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Varnasrama-dharma

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by Satsvarupa dasa Adhikari
(ISKCON-Boston)

The followers of the supreme will as taught by Lord Krsna in the Bhagavad-gita are generally called Hindus. This word Hindu, which has only come from recent times, is a name given by Mohammedans to those followers of the varnasrama-dharma who used to gather at the Indus River in India. “Indus” became “Hindus” by mispronunciation, so “Hindu” is an empty designation. The religion of the four social orders and four spiritual orders created by the Supreme Personality of Godhead Krsna, as revealed in Bhagavad-gita (Bg. 4.13), is properly named varnasrama-dharma. Basically, the four orders of social life called varna are scientifically arranged for the material progress of society, and the four spiritual orders called asrama are designed for natural progress in self-realization. Both the varna and asrama systems are interrelated; each is dependent on the other. The purpose of this plan, created by the Lord Himself, is to accelerate the transcendental qualities of the individual so that he may gradually realize his spiritual identification and act in order to get free from the material bondage of conditional life. It is a system by which the civilized human being can successfully perform the human mission, which is to be distinguished from the animal propensities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending.

Spiritual, Peaceful Life

The varna system of four castes—brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya and sudra—is perfectly organized in material terms in order to allow people to live peacefully and pursue spiritual life while engaged in their regular occupation. In every society there is always a class interested in business and agriculture. According to the Eighteenth Chapter of Bhagavad-gita, the vaisyas’ duties are “farming, cattle raising, and business.” The sudra class does the labor or serves the other classes. The ksatriyas are the administrators and protectors or policemen. “Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and leadership are the qualities of work for the ksatriyas.” (Bg. 18.43) The brahmanas constitute the intelligent class and offer spiritual knowledge and guidance to the people. Whether or not one accepts the names brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya and sudra, there is naturally in every society an intelligent class interested in spiritual understanding and philosophy, a class interested in administration and ruling over others, a class interested in economic development, business and moneymaking, and another class of men who are not intelligent or martial spirited and have no capacity for economic development but who can simply serve others for their own bread. This system has been extant from time immemorial, and it will continue through time immemorial. There is no power which can stop it.

Due to India’s dependency on foreigners and those who are non-varnasrama, that country is now witnessing the degradation of the caste and order system in the form of the heredity caste system. Because the varnasrama system is created by God, it will always exist, either in degraded form or in original; it cannot be extinguished. It is like the sun, a creation of God. Either covered by clouds or in a clear sky, the sun will exist. When the varnasrama system becomes degraded, it appears as the hereditary caste system. The four natural orders are still there, but there is no actual regulation for cooperation between the communities. According to the original system in the Bhagavad-gita, caste is determined not by birth but by qualities. The Vedic literature is perfectly clear on this point. Lord Krsna Himself used the phrase brahma-bandhu, meaning “relative of a brahmana,” to describe a person who happens to take birth in the family of a brahmana but is not qualified as a brahmana. This was the case with Asvatthama, as described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.7.36). He was a brahmana’s son, but he killed the five sleeping sons of Draupadi, and therefore Krsna said that he should be called a brahma-bandhu. As the judgeship is a post for the qualified man, so also the post of a brahmana is attainable by qualification only. By birth alone one cannot become a high court judge, but a qualified person, regardless of birth, is eligible for the post. Similarly, any man who attains the qualities of a brahmana but is born in a lower caste family must be recognized as a factual brahmana. There is an example in the Chandogya Upanisad of a student boy who approached a guru for instruction. The guru asked the boy his family name. On enquiry from his mother, the boy was told. “I do not know. I was a servant girl in my youth and worked in many places. I do not know who was your father.” The boy related this exactly to the sage, and the sage declared: “None but a brahmana could speak as truthfully as this,” and the boy was thereby accepted as a brahmana because of his acting like a brahmana. Similarly, in Hari-bhakti-vilasa, which is the standard literature for regulative behavior in devotional service, it is stated: “As bell metal can be transformed into gold by the proper chemical process, similarly by the bona fide process of initiation any human being can be transformed into a twice-born brahmana.”

Need For Brahmanas

It is the Vedic ideal that everyone is trained according to his particular qualities and inclinations. It is necessary in every society that there especially be guides, qualified men whose work is not to put bricks together or anything else, but to simply guide with real intelligence, while the others do work according to their desires. Where there is such guidance, working becomes happy. Krsna is the author of the orders, and thus the existence of a guiding class is eternal and natural—but training is needed. In the democratic society, education makes no provision to train brahmanas for the role of guides. Although the need for such brahmanas is clear, there is no educational institution to train proper brahmanas.

The present Society for Krishna Consciousness is unique in supplying training for boys who are spiritually inclined. Under a bona fide spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, they are being trained in a higher science. Those intellectual persons who have the brahminical qualifications are being restrained as students—they don’t eat meat or take part in intoxication, gambling or illicit sex life. In this way they are becoming an intellectual, purified class. It is said that a true brahmana can sanctify all society. In the conception of the four orders as parts situated on the universal form of the Supreme Lord, the brahmanas are said to be the head, the ksatriyas the arms, the vaisyas the waist and the sudras the legs. Just as in our own body, for proper maintenance we require all parts; we cannot say that we do not need the head. We need everything. If there is a body without a head, it is a dead body. Similarly, if there is not a brahmana or intellectual, spiritual part in the society, it is a dead society. If someone is working to understand the Supreme Lord, he is a brahmana. Why should he be called for military action? The arm of the body is needed also. Some military arrangement should be there—but not the brahmana. W here there is no arrangement for protection of brahmanas, that society is headless and brainless—dead. And there is no peace in such a society.

Present Degradation

Due to the lack of training of people in the present age and to their practice of the vices of illicit sex, meat eating and intoxication, Lord Caitanya declared that kalau sudra-sambhava—in the age of Kali everyone is a sudra. The Vedic ceremony called Garbhadhana—in which the man and wife make vows before having sex and declare that they are coming together to have sex in order to produce a Krsna conscious child—is no longer observed. And so widespread are illicit connections that no one can know for certain whether he is born of a brahmana or someone else. With the extinguishing of the original varnas and asramas, the entire world has become deplorable, being governed by unwanted men who have no training in religion, politics or social order. In the institution of varnasrama there are regular training principles for the different classes of men. Just as now we need engineers and doctors and there are places for properly training them in scientific institutions, so the social orders, the intelligent class, the ruling class, etc., can be properly trained up. This was actually the case in early Vedic times. The duties are described, and the training must be there. With no training, one cannot claim that simply because he is born in a brahmana or ksatriya family, even though he may act as a sudra, he is therefore a brahmana or ksatriya. Such claims have degraded the system and thrown it into chaos, with no peace or prosperity. The result is that there are sudras everywhere; where there should be a ksatriya in the presidential palace and leading the army on the battlefield, there are men who are untrained and unintelligent who are less than sudras. When there is no provision for training the natural orders, we find that the leadership is ineffective and corrupt. In the Vedic system, because there was proper education, the society was peaceful and so structured that all people were able to develop Krsna consciousness. That is real human society, where the entire society is making progress toward spiritual realization. Krsna advises in Bhagavad-gita that one stay in his own work:

It is better to be engaged in one’s own occupation, even if imperfectly performed, than to accept another’s occupation, even if perfectly done. Prescribed duties, according to one’s nature, are never affected by sinful reactions. (Bg. 18.47)

Working according to his nature, for the purpose of serving the Lord, one can attain perfection by that work, no matter how abominable or pleasant it may appear. One should prosecute his work, even if there is some difficulty in it. Of course, even if a man steadfastly performs his work, but does not serve God by his labor, he is doomed by that very steadfast but godless work. The absolute meaning to all work is that one offers the fruits of his work to Krsna. This art of working in devotional service can be learned, and that is why the brahmanas are there.

A great devotee of Lord Krsna, the boy Prahlada Maharaja, told his school fellows: “What is required is that we change our consciousness from what we are now thinking—that I am the supreme enjoyer, lord of all I survey—and instead become the loving servants of the actual enjoyer, the Supreme Personality of Godhead Krsna.” This transcendental loving service, a change of consciousness, can be perfectly completed under proper guidance while working at one’s occupational duty. According to Lord Caitanya, everyone must surrender to Krsna. As the varna orders are natural because they are created by God, so they have meaning only when they are utilized for devotional service unto God.

The Asrama

The spiritual impetus in training is asrama. The asrama system is arranged in four stages of life in order for one to reach spiritual perfection. The first stage is brahmacarya. Brahmacarya means student life or education with the spiritual master. According to the asrama system, at five years of age a boy goes to live at the guru-kula, or the place of the guru. There, in order to understand spiritual life, all students serve as menial servants of the guru. This way is advised by Krsna in the Bhagavad-gita (4.34): “Just try to know the truth by approaching a self-realized spiritual master with all submission and with inquiries and render service unto him. Such a learned spiritual master initiates knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” By performing this service unto a pure devotee, the brahmacari is making direct service contact with God. Because such pure devotees or spiritual masters have as their only business to spread Krsna consciousness and devotional service, to come in contact with them is like an iron rod’s coming in contact with fire—the rod eventually acts like fire itself. Lord Caitanya taught that we should become a servant of the servant of the servant 100 times removed—the more faith in the chain of disciplic succession, the better is the service unto Krsna Himself. The brahmacari is trained to be celibate and temperate and to follow the scriptural injunctions for purification of consciousness. Many great personalities from the Vedic literatures, such as Sankara, Narada, the Kumaras, Bhisma, and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, remained unmarried brahmacaris throughout life and devoted their full time to the cause of Krsna. Moreover, one must enter brahmacari training, even if he is to be later married, so that he can learn the principles of restraint. Spiritual life has as its goal the cessation of the round of birth and death in this material world and transferral to the eternal, blissful spiritual world. According to Bhagavad-gita, we are wandering through thousands of species of life, always forgetting Krsna, thinking that we are God, the enjoyer, the center, the Lord. So there is no way out of this material condition except hearing from a spiritual master what our actual position is: that we are eternal parts and parcels of God. Then we must act accordingly. This practice of brahmacarya inculcates in one the desire for Krsna because it restrains the sensual propensities which are the cause of our bondage to the material world.

Sex life, being the apex of pleasure in the material world, is therefore the number one reason for our staying in bondage. Nowadays so many so-called yogis and rsis have come with their teachings, but they are actually enjoyers of the world in the name of yoga, as their teaching does not demand that one practice brahmacarya. Sex indulgence is not recommended in any standard process of yoga meditation or devotional service. Spiritual life means that I am trying to show God my love for Him, not that I am trying to increase my sex enjoyment.

Essential Training

Among other things, the brahmacari is required to restrict his sleep. He is expected to rise one and a half hours before sunrise in order to take advantage of the early hours which are said to be the most auspicious for spiritual development. In Srimad-Bhagavatam, the habits of a brahmacari are described: “The brahmacari must rise early in the morning, and after placing himself, he should chant the holy name” (Bhaktivedanta Purports, Bhag. 3.21.45). It is further described that the brahmacari’s body and face should give off a luster:

His body shone most brilliantly; though engaged in austere penance, he was not emaciated because the Lord had cast His affectionate glance at him and he had quaffed with his ears the nectar flowing from the moonlike words of the Lord.

It is the sign of one observing celibacy or brahmacarya that his face has this luster. If he lives otherwise, the lust will come out from the face and the body; if one is a drunkard or sex monger, it will come out. Brahmacari training is the basis for all other orders as basic training in spiritual life. Whether he goes on to become married and eventually retire from married life, or whether he goes directly to the renounced order or sannyasa, the practice of brahmacarya will save him from the pit of entanglement. It fixes him positively in the Absolute Truth.

When the spiritual master understands the qualities of a student, then he decides how he should work, whether as brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya or sudra. Thus the student goes into any occupation or spiritual order implanted with the seed of devotional service and the ability to control his senses over the four animal propensities.

Married Life

The second asrama order is called grhastha, the married family man. Grhastha does not mean married life for indulgence in sex and family affairs. Grhastha is a bona fide spiritual order. There is another word in Sanskrit, grhamedhi, which is a description of married life without spiritual goals. Such marriage, in which one uses contraceptive methods in order to enjoy sex life, raises children that come like cats and dogs, and devotees one’s occupational income and energy for elevating the material standard of his family, is a waste of human life. Sex is there, like eating, and there is no bar to Krsna consciousness for a married man. If one feels some disturbance in living single, he can get married. Many of the great authorities in the science of God, like Lord Brahma, Prahlada Maharaja, Bhaktivinode Thakur and His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, were family men. Marriage in the spiritual order is for the purpose of living peacefully and having children in Krsna consciousness. Like the varna, the asrama orders are natural and based on principles of human life in terms of the whole span of life; the goal of asrama is not sense gratification, but liberation from the material condition and attainment of the highest goal. The first part of life, brahmacarya, is utilized for development of character and spiritual qualities. Then around age twenty-five, if he has the desire to be married, he may, as the next natural part of life, accept a wife and beget children. But one should not beget children like cats and dogs. A child should be begotten who can perform duties for God, otherwise there is no need to marry and no need of children. The parents should see to it that the child born of them must not enter the womb of a mother again. The child should be trained for being liberated in that life.

Asrama teaches that human life is especially meant for being completely devoted to the Lord. Among the duties and responsibilities of the householder is that he takes care of the other spiritual orders. By occupation, the vaisyas produce food for everyone; by spiritual order, the householders feed the others, as far as possible. Also, according to the example of the great devotee Rupa Gosvami, a householder should give at least fifty per cent of his income for propagation of Krsna consciousness, twenty-five per cent for his household upkeep, and twenty-five per cent set aside for emergencies. The grhastha lives as a householder, prosecuting Krsna consciousness with every endeavor.

Let us say that a man lives one hundred years. The first twenty-five years he is student. The years from twenty-five to fifty are good for producing children and so may be spent in householder life. Then after fifty years of age the man is expected to retire and leave his household affairs in the hands of his oldest son. This stage is called vanaprastha. He retires and with his wife travels to holy places. Then gradually he leaves his wife in the care of the older children. It is not that the wife is left deserted on the road. According to Vedic civilization the woman is never independent. She is in the hands of her father until she is handed over in marriage, and then she becomes the charge of her husband. When the sons are grown up and it is time for the husband to take sannyasa, he leaves his wife in the charge of his elder sons.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam narrates the history of Kardama Muni, a great yogi householder who lived at the dawn of creation and who strictly followed the scriptural injunction by leaving his home to take the renounced life of a wandering sannyasi. His case was most exceptional because after long austerities and practice of yoga, Kardama Muni and his wife Devahuti had been blessed to have born unto them the incarnation of God known as Kapila Deva, who taught the famous Sankhya philosophy to the world. Kardama Muni’s exalted position was that God Himself was in his home, as his son. And still, Kardama Muni left his home in strict observance of the injunction that one must spend his last days away from home and without family connection in pursuit of spiritual life. Kapila Deva encouraged His father not to deviate from the scriptures, and He assured him that as Supreme Lord He would always be with his father, residing in his heart. Thus Kardama Muni left his wife in the charge of his son Kapila and became a wandering sannyasi totally dependent on Krsna for his food and lodging.

The Renounced Order

Due to the contamination of the present Kali age, Lord Caitanya advised that no one should take sannyasa but that everyone should chant the holy names, Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Justifying the wisdom of Lord Caitanya’s prohibition of sannyasa is a phenomenon in India involving the cheaters and the cheated. It is known that a certain class of women feel that it is auspicious to have sex with a sadhu (holy man) and have a child by him. Women gather at holy places where sannyasis are known to go for the purpose of seducing them. This practice has become known, and a class of low-bred sensualists have taken to dressing themselves in the saffron robes of sannyasis and going to those places for the purpose of being seduced by women. Thus the cheaters meet the cheated. Of course, if anyone can actually follow the rules of sannyasa then he must take the renounced order.

Sannyasa is required so that the materially engrossed householder can get out of his mundane occupations before the time of death. The bona fide sannyasi who has received information from authorized scriptural sources and from a spiritual master in disciplic succession must not be merely self-satisfied in that knowledge because he is needed by society at large to go and preach to the people and inject them with the immediacy of eternal spiritual values. If the sannyasi does not teach the common men of their spiritual nature, then they will have wasted the human form of life. It is possible, by direct surrender to God, to be factually sannyasa or renounced, even while living at home with wife and children. But the existence of the sannyasi in the renounced order, either as a missionary with a large following, or as a wandering hermit, will culminate in the highest form of human being, the paramahamsa, or intimate pure devotee of Krsna, who is without envy and always fixed in ecstatic absorption of love of God.

The four orders and castes of varnasrama-dharma are meant to perfect human society. The four orders become distinct where there is enlightenment. Such spiritual life is actually the most democratic because God accepts as wonderful whoever surrenders to Him. By the material standard the rich are great. But in spiritual life the most advanced person serves all others and brings them to Krsna consciousness. In Krsna consciousness the most advanced person gives up everything, whereas in material life the most advanced is greedy, vicious and dangerous to mankind at large. The real democracy we need is democracy of spiritual consciousness—the understanding that all belongs to God and every living being is Krsna’s beloved creature. Any man who takes up devotional service is to be respected regardless of his position; and at the same time, whatever qualities he displays in terms of work he can use for Krsna.

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