A senior member of the Hare Krishna movement describes how materialism has plundered India’s valuable jewel of Vedic culture.
Last year, while the ISKCON temple in India’s holy city of Vrndavana was still under construction, His Holiness Tamala Krishna Maharaja, a senior member of the Krishna consciousness movement, lived nearby the construction site in a small grass-and-adobe hut, which he used as a headquarters for chanting, reading and performing his various Krishna conscious duties. When I visited Vrndavana on pilgrimage, Tamala Krishna Maharaja spent several mornings with me, answering my questions about Krishna consciousness and India’s ancient Vedic culture. A portion of those conversations, which we taped to share with readers of BACK TO GODHEAD, appeared in BTG No. 2. Here is another excerpt from our early-morning conversations.
Jayadvaita dasa: If Krishna consciousness is the background of India, how is it that India has become known all over the world for being an economically backward country? In some parts of India you walk down the streets and see beggars everywhere, people with little or nothing to eat. Is that the fruit of Vedic civilization?
Tamala Krishna Maharaja: First of all we have to ask, “What is a Krishna conscious Vedic civilization?” If we study the life of a typical villager in a Vedic community, we may find him living with his wife and a few children in a thatched hut with mud walls and a dirt floor. He has a couple of cows, a well and four or five acres of land. The river is nearby. He may never have gone beyond two or three villages away, but he’s very happy. He lives to a ripe old age, doesn’t get many diseases, works honestly in the fields, and has enough milk and grains to eat. With his extra produce, beyond what he needs to maintain his family, he may trade for clothing, jewelry and other items. In other words, he lives a very simple life. And he has sufficient time to cultivate God consciousness or spiritual consciousness. That is the ideal Krishna conscious Vedic culture.
The ideal materialistic culture—do we have to go into it? It’s what we find throughout the world today; that is to say, a culture that has no thought of God but is simply based upon accelerating and fulfilling desires for bodily enjoyment. It doesn’t have anything to do with fulfilling the needs of the real self, the soul within the body. It simply deals with the body, the gross material body.
According to the Vedas, the individual is a pure spiritual soul, eternal, all-cognizant and full of bliss. In his original state, residing in the kingdom of God, the soul has a spiritual body endowed with spiritual qualities. But now, living in this material world, the soul is covered by a material body, which brings with it temporality, ignorance and great suffering. Vedic culture is concerned with transporting the soul back to the kingdom of God for a life of eternity, knowledge and bliss.
The Vedas tell you to work enough to maintain a healthy body and a healthy life for your family and spend the balance of your time developing love of God, God consciousness. And the work you do is honest work, using the things given by God, like the ground, water and sun. No cheating is involved; it is not a cheating process. You have a just amount, given to you by God, and you use it properly. God supplies everything you need.
A Cheating Civilization
Actually, God has provided all our natural resources, but today’s civilization is taking them from Him without any thought of return. Hardly even a “thanks.” A materialist simply tries to enjoy the body. Never mind if the resources will run out; never mind where they came from—just madly chasing after material prosperity. It’s a cheating, thieving civilization. And very cumbersome, too. Suppose a man lives in a twenty-five-room house or builds a twenty-five-story building or a hundred-story building. What is the need actually? Does he need it to keep alive? No. It has nothing to do with just maintaining the body. It’s geared for accelerating and fulfilling bodily desires. It has nothing to do with the essential needs. But most people deem this to be advancement. That is the point. So first of all we have to understand what advancement is. According to Krishna consciousness, advancement means simple living and high thinking.
Jayadvaita dasa: But India now, it seems, doesn’t ever have the simple necessities.
Tamala Krishna Maharaja: Yes, that’s true. But in India now we don’t find the ideal Vedic culture. When we did fine it, two or three hundred years ago, it was ideal. You wouldn’t have found people starving to death. But what happened was this—the first picture the West gets of India comes through the eyes of the British. The British see India, and they see a Vedic culture, which is very simple and, in their terminology, barbaric, backwards, because from the materialistic standpoint anyone who lives in a mud hut with a grass roof is backwards. If he can’t read English—of course he may read Sanskrit, but if he can’t read English he’s illiterate. The Indian people were reading Sanskrit, many of them but not English. “Oh, he’s illiterate:” In the same way, one may know Bhagavad-gita, but if he doesn’t know the Bible he’s irreligious.
So in other words, the whole process of westernizing, India or materializing India began about two or three hundred years ago. The Westerners introduced their so-called civilization, with its coffee, tea and meat eating. They built factories and developed large cities that had never been developed before. The entire Indian economy had been based on the villages, but under British rule and then recently more and more, everything moved toward the city. What happened is that the Vedic culture broke down. When it was present, the necessities of life were plentiful; there was no difficulty. But by and by it broke down. People were encouraged, “Come into the cities to work in the big factories.” And what is the great advantage of the big factories? Luxury: an economy with the ultimate goal of material, temporary sense gratification. And as bodily satisfaction becomes paramount, spiritual culture fades away. But the actual necessities—fruits, grains, vegetables, milk—these were not produced by the factories. You can’t eat nuts and bolts, you know.
The British induced the villagers to come to the cities and work in the factories.
Jayadvaita dasa: The British built the railroads.
Tamala Krishna Maharaja: The British built the railroads to link up all the big cities so that people would no longer, live in villages. The British induced the villagers to come to the cities to work in the factories. Then they took all the goods and all of India’s wealth to Britain. Gandhi’s w movement was to stop this. What did Gandhi say? Village industry. Go back to the village; begin the small, industries. Decentralize, dematerialize, deindustrialize. He had the intelligence to see that this was required. But unfortunately by the time so-called independence came, the people were already materialized to a great extent; enough people had become so polluted that they could no longer go back.
The materialistic disease eats away at a man’s intelligence so that he loses the strength to realize his fallen condition; instead, he sees his fallen position as superior. But how has the city man actually improved his condition? Has he solved any of the real problems of life, such as birth, death, disease and old age? No. Does he actually know who he is—that he is pure spirit soul, not his body? No. So what is the gain? He lives in a big, comfortable house, complete with all luxuries and a big bank balance. But at the time of death, how will any of these help him? Can he take his house or bank balance with him? You see, the material disease is so bewildering that at the time of death a man clings desperately to all his possessions. All his life he has identified himself with his body and his possessions, instead of cultivating knowledge of the true self, the soul, and the real possession, love of God. As a result he dies in misery and ignorance, destined for a hellish future. But just as a crazy man thinks that he’s sane and everyone else is insane, so a materially diseased person thinks, “I’m very well off, but the other man is not.” The man in the village? “Oh, barbaric, backwards, impoverished.” You see? But the Vedic villager lives simply and honestly, and with the better part of his time he cultivates spiritual knowledge. He has real wealth: knowledge of the self, of God, and his relationship with God.
The Lure of City Life
These people were lured out of the villages, and now they’ve become completely indoctrinated to believe that a cumbersome, complex society is more advanced. A society of slaughtering millions of animals to drink their blood instead of drinking their milk, a society of prostitution, of living packed together in small places where there’s insufficient air and space—this is more advanced. But actually, you know, there’s a huge amount of land in India, enough to maintain not only seven hundred million people but ten times that; there is that much land. Go traveling on the train in India, and you’ll find that nearly all of India is unpopulated except for a few big cities. We hear that people are living in horrible conditions. But the most horrible conditions exist within the cities. The people in the villages are still relatively happy.
The fact is, however, that the city life and the city consciousness are beginning to infiltrate the villages, so that now most of the young men have left the villages. Therefore the villagers are no longer farming properly. There aren’t enough young men to farm properly, so there’s not enough food. There’s not enough produce. And the intelligent men, the leaders of the village, the spiritual leaders, are also gone. Everyone is being lured away into this dream of the city and led to believe that the city is the panacea that will bring all happiness.
Jayadvaita dasa: So the problems in India today are due to lack of a Vedic, Krishna conscious culture.
Tamala Krishna Maharaja: In a Vedic culture, there is no poverty. The poverty we see here is not present in a Vedic culture; it’s a consequence of our modern materialistic culture.
Jayadvaita dasa: All right. Because the traditional Indian culture has been contaminated by Western culture, it doesn’t work. So suppose we introduce Krishna consciousness and the mass of Indian people, the intelligentsia of Indian people, take to it. Then what do they do practically?
Tamala Krishna Maharaja: The first thing is that a Krishna conscious culture, or a perfect society, is based on a varnasrama system. A varnasrama society is a community of brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras [intellectuals, administrators, farmers and workers]. One of the first features of Indian culture destroyed by foreigners was the caste system. This point is very much played up. “India was for so long held down by the caste system, but now it’s being abolished, and India is developing.” But what is the caste system? The caste system, Krishna says, was originally created by Him.
catur-varnyam maya srstam
“I have created these four varnas [castes or divisions of human society] according to the qualities and work of different people.” Krishna, God, says, “I have created these divisions.” And what are they? The brahmanas are the intelligent men—are there not intelligent men all over the world? Ksatriya means the protective class. The brahmana teaches and the ksatriya protects. Is there not a class of administrators who protect? Vaisya means a farmer, a protector of cows or a trader. Aren’t there people everywhere who normally do that? And sudra means one who simply does menial work, assisting the other classes. So in any country in the world, not just in India but everywhere, you’ll find these four varnas, or occupational divisions. Automatically they are there. By nature, everyone is inclined toward a certain type of work, and therefore the purpose of the varnasrama system is to define the duties of each division, so that everyone will have his own work to do and everyone can work cooperatively in a peaceful and progressive society. Without these four divisions, there’s no question of a civilized society. There are so many societies—human society, animal society, plant society and so on. But only the human society is considered civilized. Why? Because a human being can regulate his life to achieve a higher purpose. The so-called caste system is therefore meant to regulate human society in such a way that everyone can be prosperous and at the same time God conscious. So what is the question of destroying these divisions? You cannot destroy them; it’s not possible to destroy them. They represent natural divisions of labor, divisions of work. So the first point is that if we’re going to restore the culture of the Vedas, if we’re going to restore prosperity to India, we have to clearly define divisions of human society and establish them properly.
What is the greatest attack upon the caste system? Its critics say that it holds a man back. It unfairly gives preference to one community above another. Now, anyone who says this has not understood the actual varnasrama system. In its modern, polluted, materialistic form, the caste system holds people down, but the actual system of the Vedas is not like that. According to the actual Vedic system, the different duties required within any community or society must be given to persons who are naturally meant to perform them. For example, in your body there’s a head, there are arms, there’s a belly, and there are legs. It’s not that there’s only a head, only legs or only arms. All are needed for a healthy body. Similarly, in a healthy social body, there are those meant to teach, those qualified to provide protection and administration, those inclined toward agriculture and those needed to help the others. All are given equal respect as being necessary for a healthy social body. So, similarly, all have an equal right to develop love of God. Everyone is respected on the worldly plane as being required for a well-rounded society, and everyone is respected on the spiritual platform as a servant of God. Panditah sama-darsinah: a learned person sees with equal vision a brahmana, an elephant, a cow, a dog and a dog-eater One who has Vedic vision sees spiritually, so he sees all living entities as equals. Therefore in the Vedic varnasrama system all living entities were given an equal opportunity to develop Krishna consciousness. One caste was never superior to another. In the eyes of God, everyone is equal, so in the eyes of a Vedic man also, everyone is equal.
We have to restore the caste system on the Vedic basis. For instance, we must train qualified teachers. Instead, society now has teachers who are not at all qualified. Teaching means giving knowledge. And what is knowledge? One should know spirit, matter and the creator of both. That is real knowledge. Knowledge should not simply deal with materialistic subjects. To have complete knowledge means to also know about spiritual subjects, especially about God, who has created everything. So where is the qualified man? The teachers who are now teaching have no knowledge of God. And where is the institution where knowledge of God is available? The universities offer, courses in every field of material research, but we hardly find even one course in the science of God or the science of the soul. In fact, because of separation of church and state, you’re not allowed to teach about God.
The Brains of Society
So, first of all, we want to create a community of brahmanas. Those who can understand God, the spiritual world, the soul and the material world should be considered the brain of the social body. They should give advice. To whom? To the administrators. And who are the administrators? They’re those who know how to maintain a Vedic society, how to implement the teaching of the brahmanas practically. The brahmana teaches that God is the center of the state because He is the original proprietor of everything within the state. Actually this is not an exaggeration. From the Vedas we learn, isavasyam idam sarvam yat kinca jagatyam jagat: everything within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. Why? Aham sarvasya prabhavo mattah sarvam pravartate: because He is the source of all planets and because everything is emanating from Him. As the creator of everything, from huge planets to minute atomic particles, God has natural proprietary rights. We are only secondary proprietors because we’ve gotten everything from Him on a loan basis. Since He is the real master, whatever we have should be used in His service. Everything should center around service to God. Everyone is a servant of God, and if the master is satisfied, all the servants will automatically become satisfied because the master gives full protection and maintenance to his faithful servants. That is what the brahmana teaches. And the ksatriya gives directions to practically implement that understanding. “All right, let the farmers go out and bring home the produce. Let it be offered to God and then be distributed equally to all. Let the brahmanas be maintained for their teachings. They shouldn’t have to take up any other employment. Let them simply teach and be given enough to maintain themselves. And the sudras, who are helping all the other communities—let them also get enough; give them a fair share of what they farm. See that everyone has proper living standards, see that everyone is instructed properly, see that everyone is protected from attack, and see that Krishna is always being served.” That is the business of the ksatriya. And what is the business of the vaisya? He should see that the animals are protected, the fields are being worked and the land is productive. Krishna has created the earth and given it to man—”Here is a gift; take care of it.” Since it is actually God’s land, it should be used as He intended. That is the business of a vaisya—to take care of Krishna’s earth and produce from it. Krishna’s giving is complete (om purnam adah purnam idam). It can provide enough to maintain everything if it’s dealt with properly. That is the business of a vaisya—to use the land properly. And the sudra’s business? To serve all the others. And for that service, because the sudras are so faithful, they are maintained completely by the other three orders. If a sudra does menial service for a brahmana, the brahmana takes care of him. If he’s employed by a vaisya, the vaisya will take care of him. The sudra is like a child. You simply take care of him nicely. There is nothing wrong with this: everyone becomes happy. So this is our program. This is an ideal community.
Beyond the Barriers of Birth
Jayadvaita dasa: In modern India, caste seems to be determined by birth. The caste you’re born into is the caste you stay in. But can there be changing also? What would you say about that? Could someone in the family of a sudra, for instance, become a brahmana?
Tamala Krishna Maharaja: These castes are not fixed according to birth. A man can be born in a sudra caste and be elevated to the highest position of a brahmana. It’s according to his ability. If he’s qualified, there’s no stopping him. It’s not something fixed; it’s according to the nature of a person and the work he’s doing. Suppose your father is a judge on the Supreme Court, does that make you also a Supreme Court justice? No, of course not. You have to be properly qualified. It’s not a question of heredity. The caste system simply means a system of division of labor.
Jayadvaita dasa: Suppose we reinstitute the varnasrama divisions, with Krishna conscious teachers, Krishna conscious administrators, and so on. What is the next step?
Tamala Krishna Maharaja: Lord Caitanya has shown the way. He instructs: harer nama harer nama harer nama eva kevalam/ kalau nasty eva nasty eva nasty eva gatir anyatha. The Vedic scriptures explain that history progresses in cycles of ages, and the age we’re in now is called Kali-yuga. In the Kali-yuga, the best way to attain the perfection of life is to chant the holy names of the Lord: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. There is no other way, there is no other way, there is no other way. Lord Caitanya repeats “there is no other way” three times, just to emphasize the point. In previous ages other methods were recommended. Each age has different conditions, both in the people and in the environment, and, accordingly, an appropriate method for achieving the truth is recommended. In this age the sankirtana-yajna, the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra, is perfect. All the divisions of society may cooperate to perform it successfully. Sankirtana means chanting God’s name congregationally for the well-being of the nation and the well-being of all the citizens. And yajna means sacrifice—everyone must sacrifice. The vaisyas should bring abundant amounts of grains, fruits, vegetables and milk products from the fields. The ksatriyas should pass laws encouraging all the citizens to take part in the sacrifice. And they should see that each person offers his services fully, according to his occupation. The sudras may assist in every way possible. And the brahmanas should lead everyone in chanting the holy names—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The Vedic scriptures confirm this:
yatah pravrttir bhutanam
yena sarvam idam tatam
sva-karmana tam abhyarcya
siddhim vindati manavah
“By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, man can, in the performance of his own duty, attain perfection:” [Bg. 18.46]
This, then, is the culmination of Vedic society. Everyone working for a common goal: to please the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is the perfection of life. If India once again takes up the Vedic way, there will be no limit to, her prosperity, no end to the people’s joy. And why just India? Let the whole world join the sankirtana movement of Lord Caitanya and chant Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Let everyone perfect life’s mission and go back home, back to Godhead.
By nature everyone is inclined to a certain type of work. Therefore the purpose of the Varnasrama system is to define the duties of each division so that everyone can work cooperatively in a peaceful and progressive society.