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Varnasrama — The Anatomy of the Social Body

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Centuries of political experiments have not
altered the basic structure of the body politic. Why?

by Mathuresa Dasa

The divisions in the social body are like those in our own body. The social body must have a head to direct it, arms to protect it, a stomach to feed it, and legs to support it.

The divisions in the social body are like those in our own body. The social body must have a head to direct it, arms to protect it, a stomach to feed it, and legs to support it.

Throughout recorded history, in every society on the face of the earth, we find different classes of men or divisions of society. Despite all varieties of political, social, economic, and religious climates, classes exist. Even modern democratic and communistic ideals of equality have failed to abolish class divisions. Classes continue to exist, and we can therefore conclude that they are permanent. They are inherent in human society itself, just as our head, arms, stomach, and legs are inherent in our bodily structure.

The Vedic scriptures, the oldest scriptures known to man, describe four principal classes. These are (1) an intelligent class (brahmanas), (2) a martial or administrative class (ksatriyas), (3) a mercantile class (vaisyas), and (4) a laborer class (sudras). The qualities by which these different classes work and by which they can be recognized are given in the Eighteenth Chapter of the Bhagavad-gita:

“Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness—these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.

“Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the ksatriyas.

“Farming, cow protection, and trade are the qualities of work for the vaisyas, and for the sudras there is labor and service to others.” (Bg. 18.42-44)

These different classes of men, recognized by their respective tendencies for work, are always present, and the system of social organization based on these divisions is called varnasrama. Varna indicates the four social divisions we have already listed, and asrama indicates progressive spiritual stages. The asramas are (1) student life, (2) married life, (3) retired life, and (4) renounced life, and they are meant to train each man to perform his duties for the satisfaction of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna.

These divisions exist in human society because human life is different from the life of animals. A human being has the ability to inquire about spiritual life: “Who am I? Why am I suffering? What is God? What is my relationship with Him?” These are questions that can be posed by human beings, and not by animals. Human life, therefore, offers us the unique opportunity to reestablish our lost relationship with the Supreme Person. The Vedas enjoin, athato brahma-jijnasa: “Now, in the human form of life, is the time to inquire into the Absolute Truth:” A human being who does not make this inquiry the central purpose of his life is loitering on the animal platform. Animals can eat, sleep, mate, and defend without caring for higher goals, but a human being who does so is wasting his valuable life. The value of a thing is judged by what one can attain with it. With five thousand dollars, for instance. you can purchase a nice car. But if someone convinces you to spend the same amount for an ordinary bicycle, then he is a cheater, and you have been tricked into wasting your money. Similarly, if we spend our human life properly, under the guidance of the ancient wisdom of the Vedas, we can attain an eternal, joyful life full of knowledge; and if we spend it for animal pleasures, we have been cheated.

The varnasrama institution, described in the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam, is a system of social organization designed solely for this purpose—to order society in such a way that every human being, no matter what his position, may peacefully cultivate God consciousness and by that spiritual education make a complete success of his life. By varnasrama we achieve the equality which is only advertised by other social systems. By being educated in the science of Krsna, God, everyone can have an equal opportunity to put an end to all the miseries of material life by ultimately returning to the kingdom of God.

In the Fourth Chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Krsna describes the varnasrama system:

catur-varnyam maya srstam
guna-karma-vibhagasah
tasya kartaram api mam
viddhy akartaram avyayam

“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable:” (Bg. 4.13)

Why do the four divisions exist? Krsna says, maya srstam—”because they were created by Me.” We can understand that any organized structure, such as a house or a bridge, implies a creator. We look at a sturdy house and question, “Who has built this house?” Similarly, we must ask, “Who is the creator?” And Krsna says, “I am that creator.” It is because God created the divisions of society that they exist permanently. Social or political structures created by man and imposed upon human society do not last, because they are concocted and artificial. But these four divisions of human society—the intellectual, martial, mercantile, and laborer classes—were created by God when He created human society itself. The divisions are not imposed or artificial. They are inherent by the divine will. Rather than try to abolish them, we should learn how to use them as they were originally intended to be used by their creator.

The divisions in society are like the divisions in our body. Although the body has different parts, they all must cooperate for the body to survive. This is also true of the social body. The social body must have a head to direct it, arms to protect it, a stomach to feed it, and legs to support it. The intelligent class must give direction to society, based on the authority of the Vedas, so that every man may realize his eternal relationship with God. This is real intelligence. Next, the administrative class must protect society by upholding religious principles and thus putting the general population in a receptive mood toward the guidance of the brahmanas. The vaisyas, the mercantile class, are not meant to open factories to mass produce useless items and thus enslave millions of men for the profit of an elite few. As explained in the Bhagavad-gita, the vaisyas should produce abundant grains by farming and should protect cows. In this way, there will never be a scarcity of the two most essential foods for the human being—grains and milk. And the sudras, the laborer class, can render service to the other three classes of society and thus have all their necessities supplied to them. From the example of the social body, we can understand that no part of society is less important than any other part. Do we consider our legs less important than our arms? Would we want to neglect our stomach? Of course not. If you stub your toe, then immediately the attention of the head and the working power of the arms are focused on the injured area. Divisions of the social body are meant for cooperation—not for competition or exploitation. This is the purpose for which they were created.

After explaining that He is the creator of the divisions of society, Krsna explains how to identify these classes. This is explained in the words guna-karma-vibhagasah. Guna means quality, and karma means activity. According to Lord Krsna, the author of varnasrama, we must judge a man impartially by his qualifications and work. In other words, family heritage, nationality, race, color, and creed are not the criteria for the divisions of society. The actual varnasrama system cannot be accused of discrimination or of limiting the individual’s opportunity to follow his inclinations and aspirations. The caste system of India, although using the terminology of varnasrama (brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya, sudra), is not actually varnasrama, because it is based on heredity. The Indian caste system has deteriorated and failed for just this reason. Someone born into a family of brahmanas, the priestly or intellectual class, would claim to be a brahmana automatically, whether or not he had the qualifications, and even if his activities were most degenerate. This is not at all sensible, nor is it supported by the Gita. For example, the son of a high-court judge may receive the opportunity, by inspiration and instruction, to become a high-court judge himself. But he still requires training and education before he seeks an appointment to that post. He cannot claim to be qualified for such a position merely on the strength of his high parentage. Similarly, the son of a doctor may naturally desire to practice medicine and may take advantage of his father’s experience. But he, too, requires long years of training in medical school. So the argument that birth qualifies one for a certain post in society contradicts common sense and is not supported by the instructions of the Bhagavad-gita. Anyone is free to take any position in society, provided he develops the qualifications. Varnasrama cannot be accused of rigidity or of restricting social mobility. The actual varnasrama system trains and educates the individual in the duties and occupation for which he is already inclined. Lord Krsna gives directions for that training in the Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic literatures. Any other system of training, whether caste, communist, or democratic, necessarily misguides society and spoils the mission of human life.

tasya kartaram api mam
viddhy akartaram avyayam

Krsna next explains that although He created the varnasrama system, He is transcendental to it. Varnasrama serves to elevate the human being from the animal consciousness of eating, sleeping, mating, and fearing to the level of pure love of God. Without this there is no meaning to varnasrama. Since Krsna is Himself the Personality of Godhead, there is no need for Him to take part in varnasrama. When He appears in human society, however, He does participate in varnasrama just to set an example for human society. The principles of religion are His enacted laws, and He therefore takes care to see that they are maintained. When Krsna appeared in human society five thousand years ago, He followed all the prescribed duties for a ksatriya (warrior-prince) and family man. Although He is above all such requirements, He accepted them in order to set an example, just as a father behaves in an exemplary manner to teach his children. Krsna is like the governor of a state who visits the penitentiary to see that things run smoothly and that the prisoners make progress toward again becoming law-abiding citizens. The governor is not a prisoner, even while in the prison. He can come and go as he likes. His position is that of an overseer. Similarly, when Krsna descends to the material world, He does so to establish religious principles, and He is not subject to the laws of material nature. Simply by understanding this, we become qualified to return to the eternal spiritual world beyond the material sky—Krsna’s abode, the kingdom of God.

janma karma ca me divyam
evam yo vetti tattvatah
tyaktva deham punar janma
naiti mam eti so ‘rjuna

“One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna. ” (Bg. 4.9)

Krsna is transcendental to varnasrama. Since each class and order of society engages a man in the service of God, each participant in varnasrama understands that his particular designation as a brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya, or sudra is temporary, and that his permanent position is that of a transcendental servant of Krsna. Thus, even if one remains in one class or occupation his entire life, there is no question of stigma or restriction, because everyone’s actual position is that he is a servant of God. Lord Caitanya, the incarnation of Krsna who appeared five hundred years ago in Bengal, taught this very principle:

naham vipro na ca nara-patir …
gopi-bhartuh pada-kamalayor
dasa-dasanudasah

“I am neither a brahmana, nor a ksatriya… The only designation that I wish to accept is that of a servant of the servant of the servant of Krsna.”

We are, first of all, servants of the Supreme Person, and the different divisions of society are meant to best engage our respective qualities in His service. When one becomes completely purified by that service, he no longer relies on any designation, but simply thinks himself a humble servant of God, Krsna. Lord Caitanya therefore taught that it is the prime duty of everyone to chant the holy names of God. Lord Caitanya especially recommended the Hare Krsna mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This mantra simply means, “O my Lord, please engage me in Your loving service.”

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