away! It is they who have introduced civilisation amongst you; and it is they who will then pull it down. Think how at the hands of the Gauls the mighty ancient Roman civilisation crumbled into dust! Therefore I say, try to rouse these lower classes from slumber by imparting learning and culture to them. When they will awaken — and awaken one day they must — they also will not forget your good services to them and will remain grateful to you.
He established a caste-free system for the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission!
After a course of five years’ training these Brahmacharins may, if they like, go back to their homes and lead householders’ lives; or they may embrace the monastic life with the sanction of the venerable Superiors of the Math. The authorities of the Math will have the power to turn out at once any of these Brahmacharins who will be found refractory or of a bad character. Teaching will be imparted here irrespective of caste or creed, and those who will have objection to this will not be admitted. But those who would like to observe their particular caste – rites, should make separate arrangements for their food, etc. They will only attend the classes along with the rest. The Math authorities shall keep a vigilant watch over the character of these also. None but those that are trained here shall be eligible for Sannyasa. Won’t it be nice when by degrees this Math will begin to work like this?
He spoke of the ills of priest-craft that prevented other castes and women from studying the Vedas.
Swamiji: In what scriptures do you find statements that women are not competent for knowledge and devotion? In the period of degradation, when the priests made other castes incompetent for the study of the Vedas, they deprived the women also of all their rights. Otherwise you will find that in the Vedic or Upanishad age Maitreyi, Gargi, and other ladies of revered memory have taken the places of Rishis through their skill in discussing about Brahman. In an assembly of a thousand Brahmanas who were all erudite in the Vedas, Gargi boldly challenged Yajnavalkya in a discussion about Brahman. Since such ideal women were entitled to spiritual knowledge, why shall not the women have the same privilege now? What has happened once can certainly happen again. History repeats itself.
And he stood for freedom, absolute and of every kind!
This was the orthodoxy of India. What else was there? Everything was divided, the whole society,as it is today,though in a much more rigorous form then — divided into castes. There is another thing to learn.There is a tendency to make castes just [now] going on here in the West. And I myself — I am a renegade.I have broken everything.I do not believe in caste, individually. It has very good things in it. For myself, Lord help me! I would not have any caste, if He helps me. You understand what I mean by caste, and you are all trying to make it very fast. It is a hereditary trade [for] the Hindu. The Hindu said in olden times that life must be made easier and smoother. And what makes everything alive? Competition. Hereditary trade kills. You are a carpenter? Very good, your son can be only a carpenter. What are you? A blacksmith? Blacksmithing becomes a caste; your children will become blacksmiths. We do not allow anybody else to come into that trade, so you will be quiet and remain there. You are a military man, a fighter? Make a caste. You are a priest? Make a caste. The priesthood is hereditary. And so on. Rigid, high power! That has a great side, and that side is [that] it really rejects ompetition. It is that which has made the nation live while other nations have died — that caste. But there is a great evil: it checks individuality. I will have to be a carpenter because I am born a carpenter; but I do not like it. That is in the books, and that was before Buddha was born. I am talking to you of India as it was before Buddha. And you are trying today what you call socialism! Good things will come; but in the long run you will be a [blight] upon the race. Freedom is the watchword. Be free! A free body, a free mind, and a free soul! That is what I have felt all my life; I would rather be doing evil freely than be doing good under bondage.
For me, personally, this underlines the message of his life, Be Free. This freedom is unconditional, non-negotiable and certainly devoid of a caste/gender identity rider! It is here that he brings Adi Shankara and Buddha to a common point for the progress of the mankind. It is this what we all must aim to become. Iti.