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Implementing Varnashrama: Is it Practical?

Friday, 09 June 2006 / Published in Articles, Hridayananda das Goswami / 6,028 views

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.

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5 Responses to “Implementing Varnashrama: Is it Practical?”

  1. Gaura Keshava das says :

    Maharaja seems to indicate that he believes that institution of Varnashram is dependent on a return to a Vedic style agarian society. He suggests that “our own survival and that of others” depends upon creating self sufficient farming communities. However in most developed countries the “family” farm is either dead or dying out due to the rise of huge farming conglomerates. The Vedic model Srila Prabhupada so often talked about was that a family could survive by cultivating a single acre (or few acres) of land. Yet ISKCON’s farming communities (those few that exist) are not based on this model at all. So consequently I have a few questions:

    1. If the leadership of ISKCON truely believes that “our survival” depends upon a return to Vedic agrarian Varnashram then what is their practical plan to implement that?

    2. If a return to Vedic agrarian Varnashram is not practical then Srila Prabhupada’s order to re-institute Varnashram needs to be understood in a different way. I would suggest that Lord Krsna’s statement in Bhagavad Gita that the four Varnas were created by Him, means that they actually exist in all type of societies. These divisions existed in Urban Vedic society also. So why should these divisions not also be instituted throughout ISKCON, even in Urban communities?

    3. Since the establishment of the Ashram system is integral and in fact dependent on the establishment of the Varna system, how is it that ISKCON can have a meaningful Ashram system without any system of Varnas? I would suggest that the main trouble devotees have in maintaining their Ashrams stems from not understanding their basic natures (i.e. Varnas). If more care were taken to understand one’s Varna first, then the choice of suitable Ashram would become obvious and the problem of fall-down from the more ascetic Ashrams greatly diminished.

  2. dayananda says :

    First I must say that I have deep respect and affection for Mahārāja, whom I’ve been proud to know for more than thirty-five years. Nevertheless, my understanding of Prabhupāda’s priorities is different from and more practical than those he stated. Varnāśrama-dharma, that is the dharma itself, is defined as sankīrtana-yajña and worship of Vishnu-Krishna (SB 8.16.60 pur). Prabhupāda explains that the brāhmanas should guide the other classes to focus on sankīrtana-yajña (BTG 5-20-56, Yajña). He indicates that if the brāhmanas do not do so, “the social structure of humanity becomes a second edition of animal life” (LoB 21). Thus, I would insist that our first priority is to refocus ISKCON on sankīrtana yajña, which Prabhupāda defines as (1) public chanting and (2) book distribution (BTG 5-20-56, Yajña).

    Regarding Marx, I agree that bhāgavata-communism is important. In order to properly serve the sankīrtana movement, communal eating (SPL 46) and some communal living is essential for proper use of funds (let 6-7-72). However, I would say that Prabhupāda’s letter of 12-13-73 to Beharilal discourages Mahārāja’s varnāśrama notion. Regarding agrarian vs industrial society, Prabhupāda says, “If sankīrtana-yajña is performed, there will be no difficulty, not even in industrial enterprises” (SB 4.19.7 pur).

    Kindly understand that I take this opportunity to put forward large scale book distribution that Prabhupāda loved so much (let Nayana 1-28-73). I have no substantial disagreement with Mahārāja, but as a householder in my advancing age with considerable funds available I am eager to follow Prabhupāda’s general instructions (Bg 16.1-3 pur) and specific requests. On 4-12-68 in his own hand he wrote asking for me to please arrange for large scale book distribution. Thus, I wish to assist large scale book distribution in every way, but am hard pressed to find such distribution in today’s ISKCON.

  3. Jaya Govinda Caran d says :

    Although it is said that Vedic civilization was nomadic, I personally do not subscribe to it and as far as my knowledge is concerned, I have not heard from our Founder Acarya or read in Srimad Bhagavatam that the Vedic civilization was nomadic. It is mentioned in the fourth canto that Prithu Maharja started urbanization and created cities, but does not mention about a nomadic Vedic civilization. However, that is a tertiary point.
    With regard to Karl Marx statement that ’the means of production determine social and political relationships’, yes, industrial revolution disrupts the balance. but that is like tearing up one factory to put up another. It does not change the nature of the society.
    Varna system presupposes suprlus. Only then Vaisya and Sudra can pay tax to Kshatriya or donation to Vaisya..Varna is fully suitable to an industrial society, bacause it is a division of natures.

    The only difference I can see is that the inter-varna ratio may change. With more surplus, it may be possible to have more Brahmins and less Sudras.

  4. madhava gosh says :

    Dayananda, “Thus, I would insist that our first priority is to refocus ISKCON on sankīrtana yajña, which Prabhupāda defines as (1) public chanting and (2) book distribution (BTG 5-20-56, Yajña).”

    That is all fine and good as long as it is remembered that it is a means to an end, and not an end itself. An invaluable means, but a means.

    “Seven Purposes of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness:

    (g)With a view towards achieving the aforementioned Purposes, to publish and distribute periodicals, magazines, books and other writings”

    The danger is having a movement dependent on going out hunting for donations instead of being based on production. That is not an agrarian archetype; it is nomadic, restricting ISKCON to small tribal units.

    I think it is less an issue of implementing Varna, then of recognizing how it manifests in a particular time and circumstance. It is already here. How is it practical for devotees to live within the macro societies they find themselves in? In any case, we all eat. We are dependent on agriculture; it is merely a question of whose. So how can we be connected to agriculture when the majority of devotees will never smell the primeval scent of the earth, will never be hands on?

    Jaya Govinda Caran, “The only difference I can see is that the inter-varna ratio may change. With more surplus, it may be possible to have more Brahmins and less Sudras.”

    The challenge is how to have more “Brahmins” in an increasingly industrialized agriculture when Srila Prahbupada says,

    “Without protection of cows, brahminical culture cannot be maintained; and without brahminical culture, the aim of life cannot be fulfilled” Contemporary industrial agriculture is slaughter based, ergo, no cow protection.

    The idea has been kicked around for years of vicarious cow protection, where devotees not directly connected to the land would support devotee cow protection programs. The devotee programs can’t compete in the regular markets because they aren’t subsidized by meat sales, and need to care for cows for a natural life span. Subsidization is necessary, and endowing agrarian based devotee communities is an opportunity available to everyone.

  5. Krishna Dharma says :

    It is interesting that Srila Prabhupada began emphasising the need for varnashrama at the same time as pushing for farm communities. Surely a localised agrarian economy best lends itself to the Vedic cultural model and is the only sustainable way to go in the long term. The present globalised system can’t survive for very much longer and the sooner we have alternatives the better. But I agree with Gaura Keshava prabhu that we can perhaps start by better implementing varnashrama in our current situation. Prabhupada made this clear in a conversation in Mayapur, Feb 14, 1977, where he stressed that not everyone should be offered brahminical initiation:

    Hari-sauri: Where will we introduce the varnasrama system, then?

    Prabhupada: In our society, amongst our members.

    Hari-sauri: But then if everybody’s being raised to the brahminical platform…

    Prabhupada: Not everybody. Why you are misunderstanding? Varnasrama, not everybody brahmana.

    Hari-sauri: No, but in our society practically everyone is being raised to that platform. So then one might ask what is…

    Prabhupada: That is… Everybody is being raised, but they’re falling down.

    Hari-sauri: So then we should make it more difficult to get…

    Prabhupada: Yes.

    Hari-sauri: …brahminical initiation. After four or five years.

    Prabhupada: Not necessary. You remain as a ksatriya. You’ll be ha…

    Hari-sauri: No need for even any brahmana initiation, then…

    Prabhupada: No, no.

    Hari-sauri: …unless one is…

    Prabhupada: No, brahmana must be there. Why do you say, generalize?

    Hari-sauri: Unless one is particularly…

    Prabhupada: Yes.

    Hari-sauri: …inclined.

    Prabhupada: Not that a sudra man is by force become a brahmana. You cannot improve. That is not possible. But even if he remains a sudra and does accordingly, he will get the same position as devotee. Sva-karmana tam abhyarcya sam… [From Bg. 18.46: “{By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading} a man can attain perfection through performing his own work.”] He’ll get the perfection. At the present moment the idea is: if one remains a sudra, then he cannot get perfection. No. Even a sudra can get perfection provided he does the work of a sudra perfectly.

    Hari-sauri: For Krsna.

    Prabhupada: Therefore why a sudra artificially should be a brahmana? Let them, let him remain a sudra, and if he follows strictly the rules and regulation of sudra, he’ll also be as good as a brahmana. The same example: Just like head is as important as my leg. It is not that because it is leg, it is less important than my head. And if you ask the head, “Do the work of a leg,” it is impossible. And if you ask the leg to work as a brain, that is impossible. Let him remain brain, let him remain leg, and do your duty and you become perfect. (SPC 14 Feb 1977 Mayapur)

    I would suggest that this problem is connected to the guru issue discussed elsewhere on this site. The Bhagavatam tells us that the spiritual master should ascertain the nature of his disciple and then engage him accordingly:

    “The people who take birth in this tract of land are divided according to the qualities of material nature — the modes of goodness [sattva-guna], passion [rajo-guna], and ignorance [tamo-guna]. Some of them are born as exalted personalities, some are ordinary human beings, and some are extremely abominable, for in Bharata — varsa one takes birth exactly according to one’s past karma. If one’s position is ascertained by a bona fide spiritual master and one is properly trained to engage in the service of Lord Visnu according to the four social divisions [brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya and sudra] and the four spiritual divisions [brahmacari, grhastha, vanaprastha and sannyasa], one’s life becomes perfect.” SB 5.19.19

    To me this reinforces the importance of a guru really getting to know his disciple, then engaging and indeed training him accordingly. Maybe that would be a good start to implementing varnashrama dharma