Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Swami Vivekananda on caste discrimination and untouchability

Swami Vivekananda on caste discrimination and untouchability

(by Muktipada Behera)


Swami Vivekananda has raised his voice on caste discrimination and untouchability. It appears that He was more serious about caste anomaly than any other reformers. Probably in Indian history, Swami Vivekananda is the first person to covey the truth and realities without any prejudice and fear after Buddha. In his words - "I have a message for the world, which I will deliver without fear and care for the future. To the reformers I will point out that I am a greater reformer than any one of them. They want to reform only little bits. I want root-and-branch reform. [CW-3]"

Swami Vivekananda clearly discouraged caste system. He write in a letter, ALMORA,  30th May, 1897 - "the conviction is daily gaining on my mind that the idea of caste is the greatest dividing factor and the root of Maya; all caste either on the principle of birth or of merit is bondage. [CW-6]" Link -

Voice against Caste oppression

Swami Vivekananda wrote in a letter “BARANAGORE, CALCUTTA, 17th Aug., 1889 to Pramadadas Mitra of Varanasi, - “I have no doubt that according to the ancient view in this country, caste was hereditary, and it cannot also be doubted that sometimes the Shudras used to be oppressed more than the helots among the Spartans and the negroes among the Americans! As for myself, I have no partiality for any party in this caste question, because I know it is a social law and is based on diversity of Guna and Karma. It also means grave harm if one bent on going beyond Guna and Karma cherishes in mind any caste distinctions.” [CW-6] Link  -

Society has its own momentum

Veda does not talk of caste system. Smrtis like Manu Smriti enforces caste discrimination. We think first Smritis are written and given to people. And next morning all people started following it. Not true. Rather Smritis document the customs already prevalent during that period and authors put few of their suggestions to add some values. Author doesn't or cannot suggest a drastic change in society. It should be at per what society follows. The logic behind it is if today Swami Vivekananda says something, how many Indians will follow it. To be more accurate suppose today Manu will direct something through another edition of his book, do you think that whole world will follow him? It is difficult to change the society completely. Society has it’s own flow and that cannot be changed overnight. Given a situation, society or people holds the immediate available solution without thinking for whole humanity and it’s future consequence.

Priest-craft has nothing to do with Spirituality 

Swami Vivekananda was intelligent enough to understand the degradation of Hinduism is due to priests. Priests act as middlemen in religion without any divine authority. They confuse people, out of ignorance they indulge others into superstitions, twist the liberal meaning of scripture, and become an obstacle to the real teachings given by Vedic Rishis. He understood clearly unless the priest-hood is not destroyed completely, there is no rise of India. He named it as Râkshasas in the shape of the Brahmin priests. 

His Inner views from his letters

Letter date: 10th July 1893:

"Come, be men! Kick out the priests who are always against progress, because they would never mend, their hearts would never become big. They are the offspring of centuries of superstition and tyranny. Root out priest craft first. [CW-5]" - Link -

Letter date: 1895

"Remember the Vedic Ashvamedha sacrifice – ‘Tadanantaram mahishim ashwa-sannidhau patayet’ etc! And Hota, Pota, Brahma, Udgata etc do worse things while drunk. Brother, Janaki had been to forest, Sri Rama celebrated Ashwamedha alone – hearing this I am free from stress, Brother.

All the Brâhmanas mention them, and all the commentators admit them to be true. How can you deny them? [CW-6]" Link - ( Please look into Bengali version below as it is not translated into English Bengali Link -

It looks like - priests were doing terrible act with queen in the name of Ashvamedha Yajna. You can find reference in web about Aswamedha Yajna. Where the queen has to sleep with dead horse over night. She has to do a symbolic sex with dead horse. Since the dead horse could not do it, it seems was done by Vedic priests to give birth to a child from Horse. This process is known as Niyoga []. Manu Smriti talks about it. Also Purana mentions the Vedic sage Vashishtha had niyoga with the queen of king Kalmashapada. Swamiji was thanking Sri-Rama, that He deserted Maa-Sita by that time of Yajna, otherwise she could be a victim of priests overnight. Still they were desperately searching her and finally managed with her golden image.

In same letter Swamiji mentions - " A girl of eight is married to a man of thirty, and the parents are jubilant over it.... And if anyone protests against it, the plea is put forward, "Our religion is being overturned." What sort of religion have they who want to see their girls becoming mothers before they attain puberty even and offer scientific explanations for it? Many, again, lay the blame at the door of the Mohammedans. They are to blame, indeed! Just read the Grihya-Sutras through and see what is given as the marriageable age of a girl. ... There it is expressly stated that a girl must be married before attaining puberty. The entire Grihya-Sutras enjoin this.....What I mean by mentioning all this is that there were many good things in the ancient times, but there were bad things too. The good things are to be retained, but the India that is to be, the future India. must be much greater than ancient India. [CW-6]"

Letter date: 6th July 1890:

He writes “Priests, those idiots are beast. Don’t believe them at any cost”

Letter date: 22 August, 1892:

"Poor fellows! Whatever the rascally and wily priests teach them — all sorts of mummery and tomfoolery as the very gist of the Vedas and Hinduism (mind you, neither these rascals of priests nor their forefathers have so much as seen a volume of the Vedas for the last 400 generations) — they follow and degrade themselves. Lord help them from the Râkshasas in the shape of the Brahmins of the Kaliyuga. [CW-8]" Link -

Consequence of Caste Division

Swami Vivekananda - "The caste system is opposed to the religion of the Vedanta. Caste is a social custom, and all our great preachers have tried to break it down. From Buddhism downwards, every sect has preached against caste, and every time it has only riveted the chains. Caste is simply the outgrowth of the political institutions of India; it is a hereditary trade guild. Trade competition with Europe has broken caste more than any teaching. [CW-5]"

According to Swamiji, due to western exposure, industrialization, international competence, the caste system is fading away. 

During his visit to Kerala, Swamiji found severe untouchability.  Kerala is a place where Brahmins used to walk on road with shouting, “Apasara Apasara-move away, move away” from a distance. Swami Vivekananda has mentioned Kerala is a “lunatic asylum”

Those Brahmins even don't touch the shadow of lower-caste people. These lower caste people were forced to hold a pot on their neck to avoid spitting on road and broomstick on the waist so that they can clean impurities on the road while walking.  Lower caste women were not allowed to cover breasts. On seeing a Brahmin on road, they were told to remove upper garments as a show of respect. The strange part was the breast tax to cover breasts. One girl cut off her breasts to protest against the inhuman mulakkaram (breast tax) and died. [Link -].  

Swami Vivekananda wrote in a letter to Pandit Shankarlal of Khetri, from BOMBAY, in 20th September, 1892 – “To what a ludicrous state are we brought! If a Bhângi comes to anybody as a Bhangi, he would be shunned as the plague; but no sooner does he get a cupful of water poured upon his head with some mutterings of prayers by a Pâdri, and get a coat on his back, no matter how threadbare, and come into the room of the most orthodox Hindu — I don't see the man who then dare refuse him a chair and a hearty shake of the hands! Irony can go no further. And come and see what they, the Pâdris, are doing here in the Dakshin . They are converting the lower classes by lakhs; and in Travancore, the most priestridden country in India — where every bit of land is owned by the Brahmins, and the females, even of the royal family, hold it as high honor to live in concubinage with the Brahmins, nearly one-fourth has become Christian!. [CW-5]”  Link - BOLD RED marked line is not translated into English - It is present in Original letter published in Bengali language.

In another lecture “The future of India” he said “Was there ever a sillier thing before in the world than what I saw in Malabar country? The poor Pariah is not allowed to pass through the same street as the high-caste man, but if he changes his name to a hodge-podge English name, it is all right; or to a Mohammedan name, it is all right. What inference would you draw except that these Malabaris are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums, and that they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better. Shame upon them that such wicked and diabolical customs are allowed; their own children are allowed to die of starvation, but as soon as they take up some other religion they are well fed. There ought to be no more fight between the castes. [CW-5]” Link (This article clarifies further details - )

To escape from this severe untouchability, many Dalits got converted into Islam and Christian religions. After conversion they were getting respect from so called upper layer Hindus.

Opening the door of Liberation for All

First time in Indian Hinduism history Swami Vivekananda allowed Sudra (the 4th varna) to join as monks in Asram and worship in temple. Even He initiated many untouchables into Gayatri mantra and gave them sacred thread at Kolkata during the holy birthday of Sri Ramakrishna  and converted them into Brahmin. He said - "Whoever will come here on this sacred birthday of Shri Ramakrishna I shall invest him with the holy thread. These people have fallen from their true status....Each Hindu, I say, is a brother of every other, and it is we who have degraded them by our outcry, "Don't touch, don't touch!" And so the whole country has been plunged to the utmost depths of meanness, cowardice, and ignorance. These men have to be uplifted; words of hope and faith have to be proclaimed to them. We have to tell them, "You are men like us, and you have all the rights that we have. [CW-7]". 

Earlier Veda, Upanishads study were prohibited for Surda. Smriti holds that Veda is not to be read in the vicinity of a Sudra. “Shudra is a living corpse. His tongue is to be slit if he pronounces it; his body is to be cut through if he preserves it.” Swamiji broke this tradition and published Upanishads for the access of all. It was not a simple task to break this old age tradition. Swamiji was highly criticized during his time by orthodox Brahmins and many of his good friends deserted him. But He did not care for the consequence and decided to clean Hinduism single handedly without any fear. (Detailed article – )

Why Shudra suffers?

Another interesting thing is pointed to by Swami Vivekananda - Prodigies born in Shudra community have kicked out own community and joined upper layers. Whereas worthless from upper layer have downgraded into Shudra based on Smriti laws... So Sudra community acts as a dustbin in Hinduism. This community is never benefited by the prodigy it has created. So lower caste always remain as lower. He put few queries for lower caste people to seek - "Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning? What have you been doing all this time? Why have you been indifferent?"

This is known as Sanskritization in sociologist terminology, a particular form of social change found in India. It denotes the process by which castes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes. It is a process similar to passing in sociological terms. Link -

Swami Vivekananda - "Therefore, it is no use fighting among the castes. What good will it do? It will divide us all the more, weaken us all the more, degrade us all the more. The solution is not by bringing down the higher, but by raising the lower up to the level of the higher. And that is the line of work that is found in all our books, in spite of what you may hear from some people whose knowledge of their own Scriptures and whose capacity to understand the mighty plans of the ancients are only zero. What is the plan? The ideal at the one end is the Brahmana and the ideal at the other end is the chandala, and the whole work is to raise the chandala up to the Brahmana. Slowly and slowly you will find more and more privileges granted to them." Link -

The Swami Vivekananda defines Brahmana as the knower of Brahman, the highest truth - Brahman Janati Iti Brahmana. In his language - "This Brahmin, the man of God, he who has known Brahman, the ideal man, the perfect man, must remain.[CW-3]"

He has clearly discouraged Brahmana caste. Swamiji said to Brahmin caste in "THE FUTURE OF INDIA - "The day for these privileges and exclusive claims is gone. The duty of every aristocracy is to dig its own grave, and the sooner it does so, the better. The more it delays, the more it will fester and the worse death it will die. It is the duty of the Brahmin, therefore, to work for the salvation of the rest of mankind in India. If he does that, and so long as he does that, he is a Brahmin, but he is no Brahmin when he goes about making money.[CW-3]"

Special Privilege and Reservation

Swami Vivekananda, a great visionary, who was the first to talk of special privilege to be granted to unfit community to uplift them into main stream social life. Later Govt of India adopted this concept to provide reservation to lower caste communities. The provisions made in the Articles 16, 335, 338, 340, 341, 342 of the Constitution relate to reservation, protection and safeguards of “socially and educationally backward classes”.

Swami Vivekananda has preached of special care for lower caste people in his talk 'THE MISSION OF THE VEDANTA' - "if the Brahmin has more aptitude for learning on the ground of heredity than the Pariah, spend no more money on the Brahmin's education, but spend all on the Pariah. Give to the weak, for there all the gift is needed. If the Brahmin is born clever, he can educate himself without help. If the others are not born clever, let them have all the teaching and the teachers they want. This is justice and reason as I understand it [CW-3]. Link -

Swami Vivekananda writes – “If there is inequality in nature, still there must be equal chance for all — or if greater for some and for some less — the weaker should be given more chance than the strong. In other words, a Brahmin is not so much in need of education as a Chandâla. If the son of a Brahmin needs one teacher, that of a Chandala needs ten. For greater help must be given to him whom nature has not endowed with an acute intellect from birth. It is a madman who carries coals to Newcastle. The poor, the downtrodden, the ignorant, let these be your God. [CW-6]" Link - 

Caste Conversion

Swamiji has also talked of caste conversion as per Vedic Varna system. He suggested few ideas.

1. Revert back to Brahmin-hood: We are all Risi-putra. "The solution is not by bringing down the higher, but by raising the lower up to the level of the higher [CW-3]." The goal is to uplift everyone into the higher dimension of divinity. We need to manifest the Brahmin qualities as mentioned in Gita 18.42 - Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness-these are the qualities by which the brāhmaṇas work. We need to reach a civilization where proper Vedic Varna system based on Guna-Karma will be in place. Then only caste-less India will be possible.

2. Continue self-declaring: "There are thousands of castes, and some are even getting admission into Brahminhood, for what prevents any caste from declaring they are Brahmins? Thus caste, with all its rigor, has been created in that manner. [CW-3]". Instead of crying foul, people can self-declare or correct their castes based on Vedic Varna definition.

3. Rename the whole Community: "Let us suppose that there are castes here with ten thousand people in each. If these put their heads together and say, we will call ourselves Brahmins, nothing can stop them; I have seen it in my own life. Some castes become strong, and as soon as they all agree, who is to say nay? Because whatever it was, each caste was exclusive of the other. It did not meddle with others' affairs; even the several divisions of one caste did not meddle with the other divisions. [CW-3] (Article -

Facing the Criticism

Swami Vivekananda was never appreciated by orthodox people during his time. In the beginning orthodox dignitaries were denying to come forward to support him publicly due to his liberalness towards caste. But Swamiji did not compromise his ideal. Few orthodox was attacking him saying, - 'He was a Shudra, so he has no eligibility to read and teach Veda.'

The most unfortunate part is – He was not allowed to enter into Dakshineswar temple at Kolkata by those priests. Please note, in the same temple his Guru Sri Ramakrishna was living for a long time. Later Swamiji bought a separate land at Belur for Ramakrishna Mission. After this event, Swamiji did not went to Orissa to visit any temples. So conservative Hindu society even treated him as out-caste. (Article -


1. Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, Nine Volumes.
2. Book - Caste, Culture, and Socialism, Author: Swami Vivekananda,