Manifesto for a Politics of Transcendence
For a just and sane society we must go beyond
the impasse between the right and the left.
by Ravindra Svarupa Dasa
The Republican Party seems to have emerged from its recent national convention as a reconstituted American conservative party, and the November elections may give the voters at least the appearance of choice between a clear right and a clear left. They say this is a good thing, but I have always had a problem making that kind of choice, and I suspect a lot of other people do too. My problem is that both sides seem to make good sense.
Confronted with an advocate of either the right or the left, I have always been able to see his point. This used to put me in a paralyzing bind and make me at heart rather guiltily apolitical. I envied the assurance of those who could make themselves partisans of one side or the other. Of course, there was always the center, the traditional refuge of ideological wimps like me. But I need consistency, and you pay dearly for contradiction, especially when it is embodied in social policy. So there I was stuck.
I could not reject the appeal of the left to my highest ideals, to my unshakable intuition that all people are equal and that social fact ought to reflect it. Yet when the right insisted, with hard-eyed realism, that people are in fact not equal and no amount of sentiment is going to make them so, I had to agree. Each side had a strong case, although I did note that neither seemed to embrace its position because of disinterested observation of the nature of things. The right had the social upper hand and wanted to keep it; the left was on the bottom and wanted a leg up. As for me, I was out of it altogether; I could identify neither with those who had power nor with those who wanted to seize it. Yet I didn’t doubt the importance of the issue—American presidential elections might be, as critics claim, all make-believe, but the fate of the world hangs in the hostility between the capitalists on the right and the communists on the left, and that no one can ignore.
I did not become a devotee of Krsna to resolve my political impasse, but among the unhoped-for bonuses Krsna consciousness gave was a social doctrine that resolves this intractable dilemma, that unifies, without contradiction, in concrete social policy the absolute equality of all people with the relative inequalities their differing abilities and aptitudes create. This social vision provided something I would have thought impossible: a society with clear division of labor into classes, but without exploitation, enmity, and conflict. This was an extraordinarily enlivening discovery, for I saw that it is the solution to the political face-off that threatens the whole world.
Varnasrama-dharma, as the social manifesto of the Krsna consciousness movement is called, is the blueprint for a spiritual civilization, for it is based upon the idea that people are spiritual beings. As living creatures, we are tiny but eternal sparks of the supreme living being, although we are now confined within mortal material bodies. We cannot plausibly expect to attain happiness by relying on our bodies, since they are certain to become diseased, to age, and finally to die. Rather, our welfare can rest only upon cultivation of our authentic and eternal self, the soul. We suffer unremittingly because we identify ourselves with our bodies, besieged as they are by material nature. So if a society wants to secure the highest good for all its members, it must arrange for all of them to attain enlightenment concerning the true self and thus enter into a full, pure consciousness that is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. At the same time, such a society must satisfy, as simply and efficiently as possible, all needs of the body. Varnasrama-dharma is designed to achieve both these goals.
A materialist would immediately object that since “the soul” is a metaphysical concept referring to something we cannot experience, any social system based on it must be quite dubious. But it is simply false that the soul cannot be experienced (it is, indeed, the condition for our having any experience at all), and the varnasrama society is designed precisely to foster that experience. And since materialistic society creates the conditions that make experience of the soul virtually impossible, the objection in effect begs the question.
We are spiritual beings in material bodies, and it is varnasrama-dharma that integrates and reconciles the absolute equality of all people as spiritual beings with the relative inequalities imposed upon them by the conditions of their material embodiment. It calls for society to be divided into four occupational groups (called varnas) and four spiritual orders (asramas).This division into varnas is quite natural. No civilized society can do without four classes: intellectuals (called brahmanas), political and military leaders (ksatriyas), farmers and merchants (vaisyas), laborers and artisans (sudras). Lack of any one of these would obviously cripple a society. They form the head, arms, belly, and legs of the social body, which can be healthy only if all the parts are sound and working cooperatively. What is more, every human being is born with a constellation of innate qualities and aptitudes that places him into one of these four groups. (Personal qualities alone determine membership; membership by birth, as in the Indian caste system, is not the authentic varna system.)
If I describe the duties and qualities of each of these varnas, you will be able to recognize intuitively the four human types.
The brahmana, or intellectual, knows the absolute truth by theoretical knowledge and direct realization, and in light of that he guides the practical policies of the political leaders. As the head of society, he has the vision to direct the actions of the whole body. By occupation the brahmana is a teacher, and he instructs everyone not only in the particular service of his varna but also in the universal service to God, the basis for self-realization. A youth suitable to be trained as a brahmana must have a love of study and a desire for knowledge. He is naturally peaceful and tolerant and is spontaneously attracted to purity, to self-control and to austerity. He is honest and instinctively religious.
The ksatriya’s service is to protect the other members of society. He governs and when necessary fights. A person suitable to be trained as a ksatriya must be quite intelligent, but his intelligence will have a more practical direction than a brahmana’s. He has great natural courage and is attracted to performing great deeds at personal risk. He is a natural-born leader, resourceful and determined. His body is strong; his character, forceful. He is spontaneously liberal and generous, and he likes to use his strength to protect others.
A vaisyas occupations are farming, trade, business, and-this is important-cow protection. Vaisyas produce the wealth of society. They must also be intelligent, but their intelligence is of a shrewder, narrower sort than the ksatriyas. Vaisyas are not as passionate as ksatriyas, and they lack their courage and liberality of spirit. Heroism impels the ksatriya, profit, the vaisya. Cow protection prevents the vaisyas from succumbing to greed and exploitation. Regarding as his mother the cow which gives him milk and as his father the bull which plows to produce grains, the vaisya learns to live in a personal, harmonious, nonexploitative way with the animals-and with the earth-that produce his wealth. Cow protection instills religious principles in the vaisyas and keeps them close to the land.
Those who are not intelligent enough to be brahmanas, ksatriyas, or vaisyas are sudras. They do the manual work of society. Since they lack the intelligence for the independent action of the others, sudras work under supervision as general assistants to the three other varnas.
I think that the advantages of recognizing these divisions are evident. Since they are based on natural character and aptitude, it is possible to discern the tendency of a child at an early age and to tailor his education to develop his natural talents and to cultivate the virtues peculiar to his position. This would go a long way toward solving the problems of vocation and motivation that now, plague our educational system. With the explicit recognition of four separate groups, each can develop as a distinct subculture. Each varna requires its own set of particular duties and values (called sva-dharma), and no end of confusion and misery is caused by not recognizing this, by trying to impose the standard of one on all, or by concocting some “universal” standard that fits no one. If we recognize the four varnas, then people will be fulfilled by working with all their talents and energy, and society will prosper by their contributions.
Of course, I hear the loud objection: You have just argued for an incredibly reactionary class structure (sudras, indeed!) that will have all the abuses intrinsic to such divisions. The higher groups will exploit the lower, social injustice will flourish, and hatred and conflict will tear it apart.
The answer to this problem is sanatana-dharma, “eternal religion and duty.” Although each varna has its particular sva-dharma, all share equally in the single, overarching, universal dharma called sanatana-dharma. This is the intense common consciousness of cooperative subordinate service to God. In the practice of sanatana-dharma, everyone is absolutely equal. It is more important than sva-dharma, and it effectively prevents the exploitation of one group by another.
The intuition of the equality of all people is a fundamental spiritual insight. It is a fact that demands recognition in concrete social policy. At the same time, the material differences among people also demand recognition. The error of the right, however, is to see such differences as fundamentally important and to give spiritual equality only lip service (if any service at all), putting it safely in the next world. The left errs, on the other hand, in the application of its insight. It tries to impose a spiritual fact upon a material condition, imposing equality by fiat where it does not exist.
Varnasrama-dharma synthesizes material difference with spiritual oneness. It recognizes that people are born with innately different material capabilities and that it is no service to individuals or society to pretend otherwise. Therefore, varnasrama-dharma has class division, but without exploitation, injustice, envy, and conflict. This is how.
First of all, the goal of all members of the varnas is self-realization, so that the standard of advancement in life for everyone is a matter of spiritual development, not material aggrandizement. Although an individual performs a particular service according to his material condition, his foremost duty in life is to understand himself as a spiritual being, distinct from his temporary material body. This is sanatana-dharma. and it offers a powerful means of spiritual realization (taught in the Bhagavad-gita) equally available to all the varnas, independently of material qualifications. Therefore, success or advancement in life does not depend upon getting riches, power, or social prestige.
Furthermore, varnasrama society is God-centered. The sanatana-dharma, the eternal religion or essential nature, of the infinitesimal spiritual beings is to serve the one infinite supreme being. They do this by offering the fruits of their labor in devotional service to God, who in this way is concretely recognized as the supreme enjoyer of everything. Exploitation arises only when a person forgets his position as servant and tries to usurp the position of God by utilizing another’s goods or labor for his own enjoyment. I may serve another, but if I see that he is in fact as much a servant as I, then he will not be exploiting me, nor will I be envious of him. In the intense common consciousness of the supremacy of God and of the universal bond of subordinate servitorship to God, which the leaders, above all, teach by their own actions, lie the harmony and cooperation among varnas that prevent exploitation, envy, and conflict. Since everyone’s duty is devotional service, the material differences among engagements do not matter. Cleaning the streets and running the government are of equal worth, and every person can become perfect by doing his own work in the service of God.
Of course, if anyone in a responsible position loses his sense of subordinate service and begins to exploit his facilities for his own enjoyment, the evils of class division which we have experienced in our time will arise. One strong safeguard against this is the institution of asramas, a division of life into four stages that is especially to be observed by the brahmanas and the ksatriyas. This system enjoins that a person must first be educated as a celibate student (brahmacarya) before marriage, family, and “worldly” life (grhastha). Grhastha life must end at fifty or so, when husband and wife leave family and social affairs and cultivate renunciation and spiritual life (vanaprastha). Finally, when they are sufficiently prepared, they separate, and the husband spends the end of his life as a wandering mendicant preacher (sannyasa). In this way the asrama system insures that the socially most powerful people will also be the most renounced.
The soundness of the whole varnasrama-dharma system ultimately rests upon the brahmanas. They educate all members, and their teaching will have force, commanding the respect of the powerful and passionate ksatriyas, as long as they themselves set the highest example of purity and renunciation. The purity of brahminical culture is the foundation of varnasrama-dharma.
This system might remind you, as it did me when I first heard it described, of the society of medieval Europe, a purportedly God-centered civilization with its four orders of clergy (brahmanas), feudal lords (ksatriyas), bourgeois (vaisyas), and serfs (sudras). For a time, at least, the European kings required priestly sanction to rule; they were crowned by the pontiff. The ideal king was supposed to be saintly. Yet this society was only a rather primitive approximation of varnasrama-dharma. The brahmanas never came to a sufficiently high standard of purity, and when they became corrupt, the civilization lost what spiritual vision it had, and the whole system crumbled. And it is still crumbling.
For the collapsing of the primitive medieval varnasrama-dharma has taken more than five hundred years, and it constitutes all of our modern European history. It began with the corruption of the brahmanas. When the brahmanas become tainted by worldly ambition, they lose their moral and spiritual authority-the only power they ever possess-and the ksatriyas begin to see them as worldly princes on the same level as themselves. There is no longer any justification for brahminical preeminence, and therefore the ksatriyas break loose from brahminical domination, a social revolution epitomized in Europe by the Protestant Reformation. Without brahminical direction and restraint, the ksatriyas rapidly lose self-control and become intolerable tyrants. No longer can they justify their sovereignty by divine sanction. The vaisyas therefore rebel against the oppression of a corrupt and useless nobility, an upheaval epitomized by the French Revolution. The clever and enterprising vaisyas come to life, accumulate capital, build up industry and commerce and, in their untrammeled greed for profit, ruthlessly oppress and exploit the sudras, who mount their own rebellion, an upheaval exemplified by the ongoing communist revolution.
The concept of varnasrama-dharma thus makes our own history intelligible, and several things become clear. One is that we have formed our ideas of society, class, and their relations on the basis of a society in various stages of progressive decay or collapse, and we are now living through the terminal state of that collapse. The idea of varnasrama-dharma is thus quite relevant to our contemporary social and political experience.
We can see the present conflict between the left and the right, the communists (sudras) and the capitalists (vaisyas), as the terminus of a long process of social decay, and neither side, therefore, has any future, any real hope of creating a just and sound society. Both are rooted in the past and are expressions of social putrefaction. Certainly, European and American society in the twentieth century has become fatally infected by vaisya values run amok. But sudra values run amok are no improvement. As a totally materialistic philosophy, communism fosters rather than eliminates the seeds of exploitation and conflict, encouraging the very conditions it seeks to ameliorate. Consequently, under communism there will never be a society free from the domination of one group by another, of the many by the few, and that domination will be carried on by the most brutal means possible. Both capitalist and communist ideologies are products of exploitation and envy, and neither can therefore hope to eliminate them. They cannot offer release from the process of social degeneration because they are created by it, and their conflict will merely insure, one way or another, the eventual destruction of civilization.
If there is any chance for a restoration of human civilization, the impetus must come from outside the conditions of decay. It must begin with the creation of brahmanas. The Krsna consciousness movement was designed specifically to make those brahmanas, the nucleus of a complete varnasrama-dharma society. A modern varnasrama-dharma society does not have to repeat the spiritual, social, and technological shortcomings of medieval Europe. Krsna consciousness provides a much higher standard of purity than was available to the medieval brahmanas. (That you can verify for yourself.)
And a new varnasrama-dharma society can use all the technological achievement of our time in divine service. Thus the Krsna consciousness movement is the seed of a new culture, potentially a complete human civilization, springing up just when the old and primitive varnasrama civilization reaches the final stages of its destruction. It offers an alternative to all of us trapped in that destruction.
We have come a far way from the Republican national convention. But I hope that when you are faced with the choice between right and left—in November, and afterwards, as the president conducts the conflict with the communist nations—you will look at it in a new light. Varnasrama-dharma does solve that intractable political problem. It is a radical solution, in the sense that it goes to the root of the difficulty, and it calls for a respiritualization of human society. That may seem to ask for a lot, but, on the other hand, the times may give us no alternative.
RAVINDRA SVARUPA DASA holds a doctorate in religion from Temple University, Philadelphia. He has been a devotee of Krsna for nine years.