Vivekananda’s views on caste are instructive in that they sum up the views of today’s defenders of the caste system. Even among people who don’t defend the caste system, you will find rich echoes of thoughts that Vivekananda puts forth.
What is the point of this article? To show that Vivekananda was a casteist? If by being casteist, it means that one is wilfully justifying an inhuman practice, then no. Vivekananda is not a casteist in that sense. I don’t think he had any malicious intent and means well when he defends the caste system. The point of this article is to show that even though his defense is well meaning, it isn’t of any good.
So, what does Vivekananda say about caste? He readily accepts that the caste system as it exists has become corrupt. He stresses that caste is not by birth, but is based on qualities. He even says that one exhibits qualities of all varnas in their life. The beauty of the caste system is that it leads to a stable non-violent system and the end result is that it achieves good for all. To drive home this point, he says that a brahmana is a brahmana only when they share their knowledge and strive towards making everyone else a brahmana.
On the face, it is a convincing defense. If such a system is put in place, how could it go wrong?
Firstly there is a problem in the assumption underlying “ If such a system is put in place…”. Since the dawn of civilizations, many have given solutions to all of human-kind’s problems. None of them worked. That is the evidence we have with us. The reason why they didn’t work is they assumed an utopia, a world which has a very low probability of existing.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim for an utopia. We can, but not at the cost of ignoring reality. Vivekananda talks about an age where everyone was a brahmana, and implies that we now live in a degenerate age and if only we strive hard enough, the golden age can come back. Given human history, the golden age is just a myth. It never existed.
Even if we ignore that, and assume that a golden age is very much possible, Vivekananda’s defense is still problematic. To see why, consider his prescription to combat issues of privilege:
It is in the nature of society to form itself into groups; and what will go will be these privileges! Caste is a natural order. I can perform one duty in social life, and you another; you can govern a country, and I can mend a pair of old shoes, but that is no reason why you are greater than I, for can you mend my shoes? Can I govern the country? I am clever in mending shoes, you are clever in reading Vedas, that is no reason why you should trample on my head; why if one commits murder should he be praised and if another steals an apple why should he be hanged? This will have to go.
Ignore the naturalistic fallacy at the beginning, replace “mend a pair of shoes” with “manual scavenging” and see if the intent still remains the same.
There are certain jobs which are done out of necessity and not because one is clever in them. Equating these jobs with jobs which are not done out of necessity is a wrong comparison. The solution then is to eliminate the need for such jobs or make every effort to lessen the undesirability of the job.
Also it is not necessary that only some set of people do a certain job. One can be clever at quantum physics and at the same time one can also be clever at cleaning up their own refuse. Such jobs are not mutually exclusive.
So even after ignoring the golden age myth of an all-brahmana society, the caste system still remains problematic because it believes in another set of myths – that all tasks are desirable and that some tasks can be performed only by some people and not by all.
I won’t accuse Vivekananda of not knowing that some tasks are not desirable. I’m sure that he did. But what he did not know is that those tasks can be done by all, thereby eliminating the need of having a group of people do it, or invest resources to reduce the undesirability of the task or eliminate the need of humans in doing it.
And finally we come to the main reason why Vivekananda’s defense is of no good. He says:
To the non-Brahmana castes I say, wait, be not in a hurry. Do not seize every opportunity of fighting the Brahmana, 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 newspapers, instead of fighting and quarreling in your own homes – which is sinful – use all your energies in acquiring the culture which the Brahmana has, and the thing is done. Why do you not become Sanskrit scholars? Why do you not spend millions to bring Sanskrit education to all the castes of India? That is the question. The moment you do these things, you are equal to the Brahmana! That is the secret power in India.
This again assumes a utopia. The non-brahmana castes have to just get more of something and they can also be a brahmana. How do they get that something? Be born with it? Or magically acquire it by delinking themselves with the real world and just assume that they can get that something by sheer force of will?
Except for a few cases, it doesn’t require much “brains” or “pluck” to do many tasks. All you need to do is train people in that task and they will do it. Now consider the time Vivekanada lived in. Some non-brahmana castes were actively denied education. Forget education. They couldn’t even drink water from the same well as that of the brahmanas. There existed a system which denied every opportunity to those people and yet Vivekananda is blaming them for not getting opportunities. He also blames that system (partly, not fully), but that is besides the point.
Consider this example – “Okay, you weren’t allowed go to school and learn math. Now you have a family to take care of and get little time for other pursuits. But why are you complaining that you can’t solve differential equations? Why quarrel in homes that you weren’t allowed to go to school? Instead of wasting your energy in such things, why don’t you just learn math and then solve differential equations?”
So the point is that even well-meaning individuals end up supporting a brutal system because they don’t rely on real world evidence and instead rely on myths.