Implementing Varnashrama: Is it Practical?
By H.H. Hridayananda das Goswami
For many years, devotees have pondered how to institute the varnashrama social system that Lord Krishna created (Bg 4.13) and Srila Prabhupada advocated as vital to organize and truly civilize humanity. Considering the two branches of this sytem — varna and ashrama — it seems that it is the system of four varnas that has proven more difficult to institute, both in ISKCON and in the world. ISKCON generally (at times roughly) practices the system of four ashramas, but reviving the four-varna system has proven more elusive, even among the devotees, not to speak of in the world.
Ironically, the philosopher who best explains this problem may be Karl Marx, who famously concluded from his study of history that the means of production determine social and political relationships. In other words, the way that a society secures its basic material needs will shape the social and political institutions of that society.
For example, at a very simple level, we find that societies who live by hunting and gathering, being necessarily nomadic or semi-nomadic, tend to form simple tribal systems of social and political life. Among agrarian societies where food can be stored in large quantities, much larger scale societies are possible, resulting in more specialized divisions of labor, and much more complex political institutions. This leads to political and social hierarchy.
We should note here that the Vedic varna system presupposes an agrarian economy, ie an economy based on land and the production of food. As agrarian life gives way to industrial, urban life, the simple efficient hierarchy of varnas collapses. We see this clearly in the history of Europe where a pre-industrial caste or varna system collapsed with the onset of the industrial revolution. We also witness this process in contemporary India, where rapid industrialization and consequent urbanization is weakening the traditional caste system, even in its hereditary form.
Srila Prabhupada clearly understood these historical dynamics, for we find that exactly at the time he began the “varnashrama talks” during his morning walks in Vrindaban, 1974, Prabhupada began to urge the devotees to acquire land and produce their own food. Prabhupada understood that the varna social system presupposes, and seems to require, an agrarian economy.
Prabhupada also predicted widespread social and economic upheavels that would render our self-sufficient farms essential for our own survival and that of others. Thus for various reasons, including our own survival, ISKCON truly needs another “back to the land” movement. In the context of an agrian economy, we can revive the system of four varnas, created by Lord Krishna, and now needed more than ever to civilize a lost, suffering humanity.