1. The spiritual welfare of the people must be seen as the highest aim of human civilization
That people gather together for mutual benefit is an old schoolbook axiom. Whether it is true, as Rousseau and others have declared, that this is the original basis of human society, it is surely one good reason people stay together. And the concept of the “social contract” is to a large extent the underlying principle of modern civilization.
However, just what it is that does benefit the people may be questioned. Contemporary man has directed his institutions as well as much of his individual life’s energy toward the development of material comforts and luxuries, in what he calls “the conquest of Nature.” To be sure, the laws of Nature—survival of the fittest, the very struggle for existence itself—are cruel, and it is truly in the character of man to attempt to reverse or escape them. In a sense, civilization is the leaguing together of men in order to transcend the bonds of Nature.
But a perpetual warfare to subdue the material world, being warfare after all, must keep us in the very bondage we want to avert. The materialist who assumes on the one hand that matter is all-in-all, and on the other that he can rise above the laws of material Nature by conquest, is laboring under an obvious misconception. If nothing lay outside the boundaries of Nature with her harsh strictures, then all attempts to surpass Nature would be patently impossible. And so, the very fact that we wish to conquer matter indicates an unspoken faith in our existence above and beyond it.
The fact is that man does strive to escape the laws of Nature—to seek a life of eternity and ecstasy which instinct perceives as possible even when reason has rejected its plausibility.
Further, we should face the reality that the gigantic machine complex we now call civilization—being no more than a grotesque, lifeless mockery of the organic world—has not made us content. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami has likened the accomplishments of technological man to zeroes, which take up space on a page but do not have value. Even a million zeroes all added together amount to nothing. It is only when a number—1, for example—is added to the left that the zeroes become substantial. With a numeral 1 before them, of course, a million zeroes add up to quite a lot.
So, in terms of the Swami’s equation, civilization today is not so much a failure as it is unfulfilled. It lacks that 1, and that 1 is found through the understanding that “man does not live by bread alone,” that there are spiritual values which lie outside the scope of Nature, and which are the true values for humanity to live by. That 1 is Krishna, God, the Supreme Spirit .
Given this center of gravity, human civilization is capable of rising to incalculable heights. It is capable of offering real fulfillment to its members, on the platform of spiritual—that is to say, eternal and blissful—consciousness, in the love of God.
2. Society should be organized to promote spiritual fulfillment in the populace.
A civilization which claims to exalt individualism but which tries to blanket everyone with the same laws, customs, responsibilities and rights is clearly self-contradictory. The Vedic writings offer us a science of societal organization which is capable of meeting men’s seemingly contradictory needs for both communal security and individual character development. That this great science once degenerated into the caste-by-birth system and thus served to weaken and corrupt Hindu civilization should not be taken as a final judgment against it. It did, after all, offer a sufficiently strong structure to uphold the most long-lived civilization of which we have any knowledge, one not yet perished from the world stage.
This system, correctly called “Varnashram Dharma,” gave two sets of outlines for social organization, one vertical and the other horizontal. The four divisions by occupation, or “caste,” offered, originally, not restrictions but opportunities for young students to take up certain types of work at an early age—according to exhibited inclination. This sort of individualized preparation for a life-long career is capable of standing amongst the most progressive concepts in education today.
According to training in the Vedic system, one might take up the career of an administrator or soldier (Kshatriya), that of an intellectual or priest (Brahmin), that of a businessman or farmer (Vaishya), or that of a laborer or servant (Sudra). These are not divisions of society which have disappeared. They exist today as much as in the past. And it might be seen that a more stable and happy populace could be created by the introduction of specialization at an earlier level than we find in our contemporary school system. The present method of imparting a little dose of everything—and a great dose of nothing—into each student regardless of his personality has been so widely criticized by the eminent educators of this century that it is unnecessary to take up the matter at any greater length here.
The horizontal divisions of society advised in the Vedic writings are likewise four: student life, household life, retired life and the renounced order. The vertical caste system was meant to promote material well-being and security, and it was from this stable platform that man could rise to achieve his true purpose, in the quest for God realization, the ultimate fulfillment. This was done by progressing through the four stages of life:
1. The word for student life in the Vedic context is “Brahmacharya, and it is significant that the same word means celibacy. For student life in terms of spiritual fulfillment is a time not only of occupational training, but a formative period when it is possible to instill a sense of detachment in the young. This, of course, is in direct contradistinction to our present curriculum, which seeks to stimulate ambition, aggressiveness and competition.
2. Passing from student life, a man who follows the Vedic principles may either enter directly into the renounced order—the complete submission to God in devotional service—or he may marry and take up his career. As a householder, he is expected to support the entirety of the community, for students, the retired and the renounced order are not involved with practical affairs. Such responsibility perhaps helps dim the glamor of householder life, which might otherwise prove too great an entanglement in material existence. It also permits the other members of society to take up the business of spiritual advancement in complete seriousness, for, of course, the benefit of all.
3 & 4. The retired man is a householder who, at late middle age, tries to loosen his attachments by making pilgrimages with his wife, and by leaving all business affairs in the hands of his children. This is a preparation for the final stage—the renounced order of life—when utter detachment from family and home is undertaken. The mendicant in this last stage lives solely at the mercy of God, his mind, activities and words fixed on transcendence.
In The Bhagavad Gita As It Is, in the Fourth Chapter, Lord Krishna states that these divisions of society were created by Him from the beginning. They are not unnatural or oppressive conditions. They cannot, all the same, be imposed upon mankind by statute or constitution. They will develop naturally as the transcendental consciousness of humanity advances, in accordance with the first of our points. They are mentioned here mainly because they do offer a practical pattern for social organization at a time when the world sorely needs an alternative to such tasteless proposals as capitalism, Communism, socialism and other materialistic cages on the one hand, and the sort of narrow religious intolerance and brittleness represented by feudal Europe (and caste-Hindu India) on the other. The principles of Varnashram will be found, in the end, to present far the most adaptable, practical and spiritually wise concept of human civilization ever to have existed.
Contemporary education in the West sees learning more or less as a weapon in the national, racial and personal competition which forms the basic world view of materialistic man. But in the Vedic concept, where spiritual welfare is the true standard of success, education has a somewhat different purpose. The brahmin, or intellectual, is one who knows of “Brahman”—the Absolute. He may or may not be versed in worldly affairs—as in our own society, the scholar is here the guardian of practical as well as theoretical wisdom—but he must be in knowledge of God, following the principles of regulated life found in the Vedas. And his foremost duty is to impart this knowledge of God to his fellow man—with or without remuneration.
“Direct realization” is a way of saying that mankind need not dream or speculate or theorize about God. God is not an abstraction. He is a reality, and “realization” means to experience the absolute reality of God directly for oneself. One who can teach this process of personal confrontation with Krishna, the Godhead, is a true intellectual and a true teacher—and a true benefactor of the human race.
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness was formed largely with this purpose in mind. A.C . Bhaktivedanta Swami, who founded the organization, has written: “As for the administrative class of men, the mercantile class and the laborer class, there are many institutions for training. But to train a first class intellectual in spiritual life there is no institution the world over. So this Krishna Consciousness movement is trying to help human society on this point. We have therefore taken a large tract of land in West Virginia, which we’ve named New Vrindaban. We want to train students to become first class intellectuals, and to instruct the whole of human society about the aim of life, which is Krishna Consciousness—God consciousness.
4. Centers for the study and practice of love of Krishna should be opened throughout the world
There are six recognized stages for rapid advancement in God realization. These are: 1) faith—the determination to follow the principles of spiritual life in the first place; 2) association—the practice of congregating with people of like determination; 3) following the rules and regulations—specifically, to chant the Names of God (the Hare Krishna Mantra) and to avoid meat-eating, intoxication, gambling and unmarried or illicit sex; 4) doubts disappear—which is a result of following regulative precepts; 5) attachment to the Lord develops—from which point one is securely fixed in the Absolute Truth; and 6) love of Krishna—the final, sublime perfection—appears within the heart. Of these six, the second is mentioned here as a specific point toward the advancement of world civilization. The association with other devotees of God, and especially with saintly persons who can teach the message of love of Krishna, is extremely important for one who is serious about spiritual advancement. Without the sort of association that such centers of Krishna Consciousness will provide, it is very difficult to maintain the high standards required for spiritual perfection in a world given over largely to material sense gratification, garbed occasionally, it is true, in the hypocrite’s cloak of ritualistic or traditional religion.
The foregoing four points, if accepted by even a small percentage of the world’s population, will inevitably lead to a general detachment from the material concept of life. As a result of this detachment, our other points will develop rather naturally:
5. All natural resources must be viewed not as objects for man’s exploitation, but as the exclusive property of God.
This point, along with 6, 7 and 8 are developed at considerable length in “Sri Ishopanishad,” A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s translation with commentary, elsewhere in this issue. It may be worthwhile only to mention here that, based as these points are on the universal conception of God at the center of existence, they offer the transcendental viewpoint required to carry through the sweeping programs of reform in the areas of conservation, ecology, poverty, famine, justice and disarmament—as well as political unification—which are essential for the continuance of human life on this planet.
6. The entire world economy must be taken as a single unit.
This is an extension of the ideals of the Common Market, the Socialist Commonwealth and even of the American Federal system. It is a solution to innumerable problems within the world, a solution so imperative, so logical and—thanks to modern technology—so practicable that one wonders why it doesn’t make political news. The reason is probably that the spiritual basis for such a concept has long been lacking from our world. And, when it was present in such forms as Islam and Christianity, the God-centered concept became not a goal, but a tool in the hands of the greedy. The proper way to world unification, however, can be found in the science of Krishna Consciousness, and must be based on the five points preceding this one. In this way, the process will be effective.
7. False standards of wealth must be abandoned in the world economy.
The present writer shudders at the thought of even mentioning the complex system of trade and coinage now plaguing the world. But the fact of its artificiality—and of its continual decline into crisis—ought to bring a good many thinkers to question this system, and to seek abetter one, one offered as an outgrowth of the God-centered concept taught in Sri Ishopanishad. By the standards of this concept, men will seek to simplify rather than complicate the physical and material aspects of life, in order to create free time which can be devoted to the practice of God consciousness. The serenity of a civilization so oriented is worth considering.
Oddly enough, the burgeoning of electric technology has not ruled out this concept of society, but has actually made it possible on a scale never before practical. The security and comfort once available only in the city can today be extended to all the corners of what Marshall McLuhan has termed the “global village.”
Even within our great megalopolises, the “neighborhood” still testifies to the tendency in man toward small, simplified units of society. Only the formal conceptualization—and the political acceptance—of the neighborhood or village as a real administrative unit is lacking today. Yet this is surely the solution to the dilemma of “urban sprawl,” and more and more groups both professional and lay are recognizing the fact.
8. The personal rights of all life forms must be seen as sacred, to the same extent that man’s rights are sacred.
Volumes have been, can be and will be yet written on this subject. But the Vedic directions (again outlined more fully in Sri Ishopanishad) are simple: all living beings are the children of God, and Krishna, God, doesn’t favor one above another. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami has written: “The foolish idea that plants or animals or other living entities have no life is the basic cause of human sin.” He has further said: “Animals are the less intelligent children of God, and because they cannot make protest, you kill them. But no father permits the intelligent sons to kill the useless sons. The father loves all the children, and if the intelligent ones use their intelligence cruelly against the others, there will be punishment.”
9. The simple, effective structure of village life should be encouraged through decentralization of congested urban areas and the implementation of agricultural life.
The overall principle governing human life and civilization, from the spiritual viewpoint. is simplicity. Material needs can be summed up in four categories: eating, sleeping, mating and defending. To satisfy these needs in the most basic fashion, thus liberating time and energy for the quest of spiritual realization, is the goal of Vedic organizational schemes. This is a goal obviously determined by the understanding that it is realization of God—complete absorption in the eternal, transcendental pastimes of love of Krishna—which is the ultimate and actual fulfillment of life.
The brilliant success of the capitalist economic system in the West—especially in the U. S. offers a useful contrast to this Vedic system. The industrial development of the West has served the purpose of liberating great quantities of time, but because of a basically materialistic concept of life, the people of the western nations have so far failed to develop any positive principle or meaning to existence, as the rampant nihilism exhibited in the young seems to demonstrate. What is required now—and quite desperately required—is this positive recognition of the supremacy of God, and of the unrivalled importance of the quest for realization of God as the essential business of human life. And we need quite rationally and pragmatically—words chosen deliberately—to dare to construct a new, far more spiritual world civilization to serve these highest interests of man.