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On Vivekananda's defense of caste
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Lije Offline
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Post: #1
On Vivekananda's defense of caste

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 post? To show that Vivekananda was a casteist? If by being casteist, it means that one is willfully 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 post is to show that even though his defense is well meaning, it isn't of any good.

So what does Vivekananda say? He readily accepts that the caste system has become corrupt. He stresses that caste is not by birth, but is based on qualities. Not only 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 goal is achieving 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 brahamana.

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 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 by ignoring reality. Vivekananda talks about an age where everyone is a brahmana, and implies that we live in a degenerate world and if only if strive hard enough, the golden age can come again. Given human evolution and recorded 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:

Quote: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. 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. (Or even better eliminate the need for cleaning up our own refuse and let machines do the job).

So even after ignoring the golden age myth of an all-brahamana society, the caste system still remains problematic because it still 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:

Quote: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 just 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. Non-Brahmana castes were actively denied education. Forget education. Some castes 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 whining that you can't solve differential equations? Why quarrell 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.
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karatalaamalaka Offline
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Post: #2
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

Vivekananda fails to confront the real brutality of the caste system. As you point out, human scavenging and similar tasks are unfair and inhuman impositions. In modern societies, janitorial positions are advertised just like other jobs and candidates are chosen based on their qualifications, etc. This is a fine model for choosing 'scavengers' (janitorial tasks cannot always be accomplished just by individuals cleaning up after themselves, especially at institutional scales- e.g. buildings, universities, public utilities, etc.) Now, being as we are in the 21st century, employers should provide janitors with the best equipment and strive to meet safety standards. India has largely failed at this. Streets are still swept with short brooms in a manner that is unsafe for the janitors. I conjecture that this apathy has little to do with money. Instead this lack of concern is partly due to the historical justifications for the caste system. Even in this age, a large fraction of the janitorial workforce in India belongs to the lower caste (I'm making this claim based on anecdotes, but I have little reason to expect data to contradict this). According to the caste system, people belonging to lower castes cannot aspire to the same standards of living as the upper castes. This leads to a rationalization that typically follows reasoning such as, 'to a janitor/construction worker janitorial work/construction work is itself a source of fulfillment.'

Given that India has almost never had the modern free-market approach to employing janitors (hate to use other words which are common in India, for reasons related to the aforementioned apathy and disdain- cleaners, sweepers, scavengers, etc.), I would think that somewhere in the depths of our poorly documented history, the historical basis for creating the lower castes ('untouchables') are similar to the origins of slavery- war and/or racial supremacy.

An aside: A couple of years back, I had volunteered to check Government of India websites for RTI compliance. I was shocked at some of the designations of staff in an NIT. As you will find in this document, NIT-Karnataka has a 'masalchi' and a 'sweeper/scavenger'. Surely such degrading job titles are indicative of something about the prevalence of regressive attitudes in our society? http://www.nitk.ac.in/assets/files/RTI-D...ar2010.pdf
(This post was last modified: 08-06-2012 10:19 AM by karatalaamalaka.)
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bala Offline
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Post: #3
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

Just read Vivekananda's argument. Wow... Just Wow! It's just like reading a modern day apologist arguement. Thanks for the link and the reply.
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geetha Offline
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Post: #4
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

My inline response to the second quote above:.

I say, wait, be not in a hurry.
Wait? For how long? Why shouldn't I hurry to get my rightful share in society?

Do not seize every opportunity of fighting the Brahmana, because as I have shown; you are suffering from your own fault.
Fighting the B? Well he has the choice not to fight and give up his privilege. My fault? BS! Nothing but classic Victim Blaming.

Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning? What have you been doing all this time? Why have you been indifferent?
Trying to make me feel ashamed now, is it?
So my plight is because I neglected spirituality and indulged in what?
Sanskrit learning - how is that special? Does it have any specialized knowledge which would help in my progress? Then why am I denied the chance to learn it?

Why do you now fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck and go than you?
And my outcry is nothing but 'fretting and fuming' and pray how did the B get more of everything.

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.
So simple? What do you think I am discussing and quarrelling about? And why am I doing it? How can I use all my energy in acquiring the 'culture' when my immediate concern is to look for my basic needs?

Why do you not become Sanskrit scholars?
As if that is the most coveted profession on earth! What use would that be?

Why do you not spend millions to bring Sanskrit education to all the castes of India? That is the question.
Spend millions for what? Really?

The moment you do these things, you are equal to the Brahmana!
And who the hell wants to be a Brahmana?

V obviously believed in the superiority of Brahmanas and the 'glory' of Sanskrit and thought that the B have attained a level of superiority because of their hard work, pluck, focus and intelligence. And he thought that if the non Brahmanas aped them and worked hard to attain the culture of Brahmanas, learn Sanskrit and practice spirituality then ....Then what? Would they be considered Brahmanas?

V asserts that Caste is a natural order and obviously he did not want to do away with the caste system entirely. He only wanted to 'reform' the caste system and do away with the 'corruption' in the caste system.
Going by his professed acceptance of equality between one governing a country and another mending shoes, all he wanted was a shoemaker who knew Sanskrit and who accepted that the exalted B had reached his position because of some 'superior' qualities and all that he can do is 'not waste his time in vain discussions and quarrels' but learn Sanskrit and practice spirituality in his spare time and aspire to behave like a B. But no he can't 'become' a Brahmana.

How very convenient! How expedient to maintain the social order without the oppressed thinking to rebel.

To quote him again
//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//
Non-violent because the oppressed don't rebel and good for all because when the oppressed believe they are getting what they deserve, they would be contented and it is 'good' for all concerned.

Condescending is the word! Totally.
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Captain Mandrake Offline
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Post: #5
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

Lije,

* 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. *

You are too charitable to Vivekananda. He exactly knows what he is talking about. So much fricking privilege.

I remember reading about Vivekananda in high school history class. We were not told about his views on caste system. He was just portrayed as a great philosopher and a reformer. As students we never questioned what exactly did he reform.

BTW, who in India decides what is taught in history and civics classes? Is it some sort of a federal board of education?
(This post was last modified: 05-09-2012 09:04 AM by Captain Mandrake.)
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nispat Away
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Post: #6
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

(05-09-2012 07:17 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote:  BTW, who in India decides what is taught in history and civics classes? Is it some sort of a federal board of education?

NCERT is the apex body to provide the content of educational books in India. The schooling is divided into central and state boards. NCERT however only advice these boards but can't decide for the boards. This is because education is the common subject for union and state government according to constitution.

The content of the current generation of History books can be found at NCERT website.

It depends on the type of board. Each state has education board and the committee is chosen to decide on the content of school books. The contents are usually revised in every 10 years.
Although the committee member are not linked with political party ruling the state, they are usually seemed influenced by them.

The only religion which gets concession in schooling system is Madarsah. Although states has some boards to decide the content of Madarsah education, I doubt the actual contents.

The school education is messy subject all over the world. It becomes more messy with the multi (culture, lingual, racial and religious) country like India.

Indians today are governed by two different ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their social ideal embodied in their religion denies them. - Ambedkar
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arvindiyer Offline
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Post: #7
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

(05-09-2012 07:17 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote:  BTW, who in India decides what is taught in history and civics classes? Is it some sort of a federal board of education?

One case-study of history curricula I am able to supply from memory is from the Maharashtra state board in the 1990s. Here is how the syllabi were organized from Class 3 to Class 10.

Class 3: The Stone Age, invention of stone tools, fire, the wheel etc.
Class 4: A hagiography of Shivaji featuring genealogy, major conquests and idealized narrative of kingship
Class 5: Part 1: Assorted biographies of humanitarians and liberators (Socrates, Spartacus, Abraham Lincoln, Sun-Yat Sen, Martin Luther King etc.) Part 2: History of Indian colonial rule and the freedom struggle (circa 1757 - 1947)
Class 6: History of ancient India from the Harappan culture to the Ghaznavid invasions, with coverage of early pan-Indian empires, art history and evolution of Indic religions
Class 7: Part 1: History of medieval India from the early Sultanates to the beginning of colonial rule Part 2: The age of Maratha dominance from Shivaji to the last Peshwas
Class 8: Part 1: History of the Renaissance, Reformation and European Enlightenment Part 2: The Bengal Renaissance and the Indian Freedom Movement
Class 9: A panoramic overview of historic milestones from Stone Age Inventions to the Russian Revolution, devoting chapters to the American War of Independence, French Revolution etc.
Class 10: Part 1: World War I and World War II Part 2: History of the Indian Freedom struggle

The arbitrariness in ordering with scant regard for chronology or context, and weighting of coverage in favour of events and figures of regional importance, are hard to miss. The Class 4 history text, for instance, featured a very graphic (and gruesome) description of the hand-to-hand mortal combat between Shivaji and Afzal Khan, which we as kids then read with the same fascination with which gory movie fight-scenes are viewed, but whenever I look back at it I wonder how such a section made it past a syllabus review committee. Sectarian and revivalist leanings become apparent in coverage of say the Mughal period, such as the description of Akbar's reign in the case mentioned here (and followed up here).

NCERT syllabi are hailed as better organized (both in the physical and social sciences), but then again, even when the content is in place, delivery is a major issue given the leeway schools may have in omitting certain portions and emphasizing others. One instance I can recall from my own schooling is how chapters in history textbooks dealing with the revolutionary movements in the Indian freedom struggle (radicals from the Left like Bhagat Singh et al and radicals from the Right like Savarkar et al) would often be omitted from the school portions, possibly out of excessive caution to avoid politically combustible classroom discussions with impressionable teenagers. So, even before mobilizing support in favour of syllabus redesign, one point of intervention is at the school lesson-plans itself. On a related note, one area where schools have near-complete autonomy is in the design of their 'value education' or 'moral science' curricula, where freethinking parents can attempt to provide their own inputs, along the lines of discussions like this one.

Staying with the social sciences, there is a need for a good deal of 'continuing education' or 'adult education' in India where historic revisionism is rampant in the blogosphere, and available video resources can come in handy in this regard. Such proneness of Indian netizens to be prone to both selective revisionism and sectarianism revivalism can perhaps be forestalled to a degree is due coverage in history books is accorded to the development of pluralistic societies rather than simply to a narrative of dominance of a series of empires.

Note to mods: Would it be helpful to start a thread "History and Civics Education in India" in either Social Sciences or Parenting and Education from post #6 onwards in this thread?
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Captain Mandrake Offline
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Post: #8
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

Arvind, Thanks for that. I too remember the same sequence from class 3 to 10, sans the Shivaji thing in class 4. I guess that was forced on you by Shiv Sainiks.

Typically in sciences you are taught simpler concepts in lower classes and more complex concepts in higher classes. Why can't a similar approach be used in history as well. I mean understanding stone age is just as important as understanding industrial revolution. Why not teach all these in higher classes after the students have developed critical thinking skills. May be in lower classes you can just focus on teaching these skills.

BTW, are kids at any point taught about controversies like Kashmir from both sides of the political spectrum? Are there even books about Indian history that are like Howard Zinn's books on American History?
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Post: #9
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

(05-09-2012 01:40 PM)nispat Wrote:  The content of the current generation of History books can be found at NCERT website.


Wow, textbooks are available for free download in the website above.
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nispat Away
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Post: #10
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

(06-09-2012 07:50 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote:  Arvind, Thanks for that. I too remember the same sequence from class 3 to 10, sans the Shivaji thing in class 4. I guess that was forced on you by Shiv Sainiks.

No, the history of Shivaji was not forced upon by Shiv sainiks. Shivaji was part of history of Maharashtra and Maratha kingdom at large. So teaching history of Shivaji shall not be seen as just a political issue.

However I always wondered the omission of post independence India in History. There was no reference whatsoever about killing of Gandhi, parliamentary system, Nehru as PM etc.

Indians today are governed by two different ideologies. Their political ideal set in the preamble of the Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their social ideal embodied in their religion denies them. - Ambedkar
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arvindiyer Offline
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Post: #11
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

(06-09-2012 10:01 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote:  Arvind, Thanks for that. I too remember the same sequence from class 3 to 10, sans the Shivaji thing in class 4. I guess that was forced on you by Shiv Sainiks.

(06-09-2012 01:21 PM)nispat Wrote:  No, the history of Shivaji was not forced upon by Shiv sainiks. Shivaji was part of history of Maharashtra and Maratha kingdom at large. So teaching history of Shivaji shall not be seen as just a political issue.

As a matter of fact, the textbooks I describe were in use before the first (and so far, only) Shiv-Sena-led state government in Maharashtra. James Laine's book was banned in 2004 by a Congress-led state government. No political outfit in Maharashtra raises any objection to such exorbitant proposals of installing a statue of Shivaji in the Arabian Sea at a then estimated cost of Rs. 350 crores. It is unlikely also that members of any political outfit with raise any objections of the ambitious Statue of Unity project whose conception though ostensibly inspired by the statue of liberty, seems to have preferred idolatry over allegory. This is an attempt to posthumously appoint a sole 'Founding Father' of the Republic, iconographically dwarfing all other contenders and intended to lend credence to a self-proclaimed 'reincarnation' and deliverer. Historic revisionism is not limited to syllabus redesign but extends to such architectural mega-projects within a larger agenda of social engineering. This is an accusation leveled against projects like the Samajik Parivartan Prateek Sthal, but the outrage seems curiously selective, given the costs to the exchequer and security overheads which the other monuments mentioned above pose.
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Post: #12
RE: On Vivekananda's defense of caste

(08-06-2012 06:34 AM)Lije Wrote:  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.

Just calling it a naturalistic fallacy does not make it one. Societies everywhere have labour-intensive professions. Germany is actually facing a crisis because no one wants low wage jobs. This is not because they don't like getting their hands dirty, but because low income jobs push you to the brink of poverty https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/03/germ-m22.html. 'Someone has to do it' as they in the US. And now we Indians whine about these jobs. Heck, as a graduate student I have to clean dishes, bleach nasty fungi off of glassware and the like, but I don't sit around whining. And its not just lower castes that have to do this. There are people who traditionally have belonged to the brahmin community that clean toilets and refuse for a living. Compare this Martin Luther King Jr.s idea that even a street sweeper should do his job as well as s/he can.
(This post was last modified: 01-02-2014 11:58 AM by Lije.)
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