Ramakrishna and the Caste System
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
'Should you go away without bidding Adhar good-bye? Wouldn't
that be an act of discourtesy?'
'"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?'
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.
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
Master: 'One can eat food even from an untouchable
if the untouchable is a devotee of God.' (7) (Emphasis
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.'
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)
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,
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)
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
On Obliterating Caste Distinctions
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:
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.
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:
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)
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.
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.
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,
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),
10. Gospel, 591.