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Updated: January 12, 2013 00:06 IST

‘Raise the masses slowly up, raise them to equality’

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Swami Vivekananda
Vintage Vignettes collection
Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda spoke about religion, rituals, caste and the education of the masses in an interview he gave The Hindu on February 6, 1897, during a train journey from Chingleput to Madras.

What made you go to America, Swamiji?

Rather a serious question to answer in brief. I can only answer it partly now. Because I travelled all over India, I wanted to go over to other countries. I went to America by the Far East.

What did you see in Japan, and is there any chance of India following in the progressive steps of Japan?

None whatever, until all the three hundred millions of India combine together as a whole nation. The world has never seen such a patriotic and artistic race as the Japanese, and one special feature about them is this, that while in Europe and elsewhere Art generally goes with dirt. Japanese Art is Art plus absolute cleanliness. I would wish that everyone of our young men could visit Japan once at least in his lifetime.

Is it your wish that India should become like Japan?

Decidedly not, India should continue to be what she is. How could India ever become like Japan, or any nation for the matter of that? In each nation, as in music, there is a main note, a central theme, upon which all others turn. Each nation has a theme: everything else is secondary. India’s theme is religion, Social reform and everything else are secondary.

Therefore, India cannot be like Japan. It is said that when ‘the heart breaks,’ then the flow of thought comes. India’s heart must break and the flow of spirituality will come out. India is India. We are not like the Japanese, we are Hindus. India’s very atmosphere is soothing. I have been working incessantly here, and amidst this work I am getting rest. It is only from spiritual work that we can get rest in India. If your work is material here, you die of diabetes.

What is your idea about the results of the Parliament of Religions?

The Parliament of Religions, as it seems to me, was intended for a ‘heathen show’ before the world, but it turned out that the heathens had the upper hand, and made it a Christian show all around. So the Parliament of Religions was a failure from the Christian standpoint, seeing that the Roman Catholics, who were the organisers of that Parliament, are, when there is a talk of another Parliament at Paris now steadily opposing it. But the Chicago Parliament was a tremendous success for India and Indian thought. It helped on the tide of Vedanta, which is flooding the world. The American people — of course, minus the fanatical priests and churchwomen — are very glad of the results of the Parliament.

What prospects have you, Swamiji, for the spread of your mission in England?

There is every prospect. Before many years elapse, a vast majority of the English people will be Vedantins. There is a greater prospect of this in England than there is in America. You see, Americans make a fanfaronade of everything, which is not the case with Englishmen. Even Christians cannot understand their New Testament, without understanding the Vedanta. The Vedanta is the rationale of all religions. Without the Vedanta every religion is superstition, with it everything becomes religion.

What are your views with regard to the Indian masses?

Oh, we are awfully poor, and our masses are very ignorant about secular things. Our masses are very good because poverty here is not a crime. Our masses are not violent. Many times I was near being mobbed in America and England, only on account of my dress. But I never heard of such a thing in India as a man being mobbed because of peculiar dress. In every other respect, our masses are much more civilised than the European masses.

What will you propose for the improvement of our masses?

We have to give them secular education. We have to follow the plan laid down by our ancestors, that is, to bring all the ideals slowly down among the masses. Raise them slowly up, raise them to equality. Impart even secular knowledge through religion.

But do you think, Swamiji, it is a task that can be easily accomplished?

It will, of course, have gradually to be worked out. But if there are enough self-sacrificing young fellows, who, I hope, will work with me, it can be done tomorrow. It all depends upon the zeal and the self-sacrifice brought to the task.

But if the present degraded condition is due to their past Karma, Swamiji, how do you propose to help them?

Karma is the eternal assertion of human freedom. If we can bring ourselves down by our Karma, surely it is in our power to raise ourselves by it. The masses, besides, have not brought themselves down altogether by their own Karma. So we should give them better environments to work in. I do not propose any levelling of castes. Caste is a very good thing. Caste is the plan we want to follow. What caste really is, not one in a million understands. There is no country in the world without caste. In India, from caste we reach to the point where there is no caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody Brahmana, the Brahmana being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many more will follow till the whole will become Brahmana. That is the plan. We have only to raise them without bringing down anybody. And this has mostly to be done by the Brahmanas themselves...

What are your views, Swamiji, in regard to the relation of caste to rituals?

Caste is continually changing, rituals are continually changing — so are forms. It is the substance, the principle, that does not change. It is in the Vedas that we have to study our religion. With the exception of the Vedas, every book must change. The authority of the Vedas is for all time to come; the authority of every one of our other books is for the time being.

For instance, one Smriti is powerful for one age, another for another age. Great prophets are always coming and pointing the way to work. Some prophets worked for the lower classes, others like Madhava gave to women the right to study the Vedas. Caste should not go, but should only be readjusted occasionally. Within the old structure is to be found life enough for the building of two hundred thousand new ones. It is sheer nonsense to desire the abolition of caste. The new method is evolution of the old.

Instead of frittering away our energies on ideal reforms, which will never become practical, we had better go to the root of the evil and make a legislative body, that is to say, educate our people, so that they may be able to solve their own problems. Until that is done, all these ideal reforms will remain ideals only.

Do you think Hindu society can successfully adopt European social laws?

No, not wholly. I would say, the combination of the Greek mind represented by the external European energy added to the Hindu spirituality would be an ideal society for India. For instance, it is absolutely necessary for you. Instead of frittering away your energy and often talking of ideal nonsense, to learn from the Englishman the idea of prompt obedience to leaders, the absence of jealousy, the indomitable perseverance and undying faith in himself.

What relation, Swamiji, does ritual bear to religion?

Rituals are the kindergarten of religion. They are absolutely necessary for the world as it is now; only we shall have to give people newer and fresh rituals. A party of thinkers must undertake to do this. Old rituals must be rejected and new ones substituted.

Then you advocate the abolition of rituals, don’t you?

No, my watchword is construction, not destruction. Out of the existing rituals, new ones will have to be evolved. There is infinite power of development in everything: that is my belief. One atom has the power of the whole universe at its back. All along, in the history of the Hindu race, there never was any attempt at destruction, only construction. One sect wanted to destroy, and they were thrown out of India; they were the Buddhists. We had a host of reformers — Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhava and Chaitanya. They were great reformers, who always were constructive, and built according to the circumstances of their time. This is our peculiar method of work. All the modern reformers take to European destructive reformation, which will never do good to anyone and never did...

... The progress of the Hindu race has been towards the realisation of the Vedantic ideals. All history of Indian life is the struggle for the realisation of the ideal of the Vedanta through good or bad fortune. Whenever there was any reforming sect or religion which rejected the Vedantic ideal, it was smashed into nothing.

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This interview and SVs views are just as relevant today as they were 110 years ago.
His views of the ultimate objective being for every one to become a Brahamana in
its true sense (seeker of Brahman, not to be confused for caste) is a lofty ideal and one that contains salvation for Bharata.
I think the most telling commentary he gives on Christianity's attempts at the
Parliament of Religions, here is just as valid today. The large swathes of mid
western and southern US are still mired in the old superstitious Christian beliefs of the rest of the world being a heathen. What SV says here can still be experienced by a first hand Hindu visitor in these places. A Hindu visitor to these places will find the local population contemptuous of eastern beliefs with their fanaticism equalling only the Taliban. It is strange however that the created impression of Christianity in India is better than Hinduism.

from:  Anamendra Bharati
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 23:20 IST

Interesting to read this piece of interview. Throughout our childhoods, through
text book education and other media, there was that progressive, intellectual
image of Swami Vivekananda Ji. Some of the statements in this interview come as a big shock (even after trying to read between the sentences). However, after reading
the interview a couple of times, I got a feeling that many of the statements in the interview are self-contradictory, antagonistic, and perhaps confused. I am not sure how the interview was conducted and if there are convenient omissions or
additions. This interview just demands that we should try to analyse what SVji has said in other interviews, writings at different point of times.

from:  Pandurang Shastri
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 23:08 IST

Further to my earlier comment, some readers objected to SV's views on
caste. SV was himself at the receiving end of all that is rotten with
the caste system - on his return from America, and his brilliant
success notwithstanding, many Brahmins actually rebuked him - an
ineligible Kayastha-born - for having learnt the Vedas and having had
the temerity to champion them abroad. Yet, those are his views on

His profound insight and intellectual boldness and honesty are clearly
too much for many to swallow!

from:  Narendra Kumar
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 17:48 IST

I posted a comment yesterday. It is amusing to see some readers
dismissing SV's observations as 'flawed' and 'mistaken' based on one
cursory reading of a brief interview.

It is worth pointing out that SV travelled all over India - a distance
of some 20,000 km - TWICE, mingling intimately with the most abjectly
poor as well as kings. His knowledge of India was first-hand, profound
and probably unmatched in the last 1000 years. On top of it, he was an
intellectual prodigy, whose knowledge AND understanding of our
spiritual heritage and scriptures was unmatched.

Not one to ever mince words, SV himself said he did not expect his
discomfiting views to find easy acceptance, and it seems it is as true
a hundred years after his time as it was in his lifetime - I am sure
he must have foreseen how armchair commentators would react to his

from:  Narendra Kumar
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 17:13 IST

The reader should go back in time 150 years to understand what Swamiji has said. He actually means, a religion cannot en-thrust upon another religion's ideals which earlier happened in history, instead it is more secular to interpret others religion similar to ones own religion as in case of hindus, Vedanta. Bringing change can be started quickly but can be brought in to action only slowly else it will be destructive. Though the earlier modern reforms are good in intent, they were detrimental to society due to aggressiveness. Instead, we have to start with what we have, to improve the current condition. At least to some of Swamiji's comments we don't agree. That's may be due to the slow changing reforms which has made our thinking more modern and to some comments we do agree as such reforms are yet to happen. But, the opinion of Swamiji that we need to grow has not changed. Caste system is fine as long as it does not discriminate people.

from:  senthil
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 12:29 IST

This is vivekananda unvarnished with all the blemishes and flaws exposed. I literally
squidmed reading a few of his statements. Though we shouldn't judge him in view to the
prevailing social mores during that time, this reaffirms my belief that all religions are hogwash and agnosticsm is the way forward. I had hearty laugh at a few of the commentators who are valiantly putting on a brave front even when the truth hits on the face.

from:  Arvind
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 02:33 IST

I am surprised to read Vivekananda's views about caste. It shows after all he is only human. He has not expressed such views in his published speeches and books. Present day India is the proof that caste based social division is an abominable evil and inhuman. His opinion on Buddhism is also surprising.

from:  B. Baburajan
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 02:19 IST

Regarding Swamijis views regarding Buddhists, I am not sure what is erroneous
about what he said. He said that they wanted to destroy **the rituals** (see question)
... Buddhism shunned the rituals of Hinduism which is a fact. "They were thrown out
of India" just means that Buddhism could not be as successful in India as they were
in other countries.
I don't think that his statement was meant to be a put down on Buddhism. I think he merely emphasized his opinion that Indian society will be far more successful by making evolutionary changes to rituals, caste etc instead of rejecting them and being ashamed of its own past.

from:  Srini Venkat
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 01:35 IST

I am really thankfull to The Hindu Patrika for publishing such a
beatiful conversation of our Swamiji, the ideal man. It is very
neccessary in now-a-days in India ofcourse.
I think everyone in India should follow the speech of Swamiji. That's the main way to develope our country.

Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 23:12 IST

all my age i believed SV as a progressive thinker.this interview changed
my thoughts about SV. his mindset speak of a ultranatinalistic as hindu
is for INDIA.and also his words on caste,rituals,and religion are very
much dangerous to the idea of pluralistic INDIA.we need to rethink on
the idea of celebrating YOUTH day on SV DOB.we need progressive Youth
icon and not the narrow minded SV to represent is time historians
to revisit the life SV and present the true nature of him to the Youth
and to the society for betterment.

from:  mujawar
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 22:49 IST

The interview of swami goes to show the importance of our hindu religion and the
bond towards our culture and on top all swami advocated need to keep up the the
indianess among us.

from:  madhukar s
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 22:49 IST

I don't mind seeing him as a social reformer but nothing more than that.

from:  Govind
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 21:48 IST

Before commenting on whether this prodigal son of India was favouring caste system, every
person of Indian origin should read the complete works of vivekananda. He was a great
orator par excellence who admired Budha and propagated Vedanta as religion standing on
reason. He was never supportive of degradation of any person. For a person who just lived
forty years immense wisdom at that age is truly astounding. I came across some sites like kind which took his statements out of context and made him look as a bigot.
the agenda of that website looked like degrading anything related to hinduism and upholding only Ambedkar.That only shows the level of intelligence and understanding of people writing such article. When I was puzzled by Gopalakrishna gandhis article about the criticism of vivekanandas ,. I googled like any other ordinary person as I couldn't believe a person of
vivekanandas stature could have said stupidity. I urge readers to read references before

from:  Srinivas Poreddy
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 21:17 IST

I think the views expressed above about Buddhism are absolutely erroneous. Buddhism is not the sect that tried to destroy Hinduism but the it is 'the culmination' of Hinduism. I wonder how people blindly trust everything published in Hindu..!

from:  Bhushan
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 20:59 IST

One cannot imagine about an interview of Vivekananda. But The Hindu did it. I am much surprised and also felt to happy to read the interview. Special thanks to The Hindu for reproducing the interview for the thoughtful readers An event took place and recorded more than 110 years have been beautifully brought before us with an enchanting photo of swami. Many of his answers are still relevant. While reading the interview I felt as if he was very near to me. I have no words to express my feelings. This is the first time that I came to know the word 'fanfaronade' in one of his answers.

from:  Dr B Jambulingam
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 20:57 IST

I wish Vivekananda had said something about the hereditary nature of
caste ... would he have wanted that to be sustained through the
evolution of caste?
What would George Orwell have said about "Karma is the eternal assertion of human freedom"? Doublethink?
Written in the 19th century, sure. But, then why is this awareness not present when he is quoted in the 21st century? One can't eat his cake and have it too. Do not quote him and one will have no chance to criticize his sayings!

from:  Raghuram Ekambaram
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 20:28 IST

Thanks for publishing the interview. I see why some of the ideas
expressed here could be misinterpreted. When he says rituals are
kindergarten of religion (which means a building block), it means that
rituals help prepare us for higher studies/ spiritual work (which also
mean that any ritual that doesn't help in this process should be
rejected-- marrying a dog and tree, etc.). To make everyone a brahmin
actually means to make everyone a brahmagnani (which is the ultimate
goal of our spiritual practice)-- we should not interpret the word in
this sentence as the brahmin caste

from:  vishnu
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 19:32 IST

i feel one should read this article, keeping 19th century INDIA in mind
and not to get misinterpreted with present scenario.

i wish to thank 'HINDU' for bringing this rare interview.

"Raise the masses slowly up, raise them to equality"- tells everything.

from:  Chethan
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 18:52 IST

Nice article but I am astonished to know Vivekananda's views about
Buddhism which are absolutely erroneous, although, I appreciate
lucidness of his thoughts.

from:  Swati
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 17:55 IST

Unlike what some readers have posted (and Gopal Gandhi has written), I
do not see what is so unacceptable about his position on the caste
system. As he himself said in this interview, caste is a reality
everywhere that can't be wished away, and is merely quoting the Manu
Samhita (MS) about the fundamental duty of Brahmins. At no point in
his life did he disagree with the MS, and in extensive his travels,
found that Indians overwhelmingly lived by the guidelines of the MS,
whether they knew it or not.

I could not see what some readers found unacceptable in his comments
about the evolution of ritual. For one who was schooled in classical
Indian mysticism, isn't it to be expected that his acceptance of
ritual would be implicit? He was merely quoting a fact: hasn't ritual
been evolving in India anyway? Are not our practices different from
what they were 2000, or even 500 years ago? He merely says they
should evolve further.

Please read his works further before forming an opinion.

from:  Narendra Kumar
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 15:51 IST

This is a great piece of history, one feels very grateful to The Hindu for telling the truth by publishing Swami's own words, sans interpretation or comments.

from:  P.N.Shreeniwas
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 14:55 IST

I am happy to read this item plus others in this discussion. One must remember that they are from a century and a half back, when English usage was somewhat different. Seems a little quaint relative to modern English. Also, interpreted as modern English, there may be danger of misunderstanding. One thing is clear - Swami Vivekananda doesn't mince words! The idea of creating hundreds of new castes within chaarturvarnya (4 main caste groups) has actually come to pass in different ways in different parts of India. This "diversification" was perhaps spontaneous rather than regulated by Brahmanas, as SV had suggested. However, this "adjustment" has certainly not led to any benefit to the masses! On the contrary, the situation has become worse overall, for ALL castes. I wonder if at the present time the masses in India are as tolerant of a "peculiar dress" as they were in SV's time (especially of his rather Bengali type of jhabba kurta and headgear)?

from:  Dilip G Banhatti
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 12:34 IST

Thanks to The Hindu for posting this memorable interview with Swamiji. I guess we have to understand his words in the context of the period in which it was spoken.

There are several controversial statements like "The plan in India is to make everybody Brahmana, the Brahmana being the ideal of humanity......We have only to raise them (the lower classes) without bringing down anybody. And this has mostly to be done by the Brahmanas themselves." in the course of this interview.

These statements in today's caste-dominated India would create quite a havoc.

from:  D Senthil Kumar
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 12:29 IST

Nice article to enlighten the current generation on Swami's views on caste, rituals etc. I saw of the reader comments about comparing throwing a child from height as rituals, Swamis mentions of rituals is not, the rituals santioned by Vedas - manusha Yaganam, Deva Yagnam etc, and also the satisfy the devas and also the rituals to purify our own mind which cannot be enlightened statightwat which can happen only to a few like Ramana Maharishi, by the grace of Sri Ramakrishna for Swami Vivekannada. I like Swami apt phrasing of rituals as Kindrgarten of Religion. if one gets elevated, then he need not do rituals and also not socff at them. Those who got enlightened, they never scoff at rituals as they know these are starting blocks. A Phd should not scoff at LKG as that is the system through which one advances spiritually

from:  Bala
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 12:09 IST

Thanks Hindu for posting this masterpiece.. His views on sensitive subjects are to be deeply understood before's populism driven definitions of certain terms ( Eg. caste, secular, vedanta, etc) makes us get confused..I see the four types of castes as 1. Teachers, Professors, Writers, Researchers 2. Rulers like PM, MLA, Councillors 3. Entrepreneurs 4. Employees. All being equal as human beings. I think Swami is mentioning similar changes in the caste system than abolishing it.

from:  Sampathkumar A S
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 12:03 IST

Thanks to Hindu for bringing out alternative views on Swamiji. Nobody teaches these in Schools or books.

from:  sriram kasyap
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 11:41 IST

It is indeed interesting to read this intervier of 1897. However I came out disappointed about Swami Vivekananda. I think less of him now. He seems confused when he says: "With the exception of the Vedas, every book must change (if he meant Vedanta, taht is a different story)". What does he mean by it? The same person says we have to have new rituals (don't we have already way too many!). Vedas have Karma Khanda with full of rituals and Jnaana Khanda (Vedanta). If you want Vedas intact, then we have to be doing ashvamedha, soma yaga and dozens of such Vedic yajnas; plus all the death and post death rites for redemption of ancestors!Basically duplicate Vedic age? Who in the world is able to replicate them today. Quite confused soul on many fronts. Very disappointed.

from:  Koti Sreekrishna
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 11:34 IST

Swamiji quote --
"Caste is continually changing, rituals are continually changing — so
are forms. It is the substance, the principle, that does not change.
It is in the Vedas that we have to study our religion. With the
exception of the Vedas, every book must change. The authority of the
Vedas is for all time to come; the authority of every one of our other
books is for the time being.
Hope "The Hindu" and other mass media of present India may recognize
the call of Swami Vivekananda and play a responsible role in bringing
the social change.

from:  Venugopal Reddy
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 10:48 IST

What new rituals ? Don't we already have many in this diverse country ? Marriage with a dog/tree, throwing infants off of a fifty foot tower, burying disabled children alive up to their necks during a solar eclipse, yagna for fertility/male child or burning the widow on the funeral ?

Any intelligent person will say you need to stop them and not replacements with new ones. What Kind of "occasional readjustments" is he talking about ? Its the duty of the interviewer to ask.

from:  Nitin Kumar
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 05:06 IST

You have done a yeoman service by posting this rare interview, topical for all times
to come, at the right time.

from:  Soundararajan Srinivasa
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 02:35 IST

This remarks (about caste, learning other religions through vedanta, on
Buddhism) if uttered today would cause a riot and a ban!! This article
has definitely made me rethink my unsullied adoration of Vivekananda.

from:  Piyush Tariyal
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 02:33 IST

It is indeed nice that this interview has been published, now we can hear things from
the horse's mouth, instead of praises heaped by euphoric fans.
If Indian readers can stomach some alternative views, here another take: Vivekananda , strangely, did not see caste as an evil force that has divided India and caused immense misery for the ones at the bottom of the food chain. When one reads his collected works one feels that he was some kind forerunner to Syama Prasad
Mukerji and Hedgewar.

from:  P.N.Shreeniwas
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 02:21 IST

i)What does the Saint mean, of imparting 'secular' knowledge, through
ii) In what context does he see the 'Buddhists' as a sect that vied for
'destruction' of Hindu race?

from:  Hariprasad
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 02:09 IST

Magnificent piece from history, incredible.
I Have a suggestion to the esteemed HINDU. If you you could digitize
all your newspaper from history and make it available online it would
be Treasure of knowledge. Please consider such an endeavor.
Imagine to see a newspaper online for late 19th century. Just incomprehensible, but certainly could happen 'THE HINDU' attempts to do so.
It could even be a paid site. I am sure hundreds of thousands will be

from:  sendhilvelan
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 01:47 IST

In a single word "Thanks The Hindu" for publishing this script and
enlightening the people about his great ideas and thinking which I must
say beyond the limit of time.
I am feeling proud that Mother India had produced such a son.

from:  Shashi Ranjan
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 01:32 IST
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