To Swami Vivekananda, an ideal form of society is that where the highest truth can be held, practised and lived by all. At another place he writes, “The ideal society would be the one in which would be synthesised the Indian idea of spiritual integrity and the western idea of social progress.”
He writes further, “If society is net fit for highest truths; make it so, and the sooner, the better.” He further says, “Societies should be moulded upon truth, and truth has not to adjust itself to society. If it cannot be practiced in society, it is better for man to give up society and go into the forest.”
Society is a divine institution. It has to manifest Truth — its real nature — and not to manufacture truth.
Here the question arises: what is the Highest Truth according to Swami Vivekananda? His answer is: The Existent is only one Only one without a second All this, verily is Brahman This soul is Brahman.
One of the noblest conceptions of Hindu social organisation is that of the four stages of life, “The student, the householder, the hermit, and the monk.”
Renunciation forms the basis of all these stages of life. While the principle of renunciation pervades the activities of the first three stages of life, in the last stage, man is required to renounce the world totally to gain spiritual wisdom before his life on earth terminates.
According to Swami Vivekananda, “All the men and women, in any society, are not of the same mind, capacity, or of the same power to do things.”
They cannot embrace a life of complete detachment from the world. Hence, for those who cannot do so, Hinduism offers the way of action, with graded discipline, to help them in their onward journey to spiritual perfection.
If pursued with the spirit of yoga, both the paths prove equally effective in carrying the individual to the shores of immortality. Swami Vivekananda held that the life of action, based on devotion and discrimination, was as sacred a path as that of renunciation. What testifies to a truly religious life is the inner spiritual qualities of man, and not the outward forms and observances.
Swami Vivekananda believes that the history of the world is the manifestation of four principles which find their concrete realization in the fourfold social varnas — the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya and the Sudra. The spiritual principle, he thinks, is embodied in Indian history.
The history of Roman expansion and imperialism represents the Kshatriya or military factor in action. The British mercantile aristocracy is the concrete demonstration of the ascendancy of the Vaisya principle, while “The American democracy will represent the Sudrocracy of the future.”
By and large he feels, “the east symbolized the concept of suffering while the west typifies the notion of action and struggle.”
Swami Vivekananda maintains that Alexander, Chinghiz Khan and Napoleon were inspired by the vision of unity — “to unify the world.”34 He also traces, “The similarity between the Vedic and the Roman Catholic ritual and holds the view that the latter had been derived from the former through Buddhism, which he considers a branch of Hinduism.”
Swami Vivekananda asserts: Indian thought influenced Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and the NeoPlatonist like Porphyry, Iamblichus, etc. In the modern world, Indian thought has influenced Western Europe, especially Germany.
In ancient Indian history, Swami Vivekananda observes, “There was a dialectical tussle between the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. The Brahmins represents conservative historicism and were the spokesmen of customs, traditions, and conventions and institutionalized patterns of behaviour.
The Kshatriyas, on the other hand, stands for a radical liberalism. Rama and Krishna also belonged to the Kshatriya aristocracy. Buddha is champion of a Kshatriya reaction. Kumarila, Samkara and Ramanuja, on the other hand tried to re-establish priestly power but failed.”
Swami Vivekananda is inspired “by the ideal of social harmony and synthesis embodied in the theory of Varna (caste) system of ancient India.” Originally, Varna system is the division of individuals into different sections or classes, according to their different tendencies and capacities. He does not propose any leveling of castes but he earnestly wanted that the caste system should be ennobled.
He says, “Caste is a very good thing. Caste is the plan we want to follow …There is no country in the world without caste. In India, from caste we reach to the point where there is no caste.” To him caste is a means to help everybody in attaining the status of a true Brahmin. A Brahmin is he who has killed all selfishness. To be a Brahmin is to be spiritually enlightened.
To prove this thesis further, Swami Vivekananda argued, “As there are `Sattva’, `Rajas’ and `Tamas’– one or other of these gunas are more or less is/are inherent in every man and form the basis of the qualities which make a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or a Shudra.
But at times, one or other of these qualities predominates in him in varying degrees and is manifested accordingly …it is quite possible for one to be changed from one caste into another.
Otherwise, how did Vishvamitra become a Brahmin and Parushrama Kshatriya?” Thus basically, by caste, Swami Vivekananda meant the raising of individuals gently and slowly towards the realization of the noble ideal of spiritually enlightened man.
Swami Vivekananda was against the abolition of the original caste system. He suggested that the caste in its degenerate state must be abolished. He pointed out, “From the time of Upanisads down to the present day, nearly all our great teachers have wanted to break through the barriers of caste, i.e. caste in its degenerated state, not the original system.”
He was of the view that the original idea behind the caste-system has rendered a great service to society. It was the most glorious social institution. Caste should not go, but should only be modified accordingly. Swami Vivekananda advocates that the new method is the evolution of the old. He believes, “Within the old structure is to be found life enough for the re-building of two hundred thousand new ones.”
Swami Vivekananda condemned the old orthodox Brahmanical doctrine of adhikaravada. This doctrine propounds the exclusion of the Sudras from the benefit of the Vedantic knowledge. Samkara also adhered to this undemocratic dogma. But Swami Vivekananda very strongly championed the concept of spiritual equality.
He bitterly criticised the existing social order in India based upon inequality of privileges. He calls it priestcraft. Defining the concept of privilege he says, “The enjoyment of advantage over another is privilege.” It is the bane of India. It is immoral.
Swami Vivekananda poses a question here and asks-“Can man degrade his brother and himself escape degradation?” …Can one injure anyone without injuring himself’? His answer is “no.” He further says, “the mass of Brahrnana and Kshatriya tyranny has recoiled upon their own heads with compound interest.”
Swami Vivekananda travelled all over India and he was deeply shocked to see with his own eyes that millions of people in India live on flowers of the Mohua plant and their blood is sucked by a million or two of sadhus and a hundred million or so of Brahmans.
He was convinced that this grinding poverty is the result of exploitation, tyranny and oppression on the part of the priestcraft and the privileged classes of India. He asks, “Can there be any effect without cause? Can there be punishment without sin.”
He further exclaimed, “Ah tyrants! You do not know that to obverse is tyranny and the reverse, slavery. The slave and the tyrant are synonymous. The tyranny of the minority is the worst tyranny in the world.”
Explaining the effects of tyranny Swami Vivekananda furthers says, “The lowest castes in India have been reduced to the state of professional beggars and have lost their manliness.” It is the result of the blows and kicks given to them by the higher castes at every step. Explaining the nature of priest craft, Swami Vivekananda said, “It is in its nature cruel and heartless. That is why religion goes down where priest craft arises.” In Vedanta, there is no idea of privilege.
Swami Vivekananda stressed that orthodoxy must go from society. To him society is a stratified organisation. Man lives in groups and performs his own function according to his capacity. Suppose, one man can govern the country and another can mend shoes but that is no reason why the former must trample over the head of other. This will have to go’.
He further says, “No privilege for any one equal chances for all; let everyone be taught that the divine is within and every one will work out his salvation.” Pointing to the impact of this tyranny on society Swami Vivekananda said, “That is why one-fifth of our people have become Mohammedan. It was not the sword that did it all. It would be height of madness to think so. And one-fifth-one half of your Madras people will become Christians if you do not take care.”
He maintained that all men are equal and equally entitled to spiritual wisdom. Every man should get his due. Indeed, his theory of democratic spiritualism was a radical step.
In the magnificent structure of Indian society, every brick is an indispensable part of the structure, and it ought to be good and strong. As each brick takes a certain load, and without it the structure becomes weaker to that extent, every individual member of society fulfils a certain function in it, thus contributing to the general welfare of the social structure as a whole. Individuals in a community have, each one of them, their allotted duty to perform, which if conscientiously discharged, will make for the smooth running of society, For this, every one must equip himself mentally, morally, and spiritually.
The Indian social organisation lays emphasis on opportunity and obligation, rather than on right and privilege. Every individual in society is expected to perform certain duties according to his Guna and karma, inborn aptitudes and abilities.
A Hindu is called upon to observe certain primary obligations, called masses i e. debts to be discharged to the gods, to the rishis, to the progenitors of the race, to fellowmen in society, and to all other creatures belonging to the sub-human species.
The wonderful scheme of varnasrama dharma, actuated and guided by the four purusarthas of dharma, artha, kama and moksa, was formulated by Indian ancestors chiefly to aid man in his evolution from the biological to the spiritual plane of existence. In Indian society, man is not looked upon as a mere specimen of a zoological species, but as a member of a social group which reflects in its organization the scheme of values for the realization of which the group exists.
By education and social discipline, the individual is helped to develop the inner conviction essential for social stability. But throughout, there is insistence on the fact that the highest values are transnational and truly universal.
Swami Vivekananda does not accept the hypothesis that the institution of caste in India is linked with Hindu religion. He says in one place that in religion there is no caste. Moreover, the truth can be learnt even from the lowest individual, without caring for his caste and creed. It is not the monopoly of any one. The caste system is opposed to the religion of Vedanta. Pointing out the fatal mistake of the social reformers of India, he says, “Beginning from Buddha down to Rammohan Roy, everyone made the mistake of holding caste to be a religious institution and tried to pull down religion and caste all together, and failed.”