Perhaps we are once again at that historic juncture where religion has to bear the brunt for the existence of social evils such as caste system. India was at such a juncture during the social reform movements of the late nineteenth century. We can get a sense of this if we go through the letters of Swami Vivekananda and especially the lectures he delivered in southern India after returning from the West in 1897.

By Dr Arpita Mitra

Many reformers in eastern, western and southern India attacked the Hindu religion in their attempt to fight the ills that plagued Hindu society. Thus, practices that were essentially social in nature, like caste oppression and gender discrimination, were all confounded with religious teachings, and the blame for the existing social inequality and consequent social degeneration was laid at the door of the Hindu religion. Swami Vivekananda repeatedly pointed out how mistaken this tendency was, and equally laid the blame on votaries of religion for interference in social matters leading to its chastisement.

If the gist of all Indian spiritual wisdom is to be summarized in a few words, then, following Swami Vivekananda, it can be put forth as preaching the ‘divinity of man.’ The Shvetasvatara Upanishad exhorts, ‘Shrinvantu Vishwe Amritasya Putrah’ —’Listen ye, Children of Immortality.’ Rich, poor, Brahmin, pariah, man, woman, Asian, European—we are all children of immortality and bliss. We are infinite, we are divine. This is the teaching of India, this is sanatana dharma. And this teaching is best expressed in what we call Vedanta (the essence of the Vedas), which primarily means the Upanishads. If all of us are divine, then that is the ultimate milestone of equality. Then does that mean inequality does not exist? Certainly it does. The phenomenal world cannot exist without inequality and differentiation. Thus, we see inequality in Nature. But as Swami Vivekananda teaches us, ‘All differences in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.’ This means that there is difference in form, that is, manifestation; but there is sameness in content, that is substance.

Swamiji gives the example of a clay elephant and a clay mouse. Both are same insofar as their substance is concerned, that is, clay; but there is difference in the form. It is better to treat this as difference rather than as inequality, because even though the mouse is smaller in size and strength than the elephant, the latter can never do what the former can do—if an elephant is trapped in a net, only a mouse can release it by cutting through the net. Hence, it is better to understand this difference as difference, rather than as inequality. However, human nature is such that it invariably associates strength and size with some kind of superiority and invents the insidious doctrine of inequality.

Then what happened to this lofty teaching? Why do we see the denigrating reality of caste system around us, instead of everyone treating everyone else as divine? Swamiji himself admits 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 necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism.’ But what is the reason for this? Swamiji explains that ‘this state of society exists not on account of religion, but because religion has not been applied to society as it should have been.’

It is not the Hindu religion which is at fault, but self-seeking groups of people, who have used religion to promote their own interests and special privileges. Thus, Swamiji says, ‘This is my method — to show the Hindus that they have to give up nothing, but only to move on in the line laid down by the sages and shake off their inertia, the result of centuries of servitude…we must move forward, not on the lines of destruction directed by renegades and missionaries, but along our own line, our own road. Everything is hideous because the building is unfinished…Now finish the building and everything will look beautiful in its own place. This is all my plan. I am thoroughly convinced of this. Each nation has a main current in life; in India it is religion. Make it strong and the waters on either side must move along with it.’

‘The building is unfinished’ means that we have not yet applied our core religious teachings the way they should have been. We have not yet practised our religion, we are merely stuck with rituals, doctrines, beliefs, customs. Unless the great spiritual truths expressed in the Upanishads are practised and realized, we have not followed our religion. This is the only way to national greatness. As Vivekananda remarks, ‘That society is the greatest, where the highest truths become practical.’ When old and new reformers attack our religion, it is a case of misplaced criticism.

On 29 September 1894, Swamiji wrote to his disciple Alasinga Perumal, ‘it was that the modern reformers saw no way to reform but by first crushing out the religion of India. They tried, and they failed. Why? Because few of them ever studied their own religion, and not one ever underwent, the training necessary to understand the Mother of all religions. I claim that no destruction of religion is necessary to improve the Hindu society, and that this state of society exists not on account of religion, but because religion has not been applied to society as it should have been. This I am ready to prove from our old books, every word of it. This is what I teach, and this is what we must struggle all our lives to carry out.’

Just how did this happen—that we lost our way on the path of religion and spirituality? Swamiji says, ‘What can you expect of a race which for hundreds of years has been busy in discussing such momentous problems as whether we should drink a glass of water with the right hand or the left? What more degradation can there be than that the greatest minds of a country have been discussing about the kitchen for several hundreds of years, discussing whether I may touch you or you touch me, and what is the penance for this touching! The themes of the Vedanta, the sublimest and the most glorious conceptions of God and soul ever preached on earth, were half-lost, buried in the forests, preserved by a few Sannyasins, while the rest of the nation discussed the momentous questions of touching each other, and dress, and food.’ On account of historical circumstances or on account of whatever else, we got engrossed with trivial, inconsequential things, and forgot the essence of religion.

What is the way out? Swami Vivekananda laid great emphasis on freedom. He said that there can be no growth without liberty. He remarked,

‘Our ancestors freed religious thought, and we have a wonderful religion. But they put a heavy chain on the feet of society, and our society is, in a word, horrid, diabolical. In the West, society always had freedom, and look at them. On the other hand, look at their religion.

Liberty is the first condition of growth. Just as man must have liberty to think and speak, so he must have liberty in food, dress, and marriage, and in every other thing, so long as he does not injure others….

Now, this is to be brought about slowly, and by only insisting on our religion and giving liberty to society. Root up priestcraft from the old religion, and you get the best religion in the world. Do you understand me? Can you make a European society with India’s religion? I believe it is possible, and must be.’

The freedom that our religion represents in the spiritual sphere has to be brought forward and applied to every walk of life, and especially social life, where there should no longer be any discrimination on the basis of caste, class or gender. For the basis of our old religion is the innate divinity and substantial equality of the soul.

Swamiji succinctly summarized the guiding principles of life that we derive from our ancient religion:

‘We believe that every being is divine, is God. Every soul is a sun covered over with clouds of ignorance, the difference between soul and soul is owing to the difference in density of these layers of clouds. We believe that this is the conscious or unconscious basis of all religions, and that this is the explanation of the whole history of human progress either in the material, intellectual, or spiritual plane — the same Spirit is manifesting through different planes.

We believe that this is the very essence of the Vedas.

We believe that it is the duty of every soul to treat, think of, and behave to other souls as such, i.e. as Gods, and not hate or despise, or vilify, or try to injure them by any manner or means. This is the duty not only of the Sannyasin, but of all men and women.
The soul has neither sex, nor caste, nor imperfection.’

This is sanatana dharma. Its destruction would mean the destruction of the universe, of the entire Creation, of all that is good in the world.

Swamiji gave us the true definition of religion: ‘Religion is the manifestation of divinity already in man.’ At the same time, he also pointed out that the votaries of religion are responsible for such a situation that religion is blamed for every ill in our society. Thus, he wrote to Alasinga,

‘We believe that nowhere throughout the Vedas, Darshanas, or Puranas, or Tantras, is it ever said that the soul has any sex, creed, or caste. Therefore we agree with those who say, “What has religion to do with social reforms?” But they must also agree with us when we tell them that religion has no business to formulate social laws and insist on the difference between beings, because its aim and end is to obliterate all such fictions and monstrosities…

Social laws were created by economic conditions under the sanction of religion. The terrible mistake of religion was to interfere in social matters. But how hypocritically it says and thereby contradicts itself, “Social reform is not the business of religion!” True, what we want is that religion should not be a social reformer, but we insist at the same time that society has no right to become a religious law-giver. Hands off! Keep yourself to your own bounds and everything would come right…

Especially, therefore, you must bear in mind that religion has to do only with the soul and has no business to interfere in social matters…

What business had the priests to interfere (to the misery of millions of human beings) in every social matter?’

During his days as a parivrajaka in India, he was pained to see the condition of the masses, and since then the topmost idea on his mind was how to uplift the masses and the women of India, for he could see clearly that India would rise only when these two sections of society progress and prosper. Can a country where a brother despises another brother ever progress? When he went to southern India, he was aghast to see the caste system prevailing there, almost bordering onto insane practices. Despite his anguish, when it came to giving his views on what was to be done with the caste system, he evinced such broadness of vision that went far beyond the narrow demand for the abolition of the caste system:

‘With the question whether caste shall go or come I have nothing to do. My idea is to bring to the door of the meanest, the poorest, the noble ideas that the human race has developed both in and out of India, and let them think for themselves. Whether there should be caste or not, whether women should be perfectly free or not, does not concern me. “Liberty of thought and action is the only condition of life, of growth and well-being.” Where it does not exist, the man, the race, the nation must go down.

Caste or no caste, creed or no creed, any man, or class, or caste, or nation, or institution which bars the power of free thought and action of an individual — even so long as that power does not injure others — is devilish and must go down.

My whole ambition in life is to set in motion a machinery which will bring noble ideas to the door of everybody, and then let men and women settle their own fate. Let them know what our forefathers as well as other nations have thought on the most momentous questions of life. Let them see especially what others are doing now, and then decide. We are to put the chemicals together, the crystallization will be done by nature according to her laws…Keep the motto before you — “Elevation of the masses without injuring their religion”.

Remember that the nation lives in the cottage. But, alas! Nobody ever did anything for them. Our modern reformers are very busy about widow remarriage. Of course, I am a sympathiser in every reform, but the fate of a nation does not depend upon the number of husbands their widows get, but upon the condition of the masses. Can you raise them? Can you give them back their lost individuality without making them lose their innate spiritual nature? Can you become an occidental of occidentals in your spirit of equality, freedom, work, and energy, and at the same time a Hindu to the very backbone in religious culture and instincts? This is to be done and we will do it. You are all born to do it. Have faith in yourselves, great convictions are the mothers of great deeds. Onward forever! Sympathy for the poor, the downtrodden, even unto death — this is our motto.’

Another problem with any movement that seeks to condemn something, no matter how progressive it appears, is bound not to be fruitful. In principle, a Brahmin is a person who is devoted to Brahman, the name by which Hindus call the Ultimate Reality. In principle, Brahminhood represents devotion to knowledge; it does not signify hierarchy or oppression or the caste system. Swamiji says that ‘Brahminhood is the ideal of humanity in India’ and the solution to the caste problem is ‘not to degrade the higher castes, not to crush out the Brahmin’, the way forward is ‘not by bringing down the higher, but by raising the lower up to the level of the higher.’ Seeking to destroy the ideal of knowledge itself is suicidal, self-destructive.

Swami Vivekananda was perhaps the greatest modern reformer of all, for he wanted ‘root-and-branch reform’, not skin-deep or piece-meal social engineering. He said of himself: ‘…I have a message for the world which I will deliver without fear and without 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. Where we differ is in the method. Theirs is the method of destruction, mine is that of construction. I do not believe in reform; I believe in growth.’

What shall we do by abolishing the caste system if inequality and discrimination (on any basis) exists in our own minds? The only way to abolish inequality is to recognize the innate dignity and divinity of all living beings—nay even that of inanimate matter. It is only be cultivating this spirit that we can be truly humble, truly samadarshi (a person with sameness of vision). And this solution is given in our religion itself. Thus, Vivekananda remarked that ‘the old Hinduism can only be reformed through Hinduism, and not through the new-fangled reform movements.’ And he took upon himself the task of taking the Vedanta, which Adi Sankara left in the hills and forests, out of those places and scattering it broadcast before the work-a-day world and society.

Religion is the life-blood of India. Religion, as the cry of the human soul for the Infinite, is the single object to which the people of this land have dedicated their heart and soul and entire being and perfected themselves on this path over millennia. The destruction of religion would mean the destruction of India. But, as pointed out above, we need to grasp the real meaning of religion.

Sanatana dharma is the eternal law, the law of nature, that no human being can change, and the prescribed duty based on this law. Sanatana dharma was not created by any human being. It was only discovered by the rishis of yore, who dived deep in meditation to discover these eternal truths. They are unchanging not because some human beings put an embargo on changing them. They are unchanging, because they represent the immutable laws of the universe. The caste system is a historical and contingent, therefore, changing phenomenon that is an offshoot of sanatana dharma, but it is not an integral or defining feature of sanatana dharma.

Sanatana dharma would remain and can be upheld even when there is no caste system. Let us think logically—religion (although the meaning of the word ‘dharma’ was not religion), whose core is spirituality, the optimum development of the human being—what does that have to do with the caste system, which is a social order? True, the Veda describes the origin of the four varnas—but that is not the same thing as the caste system. This varna division was based on the differences between one person and another depending on their innate nature and temperament. Then came into existence the jati system which was based on occupational difference. Gradually this system fossilized. And when the Western Indologists discovered Hinduism, they found caste to be its most defining feature (they still do).

The colonial census finally put the nail on the coffin by robbing the caste system of whatever flexibility or mobility it had. It is true that the sanction for the caste system was provided by those who claimed to represent religion or at least worked on the basis its authorization. The system was actually codified in the Dharmasastras, which form the smriti literature of India. Whatever is there in the smriti texts is historically contingent and subject to change. But the way forward for us is to build a society based on our sruti texts—the Upanishads—that uphold eternal and universal truths such as the divinity of man. Even tradition accords greater authority to sruti over smriti.

It may not be irrelevant here to point out that we often tend to draw from Swami Vivekananda in a selective manner—some draw from his efforts at instilling pride in Hindu culture, whereas others highlight how iconoclastic he was. He was both and there need not be any contradiction between the two, because he was teaching what religion truly is. Swami Vivekananda is the rishi of yore who came back to remind us of our true religion, and he wanted each one of us to be rishis and no less. He is the maker of future India. He said, ‘Go back to your Upanishads—the shining, the strengthening, the bright philosophy…Take up this philosophy; the greatest truths are the simplest things in the world, simple as your own existence.

The truths of the Upanishads are before you. Take them up, live up to them, and the salvation of India will be at hand.’ This is what sanatana dharma truly is. It is good that we are getting an opportunity to wash our dirty linen, to thrash out and settle issues whose resolution is long overdue. This can be done meaningfully by reflecting on Swamiji’s message. For the new India to rise, these debates must now be resolved once and for all. For the new India to rise, it is essential that we remain one, and not divided by social divisions and conflicts.

This article first appeared in and it belongs to them.