Veda is our only authority, and everyone has the right to it.
Swami Vivekananda has quoted a mantra from "Shukla Yajurveda 26.2" in which he urges that every Hindu of all castes including Shudra have rights on the Veda. [CW-3, Lectures from Colombo to Almora, THE RELIGION WE ARE BORN IN, Dacca, 31st March, 1901]. Swami Vivekananda challenged – “Can you show any authority from this Veda of ours that everyone has not the right to it?”
यथेमां वाचं कल्याणीमावदानि जनेभ्यः।
ब्रह्मराजन्याभ्यां शूद्राय चार्याय च स्वाय चारणाय॥
yathomam vacham kalyanimavadani janebhyaha,
brahmarajanyabhyam shudrayacharyaya cha swaya charyaya cha"
“Just as I am speaking these blessed words to people (without distinction), in the same way you also spread these words among all men and women – the Brahmanas, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas, Shudras and all others, whether they be our own people or aliens(foreigners).”
Another mantra from Shukla Yajurveda 18.48:
Ruchannu dhehi brahmanesu ruchaha rajasu naskrudhi |
Ruchanwisyeshu Sudreshu mayi dheyi rucha rucham ||
O Lord! Provide enlightenment to our Brahmanas, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudras. Provide me also with the same enlightenment so that I can see the truth.
Similar Mantra is given in Atharvaveda 19.32.8, Atharvaveda 19.62.1 for Shudra eligibility for Vedic study. Here Vedic Rishis are saying, their teachings should be appreciated by all Castes - Brahmanas, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudras.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad [1.4.11-15] also mentions castes are manifested based on requirements, both among Gods and Humans.
Brahma ba idamagra asidekameba; …..
[1.4.11]In the beginning this [the Ksatriya and others] was indeed Brahmana [Fire], one only. Being one, he did not flourish. He specially projected an excellent form, the Ksatriya [Indra, Varuna etc]. [1.4.12]Yet he did not flourish. He projected the Vaisya [Vasus, Rudras etc]. [1.4.13]He did not still flourish. He projected the Shudra caste [earth]. For it nourishes all this that exists. [1.4.14]Yet he did not flourish. He specially projected that excellent form, righteousness (Dharma). [1.4.15]So these four castes were projected – Brahmana, Ksatriya, Vaisya, Shudra, both among Gods and humans.
Since Veda reveals which are beyond sense organs [Alaukika pramana], these castes - Brahmana, Ksatriya, Vaisya, Shudra must be referring to manifested qualities [Guna] of Supreme-Self. And castes among deities are referring to various natures [Guna] manifested from Supreme-Self. These cannot be hereditary castes of Human.
Smriti and Purana restrict people
Swami Vivekananda mentioned in a lecture, THE RELIGION WE ARE BORN IN, Lectures from Colombo to Almora, Dacca, on the 31st March, 1901 – “The Purânas, no doubt, say that a certain caste has the right to such and such a recension of the Vedas, or a certain caste has no right to study them, or that this portion of the Vedas is for the Satya Yuga and that portion is for the Kali Yuga. But, mark you, the Veda does not say so; it is only your Puranas that do so. But can the servant dictate to the master? The Smrti, Puranas, Tantras — all these are acceptable only so far as they agree with the Vedas; and wherever they are contradictory, they are to be rejected as unreliable. But nowadays we have put the Puranas on even a higher pedestal than the Vedas!” [CW-3]
In a letter ALMORA, 30th May, 1897, Swami Vivekananda also wrote – “The Smrti 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; [CW-6]
śrutismṛtyoḥ param bādhe śrutir-eva garīyasi |
śrutyoḥ parasparam bādhe nyāyopetā garīyasi ||
If there is a contradiction between sruti and smrti, the sruti alone must be taken. When there are two sruti statements which are contradictory, that scriptural statement which has logical support (whose purport is established by śaḍliṅgas) is more valid than the scriptural statement which does not have a logical support. The scriptural statement which is reinforced by logic is more valid than the other one.
Varnasrama Dharma vs Brahma-vidya
We can not mix Varnasrama Dharma with Brahma-vidya. Both work in different domains. However few Vedantin does this mistake of mixing these together.
Varnasrama Dharma - It is social rules and regulations. It is related to Pravriti marga [attachment in action]. It changes over time based on social need.
Brahma-vidya - It is about knowing Human true nature - knowing the own self. It is related to Nivriti marga [detachment in action]. It it eternal and does not change over time.
Probably Varnasrama Dharma can be termed as religion and Brahma-vidya can be termed as spirituality. However both can not be related.
Veda must be aligned to what it preaches?
Veda mentions that each Jiva (living creature) is a reflection of infinite Sat-Chit-Ananda (Brahman). The ultimate goal of human being is to realize his essential identity with Brahman. Then how can somebody be denied to read Veda which tells each Jiva potentially is Brahman. Rather depriving somebody from reading Veda means violating the principle Veda preaches. So it seems the division of caste and not allowing Shudra and women to read Veda was a socially (not spiritual) imposed rule. And cannot challenge the divinity inside the Shudra and women.
People study Vedanta for Jnanam. There is no gender, no caste for Atma. However they do mistakes in adding Varna-Asrama dharma (caste systems and stage of life) to Jnana Kanda. Varna-Asrama dharma is related to material or worldly life. Jnana Kanda or Vedanta is related to liberation. One is Pravriti Marga and another in Nivriti Marga. Both should not be mixed. The scholars should focus only on pure Vedanta, not to be mixed with Varna-Asrama. We expect from the Vedantins a certain level of maturity to see beyond Vyavahara. It is clear, a person who has realized the oneness [Advaita], cannot accept human division [Dualism]. On the other way, a person accepting human division [Dualism], cannot be established in oneness [Advaita].