“Caste Is A Very Good Thing”: 7 Times Vivekananda Defended The Caste System

Posted by Abhishek Jha in Society
January 12, 2017

In 1984, when the then Indian Government declared January 12- the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda as National Youth Day, it had a very noble idea in mind. “It was felt that the philosophy of Swamiji and the ideals for which he lived and worked could be a great source of inspiration for the Indian Youth,” the government had then reasoned.

The 20th century monk is regarded as a great thinker and social reformer, inspiring many with his ideas on liberty and free thinking. His ideas on the Indian caste system though need to be studied more carefully before according him that place. To be clear, Vivekananda did not write a treatise on the caste system, and his views regarding the issue can only be gauged by reading his lectures and writings in their entirety.

A close reading of his work reveals a strange dichotomy. While Vivekananda was against untouchability and exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich, in many of his lectures and speeches, he in fact praised the caste system, even going to the extent of calling ‘caste’ the ‘first idea of creation’.

According to him, “the original idea of Jati (caste) was this freedom of the individual to express his nature, his Prakriti, his Jati, his caste” and it was the social evils associated with it that needed to be done away. “He always is of opinion that the real, original caste system was highly beneficial one; and so, should be properly adjusted to suit modern societies, instead of being totally rejected,” a research paper on his work says.

Reading these excerpts culled from his complete works should be instructive in not only understanding Vivekananda’s ideas on the caste system, but also whether modern indian youth should follow him for inspiration.

1. I do not propose any levelling of castes. Caste is a very good thing. Caste is the plan we want to follow. What caste really is, not one in a million understands. There is no country in the world without caste. In India, from caste we reach to the point where there is no caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody a Brahmin, the Brahmin being the ideal of humanity.

-In an Interview to The Hindu, February, 1897

2. Indian caste is better than the caste which prevails in Europe or America. I do not say it is absolutely good. Where would you be if there were no caste? Where would be your learning and other things, if there were no caste? There would be nothing left for the Europeans to study if caste had never existed! The Mohammedans would have smashed everything to pieces. Where do you find the Indian society standing still? It is always on the move. Sometimes, as in the times of foreign invasions, the movement has been slow, at other times quicker. This is what I say to my countrymen. I do not condemn them. I look into their past. I find that under the circumstances no nation could do more glorious work. I tell them that they have done well. I only ask them to do better.

-In an Interview to The Hindu, February, 1897

3. You say we are heathens, we are uneducated, uncultivated, but we laugh in our sleeves at your want of refinement in telling us such things. With us, quality and birth make caste, not money. No amount of money can do anything for you in India. In caste the poorest is as good as the richest, and that is one of the most beautiful things about it.

-The Manners and Customs of India, Report in the Boston Herald, May 15, 1894

4. Money has made warfare in the world, and caused Christians to trample on each other’s necks. Jealousy, hatred and avariciousness are born of money-getters. Here it is all work, hustle and bustle. Caste saves a man from all this. It makes it possible for a man to live with less money, and it brings work to all. The man of caste has time to think of his soul; and that is what we want in the society of India.

The Brahmin is born to worship God, and the higher his caste, the greater his social restrictions are. Caste has kept us alive as a nation, and while it has many defects, it has many more advantages.

-The Manners and Customs of India, Report in the Boston Herald, May 15, 1894

5. These are a few ideas in our religion. It is one of inclusion of every one, exclusion of none. Though our castes and our institutions are apparently linked with our religion, they are not so. These institutions have been necessary to protect us as a nation, and when this necessity for self-preservation will no more exist, they will die a natural death. But the older I grow, the better I seem to think of these time-honoured institutions of India. There was a time when I used to think that many of them were useless and worthless; but the older I grew, the more I seem to feel a diffidence in cursing any one of them, for each one of them is the embodiment of the experience of centuries.

-In reply to the address of welcome from the Hindus of Jaffna, Sri Lanka

6. I have seen castes in almost every country in the world, but nowhere is their plan and purpose so glorious as here. If caste is thus unavoidable, I would rather have a caste of purity and culture and self-sacrifice, than a caste of dollars. Therefore utter no words of condemnation.

-In reply to address of the local Hindu community of Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu

7. Competition — cruel, cold, and heartless — is the law of Europe. Our law is caste — the breaking of competition, checking its forces, mitigating its cruelties, smoothing the passage of the human soul through this mystery of life.

-In reply to the Address of Welcome at Madras

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