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 []

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