To be more free is the goal of all our efforts, for only in perfect freedom can there be perfection. This effort to attain freedom underlies all forms of worship, whether we know it or not…It is because freedom is every man’s goal. He seeks it ever, his whole life is a struggle after it…This longing for freedom produces the idea of a Being who is absolutely free.
In this essay, Swamiji enjoins Indians to unite in loving brotherhood in protection of their sisters, wives, and daughters. He emphasizes that the uplift of India is impossible so long as the nation’s leaders ignore the inherent worth of women and the poor. The causes of their ongoing oppression lie in foreign conquests, the dishonoring of womanhood (shakti), the abuse of caste, and above all, materialism. The “don’t touchism” of puritannical untouchability is the bane of India’s progress, Swamiji argued; “The chief cause of India’s ruin has been the monopolising of the whole education and intelligence of the land, by dint of pride and royal authority, among a handful of men…Ay, in this country of ours, the very birthplace of the Vedanta, our masses have been hypnotised for ages into that state. To touch them is pollution, to sit with them is pollution! […]” It does not help if we think of women as polluting agents, as “‘despicable worms,’ ‘gateways to hell,’ and so forth.” His guru, Sri Ramakrishna, though advising chastity to his fellow sanyasins, always said that all women, irrespective of class, religion, or caste, are manifestations of the Divine Mother, Shakti. Affirming this truth, Vivekananda avers, “The Lord has said, “Thou are the woman, Thou art the man, Thou are the boy and the girl as well. And we on our part are crying, –‘Be off, thou outcaste!’–Who has made the bewitching woman?” (Our Greatest National Sin, Rebuild India)
As a result of man’s surrender to the lower instincts, the caste system has been exploited for personal and familial gain in India, particularly in the modern period. For instance, even as the Brahmin, the teacher of teachers, is held as the ideal of humanity in Vedic Hinduism, Swamiji points out that “in Travancore, the most priest-ridden country in India–where every bit of land is owned by Brahmins,” prompting mass conversions to Islam and Christianity amongst the masses. Kerala, he maintained, was a “madhouse of castes,” with each caste being subdivided into even minute “high” and “low” sub-castes within castes (OGNS). He points out that in cases of egregious land-grubbing and abuse of the downtrodden, the upper castes amongst the Hindus behaved like the “Pharisees and Saduccees,” incapable of seeing that every man, woman, and child is a soul, and thus, an aspect of Brahman, as the Hindu scriptures affirm (OGNS).
The problem, he concluded, was not the caste system, which is merely a way of dividing work, but the absence of love and an utter disregard of the inherent dignity of every form of labor that contributes to the welfare of all in India, whether one is a raja or a chandala, a businessman or a bhangi, a scientist or a shoe-maker. As he puts it, “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? You are clever in reading Vedas, but that is no reason why you should trample on,my head. Why if one commits murder should he be praised, and if another steal an apple why should he be hanged?
This will have to go. If you teach Vedanta to the fisherman, he will say, I am a fisherman, you are a philosopher, but I have the same God in me as you have in you” (The Nation Lives in Cottages). It is this mutual recognition, as co-workers in the kingdom of heaven on earth that we want, as African-American writer James Baldwin puts it. Swamji clarifies his ideal for rebuilding India in this image of Shakti in the following terms: “no privilege for any one, equal chances for all,” with everyone being taught that the divine is within, and every one will work out his own salvation.”
One finds striking parallels in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideals for the uplift of black America; Dr. King points out in his great sermon, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” “If it is for the uplifting of humanity, it has cosmic significance, however small it is. If you are called to a little job, seek to do it in a big way. If your life’s work is confined to the ordinary, seek to do it in an extraordinary way. If you discover that you are called to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michaelangelo painted pictures, like Beethoven composed music, and like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well’” (King, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” 24 January 1954). Indeed, Dr. King’s wife, the honorable Coretta Scott King, became a disciple of Sw. Vivekananda, remarking that Swamiji had delivered “the most definitive statement of religious tolerance and interfaith unity in history.” Under her leadership, the King Center observed the Centenary of the World Parliament of Religions in 1993, which included an interfaith tribute at the United Nations. On this auspicious occasion, she recalled her husbands words in affirmation of Vivekananda’s message to America and the world, noting that “My husband, Martin Luther Jr. said “Our loyalties must become ecumenical, rather than sectional…This called for world-wide fellowship is in reality a call for an all-embracing, unconditional love for all..that force which all the greatest religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”
“It was the Brahmins,” Sw. Vivekananda, himself of the scribal and ministerial Kayastha caste, acknowledges, “who made a monopoly of the religious books and kept the question of sanction and prohibition in their own hands. And repeatedly calling the other races of India low and vile, they put this belief into their heads that they were really such” (OGNS). Rather than opposing the division of social labor altogether, which would leave India wide open for chaos and conquest, he recommends that aptitude for certain forms of labor are inherent to every human being and in recognizing these aptitudes in all irrespective of their caste position, each individual can rise higher in proportion to his learning and culture. He points out in another essay, “The Nation Lives in Cottages” that “when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shudrahood; when he is busy transacting some business for profit, on his own account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs, then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God, or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brahmin” (TNLIC). While these duties have been obscured by the vanity of caste pride and the dint of materialism in this Kali Yuga, particularly in the wake of Western imperialism, Vivekananda points out that in truth, “it is quite possible for one to be changed from one caste into another. Otherwise, how did Vishvamitra become a Brahmin and Parashurama a Kshatriya? The son of a Brahmin is not necessarily always a Brahmin; though there is every possibility of his being one, he may not become so” (TNLIC). Social division of labor is obviously necessary for the organization of society and the progress of civilization, Vivekananda suggests. It is the motive which produces the quality of the action, which may be good or bad depending on how one performs one’s duty and for whom, the highest purpose being, the service of the God in Man, for each soul is potentially divine. When the motives of men are purified such that the aim is mutual service to mankind, caste is not inherently evil, and certainly preferable to the materialistic and color-based caste system of Western imperialism, which presumes all those not possessed of the boon of fair skin, “weak’ and “subject” races.
These points are echoed by Gandhiji, who said that the four varnas mark out “four universal occupations,” which include imparting knowledge (the office of the teacher), defending the defenseless (the duty of the warrior), carrying on agriculture and commerce (the role of the farmer and husbandman), and performing service through physical labour (the role of service and industry). While these occupations are common to all settled civilizations, like the Egyptians, Greeks, the Sumerians, the Chinese, and the Romans since its origins amongst humanity,
Gandhi underscored that Hinduism was amongst the first religions of the world to conceive of the four varnas–the four major orders of human labor comprised of the teachers and priests; the rulers,warriors, administrators; the agriculturalists and merchants; and the laborers and service providers–as the guiding purpose of our work in this fleeting world. The varna system was a way of regulating social relations, ensure production and survival, and promote good conduct and the cultivation of knowledge in human society. However, Gandhiji points out, like Swamiji, that “When Hindus were seized with inertia, abuse of varna resulted in innumerable castes, with unnecessary and harmful restrictions as to inter-marriage and inter-dining. These restrictions may be necessary in the interest of chastity and hygiene. But a Brahmana who marries a Shudra girl, or vice versa, commits no offence against the law of varnas. (Young India, 4-6-1931, p129). Gandhi did not, therefore, see the caste system, a form of social organization, as the cause of untouchability; rather the cause of untouchability was hatred, hypocrisy, greed, and rigidity. As he puts it, in 1933, “Untouchability is the product, therefore, not of the caste system, but of the distinction of high and low that has crept into Hinduism and is corroding it. The attack on untouchability is thus an attack upon this ‘high-and-low’-ness. The moment untouchability goes, the caste system itself will be purified, that is to say, according to my dream, it will resolve itself into the true Varnadharma, the four division of society, each complementary of the other and none inferior or superior to any other, each as necessary for the whole body of Hinduism as any other. (Harijan, 11-2-1933, p3).
Likewise, Swamiji pointed out that “The degeneration of India came not because the laws and customs of the ancients were bad, but because they were not allowed to be carried to their legitimate conclusions” (TNLIC). He maintained that “Our castes and our institutions…have been necessary to protect us as a nation, and when this necessity of self-preservation will no more exist, they will die a natural death,” adding that “Indian caste is better than the caste system which prevails in Europe or America,” where society is organized on the basis of the color line and the worth of a person is defined in terms of their material wealth.
Sw. Vivekananda ends the following essay, “Our Greatest National Sin,” with a piece of advice that may prove crucial to the development of twenty-first century India, a land where religion continues to animate the movement of civilization even as the lure of a deadening neo-utilitarian materialism, and an empty, self-seeking, neo-liberal secularism encroaches upon its spiritual inheritance. Those seeking to profit from India’s misery, those who see no respite beyond the sense-objects will only see poverty and squalor when they look upon India, only see her in terms of her putative lack, “Because in their minds enlightenment means dress, education, social politeness.” However, “Utilitarian standards cannot explain the ethical relations of men, for, in the first place, we cannot derive any ethical laws from considerations of utility.” So long as the ideals of a civilization are bound by such finite and limited parameters, it will remain stagnant, incapable of transcending its own ego. Does the dress of a man have any bearing on his character? Is it not ludicrous to judge the greatness of Bhagvan Ramakrishna, a God-man scantily clad in but a few folds of fabric, by his dress? Moreover, what is an education but the enlightenment of the soul, which is beyond this “two-days life,” this body, which is but a few pounds of ashes, as Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother so often said? What is politeness, that distinctive hallmark of civilization, but the “beauty of conduct” as Rabindranath Tagore reminds us in Creative Unity? If we follow these ideals of development, we will be led to believe that the apparent is the real and the real, that is the Effulgent One, the One without a Second, is unreal. After attending school as a child, Sri Ramakrishna quickly discovered that most secular education was about money-making rather than God realization, assimilation to the false notion that this world and the perceptions we receive through our senses is reality, rather than a distortion of it. He did not bother with the study of letters much and in his short earthly life, he gained the discipleship of some of the greatest thinkers of the modern world.
Never mind these illusions, says Swamiji! The wealth of India’s spiritual inheritance as Shankaracharya opined, is endless. However, there are “two curses” we must reverse through sincere devotion and renunciation in order to renew our commitment to this ideal, which has its basis, the concept of infinity and oneness: “first, our weakness, secondly, our hatred, our dried-up hearts.” We may talk of scientific, theological, artistic, doctrines by the millions, till we are blue in the face, splinter into warring sects “by the hundreds of millions,” and yet, nothing will manifest, until we “have heart to feel” for fellow brothers and sisters. “Feel for them as your Veda teaches,” Swamiji sang, “till you find they are parts of your own bodies, till you realise that you and they, the poor and the rich, the saint and the sinner, are all parts of the One Infinite Whole, which you call Brahma.”
Introductory essay by R. Divya Nair
OUR GREATEST NATIONAL SIN BY SW. VIVEKANANDA
I consider that the great national sin is the neglect of the masses, and that is one of the causes of our downfall. In India there are two great evils. Trampling on the women and grinding the poor through caste restrictions […]
Those uncared-for lower classes of India–the peasants and weavers and the rest, who hae been conquered by foreigners and are looked down upon by their own people–it is they who from time immemorial have been working silently, without even getting the remuneration of their labors.
Where are they through whose physical labour only are possible the influence of the Brahmin, the prowess of the Kshatriya, and the fortune of the Vaishya? What is their history , who, bbeing the real body of society, are designated at all time in all countries as ‘base-born’? Ye labouring classes of India, as a result of your silent, constant labours, Babylon, Persia, Alexandria, Greece, Rome, Venice, Genoa, Baghdad, Samarqand, Spain, Portugal, France, Denmark, Holland, and England have successively attained supremacy and eminence! And you?– Well, who cares to think of you?
Engrossed in the struggle for existence, they had not the opportunity for the awakening of knowledge. They have worked so long uniformly like machines guided by human intelligence and the clever educated section have taken the substantial part of the fruits of their labour. In every country, this has been the case. But times have changed. The lower classes are gradually awakening to this fact and making a united front against this, determined to exact their legitimate dues […]
The root of all evils in India is the condition of the poor…Priest-power and foreign conquest have trodden them down for centuries, and at last the poor of India have forgotten that they are human beings….The poor, the low, the sinner in India have no friends, no help–they cannot rise, try however they may. They sink lower and lower every day, they feel the blows showered upon them by a cruel society, and they do not know whence the blow comes. They have been compelled to be merely hewers of wood and drawers of water for centuries, so much so, that they are made to believe that they are born as slaves, born as hewers of wood and drawers of water […]
The mass of Brahmin and Kshatriya tyranny has recoiled upon their own heads with compound interest; and a thousand years of slavery and degradation is what the inexorable law of Karma is visiting upon them.
They who sucked the life-blood of the poor, whose very education was at their expense, whose very power was built on their poverty, were in their turn sold as slaves by hundreds and thousands, their wives and daughters dishonored, their property robbed for the las 1,000 years and do you think it was for no cause? […]
If anybody is born of a low caste in our country, he is gone for ever, there is no hope for him. And come and see…in Travancore, the most priest-ridden country in India–where every bit of land is owned by Brahmins…nearly one-fourth has become Christian! Just see, for want of sympathy from the Hindus, thousands of Pariahs in Madras are turning Christians. Don’t think this is simply due to the pinch of hunger; it is because they do not get any sympathy from us.
Why amongst the poor of India so many are Mohammedans? 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 Mohammedans than Hindus amongst the cultivators, because there were so many zemindars there.
Who reduced the Bhangis and the Pariahs to their present degraded condition? Who is responsible? And the answer comes every time; Not the English, no, they are not responsible; it is we who are responsible for all our misery and all our degradation, and we alone are responsible. 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 Vyavaharike […]
We speak of many things parrot-like, but never do them; speaking and not doing has become a habit with us. What is the cause of that? Physical weakeness. That physical weakness is the cause of at least one-third of our miseries. We are lazy, we cannot work; we cannot combine, we do not love each other; we are intensely selfish, not three of us can come together without hating each other, without being jealous of each other […]
Our nation is totally lacking in the faculty of organisation. It is this one drawback which produces all sorts of evil. We are altogether averse to making a common cause for anything. The first requisite for organisation is obedience.
There are two curses here: first, our weakness, secondly, our hatred, our dried-up hearts. You may talk doctrines by the millions, you may have sects by the hundreds of millions; ay, but it is nothing until you have heart to feel. Feel for them as your Veda teaches, till you find they are parts of your own bodies, till you realise that you and they, the poor and the rich, the saint and the sinner, are all parts of the One Infinite Whole, which you call Brahma.
What is this? Where is weakness? Who is strong? What is great and what is small? What is high and what is low in this marvellous interdependence of existence where the smallest atom is necessary for the existence of the whole? Who is great and who is small? It is past finding out! And why? Because none is great and none is small. All things are interpenetrated by that infinite ocean; their reality is that infinite; and whatever there is on the surface is but that infinite. The tree is infinite; so is everything that you see or feel — every grain of sand, every thought, every soul, everything that exists, is infinite. Infinite is finite and finite infinite. This is our existence.
—Swami Vivekananda, Practical Vedanta
My art derived from a desire to find the common ground between the religions of the world, which all share an abiding faith in the possibility of love, truth, and peace in liberating humankind from the bondage to suffering. As a Hindu, who is a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda and Holy Mother Sarada Devi, I believe that God exists in us all and so, acts through us all. Sri Ramakrishna said that we must look for God in all for we are all His creations and in Him we are One. Accordingly, I believe that a work of art should strive to render this purity of the soul force, which is none other than God himself working through us.
Pictured below is a painting of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s apostle of peace, observing the leprosy bacteria under a microscope in 1942, rendered in oil, acrylic, and ink on a 16 x 20 canvas. Gandhi prophesied that the choice that we face today is not between nonviolence and violence but nonviolence and self-annihilation. Though our present pandemic affects all, the poor of oppressed nations are most debilitated by its economic and political consequences. I wondered as I painted this what Gandhi might say of our own times, a time where modern medicine has discovered marvelous remedies for all manner of ailments and yet, arguably, we are, on the whole, in poorer shape healthwise. As the world teeters on the brink of war and as our immune systems struggle against the stress of modernity, we might humbly return to his message of peace delivered not just to those seeking freedom from the brutalities of racial oppression under colonial rule but to all humankind seeking deliverance from its own brute nature, as we stumble and fumble our way towards God.
Today marks the 157th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda was only 29 when he gave his address at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. As he put it in his lecture, “I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects…. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”
A staunch critic of Western imperialism, he railed against American Christian missionaries who traveled to India to “convert the heathens”: he remarked acerbically in one speech he gave while in America, “You train and educate and clothe and pay men to do what? — to come over to my country and curse and abuse all my forefathers, my religion, my everything. They walk near a temple and say, ‘You idolaters, you will go to hell.’ But the Hindu is mild; he smiles and passes on, saying, ‘Let the fools talk.’ And then you who train men to abuse and criticize, if I just touch you with the least bit of criticism, but with the kindest purpose, you shrink and cry: ‘Do not touch us! We are Americans; we criticize, curse, and abuse all the heathens of the world, but do not touch us, we are sensitive plants.” Like Gandhi and the vast majority of Indian people, Vivekananda recognizes that Christianity of the West was a bankrupt enterprise, deployed in the justification of slavery and empire.
Well versed in Western philosophy, logic, and science, and the greatest disciple of his master, Sri Ramakrishna, he sought to bring to the Western world the knowledge of the Vedas, the ancient learning of India. Though largely uncredited for his contributions, he, in fact, developed a new science of the mind. It was in America that he composed his major work, Raja Yoga. His role in the founding of modern psychology has been relatively unacknowledged. He had a profound influence on William James, who was one of W.E.B Du Bois’ professors at Harvard University. James met him in 1894 and again in 1896 when Vivekananda gave a lecture at Harvard, on the religions of India and comparative religions. Many of of James’s colleagues at Harvard (and Du Bois himself who drew on Hindu philosophy constantly in his own work) and the wider community of Cambridge, MA were drawn to the truth of Vivekananda’s teachings about religion, science, and the freedom of the soul. One sees the influence of Vivekananda in James’s 1902 work The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, particularly in the connections between religion and neurology, the reality of the unseen, and the fundamental unity of the self and the universe.