We Are Not Ready for Varna-ashrama Dharma Yet
By Kesava Krsna Dasa
We are mostly theory driven when attempting to implement ancient social systems into a kali-yuga world. Now, any notion of “caste” divisions and keeping women confined to homes, will be seen as further adding to the repression of vulnerable sections of society. Is society ready for such “extreme” social engineering? In terms of preaching, a definite practical stance is required.
Srila Prabhupada was practical; otherwise, he might have focused more on setting up VAD divisions and so on. When he said that his unfinished work was the development of daivi-varnasrama, he knew it would come later. But for us, how much later… a few generations from now? Meanwhile, our womenfolk could have doubts about their “limited” roles in society.
And while we quote Sri Narada Muni, Manu Samhita and other authentications, our women observers will wonder about their “restricted” positions in our future scenario. For instance, the wearing of the burka and demurred womanly status in Islam, is a highly unpopular concept in Islam and the West. This does not bode well for societal integration of Muslims, and aids in alienation from mainstream society.
Is there a possibility that if we push similarly restrictive roles for women at this very early stage of our own barely new societal acceptance, that we’ll be alienated as intended “repressors?” Of course, we know the ideals, but they are still odd-box for heavily conditioned people in general. For many women who have studied and prospered, these “quaint” ancient traditions appear irrelevant and repressive.
While the momentum of varnasrama theory gathers pace, they can be set as blueprints for eventuality. If we persist with this prematurely, it is certain not to be attractive, accept for a few. The relevance of Srila Prabhupada’s practicality of spreading the holy name will be true for a while more yet. Besides, our hospitality and internal standards have to be relevant as well.
The easiest places to start attempting implementation would be our temples, communities and cities like Mayapura. Even so, there has to be a wholesale acceptance of its principles, and this is in doubt considering the progressive or traditionalist approaches to womanhood within Iskcon. With these diverse social anticipations, it is understandable why the practice of VAD is difficult. Before it is put into practice, it has to be relevant.
We know this is far from relevant within modern society now – as far as awareness goes. It is hardly relevant to us members of Iskcon too, except in theory. Then what are the chances of immediate implementation of VAD? For these reasons we still have to present a pragmatic, “modern” Iskcon that is attractive and meaningful.
We already have a history of uncertainty for our womenfolk, and it continues today. If women in general want real protection – and we know how theoretically to provide it – then our social remedies may cause more doubt than certainty, at face value. Can we envision our devotee parents whose daughters have spent years studying at great expense, to confine them to the required homely existence? If it works then…?
On a practical level it appears that, in principle, those devotees residing in ashramas learning to become brahmanas, or are conducting deity worship, and the sannyasis who travel, should be the theoretical brahmanas. But this is obviously not the full picture because householder brahmanas work for a living, and do deity worship at the temple or at home. By definition, a brahmanas is not supposed to be under the employ of lower status people… and so the complications arise.
Also by definition, the above theoretical brahmanas should abide by their dharma. They shouldn’t be allowed to fix temple cars and do laundry. But if they are vaisnavas then they can cross the varnas. Do we have a distinction between brahmana and vaisnava status? Once we can determine the true status of theoretical brahmanas, then the other orders would naturally apply to the rest of the congregation.
Among our theoretical brahmanas, not all of them will stay, or have the capacity to study Sastra as required. True brahmanas are quite rare. The question of lifelong commitment – as being born into parental varna – or adaptation through inclination will further complicate matters. This is why ideally, the merits of VAD have to be ingrained within the psyche, and this can take time.
Many brahmana devotees live outside of the temple and are obliged to earn a livelihood under lower conditions. Does this make them unbrahminical or below vaisnava status? With these expected complications, it opposes the simplicity of the Krishna consciousness many are familiar with. But it has to be done, but not yet.
There is a better chance of VAD being practiced in India, once the stigma of the caste system is overcome. Indian society is also convivial to progressive Western norms. If it is imposing in India, then even our farm communities in the West will present difficulties of acceptance. In any case, the female doubts will have to be allayed, and in the present climate, this is unlikely on a wide scale.
One could think that if we had a whole village, town or country to ourselves, we could begin something. But again, under present societal conditions, some attempts could be met with a violent backlash. Can we imagine telling certain communities to relocate to areas outside Varna boundaries because they won’t stop eating meat, and the activities associated with it? These potential problems can be dealt with if a government has VAD credentials in place, along with ksatriya law and order to apply.
When such people are seen to be adjusting to society against their will, then economic sanctions and other UN privileges could be withdrawn and so on. Such a VAD system might be given pariah status to be isolated internationally. “Oh well… now we can be become self-sufficient…” A mighty high-tech defence force will be needed to defend interests, otherwise look what happened to Tibet. Do we have blueprints for these eventualities?
Until such a time, it seems wise to continue as we have been, but in more refined ways. Shouldn’t all women be encouraged to continue their career plans, and wherever possible, use their expertise and influence to further our preaching without feeling inhibited by theories yet to work at the present? When there is eventually a general acceptance of VAD values, hopefully by which time, our womenfolk will see the merits of a women’s place in society, they will oblige happily.
VAD is a “radical” solution to the arrangement of modern society, and it should not create doubts. This requires a radical acceptance that could take generations to adjust, depending on our practical applications of it. Society has to be ready for it. While the theory is worked out, are we ready ourselves?
Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa – GRS