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PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | February 2005  

 

 

 

 

 

            Sri Ramakrishna and the Caste System



            Dr. Krishna Verma



      In modern India the caste system is considered by many to be one of the most serious social problems hindering the progress of the whole nation. In the beginning the aim was division of labour. People were divided into four castes: brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra, according to their inner tendency and capability. Wisdom was the main characteristic of the brahmana, strength of the kshatriya, business talent of the vaishya, and shudras were those who lacked all these three characteristics, but were good at manual work. The scriptures prescribed simple living and high thinking for the brahmana. 'Serenity, self-control, austerity, purity, forbearance, and also uprightness, knowledge, realization and faith are the duties of a brahmana, born of his nature.' (1) Initially, caste depended on one's nature, but gradually it became hereditary, and the concept of caste hierarchy evolved in society. Brahmanas were considered the highest of all classes, as they were to guide the other three castes through their wisdom. But being intoxicated by this supreme power, they started exploiting the lower castes. They wanted to grab all the social privileges, denying everything to the others. This exploitation was worst in the medieval period. Even for small matters, in their day-to-day life, the non-brahmanas had to get the sanction of the brahmanas. However, the kshatriyas by virtue of their physical strength, and the vaishyas their economic power, were not so much affected. The condition of the shudras was really pitiable. They were suppressed by all the three upper castes. Hence the reaction in modern times.



      The Caste System in Medieval Bengal

 



      Interestingly, in Bengal, in the medieval period, the caste division was reduced to two: brahmanas and shudras; there were no significant kshatriya or vaishya castes. Anybody who was not a brahmana was considered a shudra. (2) Of course, among the so-called shudras there was some hierarchy. There were vaidyas (a caste that followed Ayurveda and practised medicine) and kayasthas (believed by some to be a line of kshatriyas in Bengal), who considered themselves superior to people like goldsmiths, blacksmiths, weavers, peasants, washermen and fishermen. Then there were cobblers, tanners, burning-ghat workers and sweepers, who were known as untouchables. The division was not based on their financial position. A brahmana might be poorer than a kayastha zamindar or a goldsmith (and in most cases he was), but his social position was much higher than theirs. They had to show respect to him in every way, and he had authority over them. All religious and social activities that a non-brahmana wanted to perform had to be sanctioned by the brahmana, and only a brahmana could function as the priest and spiritual teacher. However, there were some more staunch brahmanas, who would not perform priestly activities in a non-brahmana house and would not accept anything from them. Accepting cooked food and drinking water from a shudra was absolutely out of the question. All these distinctions between brahmanas and non-brahmanas were observed by women also. A brahmana woman, while mentioning her name, would use the suffix devi (divine person), whereas a non-brahmana would use dasi (servant). Such were the caste conceptions during Sri Ramakrishna's time.



      Sri Ramakrishna's Lineage

 



      Sri Ramakrishna was born in a brahmana family known for its piety and spirituality. His father followed all the principles of a true brahmana as prescribed by the scriptures. All the brahmanic qualities mentioned in the Bhagavadgita (quoted above) could be found in him. He led a very simple, pure life, spending most of his time in spiritual activities and scriptural study. At the same time, he also strictly observed all the social rules of a brahmana. Though poor, he did not accept anything from a non-brahmana, not even from those brahmanas who accepted gifts from shudras. His family members were also not allowed to do so. His adherence to brahmanic rules and his renunciation and asceticism made him so distinguished that everybody in the village had great respect for him. Nobody bathed in the pond before he took his bath, nor would anybody pass him by without showing him proper respect.

 



      His Attitude towards Other Castes

 



      Born in such an orthodox brahmana family, what was Sri Ramakrishna's attitude towards non-brahmanas? How did he deal with them? Sri Ramakrishna's first contact with a shudra was at the dawn of his birth. Dhani Kamarini, a blacksmith woman, was the first person to touch him and introduce him to the world. However, there is nothing unusual in it. In those days only a shudra woman functioned as a midwife. But later the relationship that developed between the two was history, both for the family as well as for society. When Sri Ramakrishna reached the age of nine, the family decided to perform his upanayana, sacred thread ceremony. It is a custom among brahmanas that when a male child attains a certain age he is invested with the sacred thread (worn diagonally across the trunk) and given the Gayatri mantra. This function is performed with great solemnity. It is a very important occasion in the life of the boy, because it is only after this function that the boy becomes a full-fledged brahmana. Before this he does not have the right to any religious activity. A number of rituals are associated with this ceremony, and many people are invited to attend this function. After he is invested with the sacred thread he has to live as a brahmacharin for a certain period of time, begging his food and sleeping on the floor. The first lady who gives him alms is known as his bhiksha-mata, the 'alms-giving mother'. This is indeed the privilege of a brahmana woman. Now, Dhani Kamarini had a secret desire to become Sri Ramakrishna's bhiksha-mata, which, of course, was nothing more than a wild dream on her part. She also knew it. But somehow Sri Ramakrishna came to know about it and promised to accept his first alms from her. When he made his decision known to the family there was naturally a lot of hue and cry. Accepting the first alms from a shudra woman and making her the bhiksha-mata when the family was so orthodox as not to accept anything even from a shudra-yajin brahmana (one who officiated for the shudras)? Impossible! But the boy was adamant. His only argument was this: holding on to truth is the prime virtue of a brahmana. If he cannot keep his promise, he has no right to be called a brahmana. His family people tried to persuade him but with little success. Ultimately they had to agree; and the upanayana took place with the blacksmith woman as the bhiksha-mata. (3)

      There is another incident from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Sri Ramakrishna used to hear from the village blacksmiths that dal (lentils) cooked by them had some special taste. They used to say that brahmanas do not know how to cook dal properly. So he had a desire to taste that dal. We have already seen that brahmanas were very particular in not accepting any cooked food from a non-brahmana house. But Sri Ramakrishna was different. He asked a blacksmith woman, most probably Dhani, to cook dal for him. Of course, his comment on that dal was quite witty: 'I ate the dal but it smelt of the blacksmith.' (4)

      Chinu Shankhari, an old man of the village, was his childhood friend. Sri Ramakrishna used to call him 'dada' (elder brother) and was very fond of him. Though Chinu belonged to the artisan caste (shankharis are those who cut conch-shells and make conch bangles), considered low in Bengal, Sri Ramakrishna never hesitated to take food from him. Chinu was also one of the first few who realized the divinity of the child Gadadhar. We also read in the Ramakrishna Punthi that a certain Khetir Ma, who belonged to the carpenter caste, once desired to feed Sri Ramakrishna at her home, but did not dare to express her wish because of her low social position. Somehow, the divine child came to know of it and insisted on taking food sitting at her place. The author of the Punthi points out how surprising it was that though born in an orthodox family, very strict in caste matters, Gadadhar ignored caste distinctions altogether when they clashed with love and affection! (5)

      These, however, are his childhood incidents. Presently, we will see his attitude towards other castes when he grew up and became aware of social distinctions. Sri Ramakrishna came to Calcutta at the age of seventeen. His elder brother had opened a Sanskrit school there and was also working as a priest in the neighbourhood. Sri Ramakrishna came to assist him and also to study under his tutelage. This was the time when Rani Rasmani, a very rich lady of the kaivarta caste, was building the famous Dakshineswar Kali temple. Though the Rani was very rich and powerful and respected by all, there arose a technical problem in worshipping the image in the temple. In Bengal of that time, no brahmana officiated as priest in a temple constructed by a kaivarta. Kaivartas were fishermen by profession and were considered low in the caste strata. So the Rani invited pundits for a solution according to the shastras, but none could provide one. When Sri Ramakrishna's brother Ramkumar was consulted, he told her to dedicate the temple in the name of her guru, who was a brahmana. Still nobody came forward for the consecration of the temple or to become a priest there. Ultimately, Ramkumar was approached to take up the job, and he agreed. However, Sri Ramakrishna, then a young man of nineteen, was not willing to accept the food of a kaivarta. Having grown up in an orthodox brahmana family, he was well aware of the social practices of that time and did not wish to break them without reason. But when his elder brother convinced him through arguments that there was no harm in taking food at such a holy place like the temple of the Divine Mother situated on the bank of the Ganga, he started living in the Kali temple complex and gradually began taking food there too. Reason always had great appeal for him. After some time he was entrusted with decorating the image in the Kali temple, and later became the priest there. Thus began his worship of the Universal Mother, which gradually turned into an intense sadhana. Such sadhana and such God-intoxication the world had not seen before. An account of his sadhana is beyond the scope of this essay. We shall touch only a few aspects of his religious practices, which will reveal his attitude towards caste system.

 



      His Sadhana to Remove Caste Pride

 



      The brahmana being the highest caste in society, the other castes treat a brahmana with great honour and respect. Naturally, this might make him conscious of his social position and give rise to a feeling of superiority. Moreover, we have seen that Sri Ramakrishna belonged to a brahmana family held in high esteem even by other brahmanas. Hence, in order to crush his caste pride completely, the first thing he did as a part of his tapasya was to remove his sacred thread at the time of meditation. According to Sri Ramakrishna, jatyabhimana, the pride of caste or lineage, was one of eight ties that bind the self to the world of maya. Then, as his sadhana became more and more intense, the urge to demolish the ego and feel one with all also grew in him. To attain this objective he used unique methods unheard of in the realm of spiritual practice. He would clean the places where the poor of all castes were fed by the temple management, remove their used plates, and sometimes even eat their leavings. In India scavengers are considered to belong to the lowest caste, the untouchables. Sri Ramakrishna would go to the dwelling place of the temple scavenger and clean his toilet stealthily, lest the owner should object. This was his way of getting over the feeling of caste superiority. Shame, hatred and fear are considered to be obstacles in the spiritual path. This single act shows how he got over these obstacles. He felt no shame in cleaning the hut of a low-caste person; he had no hatred towards anybody, nor any aversion for menial jobs; he had no fear of social disapproval and was not afraid of excommunication.

      The fear of others' opinion - 'What will people think of me?' - is the worst form of weakness in man. We always want the approval and appreciation of others. Behind this psychology is the ego of the individual. Sri Ramakrishna had no such weakness in him. He was absolutely indifferent to the opinion of the world. He would not hesitate to sacrifice anything for a righteous cause. He was of the opinion that the pride of being born in an upper-caste family inflates the ego and bars the vision of equality towards all creatures of God. He virtually saw God in everybody, even in the prostitute, the pariah and the mleccha (a member of an alien race). The concept of equality, that God resides in everybody, that all are His children, is not new in religion. Many saints have declared this truth. But in the history of the world one does not come across another example where such methods were adopted to remove caste consciousness. Unique indeed were the ways of Sri Ramakrishna.

 


      His Disciples

 


      Among Sri Ramakrishna's sixteen sannyasin disciples nine were non-brahmanas; of these eight were kayasthas and one belonged to a shepherd family. Again, among his twenty-five intimate householder disciples whose names we find in the Sri Ramakrishna Bhaktamalika, nineteen were non-brahmanas. Most of them were kayasthas while some belonged to the vaidya caste and some to the vaishya caste. However, in nineteenth-century Bengal, all non-brahmanas were termed shudras, as noted earlier. When Swami Vivekananda became famous, many of the orthodox Hindus objected to his eligibility for sannyasa. Their point was that a shudra had no right to sannyasa. (6)

 


      Transcending Caste Considerations



      For Sri Ramakrishna, purity of mind and devotion to God were the only criteria for judging a man. In his estimate Narendranath (Swami Vivekananda) and Rakhal Chandra (Swami Brahmananda) were spiritually much higher than many brahmanas, though both of them were kayasthas. Latu, the shepherd boy of Chapra who was a domestic help at Ramchandra Datta's house, was transformed into Swami Adbhutananda, a great sadhu, by the grace of Sri Ramakrishna. Adhar Sen and Mani Mallick were devotees of Sri Ramakrishna though they belonged to the so-called lower castes: one was a subarna-banik and the other was a teli. Sri Ramakrishna used to visit their houses and take food there.

      An incident revealing Sri Ramakrishna's attitude towards the caste system is recorded in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Once, on the occasion of Durga Puja, Sri Ramakrishna went to Adhar's house. Kedar Chatterjee, an orthodox brahmana devotee, came to meet him there. But when the time for partaking prasad approached, Kedar hesitated to take food at Adhar's place. He and several devotees stood up; they were about to return home. Kedar saluted the Master and bade him goodbye. The Gospel mentions the following conversation thereafter:

      Master: 'Should you go away without bidding Adhar good-bye? Wouldn't that be an act of discourtesy?'

      Kedar: '"When God is pleased, the world is pleased." You are staying; so in a sense we are all staying. I am not feeling well. Besides, I am a little nervous about my social conventions. [Adhar belonged to a lower caste. Kedar, a brahmana, could not dine with him or eat at his home.] Once before I had trouble with our community.'

      Vijay (pointing to the Master): 'Should we go away and leave him here?'

      Just then Adhar came in to take the Master to the dining room, for the meal was ready. Sri Ramakrishna stood up and said, addressing Kedar and Vijay: 'Come. Come with me.' They followed him and partook of the dinner together with the other devotees.

      After dinner they all returned to the drawing room, where the devotees sat around the Master. Kedar said to him with folded hands, 'Please forgive me for hesitating to eat here.' Perhaps the thought had come to his mind that he should not have hesitated, since the Master himself had no scruples about eating at Adhar's house. Е

      Master: 'One can eat food even from an untouchable if the untouchable is a devotee of God.' (7) (Emphasis added)

      This small incident not only shows the liberal mind of Sri Ramakrishna, but also reflects his sense of propriety. Though apparently an unlettered villager, he was very conscious of etiquette and manners. He knew that once you visit somebody's house, it is unmannerly to go away without saying goodbye to the host, while Kedar, a city-bred educated man, was ignoring this factor. Second, the conversation also reveals Sri Ramakrishna's high esteem for a devotee. Again and again we hear him say, 'Devotees do not belong to any caste'; 'Blessed is he who feels longing for God, though he eats pork. But shame on him whose mind dwells on "woman and gold", though he eats the purest food - boiled vegetables, rice, and ghee.' (8)

      We find the same attitude in his treatment of shudras. There used to be a misconception that unless one was born a brahmana, one could not attain liberation. It was also believed that a non-brahmana who had performed sadhana for the realization of God and had led a very pious life would have to wait for the next birth to be born as a brahmana. Only then could he get the result of his past sadhana and be liberated. The case of Rasik the sweeper belies this belief. Being a scavenger, he was considered an untouchable. Those were days when low-caste persons were treated very inhumanly. If a low-caste man happened to cross an upper-caste man's path he would be punished, but no action could be taken against the latter. Rasik used to see many people come to Sri Ramakrishna and get his blessings. He too wanted to go to him and ask for his blessings, but being an untouchable dared not approach him in front of others. One day, when Sri Ramakrishna was coming from the Panchavati all by himself, he took the opportunity to go near and kneel down before him and say, 'Father, what will happen to me!' Hearing his cry for spiritual grace, Sri Ramakrishna went into deep samadhi, and Rasik fell at his feet. After some time, when Sri Ramakrishna regained outer consciousness, he told Rasik, 'Do not be afraid, you will have it. At the time of death you will see me.' Exactly the same thing happened: just before his death he saw Sri Ramakrishna. His face beamed with delight and he shouted, 'Father, you have come! You have not forgotten me!' Saying this he passed away. (9)

      We also find Sri Ramakrishna saying, 'Hazra said that a man could not be liberated unless he was born in a brahmin body. "How is that?" I said. "One attains liberation through bhakti alone. Shabari was the daughter of a hunter. She, Ruhidas, and others belonged to the sudra caste. They were liberated through bhakti alone." (10)

 

 

      Caste and Spirituality

 



      Sri Ramakrishna was not a social reformer in the ordinary sense of the term. He was a master of spirituality. In the Gospel, where his words are recorded, we find very few references to the caste system. But whatever little is there gives us a glimpse of his attitude to caste. Even this is always placed in the context of spirituality. Sri Ramakrishna lived in God alone. His talks and acts were never outside the realm of divinity. Hence, whenever the topic of caste came up he discussed it from the spiritual point of view. For example, while talking about Captain Vishwanath Upadhyay, he says:

      Captain is a strong upholder of orthodox conventions. Because of my visiting Keshab Chandra Sen, he stopped coming here for a month. He said to me that Keshab had violated the social conventions: he dined with the English, had married his daughter into another caste, and had lost his own caste. I said to Captain: 'What do I care for such things? Keshab chants the name of God; so I go to him to hear about God.' (651)

      While describing the nature of a God-realized man he says, 'He becomes like a child. Е All persons are the same to a child. He has no feeling of high and low in regard to persons. So he doesn't discriminate about caste. If his mother tells him that a particular man should be regarded as an elder brother, the child will eat from the same plate with him, though the man may belong to the low caste of a blacksmith.' (171) We find in his life also the same type of same-sightedness. When the storm of God-intoxication enveloped him, he forgot everything: his caste, his high social position, his highly respected family. All distinctions were obliterated. He observed, 'I became mad. Е In that state I could not observe any caste restrictions. The wife of a low-caste man used to send me cooked greens and I ate them.' (548) Again, 'Oh, what moods I passed through! At Kamarpukur I said to Chine Shankhari and the other chums of my boyhood days, "Oh, I fall at your feet and beg of you to utter the name of Hari." I was about to prostrate myself before them all. Thereupon Chine said, "This is the first outburst of your divine love; so you don't see any distinction between one man and another."' (549) As we have mentioned earlier, Chinu Shankhari belonged to a lower caste and we are talking of a time when caste consciousness was so strong in Bengal that even touching a low-caste man was considered to be sacrilegious, what to speak of an upper-caste brahmana prostrating before him!

 

      His Observations on Some Castes


      Sri Ramakrishna was indeed aware of the caste distinctions prevalent in society, but never paid any importance to it. In fact, in the whole of the Gospel, very rarely do we find Sri Ramakrishna mentioning anybody's caste. Once while asking Mani Mallick to build a reservoir in a certain village where people were suffering from acute water shortage, he said smilingly, 'You have so much money; what will you do with so much wealth? But they say that telis are very calculating.' But in the course of the conversation he was reprimanded by Manilal: 'Sir, you referred to a reservoir. You might as well have confined yourself to that suggestion. Why allude to the "oil-man caste" and all that?' Sri Ramakrishna laughed. (202) This was a simple humorous comment by Sri Ramakrishna, and everybody was amused.

      Similarly, when Balaram Bose quoted some brahmanas as saying that Annada Guha was a very egotistic man, Sri Ramakrishna replied, 'Never listen to what the brahmanas say. You know their nature very well. If a man does not give them money, they will call him bad; on the other hand, if a man is generous to them, they will call him good. (All laugh.) I know Annada. He is a good man.' (727) These are the only two places in the Gospel where we find Sri Ramakrishna talking about some peculiarities of particular castes; but even there he does not appear to mean offence.

 

      Caste in His Parables


      Sri Ramakrishna was well acquainted with the lifestyle and workings of the peoples of different castes and professions. While explaining some abstruse philosophical or spiritual point, he used examples from their day-to-day life to make the concept easy to comprehend. Take for example the carpenter woman pounding paddy, an illustration of abhyasa yoga, the yoga of practice. With one hand she turns the paddy in the hole where the pestle of the husking-machine is pounding the paddy; at the same time she nurses the baby and also talks to prospective buyers. But fifteen parts of her mind out of sixteen are fixed on the pestle, lest it should pound her hand. Similarly, woodcutters, peasants, potters, weavers, wives of gardeners and fishermen - all figure as illustrations in his conversations. It is remarkable how, in those days of caste restrictions and segregation, he freely mixed with these people of so-called lower castes and observed their activities!


      On Obliterating Caste Distinctions


      But what was his view regarding caste distinction as such? Did he want the system abolished altogether because it was a social evil? Or did he justify it? In the latter half of the nineteenth century, at the time of Sri Ramakrishna, social reforms had started taking place in urban Bengal. Raja Rammohan Roy, with the help of the British Government, already had banned sati. The Brahmo Samaj was formed and image worship was denounced by the Brahmos. Their next attack was on the caste system. The Brahmos did not believe in caste distinctions. They practised inter-caste dining and marriage. Though they constituted a small portion of the total population, their influence on 'Young Bengal' was great. With them the evils of the caste system were a topic of hot discussion. Sri Ramakrishna was once categorically asked by Ashwini Kumar Datta, 'Do you observe caste?' The answer that Sri Ramakrishna gave is as significant as it is interesting:

      How can I say yes? I ate curry at Keshab Sen's house. Let me tell you what once happened to me. A man with a long beard brought some ice here, but I didn't feel like eating it. A little later someone brought me a piece of ice from the same man, and I ate it with great relish. You see, caste restrictions fall away of themselves. As coconut and palm trees grow up, the branches drop off of themselves. Caste conventions drop off like that. But don't tear them off as those fools do. (1023-4)

      The last sentence is very important and shows how much Sri Ramakrishna was against anything artificial. Nothing should be done forcibly. If one has not risen above the feeling of superiority or inferiority regarding one's caste or social position, mere eating together or marrying in a different caste will not help. Outwardly one may make a show of equality but inside there will be hatred and jealousy. Sri Ramakrishna was very much against any type of hypocrisy. Whatever comes in a natural way is welcome. If one tears off the scab from a raw wound it causes trouble but when the wound is dry the scab falls off automatically. It is the same with social rules. Social conventions are deep-rooted in our minds. When the mind becomes absolutely prepared to accept a new idea, only then is social change possible. According to Sri Ramakrishna caste distinctions can be removed only through bhakti, devotion to God. Intense love for God melts away all distinctions. In Sri Ramakrishna's language:

      The caste system can be removed by one means only, and that is the love of God. Lovers of God do not belong to any caste. The mind, body, and soul of a man become purified through divine love. Chaitanya and Nityananda scattered the name of Hari to everyone, including the pariah, and embraced them all. A brahmin without this love is no longer a brahmin. And a pariah with the love of God is no longer a pariah. (155)

      This, however, is the last word about the caste system. The superiority or inferiority of a man does not depend on his caste or his position in society. It depends upon his mental purity.


                              ~ ~ ~

      We have already mentioned that Sri Ramakrishna was not a social reformer in the ordinary sense of the term. But the work of such great souls is done silently. When we look back, we see what a tremendous change has already taken place in modern India. By their words and deeds Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ma Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda have silently tried to remove this age-old hatred based on caste distinctions. The Ramakrishna Mission, which is an embodiment of their ideas, is following the religion of service to humanity, irrespective of caste, creed or religion.

 


      References



1. Bhagavadgita, 18.42.


2. Shankari Prasad Basu, Vivekananda O Samakalin Bharatvarsha, 7 vols. (Kolkata: Sunil Mandal, 1-6, 1983; 7, 1988), 3.123.


3. Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master, trans. Swami Jagadananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2001), 63-4.


4. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 564.


5. Akshay Kumar Sen, Sri Sri Ramakrishna Punthi (Kolkata: Udbodhan Office, 1953), 32.


6. Samakalin Bharatvarsha, 3.117-8.


7. Gospel, 576.


8. Ibid., 564.


9. Nibodhata (Kolkata: Sri Sarada Math, July 2002), 86.


10. Gospel, 591.

       





Purushakara yantra. Painting. Rajasthan. C. 18th century A.D.
Purushakara yantra. Painting. Rajasthan. C. 18th century A.D.


 

 

 

 

 


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