Sanga: Varnasrama, Bhakti, and Vaishnavi Gurus


Q. What role does varnasrama dharma play in the bhakti tradition of Sri Caitanya?

A. From the Caitanya Vaishnava perspective, varnasrama and bhakti are distinct paths. Varnasrama is concerned with dharma (religiosity), artha (economic development), kama (sense enjoyment), and ultimately moksa (self-realization)—from morality to mukti. Bhakti, on the other hand, is not concerned with the desire for any of these four goals. It is concerned only with prema, ecstatic love of God (Krishna), within which self-realization is a by-product.

Indeed, the principal Caitanya Vaishnava texts repeatedly deprecate desires for any of these goals because they understand them to be impediments to attaining prema bhakti. The Bhagavad-gita makes this point in its concluding words, sarva dharman parityaja mam ekam saranam vraja. Here Krishna says that one should forego the path of dharma (another name for the path of varnasrama) and take refuge in him through engagement in Krishna bhakti. The Srimad Bhagavatam says the same thing at its onset: dharma projjita kaitavo ‘tra. It tells us that the text of the Bhagavata has nothing to do with varnasrama. Sri Chaitanya-caritamrta echoes these two earlier texts when it states that desire for dharma, artha, kama, or moksa constitute “cheating,” ajnana-tamera nama kahiye ‘kaitava’dharma-artha-kama-moksa-vancha adi saba: “The darkness of ignorance is called kaitava, the way of cheating, which begins with religiosity, economic development, sense gratification, and liberation.”

Furthermore, the Bhagavatam repeats this idea again and again and develops it considerably. Ultimately it showcases the milkmaidens of Vraja as the highest ideal of Krishna bhakti in the context of their violating the laws of varnasrama in the most extreme manner. This is the climax of the entire text. In the Srimad Bhagavatam the dharma or karma marga of varnasrama is replaced with paro dharma, or prema dharma. The moral law of the dominate socio-religious system, with all its restraints, is replaced with the guidelines of the bhakti marga, thus opening the realm of ecstatic love of God to all and making the Bhagavatam a veritable New Testament of the East.

Sri Rupa Goswami also begins his treatise on uttama bhakti, Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, with the same emphasis when he writes that the path of bhakti is not “covered” by the karma/dharma marga-karmady anavrtam.1 His idea is that forgoing the strictures of varnashrama should not be thought of as a fault for those engaged in Krishna bhakti. If one thinks that bhakti’s efficacy is dependent on adherence to varnasrama, one’s bhakti is “covered by karma.” In other words, the requisite faith in the efficacy of bhakti herself required for treading the path of uttama bhakti is lacking in one who thinks that without adherence to varnasrama dharma, bhakti in and of herself will be incomplete.

Q. Thakura Bhaktivinoda writes about “Daiva varnasrama.” Can you comment on this concept?

A. Bhaktivinoda coined this phrase in an effort to right the wrongs of varnasrama abuse. Such abuses centered on a determination of varna strictly on the basis of one’s birth, which resulted in a class of brahmanas who held a monopoly on religious blessings, even when such brahmanas’ personal conduct was often irreligious. Daiva varnasrama, by contrast, speaks of a determination of one’s position in society/varna and the realm of religion/ashrama on the basis of one’s qualities and actions, as opposed to merely one’s birth in a particular family.

Also central to daiva varnasrama is the idea that Vishnu bhakti is the goal of life and thus Vaishnavas directly pursuing this ideal are above the varnasrama system. They are brahmanas in essence and more. Thus a varnasrama system that determines varna by a person’s qualities and actions and also respects bhakti is a daiva varnasrama socio-religious system. Bhaktivinoda Thakura considered the opposite of this system, where varna is determined solely on the basis of birth and Vaishnavas are considered to be without any varna and thus spiritually inferior to varnasrama brahmanas, a form of adaiva varnashrama.

During the time of Bhaktivinoda, smarta brahmanas, who considered Advaita Vedanta’s understanding of moksa to be the highest ideal, ruled the Hindu religious life of Bengal. They identified varna, and thus social interaction and religious privilege, on the basis of birth, and they taught that one must first take birth in a brahmana family and in that life also embrace sannyasa in order to attain enlightenment. Thus they had little regard for the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, who mixed freely with one another regardless of birth on the basis of their mutual faith in bhakti and who held prema bhakti as the highest spiritual ideal.

At Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s request, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati took steps to speak out against adaiva varnashrama. One way he did this was by instituting the upanayana ritual in conjunction with giving Vaishnava initiation. The upanayana ritual involves imparting the Gayatri mantra and the sacred thread to brahmana boys, which in turn qualifies them to learn ritualistic procedures and ultimately administer such procedures themselves—to take up the occupation of a priest and conduct varnasrama rituals. This is the heart of the varnasrama initiation ritual.

Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati gave the Gayatri mantra, which also has deeper Vaishnava implications, and the sacred thread, to his male disciples along with the Vaishnava initiation mantras, which he gave to his female disciples as well. He did this to say in a visible manner that Vaishnavas are at least brahmanas and thus should be respected by all members of the varnasrama society, a social and religious status in society that Gaudiya Vaishnavas did not enjoy at the time. He also did this in an effort to encourage his students as to the nature of their initiation and the path of bhakti as well as to stop members of the varnasrama community from offending Vaishnavas by thinking less of them. This procedure of course was also intended to state publicly that prema bhakti was the highest ideal, one that lies beyond the purview of varnasrama dharma.

It is worth noting that Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati instituted this to make a point that previously was made by Gaudiya Vaishnavas in the opposite manner. Bhaktivinoda Thakura himself is the prime example. He did not wear the sacred thread. Indeed, the dominant trend among Gaudiya Vaishnava initiates, following a tradition of hundreds of years, was that upon receiving Vaishnava initiation, initiates who had previously received the sacred thread within varnasrama dharma took off the thread upon receiving Gaudiya Vaishnava initiation. This was thought to be a way of saying that Vaishnava initiation transcended the jurisdiction of varnasrama.

The difference between these two approaches to accomplishing the same task lies in Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s effort to bring Gaudiya Vaishnavism into mainstream society. At that time Gaudiya Vaishnavism was marginalized from mainstream society and Gaudiya Vaishnavas resided primarily in the holy dhamas. On the order of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati made efforts to establish places of worship and centers of Gaudiya Vaishnava culture in urban India. Not only did he want to say that Gaudiya Vaishnavism transcends the jurisdiction of varnasrama dharma, he also wanted to expose the misconception of adaiva varnasrama, which was prevalent in mainstream society.

Despite these two different approaches, one thing is crystal clear. Receiving the sacred thread and participating in the upanayana ritual is not inherently part of Gaudiya Vaishnava initiation. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s combining of the upanayana ritual with the imparting of Vaishnava initiation was based to some extent on Gopala Bhatta Goswami’s Sat Kriya Sar Dipika.2 However, this manual, as explained by the author himself, was written for Gaudiya Vaishnava householders who were already initiated and had thus received the appropriate Vaishnava mantras.

The innovations and bold preaching of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati aside, Thakura Bhaktivinoda’s daiva varnasrama is well grounded in the text of Srimad Bhagavatam. While the Bhagavata is one-pointed in replacing varnasrama dharma with prema dharma, it nonetheless speaks of a form of varnasrama dharma that is dependent on bhakti, as well as a varna system that is not exclusively determined by birth.

In the first canto we learn that varnasrama dharma is considered a waste of time because in and of itself it does not awaken interest in Krishna, concerned as it is with many gods and goddesses, material advancement, and moksa.3 However, we do find that at least in a superficial sense varnasrama does sometimes awaken interest in Krishna and a semblance of bhakti. And the Bhagavata teaches that unless those on the path of varnasrama develop such interest in bhakti and attraction to Krishna, they will not be successful in fulfilling the material ambitions they seek. Thus some participants, realizing they will not acquire the result they seek through varnasrama dharma without bhakti, develop a mere shadow of Krishna bhakti for the purpose of material acquisition. Only those who do so are successful, while others merely waste their time.

However, varnashrama can also be participated in for spiritual emancipation rather than for material gain. This is done by following the duties of varnasrama dharma with enlightenment as one’s goal, without attachment to the incidental fruits that accrue as a result of following the system’s guidelines. Is this also a waste of time? The Bhagavata teaches that although self/atma knowledge does accrue through niskama karma, or detached action within varnasrama dharma, actual realization of Brahman is only possible with the help of some form of bhakti.4

In the seventh canto we find a more detailed description of varnasrama dharma. Therein the qualities and duties the four varnas and ashrams are listed. At the end of the description of the symptoms of the varnas we find the following verse:

“If one exhibits the symptoms of one of the varnas described earlier, even if that person has appeared in a different varna, he or she should be designated according to the symptoms exhibited.”5

Thus the Bhagavata describes a form of varnashrama dependent on bhakti for its efficacy, as well as a varnasrama dharma in which varna is not determined solely on the basis of one’s birth. This is a very different varnasrama dharma from the adaivic varnasrama in which bhakti is not understood to be required for the system to be efficacious and one’s varna is set in stone at birth.

Such daiva varnasrama has been designed by Krishna himself even while he states that one cannot attain him by it. And he has thus emphasized forgoing it and treading the path of bhakti.6 It is a form of dharma designed for those who do not yet have faith in uttama bhakti. It organizes society in consideration of the psycho-physiological makeup of its members and assigns duties accordingly in pursuit of material well-being. It also promotes religious life by establishing four ashramas, or stations of life, to be embraced at different times as one’s life progresses. Thus it seeks material psychological balance, or horizontal growth, as well as spiritual upliftment, or vertical growth, by way of teaching that one’s progress in any field is dependent on the satisfaction of God.

Thakura Visvanatha Chakravarti comments that those cultivating pure bhakti should not attend to the karmic duties of varnasrama. However, it is possible for devotees, especially householder devotees living within a varnasrama social system, to do so without attachment to these duties so as not to unnecessarily disturb the social environment.7 Varnasrama dharma does not give bhaktiparo dharma—but it is possible that its adherents may at some point be fortunate to meet a realized Vaishnava and through such association develop faith in uttama bhakti.8

My guru, the most venerable A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, felt that the world would be better off if its present-day social systems were replaced with varnasrama dharma’s socio-religious system. He also felt that varnasrama sensibilities could prove useful in engaging students in bhakti in consideration of their psychological and physical makeup. He expressed concern that those following Sri Caitanya on the bhakti marga, which leaves varnasrama behind, may not be following it that closely, and in such circumstances they would do well to get support from varnasrama’s emphasis on morality. This sensibility was also shared by Thakura Bhaktivinoda. Seeing persons forego the prevailing varnasrama dharma and immaturely adopt renounced life and babaji vesa only to succumb to moral impropriety in the name of treading the bhakti marga, the Thakura felt that such persons should have remained householders within daiva varnasrama and from there pursued bhakti. We should note that this idea more or less echoes the words of Krishna himself, “As long as one is not satiated by fruitive activity and has not awakened faith in the efficacy bhakti, one has to act according to varnasrama dharma.”9 However, Srila Prabhupada also acknowledged the following: “Unfortunately, the varnasrama dharma system has been lost.… Although we may try to revive the perfect varnasrama system, it is not possible in this age.”10 And Sri Krishna’s statement, of course, applies to a varnasrama society that does not exist today. Thus for the most part we are left with hearing and chanting about Krishna, with moral support derived from sadhu sanga, increasing taste for bhakti, and the rejection of all that is unfavorable to the culture of bhakti.

But can one not perform dharma, artha, and kama as service to Krishna and in this way mix varnasrama and bhakti? Not quite. Sri Krishna tells Uddhava, a person with natural faith should constantly hear topics about me, should sing and remember me which purifies the world, and enact my exploits and birth. He should perform dharma, kama, and artha as service to me. Having taken shelter of me, he will attain permanent bhakti to me, whose form is permanent.” Sri Visvanatha Chakravarti comments on these two important verses thus:

“For serving me, one should perform dharma—giving cloth and food to brahmanas and Vaishnavas on my birthday or on days for worshipping guru, who is also my svarupa. One should perform kama, acts for oneself, in the form of obtaining prasadam, garlands, sandalwood, betel nut, and cloth from the assembly of Vaishnavas. One should perform artha, collecting items for service to Vishnu and the devotees.” Such dharma, artha, and kama is nothing but bhakti herself, not varnasrama dharma.11 Choosing to refer to this approach as daiva varnasrama for the sake of preaching is not objectionable.

Q. Some say that on the basis of varnasrama considerations, Gaudiya Vaishnava women cannot serve as gurus in the lineage. Can you comment on this? 

A. Unfortunately, some Gaudiya Vaishnavas today mistakenly think that the imparting of the sacred thread and gayatri mantra is essential to Gaudiya Vaishnava initiation. Because these are typically not given to women, they believe that female Gaudiya Vaishnava initiates are only “half-initiated,” and thus restricted in terms of the measure of their participation in Gaudiya Vaishnava ritual life. Furthermore, on the basis of this misunderstanding, they claim that female Gaudiya initiates cannot serve the community in the capacity of guru unless they are siddhas, while male initiates can serve in this capacity even when they are not siddhas. One wonders how one who is only half-initiated can ever attain the status of a siddha! Such distortions of Vaishnava dharma should be exposed for what they are. They constitute nothing more than the kind of bigotry found in adaiva varnasrama, and this led by persons born outside of the entire varnasrama system! This sexism also flies in the face of hundreds of years of precedent, in which we find many female Gaudiya Vaishnava gurus.

I have seen the following citation from the Agama texts and a particular translation of it cited in support of the idea that imparting the sacred thread is essential to Vaishnava initiation:

dvijanam anupetanam sva karma dhyayanadisu
yathadhikaro nastiha syac copanayanad anu
tathatradiksitanam tu mantra-devarsanadisu
nadhikaro ‘sty atah kuryad atmanam siva-samstutam


“Even though born in a brahmana family, one cannot engage in Vedic rituals without being initiated and having a sacred thread. Although born in a brahmana family, one becomes a brahmana only after initiation and the sacred thread ceremony. Unless one is initiated as a brahmana, one cannot worship the holy name properly.”

The above translation is Srila Prabhupada’s. He cites these two verses in his purport to Caitanya-caritamrita 2.15.108 to support the idea that despite the fact that harinama is independent of initiation in terms of its capacity to reveal itself, initiation is nonetheless mandatory for those engaged in nama-dharma. He adds his purport into his translation when he says, “Unless one is initiated as a brahmana, one cannot worship the holy name properly.” The “holy name” is not mentioned in these verses, nor is “brahmana initiation.” Nor is the upanayana ritual of varnashrama stated to be a prerequisite for worshiping Krishna, neither his name nor form. “Brahmana initiation,” however, is a term Srila Prabhupada used to refer to Gaudiya mantra diksa (Vaishnava initiation). In this he followed the system of Bhaktisiddhanta and called his initiated men and women disciples “brahmanas” and more. Thus in his translation he is merely saying that one must receive Vaishnava initiation in order to worship Krishna (who is nondifferent from his name) properly. And although these verses speak of arcana, or ritualistic deity worship, when studied in context, Srila Prabhupada has used them to refer to chanting harinama to further emphasize the point that Vaishnava initiation is essential.

Srila Prabhupada has taken these verses from Sri Jiva Goswami’s Bhakti-sandarbha.12 There Sri Jiva has cited them to stress that deity worship requires that one has received the appropriate Vaishnava mantra (initiation). A literal translation of the verses is telling:

Brahmanas who have not undergone the sacred thread ritual are not eligible to engage in the prescribed brahminical duties, such as study of the Vedas. They become eligible only after being invested with the power to do so through undergoing this ritual. Similarly, those (aspiring Vaishnavas) not yet initiated are not eligible to chant mantras and worship the deity. Therefore, one should make oneself fortunate by accepting (Vaishnava) initiation.

Sri Jiva Goswami explains that in context these verses tell us that just as brahmanas cannot perform Vedic rituals (which Vaishnavas are not interested in) without undergoing the upanayana ritual, similarly Vaishnavas cannot engage in deity worship (which, unlike Vedic rituals, is a principal limb of the body of bhakti) without receiving Vaishnava initiation, nor can they chant the initiation mantras before receiving them through the initiation ritual. The verses do not say that Vaishnavas must receive the sacred thread, as some have grossly misunderstood. With this misunderstanding, such persons think they have found support for their premise that women Vaishnava initiates cannot serve as Vaishnava gurus. They think that Vaishnava initiation in the full sense is dependent on receiving the sacred thread, and because women do not receive it, they are not even fully initiated themselves, what to speak of being qualified to bestow it upon would-be male disciples. I cite this misunderstanding as only one example of how some contemporary Gaudiyas conflate varnasrama with uttama bhakti in an effort to bar saintly Vaishnavis from the service of initiating disciples.

One who receives Vaishnava initiation is glorious. Such devotees are not bound by varnasrama considerations. To think that they are is to embrace a form of bhakti that is covered by consideration of the karma marga. This is not uttama bhakti as taught by Srila Rupa Goswamipada. Uttama bhakti is jnana karmady anavrtam, unencumbered by jnana, karma, yoga, or anything else. It is a completely independent path. While other paths are dependent on bhakti, bhakti herself is independent. If varnasrama dharma generated bhakti in its participants, the self-manifesting nature of bhakti would be compromised. Any initiated Gaudiya Vaishnava, regardless of race or gender, is perfectly equipped to pursue Krishna prema, and as much as any male members are qualified to initiate disciples, so too are any women members.

This is also the opinion of Srila Prabhupada, who stressed qualification, be one a man or woman.One may be less than a siddha, but without a reliable taste (ruci), one is not safe enough in spiritual life to help others without some risk to one’s own spiritual well-being and subsequently the spiritual well-being of disciples. To serve as guru one should have a taste for bhakti, the medicine of sadhana having transformed into one’s favorite food, and have comprehensive knowledge of tattva, krsna tattva vetti.

Srila Prabhupada states, “In our material world, is there any prohibition that a woman cannot become professor? If she is qualified, she can become professor. What is the wrong there? She must be qualified. That is the position. So similarly, if the woman understands Krishna consciousness perfectly, she can become guru.”13 Pujyapada Sridhara Deva Goswami concurs. When asked if women can be gurus he replied, “Yes, if she sincerely feels that she can help others, she may.”14

  1. Brs. 1.1.11. []
  2. This book was written for Gaudiya Vaishnava householders, both those living within or outside of a varnashrama socio-religious system. It describes ritual observances for marriages, funerals, name-giving ceremonies, the sacred thread ceremony, etc., all of which parallel the same ritual procedures found in varnashrama. The difference in the ritual procedure, however, is that Gopala Bhatta Goswami has adjusted the rituals so that they are all oriented towards Vishnu bhakti by way of eliminating the propitiating of other gods and goddesses and replacing it with worship of Vishnu. Thus he has provided varnasrama-like rituals for Gaudiya Vaishnavas for these common household observances. []
  3. SB 1.2.8. See also the commentary of Visvanatha Chakravarti Thakura. []
  4. SB 10.14.4, 1.5.12, and 1.5.17. []
  5. SB 7.11.35 []
  6. In Bg. 4.13 Sri Krishna says that he created the system of varnashrama (srstam kartaram). However, in this verse he also states that he has nothing to do with it (akartaram). Furthermore, the entire Bhagavad-gita is a concerted effort on Krishna’s part to awaken faith in the efficacy of bhakti, and thus it is about foregoing varnasramajnanayoga, etc. and dedicating oneself exclusively to bhakti. []
  7. Sarartha-darsini tika on SB 7.15.2. The spirit overall is that while the two, bhakti and varnasrama, can coexist, whenever the absolute consideration of bhakti comes into conflict with the relative consideration of varnasrama, the latter should be transcended with adherence to the former. We find this example in the lila of Sri Caitanya, which appears in the context of a varnasrama social-religious system. []
  8. SB 11.20.11. []
  9. SB 11.20.9. []
  10. Teachings of Lord Kapila, verse 14. []
  11. There is a type of “varnasrama dasyam,” in which the auspicious duties corresponding with one’s nature/varna within varnasrama dharma are offered to Krishna. However, Rupa Goswami does not accept such offerings as angas of bhakti and thus does not consider this an expression of uttama bhakti. It is an example of bhakti covered by karma. See Brs. 1.2.185-186 and the commentaries of Jiva Goswami and Visvanatha Chakravarti. []
  12. Bs 283. []
  13. Interview 6/18/76. In this interview Srila Prabhupada says that the standard for men and women is the same. He stresses comprehensive knowledge of Krishna tattva. []
  14. Conversation 8/05/81 []

About the Author

22 Responses to Sanga: Varnasrama, Bhakti, and Vaishnavi Gurus

  1. Thank you so much for this, Swami Tripurari! This is the essential understanding. Regarding who is qualified to serve as guru, Mahaprabhu told Ramananda Raya, “yei krsna tattva vetta, sei guru haya“: Whoever understands Krishna in truth is guru. Srila Prabhupada also said this:

    Prof. O’Connell: Is it possible, Swamiji, for a woman to be a guru in the line of disciplic succession?

    Prabhupada: Yes. Jahnava-devi was Nityananda’s wife. She became. If she is able to go to the highest perfection of life, why it is not possible to become guru? But, not so many. Actually one who has attained the perfection, she can become guru. But man or woman, unless one has attained the perfection…. Yei krsna-tattva-vetta sei guru haya. The qualification of guru is that he must be fully cognizant of the science of Krsna. Then he or she can become guru. Yei krsna-tattva-vetta, sei guru haya. In our material world is it any prohibition that woman cannot become professor? If she is qualified, she can become professor. What is the wrong there? She must be qualified. That is the position. So similarly, if the woman understands Krsna consciousness perfectly, she can become guru.” (Conversation 6/18/76)

    • Thank you Maharaja. There does seem to be a lot of confusion out and about on the issues discussed in the article. And the issues are fundamental ones and thus very important to understand. One of the major thrusts of Srimad Bhagavatam is to distinguish varnasrama dharma from bhakti and advocate the latter. Even while it dedicates several chapters in the seventh canto to explaining the duties, etc, of varnasrama, it does so only to contrast it with bhakti and awaken faith in her that one might forego varnasarma. And the milk maidens of Vraja are of course showcased as the ideal of devotion.

  2. Gaudiya Vaishnavas seem to have no problem applying varnashrama indiscriminately when it comes to matters of parentage, race, nationality and so on, but trouble still emerges in the matter of gender–women and gender minorities such as gay people. I wonder how much of this is just a matter of social and spiritual evolvement and whether or not Gaudiyas will one day be just as indiscriminate toward gender as they are with parentage, etc.

  3. That this issue is even an issue reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic definition of uttama bhakti as defined by Sri Rupa in Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu (1.1.11) as well as a misunderstanding of the qualification for serving as a guru. Hopefully this article will educate the devotees so they will not perpetuate such misunderstandings.

  4. Thank you, Citta Hari. That is precisely the point, isn’t it? You’ve boiled it down to its essence in one sentence. mitam ca saram ca vaco hi vagmita.

  5. This is quite a long piece so I will have to take it in increments and respond as such.

    Re: ” Bhakti, on the other hand, is not concerned with the desire for any of these four goals. It is concerned only with prema, ecstatic love of God (Krishna), within which self-realization is a by-product.”

    It is true that in Gita Krishna instructs us, “Manusyanam sahasreshu..”, , “out of thousands who become perfect, hardly one knows Me in truth..”.

    However, to say that self-realization is a by-product of ecstatic love of God……… I would be more inclined to say that self realization is incomplete without ecstatic love of God. And further that real self-realization is ecstatic love of God, i.e., that real self-realization and ecstatic love of God are inseparably one and the same thing.

    I believe that I understand the intention behind the above statement, viz., to indicate that if we are persuing self-realization without aspiring for pure bhakti, this is an aspect of kaitava dharma, self-centered aspiration. Whereas if we are aspiring for pure love of God and achieve it by grace, liberation from material entanglement will come unsought, without separate endeavor.

    Re: “Sri Rupa Goswami also begins his treatise on uttama bhakti, ……….. His idea is that forgoing the strictures of varnashrama should not be thought of as a fault for those engaged in Krishna bhakti.”

    I do understand that prema bhakti can stand independent of varnashram consideration, and that for the purpose of this discussion it is meaningful to present such conclusions with their references. Still I believe it may be also important to point out that the advice of Krishna in Sri Brahma Samhita is to perform all of his duties of creation (his prescribed job/ocupation) in a spirit of devotion in order to become perfect.

    In other words, as Krishna says in Gita, “All that you do should be done as an offering to Me.” Along this line, we can recall that when Arjuna takes up his bow in response to “sarva dharman parityagya, mam ekam saranam braja”, he is not engaging in rasa-lila. He is working in this world in a seemingly very worldly way, but doing so on behalf of Krishna, under the order of Krishna. Generally we refer to pure devotional service as consisting of the 9 forms indicated by Prahlad Maharaja. But certainly working in this world under the order of Sri Guru is as good as working directly under the order of Krishna – pure devotional service.

    And this “under the order of Krishna” is a very important aspect of devotional service. This is because we have observed devotees who have, on the plea of bhakti being independent of social considerations (dharma), engaged in all manner of asocial (criminal) interaction, without the blessings of sri guru. Therefore although bhakti stands independent of varnashram considerations, one should only proceed with the blessings of the bonafide acharya for guidance in activities enacted on this earthly plane.

    The spirit of my comments is not to disagree with what is being put forward in this discourse, but only to add a few discriminations and precautions that may have been omitted as extraneous to the overall intention of the speaker’s remarks.


    • “All that you do should be done as an offering to Me.” There is an important difference between this idea and suddha bhakti, and both ideas are mentioned in the Gita. In suddha bhakti we first offer ourselves to guru and Krsna. Then we do whatever is expected of us in their service. In other words, we offer ourselves rather than the things that we do. This constitutes a change of identity from the get go.Then the things we do are part of having offered ourselves. And among the nine limbs of bhakti padasevanam includes serving the guru and sadhus, doing their bidding.

      Regarding Brahma in his samhita, BVT considers his work with regard to creation gauna vritti bhakti, indirect bhakti. I suppose it could also be seen as niskama karma yoga in which the fruits of one’s actions are offered to Bhagavan that in turn can lead to suddha bhakti. Visvanatha Cakravarti refers to this as pradhani bhuta bhakti, whether it is jnana or karma “predominated by bhakti.”

      But I would consider one engaged by a Vaisnava sadhu in tasks relevant to one’s disposition in the context of a devotional mission—one also chanting and hearing etc.—to be engaged in padasevanam.

      • Thank you. The fine scalpel of your enlightened intellect can tease apart these intertwined issues in a manner that is intellectually satisfying and opens the door for practical application. Respectfully.

  6. I find it almost comical that in a lineage which ostensibly strives to develop madhurya rasa as the highest expression of love for God, there are people who think and argue that women are somehow inherently incapable of performing the role of spiritual masters in their disciplic succession. And who is the ultimate guru in our line? The highest concept of guru-tattva revealed by Srila Rupa Goswami and other associates of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu was that Srimati Radharani is our ultimate guru. So if anything, one could say that it is ‘unnatural’ to have male gurus teaching their disciples madhurya rasa. But of course we know that this knowledge and realization transcends such bodily concepts… but maybe it only transcends such concepts for men? Hmmm… that’s where the comical element is buried…

    • It may be inappropriate to comment as I have not read the material (above) dealing with female guru-ship, but Lord Caitanya has stated that anyone who is conversant with the science of Krishna is fit to be guru.

      Of course we have seen repeatedly in these Harmonist discusssions that the preaching posture of the acharyas, going back even to Lord Caitanya and the six Goswamis, and thereon downward, has always been a function of the social and religious atmosphere of the time. And therefore regardless of siddhantic conclusions – the mode of presentation may take on different shapes – just for the purpose of progressive preaching.

  7. ‘yei krishna tattva vetta sei guru hai’

    implies that any one who knows the tattva can do upadesha but again for initiation the haribhakti vilas notifies the maryada.’===avaishnavo gurur nasyat vaishnavo svapacho guru’but really can a swapach start his parampara.chakravartipad writes yes but again there is acharya denies the vedic hari bhakti vilas says a brahmana can initiate people of all varna but aksatriya shouldnt initiate a brahmana but can initiate kshatriya and below him.otherwise he will incurr sin.
    if one says about narrtam das thakur then in his time there was a meeting with learned brahmana community and they had given unanimous decision.This is an exception ,cannot become rule.president can pass through red light that doesnt mean anybody can pass.if one thinks himself as narrottam thakur then he can do.

    • Gaura Kishora dasa baba was born in a vaisya family. Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati were not born in brahmans families. Neither was A.C. Bhaktivednata Swami Prabhupada. On this site we consider them acaryas, and their contribution and attainment mandates such. Furthermore there have been a number of women gurus in the Gaudiya sampradaya. But the overarching point in this connection raised in the article is the citation from the Bhagavatam that informs us that one’s character determines one’s cast over one’s birth. By invoking this verse such varnasrama considerations are not transgressed, should a so-called outcaste exhibit the qualities of an acarya. And again, bhakti transcends varnasrama, but in a varnasrama society one may make relative concessions to varnasrama dharma for the sake of social order. This is what Visvanatha Cakravarti is doing in the instance your cite. The mandate that a brahmans by birth should initiate to one extent and other castes to another limited extent when applied to the bhakti marg (for which such injunctions are not originally intended) is a relative consideration, not an absolute one. As for the idea that rules rule over exceptions, this breaks down considerably as varnasrama itself becomes more and more marginalized in Kali-yuga.

  8. Upon meeting Srila Prabhupada, none of us were conversant with any of these fine points – the letter of the law, etc. But our personal response was overwhelmingly, “This person has something, some quality that is so meaningful, that I will cast aside all previous considerations and gratefully put myself at his total disposal so that I can perhaps imbibe that which he carries.”

    Surely when a vaishnavi appears who also carries this flavor of elevation, kindness, and devotion, those who are seekers will forsake the social considerations that would serve to disuade them from drawing closer to the fire – just as we did.

    I must admit that I am not actually intellectually conversant/fit enough to enter into such a high level discussion. However it occurs to me that to the degree that the real qualifications are absent, the letter of the law becomes the guiding light. And when the real qualifications are radiantly apparent, no amount of law, legislation or rhetoric will disuade a sincere soul from drawing closer.

    Those who show the most concern in the form of raising objections seem to have mundane investments behind those objections. But it is good that someone can counter their misplaced concerns in order to quell the tide of social unrest and confusion, thereby opening the door for broader participation of the social body.

    One challenge, however, is that the average individual might not have the intellectual background, inclination or abiltiy to draw conclusions from such a discussion; whereas the intention in airing these issues is to widen the threshold to a greater range of participation.

    The discussion, then, seems to be more of an in-house affaire, so that we can have clear conceptions of the guidelines by which to administer and expand our institutions. At the same time, history shows us that institutionalization is generally accompanied by a deterioration of the initial spirit that prompted the institution to come into being. As an example we have it in “the news” recently that the pope, as head of the Catholic church, the representative of Christ, has resigned. With all of their legislation and logic, the church has arrived at a position wherein the empowered represetative of God is elected to his post by those of lesser spiritual acumen, with the contingency that if the going gets rough, the confidential servant of God can resign his post.

    One point is that the real thing will always be in opposition to the status quo. The material creation is a holding tank or prison house for delinquent souls. And the real acharya is always an embarassment to them and a thorn underfoot, gender aside. That they should raise their voices in discordent refrain should not be a cause for surprise.

  9. swamiji,the hari bhakti vilas is compiled by our own acharya and sanatan goswami writes commentary on it.also i have so many examples but i wont be able to write all here.all the acharyas have written elaborately for example take bhagvatm 7.11.– ‘savanaya kalpate’ if you see the jiva goswami commentary he writes that should that svapach==dog eater be gien the right to do somyagya because he has chanted lords name.there he writes the same thing as sridhar swami that the ‘savnaya kalpate’ menas to show his pujyatva,that he will get respect.but regarding doing yagya he requires ‘janmantara’that is change of birth.implies that he has to take birth from brahmina,has to get savitri sanskar,then study and tehen allowed to do that.also he mentions that just like a brahman born child is not allowed to do yagya because of birth but after attaining upnanayana and shastric knowledge so that svapach also requires the rebirth but can he given savitri janma ,no , because the only sanskar for a shudra is vivah,marriage and not anything else.

    like this so many examples are there.
    this is mentioned by our acharya only

    • But you miss the larger point of our acaryas, Sri Jiva and Visvanatha Cakravarti. A dog eater who becomes a devotee does not become qualified to engage in the varnasrama religious occupation of a brahmana, performing somo-yanja, etc. But neither does he have any interest in such activities, which require certain training and are religious functions in varnasrama society. But such a devotee is interested in arcana, an anga of bhakti. And should such a devotee receive Vaisnava diksa, he can engage in arcana and any other anga of bhakti. Don’t conflate varnasrama with uttama bhakti.

  10. Madhav Singh Sodhi

    Hare Krsna Maharaj,
    In SB 7.11.35 Srila Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakur comments that a shudra showing bramhinical qualities should be respected like a bramhana but is still not entitled for Sandhyavandana etc. Does it imply that if a child born in a particular varna shows symptoms of other varna, they are still supposed to perform prescribed actions of the varna they are born into?

    • I am not sure such questions have much practical meaning, given that kali-yuga is characterized by the corruption of the brahminical class, as described in the Bhagavatam. And the often cited kalau sudra-sambhavah—”Everyone in kali yuga is born as a sudra (at best)” speaks to us as to the absence of varnasrama dharma. Brahmanas are forbidden from working for someone else. So brahmana-born computer software engineers are not brahmanas, according to varnasrama dharma. Nor is there a need for varnasrama if one has faith in bhakti, wherein one’s moral compass is embedded in the anga of saranagati, as acceptance of that which is favorable to bhakti and rejection of that which is not.

      But Visvanatha Cakravarti is referring to the fact that within varnasrama brahmans undergo specific training in terms of their religious duties. Whereas one born in a sudra family, who nonetheless exhibits the characteristics of a brahamana, does not have that training. Thus he should be respected as a brahmana, but because he lacks the training he should not take up the brahminical duties in society. This is a relative and societal perspective that is useful in a varnasrama society.

      One of the duties of the brahmana is to give diksa within the varnasrama system. But does this mean that only one born in a brahmana family can give Vaisnava diksa? Can only one born in a brahmana family engage in the sadhana bhakti anga of arcana? From Gaudiya history we know the answer is “No.” Narottama Thakura, in whose lineage stemming from Lokanatha Goswami Visvanatha Cakravati is initiated, was a ksatriya by birth. And there are many, many other examples of Gaudiya Vaisnava acarays who were not from brahmana families.

      One has to be careful not to allow one’s understanding of uttama bhakti to be covered by karma.

      • Madhav Singh Sodhi

        Thank you Maharaj for your response. My question was primarily from the perspective of a Varnashram Society as to what does the verse imply in essence. In any case, if a person born in shudra family exhibits bramhinical nature lacks training, doesn’t Shastra allow them to take up the necessary training to come to the position of doing Bramha karma? Just like there are several examples in Shastra of many bramhanas who were born in Kshatriya, Shudra families?

        • I am not an expert on dharma sastra, but I believe that the system did not lend itself to what you suggest, but rather one born as a sudra, etc. but with brahminical disposition would typically take up the brahminical duties in his next birth. But there are exceptions, such as Visvamrta.

          Varnasrama is a system of rules, and as such very little love or following the spirit of anything. And this distinguishes it from bhakti, where rules are subordinate to love and the spirit of the law.

        • See SB 5.4.13. Therein regarding the ksatriyas sons of Rsabhadeva is is said, “According to the order of their father, they became well cultured, well behaved, very pure in their activities and expert in Vedic knowledge and the performance of Vedic rituals. Thus they all became perfectly qualified brahmanas—visuddha brahmana babhuvuh.

        • See SB 5.4.13. Therein regarding the ksatriyas sons of Rsabhadeva is is said, “According to the order of their father, they became well cultured, well behaved, very pure in their activities and expert in Vedic knowledge and the performance of Vedic rituals. Thus they all became perfectly qualified brahmanas—visuddha brahmana babhuvuh.

      • Finally i find someone wise. Women and men are equal, i don’t understand the reason why women can’t become guru.
        In Iskcon this sexist idea is everywhere, that is one reason i left Iskcon some years ago. Hopefully i find similar but wise society. Something is wrong in scandals every year, why?
        I remember when my early devotee years Krishna started to kind of appear in my mind and some pastimes others just laughed at me, said is it imagination. I was not able to ask any questions i had, i had so many questions.. i still have. My Spritual master said is imagination and i shouldn’t do …
        I didn’t wanted to try be something, like “advanced” or something. These things just came when i chanted.
        Also i was told to read only A.C. Bhaktivedanta’s books, nothing else. Bhakti Siddhanta’s, Bhaktivinoda’s no no and defenitely six goswamis books where no no no.

        After some years now i started to think again, i am sure there is more. I can’t practise myself without that society and if i am lucky i find someday some sadhu sanga also.

        Happy to hear there are people and Swamis thinking in same way, so i am not alone.

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