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Varnashrama as a means to freedom

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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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