Do We Transcend Varnashrama?
Posted October 26, 2009
Interesting things have happened to me since presenting my book Varnashrama, the Eight-petalled Lotus. I entered a varnashrama discussion forum, a group of devotees obviously very keen on introducing varnashrama within our movement. However, only a portion of Srila Prabhupada's instructions on the matter was being presented — specifically the portion in which he stressed that even within a varnashrama structure, we are all Vaishnavas, and that we are only playing the part of sudras, vaisyas and so on to set a precedent for general society to follow. After all, since we are Vaishnavas, we are transcendental to varnashrama.
In another conversation, however, Srila Prabhupada offers a very different viewpoint, citing a Caitanya-Caritamrta verse: "It is the living entity's constitutional position to be an eternal servant of Krishna" (C.C., Madhya 20.108). Prabhupada declared that he wanted everyone to become a Vaishnava, but that one must overcome the bodily conception to gradually develop such a pure consciousness: "For one who's a shudra, it is not possible to come immediately to the platform of brahmana or Vaishnava."
Varnashram-dharma, he said, should be established to become a Vaishnava, but it is not easy to become a Vaishnava, he cautioned: "If to become a Vaishnava is so easy, why do so many fall down? If we just dress like a Vaishnava, that is falldown." Here we see Srila Prabhupada giving his reasons for wanting varnashrama within ISKCON: that we are falling down from brahminical principles. He also states that following such principles is not actually necessary, as one can be a Vaishnava from any position and become perfect: "In varnashram, not everybody is a brahmana. Why should a shudra artificially be a brahmana? Let him remain a shudra, and if he follows strictly the rules and regulation for a shudra, he'll also be as good as a brahmana." The only forbidden thing is falsity. It isn't required to maintain 'showbottle' standards; indeed, it is ludicrous. It is much more important to be true to ourselves.
Herein he resolves the original controversy that prompted this article. In the forum, there was the one-sided viewpoint that we do not need varnashrama for ourselves per se, as Vaishnavas are transcendental — so therefore Srila Prabhupada only wanted us to pretend to engage in it, to give an example for others. In fact, however, we do need to follow it, for our own integrity's sake, because following artificially a higher standard than we are capable of will never lead us to perfection: "It's not that a shudra by force becomes a brahmana. You cannot improve him; that is not possible. But even if he remains a shudra and does accordingly, he will get the same position as a devotee."
He resolves the apparent contradiction by explaining that in our movement everyone is essentially a Vaishnava, even if on the material platform one happens to be a certain varna. It is said that to view a Vaishnava in terms of his caste or varna is offensive. Whether following up to the standard of the brahmanas or not, he is a Vaishnava and is due all respect, and to view or treat him as anything less is offensive.
Citing a Bhagavad-gita verse, Prabhupada pointed out that high standards or not, a Vaishnava has only one aim in life: to realize his connection with the Supreme Lord, to establish that connection and, ultimately, to serve in that capacity: "By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, one can attain perfection through performing his own work" (Bg. 18.46). All this must be taken into account if we are to avoid the anarthas of pretense (kutinati), the ambition to achieve a position of power over others (pratistha), and the tendency to exploit and disrespect workers (bhutesu baddha-vairasya).
If we adopt the attitude that brahmanas are superior to sudras, then we have the caste system, the very antithesis of our philosophy. Srila Prabhupada, however, points out: "The leg is not less important than the head. If you ask the head to do the work of a leg, it is impossible, and if you ask the leg to work as a brain, it is impossible. Let one remain the brain, let another remain the leg. Do your duty and you become perfect."
If we simply label people artificially, then we have depersonalization. Varnashrama, like most brilliant creations, can be used to harm or to benefit. The history of India gives us ample instances of the harm. Let us now show the world the immense benefit that is only possible by uniting it with our philosophy: "As the blazing fire of death, I cause great fear to whoever makes the least discrimination between living entities because of a differential outlook. Therefore, through charitable gifts and attention, as well as through friendly behaviour and by viewing all to be alike, one should propitiate Me, who abides in all creatures as their very Self." (Srimad Bhagavatam 3.29.26-27)