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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Caste & the Tamil Nation

Tamil Nationalism & the Caste System
- Swami Vivekananda and Saint Kabir

S.M.Lingam, 29 March 2005

Swami Vivekananda condemned the Caste System
Basic Ideas of Hinduism
Sufferings of 'Low Caste' Hindus
Priestcraft and Brahminism
Saint Kabir's Condemnation


Tamil nation is a political community, a grand solidarity. To maintain its solidarity, the Tamil nation has to remove all sorts of divisions that causes dissension and discord among its members. The Caste System is such a pernicious division that has plagued our society for thousands of years.

The Caste System still occupies an important place in the Hindu religion. The primary aim and ideal of all religions is the emancipation of all its followers, especially that of the weaker sections and the downtrodden. So it is strange that a religion like Hinduism goes against that ideal and purposefully condemn a section of its own followers as untouchable outcasts. The Hindu Brahmins have created theoretical explanations, Puranic stories and religious myths to support and justify their conduct. The sole aim of what is called "Brahminism" is to create and maintain a system which gives a supreme place of importance to Brahmanic priests and other Brahmins in general.

Since all of these arguments are purported to be based on Hinduism, it is proper that we examine the ideals of real Hinduism and its basic tenets.

Swami Vivekananda condemned the Caste System

To interpret and explain those subtle and deep matters let us get the help of an appropriate authority like Swami Vivekananda [1863-1902].Then under the British Imperialism and facing a great onslaught of Christian Missionaries, the status of Hinduism was very low.

At that time, Swami Vivekananda had travelled all over India from Kanniyakumari in the South to the Himalayas in the North.We may have heard of Swami Vivekananda Rock and Memorial in Kanniyakumari. Besides he was the first Indian Saint [Self-Realized Person] to visit the Western countries in 1893.After hearing his memorable address to the Chicago Parliament of Religions on 11 September 1893,an American newspaper commented,

"Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him, we feel how foolish it is to send Missionaries to this learned nation".

In such a way he brought high respect and praise to Hinduism and India. Being aware of India and the Western world, his views were very enlightening and instructive. Most of the following quotes are from the Letters of Swami Vivekananda. Letters are private and therefore one expresses his ideas and innermost feelings in an unrestricted and straightforward manner there. Besides all of his letters were hand-written by Swamiji himself, whereas most of his other published materials were recorded by his disciples and others. So they never had the benefit of his editing or revision. Therefore his letters are more authentic expression of his ideas and opinions.

Basic Ideas of Hinduism

Explaining the basic ideas of Hinduism, Swami Vivekananda writes:

"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 due to the difference in density of these layers of clouds. We believe that this is the conscious or unconscious basis of all religions, and 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 this 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. We believe that nowhere throughout the Vedas, Darshanas, or Puranas, or Tantras, it is ever said that the soul has any sex, creed, or CASTE". - Letters of Swami Vivekananda, p.69.

"In the Atman there is no distinction of sex, or Varna [caste] or Ashrama or anything of the kind, and as mud cannot be washed away by mud, it is impossible to bring about oneness by means of separative ideas". ---- Letters; - p.200-201.

"In the Atman there is no distinction of male or female, of Brahmin or Kshatriya, and the like; All is Narayana from the Creator down to a clump of grass. The worm is less manifested, the Creator more manifested. Every action that helps a being manifest its divine nature more and more is good, every action that retards it is evil. The only way of getting our divine nature manifested is by helping others to do the same". --- Letters; --p.255.

Lord Buddha, a Kshatriya and not a Brahmin, was against the Caste system. Writing of Buddha, Swami Vivekananda says:

"What Buddha did was to break wide open the gates of that very religion which was confined in the Upanishads to a particular caste........... His greatness lies in his unrivalled sympathy". ---- Letters; -- p.18.

"The religion of Buddha has reared itself on the Upanishads, and upon that also the philosophy of Shankara. Only, Shankara had not the slightest bit of Buddha's wonderful heart, dry intellect merely!". --- Letters; -p.19.

But the Brahminic priests preached against the teachings of Buddha. Swamiji writes:

"Religion is not in fault. On the other hand, your religion teaches you that every being is only your own self multiplied. But it was the want of practical application, the want of sympathy - the want of heart.

The Lord once more came to you as Buddha and taught you how to feel, how to sympathise with the poor, the miserable, the sinner, but you heard Him not. Your PRIESTS invented the horrible story that the Lord was here for deluding demons with false doctrines!

True indeed, but we are the demons, not those that believed.......... You are bond slaves to any nation that thinks it worth while to rule over you. Ah, Tyrants! You do not know that the obverse is tyranny, and the reverse slavery. The slave and the tyrant are synonymous." - Letters; -- p.40-41.

"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. The Lord has shown me that religion is not in fault, but it is the Pharisees and Sadducees in Hinduism, hypocrites, who invent all sorts of engines of tyranny in the shape of doctrines of Paramarthika and Vyavaharika." - Letters; - p.41.

"Whenever the Kshatriyas have preached religion, they have given it to everybody; and whenever the Brahmins wrote anything they would deny all right to others. Read the Gita and the Sutras of Vyasa, or get some one to read them to you. In the Gita the way is laid open to all men and women, to all CASTE and colour, but Vyasa tries to put meanings upon the Vedas to cheat the poor SHUDRAS." - Letters; --- p.70.

Sufferings of 'Low Caste' Hindus

Then commenting on the tortures and sufferings endured by the Low-Caste Hindus, Swami Vivekananda writes:

"If anybody is born of a LOW CASTE in our country, he is gone for ever, there is no hope for him. Why, what a tyranny it is!.............................. How many people really weep for the sorrows and sufferings of the millions of poor in India? Are we men? What are we doing for their livelihood, for their improvement? We do not touch them, we avoid their com- pany! Are we men? Those thousands of Brahmanas - What are they doing for the low, downtrodden masses of India? "Don't touch", "Don't touch", is the only phrase that plays upon their lips! How mean and degraded has our eternal religion become at their hands! Wherein does our religion lie now? In "Don't touchism" alone,and nowhere else!" --- Letters; --p.61-62.

"My brother, what experiences I have had in the South, of the upper classes torturing the lower! What Bacchanalian orgies within the temples! Is it a religion that fails to remove the misery of the poor, can turn men into gods! Do you think our religion is worth the name? Ours is only "Don't touchism", only "Touch me not". Good heavns! A country, the big leaders of which have for the last two thousand years been only discussing whether to take food with the right hand or the left, whether to take water from the right-hand side or from the left ........ if such a country does not go to ruin what other will? .......................

A country where millions of people live on flowers of the Mohua plant -and a million or two of Sadhus and a hundred million or so of Brahmins suck the blood out of these poor people, without even the least effort for their amelioration - is that a country or hell? Is that a religion, or the devil's dance? My brother, here is one thing for you to under- stand fully - I have travelled all over India, and seen this country [he means U.S.A] too - can there be an effect without cause? Can there be punishment without sin?" {This letter was written to his brother disciple Swami Ramakrishnananda [Sashi] from America on 19 March 1894}. ------ Letters; --- p.81.

"Why amongst the poor of India so many are Mohamedans? It is nonsense to say, they were converted by the sword. It was to gain their liberty from the ....... zemindars and from the ..... PRIEST, and as a consequence you find in Bengal there are more Mohamedans than Hindus amongst the cultivators because there were so many zemindars there. Who thinks of raising these sunken, downtrodden millions?" ---- Letters; --- p.95. [Note:Swami Vivekananda is from Bengal - now West Bengal; East Bengal became East Pakistan and now it is Bangladesh]

"I have no doubt that according to 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!" - Letters; --- p.8.

"There is no harm in touching the non-Brahmin classes when it serves one's purpose, and when you have done with it, you bathe, for the non-Brahmins are as a class unholy and never be touched on other occasions! Monks and Sannyasins and Brahmins of a certain type have thrown the country into ruin. Intent all the while on theft and wickedness, these pose as preachers of religion! They will take gifts from the people and at the same time cry,

"Don't touch me!". And what great things they have been doing!-
"If a potato happen to touch a brinjal, how long the universe last before it is deluged?"
"If they do not apply earth a dozen times to clean their hands, will fourteen generations of ancestors go to hell, or twenty-four"

For intricate problems like these they have been finding out scientific explanations for the last two thousand years -while one-fourth of the people are starving." ------ Letters; --- p.254.

"The present religion of the Hindus is neither the path of knowledge, nor that of reason - it is "Don't touchism", "Don't touch me!","Don't touch me!" -that exhausts its description. See that you do not lose your lives in this dire irreligion of "Don't touch-ism". Must the teaching,-"Looking upon all beings as your own self"- be confined to books alone? How will they grant salvation who cannot feed a hungry mouth with a crumb of bread? How will those who become impure at the mere breath of others purify others? Don't touchism is a form of mental disease." ------ Letters; ---- p.255-256.

"Well, do you think there is any religion left in India? The path of knowledge, devotion,and Yoga -all have gone, and now there remains only that of Don't touchism - "Don't touch me!" "Don't touch me!". The whole world is impure, and I alone am pure." - Letters; --- p.183.

"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. Some friends advise, "True, lay all that at heart, but outside,in the world of relative experience, distinctions like CASTE must needs be maintained"...The idea of oneness at heart [with craven impotence of effort, that is to say], and outside, the hell-dance of demons -oppression and persecution-ay, the dealer of death to the poor; but if the PARIAH be wealthy enough," Oh,he is the protector of religion"

Over and above, I come to see from my studies that the disciplines of religions are not for the SHUDRA; if he exercises any discrimination about food or going out to foreign lands, it is all useless in his case, only so much labour lost. I am a Shudra, a Mlechcha, I have nothing to do with all that botheration. To me what would Mlechcha's food matter or Pariah's? It is in the books written by PRIESTS that madnesses like that of CASTE are to be found, and not in the books revealed from God. Let the PRIESTS enjoy the fruits of their ancestors' achievment, while I follow the word of God, for my good lies there." - Letters; --- p.337-338.

Priestcraft and Brahminism

Swami Vivekananda was strongly against priestcraft by which he means what we call 'Brahminism'. He was of the opinion that the priestcraft is the root cause of all the existing systems of social tyranny. He writes:

"India is to be raised, the poor are to be fed, education is to be spread, and the evil of priest- craft is to be removed.NO PRIESTCRAFT, NO SOCIAL TYRANNY!....... Root up priestcraft from the old religion, and you get the best religion in the world." --- Letters; --- p.174.

"Priestcraft is the bane of India. Can man degrade his brother and himself escape degradation?" --- Letters; ---- p.234.

"A race of dotards, you lose your caste if you come out! Sitting down these hundreds of years with an ever-increasing load of crystallized superstition on your heads,for hundreds of years spending all your energy upon discussing the touchableness or untouchableness of this food or that, with all humanity crushed out of you by the continual social tyranny of ages -what are you? And what are you doing now?... ................................................... 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 priestcraft first. Come, be men! Come out of your narrow holes and have a look abroad. See how nations are on the march! Do you love men? Do you love your country? Then come, let us struggle for higher and better things; look not back, no, not even if you see the dearest and nearest cry. Look not back, but forward!" --- Letters; ---- p.37.

"The Smritis and the Puranas are productions of men of limited intelligence and are full of fallacies, errors, the feelings of class,and malice. Only parts of them breathing broadness of spirit and love are acce-ptable, the rest to be rejected. The Upanishads and the Gita are the true scriptures -Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Chaitanya, Nanak, KABIR,and so on are the true Avataras, for they had their hearts broad as the sky -and above all, Ramakrishna. Ramanuja, Shankara,and others seem to have been mere Pundits with much narrowness of heart. Where is that love, that weeping heart at the sorrows of others? - Dry pedantry of the Pundits - and the feeling of only oneself getting salvation hurry-scurry! But is that going to be possible, sir? Was it ever likely or will it ever be so? Can anything be attained with any shred of "I" left anyhow?" - Letters; --- p.337.

Saint Kabir's Condemnation

As mentioned above Swami Vivekananda accepts Saint Kabir as a "true Avatara". Kabir belongs to the 15th century. Kabir's songs are noted for their simplicity and bluntness. Even at that time he raised his courageous and powerful voice against all sorts of stiff orthodoxies and pretentious pieties. He belongs to the line of our Tamil Siddhas. So he vehemently opposed the CASTE system and never hesitated to condemn the selfish and narrow-minded activities of the Brahminic Pandits as well as that of the Mullas of Islam.Saint Kabir writes:

"Trickling through bones, melting through flesh Where does milk come from? That's what you drink after lunch,Pandit. And you call clay untouchable? Throw out your holy scriptures, Pandit, those fantasies of your mind. Kabir says, listen, Brahmin: All this is your own doing." - The Bijak of Kabir, p.57-58.

"Kabir says, saints, this is Kaliyug: the age of phony Brahmins." - The Bijak, p.47.

"If putting on the thread makes you Brahmin, what does the wife put on? That Shudra's touching your food,pandit! How can you eat it?" - The Bijak, p.69-70.

"Numskull! You've missed the point. It's all one skin and bone,one piss and shit, one blood,one meat. From one drop,a universe. Who's Brahmin? Who's Shudra?" - The Bijak, p.67.

"I'm telling you my own truth, madmen follow others' dreams. Hidden and visible --all one milk. Who's the Brahmin? Who's the Shudra? Don't get lost in false pride." ------ The Bijak, p.83.

"Pandit, look in your heart for knowledge. Tell me where untouchability came from,since you believe in it. Mix red juice,white juice and air- a body bakes in a body. As soon as the eight lotuses are ready,it comes into the world.Then what's untouchable?" ------ The Bijak, p.55.

"Vedas,Korans,all those books, those Mullas and those Brahmins - So many names,so many names, but pots are all one clay. Kabir says,nobody can find Ram, both sides are lost in schisms. One slaughters goats, one slaughters cows, they squander their births in isms." ---- The Bijak,p.51.

"The Pandit got lost in Vedic details but missed the mystery of his own self. Worship, prayers, six sacred activities, four ages teaching Gayatri, I ask you: who's got liberty? You splash yourself if you touch somebody, but tell me who could be lower than you. Proud of your quality, great with authority, such pride never brought anyone good. He whose name is Pride-Breaker - how will he tolerate pride like yours? Drop family, drop status, seek the nonexistent space, destroy the shoot, destroy the seed, reach the unembodied place." ---- The Bijak, p.85-86.

"So what if you dropped illusion? You didn't drop your pride. Pride has fooled the best sages, pride devours all." ---- The Bijak, p.106.

"Dropped from the belly at birth, a man puts on his costumes and goes through his acts. On that day you and I had one blood, and one desire for life engulfed us. The world was born from one mother. What wisdom teaches separation?" - The Bijak, p.79.


The views expressed above by Swami Vivekananda and Saint Kabir clearly show that the Caste System is against the basic and fundamental ideas of Hinduism. No religion worth the name can support such a system. It is only the works of "phony Brahmins" who are prepared to 'take gifts from the people and at the same time cry "Don't touch me"'. The Brahminic priests put most of their energy in elaborating rituals and imposed the load of ceremonials and lifeless rituals on the people in the name of Hinduism. Their sole aim has been to keep the Brahmins in the highest place and to continue the exploitation of all other followers of Hinduism. In fact Swami Vivekananda confirm this view. He says:

"The majority of the priests impelled by ECONOMICAL CONSIDERATIONS were bound to defend that form of religion which made their existence a NECESSITY of society and assigned them the HIGHEST PLACE in the scale of caste." ---- [The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda - Vol.VI-p.160].

So if we want to remove the clever evil and treacherous caste system put in place by the Brahmins then that can only be done by the proper education of the masses. The spread of education would bring better awareness among the downtrodden masses and would equip them with the necessary ways and means to seek their emancipation. Besides, education in turn would empower them to better their economic and social conditions. We must remember then only the Brahmins can have 'knowledge' and only they had the power to imp- art that knowledge. They proclaimed that it to be an abominable sin if 'others' dared to gain knowledge. Now we are free to make use of that education and knowledge to enhance our status.

In Tamilnadu the Dravida Movements could not achieve much in this field because they wanted to get rid of the Hindu religion as a whole. As Swamiji has pointed out the Hindu religion is not at fault. It was the superstitious rituals and ceremonials - the priestcraft - of the narrow-minded and merciless Brahmins that should be abolished.

That should be rooted out and a purified Hindu religion should emerge. But we ought to be very vigilant because Brahminism is a covert, cunning and formidable enemy. Shri Shankara and his band of Sannyasins were able to push out Buddhism - a great and noble Indian religion which was against the CASTE system - from India.Besides,even though the CASTEISM is such a cruel and oppressive system, the Indian Marxists have carefully avoided a head on clash with CASTEISM.In West Bengal and Kerala states, the Indian Leftists have been in power for a considerable period of time but even then there is no marked improvement in the status of the low-caste Hindus living in those states. Here it may be noted that many of the leading Indian Leftists are Brahmins.

Here I am mainly concerned with our Tamil Eelam. We are fortunate that our liberation struggle has greatly weakened the hold of the oppressive CASTE system among our people. It has only weakened but not wiped out completely. So we must make conscious effort to completely eradicate this oppressive and antiquated institution. At first,we must get rid of the Brahminic priest system. The prevailing system that only those people from the caste of Brahmin can serve as temple priests must be changed. If we want meaningful and actual equality among the Hindus then all Hindus without any caste distinctions but having the necessary education and training must be allowed to serve as temple priests.

Another anachronistic remnant of Brahminical orthodoxism is the continued exclusive use of the "dead language" Sanskrit for worship. Our Tamil language has a very rich devotional literature and therefore it is eminently suitable for religious worship. Our Saiva and Vaishnava saints and others have left a rich and varied legacy of devotional songs. People must speak to their God in an intimate way,in their own language. Why we must be treated like a conquered community? Like an enslaved followers of a religion whose Gods we have to approach through interpreters using a language which we don't understand. Religion is there for 'liberation'. There should be freedom, faith, and feeling based on conviction and understanding. When they are lacking then we must understand that we are on the wrong path.

The Caste system has existed for many thousand years. No other system of human differentiation based on religion has endured for so long a time. So in the course of its existence it has produced many sub-castes with innumerable inner divisions. Shastras, Puranic Stories and religious myths are there to support its continued existence. Often human beings fear the unknown, death, disease and perdition more than they fear their mortal enemies. Even highly educated and very rational-minded people are scared to give up strange, silly and ridiculous things taught to them in the name of God and their religion. So we have to proceed with prudence. But the passionate and spirited exposition of the noble and sublime ideals of Hinduism as presented by Swami Vivekananda, Saint Kabir, our Tamil Siddhas, Thayumanavar, Ramalinga- Swamigal, Sri Ramana Maharshi and others should give us conviction, confidence and a commitment to achieve a caste-free Hindu society.


1.Letters of Swami Vivekananda --Fifth Edition, September 1981, -- Advaita Ashrama, 5,Dehi Entally Road, Calcutta 700 014.

2.The Bijak of Kabir -- Translated by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh -- First Indian Ed. -1986. -- Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi 110 007.

3.The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda --- Mayavati Memorial Ed. - Vol.VI - March 1989- - Advaita Ashrama, 5, Dehi Entally Road, Calcutta 700 014.

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