What type of caste-system did Swami Vivekananda advocate? Birth-based or guṇa-based? And on what basis?

If he believed one's varṇa is determined by their guṇa:

  • Did he reject smṛtis such as Manu which seem to advocate birth-based varṇāśrama?

  • How did he interpret the Puruṣa-sūkta verse brāhmaṇo 'sya mukham ... padbhyāṃ śūdro ajāyata (brāhmaṇa was born from Puruṣa's mouth ... śūdra from his feet)?


2 Answers 2


Vivekananda advocated a return to a karma-guna based varna system and not the last name based jati system. Both the karma-guna based varna system and the last name based jati system are birth based. The present varna of a person is dependent on the past karma and guna in the karma-guna based varna system and a person can indeed transcend his varna through spiritual practice. The jati or caste of a person is decided by the last name of a person's family in the last name dependent caste system and it is impossible to change one's caste.

I fully agree with the educated classes in India that a thorough overhauling of society is necessary. But how to do it? The destructive plans of reformers have failed. My plan is this. We have not done badly in the past, certainly not. Our society is not bad but good, only I want it to be better still. Not from error to truth, nor from bad to good, but from truth to higher truth, from good to better, best. I tell my countrymen that so far they have done well — now is the time to do better.

Now, take the case of caste — in Sanskrit, Jâti, i.e. species. Now, this is the first idea of creation. Variation (Vichitratâ), that is to say Jati, means creation. "I am One, I become many" (various Vedas). Unity is before creation, diversity is creation. Now if this diversity stops, creation will be destroyed. So long as any species is vigorous and active, it must throw out varieties. When it ceases or is stopped from breeding varieties, it dies. Now the original idea of Jati [i.e. Varna] was this freedom of the individual to express his nature, his Prakriti, his Jati, his caste; and so it remained for thousands of years. Not even in the latest books is inter-dining prohibited; nor in any of the older books is inter-marriage forbidden. Then what was the cause of India's downfall? — the giving up of this idea of caste. As Gitâ says, with the extinction of caste the world will be destroyed. Now does it seem true that with the stoppage of these variations the world will be destroyed? The present caste is not the real Jati, but a hindrance to its progress. It really has prevented the free action of Jati, i.e. caste or variation. Any crystallized custom or privilege or hereditary class in any shape really prevents caste from having its full sway; and whenever any nation ceases to produce this immense variety, it must die. Therefore what I have to tell you, my countrymen, is this, that India fell because you prevented and abolished caste [Varna]. Every frozen aristocracy or privileged class is a blow to caste and is not-caste. Let Jati have its sway; break down every barrier in the way of caste, and we shall rise. Now look at Europe. When it succeeded in giving free scope to caste and took away most of the barriers that stood in the way of individuals, each developing his caste — Europe rose. In America, there is the best scope for caste to develop, and so the people are great. Every Hindu knows that astrologers try to fix the caste of every boy or girl as soon as he or she is born. That is the real caste — the individuality, and Jyotisha (astrology) recognises that. And we can only rise by giving it full sway again. This variety does not mean inequality, nor any special privilege.

This is my method — to show the Hindus that they have to give up nothing, but only to move on in the line laid down by the sages and shake off their inertia, the result of centuries of servitude. Of course, we had to stop advancing during the Mohammedan tyranny, for then it was not a question of progress but of life and death. Now that that pressure has gone, we must move forward, not on the lines of destruction directed by renegades and missionaries, but along our own line, our own road. Everything is hideous because the building is unfinished. We had to stop building during centuries of oppression. Now finish the building and everything will look beautiful in its own place. This is all my plan. I am thoroughly convinced of this. Each nation has a main current in life; in India it is religion. Make it strong and the waters on either side must move along with it. This is one phase of my line of thought. In time, I hope to bring them all out, but at present I find I have a mission in this country also. Moreover, I expect help in this country and from here alone. But up to date I could not do anything except spreading my ideas. Now I want that a similar attempt be made in India.

The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 4, Writings Prose, A Plan of Work for India

Vivekananda on Purusha Sukta

The doctrine of caste in the Purusha-Sukta of the Vedas does not make it hereditary..

The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 6, Epistles, Second Series, VIII.

Vivekananda's opinion about Smritis on the caste issue is given in a 30th May, 1897 letter to Sri. Pramada Das Mitra.

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 acceptable, the rest are to be rejected. The Upanishads and the Gita are the true scriptures.

The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda/Volume 6/Epistles - Second Series/CXXIV

Vivekananda thinks that the Rg Vedic text is talking about variation in human nature as can be seen from the letter to the Justice.

  • Can you reduce the size of the blockquote down to the part that actually addresses the question? (i.e., without the introduction/conclusion) 'As Gita says, with the extinction of caste the world will be destroyed.' - so he wanted the caste-system to continue in a new form? How does he interpret 'varnasankara' mentioned in the Gita? Is he in support of 'varnasankara' or opposed to it? In the new 'karma-guna based varna system' what exactly does varnasankara mean? Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 17:34
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    I saw it after adding it. Actually I have read that letter many years ago and had forgotten about it. Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 12:00
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    My question above has been wrongfully closed as unclear/needs more focus, can you please reopen it? Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 13:35
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    You shouldn't have to edit/remove content you added on your own. There is no such rule that content already posted in another answer cannot be reused. The other answer doesn't hold copyrights to Vivekananda's commentary. Commented Aug 10, 2020 at 17:26
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    Thank you @sv for the clarification. Commented Aug 11, 2020 at 10:56

How did he interpret the Puruṣa-sūkta verse brāhmaṇo 'sya mukham ... padbhyāṃ śūdro ajāyata (brāhmaṇa was born from Puruṣa's mouth ... śūdra from his feet)?

According to Swami Vivekananda, the Purusha Sukta does not imply a birth based caste system.

He has mentioned this specifically in one of his letters. However, he does not elucidate why we should believe in what he is saying.


It is more than a week since I received your letter, but having had another attack of fever, I could not send a reply all this time, for which please excuse me. For an interval of a month and a half I kept well, but I have suffered again for the last ten days; now I am doing well.

I have certain questions to put, and you, sir, have a wide knowledge of Sanskrit; so please favour me with answers to the following:

  1. Does any narrative occur about Satyakâma, son of Jabâlâ, and about Jânashruti, anywhere else in the Vedas excepting the Upanishads?1

  2. In most cases where Shankaracharya quotes Smriti in his commentary on the Vedânta-Sutras, he cites the authority of the Mahâbhârata. But seeing that we find clear proofs about caste being based on qualification both in the Bhishmaparva of the Mahabharata and in the stories there of the Ajagara and of Umâ and Maheshvara, has he made any mention in his writings of this fact?

  3. The doctrine of caste in the Purusha-Sukta of the Vedas does not make it hereditary—so what are those instances in the Vedas where caste has been made a matter of hereditary transmission?

Source --- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda/Volume 6/Epistles Second Series/VIII Sir

The highlighted portion in 2. also clearly depicts that he believes in a Guna (qualification) based caste system but he himself is not entirely sure about it. It is clear from his words that he is not fully aware of what is the overall view of scriptures on the issue and that's why he is seeking opinions of a Pundit in Sanskrit asking him to give him examples from the scriptures where the caste system is mentioned as birth based.

And, his opinions on the Smritis (Manu Smriti etc.) are already given in this answer of mine.

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    yeah, Swami Vivekananda's stance is like this : "If you become PM (enlightened/jivanmukta/moksha), you need not obey traffic red lights, but if you're not PM (in samsara), then you must obey red lights (Smritis). So traffic red lights are not that very important, just focus on becoming PM". It's not a practical answer to problems faced daily by normal people. But I understand his stance, because most people are just lazy and ok with getting stuck in traffic lights, and don't even think about escaping it.
    – ram
    Commented Aug 8, 2020 at 9:23
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    what i don't understand is this : if varna is based only on guna, then what is guna based on ? people keep on saying birth-based vs guna-based. I don't see much distinction between the two for vast majority of people. If there is a distinction, that's because the birth itself is a slightly confused one (inter-mixing/varna-sankara). For e.g. the most common cited Vishvamitra himself was the result of a mix up of Charu. It was meant for brahmin birth but given to a kshatriya woman.
    – ram
    Commented Aug 8, 2020 at 9:26
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    Guna is again based on birth lol (soil-seed example) .. this I have explained very clearly in one of my earlier answers. This Guna based caste system is the most absurd, illogical thing I have ever heard. @ram It is not accepting the fundamentals of Hinduism viz: Karma Doctrine. And, that's why no real Pundits of Hinduism advocate it. And it is not followable too in practical life. So, it is specifically for only those people who do debates but do not practice Hinduism.
    – Rickross
    Commented Aug 8, 2020 at 9:32
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    exactly.. the only people i have seen propagating guna-based caste system seem to be anti-god/anti-hindu/anti-brahmin. i strongly believe that birth is necessary, but not sufficient to be recognized as a member of any varna, in all except rare circumstances, i.e. both birth and guna are requirements. the only place where guna-alone is a requirement is bhakti. if someone has deep devotion to God, only then his birth doesn't matter. But if we want to compare two people without devotion, or having same level of devotion, then birth & guna both definitely come into account.
    – ram
    Commented Aug 8, 2020 at 9:37
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    @ram - Arya samaj for one. Ofcourse they may not qualify as traditional, but in this day n age even they look traditional . And the example that keeps floating around is Satyakama Jabala. Even if we assume Gautama realizing that his father was a brahmin (and for argument sake assume that anuloma born are also eligible for upanayana) the fact that Jabala's father carried out the act with a prostitute (without marrying her) made the Brahmin father lose his varna - so any progeny cannot be considered Brahmin born Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 6:29

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