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Dandavats! All Glories to Sri Guru and Sri Gauranga!

Varnashrama as a means to freedom

Monday, 07 December 2009 / Published in Articles / 6,633 views

By Niscala Dasi

ISKCON’s four regulative principles (avoiding meat-eating, all sex except for procreation in marriage, gambling and intoxication) are sometimes referred to as “the four principles of freedom”. If they really are the principles of freedom, then they should foster honesty. One can only be free in honesty- for deception is entangling.

As the poem goes: 
Oh! what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!
Maya is literally ‘illusion”, a synonym for “deception”. So, since honesty is essential, both to freedom, and to self-realization, it follows that to the extent that one can honestly follow the four regulative principles, to that extent they are beneficial and liberating. But what of the contingency plan?

Freedom through Honesty
If one cannot follow, then the prescription given by Srila Prabhupada is varnashrama. Not that one cannot be a devotee, as the only qualification for becoming a devotee is the desire to be one!

In Srila Prabhupada’s conversations about varnashrama (see below), he was stressing it as a means to discourage devotees from accepting principles that they could not follow, and as a means to make bhakti easy for everyone to follow. So why are we excluding people, or why are people going away, because they can no longer
follow the four regulative principles? Let them follow a less austere version that will keep the society in peace and prosperity…

Keeping in mind the goal of varnashrama, the spiritual and material well-being of the society, the regulative principles for the varnas may vary according to time, place and circumstance. For example, in Vedic times, when the safety of the society required a physically powerful leader, ksatriyas were even allowed to eat meat, to get the excess of protein required to become human juggernauts in battle. This is not necessary in these times, when it is not archery and the wielding of swords, but the plethora of advanced weaponry (and the winning of hearts and minds), that generally determines the outcome of a battle. Thus, it does not compromise our safety to have our ksatriyas be vegetarians, and giving up meat is not hard for devotees to follow, in our experience. Most stay vegetarians voluntarily, even after “blooping” or losing interest in Krishna consciousness, because it has immense benefits, for one’s health, the environment, and one’s friends, the animals. It is indeed a principle of elevation in these times– when there is so much advanced technology, that physical strength has become virtually redundant.

Similarly we find there to be no need to compromise the principles of “no intoxication” or “no gambling”, as these indulgences undermine the well-being of any society, including our own, and in a setting of varnashrama, which is rural, there is no facility of intoxication and gambling anyway. There is however, always the (glances of) the opposite sex! Herein lies the need for the contingency plan given by Srila Prabhupada, the need to adjust so as to make bhakti “easy” for everyone, to make it so that we can reach out and call everyone a member of our all-embracing society. Alternatively, we can continue to be as we are- a small sect of fanatical rule-followers…that will certainly ensure our stagnation…or decline…

Compassion and Empathy
The goals of varnashrama are the spiritual and material well-being of all. The spiritual well-being requires we develop honesty, taking care to avoid both deception of self and others. Specifically, it means not pretending to be more advanced than we are- for that is a common synthesis of two anarthas- duplicity- kutinati, and the desire for honor –pratistha. Our material, emotional well-being requires that we develop compassion and empathy. Combining these twin goals, if one cannot be celibate except for procreation- then at least one should be true to one’s spouse. So much unbearable pain and heartbreak is caused by having sexual affairs outside marriage. This is appropriately called “cheating” or deception, because rather than facing the problems in the marriage honestly and with integrity and respect for one’s partner, one looks for an escape.

And in marriage, one should strive against seeing the spouse as a sense object- to treat him/her neither for sexual, nor egotistic, domination. If one cannot see him/her as Krishna’s own beloved, at least make him/her one’s own beloved- let attachment not degrade into exploitation, but be a training ground for expressing loving feelings. One should try to see oneself as an instrument for Krishna’s love to flow through ,for such an attitude will keep one humble, and devotional, at the same time.

Additional Principles of Freedom
Varnashrama is about honesty. It is also about love- treating each other with the utmost respect that every servant of Krishna deserves. Also compassion- not being harsh or judgmental about other’s weaknesses- or even one’s own.
It is about being forgiving.
And patient.
That is what I saw in Prabhupada’s conversations about varnashrama, and so I have tried to stress it in my book (Varnashrama- the Eight-Petalled Lotus). Others have interpreted varnashrama to mean simply self-sufficiency or cow protection-(it has become synonymous with the same, in some circles)- but that is only a part of it. It is an important part, but not all…

Varnashrama, in essence, is about freedom- from exploitation, and from deception. Thus, it is the freedom to be oneself- not some ideal- and the freedom of being respected for that- that special freedom that is indistinguishable from love- the freedom that comes from being appreciated- regardless of one’s shortcomings. That is love that is unconditional, ahaituki, the kind of love we must eventually develop for the Lord, and that we must train ourselves in, beginning with those parts and parcels of the Lord whom we call our husbands, wives, children, friends and workers…

For more discussion, or more about the book, please write to me at:  niscala_dasi
Prabhupada’s Instructions on Varnashrama
Prabhupada: Therefore varnashrama-dharma is required. Simply show-bottle will not do. So the varnashram-dharma should be introduced all over the world, and…

Satsvarupa: Introduced starting with ISKCON community??

Prabhupada: Yes. Yes. brahmana, kshatriyas. There must be regular education.
Hari-sauri: But in our community, if the…, being as we’re training up as Vaishnavas [devotees of the Supreme Lord Vishnu, or Krishna]…

Prabhupada: Yes.

Hari-sauri: …then how will we be able to make divisions in our society?

Prabhupada: Vaishnava is not so easy. The varnashram-dharma should be established to become a Vaishnava. It is not so easy to become Vaishnava.

Hari-sauri: No, it’s not a cheap thing.

Prabhupada: Yes. Therefore this should be made. Vaishnava, to become Vaishnava, is not so easy. If Vaishnava, to become Vaishnava is so easy, why so many fall down? It is not easy. The sannyasa is for the highest qualified brahmana. And simply by dressing like a Vaishnava, that is… fall down.

Hari-sauri: So the varnashram system is like for the kanishthas, kanishtha- adhikari [neophytes].
Prabhupada: Kanishtha?

Hari-sauri: When one is only on the platform of neophyte.

Prabhupada: Yes. Yes. Kanishtha-adhikari, yes.

Hari-sauri: Varnashram system is beneficial.
Prabhupada: At least ideal must be there. That we are doing.

Hari-sauri: This will more or less revolutionize the way we’re running our centers. If we introduce it, it will more or less revolutionize the way we’re running our centers.

Prabhupada: Why? Why revolution?

Hari-sauri: Because right now our only emphasis is just to simply produce brahmanas .

Prabhupada: So why you are taking “we”? Why not others? This is kanishtha-adhikari. You are thinking of “we.” That is kanishtha-adhikari. It is not that “we.” Na tad-bhakteshu chanyeshu. [SB 11.2.47] You have to think for others also.

Satsvarupa: In our ISKCON, one becomes a brahmana after a year. It’s not very hard. Everyone becomes a brahmana.

Prabhupada: That is due to chanting. That lifts very easily.

Hari-sauri: Where will we introduce the varnashram 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? Varnashram, 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 kshatriya. You’ll be …

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 shudra man is by force become a brahmana. You cannot improve. That is not possible. But even if he remains a shudra and does accordingly, he will get the same position as devotee. Sva-karmana tam abhyarchya 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 shudra, then he cannot get perfection. No. Even a shudra can get perfection provided he does the work of a shudra perfectly.

Hari-sauri: For Krishna.

Prabhupada: Therefore why a shudra artificially should be a brahmana? Let them, let him remain a shudra, and if he follows strictly the rules and regulation of shudra, 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.

Satsvarupa: Today you’ve been saying that the Vaishnava is the highest, above the brahmana. But then we’ve also understood that everyone in ISKCON is a Vaishnava.

Prabhupada: Yes. Vaishnava everyone, even if he’s not brahmana: jivera ‘svarupa’ haya-krishnera ‘nitya-dasa’ [Cc.Madhya 20.108]: “It is the living entity’s constitutional position to be an eternal servant of Krishna”] But you have to gradually bring him to that pure consciousness that “I am servant of Krishna.” Here the bodily conception is going on—”I am American,” “I am Indian,” “I am this,” “I am that.”

Satsvarupa: If in our society we say, “Srila Prabhupada wants some to be shudra…”

Prabhupada: No, no, no. I don’t want. I want everyone to become Vaishnava. But because he’s a shudra, it is not possible to bring him immediately to the platform of brahmana, or Vaishnava. Therefore falling down. Therefore system must be. But even if he remains a shudra, he’s a Vaishnava.

Hari-sauri: So we’d have to completely revise the whole system that we have now.

Prabhupada: No. Whatever we have, that is all right. But we see by experience that they’re falling down. There must be systematic. Why falling down? Because he was not fit for the position, therefore he has fallen. Better remain in his position and become perfect. Why artificially bring them? There is no need.”

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34 Responses to “Varnashrama as a means to freedom”

  1. Akruranatha says :

    Fascinating topic, Niscala Prabhvi! I will write you and I look forward to reading your book.

    Of course, the one conversation you have quoted in this article is a very tiny fraction of Srila Prabhupada’s instructions regarding varnasrama.

    It does appear that varnasrama dharma is a “contingency plan” or “safety net” for those who are not spontaneous, uttama bhaktas. Even practicing garbhadhan samskara perfectly to produce brahminical children (as one’s exclusive form of sexual behavior or thought) may be done with some motive other than pure love for Krishna. Pure love of Krishna is so high, we can barely conceive of it!

    And yet, we are fascinated to learn that even in Dwaraka at the time of Lord Krishna there were hundreds of professional prostitutes (S.B. 1.11.19), and they were also pure devotees! [I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the question of who their clients could have been, since the citizens of Dwaraka were all liberated souls.]

    I do believe there is some bad karmic reaction for the sin of “wasting seed”. I once asked Atma Tattva Prabhu, if each sperm cell has a soul, and there are many thousands of such cells in each male discharge, then even in a successful conception of a child aren’t many potential lives wasted? He responded to my satisfaction that I was thinking wrongly about it. In each discharge there may be only one soul destined to be born (or two in the case of twins), and *those* are the potential lives that should not be wasted.

    So we do agree with the Catholics, Orthodox Jews and others who condemn contraception (we do not even make exception, as Catholics do, for “rhythm” or other so-called natural methods of avoiding pregnancy).

    Nevertheless, although we cannot as a policy encourage anyone to do anything less than pure devotional service — let alone something which will actually drive one down toward tamo guna and away from sattva guna — we do have to find ways to make people satisfied and happy in their lives as devotees, taking into account the fact that very few highly praiseworthy devotees are really on the platform of spontaneous love or even on the platform of qualified brahminical self-control, purity, honesty, tolerance, etc.

    If we cannot show that people who join Hare Krishna become happy and successful, why would anyone join?

    I agree with Niscala that proper understanding of the science of varnasrama and its relation to pure bhakti may be the solution to this conundrum …

  2. Akruranatha says :

    I tried a police brutality case early this year involving allegations of misuse of a police dog. My opponent (the County) put an expert witness on the stand to discuss the training and behavior of police dogs. Dogs are pack animals, and the packs are led by “alpha males” whom the other dogs look up to and try to please. Police canines are trained to see their human officer as the “alpha male” (one policeman is paired with the same dog throughout the dog’s career), and thus the dogs will risk their lives and do very heroic things in order to please their master.

    Humans are also social creatures, motivated by a variety of psychological needs. Modern economic theory makes use of the assumption that, at least on average when dealing with large numbers of people, humans will seek to maximize economic gain. Other social scientists look for other motives (“sociobiologists” like the atheist Dawkins think clues can be found in a drive to maximize inclusive fitness of one’s genetic pool.)

    We all know that people are motivated by praise and blame, by desire to be loved and respected, to be good at what they do, to be successful in attracting a mate (i.e., to attract the “favorable glances”, etc.), to be surrounded by good friends, to be recognized by their heroes, to “belong” and know one’s place within social groups like families, social classes, social or intellectual circles, etc.

    The sages who have written about the system of varnas (which was created by Lord Krishna) seem to be very knowledgeable about such human motivations and about how they can be marshaled to produce a society that brings not only peace and prosperity but also elevation to higher modes of material nature for all citizens. Thus the fourfold human requirements of dharma, artha, kama and moksha can be met.

    Even demons can be successful in this essentially material science of organizing society, and we know that Ravana was a brahmana, Sisupal and Jarasandha were ksatriyas, etc. But we are concerned with divine or godly varnasrama as opposed to atheistic varnasrama. The essential distinguishing feature of daivi varnasrama is that its central focus is the satisfaction of Sri Krishna. (Srila Prabhupada writes that consideration of varna based on birthright is demonic).

    Maybe it is true, as Niscala seems to suggest, that for lower varnas (at least sudras), restriction of sex indulgence to the confines of lawful marriage is about the best we can expect, even in ISKCON.

  3. Akruranatha says :

    We sometimes find newlywed couples have a little difficulty keeping their paws off each other in private, but as the years go by and they become absorbed in raising the kids, struggling with bills, (or just because the novelty has worn off?) they are able to resume a life of better sense control.

    I really appreciate Niscala’s comments about love within marriage. Of course we know that “real” love or Krishna Prema is something different from the bonds of affection we have with our own spouses, children, family and friends, but only those very advanced in Krishna Prema actually deserve to denigrate worldly affection, which has an important role in civilizing society.

    The Bhagavatam teaches us about the competition between completely pure renunciate devotees (like Narada Muni) who encourage everyone to just go back to Godhead, and lesser devotees (like Prajapati Daksha) who want to perform their duty of making the world go on in a nice, pious way. In the story of Maharaja Priyavrata we see that even Narada Muni’s father and guru, Lord Brahma, performs his pure devotional service with a desire to regulate this universe under Krishna’s direction, and thus even Narada helped persuade Priyavrata to accept household life and worldly duties.

    Even near the very end of Brahma-Samhita, Krishna instructs Lord Brahma about worshiping Him by means of one’s deeds. Similarly, in Bhagavad Gita’s 18th Chapter Krishna talks about worshiping Him through performance of one’s own work according to varna. (In both scriptures Krishna soon follows up by advising to abandon all other dharmas except His exclusive devotional service).

    While the path of pure bhakti is actually one of nivrtti marg, which derides the four purusarthas including moksha (that is how high it really is!), it includes stages of bhakti mixed with fruitive activities (karma-misra bhakti) and bhakti mixed with speculative knowledge (jnana misra bhakti). We have to start somewhere and we have to be realistic about where we really are on the bhakti continuum.

    It is positive and praiseworthy when someone adds bhakti to his or her karma and jnana, even if that is not the highest (jnana-karmady anavrtam) type of bhakti.

    In civil society we have to draw thresholds of conduct beneath which one is censured and blamed. But shouldn’t there be some middle ground between the highest praiseworthy virtues and the criminal vices, where honest citizens can be accepted and respected, even if they aren’t heroes?

  4. niscala says :

    Thank you so much, Akruranath, for your time and effort at making such an original and thoughtful reply, and from so many different angles!

    “I do believe there is some bad karmic reaction for the sin of “wasting seed”. I once asked Atma Tattva Prabhu, if each sperm cell has a soul, and there are many thousands of such cells in each male discharge, then even in a successful conception of a child aren’t many potential lives wasted? He responded to my satisfaction that I was thinking wrongly about it. In each discharge there may be only one soul destined to be born (or two in the case of twins), and *those* are the potential lives that should not be wasted. ”

    I agree, as otherwise even a nocturnal discharge would make us culpable for mass murder! At conception, the soul enters the fertilized egg- I have never heard or read anywhere that millions of souls enter the male body before that time- and die if they cannot successfully meet the ovum cell- which also happens if the mother is infertile!. Srila Prabhupada always attested that it is at conception that the soul enters. Contraception is thus different from abortion- yet that doesn’t mean that we encourage it. There is indication in Prabhupada’s books that even with contraception, a soul is inconvenienced at not having a womb to enter. It seems that the sexual act attracts a soul who is then pushed away- certainly not the same as killing! If it incurred heavy karma like abortion, then why is it often without our ability to control it, like in dreams? Karma always means that there is a choice. Abortion, on the other hand, is certainly a choice.

    But even if there were no karma at all, contraception must never be used for sexual “liberation” which furthers our identity with our bodies. The best thing is to cultivate spiritual vision of the soul being our vital identity- our mode of expression of happiness, of connection, and of love. That’s our focus, but the reality is that we have PAST conditioning which clouds this vision at times…

  5. niscala says :

    Individuals in varnashrama society recognize their past conditioning. They don’t pretend or hope to be more advanced than they actually are at controlling the senses. They don’t pretend at all, as there is no need to! One can become perfect in one’s position, by carrying out one’s duties in a mood of love and appreciation for the Lord’s devotees, and knowing that whatever ability one has- is the Lord Himself. So one cultivates spiritual vision and spiritual relationships. Because LOVE is cultivated in the marriage, one will stay faithful- one doesn’t want to hurt one’s spouse by having affairs outside the marriage! And as you rightly pointed out, sex life within the marriage naturally declines over time- this is a natural feature of any marriage. Sense gratifiers may panic and take viagra, or have illicit affairs to try to regain the excitement, but for devotees whose desirable source of happiness is the Lord’s service- it is a relief.

    Thus, marriage is a protection from illicit sex,- because it is restricted, and by making concerned and loving feelings for one’s family the focus, the sexual urge is sublimated. In due course, the ability to follow the “difficult vow” is attained- honestly, without frustration, repression, the need to demonize or dominate the opposite sex, etc. Then gradually, as one ages, all sorts of sense gratification become more limited and troublesome for the body- naturally one will enter into the vanaprastha stage.

    So its not that we are more exalted in any way than the “karmis” -many of us struggle with having sex only for children, as do the Catholics. But ours is a more complete set of ethics- not only the unborn child is protected, but also other vulnerable living forms- such as animals. I do think we stand a better chance at sense control than other religions, due to a philosophy which puts our identity as separate from the body, a regular means to enlightenment, and maybe one day, varnashrama villages where devotees can live in a sattvic environment.

    For many reasons, varnashrama is the answer to the problem of sense control- because without honesty, one cannot make progress, because duplicity- and the desire to be seen as advanced- are both anarthas, because the desire for connection with others (libido) is sublimated into love, because everyone should be given all facility to be a devotee, because simple living and high thinking help elevate one to sattva guna. Combined with sadhana, it is a powerful pill…

  6. Akruranatha says :

    These are very profound and important thoughts. I am surprised this article has not generated many more comments.

    They say that money makes the world go around, but actually it is sex. Even the desire to accumulate more and more money is driven by the desire to be admired (subtle sex life), and so the old quip goes, “Q. Why do men fight wars?” “A. Because the women are watching.”

    In the Lilamrta there is a story about how Brahmananda (Bruce), I think, was taking a literature course, and he complained to “Swamiji” that his teacher was a Freudian and analyzed everything in terms of sex. He said that he was more attracted to Carl Jung, who recognized that people were motivated by spiritual or religious impulses. Srila Prabhupada told him, “Your teacher is right.”

    In this kingdom of Cupid, lust is really the all-powerful motivating factor that makes the winds blow, the seasons change, the waves rhythmically crash on the shore, the hearts pump and the lungs breathe. It is the glue that binds us to our bodily conception of life, that holds the hard knot in the heart tightly together. It is a reflection of our original, pure love for Krishna, which in our ignorance has been transformed into foul envy, of Krishna and by extension of every other living being.

    We cannot just “pretend” we do not have it. It is one thing to understand something of the goal of pure Krishna consciousness, but it is quite another thing to practice appropriately, according to our actual present qualification, so we can reach the goal.

    Bearing in mind that human society is driven by this powerful and dangerous force of sex, our benefactors (sages, demigods, Supreme Personality of Godhead) have established rules of morality that channel our selfish drives into beneficial activities that lead gradually to progressive enlightenment.

    We have to understand that process — the basic moral blueprint of human civil society known as varnasrama dharma — even though Lord Caitanya is magnanimously giving out something much higher, “Bhakti yoga”, “Krsna prema pradayate.”

    “Prabhupada: That is due to chanting. That lifts very easily.” Yes, but it should lift us to the point of understanding and applying these things, varnasrama, karma yoga and jnana yoga and dhyana, both in our own lives and in our duty (under Prabhupada’s order) to act for the welfare of others.

    At least the basic human morality of no sex outside of marriage should be established, as a minimum regulation.

  7. Akruranatha says :

    Honesty is so important. In this “age of hypocrisy” this last leg of dharma is tottering. We are so apt to become “pretenders”. If we do not admit we have a problem, how are we going to reach the solution?

    I forget who it was, commenting in another thread here on Dandavats, who brilliantly coined the phrase “Sunday paramahamsas”. We do not want to be a society where once or twice a week we put on our tilak and dhotis or saris and come to the temple and merely “pretend” we have been strictly following and perfectly controlling our mind and senses.

    There is an impulse that makes us foolishly think that once we have understood the path (jnana) we have realized and mastered it (vijnana). For our benefit Arjuna asks, in the beginning of the Third Chapter of Gita, “If the buddhi-yoga You have been describing is better than striving to fulfill desires through fruitive work, why do You say I should fight the war?”

    Krishna explains that even if you can successfully restrain the senses from their objects, if your mind is even thinking about the sense objects you are a “pretender”. It is far better to regulate the senses by the mind through engagement in karma yoga according to the duties prescribed in the varnasrama system, playing your part in the performance of sacrifice for the satisfaction of Vishnu. Then you can actually get free of material bondage and enter the kingdom of God.

    Not that we should promote Varnasrama and karma yoga as the solution to modern humanity’s problems. We are still the Hare Krishna movement and we are promoting “harer nama eva kevalam.”

    However, we recognize that the powerful harinama often takes some time to completely purify one’s heart, mind and senses, and that in the mean time we are still being forced to act under the sway of Cupid, of the gunas, of all-powerful time, or “providence.” We should establish righteous behavior according to varnas and asramas as the bare minimum standards of morality for those who are still embodied.

    If we stick on this natural track of righteous, dutiful behavior suited for our own material qualifications, we can be free to internally renounce the desire to enjoy our senses and become pure lovers of Krishna. But if we encourage everyone to simply “pretend” to be transcendental to their so-called material duties, we will make a mess and a mockery of our movement.

    Liberated persons perform material duties by way of example, so as not to disrupt the minds of those still attached.

  8. Akruranatha says :

    I never went to a twelve-step program such as AA (fortunately I haven’t had a substance addiction issue in this life), but there is something very practical about the first two steps. First you have to recognize you actually have a problem, that you are out of control, and then you have to recognize a “higher power” (i.e., Krishna) whose help you need.

    If you simply pretend you don’t have a problem, you will never get better.

    I *have* been going to Weight Watchers meetings. I have lost over 50 lbs since April, and according to BMI charts for my height I should lose at least 60 more. (I would like to lose at least another 40, and more importantly to keep off what I have already lost). It is a challenge.

    There is something humbling and honest (and motivating) about sitting in a room full of other people who have weight problems once a week, learning and sharing tips on how to get it under control.

    We may say “We are not these bodies”, but in fact these bodies are (for most of us) forcing us to do a lot of things, whether we like it or not.

    I could think, “I am a devotee, a Hare Krishna chanter, a disciple of Prabhupada, student of high transcendental literature like Bhagavad-Gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, Caitanya Caritamrta, Nectar of Devotion. What do I have in common with these karmis in the meetings, who are motivated to lose weight due to bodily consciousness? This is beneath me.”

    But I do have something in common with them. I have not learned to control the intake of nutrition properly. Spiritual life begins with controlling the tongue, and SBSST did not like to see disciples getting fat.

    Besides, “amanina manadena” means I should not be puffed up and think myself better than my fellow citizens. I am nothing special. I just have the great fortune to have begun to follow the instructions of a very special guru and chant a very special mantra. I am still a rank beginner at it.

    I like to think, “Work and money are beneath me. I am above all this mundane activity.” But that thinking lands me in the soup when I am unable to pay my bills. Time and the gunas force me to contribute to society, according to its rules.

    We have material obligations. Brahmanas give spiritual education, Ksatriyas protect citizens from injustice and arrange for proper administration and welfare, Vaisyas produce food and other wealth and give charity, and Sudras serve others. Most of us are sudras, and service is really eternal dharma. (“Krsnera nitya dasa”)

  9. Akruranatha says :

    I am very much looking forward to reading Niscala’s book. I ordered it several days ago and expect to receive it in the mail within another three or four days.

    We already identify ourselves within certain asramas, but how we are going to start recognizing ourselves as members of different varnas, at least for the non-Indian devotees, seems to be a challenge. Most of our cultures have gone through centuries of history trying to reject status-based social relations (and the evils they often entail) and replacing them with a system where every adult is at least theoretically equal, for all intents and purposes (often for good reasons).

    I do not know enough to comment on devotees who already come from Hindu families, but I imagine there is also a challenge to purify the existing Indian caste system from demonic or exploitative, non-devotional motives, and to explain to the modern world how Krishna’s system of four varnas really is supposed to work to produce an ideal society.

    I had a very brief conversation in Mayapur last month with a devotee who was on his way to a GBC meeting about how (or even whether) we could “implement” a system of varnas within ISKCON as described in the above-quoted conversation with Srila Prabhupada. It seems like a topic that will require a lot of contemplation and study of Srila Prabhupada’s books.

    I think we will find the answers in Prabhupada’s books and through our progressive realization and experience. I do not think we should expect to learn much by researching dharma sastras like Manu-Smrti and other Vedic literature Srila Prabhupada has not elaborately commented on. Bhagavad-Gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam are living incarnations of Krishna which can point the way forward for us.

    But getting back to marriage and sex, it seems so clear and natural that humans are supposed to make this institution work. Marriage is really a fortress that protects humans from becoming preoccupied with promiscuity, and helps them devote their energies to other important activities, including spiritual life. We see it at work across the board in so many societies (though there may be some differences in details of how marriages are practiced and understood).

    And *of course* the higher goal is to become completely free of lust and 100% dedicated to devotional service, but we should also talk about the established minimums of acceptable behavior below which one must face some kind of social or legal sanctions and disapproval.

  10. Akruranatha says :

    When we talk about “varnasrama dharma” we often are tempted to focus on the aspects that are different from other notions of moral behavior and righteousness. I sometimes say, “We focus too much on the ‘varna’ and ‘asrama’ and not enough on the ‘dharma’.”

    Of course, knowing the rules for different varnas and asramas and knowing how those rules apply to each of us individually according to our qualities and work and stage of life and relationships is a fundamental (and elusive) part of having a very clear picture of how to behave in a fully virtuous way. But there are many other aspects of being a righteous and just, moral person that are very easily understood by everyone and are probably a greater part of the entire equation.

    For example, “honesty.” As the old song goes, “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” Everyone knows this stuff. It’s playground stuff.

    Share. Don’t steal. Be nice to others. Be sensitive to the suffering of others (and careful not to be the cause of suffering). Honor your father and mothers. Respect authorities like teachers, judges, policemen and religious authorities. Use your God-given talents to contribute to the general welfare. Avoid speech that offends. Don’t use people for selfish reasons. Wash behind your ears. And so on… No matter who we are or where we were born, we know a lot about right and wrong, and we try to teach our children about it.

    Righteousness is a lot more and a lot deeper than learning an elaborate set of rules. If we deeply know the purposes behind the rules it becomes much easier to determine right from wrong in a given situation.

    More than anyone else, devotees are in a good position to know the purpose behind the rules. Obviously, the greatest rule is to satisfy Krishna. He is pleased by devotional service, and the behavior of the bhakti yogi includes all the “daivi sampat” qualities described in the 12 Chapter, 16th Chapter and elsewhere.

    A yogi sees all living entities as parts and parcels of Krishna and sees them equally as spiritual beings in spite of also seeing how they are enduring material happiness and distress due to their various conditioning (atmaupamyena sarvatra…)

    Thus, self-controlled devotees will always have wonderful good qualities, regardless of their occupation or social rank. It is almost second-nature for devotees to meet what are practically universally accepted as high moral standards.

    Such righteous behavior is part of the basic makeup of devotees.

  11. Akruranatha says :

    I was talking briefly to a learned and capable devotee (who was in a hurry to get to an appointment) about developing varnasrama dharma within ISKCON, and he asked, “Where will we get the knowledge of how to do it?”

    I suggested, “Bhagavad-Gita”, and he made a face that very eloquently expressed, nonverbally, something like: “Get real Prabhu. There are not many details in Bhagavad-Gita about what we are supposed to do in our current time and place and culture for actually introducing (or more completely introducing) a varnasrama dharma system within ISKCON among our members as Srila Prabhupada asked us to do.”

    I felt bad that he had to run and I did not have more time to explain what I meant, but I will try to do so now:

    Of course “Bhagavad-Gita As It Is” is not a step-by-step cookbook or “Practice Guide”* on how to manage ISKCON or our day-to-day details, for that matter.

    *(In the legal field we have books called “practice guides” which give very practical, step-by-step instructions on how to accomplish certain tasks, e.g. filing a motion for summary judgment, explaining all time deadlines and the forms of all the documents and so on).

    Still, it contains what we need to know, perhaps in code form, about the process of Krishna consciousness and the process of nescience, about fruitive activities and analytical knowledge, about karma yoga and jnana yoga and dhyana yoga and bhakti yoga, and their relationship to prescribed duties and the eventual abandonment of prescribed duties by truly surrendered devotees. All this information needs to be unpacked and thoroughly understood through our discussions and daily Gita classes.

    We have to know perfectly well what “inaction” (i.e., transcendental action) is, and what action/work is, and what forbidden action is. The first six chapters deal primarily with the subject of karma yoga and if we understand them thoroughly we may understand better why we need to behave righteously and fulfill our duties to family and society as long as we are not fully self-realized (to avoid the horrible path of forbidden action).

    When we understand these things very well I expect it will be easy for us to see how to behave righteously according to our social position and interact properly with all classes of people.

    There are also specific discussions in the Gita about duties of different varnas, and much more detailed explanations in Bhagavatam, but once we get the basic concepts right, the rest will be easier.

  12. niscala says :

    Thank you so much Akruranatha, for your openness, honesty, humility and most of all, your realizations. Of course, marriage is part of varnashrama, being the second ashrama, so your discussion points are interlinked. Just as marriage is an admission of being affected by the modes, so is varnashrama. It is only when one is transcendental to the modes, with all the symptoms of being transcendental to the modes as described in the Bg, that one is beyond the need for varnashrama, though one may still use it as a vehicle for service, and to avoid pratisttha, the desire to be regarded as a very advanced devotee. Varnashrama is thus the perfect vehicle for the destination of pure devotional service. It purifies one from within- for with the knowledge that one can be perfect in any varna, there is no need to pretend to be a brahmana – thus one overcomes the need for duplicity (kutinati)…Currently in ISKCON there is a great need for duplicity, for if one cannot follow the 4 regs and all the other ones- ekadasi, full morning program etc- then one cannot live in the society of devotees- but it is the sanga of devotees that such fallen persons, including myself, really need! It was to regain what I felt was a lost legacy that I wrote “varnashrama the Eight-Petalled Lotus”, to regain an inheritance which has been stolen from me, and stolen from every other devotee of the Lord who cannot follow perfectly and refuses to pretend, any longer, that they can. I got the awful realization that probably many of the “blooped” devotees were better situated than myself, as they may have left due to integrity- and we made them outcasts. They want to serve Krishna, have no other goal in life, but are unable to keep the brahminical standards. Studying carefully the conversations of SP, it is clear that he did not want this situation. He wanted us to reach out to the world- and break down the barriers of “us” and “them”- what he called “the kanistha mentality”, to make compassion and all-inclusiveness more important than fanatical adherence to rules, to more fully embody Lord Chaitanya’s mood.
    You very aptly pointed out that Krishna warned that contemplating the objects of the senses makes one then a pretender. What can we do then? We have two choices- go on pretending, or admit the transgression and be cast back into the material ocean, like a fish that is not good enough. The determination not to be a pretender, is a wonderful quality, and we should protect those who have it.

  13. Akruranatha says :

    Simply chanting Hare Krishna and giving up all materially-motivated actions is sufficient means of attaining perfection and is itself the highest goal. But who can do it?

    So, because we are not qualified to sit like Haridas Thakur chanting all day and night, Srila Prabhupada engaged us in various activities according to our qualification.

    Deity worship is not necessary for pure devotees. Gayatri mantra initiation is not necessary. But for us these things help regulate us and bring us to the platform of sattva guna to help us try to chant Hare Krishna correctly.

    For those even less qualified, brahman initiation and serving installed Deities on the altar (or cooking for Them) is not permitted. Still, by being sympathetic to the propagation of Krishna consciousness and giving some of our hard-earned money to support the mission, while living decent moral lives and getting along well in the society of faithful devotees, we will find ourselves nourished and benefitted and eventually our chanting will become successful. No one should feel discouraged or ostracized due to failure to come to the brahminical platform. Only a small number of people in any society are brahmanas. The vast majority are sudras.

    We have to practice Krishna consciousness according to our qualification. Here is a nice excerpt from a Bhagavatam class Srila Prabhupada gave in 1971 in Gorakhpur:

    “So being bewildered by the material or external energy, they take to these gorgeous ceremonies or sacrificial performances. Actually there is no need. The whole thing is that Sridhara Swami is giving stress very strongly that you can simply chant Hare Krsna mantra without undergoing any ritualistic ceremonies. Actually it is very difficult to understand. Madhavendra Puri, our predecessor acarya, he also has composed a nice verse. He says, ‘My dear gayatri-mantra, I offer you my respect, but no more I can chant gayatri-mantra.’ In this way… Taking bath early in the morning, that’s a good recommendation for spiritual advancement. But Madhavendra Puri said, ‘Now I am unable to execute this order. Please excuse me.’ In this way he has described in many ways. At last, he concludes that ‘I shall sit down somewhere underneath a tree and simply remember Govinda’s name. That is sufficient. Yes.’ He says, ‘Please excuse me, please excuse me, please excuse me.’”

    “But this Madhavendra’s statement is not for the neophyte devotees. We should not imitate Madhavendra Puri. …”

  14. Akruranatha says :

    Srila Prabhupada Bhagavatam class excerpt continued:

    “Madhavendra Puri was the spiritual master of Isvara Puri, and Isvara Puri was the spiritual master of Caitanya Mahaprabhu. So the position of Madhavendra Puri, the position of Haridasa Thakura, they are different from our position. We should not imitate, that ‘Because Madhavendra Puri gave up everything and simply concentrated his mind in chanting maha-mantra, Hare Krsna, or Haridasa Thakura, therefore I shall also do that. I shall not rise early in the morning. I shall not take bath. I shall not worship the Deity. Simply I shall…’ That is not possible. That is not possible. But actually, if anyone can chant Hare Krsna mantra offenselessly and in devotion and love… There the first thing is love—not force—love, what is called automatically, spontaneous. Spontaneous. Just like Rupa Gosvami, he said that ‘How I shall chant Hare Krsna mantra in one tongue? If I had hundreds and thousands of tongues, then I could chant and relish what is Hare Krsna mantra.’ That is a different stage. We should not imitate. But actually this is a fact, that simply by chanting Hare Krsna mantra, you can get relief from all kinds of performances, ritualistic ceremonies.”

    [End of Quote]

    In ISKCON we have ceremonies. We have weddings, funerals, first grain ceremonies and name giving and hair cutting. We are not all sannyasis.

    Similarly, we observe moral standards. We pay our taxes and obey traffic laws. If we earn a living by serving some boss, we have to keep the boss satisfied with our conduct.

    Now, there is something very different about the modern society and economy from the society we read about in Mahabharata.

    In modern liberal society people from many different cultures and social backgrounds deal with one another in a public, secular sphere or marketplace to satisfy their basic needs, and are free to have their own private values and “lifestyle enclaves” so long as they do not disrupt other members of the public. Traditional Vedic designations of social status connected to roles in the large-scale performance of public rituals and sacrifices seem to no longer exist, even in India.

    And yet, as Srila Prabhupada often pointed out, the basic four functions still exist in every civilized society. Something approximating four Vedic varnas existed in feudal Europe and feudal Japan and China. (Confucianism is a very socially-oriented system focusing on ethical duties derived from relationships and status.)

  15. Akruranatha says :

    It is very important for us to understand the progressive system of gradual upliftment through the Vedic system, although Narada Muni in 1st Canto, 5th Chapter, mildly chastises his disciple, the incarnation of God Veda Vyasa, for having misled the people by failing to adequately present the direct path of pure devotional service.

    Pure devotional service, which is spontaneous and free from any other motive (“unalloyed”), is very rare. Pure devotees are free from all social obligations and codes of conduct, but neophyte devotees should not imitate them.

    Even though we are on Narada Muni’s path we have to understand the lesser path. Srimad Bhagavatam concerns itself with the relationship of these two paths. We are not free from the obligation to be good, moral people, as long as we still have material attachments.

    Pure devotees are already “super moral” people, even when they apparently break the rules, and only they can give the greatest benefit (bhakti). In fact, it is not possible to be a perfectly moral person unless one becomes a pure devotee.

    King Nrga was about the most moral person imaginable. He gave away so many cows in charity. Still, as good as he tried to be, an already-given cow happened to wander back among those still to be given, and he made the mistake of giving the same cow to two different brahmanas. Moreover, it just so happened that neither of these brahmanas would be pacified with any proposed solution to the dilemma. They would not even accept thousands of other cows in exchange for the one, twice-gifted cow!

    It always goes like that. You try to be so good but eventually you will fail. By the time you get to the heavenly planets you just enjoy material happiness for a long time until you use up your good karma and return to the world of death. Unless you take to bhakti yoga there is no way to avoid bad conduct eventually.

    Still, having taken to bhakti yoga, one should remain careful to avoid sinful activities, disturbing others, etc. One who thinks “I can commit sins because I will neutralize them easily by chanting Hare Krishna” commits the gravest, seventh offense.

    But back to the topic of unregulated sex within marriage: Let’s face it, it is not good for devotional service or even brahminical culture. Yet it is a minor offense compared to sex outside of marriage. We will get over it if we keep trying and keep chanting.

  16. Akruranatha says :

    Regarding the Seventh Offense, Srila Prabhupada did not like the Catholic system of confession and absolution. If there is an accidental mistake, it will be forgiven, but if one makes a regular business out of repeatedly making mistakes and being forgiven, it stops being an accident and becomes kind of premeditated. That offends Nama Prabhu.

    Still, it seems to me Srila Prabhupada kind of expected many householder disciples not to be perfectly controlled. Sometimes he said things like, householders generally make little spiritual advancement, or that their “position” is to be in maya.

    Basically, unregulated sex within religious marriage seems to be something we kind of have a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy about. If there are some slips we have to just keep chanting and try to do better. It’s nothing to beat ourselves up about, much less break up our marriages over. But, we should not be hypocrites.

    For practically the rest of the world, the fact that we never have sex outside of marriage seems like a high standard. But for those who are serious yogis, celibacy is required, and a Krishna conscious householder who employs sex only for begetting God-conscious children is as good as a celibate.

    Once I was in a used book store and I was telling the cashier about Krishna consciousness, but I was sheepishly admitting that I was not an advanced practitioner. She was a young black lady with a sunny disposition and a winning smile. She said, “Well, I suppose its like any other religion…You just try to do as much as you can.” I don’t think I can convey the impact here, but she made sense to me. Right. No need to berate myself. Do as much as I can. Krishna knows my mentality and degree of sincerity, and I am the one who is going to have to possibly take birth again according to my chain of previously performed works, (or hopefully succeed in totally giving up material attachment and completely surrendering to Guru and Krishna.)

    “…an ordinary man with firm faith in the eternal injunctions of the Lord, even though unable to execute [them], becomes liberated from the bondage of the law of karma. In the beginning of Krishna consciousness, one may not fully discharge the injunctions of the Lord, but because one is not resentful of this principle and works sincerely without consideration of defeat and hopelessness, he will surely be promoted to the stage of pure Krishna consciousness.” (B.G. 3.31 Purport)

  17. Akruranatha says :

    B.G. 3.33:

    “Even a man of knowledge acts according to his own nature, for everyone follows the nature he has acquired from the three modes. What can repression accomplish?”


    “Unless one is situated on the transcendental platform of Krsna consciousness, he cannot get free from the influence of the three modes of material nature, as it is confirmed by the Lord in the Seventh Chapter (7.14). Therefore, even for the most highly educated person on the mundane plane, it is impossible to get out of the entanglement of maya simply by theoretical knowledge, or by separating the soul from the body. There are many so-called spiritualists who outwardly pose as advanced in the science but inwardly or privately are completely under the particular modes of nature which they are unable to surpass. Academically, one may be very learned, but because of his long association with material nature, he is in bondage. Krsna consciousness helps one to get out of the material entanglement, even though one may be engaged in his prescribed duties in terms of material existence.

    “Therefore, without being fully in Krsna consciousness, no one should give up his occupational duties. No one should suddenly give up his prescribed duties and become a so-called yogi or transcendentalist artificially. It is better to be situated in one’s own position and to try to attain Krsna consciousness under superior training. Thus one may be freed from the clutches of Krsna’s maya.”

    I would love to hear many devotees discussing this verse and purport in the context of this discussion about honesty and varnas and sex within marriage.

    It does seem to me that Srila Prabhupada encouraged many disciples to join his movement, abandon their parents’ hopes (many had done so already), ignore any efforts in the field of education and career training, and engage themselves full time in preaching and Deity worship and study of transcendental literature.

    He encouraged us to transcend our lower natures and at least be engaged in brahminical activity. Helping him push on this sankirtan movement is better than brahminical activity!

    And certainly he encouraged us to be pure devotees, and to not do anything without making it a devotional offering to Krishna, including procreation.

    But we have to admit that many of us are not steadily situated on the transcendental platform. What are the “occupational duties” those of us not fully in Krsna consciousness should not give up?

  18. Akruranatha says :

    Does it mean we have to live in separate Hare Krishna farm communities, divorced from “karmi” society? Do we need to learn the skills to live in ideal agrarian villages with small-scale industry, as H.H. Bhakti-Raghava Swami and others have pioneered?

    Or does it mean we have to function as breadwinners in some fashion within the dominant economy wherever we live?

    (Well, certainly if we have families we need to somehow earn enough to keep them happy and healthy. We do not want to be “monkey” renunciates or hippies or bums who “renounce” whatever duties seem troublesome but are lazy when it comes to the real principles of spiritual life.)

    Are there special occupational duties we need to learn if we are sudras that distinguish us from twice-initiated devotees? If so, what are they?

    What of the other varnas? Are there special duties they need to fulfill?

    Are those who perform the functions of administrative leaders in our temples and asramas and international organization to be considered Ksatriyas? Or is that designation reserved for those who actually administer complete societies and who have military/police forces and taxation powers and lawmaking and judicial apparatuses?

    These are the perennial questions that we have to put our heads together to answer effectively.

    One thing is clear. We know that God made the world and its inhabitants in such a way that it can be properly organized so that the human population can achieve their various goals of life (including artha and kama) in a peaceful, harmonious, wholesome way, and this proper, natural organization involves the traditional four social divisions as well as the four spiritual orders.

    But how is that translated to the modern world we live in and how is it translated into our own lives as honest, neophyte devotees (speaking for those of us who are neophytes and are not fully Krishna conscious enough to renounce occupational duties and become sannyasis or avadhutas)?

    Is it relevant to ISKCON in today’s world? What does everyone think?

    And what does any of this have to do with the degree of sense control required in our marriages?

    Obviously, we should all strive for perfection, but should there be some general recognition that some classes of our devotees within ISKCON are not really expected to come up to the highest standard, and as long as they do not pose as brahmanas and spiritual leaders they should still be accepted as respectable members of our communities?

  19. niscala says :

    Thank you again, Akruranatha for these very appropriate and lucid thoughts! ! You are right that the method of purification is sadhana- hearing, chanting etc, but Srila Prabhupada has warned that even hearing and chanting can be done in the 81 categories of the mixed modes of nature. Such mixed devotional service does not deliver one from the clutches of maya- instead of watering the bhakti creeper, it strangles it. So long as chanting and hearing etc is not done in pure goodness, without the slightest tinge of motivation other than to please the Lord, there is need for varnashrama, because the modes of passion and ignorance are thus disengaged… Varnashrama itself is not transcendental because it is based on duality- this, but not that- ksatriya, but not brahmana- but it is a means to attain transcendence, just as the beach is not the ocean, but one may need to cross it on the way to the ocean…

    It is clear from the conversations of Prabhupada that he wanted varnashrama as a way for devotees to avoid the self-deception he called “showbottle spirituality”. Deception, is the avoidance of truth, and is thus ignorance itself, tamo guna. Varnashrama also disengages the propensity to be Lords and masters- to be seen as exalted, saintly, advanced, etc, because- hidden from the view of all- one can become perfect in one’s humble position. Thus it disengages the mode of passion. At the same time, it engages the mode of goodness, because those who have its symptoms only, are in the positions of leadership. It is only symptoms of the mode of goodness that qualifies a brahmana, and as soon as he shows the symptoms of other modes, he is no longer a brahmana, and when he again takes up the symptoms, he is a brahmana. Inthis way, the society is guided by wisdom, far-sightedness, and honesty. As soon as we think we possess the mode of goodness/pure goodness, and are therefore brahmanas, we are affected by the having mode- rajo guna. Goodness must be a state of being, an orientation, something we must every day strive towards, it cannot be possessed as it is the Lord’s property. Thus, He may at times give wisdom and far-sightedness to even sudras, even mleccas, and being learned means that one can take wisdom wherever it is found. Varnashrama means respect for brahmincal culture, it means that we do not identify a person with a mode of nature, and thus disempower him/her from advancement. It means we remain awake and receptive to everyone evolving out of the modes

  20. niscala says :

    I find most interesting the qualities of a ksatriya, and what they represent in the modern world of ISKCON, where ksatriyas are actually more defined as managers than soldiers. Do the gita-mentioned qualities (18.43) still apply? Lets have a look!

    Sauryam- heroism. A heroic leader will put the welfare of others over his personal safety and security. No type of personal concern of his subordinates is considered petty- an unhappy subordinate is an unhappy ksatriya, who according to the descriptions in sastra, regards his people with the same sense of affection, concern and personal involvement as he does his own family members. In ISKCON this may mean that if a devotee is unhappy or discouraged due to some ISKCON policy or ISKCON dynamic, or ISKCON attitude, his leader will take it very seriously, and do everything he can to change the policy, dynamic or attitude. This may mean even confronting the GBC. It is not that everyone should be blind followers- blind institutionalized following can never lead to the opening of eyes- the goal of accepting a guru.

    Power- A powerful leader does not seek to dominate and make people powerless and shame them into submission, either overtly by brute attitude, or covertly by charm and flattery. He knows that any power is not his own, but the Lord’s- thus he seeks only to distribute it according to people’s capacity to wield it rightly. He seeks to empower everyone as much as they can be empowered- to develop their God-given talent to think and to create. The true leader has the power of spirit, not of ego, a power that is all-expanding, not shrinking and miserly.

    Resourcefulness- a resourceful leader has the capacity to see and encourage resourcefuless in others. He does not make a goal for himself, or even the community, and force people to do work that is contrary to their nature, to achieve that goal. He sees what resources there are in terms of each person’s proclivities, and forms Krsna conscious, mutually agreed-upon objectives, according to that.

    Courage in battle- a leader’s true qualities come out when there is a battle- he will have the courage to uphold his values, even if doing so threatens his security as a leader, or his position and prestige. He will thus not cover up his weaknesses or transgressions, that as human beings, we all have, but he will be open and transparent and trusting that the Lord will protect him, if he remains truthful.

  21. Akruranatha says :

    At a European GBC meeting (or something) a few months (or so) ago, H. H. Sivarama Swami made a proposal about the rights and obligations of “membership” in ISKCON. He spoke about the rights and obligations of citizenship in a country (using the example of France), and proposed that to be entitled to full membership in ISKCON with all its privileges, we should establish minimum standards of behavior, including strict following of 16/4, no divorce and remarriage as we sometimes see in ISKCON, “tithing” or an obligation to contribute some percentage of income to ISKCON, and perhaps some other basic rules. (My apologies to Maharaja and other readers if I have not gotten the proposal exactly right).

    I have seen some negative reactions by devotees on the internet, and I myself raised some questions about how ISKCON should relate to those who will not or cannot live up to these high standards. But perhaps this idea of the duties of “membership” and the privileges that go along with it could be relevant to the discussion of recognizing different varnas.

    That is, perhaps the criteria that Sivarama Maharaja was proposing (and my impression was that he was proposing outlines only, as a basis for further discussion) could be for membership as a “brahmana” or as a “twice born” devotee of some kind. In other words, could we recognize different kinds of membership, and tie them to designations of different varnas somehow?

    For example, maybe “sudras” includes anyone who wants to be a member of ISKCON and works in some service capacity. Maybe “vaisyas” are those who own farms or businesses that employ people. They are required to tithe, but may not necessarily follow 16/4 (though they should try to). The kind of “members” Maharaja was talking about could be Ksatriyas or Brahmanas and “clergy” in ISKCON. A devotee who divorced and remarried might have to resign from administrative or brahminical positions.

    I am just brainstorming here. Any such system would probably seem a little “wooden” or “artificial”. It should not be seen as necessarily an actual, accurate description of one’s actual varna, but as a practical means of organizing ISKCON in light of the instructions of Srila Prabhupada and in an attempt to show social organization along the lines of the four varna system that Krishna created and endorsed in Bhagavad-Gita.

    I think the reason it would seem “artificial” to me, at least, is that there are various senses in which we can understand varnas…

  22. Akruranatha says :

    In one sense varnasrama dharma is all around us, and in another sense it represents an ideal culture with internalized values that no longer exists in its pure form even in India, but can be understood through reading epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana.

    Culture is like language. It lives and adapts to the usage of its practitioners. Yet it is not merely a matter of convention. Pious or sinful conduct determines our future bodies and fates.

    Please bear with me as I meander off on a long and possibly irrelevant anecdote. Based on the Sanskrt pronunciation guide in the back of BBT books, I used to mistakenly think that the silibant depicted as an “s” with an accent above it was the reflexive sound pronounced with the tongue touching further back on the palate, and the “s” with a dot under it was pronounced with the tongue further forward. I had it backwards. So one day about 18 years ago a Danish (nondevotee) scholar corrected me, and I said, part jokingly, “Oh my God! The word “Krsna” has a reflexive “s” in it. All these years I have been chanting the wrong mantra!” But the scholar told me, “Don’t worry. If you are pronouncing the ‘r’ with a dot under it, you will automatically pronounce the following ‘s’ correctly too.”

    In one sense alphabets teach us how to pronounce words we don’t know, but in another sense they merely describe what those who speak with proper accent are already doing. The spoken language comes first.

    Of course in a language like English there are all kinds of strange spellings (James Joyce pointed out how the word “fish” could be spelled “ghoti”, with the “gh” as in “enough”, the “o” as in “women”, and the “ti” and in “action”.) But in Sanskrt the devanagari alphabet is organized on strict phonetic principles, which helps guide proper pronunciation.

    I feel somehow that in an analogous sense, the principles of varnasrama dharma are both descriptive of how civilized societies everywhere are going on, even if they have strayed from the traditional Vedic ideals, and also are prescriptive of how culture and values and social organization should go on in a sound, healthy civilization.

    To try to describe ourselves with different kinds of “membership” in ISKCON as different “varnas” might not be an accurate description in terms of a deep understanding of real varnasrama culture, but it may be a start toward prescribing an improved social interaction in ISKCON, a kind of pronunciation guide, if you will.

  23. Dhanesvara says :

    Thank you, Niscala, for your writing on the important and vast subject of Varnashrama. It will be a pleasure to read your realizations in your book. Varnashrama is important in our society, not simply for our existing devotees who have a difficult time following strictly, but to expand the society and be more inclusive.

    In other conversations Srila Prabhupada clearly explains that varnashrama is for the mass of people, to allow them to begin to approach Sri Krishna. And as He states in the Bhagavad-gita, that a man may become perfect by doing his duty properly. This is the essence of varnashrama. Each person has his nature and his duty. Let him follow his nature and work for Krishna. And Sri Krishna also states that for those who cannot follow the regulative principles of bhakti yoga, they should work for Him. We should therefore create in our ISKCON centers opportunity for people to simply work for Krishna, and leave the more challenging aspects of spiritual life to be adapted after sufficient purification takes place.

    There are other ways to arrange for people to work for Krishna. One example that I frequently use is that of Narahari who was TP in Miami when the temple was located on a 2 acre plot of land. Narahari had all kinds of service for people to do as he was creating a tropical paradise. Move this dirt; plant these flowers; cut the grass. . . there was no end to it. And he was able to engage many people that couldn’t be engaged in other temples due to their lack of surrender. Narahari was happy to engage them in any way that they were willing to work for Krishna.

    Having a setting where there is land offers many more opportunities for service than city temples generally have. Village communities are the ideal places. Let them come and work for Krishna’s pleasure. As Srila Prabhupada said, first varna. And after becoming purified by the endeavor they will be able to faithfully follow the rest, so then, ashrama.

    Varnashrama is a culture and there are many subtle aspects of the culture that are important to making the entire culture function. We need many devotees to bring their voice to the discussion to insure that we can create a viable working culture that uplifts and protects.

    Your servant,
    Dhanesvara Das

  24. niscala says :

    thank you, Dhanesvara for your enlightening comments, and your interest in my book, which I am sending you today- I hope you like it- but even if not, I would be very keen for your feedback…

    The example of Narahari is a good one, and shows that when one has the right all-embracing attitude (as opposed to the kanishta mentality of “us” and “them”) then one will automatically introduce varnashrama- even without labelling people. Varnashrama is actually not about labelling people at all, but finding what they like to do most, and people finding what they can do easily and naturally- spontaneously, what they are drawn to do…in some religious circles, this is called one’s “calling”. It comes from within.

    So varnashrama is an internal process, certainly not an external labelling! So why are there labels? It is only for organization- so as to make the most of people’s natural propensities and gifts. The label, which is external- recognizes what is going on in the inside of the individual. It recognizes the individual’s natural service propensity. Thus, a person who is “called” to care for people’s needs, to be involved with other’s concerns, to listen to problems, to think about others, to be empathetic- such a person who has all this going on inside him, will be externally recognized by referring to him as a “ksatriya” as that means that his service opportunities will reflect his calling.

    A person who is “called” from within to study, to analyze, to teach, to help others to see- a person who takes great pleasure in these activities is externally recognized by the title “brahmana” because then there will be many service opportunities that reflect his inner calling. By society recognizing what is going on inside the individual, his guna, service opportunities can be arranged, and he is given a position accordingly. It is not that one desires a position of power and it is given to him- one must display the calling, the guna. The pushing of the mode of passion to acquire prestige and honour has no place within this system, as it is not the basis of varna, and the concept of varna means that one can be completely perfect in one’s own natural calling.

    That is the great advantage of varnashrama- that people are most happy in their calling, and they become most expert- and useful- in what they are happy doing. The other advantage, as pointed out by Akruranath-is that membership doesn’t require that a person accept standards that are artificial…

  25. niscala says :

    Akruranatha prabhu, you mentioned vaisyas giving some of their income, but we see that not everyone can afford it, and the result may be that we value more the big contributors/donors and the whole thing breeds duality. In a varnashrama community, everyone is engaged according to their natural propensity- that IS their service. Also, working in a polluted environment, in association with materialistic people, and then being expected to give- is a one way street. When people offer service, we should reciprocate- offer them facility- the most important facility is to be residing in a holy place, have constant sadhu sanga, live peacefully in the mode of goodness…

  26. niscala says :

    In the relevant instructions of Srila Prabhupada in regard to varnashrama, there seem to be opposing statements. In some cases he indicated that when introducing varnashrama within ISKCON, we are just playing the roles of different varnas and ashramas, to model an ideal society- it is not that we actually become brahmanas, ksatriyas etc, as we are vasinavas. In other cases he indicated that he wanted varnashrama because many devotees could not come up to the brahminical standards- that varnashrama be there to help us avoid “showbottle spirituality” – varnashrama for honesty and for integrity, not for show, an act, or for playing a part!

    The resolution is that essentially we are Krsna’s servants, but due to past conditioning, we have to play the part of – for example- vaisyas. But it is not that as vaisyas, our goal is to make money, or even produce good crops- the goal is to please the Lord in whatever way one can. By doing so, gradually one evolves out of one’s conditioning, and thus vaisyas, sudras and ksatriyas gradually display the qualities of brahmanas. It is for this reason that there is the warning never to view a vaisnava in terms of his caste- because generally he will be in the process of transcending it.

    This warning must be heeded in any varnashrama or vaisnava community. We must respect and honor everyone. Of course, no one would disagree, but in practice, how many of our leaders, senior devotees etc would be willing to heed the advice of a mere worker or younger devotee- if that advice was rational and wise? How many of our leaders would respect a newcomer enough to ask him what he wants to do- instead of telling him what to do, because the leader has goals that he wants achieved? In a recent varnashrama meeting, a leader was arguing that varna must come through recommendation from above- that leaving it up to the individual will fail, showing his faith in bureaucracy, and little regard for the indivisual. Actually, this same suggestion exactly was put to Srila Prabhupada, and he replied that the recommendation process has failed us, and that varnashrama is simply about being true to oneself- finding one’s natural abilities, instead of attempting to be in a big position. He gave the example of a castor tree- it is small, but even though small, it produces castor beans- it does not try to become a big mango tree- it does not try to imitate, and because of that, it is valuable. It is perfect.

  27. niscala says :

    Prabhupada: …As a shudra, he can get the perfection. Why he should artificially become a brahmana and sannyasi and fall down? This has to be checked.

    Hari-sauri: So that depends upon our men who are giving recommendations.

    Prabhupada: So that recommendation is not good. Bible is giving so many recommendation. He’s also not following them. [laughs]

    Hari-sauri: Following them. So how will we implement? Right now we have… Every temple president can…

    Prabhupada: That is supposed. Where there is no tree, a castor seed tree is very big tree. That is going on.

    Satsvarupa: If there’s no tree?

    Prabhupada: You know castor seed tree, a plant? It does not grow [here]?

    Satsvarupa: Small.

    Prabhupada: Small. So there is no banyan tree. It is taken—”Oh, it is very big.”

    Hari-sauri: I don’t follow the analogy.

    Satsvarupa: In the complete absence of trees, then a small tree is considered big.

    Hari-sauri: Oh. [laughs] Well, say, like here in Mayapura now we have a situation…

    Prabhupada: No, no. Why? Why one should stress to become big tree? Here it is clearly said even if you are small tree, you can get perfection. So we should take that.

    Hari-sauri: So in Mayapura here now we have that situation, that so many…

    Prabhupada: Everywhere, wherever, Mayapura or anywhere. Question is that here it is clearly said, sve sve karmany abhiratah. Brahmana has his duty, kshatriya has his duty, vaishya has his duty, shudra has his duty. And if he performs his duty nicely, then
    he also becomes perfect. So why artificially he should be called a brahmana? Let them do, according to shastra, the work of shudra, or vaishya. He’ll get the perfect. Perfection is not checked. But why artificially he should be made a brahmana or he should be made a sannyasi and fall down and become a ludicrous? That is the point. Better let him live in his position and become perfect. That’s good. That looks very nice. And that is. That is possible. Varnashrama charavata purushena parah puman vishnur aradhyate [Cc. Madhya 8.58]. [From Parashara Muni in Vishnu Purana (3.8.9): “The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Vishnu, is worshiped by the proper execution of prescribed duties in the system of varna and ashrama. ..” You work as a perfect brahmana or a perfect kshatriya, perfect shudra; you get perfection. The perfection is available in your natural life. Why should artificially you become unnatural and falldown

  28. Akruranatha says :

    I received the book, “Varnasrama, the Eight Petaled Lotus — Divinity in All, Diversity in One”, in yesterday’s mail.

    I am on page 90, about 2/3rds the way through, and I am enjoying it immensely. There are many good realizations backed up by relevant quotations, and a mood of clarity and “call to action”.

    I hope to write more words of praise after I have had time to finish it and digest it.

    I like its emphasis on the positive, egalitarian and liberating aspects of varnasrama dharma. It should be a way of bringing forth every citizen’s spontaneous, creative nature and letting it blossom into spiritual perfection. It is only for other reasons, perhaps due to our collective historical experience with hierarchies based on false ego and exploitation, that we fear the idea of social hierarchy altogether.

    I guess there *is* something non-spontaneous about vaidhi sadhana bhakti. We have to make ourselves speak and behave as Vaisnavas do (getting up early, repeating choice prayers composed by advanced devotees, bowing down and chanting the holy names whether we “feel like it” or not.)

    And yet if we are going to make this a sustainable way of life that people in general can accept and embrace, we are going to have to encourage them to find some engagement that suits their own natures, doing what they would naturally like to do (even if they were “lax” in their performance of viddhis), making that an offering to Krishna.

    I mean, when we are at our best — chanting well, following strict schedules of 24-hour engagement in devotional service, full of enthusiasm and inspiration — all of us can get a little glimpse of what it might be like to be a paramahamsa, permeated with spiritual emotions and ecstasies. That doesn’t tell us what our varna is, however.

    We might suppose that if we relaxed our vigilance and let down our bhakti yoga guard a bit, we would all become lecherous degenerates or lazy slobs, but we probably wouldn’t (or couldn’t). Even nondevotees usually manage to contain themselves and find a way to live in society doing some sort of productive work they can get some satisfaction from. The same is true of devotees who have relaxed their sadhana a bit. They get to find more about what they would like to do by nature.

    Not that we encourage anyone to “relax”, but eventually most people do. Those who never do may remain as brahminical members. Others should still find some way to work for Krsna that suits their natures.

  29. Akruranatha says :

    On the other hand, I do get the feeling that something that makes varnasrama society more “spontaneous” is an internalization of the sense of status in a defined social hierachy.

    Am I being obscure? I will try to say it plainer.

    In democratic capitalism (or socialism), everyone is theoretically equal. (This is of course artificial. Everyone goes around with some sense of values and we admire those who are talented, wise, beautiful, kind, etc.)

    However, in theory at least, the busboy or shoe-shiner is no less noble than the CEO or scientific genius. His work of “service” is simply a commodity he is selling in exchange for salary that he can use to get what he needs. (Hopefully, if the economy is in working order, he can find some job that will provide him enough money to buy basic necessities of food, shelter, clothing for his family.)

    This sense of buying and selling our labor as a commodity makes it possible to have a society without widely-shared values. I shine your shoes because you pay me, not because I feel you are worthy of my respect. Even the most despicable demon (a murderous gangster, for example) can buy my services, though not my admiration. In this situation there is a kind of disconnect between what I am doing and my spontaneous affections.

    If we admire someone, we naturally want to do something to please him or her. We express our affection in such service, and we hope for reciprocation by being recognized, thanked, blessed and protected by the heroes we serve spontaneously. This is the natural, laudable mentality of an honest sudra.

    We can see this everywhere, in all fields of activity. Soldiers love to serve under beloved officers. Professionals like doctors, lawyers, and engineers love to serve under accomplished, talented mentors. Internships and apprenticeships are based on this principle, and it is present in brahminical culture in the relation of guru and disciple.

    Somehow in the modern context, however, seeing oneself as a servant is despicable and frightening. Bowing down to another man is seen as shockingly demeaning. To call someone a lackey or boot-licker is a strong insult. Everyone wants to be a master, no one a servant.

    Maybe this is due to the pervasive kali-yuga atmosphere of hypocrisy and exploitation, where higher classes cannot be trusted with spontaneous respect their statuses should command. They do not properly reciprocate, and those of low status get mistreated and abused.

  30. niscala says :

    Good point about the place of sadhana vaidhi bhakti, which is more or less forced,( or at least regulated and non-spontaneous devotional service), in a varnashrama setting, which is based on what service one is naturally drawn to do.

    There are two aspects to life in ISKCON even at present- the morning program, which is about the 9 processes of bhakti, and one’s other service during the day, which is karma yoga, work done for the satisfaction of the Lord. The taste for the first depends on the spiritual advancement of the devotee, and to a lesser extent on how attractive we make the morning program (for example, we could introduce exotic instruments every now and then, and have everyone a chance at giving class, or make it more round-table discussion)

    What about the taste for the second- one’s service during the day? At least that should be to the devotees liking- and Srila Prabhupada wanted it to be so- his relevant instructions will be in the next post. The relevance is that we are now in the precarious position of losing devotees, and failing to attract newcomers, because of an absence of joy in our devotees. We can try to inspire joy by making the morning program more attractive, but the level of joy present during that part of the day is still primarily dependent on the devotional attitude of the individual- we can only try to facilitate that, creatively. But even if a person experiences no taste at all for direct devotional service, if he is convinced of the need for karma yoga, and allowed to do whatever is most pleasing to him as a service to the Lord, by employing his natural talents, then he will not go away, and f0r the sake of staying in a warm and welcoming environment where his natural talents are appreciated, he will participate willingly in the program, even if he has little taste for it, in the beginning. I think if we foster an attitude that “this is your morning program, we need you in it- have a turn at giving class, have a turn at leading, playing instruments, etc” then the feeling of appreciation and being needed, which is so lacking in modern society, will give a sense of satisfaction and joy, that will inspire people more to devote themselves to sadhana. Just because sadhana is regulated, it should not be joyless.

    The other point, made by my good husband, is that the forcing in sadhana is not external- it comes from within, from conviction. So the english word “force” is not an exact description of the process…

  31. niscala says :

    that was a good point Akruranatha raised – the question whether letting people follow their propensities would result in laziness and immorality. Even in materialistic society, no one can just do whatever they want- they have social obligations, economic obligations, legal obligations, familial obligations- the list goes on. But these are often not seen as a burden- because of regard for one’s fellow citizens, a well-wishing attitude towards one’s asssociates, and a loving attitude towards one’s family. And besides these obligations- things one is either forced by conscience or external law to do- there is the person’s natural inclinations towards a particular type of work. So, combining the two, an average person does not feel he is being whipped or tortured into activity- he is to a certain extent self-motivated. In a spiritual society, the added impetus can be knowledge of one’s connection with God, and that the way to that connection is through serving God’s servants… the knowledge that God is not some far off distant person who can only be approached in the temple, but God is in the heart of everything we see- looking back at us!
    So there is an added demension of inspiation in varnashrama, above and beyond the natural affection one has for family and friends…

  32. niscala says :

    Here are the relevant instructions by Srila Prabhupada, mentioned previously, as indication that he wanted the devotee’s services to be to their liking…

    “There is some symptom of missing the point. The point is to be engaged in doing something for Krsna, never mind what is that job, but being so engaged in doing something very much satisfying to the devotee that he remains always enthusiastic.
    He will automatically follow the regulative principles because they are part of his occupational duty- by applying them practically as his occupational duty, he realizes the happy result of regulative principles.”
    (Srila Prabhupada’s letter to Karandhara, 1972)

  33. I like to share these words of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura from his Gita mala:
    Surrender Transcends Bodily Designation

    hari he!
    stri-purusa-deha-gata, barna-adi dharma jata,

    tahe punah deha-gata bheda

    sattva-rajas-tamo-guna, asrayeche bheda punah,

    eirupa sahasra prabheda

    Oh my Lord! I know that all bodily distinctions between female and male, as well as the divisions of the varnasrama system namely brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya, sudra, brahmacari, grhastha, vanaprastha and sannyasa are all simply materialistic distinctions based on bodily consciousness. All these fall under the jurisdiction of the modes of goodness, passion and ignorance, and thus all these bodily discriminations multiply into thousands of different complicated classifications.

    je-kon sarira thaki, je-kon abastha rakhi,

    se-sab ekhan taba pay

    sanpilam, pranesvara! mama boli’ atahpara,

    ar kichu na rohilo day

    Whatever type of body I happen to live in, and whatever circumstantial position surrounds this particular body, I now offer all these things unto Your lotus feet, oh Lord of my life! From now on, I am no longer responsible for anything related to my very existence.

    tumi prabhu rakho mor, sab taba adhikar,

    achi ami tomar kinkar

    e bhaktibinoda bole, taba dasya-kautuhale,

    thaki jena sada sebapar

    Therfore, please protect and maintain me, oh Lord, for I am but Your eternal humble servant. Bhaktivinoda is just informing You that I am living always absorbed in the curious amusement of the transcendental loving service attitude.

  34. niscala says :

    thanks prabhu for the nice quote. It is a very good attitude to keep in mind, its the vaisnava attitude. Even in a varnashrama community, which we must have unless we are situated in transcendence, beyond the influence of duality, as expressed here… even in varnashrama, there must be a mood of trying to see beyond the varna and ashrama- to cultivate the mood that we are serving devotees of the Lord, exalted souls, regardless of their external designations. But external designations, varnashrama , must be there to keep our motivation pure- that is clear from the words of Srila Prabhupada. Of course, if one’s motivation is already pure, as with the case of Bhaktivinode, then that’s different. Varnashrama is not necessary for liberated souls- it is artificial for them to see in terms of duality, and they have no need for it.

    As explained before, varnashrama helps the conditioned soul out of the propensity
    to deceive others into thinking one is a very advanced devotee. That is the falsity anartha- kutinati. It helps one overcome pratistha- the desire to be honored- because while internally one cultivates pure devotional service- externally one appears ordinary- at least in terms of occupation. And if varnashrama is in a rural setting, one is associating as much as possible with the mode of goodness, which is conducive to spiritual awareness. So while varnashrama is not transcendental, it is an aid to the transcendental process of devotional service. Chanting must go on, says Srila Prabhupada, but since we cannot chant like Haridas Thakura- with purity- then there is falldown, then there is the need to be truthful with oneself and the world, and while chanting, appear as very ordinary externally…

    Essentially varnashrama is karma yoga, which leads assuredly to perfection of bhakti yoga- our desired goal. Thus even if one externally remains a worker one’s whole life, one can become perfect- by dovetailing that work for Krishna and His devotees.