By Niscala Dasi
Varnashrama is often equated with self-sufficiency, yet it is much more than that, providing a paradigm wherein many of our current problems, plaguing us since our inception, find their solution. Currently being discussed on the internet is the problem of brahmacaris neglecting their future careers, and thereby entering the grhastha ashrama, unprepared. Coincidentally this is being discussed in two different forums- hence emphasizing the seriousness of the situation. It was observed that when brahmacaris neglect their careers, they often cannot afford child support when the marriage splits- which often happens because we also do not teach that love is so important in the family. Because they cannot afford child support payments, due to not having a decent career, the issue often ends up in the courts- which is really bad for our reputation, what to speak of not pleasing Srila Prabhupada.
The varnashrama paradigm is very different to our current situationâ€¦ During brahmacarya, the student is observed very carefully, and his desires, talents and propensities are considered, and then he is advised to get training accordingly- in one of the four varnas.
ISKCON can provide training for brahmanas provided that we teach the value of honesty, the most basic and essential brahminical principle. There is philosophical honesty, which has two parts- 1) theoretical philosophical honesty- which is to argue cogently, with reason, thus establishing the truth of an argument and 2) practical philosophical honesty- which is to use the philosophy in a way that allows people to be themselves, without fear of judgement and condemnation. If instead we model pretense, in Srila Prabhupadaâ€™s coinage â€śshowbottle spiritualityâ€ť, then our brahmanas might as well be trained in philosophy at a university- at least they will learn to argue cogently, and convince with reason.
In these ways, ISKCON can provide training if the brahmacari is sure that he only wants to maintain a family the brahminical way- through teaching practical applications of the philosophy. As far as other varnas are concerned, brahmacaris can attend university or technical colleges, according to their propensities. In Canberra, Australia, they have Indian brahmacaris studying at university and living at the temple. They can either pay rent if they have time to work part-time, or they may prefer to do service.
We must remember that brahmacari does not mean sannyasi- he is renounced, but often not planning for permanent renunciation. Brahmacari also does not mean brahmana- he may be interested in the philosophy, but more suited to work that is not directly teaching it. Or he may be interested in the philosophy, but unable to follow all the brahminical principles. That situation includes most of those who join us- we should make facility for it, not pretend that we just chant Hare Krsna, and close our eyes and all problems will vanish like magic. Srila Prabhupada chanted Hare Krsna too, but he observed this problem- with open eyes- and recommended varnashrama. Let brahmacaris (and brahmacarinis) decide on their varna, and get trained in it. They can also distribute books to their friends at college, or during their holidays.
Faith and the Air-Borne Child
The temple presidents in our movement would probably not like such a situation, as they may think “if we encourage all brahmacaris to get training for their future careers, then less books will go out, and therefore there will be less money for the temple programs”â€¦
My answer to them is as follows …
1) Srila Prabhupada set the example of doing what is right, and leaving the results in Krsna’s hands, having faith that He will always protect us if we take risks on His behalf. We cannot please Krsna while we neglect the instructions of His pure devotee…So we must ask ourselves “Do we have only a lip-service attitude to our faith in Srila Prabhupada- proclaiming it, but not really feeling it?” If we do have faith, then we cannot help but show it. Faith means a leap in the dark, a leap into the unknown. Itâ€™s like a child laughing when his parents throw him up in the air- his carefree attitude is because he has utmost faith that his parents will catch him!
Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain
2) Letting devotees follow their propensity and getting training for it, means that they are naturally situated in whatever work they are best suited for; work that they are happy to engage in their whole lives. That means a vast reduction in the numbers of devotees leaving ISKCON to do other stuff- they can do their “other stuff” in ISKCON! What this translates to, in strictly financial terms, is instead of a few devotees giving out books full-time, and often getting stressed and burnt-out in the process, you have a huge number of devotees giving out books part-time and in natural spontaneous ways- sharing them with friends and associates. You also have, in financial terms, a devotee community that is capable of donating to the temple programs. This is already happening in the Indian congregation. They did not spend their student life in full-time book sales, but mainly in studying, and now they can not only donate to the temple, but also support book distribution is respectable ways, amongst colleagues…
So Srila Prabhupada’s recommendation is not even a “leap in the dark” but has already been shown to work much better than the current ISKCON model (how many of our Indian congregation â€śbloopâ€ť- never to be seen again?) It is natural, and therefore it uproots the anarthas of falsity and pretense, mentioned in Caitanya Caritamrita. Srimad Bhagavatam was spoken specifically for those who are â€śthoroughly honestâ€ť. Apart from greatly advanced avadhutas, many of the great souls mentioned in that literature, followed their duties in varnashrama- as well as the author! Only those who are beyond any influence of the modes of nature, need give up varnashrama, and even then they often do not, as it is a vehicle for serviceâ€¦
The Self-Sufficiency Insufficiency
Varnashrama, therefore, does not mean just self-sufficiency, as some think. It is not a synonym for life on a farm- it can happen anywhere there are people interested to become devotees. Of course, at a farm, the training is much simpler, as is the lifestyle. That does not mean that ksatriyas should not take advantage of management courses- currently much of what is considered â€śmanagementâ€ť is the people-skills necessary for a ksatriya to be respected and appreciated. Devotees will willingly and joyfully serve a person who is always enquiring about their welfare, and doing everything to help them be happy, and grow in Krsna Consciousness.
From Care-Borne to Air-Borne
If in the community, love and honesty between the devotees is stressed, then naturally when two devotees join forces and become married, they will be loving and respectful, and the likelihood of divorce is much reduced. It is not enough to make child abuse unacceptable- one must foster that healthy dynamic which creates an atmosphere in which such exploitation cannot take place. If we respect the uniqueness of each person that joins us, working out how we can engage them so that they are most joyful by nurturing their natural talents â€“ we will also respect the uniqueness of each devotee born into our movement.
If, on the other hand, we have a mood of exploitation, even for â€śKrsnaâ€™s serviceâ€ť, towards those innocent souls who are attracted to our movement, then our children will also be abused, as they are in the same categoryâ€¦It is the ksatriyaâ€™s responsibility, given in the sastra, to make sure that no one in his â€śkingdomâ€ť or precinct, suffers in any way, even mentally. He is that person who has the most people-skills- or willing to learn them!
It is clear from the Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagavatam, that varnashrama is a very loving and non-judgmental dynamic- in Dwaraka even the prostitutes were respected! When the religious become steeped in self-righteous condemnation of others, they do more to further the cause of atheism, than if they took to a full-time career of disproving God. We do not have prostitutes joining us, generally, but we do have couples and others who sometimes fail the â€śno illicit sexâ€ť principle strictly. If even a prostitute can be a respected devotee of the Lord, what to speak of a devoted couple, fully dedicated to the Lordâ€™s service? What to speak of a fully devoted gay couple?
Varnashrama needs to be there, so that everyone can be a devotee of the Lord, who wants to be, be included in a community of devotees, be engaged in service that is pleasing and natural, be able to support their families- and the temple, and thrive in an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciationâ€¦despite their differences. Of course, it may be argued that all of the above can be cultivated without varnashrama, which is a circular argument, because all of the above means that there is the varnashrama dynamic in place, whether we call it that or not.