Swami Vivekananda’s call for Hindu unity.

published on July 28, 2014

u=ru=tadasya yad vais`ya=m
pa=dbhya=m s`u=dro= aja=yata: 1

Purusu=kta of the R/k Ve=da has it that the four ‘varnas’ are the outward manifestations of the Brahman or the Supreme Being. The Brahman according to the R/k Ve`da has expressed itself into the four forms – Bra=hman/a, Kshatriya, Vais`ya and S~u=dra. The Bhagavad Gi+ta says, it is the duty of the Divine to incarnate in these four forms. For, the Lord of the Gi+ta opines, it is his duty to appear in the form his devotees worship him.

c/aturvidha= bhajante` ma=m
jana: sukrutino=rjuna
jn#a=ni +c/a bharatarshabha: 2

The Lord thus appears as knowledge before one desirous of getting knowledge, as the great saviour or protector to one plunged in the sorrows of life, as prosperity to who is groaning under poverty. Finally He, the all-merciful, appears as the servant of the devotee who conquers Him through devotion and love. One may note that the Lord condescended to the level of serving his devotees, Krishna who washed the feet of his beloved friend Sudama, and polished the toe nails of his Love and devotee, Radha are the examples par excellence. Besides, as Mahayogi Sri Aurobindo opines, this is a symbolic expression of the idea that the Truth manifests in different ways, that the God has different faces – the Divine as knowledge, the Divine as power, the Divine as material prosperity, and the Divine as service. The Vedas bristle with symbolic representations of the Supreme Truth, most of their hymns giving images to the hard and secret realities deriving from Seers’ intuitive and mystic vision. Accordingly the four Varnas represent the four cosmic principles, “the wisdom that conceives the order and principle of things, the power that sanctions, upholds and enforces it, the harmony that creates arrangement of its parts, the work that carries out what the rest directs”.3 All these four principles are the Brahman itself. The four Varnas are thus the Brahman manifest. Sri Aurobindo gives convincing explanation in many of his writings to how these four cosmic principles were later misinterpreted as the four castes when the age of symbolism had its transition into that of the conventions.

Yet in times when caste system grew worse to ill-define the social laws the eminent and the enlightened threw the caste restrictions to winds, defying them in their own lives proving the caste laws untenable before their rational stand. It is interesting to note that Bhargava Rama who annihilated the Kshatriyas or the ruling and warrior community in twenty one rounds was a Brahmin by birth. Guhak, the king of Sringivera referred to in the Ramayana was low born. But the Lord of Ramayana made no bones about his having been ferried across the river by this trusted and loving devotee. Guhak was both a king, and the beloved devotee of Sri Rama who had great respect to the latter. His caste proved no hindrance to his becoming the king nor did it stand in between him and his Lord. Drona, the tutor in archery to the Kurus and Pandavas and who fought decisively for the Kurus in the battle of Kurukshetra was a Brahmin by birth. Again, Vyasa who collected, classified and compiled the Ve=dac/atusht/aya which in later times was monopolised by the Brahmin caste, was the son of a Sudra woman. It may again be noticed that it was during the Mahabharata times that the caste system saw its most heinous expression. But it never proved static before Sri Krishna. Krishna, born of the low-caste Yadava family with cattle rearing as its profession was the head of the Vrishnis and Andhakas who controlled the republican council that governed Madhura. He was the King of Dwaraka and the statesman who was the king-maker in the battle of Kurukshetra. The great philosopher and brahmajn#a=ni who had for the first time threaded together all the systems of Yoga into the single garland, the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna proved himself to be the greatest scholar or Brahmin of his times. Krishna was thus Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra combined in one and none of his time could equal him in his oak-like massiveness and grandeur in any walk of life. Having thrown to winds all the man-made social divisions and discriminations, this hero of Kurukshetra declared: I have created the c/a=turvarn/ya according to the actions and taste of an individual. (c/a=turvarn/yam maya=srusht/am gun/akarma vibha=gas`a). Suffice it to say, caste never stood in the way of India’s progress as a national culture.

There were enlightening movements against caste based discrimination in India down the centuries. In fact the history of India bristles with movements and personalities, making their timely appearance to fight discriminations and disparities in socio-cultural realms. Bhagavan Buddha proclaiming the philosophy of freedom and equality from the Himalayan heights of his spiritual and supra-rational enlightenment proved to be the foremost of all crusaders for social justice and human rights. Buddha who never decried the Vedas however declined the caste system. Like his great predecessor Sri Krishna, Buddha too exhorted his followers to seek blissful asylum in the undifferentiated consciousness. While Krishna advised his disciple Arjuna to seek asylum in the supreme consciousness (buddhau s`aran/amanvis`c/a) without having any selfish desire, it being mean (krupan/a= phalahe`tava:) Lord Buddha too exhorted his disciples to seek asylum in the very same consciousness (buddham s`aran/am gachha=mi). A staunch advaitin that Buddha was, he saw the caste and communal differences as the very expressions of dvaita that bars one from attaining unity with the supreme consciousness. So long as the caste rules rule the ultimate unity of human beings and their unity with the Ultimate would be long in coming, Buddha realised. Hence his strong refutation of the caste system and attempt at neglecting the same in his spiritual activities aimed at salvaging the human soul from its ultimate fall. A true seeker, he sought to re-establish the sublime values of the Vedic tradition and preserve the spiritual knowledge it has carried down the centuries. In fact Buddha’s teachings were nothing other than the Vedic teachings couched in a new garb which proved appealing to all including the lowest and the lost. If to quote Swami Vivekananda,
… the aim of Buddhism was the reform of Vedic religion by standing against ceremonials requiring offerings of animals, against hereditary caste and exclusive priesthood, and against belief in permanent souls. It never attempted to destroy that religion, or overturn the social order. It introduced a vigorous method by organising a class of sannyasins into a strong monastic brotherhood, and the Brahmavadins into a body of nuns … 4

India’s fight against caste discrimination and inequality continued. Next it was Sankara, the advaita philosopher. Spreading the spiritual thought of pure monism throughout the length and breadth of India, this young sage from Kerala went ahead with his programme of preaching unity and equality of all irrespective of caste and creed difference. The sharp shaft of criticism he darted at the institution of caste and vested interests rubbed the pristine communities on the wrong side. His call to strictly observe the Varna Dharma instead of the caste rules grated on the sense of superiority of the Brahmins who disparaged and pooh-poohed him “Buddha in disguise” (prachhannabuddha). The story of their having boycotted his mother’s funeral is well known.

It was South India, especially Kerala, which saw the most notorious face of this caste discrimination. And it was Swami Vivekananda who for the first time alerted the Keralites about the impending disasters of the caste discrimination going uncontained. The neo-Vedantist that he was, Swami like his Seer predecessors saw that caste was the cancer eating into the vitals of the Hindu society, putting it at sixes and sevens. His early sojourn throughout the length and breadth of his motherland, along with familiarising him with many sublime aspects of the national culture, exposed to him some unpleasant areas too of the Hindu society. Of the latter the most abominable one doing away with the prospects of national unity was caste system. Kerala society of his times was darkened with many inhuman customs – outcastes were forbidden from touching or even nearing the caste Hindus. Social orthodoxy worsened to such a heinous level that an outcaste coming within the sight of the high born was deemed sinful. They were forbidden from wearing neat and clean dresses, or ornaments. Forced to wear stone chains around the neck as ornaments, they aired out a goblins’ look. They hardly had even human look. Such was the social ditch they were forced to plummet. Education was beyond their dreams. But it is a pity that it was the Brahmins who championed the cause of the Divine and had monopolised the lore that perpetrated all these undesirable social tendencies. Thus tightly bound by the thread of pristine supremacy the truth enshrined and embedded in the Vedas and a group of human beings who according to the Vedic teachings are the incarnations of the Divine suffocated. In south India, especially in Kerala, all those below the Brahmins were disparaged the Sudras. Even the Nairs, the modern caste Hindu group were written off in governmental records as Malayalasudras, leave alone others.

This caste based Hinduism Swami neither respected nor accepted. He would not accept anything discriminatory as the expression of the spiritual and hence his heavily coming down upon the caste system that was found rampant in Hindu society of his times. Warning the Hindus of the disastrous consequences of their becoming mad after caste, the Swami sarcastically said:

There is a danger of our religion getting into the kitchen. We are neither Vedantists, most of us now, nor Puranics, nor Tantrics. We are just “Don’t-touchists”. Our religion is in the kitchen. Our God is in the cooking-pot, and our religion is, “Don’t touch me, I am holy”. If this goes on for another century, every one of us will be in a lunatic asylum.5

The state the caste discrimination pushed the Hindu society towards was vulnerable. About one fifth of the Hindus crossed over to Islam and more than a million became converts to Christianity. The Hindu society in fact did little to help these destitute ones who were forced to bid adieu to their religion and the Gods they thus far worshipped owing to their having been ridden roughshod over by the Brahmin supremacy. Why that these people opted for Christianity or Islam? Swami asks. “Whose fault is it? … Why should they have become Mohammedans? … Materialism, or Mohammedanism, or Christianity or any other ism in the world could never have succeeded but that you allowed them”. Suffice it to say, it was the caste discrimination that forced the outcastes to quit their mother faith. A body with internal strength would not succumb to any disease, Swami opined. Simply said, the caste system proved to be the Hindu society’s internal proletariat that made it to lay bound before all the cultural invasions aimed at mass-converting the outcastes and the destitute Hindus into Mohammedans and Christians.6 It is indeed a Hindu’s highest misfortune that he can change only his religion, and not caste. In fact to a neglected and untouchable lot, bound by hardship imposed on them by the higher castes the only asylums were the doors other religions threw open before them. Having callously neglected to ‘brahminise’ and raise them from the ditches of caste tyranny, the higher castes only treated them like cattle. And it is no wonder these suffering lot escaped to other religions which they thought would accord them the status of equality and life’s best facility. “The Mohammedan conquest of India came as a salvation to the downtrodden, to the poor”. The advent of English administration to a good extent did away with many of the caste privileges. Almost one fifth of the Hindus crossed over to Islam and many escaped to Christianity. But what ailed the Swami more than anything else was yet another Hindu folly that would dig the grave of the Hindu society itself. Nothing shook his conscience like what he saw in South India. Warning the South Indians that “… one-half of your Madras people will become Christians if you do not take care”, Vivekananda surprisingly said:

Was there ever a sillier thing 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 castes.7

If this state would continue, Swami warned, half of the Hindus would become either Christians or Muslims. This neglecting attitude of the caste Hindus led to the conversion of more Hindus in the decades to come. For, so far as the outcastes were concerned once converted to other religions the higher castes who gave them so far only a canine status would begin respect them. Conversion thus brought for them a new status of equality and also a panacea for their grinding economic poverty. This being the case, more and more people took to other religions. It was in fact the Brahmin tyranny and negligence that acted as the main reason behind the massive conversion of the Hindus to other religion. It is high time that the Brahmins’ negative contribution in this regard is made a topic of research.

It is not a surprise that many Keralite scholars too upheld the same view as the Swami’s. Having taken an accurate stoke of the situation of Eranad in Malabar, blood-white with the cold blooded murder of the Hindus during the Moplah revolt of 1921, Kerala’s Master poet, Kumaran Asan too exuded similar opinion. Lamenting on the miserable plight (duravasth/a) of the Hindus, put to bloodbath by the “cruel Mohammedans”, Kumaran Asan called upon the former to cast aside their caste differences and unite to build up a bulwark for their self-defence.8 Like Swami Vivekananda, Asan exhorted the Malabari Hindus to change their age old custom of caste and warned them that these customs, if followed any more, would change them too, (ma=ttuvin c/at/t/anngal/e` allenkil ma=ttumatukal/i+ ningal/e`tta=n) definitely into non-Hindus – into Christians and Muslims! It was the disunity among the Hindus that made them the scapegoats of fanatical orgy of 1921. Had the Malabari Hindus developed a fraternity that stood above caste interests and united they would never have been the victims of Moplah fanaticism which devoured countless innocent Hindu lives. Definitely Kumaran Asan, the poet with farsightedness realised the dangers involved in the Hindu disunity. If the Hindus would go ahead with this age-old and worn out caste system it would change them or convert them into other religions, Asan knew. Hence his meaningful call to the Hindus to shed their superficial differences and unite for self-defence. The warning Kumaran Asan gave the Malabari Hindus in 1920s Swami Vivekananda had given already in the nineteenth century. Even in those days, a Brahmin lady, Savitri Anterjanam the victim of the fanatical orgy, as portrayed in Asan’s poem Duravasth/a could find asylum in the thatched hut of Chattan, an outcaste. But nowadays that too seems to be impossible with all the outcastes of this area having been already converted both for livelihood and high social status. The future of the Hindu society in Kerala has thus been down the decades darkened by internal divisions and dissentions and haunted by the forces of fanaticism and communalism from outside.

There is only one way for the Hindus to escape from the impending disasters, Vivekananda pointed out. It is the duty of the Brahmins to ensure this escape, he opined. He said:

So this accumulated culture of ages of which the Brahmin has been the trustee, he must now give to the people at large, and it was because he did not open this treasury to the people from the beginning, that for a thousand years we have been trodden under the heels of everyone who chose to come to India. It was through that we have become degraded, and the first task must be to break open the cells that hide the wonderful treasures which our common ancestors accumulated; bring them out and give them to everybody and the Brahmin must be the first to do it.9

The full onus of having bound the Hindu society with the thread of caste supremacy and separatism, according to Swami Vivekananda goes to the Brahmins. Therefore the responsibility too of getting the Hindu society rid of the caste system rests on the Brahmin shoulders. It is for the cobra to take back the poison from the body of the bitten before he dies. Vivekananda thus said:

There is an old superstition in Bengal that if the cobra that bites, sucks out his own poison from the patient, the man must survive. Well then, the Brahmin must suck out his own poison.10

The foremost duty is with the Brahmin, he being more educated than others, he having been the custodian of the sacred lore that proclaimed the philosophy of equality and human dignity. Therefore he makes it obligatory on the Brahmins “to work for the salvation of the rest of mankind in India”. Brahmins must not take this responsibility to uplift of the downtrodden as a ‘Whiteman’s burden’ but a cultural and divine mission

But along with accusing the Brahmins of their having degraded the Hindu society, the Swami reminded the non-Brahmins of their responsibility too. He exhorted the non-Brahmins to rise along with the Brahmins in knowledge, power and all that, rather than leaving once for all the wealth of tradition their ancestors developed and bequeathed to posterity, or leaving it to be monopolised by a certain section alone. After all, he believed in the rise of the working class as well as its necessity. He predicted that the working class or the Sudras would make their strong presence felt in all walks of life. “I am a socialist”, Swami wrote in one of his letters and in another place he said, “There will be a Sudra uprising with their Sudra-hood”. He predicted with no ambiguity that this Sudra uprising would first occur first in Russia and later in China. It is interesting that he predicted the advent of the proletariat culture and of the proletariat revolution in Russia and China at a time when Lenin himself had not dreamt of them, when Mao Tse Tung was not born, when Bolshevik Party had not even come into existence.11 He was thus highly confident of the awakening of the lowest and the lost. He believed that the mission of raising the future of humanity and its culture rests with the working class. In India this duty is of the non-Brahmins. Hence his call to the non-Brahmins:

To the non-Brahmin castes I say, wait, be not in a hurry. Do not seize every opportunity of fighting the Brahmins, because, as I have shown, you are suffering from your own fault. Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning? What have you been doing all this time? Why have you been indifferent? Why do you now fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck and go, than you? Instead of wasting your energies in vain discussions and quarrels in the news papers, instead of fighting and quarrelling in your own homes – which is sinful – use all your energies in acquiring the culture which the Brahmin has, and the thing is done. Why do you not become Sanskrit scholars? … That is the question. The moment you do these things, you are equal to Brahmin. That is the secret of power in India.12

Thus fight without hate and work for the uplift of humanity at large rather than harping on the masochistic theme of the time old tyranny and enslavement was the mantra Swami had given to the outcastes. Mere reservation would not do things, it being only a temporary arrangement, an interim arrangement till the complete equality of all come into being. Reservation is undesirable, it giving an edge for one on the other, Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our nation believed. Instead he preferred equality to reservation. Like Mahatma, Vivekananda who can well be hailed the Ra=sht/rapita=maha or the great Grandfather of our nation too zeroed in on the need of developing an Indian society based on the philosophy of equality and fraternity. Because, giving reservation to the outcastes would be in all ways equal to the reservation once enjoyed by the Brahmins earlier. In any way there would be inequality, for within reservation lies inequality. Any effort to transfer the reservation from one community to the other as a long term arrangement would be fruitless. It would be like the proverbial elephantiasis of Naranatthu Brantan which the Goddess Kali shifted from the Brantan’s one leg to the other instead of completely curing it.13 What we need is not mere shifting of the weakness from one leg to the other but strong and stout legs on which our nation and its society can stand. Suffice it to say, the strength of our nation depends on a strong and united Hindu society sublimated with love and equality based on fraternity and mutual acceptance. It is high time the Hindus learnt this lesson. In fact being devoured by the forces of destruction and devastation from all sides, Hindus are met with only two options – either learn from history or perish! The former would prove desirable. The Hindus had better fare the way Vivekananda had shown one century back. “Being of one mind is the secret of society. And the more you go on fighting and quarrelling about trivialities such as Dravidian and Aryan, and the question of Brahmins and non-Brahmins and all that, the further you are off from that accumulation of energy and power which is going to make the future India. For mark you, the future India depends entirely upon that”, Swami reminded the Hindus for good.

Foot notes
Purusu=kta. 13.
Bhagavad Gi+ta. VII, 16
Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle – The Ideal of Human Unity – War and Self-Determination, Pondicherry, 1985, p. 6.
Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Calcutta, 1989, Vol. 6. P. 161.
Ibid, Vol. III, p. 167.
Ibid, Vol. III, pp. 166-167.
Ibid, Vol. III, pp. 295-295.
Malabar Rebellion that witnessed the notorious massacre of the Hindus by the Muslims of Northern Kerala, as everyone knows, was the aftermath of the Khilaphat-Congress honeymoon which abruptly ended in the distrust between the Khilaphatists who were Muslims and the Congress workers, most of them Hindus. The cruelty unleashed against Hindus that beggared description has few parallels in history. The horror unleashed on the Vijayanagar as found in Sewell’s description itself would be dwarfed if each and every outburst would be picturesquely zeroed in on. Hindu man, women and children faced the worst tragedy, many of them having been brutally put to blood-bath. See ‘Petetion of Malabar Ladies to Lady Reading’, C. Sankaran Nair, Gandhi and Anarchy, Ottapalam, 2000, p. 100. Kuma=ran A+s`a=n, poet and social reformer wrote his poem duravasth/a against the backdrop of Malabar revolt. In the poem he describes the Muslim fanatical orgy that resulted in the massacre of unnumbered Hindus. His description of the pathetic scene of Savitri, the Brahmin lady who sought asylum in the hut of a C/a=ttan, an outcaste to escape from being molested and mutilated is heartbreaking.
Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Op. Cit, Vol. III, p. 298.
Santwana Dasgupta, ‘Vedanta and the Social Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda’, Parliament of Religion (Swami Vivekananda Centenary Edition) edited by R. C. Majumdar, Calcutta, 1965, pp. 237-255.
Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Op.Cit, Vol. III, p. 298.
The story is found in an interesting myth of Kerala. It is about the twelve sons of an outcaste woman – parayi – all born of Vararuchi. One of them was Naranathu bhrantan or the mad man of Naranathu as he was popularly called. Bhrantan (mad man) was a great scholar with unfathomable spiritual heights. Having sidelined all the material pleasures, he fared wherever he wanted. Once hunger stricken, he cooked his rice porridge on the funeral pyre at a sprawling crematorium where the fierce looking Goddess Kali used to perform her awe-full dance. However the presence of the Bhrantan on that day disrupted the dance. Though Kali tried her level best to frighten the Bhrantan he remained as cool as a cucumber. Surprised at Bhrantan’s courage, the Goddess asked him to request any boon he wanted. But what a boon an all renouncing vairagi that the Bhrantan was in need of? Still the Goddess insisted. “Okay”, the Bhrantan asked “you could either postpone or pre-pone my death”. Being none to change what is already willed by fate, Kali requested him to ask any other boon. “See the elephantiasis on my left leg. Shift it to my right leg and take leave of the place at the earliest. It is high time that I took the porridge”, Bhrantan pooh-poohed. Kali did it and escaped from the spot!

Author is Associate Professor of History, Sanatana Dharma College, Alappuzha and Vice-President of College Adhyapaka Sangham (Kerala College Professors’ wing of Akhil Bharatiya Rashtriya Saikshik Mahasangh).

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  1. Dr.C.Badrinathan Reply

    July 29, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Krishna’s Caste
    I am afraid that the writer has made a mistake in saying that Krishna was born in low Yadava caste. While it is true he grew up with low caste cow herads, he was by birth a Kshtriya beind the grand son of Ugrasena, the ruler of Mathura. He father was also a Kshtrya.

  2. Mani Reply

    July 29, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Blame the brahmins
    India has been a democracy – ‘of the people’, ‘by the people’ and for the people’. Brahmins form around 5 % of the population. The people in power – politicians, judges, police, IAS, bureacrats who run the country are responsible in making changes to the laws of the country. They are also responsible for teaching “Dharma” to kids. So how can you blame brahmins when the people in power, those who are in authority are not doing anything to change the system. Brahmins are not even in control of temples. The people in power are not engaging with Shankaracharyas as well. They are also sidelined by secular politics.

    Also read “Breaking India” by Rajiv Malhotra on how race theory of the British and 1901 census helped caste system getting entrenched.

  3. V.Ravindran, Bangalore. Reply

    August 31, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    Re: Chaturvarnyam & Caste
    With my little knowledge, what I understood is that there are four class of people according to Bhagvat Gita As It Is:”According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me, And although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the nondoer, being unchangeable” Bg.chap.4 Text: 13. a)Intelligent class of men technically called Brahmins (b) Administrative class technically called Kshatriyas (c) The Mercantile class is Vysyas – They do farming, Gouraksha and trade (d)Labour Class or working class and they are Sudras. No country can survive without these class of society. You take United States, UK, France, Germany, Russia etc., these chaturvarnya does exist. This is simple. Our perspective in India is different and that is the problem. If a Brahmin of today is working under somebody or Company or in Bank, is a Sudra. If a Sudra in India learns Veda, Smd. Bhagavatam, Bhagavat Gita etc.and he preaches
    the same, is a Brahmana. It goes like that. So called Brahmins are not Brahmins if they are doing other job in other areas. Hare Krishna !!

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