Equality, Varnasrama, and Transcendence

By Swami Tripurari, originally published on July 4, 2010.

Varnasrama deals with ethics and morality, which do not constitute spiritual life proper. Thus engaging in varnasrama is not the goal of life. When we are concerned with ascertaining the ultimate goal, many things will be rejected, even though they may have some utility in realizing the goal. The utility of varnasrama is that it invites the influence of sattva. When we understands our psychosomatic reality, we are better equipped to lead a well balanced life and pursue the spiritual ideal. To this extent varnasrama, or better, the spirit and essence of this system, has value in relation to the goal of life.

In the terminology of the Gita, a psychologically well-adjusted person is one who is aware of the particular influence that the gunas exert on his psyche and acts in consideration of these influences. Regardless of which gunas one is predominantly influenced by, this basic awareness is itself the influence of sattva, which subtly governs the Gita‘s varnasrama social system. In the Gita‘s vision, the essential first step of goodness is to be situated in one’s prescribed duty, a duty that corresponds with one’s psychology. By being properly placed, one finds a sense of harmony with one’s materially conditioned self, which makes the cultivation of other aspects of goodness possible.

Those whose actions are not determined in consideration of their psychology will be out of balance and more easily fall prey to the influences of passion and ignorance. At the same time, sattva itself must also be transcended because it keeps us from ultimate freedom in loving union with God. Under its influence one often remains a prisoner to religious tradition, rather than realizing the tradition’s essential message.

Those whose psyche is predominated by sattva can, to a corresponding extent, directly and naturally pursue transcendental life, whereas those dominated by rajas and tamas will find this course more difficult. For such people, although they may progress in an absolute sense, relative problems such as psychological dysfunctions may arise and create some impediments.

This notion of the gunas and their relation to spiritual culture and psychological wellbeing fits well with transpersonal psychology. In this model, the necessity of developing into a psychologically well-adjusted person is considered a prerequisite to, or a parallel discipline intended to complement, spiritual culture proper.

In the interest of “establishing varnasrama” we should take into consideration the extent to which modern society is gravitating towards a kind of social integration rather than the social segregation involved in varnasrama. We should take an essential look at this modern tendency, find the value in it, and go with that, advocating something that does not go radically against the current of our times yet fulfills the essence of varnasrama.

Humanity seems to be gravitating towards the common ground of our species as humans, rather than perceived differences of race, sex, creed, etc. This has value, yet equality and fulfillment, properly understood, are not attainable within the realm of morals. Humanism and morality can never fulfill the soul. Nor can morality realize its own ideal of a perfect human society and remain vital, because morality itself is dependent upon having a society in need of morals. A perfect society is not in need of morality. Spiritual life transcends varnasrama.

Equality of opportunity and representation, the heart of democracy, belong to the realm of the soul. The common spiritual practice for all to realize this equality is chanting the names of God. In order to do so peacefully and progressively, it will be helpful to develop in terms of being well-adjusted individuals (sattva-guna). Although this may happen through the direct culture of spiritual life (ceto darpana marjanam), practically we find that many people after years of chanting have not developed this clean heart, which is representative of the influence of sattva.

Thus the need is for daiva-varnasrama, varnasrama for devotees. The very heart of varnasrama is about facilitating the development of this well-adjusted, integrated human being, which develops from being aware of one’s psychosomatic reality. This in turn facilitates spiritual culture.

In other words, the principle of varnasrama, based as it is on consideration of the gunas, is universal. It need not be limited to a literal expression of this universality relative to times gone by. After all, it is material. It concerns the realm of relativity—morality and ethics. Its value ultimately lies in its advocacy of an absolute reality that transcends it. Moksa renders it altogether meaningless, whereas prema, in doing the same, superficially employs it in lila.

If it is not understood in this light, there is little hope of realizing our equality or “establishing varnasrama” today—even in the society of devotees, much less in human society.


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103 Responses to Equality, Varnasrama, and Transcendence

  1. This is a wonderful article on the essential understanding of varnasrama and how it interfaces with the modern world. Much has been misunderstood about this concept and it has wreaked havoc in many individuals lives as well as communities in the Gaudiya world. It also illustrates the need for an acarya to interpret these concepts in light of time and circumstance.

    • “It also illustrates the need for an acarya to interpret these concepts in light of time and circumstance.”

      I agree that the concept needs a great deal of interpretation. I for one don’t get a clear picture even as I ponder it over and over again for so many years. I am in fact coming closer and closer to suspect that the concept is actually altogether bunk – perhaps a pratical joke from our Lord, so to speak, if our desire indeed is for a practical expression of love in place of taking a chance (as He does) on prem.

  2. The idea of caste system was so abused in India and so maligned in the western world that the notion of even proposing a caste system for western countries is absurd. Srila Prabhupada summed the issue up nicely in his Nectar of Devotion.

    Thus the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is so nice that there is no need of even designating oneself brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya, śūdra, brahmacārī, gṛhastha, vānaprastha or sannyāsī. Let everyone be engaged in whatever occupation he now has. Simply let him worship Lord Kṛṣṇa by the result of his activities in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. That will adjust the whole situation, and everyone will be happy and peaceful within this world.

    The western world doesn’t need a caste system or the designating of anyone as sudra or whatever. Westerners consider these divisions and labels as derogatory and inflammatory. There is no need of designations like that. There is no King on Earth at this time implementing the caste system which otherwise so easily gets corrupted and abused. It is obvious especially that ISKCON is in no position to effectively administrate a Varnasharma society.

    Srila Prabhupada’s idea as stated above is the correct vision:

    there is no need of even designating oneself brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya, śūdra, brahmacārī, gṛhastha, vānaprastha or sannyāsī. Let everyone be engaged in whatever occupation he now has.

    What was useful during the time of BSST in India is certainly not a formula needed today in the western world

  3. As a transpersonal psychotherapist, I really appreciate your comments on the necessity of developing a well-adjusted personality as an important stage of the spiritual path. I see far too many sincere spiritual aspirants neglecting this work and thus creating unnecessary suffering for themselves and others. Thank your for this excellent article.

  4. Gaura Krsna dasa

    I feel I must respond to this article since I am finding it not only a little confusing but disturbing. KB das has already brought up some of the points I make here, but I will restate them to maintain my thought.

    Guru Maharaja (if I’m reading this right) seems to be saying that although there is value in finding human commonality, respecting our different needs as unique people is the key to maintaining mental stability which will in turn foster spiritual growth, and therefore some social system that is designed to facilitate these differences should to established. That seems great, but because an exact description of such a system or the way it is to be implimented is not given, this leaves me with some problems.

    First of all, people are not by any stretch of the imagintion gravitating towards any common ground. The current social, political, religious, and racial situations in America show that society is drifting apart, her communities breaking off into radically different, excluding, and conflicting worldviews. Given our differences, even among devotees, how are we to agree on a system that will allow us to be different people with different needs? If any system exists, it is purely secular and already struggling to exist, namely liberal democracy. Democracy allows us to be devotees. We can have all the experiences we need, build temples, publish, lecture, and not be killed, threatened, or even inconvienced.

    Second, what exactly is our duty? How is this determined? By what authority? In other words, what is our place and who will put us there? And how is that person or people qualified to determine that? And in what context? What is the field of activity? A new city on the moon?

    Third, I am highly skeptical that the gunas have any relevant bearing on psychological disturbances. The gunas are the gunas and illness is illness. The gunas certainly reflect on menatl states but all three bear on everyone including those in whom sattva guna is (often) predominant. Mental illness, emotional conflicts and the effects of psychic trauma can effect anyone. Doing one’s duty will not prevent this. Moreover, any one can go through hell and be stressed into “imbalance” in any situation even if he is “psychologically suited” to the given situation. Anyone with a family or career, including that of a brahmacari can tell you that. And how exactly do the gunas qualify us for different kinds of work? How do we apply this to job opportunities within the global capitalist labor market?

    It is also clear that the claim that varnasrama dharma is universal is just plain wrong. Varnasrama dharma is a system of feudal social control based on the division of labor. It can only exist in an urbanized society that can support aristocracy, religious organization, and trade (hence taxation), all of which is propped up by a large menial class of laborers, serfs, and/or slaves. Obviously not all societies have developed along these lines. Therefore how can it be universal? I also think the fact that sastra seems to validate varnasrama dharma does not prove its divine origin because the sastra as we have it was framed by a privilaged class, the brahmanas, that was quite obviously united with the aristocratic class, the ksaitriyas, in their need to legitimate the social order for better or worse. How else to do this in premodern societies than with religion?

    For these reasons and others I reject the concept of varnasrama wholesale. Undoubtedly it has a long and complicated history and can serve to illustrate various teachings in Sastra, but as a relevant and beneficial social structure it is pure fantasy. In the industrial capitalist West it is a arbitrary concept that serves no constructive purpose. It is even less natural than it is universal. As a European-American it is repugnant and alien to my indigenous culture. My spiritual practice as a devotee is a commitment I made and continualy remake independent of any social consideration, and one which it should be emphasized, was only available to me within the context of an open liberal democracy. What kind of damaged person would choose to be designated subserviant to other designations? If you’re looking to be “given” a place within a system modeled on a feudal theocracy, I might suggest you convert to Islam or evangelical Christianity, because you may be a closet fundamentalist.

    A better alternative to a contrived “daiva-varnasrama” is organic community. You can have gurus (not only because you have nothing without them, but) because they are qualified as such and independent of any system. The guru can have “brahmacaris” if he or she so chooses for proximity and service. You can have all the others that do what they can, as they can. You can have projects and real relationships between real people. What need is there of anything else?

    My own guru I trust will understand my reasons for chalenging his idea, namely to clarity possible misreading and movement towards dynamic understanding.

    • That was a very astute analysis and exposition on the complexities of promoting or proposing the ancient Varnashrama system in the western world.
      Obviously, Varnashrama would and could only be implemented in the western world on a microcosmic level of cult communities.
      In the Vedic culture the Brahmans would install a King who would implement the Vedic Varnashrama civilization. Obviously, the ISKCON GBC might be the modern equivalent to the board of Brahmans who install the King, though they were never given any instructions to do that and have shown no movement in that direction. Maybe they consider Srila Prabhupada as the King of ISKCON?
      An acharya could appoint a King as well. Maybe someday Bill Gates will become a devotee and his guru will make him King of the world? Obviously, the King requires massive wealth and assets to even attempt to implement Varnashama.

      The King has to provide employment and security for all his citizens. If anybody can offer that nowadays then maybe they can start a small kingdom in the USA and implement Varnashrama?

      Swami could appoint a king and implement Varnashrama on farms if he felt that was the thing to do, but unless and until these farms can offer employment and security there is no question of Varnashrama.

      Vedic culture with it’s slaves, sudras and class divisions goes against everything the modern world believes in. Unless and until our modern civilization collapses allowing for a rebuilding, it is simply folly nowadays to preach the glories of Varnashrama in the western world.
      But, it is there in Lord Krishna’s teachings even though our modern world will never be receptive to such a Despotic regime as the Vedic Monarch represents.

      What works for India is not what works in the modern western world.

    • Well let’s start here. You say that you reject varnasrama wholesale. That would mean that you reject the notion of ashrama and well as that of varna. Do you? You seem to accept the concept of the gunas and karma. According to the Gita, varna is noting but the influence of guna and karma proprerly understood, a universal, catur vanyam maya srstam guna kamra vibhagasa. The gunas and one’s karma are the most significant factors that make up one disposition. So how can you reject varnashrma wholesale and embrace the notions of karma and guna?

      You write as if the article advocated establishing varnasharama in toto in the world today, but the article has nothing to do with that, nor does it, as you imply, make the case for equating the gunas with mental disease. What is does say is that the ancient varnasrama system sought to help people attain material balance in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. It goes on to conjecture that the spirit of this should be invoked today in the form of seeking psychological balance through means available to us today. In doing so it suggests transpersonal psychology may be useful in that it acknowledges, unlike other branches of psychology, the idea that transcendence is the goal of life. In other words it is saying that as much as varnasrama is about material balance in pursuit of the spiritual, devotees should embrace the idea of such horizontal development in their pursuit of vertical growth by embracing current means available to do so.

      The answers to your questions about who would decide what people would do what and what is one’s duty, etc, are irrelevant because the article is not advocating instituting varnasrama in any way other that embracing its spirit of seeking material balance in pursuit of spiritual life. In ancient time when the system was in place all of these questions were answered.

      As for the idea that people are becoming more different than one. I disagree in that the way in which difference is accommodated more these days is through embracing the idea that we are all human with a global economy, etc. Furthermore I think it depends on how you look at it at any given time. I look at it from a progressive intellectual perspective and see progressive people as leading a society toward commonality in which difference is accommodated and tolerance is a virtue (like we find in Hinduism). People may vociferously disagree with this (and call Obama a socialist or whatever), but in my opinion, this is the direction the world is going, or at least the direction it should go. By identification with what we have in common we bridge the gap between our differences and enable ourselves to tolerate if not appreciate those differences.

      • I think if you compare US today to US in 1950’s or 60’s any reasonable person will accept that there is far less racism and gender inequality now than 50 years back. Obviously, all difference and inequalities will never be finished entirely.

  5. It seems to me that the concept of daiva-varnashrama as first proposed by BVT was just a reaction to the restrictions of the existing caste system, limiting the ‘upward mobility’ of people embracing Vaishnavism, especially when it comes to performing tasks traditionally reserved for brahmanas only. It was a vision of society where people are judged by their actual qualifications, not birth. And even the very qualified Vaishnava gurus were not seen as eligible to perform brahminical functions in general society. BSST presentation of “Brahmana and a Vaishnava” runs very much along those lines.

    How relevant is introducing daiva-varnashram or varnashram into the Western society? IMO very questionable at best, especially given the fact that the society of devotees built over the last 40+ years by Western devotees is hardly exemplary, practical, or functional outside temple compounds. And if people are after simple living and high thinking varnashrama seems like an overkill…

  6. It is not accidental that the story of the Bhagavatam begins with mention of the fall of the brahmins–with the risi’s son wrongly cursing the king, who was a Vaisnava. Vaisnava dharma rises above the social order and is classless, even while there are neophyte, intermediate, and superlative Vaisnavas. The corruption of the brahmin class marks the end of the usefulness of varnasrama as a socioreligious system rendering it headless.

  7. Gaura Krsna dasa

    “[…]the article is not advocating instituting varnasrama in any way other that embracing its spirit of seeking material balance in pursuit of spiritual life.”

    Guru Maharaja, thank you for clarifying the intention of the article, this is helpful. The point is not varnasrama per se, but material balance through resources available in the social environment, which in our case includes psychology. I get it.

    Your questions:

    “You say that you reject varnasrama wholesale. That would mean that you reject the notion of ashrama and well as that of varna. Do you?”

    Essentially yes. Varna for reasons I have already mentioned and ashrama because in our society it is equally arbitrary. We may use designations like Brahmacari, householder, vanaprasta, or even swami when we come for a festival, but by the next festival someone may have switched back and forth between designations, maybe once, maybe twice. A brahmacari is someone (well, a male) who lives in the temple. The term is merely a utility of temple life. What is a householder? What about a celibate bachelor devotee who doesn’t have a house? Is he in the householder ashram? If we accept the asharams as positive descriptions of what they are rather than what they aren’t, then no, he’s just a devotee. And a vanasprasta? What if an older bachelor still has a job? My point is that these distinctions are not clear, and that is because they are not intrinsically real. We use them for convenience and politeness. They are changed from their original context within the varnasrama social system for use within our very specific mission. Even the swami must sometimes be a businessman. And whatever special “initiations” a swami may have been given, I am inclined to think they are an “opportunity” our gurus, who are supremely independent of varnasrama, have adapted for their own purposes. I would be surprised to learn that a sanyassi mantra in our sampradaya did not have something to do with Radha and Krsna rather than some general “swami mantra” and is therefore something the architects and gurus of our sampradaya have “added on” and is not a function of varnasrama itself. Yes I know, if this is still present then how can I reject it? Because we honor devotees for being devotees, and advanced devotees for being advanced devotees regardless of any “special mantras.” Of course I can still honor brahmacaris, swamis, and the like, but within a relative social context. My point is that the designations of ashrama are arbitrary concepts we have manufactured to suit our purpose and not a pure truth handed to us from God.

    “According to the Gita, varna is nothing but the influence of guna and karma properly understood, a universal, catur vanyam maya srstam guna kamra vibhagasa. The gunas and one’s karma are the most significant factors that make up one disposition. So how can you reject varnashrma wholesale and embrace the notions of karma and guna?”

    Th gunas and karma are universals that reflect significantly in one’s disposition. Krsna shows in Gita how the gunas are reflected in different ways on different levels of experience: behavior, diet, mental states, even religious inclinations. This shows they are universal. But varnasrama can only be shown in terms of social relationships, social roles, social customs, social behavior. There is nothing in societies that can be show as universal. People get married, do rituals, educate their children, but no two societies do these in the same way. Varnasrama doesn’t even address these commonalities. It is a contract of controlled social relationships: manufactured, not universal.

    Moreover, the gunas and karma have value to subjective experience. Awareness of them can be expanded to self-illumination, personal ethical decisions, and progressive spiritual culture. I cannot find any of this value in varnasrama. In other words, I can reject varnasrama and not the gunas and karma because the later is meaningful to my lived experience while the former is not.

    “As for the idea that people are becoming more different than one. I disagree in that the way in which difference is accommodated more these days is through embracing the idea that we are all human with a global economy, etc. Furthermore I think it depends on how you look at it at any given time. I look at it from a progressive intellectual perspective and see progressive people as leading a society toward commonality in which difference is accommodated and tolerance is a virtue (like we find in Hinduism).”

    I’m finding it harder to be convinced that this idea of progress towards an open and accomidating global society isn’t simply an ideological fantasy. This is another kind of “wishful oneness.” There will never be commonality between people (because as I have mentioned, societies are each different as are the people which comprise them) and any non-transcendent ideology which claims to bring us there is highly suspect if not dangerous. Who would even agree on a transcendent idea to bring us all together (as several Harmonist articles have pointed out)? We may be talking past one another here, but I have to wonder, what is this progressive perspective? Imperial colonialism, global industrial capitalism, globalization, have all been promoted as progressive universalizing ideals and yet each is a form of exploitation that has vampirized and destroyed countless societies and the biosphere at large.

    Progress itself is an Enlightenment concept. Voltaire and the philosophes wanted social tolerance (well actually religious tolerance -they didn’t really care too much about the peasants) and they set about promoting reason as the antidote to the problems of their day and bring everyone onto the same page. It helped. It helped create the American form of government and egalitarian society which I was just praising. But the pursuit of mastery through reason has in many ways not turned out so well. The Enlightenment project has in many ways brought the world to its current crisis. And no wonder. Humans are usually not motivated by reason, and our reason doesn’t deliver us to the same conclusions. Tolerance as we understand it is a virtue, but only if it is a product of personal choices as individuals. Otherwise it is merely ideology, and it is this which I am skeptical of.

    “By identification with what we have in common we bridge the gap between our differences and enable ourselves to tolerate if not appreciate those differences.”

    Cool. I trust this applies to you and I as well.

    • I also agree that the concept and practice of varnashrama has proven pretty useless here in the West with the exception of distinguishing the monastic (sannyasa & brahmacari) from the non-monastic. Even then, it is merely a short-hand way to say something about whether or not the sadhaka is having sex. I wanted to say, “it also describes living remotely or simply” but that is, more often than not, not the case. It might describe those that do not work for for money, but rather for seva sake and rely on the community for livelihood. Of course, monastics are often raising their own money now anyway (due in part to the working class’ cynicism of monastic life and a feeling that they are not valued by those they are supporting). Even so, we often have householders living at the monastic centers such as the temples and retreats. They may agree to not have sex at the temple or monastery (the Berkeley ISKCON temple president recently left after having onsite affairs with a woman), so they often go elsewhere for those sexual relationships.

      Otherwise, what is the point of the other categories? I think Gaura Krsna said it well, they rarely describe those of us that live outside, not having a home or family. Or as in my case, having a dog and husband, neither of which have anything to do with Gaudiya Vaisnavism (GV) and with whom GV has nothing to do with in return. I know plenty of householders that have proven more sexually restrained than monastics in GV. We would better be described as working class than householder class. Since it is often just this difference that makes us distinct. We use and emphasize these social designations, but as a religious tradition we have not emphasized society building anyway. We are mostly scattered by the wind, alone, with only the internet binding most of us. I visit local Hindu temples for community,.. so who cares what our social class is anyway? There is no society.

      Since sadhana and advancement is our primary aim (community building falling significantly behind), why not just name sadhakas by their advancement designation (kanistha, madhyama, uttama adhikari, OR komala sraddha, sraddha, nistha, ruci, bhava, prema) since many devotees do this privately anyway? At least this title is more descriptive of what is or is not happening in regards to bhakti and it addresses a progression that is desirable (Spiritual Attainment) rather than social categories. Otherwise, for the sake of convenience we can just distinguish; celibate from not-celibate.

      My biggest problem with even a liberal and essentialist description of varnashrama is that is takes for granted that someone can know something about their own or someone else’s psychology. We not only do not know much about another’s psychology or have the training to do so, …a sadhaka him/herself has very little idea what is means to be situated in a psychologically balanced position. What do I want to do? What am I qualified to do? How can I be well engaged in society? What is my duty? How can I persevere in this domain? These are extremely complex questions that require equally complex developmental psychological achievements in order to answer. Very few of us, even those of us that are educated and therapized, can answer these for ourselves… what to speak of for others. Mostly, we are all “winging it”, as are monastics a lot of the time. The exception of course being those that have at least achieved Nistha or Ruci, who have achieved stability and feeling in practice regardless of where they are practicing. Why is this not the better description? Why not make it explicit?

      I also hope that this is not offensive and is accepted as a difference of opinion.

      • Gurunistha dasa

        Gopakumar, you said:

        “I also agree that the concept and practice of varnashrama has proven pretty useless here in the West with the exception of distinguishing the monastic (sannyasa & brahmacari) from the non-monastic. Even then, it is merely a short-hand way to say something about whether or not the sadhaka is having sex.”

        Gaura Krsna expressed similar ideas about monastics. I have to say that in my opinion you both have seriously missed the idea of monastic life in GV. What being a brahmacari means is that you only do what your guru directly wants you to do. You have no life “of your own”. If it was only about not having sex, that would be a cake walk! Anybody who lives outside of the ashram but only does directly what his/her guru wants him/her to do I consider a brahmacari. But what’s the point of living away from your Guru if you only want to do his bidding?

        Of course monks have their desires too that they have to deal with so it’s obviously not true that moving into a temple means you’ve become a saranagata. But it’s a fact that a temple with real spiritual leadership will automatically strip your chances of doing your own thing to a minimum. That’s the whole idea of it.

        Believe me, I’m not at all a “grihasta-basher” but let’s be honest here: people want to live outside of the temple because they want to have their own life. They want to decide for themselves how much surrender they want to have in their life. And that’s fine! It’s necessary. But to say that a brahmacari is in a similar position in relation to surrender is simply not true.

        Of course many people have used monasticism as an excuse for their laziness and social ineptness, but all of my comments on brahmacarya above apply to a situation where one lives with a
        sad-guru. It’s not possible to cheat in that environment.

        Monastics are often intimidated into not defending themselves because in recent history of GV so many people have been scarred by fake-renunciates. I really don’t mean to create this monks vs. housholders dichotomy here but when I try to look at the situation as objectively as I can, I come to the conclusion expressed above. And for the record, I used to think the same way about monasticism as I do now before I became a brahmacari.

        • madan gopal das

          Good point Gurunistha, thanks for making it. That is the true understanding of brahmacarya – living with the guru, fetching firewood(!) or in modern context doing whatever is ordered by the sad-guru for the sankirtana yajna.

        • Your right…there is much more to it than what I described. I am sorry that I inadvertently minimized monastic life. Monastics provide a service that is indispensable and I have often prayed with immense gratitude for you all, especially Vrindaranya and Citta Hari. To me you do not go unnoticed.

          I was using the sexual dimension to distinguish family life from monastic life because otherwise we all sacrifice the self…maybe not to the same degree. We who are out here “living our own life” are also trying to live according to the sadhu’s wishes, plus trying to meet the wishes of supervisors and employers, plus those of our families. When all is said and done…I have a little time left for “living my own life”. It may be more than you have… but not much. When Gurumaharaja says that marriage teaches self sacrifice… he is absolutely right. I would just add to that: employment as well.

          Why does this discussion always become monastics vs. “householders”? I guess both groups feel unrecognized and undervalued. What a shame.

          • Gurunistha dasa

            Gopa,
            forgive me if I came across as minimizing the working class, that wasn’t my intention at all. I lived outside the temple in a relationship for a long time while trying to do my practice and I certainly know how difficult it is.

            I have huge respect for everyone who serves according to their full capacity, no matter what their varna or ashrama.

      • madan gopal das

        Since sadhana and advancement is our primary aim (community building falling significantly behind), why not just name sadhakas by their advancement designation (kanistha, madhyama, uttama adhikari, OR komala sraddha, sraddha, nistha, ruci, bhava, prema)

        This could not be done because these designations are much more internal and private, being related to faith and MAY only be properly understood by the particular person’s superiors or intimate friends. To socially designate someone this way could potentially damage faith. I get your idea though – that bhakti is the goal no matter what social situation one is in. This is a nice way to think of why BSST gave designations and titles to some of his disciples, recognizing spiritual progress.

        Otherwise, for the sake of convenience we can just distinguish; celibate from not-celibate.

        I think you put it better earlier in your comment; monastic and non-monastic. To me, these seem like more basic and essential understandings of the social arrangement of GV society. Monastics have duties in relation to their practice which Gurunistha points out have an increased element of saranagati. Also, I think monastics have better facility, ability and presentation for outreach including representation of the “external” components of the faith, GV cultural norms like dress, hairstyle, eating habits, etc. Non-monastics also have their bhakti practice, can work towards saranagati as much as they are able to serve and surrender to Sri Guru’s order in their circumstances and are less suited to outreach and GV cultural representation.
        Just some thoughts…

    • madan gopal das

      This is a very interesting discussion… While Guru Maharaj is bringing out and advocating an essential understanding of daivi-varnasrama (thank you!), I can relate to Gaura-Krsna’s questions about the validity of the whole thing to our current practice.
      Despite our tradition’s emphasis on vaishnavism as transcendent to varnasrama, we see the recognition of saints caste, birth status, varna and asrama all throughout our history – because it was a social reality for them. Sri Caitanyadeva was born in a brahmin family, he utilized sannyasa for preaching, etc. – yet we quote his words and try to develop his feeling, naham vipro… naham varni…
      I completely understand the utility of BVT and BSST’s use of daivi-varnasrama. Varnasrama was a social environment that they were in the midst of, and trying to combat social shifts in their time e.g. “those without caste become gaudiya’s”, preaching that vaisnava is higher than brahmana, sannyasa for credibility in preaching, etc. I can even understand Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s utilization of varnasrama concepts to at least organize his mission and to get early followers introduced to some basic religious conduct until they developed the more important identification as socially transcendent dasanudasa vaisnava. Prabhupada also only knew a society that was rooted in varnasrama. So, he brought some of his culture with him in addition to his transcendental teaching.
      I can understand why some Gaudiya vaisnavas in India went the opposite route of BVT and BSST’s preaching by taking off brahmin threads at GV initiation, renouncing family gurus, and shunning placement in the system, just taking babaji vesa. Yet I also understand the utility principle of our great acaryas preaching the way they did.
      What I question now is, what relevance does varnasrama have for us in the west, now, who were not born into such a social system and do not have any necessity in advocating it? Understanding/accepting the psychological validity of varna/asrama and understanding its place in GV history and ultimately in lila is different. What I’m gradually losing any understanding of is why I as a white male should be wearing a brahmin thread at a public pool while indian men at the same pool are wearing none; why there should be any emphasis on avoidance of mixing of opposite sexes when western society already has cultural norms for such that don’t interfere with my practice, etc., etc. Having to place vaisnavism in the context of varnasrama while doing outreach seems like unnecessary and possibly counter-productive labor. What might you all say?

    • The fact that varnasrama is not intrinsic is a given. It pertains to material designation, and as Sriman Mahaprabhu has said, naham vipro . . naham varni na ca grha-patir . . . . However, he does not reject varnasrama wholesale, nor does anyone who accepts that guna and karma are the principle influences making up one’s material disposition, despite what you have said, for such is the root of varnasrama as Sri Krsna informs us. One may find the particular social system that expressed itself in all of its details in the ancient Indian subcontinent that stems from this root impractical in today’s world, but if one embraces the notion that guna and karma predispose one more than one’s environment, one accepts an idea that is basically repugnant to today’s Western secular and religious sensibilities.

      The four basic dispositions (intellectual, etc.) can be found throughout all societies. The fact that there is also an obvious intermingling of the basic four is a given as well, but this does not in my opinion do way with the traceable, predominant disposition/nature/designation one identifies with. An intellectual may choose to be a gardener, but her disposition as an intellectual remains and she approaches her gardening from that perspective. One’s varna can also change and one’s ashrama as well, but varna and ashrama in the broadest, universal sense remain an extrinsic reality that one cannot easily dismiss. They constitute in my terms our material nature and our approach to spiritual practice respectively regardless of what names you give them. The fact that these concepts do not appear in pristine Vedic form today, and to dismiss them altogether on this basis, is a rather shallow way to look at the issue.

      • madan gopal das

        but if one embraces the notion that guna and karma predispose one more than one’s environment, one accepts an idea that is basically repugnant to today’s Western secular and religious sensibilities.

        Guru Maharaj, I don’t quite understand what you are saying here. Could you explain this a little?

        • Looking on another’s pain or poverty as his or her karma is considered repugnant to modern Western sensibilities and concepts like social justice. Secular society considers the gunas and karma empirically false and as such these ideas inhibit one’s individual growth by way of tying one to superstition. Thus they are repugnant form this perspective.

          The theory of karma is also morally repugnant to Christianity and other Abrhamic religions. To strictly Western (indigenous?) cultural sensibilities, religious or otherwise, the concept of karma smacks of fatalism.

          The popularity of these concepts in the West attests to the extent to which Eastern indigenous cultural sensibilities have infiltrated the Western mind.

          • I think that empirical science has demonstrated that genetics plays an important role in determining the individual. Does not that have some connection to fatalism? But because of the marxist, secular humanism thought dominating the world, this idea is generally not accepted even when backed by empirical proof. Obviously, I see the dangers of abuse of this principle where people will be denied things based on their genetics. It is a balance between nature and nurture and environment also plays a role. The main idea to give the environment to people to pursue different occupations and then identify the best one they are suited to. It has to be more trial and error right now that a rigid hereditary caste system before.

          • I think that empirical science has demonstrated that genetics plays an important role in determining the individual. Does not that have some connection to fatalism?

            Yes of course, but the difference is that it is thought to be a fatalism based on empiric evidence. Thus, as I said, karma is repugnant to the secular world because it is thought to be superstitious. Whereas it is repugnant to the religious West, who do not agree with scientistic determinism, because it is thought to be morally irresponsible.

          • Then what is the solution and how do we present karma to the modern world? Certainly karma can be used and has been used to abuse people instead of helping them, but does it help if we just ignore the fact that there is some predisposition in an individual? I can just sell karma as individual predisposition that cannot be denied, while acknowledging the potential for misuse of this concept(like some scientists were leaning towards eugenics). As the role of environment is also very important, so instead of exploiting people
            in the name of karma, the environment should facilitate the playing out of that karma by engaging the person in a meaningful and respectful role in society. There should be respect for people in all occupations(even a person working in the cremation ground for instance), something which was lacking in India(in fact, in devotees it is lacking also).

          • The law of karma is easily explained by the old Bibilical phrase “as you sew, so shall you reap”. The Bible has been promoting karma for many centuries. Why now is it so politically and socially abominable for the yoga teachers to teach the same thing based on Lord Krishna’s word?
            In a perfect world everybody get’s respect, but unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world.
            But, the idea that sudras are always dishonored and abused in Hindu society is also a misperception. Ramananda Raya hailed from a sudra family but was the Governor of Madras, was highly educated and highly respected in society.
            So, the idea that lower castes are abused and disrespected in Hindu society is not really the historical truth.
            If even relatively modern histories show the Hindu caste system is basically not a system of social prejudice but rather a vocational division of work, then we can see that the Varnashrama system is actually a very scientific system based on qualification and propensity, not a barbaric division of forced labor and deprivation of dignity. All the artisans, actors and craftsmen fall into the sudra category, but as we well know these members of Hindu society are held in no less esteem than other members of society.

          • I believe that the “outcastes” were abused. I see no need to deny history on this and other abuses. One citation from Cc does not equal volumes of history that cite examples to the contrary. I am quite sure that the system was abused. Indeed, as I have pointed out earlier the Bhagavatam confirms this at its onset.

          • The law of karma is easily explained by the old Bibilical phrase “as you sew, so shall you reap”. The Bible has been promoting karma for many centuries. Why now is it so politically and socially abominable for the yoga teachers to teach the same thing based on Lord Krishna’s word?

            Christians do not interpret this Biblical phrase in the same way. Your interpretation would make the case for reincarnation, as karma and reincarnation are interrelated. Origen and his Christian take on reincarnation were dismissed bythe Catholic church long ago.

            But I have yet to read a Christian argument against reincarnation and karma that demonstrates a clear understanding of the topics. All that I have read betrays a rajasic understanding of the relationship between the atma and the body. Disappointing.

          • No doubt, the Christians beginning with Peter and Paul (who masterminded the deviation from the real teachings of Jesus) never really understood what Jesus was teaching. They really didn’t. It flew right over their dull heads. That misunderstanding naturally follows their same line of misconceived thought and is standard dogma in Christianity.
            They never understood and they still don’t, but if we take some of those old Biblical passages on face value we can’t deny reincarnation.
            Jesus never taught and still doesn’t teach reincarnation in the same way as the Hindu believes, but he does teach the evolution of the soul through successive stages of Universal ascension.

            I am not even sure I accept or believe the Hindu version of reincarnation. The concept has undergone some improvement in the Hindu mind, but the Hindus still suffer from a misconceived idea about reincarnation that traces back to the Brahmana epoch some 4000 years ago.

            I am well aware that modern Christians and olden Christians never accepted or believed in reincarnation. Jesus never taught reincarnation the way that the Hindus do, but if we take some of those old Biblical verses face value, we cannot deny that “sewing what you reap” should be a teaching that supports the idea of reincarnating to pay the karmic debt.

            “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
            That is another lesson in Karma and there are more in the Bible.

            The Hindu version of reincarnation is itself not a full understanding. So, no doubt, the Christian theologians never found or taught reincarnation in the Bible, but my point is that nonetheless the teaching is in the Bible in a subtle form.

            What the Christian theologians think and believe is hardly a measure of what Lord Jesus taught. I am concerned with the actual teachings of Jesus but not what Christian theologians advocate.

            If even Peter and Paul couldn’t understand Jesus, then these Christian theologians certainly have no clue.

          • Gaura-vijaya, you seem to be forgetting the point that Guru Maharaja often makes that the highest reach of selfless service requires two things: that the giving be unmotivated and the object of love must be perfect. Therefore, although giving in any capacity is praiseworthy, I do not agree that serving one’s family and serving sad-guru are equal. Nor is most parenting unmotivated, which explains why people have been in the material world since time immemorial despite the fact that so many people become parents. One devotee told Srila Prabhupada that she wanted to serve Krsna by raising a child to be a pure devotee and he answered that this was good but it wasn’t enough. I mention this not to bash parenthood, which I agree deserves great respect, but to address what seemed like a skewed analysis.

            Furthermore, your analysis about lay monastics is cute but not very philosophically sound. Most people don’t see having a family to be a huge burden but rather want to have a family and a job. The fact that you wouldn’t be willing to work hard for a family but would do so for your Guru is thus indicative of a renounced disposition rather than selfishness.

          • Gopa-kumara, your latest post seems to contain the same negative bias that Gurunistha previously commented on. In the first paragraph you lament the fact that the renunciates are seen as higher on the social hierarchy than grhastas and develop the idea why devotees shouldn’t be categorized by their asrama so that the renunciates aren’t mistakingly seen as more advanced than grhastas. In your second paragraph you basically question whether the renunciate class has failed in valuing and utilizing the grhasta’s skills.

            Allow me to respond to that. In Guru Maharaja’s mission, the renunciate sector, despite being less than 5% of the group, brings in over 50% of the income (without engaging in scamkirtana) and shoulders 99% percent of the seva needed to run the mission, often working more than 12 hours a day. They do this, I believe, with a genuine feeling of appreciation for the larger community. So I think that the main reason that the terms brahmacari, vanaprastha, and sannyasi hold any special meaning is due to the facility that these positions offer for serving the mission. Why attempt to deny this by doing away with the terms used to describe one’s asrama? Is such a minor acknowledgment excessive given the sacrifices the renunciate sector undertakes for the community?

            A negative bias towards the renunciate sector also seems to arise in your suggestion that you serve the community through assessing the potential of monastic candidates for extreme idealations, inability to regulate emotions, control aggressive impulses, and form meaningful connections, as well as for general psychotic thought processes. Are we really such an imbalanced lot? Given the fact that the number of monastic candidates are comparatively few and that they all personally correspond with Guru Maharaja, I think your skills would be put to greater use to the community by offering your services to anyone, renunciate or otherwise, who needs counseling. Pre-marriage counseling, and I don’t mean this factitiously, is another area in which devotee psychologists have used their skills to serve the devotee community.

            I think that the important point to consider in this isn’t how advanced respective devotees are, but rather the simple fact that the different asramas offer varying degrees of conduciveness for seva to the mission and are meant to be a framework that guides people in their progress. Can we not acknowledge this without worrying about being low on the social totem pole? How else will we seize the opportunity for a more conducive situation when it arises? I thought KB das’s post about Srila Prabhupada illustrated this point quite well: yes, Srila Prabhupada was a grhasta, but it was when he was a sannyasi that he fulfilled his Guru’s desire to bring Krsna consciousness all over the world. May we all desire to follow in his footsteps.

          • Vrindaranya, I did not mean to seem ungrateful. I know the work monastics do. It is an immense service. I am sorry. This was not my main point although seemingly that is what came through most clearly. I personally find it pointless debating this householder/brahmacari issue. I never succeed is saying something that makes the intended impact. It only ends in hurt feelings and little movement. Anyway, if I am honest with myself I am always wishing to be more significant than I am…

            nidralasya-hata, sukarye virata,
            akarye udyogi ami
            pratishtha lagiya, shathya-acarana,
            lobha-hata sada kami
            e hena durjana, sajjana-varjita,
            aparadhi nirantara
            shubha-karya-shunya, sadanartha-mana,
            nana duhkhe jara jara

          • Vrindaranya dasi

            Gopa-kumara,

            No offense taken. Thanks for your post. 🙂

          • madan gopal das

            Some thoughts…
            As a grhastha, I do feel some social inferiority in participating in some aspects of my Guru Maharaj’s mission. I don’t know that such feelings are detrimental though.
            Though I enjoyed my brahmacari life in Iskcon very much, I married for a combination of reasons. My desires to be married and enjoy all that such a life facilitates had not really developed; they were there, but could have been delayed or possibly foregone. But that was not my destiny…
            I became a grhastha in consideration of many social factors; on the advice of a renunciate who I greatly respected, in consideration of my future wife’s wonderful qualities (being born into a devotee family and having inclinations for a lifetime of bhakti) and my desire for the “freedom” that Gopakumar and Gaura-krsna spoke of earlier. I think there is a lot to be said about this freedom concept in relation to how Iskcon functions.
            The natural state in Iskcon minimizes the role of the guru by placing all the emphasis and faith in the param-guru, Srila Prabhupada. I thrived on personal association and the feeling of dedication to a living person, a living mission. While I understand Iskcon’s emphasis on Prabhupada, I feel strongly that it’s de-emphasis on the role and influence of a living guru dilutes it’s ability to hold the faith (and therefore maintain the service) of it’s members. This is the direction I was moving in, and some “freedom” from the institutional structure was another appeal to establishing my own family and independence.
            In regards to the asrama’s and their ability to serve the guru’s mission, I recall recently Guru Maharaj stating that a householder should try to live like Thakur Bhaktivinoda. What a tall order! So, we householders may not be in a situation in which renunciation is called for, and while we may practice the bhakti-marga regardless of our situation, for the time being our direct service to some aspects of the mission may be diminished. Guru Maharaj has therefore given all of his students the opportunity to take up the spirit of Bhaktivinoda by participating in The Harmonist, trying to change the face of GV in the world. Whether renunciate or householder, this is a great service available to all!

          • Madan- I agree with your observations about ISKCON and I have had a very similiar experience. Despite not having a very strong inclination at the time for family life, the atmosphere of ISKCON was definately a strong factor in my deciding to leave the asrama after 8 years and serve as a grhasta.

            I also appreciate your plug for the Harmonist seva. Personally, it has provided a lot of stimulation for me through reading, commenting, and writing articles.

          • Madan, I also appreciate your honesty about your feeling as a grhasta in the sanga. You are definately not alone and I agree with you that it isn’t necessarily detrimental.

            I think that the important point to consider in this isn’t how advanced respective devotees are, but rather the simple fact that the different asramas offer varying degrees of conduciveness for seva to the mission and are meant to be a framework that guides people in their progress. Can we not acknowledge this without worrying about being low on the social totem pole? How else will we seize the opportunity for a more conducive situation when it arises?

            I also appreciate Vrindaranya’s points. The presence of some sincere, genuine renunciates always creates a healthy discomfort which I think is conducive. At some point seize we must!

          • Yes I agree serving a sad-guru is higher than serving the family. I feel that when one fails to serve sad-guru in some capacity(like monastic), he/she engages the disciple in some other service. That is the greatness of serving sad-guru. However, in family life you have to keep on delivering financial resources for 30-40 years. There is no alternative. So I am fascinated how people are able to go through the money making pain of 30-40 years where they have no choice of doing anything else.

          • According to the Bhagavatam, such is the power of Visnu-maya. The driving force is family attachment.

          • madan gopal das

            Just want to throw in a word about differentiating between grhamedhi (which the Bhagavatam is addressing) and grhastha vaisnavas. Though they can both share some of the same burdens, and both need to heed the lessons of the bhagavata, the power of visnu-maya is covering the grhamedhi, perpetuating an enjoying spirit, whereas a grhastha vaisnava is potentially cultivating a covering of yoga-maya, feeling for Krsna’s enjoyment.
            Regarding long-term household life, I don’t think it is always about family attachment. In my experience, attachment to anything fades rather quickly. After the expectation and reality of a given desire is fulfilled, one is left with the object, the relationship, whatever it may be, with a much diluted passion for it. My point is that household life can be much less about attachment than I think it is about sacrifice and duty. It can also be about psychological development, as there is opportunity to grow in committed relationships. In vaisnava grhastha life it can also be a lot about seva, assisting a partner or others one has relationship with in progressing in bhakti. I think that devotees who have any training and standing in bhakti are focusing on how to purify and transform their situation into something progressive on the bhakti path rather than just prolonging their enjoyment or being a “slave to the grind”.

          • I agree with your observations. I think these are important and very balanced points you make as to the distinction between the two household situations as well as the implications of long term household life and how it can be progressively transformative.

          • I agree with you. That is why I feel family life is selfless if you want to keep it working for 40 years. It has a lot more sacrifice involved than what you get in return, so it can be conducive to devotional life. Only the object of sacrifice can be misplaced as Vrindaranya pointed out. Sacrifice nonetheless is praiseworthy quality of have. I admire grahastas like you as much as monastics. Both have their place.

          • Vrindaranya, I forgot to make one more point. There is no credit for one to get the right object of love ( I mean a realized Guru in the “correct” conception of philosophically non-deviant GV ( how rare can you get). This is a lottery ticket (bhagyavan jiva) and it only by grace you can get to “right” place. No effort can get to that place. However, the credit of the soul is the desire to sacrifice and soul. So I have immense respect for people who attend to the physical and mental needs of disabled people giving up their own comfort families. I know some people who are doing that with such mood of sacrifice. You can philosophically rationalize their service away saying they are just serving the body(coat) not the person(soul). I know how much havoc the soul saving people have done in the world. Neither they save the soul nor the body, just fight and be fanatic.

            So I feel that wherever I see the desire to serve, I have to respect that in a soul. Krsna praises the life of the tree in such a way in 10th canto of S.B because each ounce of the tree is used for the service of others. And CM wants us to learn from the tree as well. If the serving nature is there, once the right object of service comes, it will be easy for the soul to switch to that object. I don;t think a soul deserves credit to come to GV, it is descending grace only. How in the world can you choose between 10000 competitions conceptions with limited philosophical intelligence and 20 different interpretations of different scriptures? There is no way for the soul to know, only thing that is possible is to serve.
            I cannot see how one person I know who left his home/comfort/family and works in India to serve physically and mentally challenged children day in and day out(17 hours a day) without any govt support/recognition (living in obscurity) is doing selfish work. We can explain it away through some philosophical rationalization saying that it is extended bodily consciousness etc. It is sometimes easier to serve the soul if that means vomiting out theoretical philosophy compared to serving the ailing, disabled bodies. In fact, the so called religious traditions in medieval Europe and India have castigated people with ailments instead of serving them blaming them for calamities. Let us see how these “soul” conscious people can do in serving. Certainly I can use some selective interpretation of sastra to back up my points, but there will another selective interpretation to counter my points. “Tarko pratisthanat” . So no-one can know anything for certain, only thing we can do is to increase our tendency to serve ( avoid the tendency to renounce or exploit) and hope that we get to the right object of service eventually. You are doing that already, so my respects to you.

          • I just want to quickly point out that a lot of this post hinges on conflating immature religious practitioners with the theory of which Vrindaranya spoke. No one would argue that some join ashrams and become preachers to avoid a more sacrificing life that could take the form of the type of service of which you speak.

            Nonetheless, you yourself write that we can only try to increase our service tendency and hope that we get the right object of service eventually. Is this not acknowledging that there is a gradation and the right object is, well, right.

            Lastly, while we cannot progress without mercy, it is not that everything is completely deterministic. One of the reasons we appreciate advanced devotees is because they have submitted themselves to the mercy that we continue to oppose in our own lives. There is such a thing as the jiva’s free will, but it is always a subject that is hard to grasp, for myself as well.

          • I said what is the credit of the soul to get to the right object? Some will argue hardly any with a selection based on karma, birth in a particular tradition, emotional appeal of a philosophy among 10,000 different conceptions. But like you say it is hard to ascertain freewill.

            Lastly the correct choice is correct according to the lens of GV, but I admit that I may be wrong in my choice also and my selection of philosophy can be be an error. I have no choice but to take a chance and hit in the dark and serve the GV conception ( which is the best choice according to what I could assess- as if there is a lot of free-will). Otherwise a soul is helpless in making decisions. How can you certain of something without any experience of Brahman, Paramatma or Bhagavan though you can have philosophical fights over these conceptions with no experience of any of them(that is what I feel is the case with 99.8% practitioners in most traditions)? It is more of faith, grace or luck, how do I give much credit to the soul for making the right decision? I can only give credit to the soul for sacrifice, albeit for the wrong object.
            Tree is serving the wrong object, but Krsna and CM praise the tree. Tree does not ascertain the right object to serve because that is not in our hand. If we are always looking to serve, we will serve the right object when he/she comes in our life and make more advancement than a person who is lucky to get the right object, but does nothing with it.

          • Gaura-vijaya, you seem to be saying that we should develop the serving attitude because we will then serve the right object when we are lucky enough to have it come into our lives. This analysis seems faulty to me because we already have the serving tendency, as it is the innate nature of the soul. What changes is not the serving tendency, but the object of service.

            The soul develops by enlarging its sense of itself and thereby serving a more expanded object. The less purely selfish its motivations are the more progress it has made: for example, from one’s own desires to identifying with the family to the nation to the world to God.

            The different objects (self, family, nation, world, God) are available to all, but which object people gravitate to serving will depend on what they identify with (their desires), which evolve over long periods of time. Faith and grace generally do not drop in one’s lap wholesale but develop slowly and in accordance with the free will of the jiva.

            You say that people are not able to ascertain the right object to serve. This may be true in the context of one life, but over the course of many lives we can get sufficient experience of the limitations of serving only our own selfish desires or own nation of birth, for example. From this we change our object of service and can gradually progress towards serving God, the most expanded sense of self. Therefore, getting the right object to serve is not a random luck-of-the-draw situation, but the culmination of lifetimes of gradual progress.

            Of course, the real situation is highly complex and there is overlapping of many desires, so I don’t mean to say that one who serves the world at large has progressed less than one who appears to serve God but in reality is more focused on serving themselves. I meant only to address what sounded to me like an excessively deterministic viewpoint.

          • But some people choose not to serve when the opportunity presents themselves but to exploit more(karma) or renounce more(jnana). I understand lifetimes of progress, but what does bhagyavan jiva mean? Bhagyavan means lucky or fortunate to get the Guru. Getting to bhakti only happens by good fortune. Nothing we can do can get us bhakti. Maybe my analysis is faulty, but I don’t understand your point. You want to give credit to a person for choosing GV over other conceptions. I don’t seeing the kind of people GV has attracted. Even in the Jaiva Dharma BVT says that when the time is right, the person gets in contact with the right Guru. So only thing that is separating others is right time to get the opportunity. Then they had reject or accept that opportunity depending on their serving disposition at that instant of time. After bhakti through the Guru has descended, then we can either co-operate or reject the grace. Yes serving God ( but which conception, only the GV conception, there are 10,0000 conceptions of God out there with 10,000 interpretations of sastra). I am not saying it is deterministic, but the role of grace from above is very crucial in getting to right object. There is a difference between serving the self and serving the extended self else Krsna would not have praised the tree. Yes I understand your sense of self expands the most when you serve God ( I don’t know which God though), but I see that even among leaders of GV tradition, the self has contracted more through conformity to ritual, institution and fanaticism than it has expanded. There is a difference between serving others who are in suffering and not related by blood relation according to me is different than enjoying one’s own senses. When the word sacrifice is used, it is used in the context of giving up one’s interest for the interest of others ( the highest reach is God among 1,000 sectarian options). SSM said that if somebody is habituated to taking too much, he/she needs to cultivate the habit of giving. It maybe the innate nature of the soul to serve, but to serve like a tree does not come that easily to people in the present condition of life.

            In the end, it is just a debate between the role of free will and grace from above. “Faith and grace generally do not drop in one’s lap wholesale but develop slowly and in accordance with the free will of the jiva.” I say grace to get to the conception of bhakti is independent of free will of jiva. Like I said it will be hard to ascertain what is the truth in this matter and how grace and free will function as even different acaryas differ on this. In fact, the two sects in Ramanuja sampradayas differ on this key issue. So my analysis maybe faulty, but who is to ascertain which sect of Ramanuja is faulty. You have interpret sastra selectively to derive the conclusion you like and other can do so also. It is a stalemate where you have to just respect the differences. So I say, you can be very much right and I can be wrong, but I can’t ascertain right now with the means I have at disposal. In my own limited experience, I feel that a minuscule soul finding the right object in millions of universes is hitting in the dark and his chances of success are as low as you can get. Being a student in research, I feel that however much effort I put until there is a lot of grace from nature to reveal her concepts to me, I am helpless. Similarly though I may have the right object to serve, I admire people with “wrong object” but high serving capacity and I want to learn from them. I cannot at this point serve like them.

          • Gaura-vijaya, when I wrote my post I actually didn’t see your original post in which you make the point about bhakti descending. Now I see more where you are coming from: yes, bhakti descends so we can’t take credit for that.

            I also agree that developing a serving tendency is important and laudable and that the fact that someone is a devotee doesn’t mean that they aren’t primarily self-serving. A brahmacari’s main object of service may really be his own desires: for example, doing a lot of service to get recognition.

            Nonetheless, I don’t agree that who or what we serve has nothing to do with us, that our object of service is completely determined by outside forces and the only thing we can do is to develop a serving tendency and “hope we get the right object of service eventually.” For example, someone may be dedicating themselves diligently to serving humanity by working for an environmental organization. But that doesn’t mean that as soon as they get some ajnata-sukriti they will immediately be able to turn that serving tendency completely to bhakti. It is much more likely that they will continue to serve environmental causes as they gradually build bhakti sukriti. Therefore, it is not as easy for the soul to switch the object of service as you seem to suggest. In addition to a general tendency to serve, one must develop sambandha-jnana in tandem, but you have stated that “there is no way for the soul to know, only thing that is possible is to serve.”

            You seem to be saying that a devotee has no ability to discern between different interpretations, that their sambandha is dependent on whatever has descended to them (for example, you say how do you chose between 10,000 competing conceptions). But we see that we make progress conceptually; our sambandha-jnana improves (effort and grace going hand in hand). According to our level of sambandha-jnana we can discern falsity from truth, so why do you say that it is not possible for the soul to know, only to serve? Can we not know, first theoretically and then practically, that we are not our material bodies? Can we not realize to the core of our being that the material world is temporary? Once we realize these things, will it not change where we repose our serving tendency? And furthermore, don’t our offenses cloud our vision? If we can’t know anything for certain, how do you know that it is better to serve selflessly than to stuff your face with gulab jamuns on the comfort of a couch?

            We can see that different devotees have different primary objects of service: One devotee may make a lot of sacrifices to serve his family, and another may be greatly committed to environmental causes, and a third may be totally dedicated to serving Sri Guru. Bhakti has descended in each of their lives and they may all be serving their respective objects with equal dedication. How do you account for this? If Sri Guru is the “right” object, why did not all three easily switch to that object as you suggested they should be able to do?

            A final point. You say, “I see that even among leaders of GV tradition, the self has contracted more through conformity to ritual, institution and fanaticism than it has expanded.” Compared to what? Who is to say that such leaders weren’t in an even more contracted position previously? Furthermore, isn’t it better for a devotee to have the rigidity that is common in the primary stages of bhakti than to have no bhakti-sukriti at all (better for the devotee, that is, not the reputation of the tradition).

          • Yes material world is temporary is not that difficult to understand, but to choose among 10,000 traditions who agree on this point is not easy. How can you be certain that your choice of philosophy is the correct one? I feel the Absolute will remain unknown to some extent always. There are some people who got 3 gurus in GV and all the 3 gurus fell down. Still they continued to serve. They got the wrong object, but they continued to serve. What is use of getting a “right” object and not serving like me?

            I agree that is hard to switch from serving destitute, handicapped children to serving a Guru but much easier to do so compared to switching from sense pleasure to selfless service to Guru. I got to the object of service, which is same as yours, do I consider that I have any role to play in that and I am superior to people who got wrong gurus 3 times. I saw that there service attitude is better than me, but they didn’t get the right object. So there is some lack of grace not lack of effort. On my part it is the other way round.

            Also my underlying point is that if there is an Absolute the best chance for you to know him/her/it is to serve. Now you may get to the wrong conception, but still serve sincerely. If there is no Absolute truth transcendent to the world then certainly it does not matter if you sit on couch and stuff gulab jamuns or if you serve at some place. Nothing matters if everything is matter. I said that you can never be sure when you start serving that you got the right object. But still you have to give yourself and let the Absolute reveal himself on his own terms (paraphrasing from the Upanishad verse). He may give something more easily to others than you, but you can’t complain.

            The self of many religious leaders is more contracted than people who are serving the destitute bodies of people without any need for recognition.
            It is better to be rigid in their own tradition for sukriti is a good practical advice that has been misused. Obviously, the islam extremists justify their rigidity in the same way. It is better to be rigid in sticking to a serving attitude (harder to do) than to be rigid on some theoretical concept in your particular text book (super easy to do).

          • I agree with most of what you have said in your post, but here are a few thoughts that came to mind.

            “Yes material world is temporary is not that difficult to understand, but to choose among 10,000 traditions who agree on this point is not easy… I feel the Absolute will remain unknown to some extent always…What is use of getting a “right” object and not serving like me?”

            Well, I’m glad that you now agree that it is possible to know something! That was my point, not that by knowing something you know everything. As for choosing among these 10,000 traditions, this sounds extreme. 10,000 traditions? Realistically those who are looking choose among less than 10 major traditions and then find their place within the subsets of that tradition.

            Yes, I agree that there is some relativity and one can’t be 100% confident of one’s logic and reasoning, but neither is there no basis whatsoever for making a comparative study and drawing conclusions, and thus its not exactly hitting in the dark either, and this is especially so when you are comparing transcendental to material pursuits (and not all transcendental paths are descending, so you can’t say that people are helpless to do anything but develop a dedicating tendency towards material things).

            “Also my underlying point is that if there is an Absolute the best chance for you to know him/her/it is to serve. Now you may get to the wrong conception, but still serve sincerely.”

            I agree with the first sentence, but I’m not sure what you’re getting at with the second. By sincerely serving the wrong conception you will know the Absolute? Will eventually hit upon the Absolute? But why then are you so disturbed by the rigid fundamentalists? Isn’t that what they are doing?

            “It is better to be rigid in their own tradition for sukriti is a good practical advice that has been misused.”

            My point is that if someone is bound up by the lower modes, what can they do really? Are they going to be any more beautiful as wholesale materialists? They obviously can’t be dedicated to any cause in an exemplary fashion, but at least they have a noble ideal. When you say that the advice is misused, can you give an example and say what the alternative would be?

            “The self of many religious leaders is more contracted than people who are serving the destitute bodies of people without any need for recognition.”

            By identifying with a more expanded object, one’s prospect is greater. That is one way of understanding that one’s sense of self is expanded. As Srila Sridhara Maharaja said, it is better to be on the bottom floor of a 100 story building than the top floor of a 5 story building. Because, after all, having destitute, handicapped children as your object of service is laudable and noble, it can take you to heaven and give you heaps of pious credit, but it doesn’t take you to a transcendental destination. So, given, one can be on the ground floor of bhakti and it doesn’t look too good. Probably a lot like the ground floor of the five story building, by the way. But you have to look at the prospect.

            Another way of looking at it is this. You can say that the ground-floor devotee has Sri Guru and Gauranga as their object of dedication and that you don’t see them to have an expanded sense of self, but how much is Guru-Gauranga the object of dedication, really, if one, as you posited, doesn’t serve? The soul is active and its nature is to dedicate itself, so that dedication and serving capacity must be going somewhere. And if it isn’t going to Sri Guru and Gauranga, you can be sure that it is going somewhere else. Maybe its going to establishing a career out of a fear of poverty or a desire for the good things of life or to watching football because that’s the only thing you really like doing, or studying because you find it fascinating. Of course you are going to find the person who is fully dedicating themselves to serving others to be in a better position than one who gives lip service to a higher ideal but is spending all their time serving numero uno. That is their real object of dedication.

            Still, we can’t entirely discount the statement that we should judge a person by their ideal.

          • Thanks for your comments Vrindaranya. I agree with most of what you say. Your thoughts above made me reflect on things in a better way. Thanks again for the nice discussion.

            I will like to just leave comments on some issues you raised above.
            “Also my underlying point is that if there is an Absolute the best chance for you to know him/her/it is to serve. Now you may get to the wrong conception, but still serve sincerely.”

            By a wrong conception, I mean wrong according to the vantage point of GV like perhaps St Francis of Acissi. Who knows it is wrong or not? And this wrong conception is because the person sincerely makes the best choice among the options he/she has. I am not talking about rigid fundamentalists. I don;t think that rigid fundamentalists have sincerely made the wrong choice. A person who is sincere is aware of his/her limitations and can admit that they can be wrong. Rigid fundamentalists have absolute confidence in their beliefs and can never admit that they are wrong and the fact that their conception has flaws. A sincere person in a path will honestly know their current position and admit how much they don’t know. The more you know, you know less.

            The alternative I suggest for people who are rigid fundamentalists is to focus more time in serving the guru and the devotees, and less time in confronting people and preaching their fanaticism as Absolute truth. Also they need to be aware of their boundaries.

          • Why would St. Francis of Assisi have a wrong conception according to Gaudiya Vaisnavism? GV has one of the most accommodating viewpoints of other religious conceptions.

            When fundamentalists serve the guru and devotees (by cooking, for example), it may be better because they are not in the front lines, but it can really get bothersome because the rigid vision/criticalness of any deviation from perfect external behavior (imagined or otherwise) has no outlet except towards the surrounding devotees and the result is offenses.

          • I don’t know some devotees do feel that he was serving the wrong conception. But I meant people like him can be really much superior to many devotees in GV conception, atleast in expanding their consciousness (maybe not in the ideal).
            Yes, I guess I have no solution for fundamentalists then 🙂 I give up.

          • 🙂

          • Another thing, some people GV cannot even accomodate Sakhya rasa, I don’t know how they will accommodate St Francis? 🙂

          • Just to add, some people can also cross over from a 5-storied building to the 5th floor of the 100-storied building while the people at the bottom stay there in the meantime. Perhaps those at the bottom got the right object by grace and causeless mercy, but they did not do anything with it.

          • “Just to add, some people can also cross over from a 5-storied building to the 5th floor of the 100-storied building while the people at the bottom stay there in the meantime. Perhaps those at the bottom got the right object by grace and causeless mercy, but they did not do anything with it.”

            Yes, that’s a good point. Like it is said that those in knowledge who come to bhakti can make fast progress.

            There appear to be two quadrants in effect here: one is how expanded one’s object of service is and the other is how expanded one’s own consciousness is. For example, you can have a relatively constricted object (nationalism) but make a lot of sacrifices, not look for recognition, etc. So you have to take both quadrants into consideration. One on the fifth floor of a five-story building is constricted in terms of object but expanded in terms of personal consciousness.

            The same double quadrant situation also applies to the varnas. One can be a sudra in terms of propensity for work, but do the work with a brahminical disposition (the carpenter who is appreciates fine-quality work, is neat, detached, etc.) and conversely you have the lazy, envious brahmana. It’s weird because (taking the brahmana example) such a person is definitely drawn to brahminical work and has the corresponding intellectual capacity, but is heavily influenced by tamas (laziness) and rajas (envy). What exactly the two quadrants correspond to (body and heart? body and piety?), I’m not exactly sure.

            A simple analysis of how gunas effect the disposition is as follows:

            A sudra is predominately influenced by tamo-guna, a vaisya by a mix of tamas and rajas, a ksatriya by rajas, and a brahmana by sattva. One influenced by tamo-guna is motivated by laziness or sense pleasure, one influenced by rajas is motivated by status or power, and one influenced by sattva is primarily motivated by knowledge or higher principles. The sattvic influence causes one to think how a task would best be done, the rajasic influence causes one to think how one can get the most recognition for the task, and the tamasic influence causes one to think how to avoid or minimize the work.

          • I like the points you raised. Like you pointed there are two quadrants in play here. I am happy that because of the discussion with you, we could identify the two quadrants. Yes how these two quadrants interplay is as hard as determining whether light is a particle or a wave . Anyway thanks for your points.

          • I am tamasic brahmin (only by birth) that corresponds to lazy intelligence. Need to learn to improve in that area.

          • You have no idea about India KB das. So you have not seen abuse of outcastes and sudras. You have no idea about what you are saying. It is as good as saying Sun rises from the west not the east. Any reasonable person will not buy your theory. Caste abuse is present to this date!

          • I have seen plenty of abuse and unfairness outside of India and all over the world, therefore we can conclude that the Vedic Varnashrama system is not the cause, rather it is systemic to human nature and not Varnashrama. The plight of India was not caused by Varnashrama but by lust, anger and greed.

          • Swami B.V. Tripurari:

            but if one embraces the notion that guna and karma predispose one more than one’s environment, one accepts an idea that is basically repugnant to today’s Western secular and religious sensibilities.

            I’ve always understood that our rejection of the “caste system” was based on Gita’s guna karma vibhagasa, whereas the system in India had gone astray by basing it on birth. So when you say guna and karma (more so) are repugnant ideas in western cultures, I’m confused because it seems that our understanding of guna/karma make varnasrama more friendly and acceptable.
            I was always taught that guna is referring to the qualities or personality makeup a person has, and karma was referring to the actual work they do. So, if a person is born in a laborer family, yet they have an intellectual nature and have naturally gravitated towards intellectual work, they should be so engaged. What I think is repugnant to the majority of modern societies is the idea that despite one’s nature and work (guna/karma) a person would be socially stuck based on their birth and restricted from following their nature and pursuing their “natural” work.
            I understand how karma can be also understood not as work, but in relation to birth and reincarnation, but I thought our GV philosophy was avoiding that way of thinking in relation to varnasrama for exactly the reason that it restricts the social freedom of the human being and taken further does not recognize bhakti’s superior influence and it’s awarding of opportunity.
            I was also thinking like Gaura-vijaya pointed out that western society is wrestling with nature vs. nurture, really accepting a combination of both. I don’t see how guna/karma as I have suggested above would run contrary to modern thinking and therefore I also really embrace your presentation of an essential understanding of varnasrama. The things that hang me up are the aspects of varnasrama that seem Indian culturally bound and I wonder how relevant they are to a now international GV society which was born out of such a culture but has throughout history challenged the social system…

          • Yes, that is a particular interpretation of the verse to soften the idea against arguments of fatalism and the locking in of one’s varna onthe basis of birth. And there is some truth to it. But the fact is that one’s karma very much informs one’s activities (karma) and the gunas very much determine one’s qualities (guna). One’s varna is not determined by one’s birth, but one’s birth is determined by one’s karma. Thus one’s birth has much to do with how one will act and what qualities one will have, but not everything. Thus there is always room for movement within the varnas. At any rate, however you look at it one’s varna is determined by one’s relationship with the gunas and one’s karma (acts largely informed by one’s past).

      • Maybe that is true to some extent but there is a big fight even in science about nature and nurture. Genetic predisposition cannot be ignored. Obviously because of abuse of this side through the growth of eugenics, people have been dismissive of the genetic predisposition side. Not in the scientific community, but in the general “intellectual” society. I am intrigued about the influence of Marx on the current thought process in the west even though people may not be aware of it. Marxists obviously will care nothing about intrinsic nature of the individual and say that these are just things used to exploit the others.

        If we study Plato’s Republic, it talks about assessing the disposition of people by observing their natures and inclinations till they are 15-16 and then designating their class. And the person who is disposed to philosophy will have to lead the most austere and simple life!! Others have more licenses for indulgence. After such a training at 50 the philosophically inclined person can be a philosopher king or a rajarishi if you will. Nobody wants to be intelligent and be denied pleasures and luxuries, so this system does not work today. But the idea was same for the brahmins. They have to leave a simple and austere life because they are intelligent and philosophically inclined. That does not happen anymore, so the system is bound to crumble.

        Obviously there are limitations of the Republic and many things in the book are repugnant to today’s psyche( influenced heavily by Marx. I also appreciate Marxian analysis many times). But I feel there is some merit to the understanding of getting one the occupation one is psychologically suited to.
        I feel SP said that Plato’s idea is ok, but he is wasting time by teaching everybody a variety of things. Their guna should be identified very early(at five) and there is no need for them to be trained into everything. I disagree with SP there as this would mean designation more by birth alone and transitions would be hard to make. I know some people in India that cannot change occupation from a weaver to a farmer etc just because to strong demarcations. So if the fluidity is there is assessing one’s temperament and suitability for occupation and ashrama, then it is not harmful.

        • Krishna Chaitanya das

          Hare Krishna,

          Srila Prabhupada’s idea was that the children would be taught the same things from age 5 until age 10 or 12. At that time they would be assessed and then given specialized training accordingly. From my experience with my own children and others, I think you can tell a great deal about a person by the time they are a teenager. I don’t think this is such a crazy idea. I have heard of European and other countries that put the students into different tracks at middle school and/or high school and then just teach them specialized subjects.

          Anyway, I think another important point is this: I have often seen people disagreeing with what they think Srila Prabhupada’s teachings are, rather than what his teaching’s actually say. I think it might be a good idea to make sure you are actually disagreeing with SP, rather than just saying, “I think SP said this and I disagree with it.”

          I believe if we give Srila Prabhupada’a teachings, writings, lectures, conversations, letters, etc. a close perusal, we will find that he is not as conservative as many of his followers might be. I have found much thoughtfulness, variety, and liberal-mindedness in SP’s teachings and I think he is sometimes wrongly accused of things based on what his disciples have done or not done.

          I just wanted to put that out there.

          Hare Krishna

          • I believe if we give Srila Prabhupada’a teachings, writings, lectures, conversations, letters, etc. a close perusal, we will find that he is not as conservative as many of his followers might be. I have found much thoughtfulness, variety, and liberal-mindedness in SP’s teachings and I think he is sometimes wrongly accused of things based on what his disciples have done or not done.

            Agreed.

          • I agree but I was speaking from Dialectic Spiritualism compiled by SP disciples and his views on Plato. He does not want everybody to go through same training till they are teenager. In fact, he says Plato’s recommendation to do is wasting time and at very early age things should be predecided. So I disagree with that.
            Now if the book is misquoting SP, I can’t help it.

      • One may find the particular social system that expressed itself in all of its details in the ancient Indian subcontinent that stems from this root impractical in today’s world, but if one embraces the notion that guna and karma predispose one more than one’s environment, one accepts an idea that is basically repugnant to today’s Western secular and religious sensibilities.

        Then what follows is a grand dillema, for one finds oneself stuck between two extremely repugnant and impractical propositions, both separated only by history.

  8. Vrindaranya dasi

    “I also agree that the concept and practice of varnashrama has proven pretty useless here in the West with the exception of distinguishing the monastic (sannyasa & brahmacari) from the non-monastic. Even then, it is merely a short-hand way to say something about whether or not the sadhaka is having sex.”

    I think this definition is too narrow. I see the important and tangible difference to be how much the different asramas facilitate service to the guru’s mission. Because grhastas have separate households to maintain (and whether one owns or rents a house is largely irrelevant), they generally speaking have to work separately to maintain it. Not only should all of a brahmacari or sannyasi’s work/seva be done for the mission, the work itself is usually of a more directly spiritual nature and affords more favorable association. Furthermore, there is generally a big difference between the amount one has to renounce control in the various asramas. For example, several devotees who have tried living in the monastery have cited to me the difficulty of being on call at all times and having to be at someone else’s mercy even for toothpaste to be important factors in deciding that the brahmacari asrama was not for them.

    “We may use designations like Brahmacari, householder, vanaprasta, or even swami when we come for a festival, but by the next festival someone may have switched back and forth between designations, maybe once, maybe twice. A brahmacari is someone (well, a male) who lives in the temple. The term is merely a utility of temple life.”

    Although asramas may be arbitrary in the sense that they are based on individual preference rather than the intrinsic nature of a devotee, this is not to say that there aren’t tangible differences between asramas. Therefore, the terms themselves aren’t arbitrary (although they can be used arbitrarily). For example, if a couple marries, gets divorced, but still lives together, the term “married” and “divorced” are arbitrary because they don’t really define meaningful differences. If the couple marries, divorces, and lives separately, the terms aren’t arbitrary but rather define tangible differences.

    In the case of a devotee who changes asramas, there is generally a very real difference in that person’s life. The terms “grhasta” and “brahmacari” aren’t arbitrary because they describe the nature of two different things.

    As for the term brahmacari being “merely a utility of temple life,” what is mere about that? These terms have some relevance inasmuch as we aspire for full-time service to the mission of our Gurudeva.

    “What is a householder? What about a celibate bachelor devotee who doesn’t have a house? Is he in the householder ashram? If we accept the asharams as positive descriptions of what they are rather than what they aren’t, then no, he’s just a devotee. And a vanasprasta? What if an older bachelor still has a job? My point is that these distinctions are not clear, and that is because they are not intrinsically real. We use them for convenience and politeness. They are changed from their original context within the varnasrama social system for use within our very specific mission. Even the swami must sometimes be a businessman.”

    A positive definition of a brahmacari might be one who lives in the house/mission of the guru, and the grhasta as one who has a separate house (rented or owned). The asramas aren’t black and white divisions, and there is an easily observable gradation between a full-blown grhasta with mortgage and kids and a sannyasi in terms of how favorable the situations are for serving the guru’s mission. A bachelor who still has a job is in the gradation from grhasta to brahmacari. He shares some similarity to both. He has more time for spiritual life than someone who has both a job and kids, and given the fact that he doesn’t have to support kids, it is easier to donate more time and money to the mission. What is the relevance of the vanaprastha asrama? One’s kids have grown up, so one doesn’t have the same responsibilities and is more free to pursue spiritual life. Thus I don’t see the asramas as being meaningless distinctions. For the vast majority of devotees, different asramas have a major impact their ability to serve the guru’s mission. That said, the best asrama and the one in which one will make the most progress in is the asrama which one has adhikara for.

    • I agree with your Vrindaranya. But I feel that bramachari life and grihasta life with kids are equally selfless. Only selfish life you can have is when you are bachelor without kids and working outside. That is where you have the most independence. I say that from my own experience 🙂 So perhaps that is least conducive to spiritual life, but most conducive for a selfish life.

  9. Krishna Chaitanya das

    Hare Krishna,

    This is an interesting discussion. While I understand why people would want to reject the idea of varnasrma because it seems out of date and also many misunderstandings and abuses have come about because of it, I think that there is some value to the basic ideas of varna and asrama.

    If someone can determine what they are best suited to do in life, I think it can be very helpful for living peacefully in this world and making it easier to pursue spiritual life. It can also be useful for working together with other devotees for serving Krishna. If we each do the part that we can play best, we can work together nicely. I also thought of a way as to how it could be a good thing to acknowledge the varna of another person. If someone is well situated, we can appreciate that they are a good teacher, a good leader, a good example of how to properly be a vegetarian, environmentally friendly farmer, or how a person has a nice work ethic with the good qualities of an honest, dependable employee. In addition, the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam give us some of the qualities that should be present in a teacher or leader and we can accept and/or reject such people according to these instructions.

    I think the asramas give some indication of where one’s focus should be in relation to where they are in the progression of their lifespan. The first years of one’s life are meant for learning spiritual and material subjects and for figuring out how one will spend his or her life. If one gets married, one’s responsibilities are mostly in relation to occupation and family. Then there comes a time when the children are gone and one should simplify and start to concentrate more exclusively on spiritual topics. And finally, one may approach a more renounced state near the end of life.

    I think it is helpful for the scriptures to remind us of the importance of our occupation and stage of life in relation to our service and approach to Krishna. It seems like all of these ideas will always be relevant no matter in ancient or modern times. It may be that some of the external trappings of what we consider to be a varnasrama society will be obsolete, but I think it might be a little too much to discard so many of the teachings of scripture because they don’t seem to fit with modern life. If we consider the ideas thoughtfully on their own merits, and not just on how they have been misapplied in the past, we may see that they have some value, even in our times.

    I appreciate the way that the devotees on this website try to look at the scripture in a progressive, modern way, but at the same time, I think it may be a good idea to sometimes be cautious and try to see how the previous acaryas and great sages may be smarter than we think. And it is possible that we are not as smart as we think. These are just some thoughts I would like to share on this subject. I hope they have some value, if not, I apologize for wasting your time.

    Hare Krishna

    • Yes I agree with you. One must be careful in deciding, for example, what is cultural baggage ad what is not, what is relative and what is absolute. Thus one should serve under the guidance of a present day acarya. Such determinations require realization of the principle.

    • Dear Krishna Chaitanya das,
      Pamho and WOW…
      Jai!!
      Mother Earth and the Cows are Happy…that indeed there is still the intelligentsia for the Varnasrama.
      You are glorious.

  10. Of course many people have used monasticism as an excuse for their laziness and social ineptness, but all of my comments on brahmacarya above apply to a situation where one lives with a sad-guru. It’s not possible to cheat in that environment.

    It is very rare to live with a sad-guru. I mean at Audarya there are only a few of you. I have seen that the majority of bramacari’s I’ve known were more like “free agents”. Some had credit cards, etc., did business and not bidding for the guru. I don’t know how surrendered they were per se but that is in most cases the social reality of the greater Gaudiya world. I have also seen householders being lazy as well. The grhasta asrama has as a foundational principle to be charitable meaning working enough to support one’s family as well as the monks in the mission. If that is not being done to at least some degree then it seems that grhasta asrama can tend to be too comfortable and not purifying enough. There are the rare brahminical grhastas who are more like grhasta bramacaris and do the gurus bidding but I have yet to really see many true examples of that in my 23 years as a devotee and in that scenario one also lives under the guidance of a sad guru.

    Thus I don’t see the asramas as being meaningless distinctions. For the vast majority of devotees, different asramas have a major impact their ability to serve the guru’s mission. That said, the best asrama and the one in which one will make the most progress in is the asrama which one has adhikara for.

    I agree with Vrindaranya’s comments. I think the real principle for progress in any asrama is one’s ability to serve the guru’s mission. If one’s adhikari is of a monastic then those austerities must be accepted, if one has the adhikara of a ghrhasta or non monastic then there are austerities as well and they must be taken up otherwise these designations are merely social and then what really is the point.

    Personally, I think monastic and non monastic are more poignant distinctions for modern society. I also like the idea of the lay monastic, one who lives outside but doesn’t have family. I have known quite a few people who were in that circumstance and were generally labeled as “bachelors” or suspect. It was really quite an oversight and well quite immature in my opinion. Monastic, non monastic and lay monastic say quite a bit, describing the proximity of which one serves the guru’s mission.

    • Personally, I think monastic and non monastic are more poignant distinctions for modern society. I also like the idea of the lay monastic, one who lives outside but doesn’t have family. … Monastic, non monastic and lay monastic say quite a bit, describing the proximity of which one serves the guru’s mission.

      I think that this is generally true and I also like the term lay monastic. However, I think what keeps getting overlooked here is the collapse between social categories (that are descriptive of one’s type of service and availability for service to the guru as Vrindaranya stated: good point by the way!) and advancement categorizations(komala, sraddha, nishta etc.). For the general GV world to be brahmacari or sannyasi is inherently a superior position and is pressumed to translate as “advanced”. Of course we all know that this is not necessarily the case. On the other end is the belief that to be a family or working person is considered a more fallen or inferior state, despite the fact that many of the most advanced bhaktas in GV history have had families, homes, and work. This hierarchy is a collapse between two different descriptive areas (social position and advancement position) and has created much animosity and cynicism. It is really hard, I think, for those who are never on the higher end of the hierarchy.

      I also wonder about this point about favorability for the service to the guru. Although it is undoubtable that the working class have less time because of their work schedules and family schedules… I wonder if we are being valued and utilized for our skills to be used in the service of the guru? For example: I am a psychologist and professor of psychology and I have never been asked to use my own training to help the mission in any way. I believe this is unfortunate since I believe my knowledge is much needed in GV. Before accepting someone as a monastic at an center/temple/retreat, I might be able to assess the extent to which they would be prone to extreme idealizations and devaluations that have proven erratic and problematic in the past; their ability to regulate emotions; control their sexual, aggressive and fight/flight impulses; their preparedness for surrender and austerities; the extent to which they are running toward spiritual cultivation rather than away from chaotic lives; and the capacity for forming meaningful connections with peers and superiors. Even more important, I can assess for psychotic thought processes (we attract a lot of psychotic minds to GV) that can prove very distracting and troublesome for everyone. Even if not used to screen out sincere aspirants, it might still be useful information for the guru and the sadhaka for seva & psychological treatment purposes.

      I think it would take some creative dovetailing and significantly more respect for the education and work of ‘householder’ devotees… but it may be a good way to unite an otherwise divided social community.

      • Audarya-lila dasa

        I don’t think in the case of Sri Chaitanya Sanga that your assessment rings true. I don’t believe that the collapse of the social structure and advancment of the practicioners is at all prevalent, or even present for that matter, in this particular mission.

        What you have stated may be true in Iskcon, or some portions of Iskcon – I couldn’t really say if that is presently the case though. I know when I was involved in Iskcon as a full time sevaite over 25 years ago that your assessment would be fairly accurate.

        But I don’t really believe that where one is perceived to be at in some artificially conceived or recognized heirarchy has any real or apparent value. What matters is your own heart and placing it before Sri Guru. He/she is the person who can help steer the serious sadhaka in the right direction for real advancement which is what is important, not the perceptions of others.

        As far as respect for the education and training of the lay community goes – I have never encountered any disrespect in that regard. I do believe it is up to those of us with training in any given field to demonstrate how our training and education can be utilized directly in serving the mission rather than placing the onus on those without the specialized training or education. Your idea about helping to assess candidates for monasticism seems good – it could also be expanded to the lay community where assessment of devotees ability to live balanced lives that facilitate spiritual growth would seem quite beneficial. I think it’s a good idea and that you should pursue it by presenting a concrete and practical plan for how to implement it.

        When I was a student in Iskcon there was a small gurukula at the temple I resided in that was being run by a devotee with no formal training in education or child development. I offered, after consulting with him and ensuring that he was available and interested in helping, to have my brother who is a trained child psychologist and was working in the schools and involved in assessments and lesson planning come to the temple and test the children and help develop lesson plans that would best facilitate their growth. At the time my suggestion was met with the myopic response that ‘he is a karmi and has nothing of value to offer’.

        That’s a different circumstance as I was trying to engage my brother by utilizing his professional skills in the service of Krsna, but the basic premise is the same. If, through your training, you see a tangible service opportunity where you can utilize your professional skills then you should make a presentation to Guru Maharaja and explain it to him personally. I know he would welcome any offer for direct involvement in the mission from any of us in whatever capacity we are able to offer it.

  11. I want to be a lay monastic atleast for sometime, but I feel that has the most amount of freedom and is highly selfish. I don’t think any responsible grihasta with kids can be lazy. Marriage is a completely selfless exercise in which you give a lot. Similarly it is the case with brahmacari in ashram under “sad guru”. Obviously for people like me who are lazy it is better to be a responsible lay monastic rather stain the already bad reputation of monastics and feed of people’s money. But a honest monastic under sad guru is as hard as you can get. Perhaps harder than a wall street job.

    • When I was speaking of a “lazy grhastha” I wasn’t speaking in terms of exertion in taking care of children and one’s grha. I agree with you GV that it takes a lot of selflessness and balancing skill to do it responsibly. I was addressing more the mentality that it is the be all and end all. There needs to be a tangible connection to the guru’s mission and for lay people that’s giving in charity. If one is just living simply to get by then in my opinion that is a compromised situation that needs to be adjusted to make progress.

      Don’t sell yourself short GV. I think a lay monastic can be very surrendered living a simple life and giving a vast amount of one’s earnings to the guru. I think perhaps couples with no children may have the tendency to be the most compromised. In any scenario,however there the guru can prescribe a method to relieve the natural self serving tendency.

      • I mean with children, exertion is enough to consume your life without time for seva. Just taking care of children and working 50 hours a week is a selfless life in itself with today’s increasing high standard of living. If people with children like you can do seva also then it is as selfless as you can get. You are either at call of the Guru or the children. Where is the other time.
        Unmarried life is good for present day philosophers or people who want to pursue their hobbies without worrying about financial pressures of household life and children. So apart from the pain of boss at work, there is a lot of time to do other things. That is why I said, lay people who are unmarried have maximum freedom. Freedom is equivalent to self-centered behavior.

        • I understand what you are saying. I guess I am talking more dollars and cents here and a married couple with no children generally has two incomes and free time. That can make for a lot of service and disposable income. The same is true for a single person.

          I am just saying that kids or no kids, single or married part of that lifestyle should entail giving in charity which promotes selflessness in the truest sense.

        • Dear GauraVijaya,
          Pamho,

          Your Children is but the extension of your own self, How can you say that it is selfless. If it was work done as a duty to the community or Gurukulis of a Varnasrama, then perhaps…
          Also concerning freedom, we made our choices but sometimes we need not think that they were the best and try to justify it against someone’s else choice…

          • Atleast compared to me who is single, they are selfless. I did not say the choices are the best. I just said a person who is single bachelor has the maximum free time compared to all other people. I think deep down when I introspect I don’t want children because I am self-centered and I can’t keep on working for 30 years to maintain them. I have to give credit to people who can do so without complaining.

      • As best I can remember, Srila Prabhupada said that during the time of BSST he was considered a “rotting grhasta” as well.
        In the end, we see that the “rotting grhasta” outperformed all the senior Swamis who looked down on him with pride during his years as a householder devotee.
        We can’t judge anybody or anything until their life’s work is complete. Until then, we can learn from the example of Srila Prabhupada that “rotting grhastas” sometimes climb out of the well and accomplish noteworthy work for Krishna.
        My guess is that lots of “rotting grhastas” around the world are going to accomplish a lot of good things after they get to retire and work full time for the Sampradaya.
        Their maturity of experience translates into a sympathetic rapport with current society and a better ability to interact and share ideas.
        There are many unseen and unknown benefits accruing in communities like our local community with it’s large devotee population. There is benefit in all the teachers and students in the local school chanting the Holy Name of the Lord as they call out their students names “Nitai, Gaura, Radha, Krishna etc.
        It is not just the Swamis in this community that are preaching and teaching about Krishna. All the householders and their family members mix and mingle in society in such a way that now even Soccer games around here are known for their players who sometimes have spiritual names of Krishna.
        In a community like our local community the very fact that so many householder devotees live in the area is much more effective in outreach than is the Swamis who come around occasionally to give a class.

        It’s not all about who gives the most money to the guru.
        That should never be a measure of service. I don’t think Srila Prabhupada ever used that measure either.
        Giving some knowledge of Krishna to a bewildered soul is much more pleasing to the guru than dumping lots of cash on him in an effort to buy salvation through some sort of karma-yoga process.

  12. I think it would take some creative dovetailing and significantly more respect for the education and work of ‘householder’ devotees… but it may be a good way to unite an otherwise divided social community

    I agree with you, GK. I also think “householders” shouldn’t have the mentality to wait to be asked by the mission to render their expertise but should just make themselves available and see what happens. There definately needs to be some exemplars in the lay community to set the ball rolling especially in a smaller missions. Intiative says a lot. In smaller missions there are certainly priorities that need to be considered and the monastics are generally very loaded up with such seva. As people come forward, I think such community will grow organically.

  13. I would just like to point out to the editors here how this original topic authored by Srila Tripurari Maharaja has generated so much response and participation as compared to some outside stories that sometimes make the front page.
    Let’s be real here. Tripurari Maharaja is the big attraction here and his participation is what is really going to give spiritual excitement to the web site.
    Most ISKCON gurus and other Swamis ordained by Srila Prabhupada are not as available and humbly participating as Tripurari Maharaja is on internet discussions, so we have to give him a lot of credit for that and point out that for some reason or other most gurus in the line of Srila Prabhupada are NOT available in this way but are conspicuously absent from Internet availability in any humble way.

    The Internet is a level playing ground. Everyone’s knowledge and understanding is ferociously challenged on the Internet, so you have to have your thoughts and ideas really crystallized before you can support your position.

    Tripurari Maharaja is here and available because he is well-prepared to meet all challengers and promulgate the siddhanta authoritatively on the basis of the Gaudiya shastra.

    As such his participation and availability will be the KEY to making this web site busy, relevant and productive.
    The Internet is RELEVANT! Any modern guru who is not Internet savvy will soon be outdated by one who is.

    • Dear KB das,
      Pamho,

      All the Gurus are glorious, it is our comparing propensity that is responsible for our fault finding. They are all busy in their own reality to preach the glories of the Holy names. Everyone is not at equal footage in discussing elaborated philosophy or even interested in that and thus I think, there exist different gurus for different psychology…
      Tripurari Maharaj is our ecstasy because He satisfies our senses with His rhetoric which is as per our school of thought…

      • Ram,
        Gradation is everywhere. It is part of the universal diversity.
        Comparing, as you say, is not a fault or a weakness but a necessary intellectual process that helps us locate the association we need to avoid being taken by con artists.
        I believe that many ISKCON gurus are scarce on the internet because they are not humble enough to participate in a discussion where their costume and position doesn’t give them an unfair advantage.
        I know that doesn’t apply to all of them, but it does apply to some who should be on the internet answering questions that they refuse to face.
        Anyone who tries to tell me that all is well in ISKCON will not get a high five from me!

  14. Some comments here lead me to believe that the commentators feel that the ancient varnasrama or even the theoretical varnasrama (from the Vaisnava perspective) was never of much value. I disagree with that notion. Mahaprabhu embraced it, reformed it, and in a qualified sense rejected it.

    KB’s comment about the impracticality of trying to institute varnasrma or some semblance of it on a large scale (a point I have championed elsewhere) but the possibility of establishing such on a small scale in say a community, while challenging, is intriguing. This seems to be what Prabhupada had in mind. The best of varnasrma imbued with some modern sensibilities that is.

    • I don’t understand: why would anyone want establish varnashram in a small scale, a contained community, when historically it has proven to be impractical and even detrimental to communities? Wouldn’t that attempt be simply whimsical of a few?

      Things take their course naturally. The “best of varnasrma” seems to have been the end of it altogether, no?

  15. Srila Prabhupada summarizes the process of implementing Varnashrama.

    According to the system of varṇāśrama-dharma, the pious and learned brāhmaṇas were the natural guardians of society. The brāhmaṇas, by their learned labor of love, would instruct the administrator-kings how to rule the country in complete righteousness, and thus the process would go on as a perfect welfare state. The kings or the kṣatriya administrators would always consult the council of learned brāhmaṇas. They were never autocratic monarchs. The scriptures like Manu-saḿhitā and other authorized books of the great sages were guiding principles for ruling the subjects, and there was no need for less intelligent persons to manufacture a code of law in the name of democracy. The less intelligent mass of people have very little knowledge of their own welfare, as a child has very little knowledge of its future well-being. The experienced father guides the innocent child towards the path of progress, and the childlike mass of people need similar guidance. The standard welfare codes are already there in the Manu-saḿhitā and other Vedic literatures. The learned brāhmaṇas would advise the king in terms of those standard books of knowledge and with reference to the particular situation of time and place. Such brāhmaṇas were not paid servants of the king, and therefore they had the strength to dictate to the king on the principles of scriptures. This system continued even up to the time of Mahārāja Candragupta, and the brāhmaṇa Cāṇakya was his unpaid prime minister.

  16. Hello, my name is Vamsi, I am an outcast.
    I feel called upon to do some service by participating in this discussion that I am so grateful to have happening in the first place. I would like to thank the secular liberalism for the religious freedom we enjoy, as previously noted by Gour Krishna. It is so nice to have this opportunity despite of having to hear so many things I do not like to hear or agree with.
    Regarding the varnasrama and how it is intended I have to say what to do if the glove don’t fit? I think it is all nice and well when you can fit into some kind of prescribe mold, but what if you can’t? What if like many of us here we find these definitions and classifications inapplicable and irrelevant? For someone, like myself, who has grown out of the environment that never fit, or for whom definitions and classifications by others meant, ridicule, scorn, punishment, abuse it is very hard to accept any kind of social system that is a priori prescribed. I also do not think it is true that people possess any static quality but possess different one at different time and circumstances in different degrees. For example i think that it is very non-contemporary to say that different people possess different and immutable amount of goodness. I think just like genes any human quality can be expressed or depressed in the right circumstances. So genes are not destiny, actually, but they can be activated or deactivated by the environment.
    It is a problem for someone like me to fit the mold. Most of the time I really wish I could, but some part of me is inevitably left hanging, just dangling out there in the wastness of space, perhaps unfitting but important because it is mine. So what to do if a dichotomy feels unnatural? Can you only be a man or a woman, masculine or feminine, husband or wife, bramachari or grihastra. For me it all depends on how and who defines these categories.
    Gurunistha (<3 U) seems to say that bramachari is someone is a state of total surrounded to the will of his or her Guru. One who does only what the guru wants. This is totally commendable and utterly worth all the dandavat-ing, but who can do that? Only e few. It is not that others chose to be "free" because they only want to do what they want, but perhaps are unable to do otherwise. Here some compassion might help. I've always failed to understand why is spiritual advancement always connected to respecting conventions of any particular religious group. I prefer Vrindaranya's definition that is more based on a continuum therefore more akin to how things are with any human quality. Surrender is a wonderful thing if you can do it.
    As much as I would love to, I do not think that I could ever do only what someone else wants me to do. Even if I loved that person more then I ever loved anyone and even if it is only because of that person that I came to understand that there is love in the world, I still could not only do what that person wants me to do. That is the sad condition of my life. I feel that having a sense of I is necessary to be able to say you are MY guru and I love you, for example. Even surrender cannot come without a sense of I because there has to be something there to surrender. Surrender is a voluntary act that begins only in the self and cannot be forced into from the outside. But most importantly there needs to be faith that there is something to surrender into. This kind of faith is given through love and some people never got that kind of love that fosters surrender.
    Personally, I only want to be loved, respected, and accepted for who I am and how I am without having to change to fit someone's idea of how I should be. Perhaps that kind of acceptance is just an illusion, but so is life, which still does not stop me from living. Perhaps seeking that kind of acceptance perpetuates being an outcast, but that is the only way I know to be. I have found more acceptance in our Sanga then in any other group and I am grateful for it.

    • But the whole point of the article is that the essence of varnasrama is not being something other than what you are, but rather being what you are. Note that the varnasrama system in India developed from four basic varnas to hundreds of sub varnas. So again, the point I have made in the article is merely that material (horizontal) balance is a huge plus in pursuit of spiritual (vertical) progress. Furthermore the system also allowed for dynamic movement between varnas, a point often not raised or acknowledged.

      Incidentally I am also an outcaste in many respects.

      • madan gopal das

        Harijana is your caste Guru Maharaj!

      • Gurumaharaja, I think your presentation of the subject is undoubtedly the most progressive, modern, and liberal… however..something of this topic obviously raises some serious concerns for some. It may be useful to note who is speaking loudly about their concern. It is most often the oppressed and injured from social systems that will speak out about the potential dangers of social divisions. A damaged tooth is more sensitive to the environment.

        There is something quite polarizing about this topic and before long it digresses to an attack-counterattack kind of discussion that to me means: DANGER! There is something important really trying to be communicated here and for some reason it is hard for the other side to hear. I am not sure… but my guess is that its pretty important. If things don’t shift, both sides will go away feeling frustrated and dissatisfied despite their effort to communicate.

        BTW, there is a reason the social class system broke down to many subsystems. Psychologically speaking… the divisions occur in the first place to manage group anxieties, but probably don’t work for long…and rather than discarding the system & dealing with the group anxiety, more splits between the groups are required. Ad infinitum.

      • And thats why my heart is with you, Guru Maharaja.

    • Gurunistha dasa

      Vamsi, you wrote:

      “I’ve always failed to understand why is spiritual advancement always connected to respecting conventions of any particular religious group.”

      I very much agree with Vrindarnya’s point that the different social compartments in GV offer different facilities for service in relation to the mission and the guru. Normally someone who wants to be a brahmacari or a sannyasi wants to enhance their opportunities for service because those positions facilitate that service better: less unrelated things to attend to. And that’s why so many people leave the brahmacari ashrama so soon as well, because more facility for service means less facility for your desires.

      Anyways, I don’t feel the need to hit people over the head with my brahmacari gospel, I just want the discussion to be intellectually honest. If it FEELS bad or wrong that other people can’t surrender and that there seems to be a general difference in the capacity of service between the different compartments, we shouldn’t discard the actual differences just because of feelings. That being said, it’s important what we do with those differences: are the people with better facility to serve trying to help and facilitate others to serve too, or do they just ride on their high horse and kick the others in the face who try to climb to the same status?

      • @ Gurunistha: No I do not think we should disregard actual differences I think we should honor and respect them and not necessarily put a value judgement on different capacities amongst the people.
        I do not think that better facility of service is of a higher status but of greater fortune. It is humbling rather then pride increasing. I think it is to be honored rather then envied. If anyone is on a high horse they are not serving, service should not engender competition but as you say encouragement to others to do service.
        As for FEELINGs, they are my brother all we have everything else is just a way we try to manage them. But thats a different story and does not belong to this thread.

  17. The point that often gets missed by western people is that Varnashrama already exists in human society at all times.
    There are always laborers and intellectuals, monastics and romantics, farmers and soldiers etc. etc. Every society already has these divisions of vocations and orders or life. What the Varnashrama system does is recognize the natural divisions in society and attempt to employ everyone in a progressive evolutionary life of values and meanings in an orderly, regimented and disciplined manner.

    Varnashrama is not an artificial imposition upon human nature. In fact Varnashrama is natural, normal and consistent with character, propensity and abilities.

    However, the ego of the western mind gets all in a bunch when you go to place categorical labels on people and classify them according to higher and lower statuses. The divisions are already there, but the false ego of modern man repels at the thought of actually dividing society into specific classes.

    Needless to say, in the face of Bhagavat Dharma, Varnashrama is a relatively benign consideration.

    Varnashrama is an ideology that can only be pursued through successful and prosperous prototype communities that can show the world an example of functional Varnashrama in action.
    Otherwise, no change of clothes, hair style or residence is necessary to attain God consciousness. It only requires the mercy of the Vaishnavas and an opportunity to do some service.

  18. Gaura Krsna dasa

    Having posted comments that irritated and provoked some of this conversation, I think it responsible to say some of what I have learned from it. (Keeping in mind the words from the speech bubble that accompany the original article’s cartoon, “too long….”)

    I still hold that varnasrama is not universal or absolute, but now with an all-important qualifier: while it may be possible and even correct to reject the notion of varnasrama to humanity-at-large, it cannot be “rejected wholesale” within GV. I see now that GM is not talking to humanity-at-large, he is talking to GV devotee society. Since I live largely in the world-at-large, I misread the context and was horrified.

    If we accept it only within the context of our mission, then its ultimate truth is irrelevant. Trying to understand its historicity isn’t fruitful.

    GM says that varna and ashrama are intrinsic and discernible realities but I’ll have to take his word for it. He also makes the point that to some degree we have inherited this from Mahaprabhu, which makes it hard to entirely disregard. To question what he would have done if he appeared in a different time and place undermines the meaning of his incarnation. How could it be other than how it was? But this doesn’t mean we can’t boil down an essential meaning and make it pertinent. And I think we can take this a long way.

    Questioning the idea of varnasrama has generated a lot of talking from a lot of devotees and I think this is because the issue causes a lot of anxiety not only because varnasrama describes lifestyles (I hate that word -motivation may be better) but also formally acknowledges our personal value to the mission. Since our ultimate value is devotional service, we can be judged on the basis of the degree in which we are actually doing service, or more concisely, seva, work. So look out, here come envy and jealousy. Here comes resentment and frustration. Here come regret. Here comes failure and rejection. And also what I am hearing in a lot of talking is frustration at not being understood for what one is cultivating apart from cleaning up cows and sending money, or perhaps in spite of it. If you must be a brahmacari to have any spiritual prospect than what value do you have -as a devotee, as a person even- if you don’t fit in to Planet Audarya for whatever reason, good, bad, or otherwise?

    Naturally, those who serve more directly are in a better position to articulate what it is they are serving than those on the periphery. For those closer to the center, this way of thinking is more total. We may see a monk as a guy who is making certain choices, but I suspect he fully identifies with his role and will recognize that you cannot understand him properly. GM says that varnasrama is something one is. I would not think this about myself. But temple life is more real for those living it and it has been my experience that monks expect to be treated as monks. I’m NOT saying that monks want or expect pratistha, but a certain kind of dignity and non-interference, which I am personally only to happy to give.

    Another aspect I see in this is that along with seva comes development of a devotional perspective, which is why apart from serving Sri Guru with work, the householder/monastic designations have value. Those close to sri guru are more able to practically maintain bhakti, which being continuous, is then available to anyone at any time. The monk “remembers” for us so we have him when we forget. I think we all recognize this.

    In defense of the dignity my own ashrama (and I cringe to use this kind of language since to call myself a “grhasta” feels entirely artificial and absent any real meaning -I must refer to someone else who may or may not actually know me to legitimate my identity), I have to say that my freedom to make my own choices is not merely license to indulge my desires but is a necessity of my survival and progress in every way. If anything, I could see householder life as a heroic struggle to spiritualize the will with potential for spectacular failure and/or success. A monk struggles with his mind very intensely -I understand full well- but so must everyone else in less subtle ways. Sadhana bhakti can be intense and difficult for everyone, so while I offer full respect to “better” ashramas, I’ll leave assessments of my value entirely up to Sri guru and Gauranga and leave concerns about this stuff behind.

    • If anything, I could see householder life as a heroic struggle to spiritualize the will with potential for spectacular failure and/or success.

      I thank you for your honest expressions Gaura-krsna. Your sentence above resonates deeply with me. I absorbed plenty of brahmacari training that made me fear the “deep, dark, well” of household life, but when I decided to change asrama, I can honestly say that I had an enthusiasm about my future to accomplish the mission you describe above. I still do. Discouragement about one’s situation is never helpful.
      Thinking about the various comments here and the potentiality for division between monastics and non-monastics in our particular sanga or any other for that matter, I’m repeatedly drawn to the following conclusions:
      Superiority of an asrama to serve “the guru’s mission” depends upon how we (and the guru) define “mission”. As I said in another comment, I feel that my social placement does afford me less opportunity to render service to some aspects of the mission. These aspects would be the direct service in a community where he is living. I long for that, but until that is a practical possibility I must continue serving the mission in other ways. Aspects of the mission where I don’t feel limited opportunity are in the practices that the guru gives, in hearing and chanting (including outreach) and most importantly in progressing in bhakti.

      It is interesting to ponder how the institutionalization of Gaudiya Vaisnavism may have magnified some of these differences between renunciates and householders. In the time of BVT before there was an institution, his outreach was home based and nama-hatta. Many many practitioners were householders and besides the forest, there probably wasn’t anywhere to go to, or a mission to render service to if one was to renounce family life. And so we hear BVT singing grhe thako, vane thako, sada hari bole dako, singing of how his home transformed to goloka, his family and home are all the lord’s, etc… With BSST (following BVT’s desires) GV was institutionalized and more formality between asramas and an emphasis on formal, social renunciation came about. People could give up their families and physically “join” a mission…
      Either way, renunciation of attachment is intrinsic to our philosophy. I’m not sure that external, visible renunciation of attachments is.
      As the article makes clear, a balance in our situation is conducive to our spiritual development. Once that balance is found, I don’t think any of us should feel discouraged about what we’re doing. All honor goes to whoever is properly situated in their best situation and able to pursue their path.

    • Questioning the idea of varnasrama has generated a lot of talking from a lot of devotees and I think this is because the issue causes a lot of anxiety not only because varnasrama describes lifestyles (I hate that word -motivation may be better) but also formally acknowledges our personal value to the mission. Since our ultimate value is devotional service, we can be judged on the basis of the degree in which we are actually doing service, or more concisely, seva, work. So look out, here come envy and jealousy. Here comes resentment and frustration. Here come regret. Here comes failure and rejection.

      I believe everybody on this forum acknowledges that the best place for any given sadhaka is a situation that is the most conducive for her adhikara. Why feel all this guilt and whatnot? My opinion is that all these super-charged feelings and aggression spring up because we want to be the best or at least as good as everyone else. We need to see ourselves in that light because our identity and self-esteem are dependent on that. It’s a psychological survival mechanism for our self-image. I know this because I’m guilty of it too. It’s called envy.

  19. I think, I have no problems with the overall idea you advocate in the post. However, I am yet to realize things as they appear to you. Perhaps with more service to the correct object, things will be revealed to me.

  20. The utility of varnasrama is that it invites the influence of sattva. When we understand our psychosomatic reality, we are better equipped to lead a well balanced life and pursue the spiritual ideal. To this extent varnasrama, or better, the spirit and essence of this system, has value in relation to the goal of life……

    Thanks for saying the spirit and essence…. better, much better.

    In the terminology of the Gita, a psychologically well-adjusted person is one who is aware of the particular influence that the gunas exert on his psyche and acts in consideration of these influences. Regardless of which gunas one is predominantly influenced by, this basic awareness is itself the influence of sattva, which subtly governs the Gita‘s varnasrama social system.

    The goal of varnashrama is sattva, and so it need be governed in a sattvic way.

    Those whose psyche is predominated by sattva can, to a corresponding extent, directly and naturally pursue transcendental life, whereas those dominated by rajas and tamas will find this course more difficult. For such people, although they may progress in an absolute sense, relative problems such as psychological dysfunctions may arise and create some impediments.

    May arise, and most probably do. Rajas and Tamas are where the problems of material life happen. And how does one cultivate ones bhakti when so many disturbances abound? Rajasic or tamasic kinds of spirituality would come from that, and we have seen plenty.

    In the interest of “establishing varnasrama” we should take into consideration the extent to which modern society is gravitating towards a kind of social integration rather than the social segregation involved in varnasrama. We should take an essential look at this modern tendency, find the value in it, and go with that, advocating something that does not go radically against the current of our times yet fulfills the essence of varnasrama.

    Excellent and so what is required. So many of the proponents of varnashrama are for things like no education for girls, and other bizarre stuff, what to speak of what is contained in the so called dharma shastras, which not too many have actually read but is where the caste system gets its legitimacy from.

    The common spiritual practice for all to realize this equality is chanting the names of God. In order to do so peacefully and progressively, it will be helpful to develop in terms of being well-adjusted individuals (sattva-guna). Although this may happen through the direct culture of spiritual life (ceto darpana marjanam), practically we find that many people after years of chanting have not developed this clean heart, which is representative of the influence of sattva.

    Such a shame and something’s got to be done.

    In other words, the principle of varnasrama, based as it is on consideration of the gunas, is universal. It need not be limited to a literal expression of this universality relative to times gone by. After all, it is material. It concerns the realm of relativity—morality and ethics.

    Material, and yet because we are factually under the influence of the modes of nature, so essential.

    Boy, I must have been out of the room when this came along.. Excellent! Excellent! Of course four years ago i would have been very negative also about what i thought at the time was varnashrama. What has changed is I live a very simple life in a community of Krishna devotees. Money is becoming less and less a factor in my survival. So I appreciate Prabhupada’s encouragements to grow your own food, and live the simple life, the precursor to real varnashrama. To attempt it or even think about it in terms of city life just doesn’t work. It happens in community because it is a social tool.

    The community i live in is wracked with feuds and rivalries however, symptoms of the modes of passion and ignorance, and something I have experienced in all communties of devotees i have been involved with in the last thirty seven years. We are so in need of dharma! So any move towards sattva would help us immensely. It is hard to get folks to consider new ways to attain sattva, so if nestled in varnashrama lingo, and with the same intention, we just might get somewhere. But simple living is the linchpin, and in Prabhupada’s idea, and Ghandi’s as well, getting out of the ugrakarma money culture is an important step in getting back to village life. Village life was destroyed by capitalists who lured the peasants working the land in relative peace, to come to the factory and earn wages, cash money. In Prabhupada’s own words;

    That was Ghandi’s philosophy, village organization. These people, they are attracting villagers to work in the factory, and they are exploiting them. Instead of producing food, they are attracted by so called high salaries, to the factories, and they are producing nuts and bolts, motor parts. BUT THE FOOD IS PRODUCED SOMEWHERE ELSE. BUT THE FOOD PRODUCERS, THEY ARE WORKING IN THE FACTORY. THEREFORE SCARCITY OF FOODSTUFFS. But this factory owner, he has got more money. He doesn’t care. The poor public, they are suffering.

    Smiliar factors were involved in the destruction of the family farm in N. America.

    It is obvious that in living in community, dharma is necessary. Some individual may or may not have transcended the modes, but societies never do. They are here in this world, and need to be governed by good and appropriate dharmas. This is the work of the brahmins, the intellectual class, who have the interest of society at heart. They need to extract and renovate what is good and appropriate from the older shastras, and augment that with modern forms of therapy that harmonize with the vedic ideal, for their own sake, and to teach the appropriate dharmas to others. It is in communities that varnashrama will succeed or fail. It is a collective experience.

    As for those who have transcended dharma, still the warning is given in the ‘sruti smriti puranadi’ verse, to stay within dharma anyway, so as not to disturb societies smooth functioning.

  21. Dandavat pranams! Excellent article – I found it while searching for criticism of Dialectic Spiritualism. Being newly married, I have some inspiration that I hope will be useful. I particularly like the emphasis in the article on how being well-adjusted psychologically is a prerequisite to being able to apply a sattvic perspective to concepts such as equality (although equality can only be a categorical not a functional distinction).

    What I am finding is that varnashram dharma is relevant to devotees in modern times (and for the future) so that we accept that we need to be under shelter (i.e.: protection and guidance). Saranagati inherently implies shelter. We need shelter in order to reach the heights of sincerity (total vulnerability). The bottom line is that the material world in general is not fit for a gentleman (as Srila Prabhupada) used to say.

    Therefore, we need to be in an ashram in order to be protected from becoming rapidly contaminated. Situated within one of the four ashrams, we will be able to maintain and progress in spiritual practices that increasingly purify our consciousness so that we can become ananya Krsna-bhaktas. A technical note could be that young people are under the shelter of their parents’ grhasta ashram only if they live with their parents or are students or apprentices under their parent’s or another authorized guardian’s (householder’s) care.

    If we are not in a prescribed ashram, then we are taking shelter of Maya, plain and simple. So, accepting that we need to always be in an ashram is an essentially humbling prerequisite for achieving sustainable spiritual progress. Without residing within an ashram, we will be prone to asat-sanga, particularly the sangha of other similarly loosely affiliated devotees.

    In this regard, it is important to consider that shelter means guidance and that none of the ashrams works well unless they are operated under the guiding auspices of mature devotees who are situated in sattva-guna (and preferably suddha-sattva). Children (especially grown ones) who are not following a program (lifestyle) that is designed to habituate sattvic culture will not benefit in a lasting way from the ashram of their parents, except to have the option to accept the virtue of their parents’ values at some later point in life by realizing how they misjudged their parents.

    We often see that this opportunity may arise after the children go on to have children of their own. However, this may take a utilitarian tone, rather than a philosophical one. Growing up means taking responsibility, but being responsible essentially means leading by example, not merely managing authoritatively. That is why a mark of a sadhu is one who maintains external conformity while relishing internal spontaneity that does not necessarily follow prescribed rules and regulations.

    Finally, I would like to share that much to my surprise, even within less than two months of marriage, I am already understanding Srila Prabhupada’s words on the protection of and independence of women (without twisting them into ridiculous ideas of limiting their education, which is a decidedly non-Vedic concept). It seems to me that in order to combat the poison of skeptical independent thinking that threatens the integrity of the grhasta ashram (which supports all other ashrams, being considered the lowest according to Jaiva Dharma), we have to emphasize that we are dependent entities and that independence is not a part of Vaisnava vocabulary. No activity, even if it is appears to be a segregated or gender-specific role, is an independent activity.

    A smoothly functioning ashram does not abide by a ‘quid pro quo’ philosophy. Rather, it succeeds by enforcing that its members stick to the program. What appears to be independent is nothing but an illusion that is caused by the drapery of material designation (the ‘I am this body’ concept) formed from ahankar. The reason that Srila Prabhupada recommended that devotees live together, near a temple, is precisely to combat the proliferation of this independent mood, particularly within grhasta ashram. He was trying to show by example that we must do our part to create favorable “times, places and circumstances” for spiritual practice and not merely accept what has been given to us by Maya (the marching on of Time).

    Consequently, I agree that we should do our best to make a relevant effort to employ daiva varnashram within our circles of influence. Doing so is our best hope of accepting what is favorable for Bhakti and rejecting what is unfavorable. What is perhaps worth considering is that by doing so, we will find ourselves making less excuses and so-called ‘practical’ adjustments for time, place and circumstance, because we are instead focusing on adopting the mood of a time, developing the nature of a place and cultivating circumstances that are known to be compatible with the instructions of our acaryas for centuries.

    The dream of having devotee farming communities that are self-sustainable, in service to a temple and ashram, was Srila Prabhupada’s desire, was it not? It is wonderful to see that efforts are in progress to implement his wisdom. The Saragrahi (North Carolina) and Madhuvan (Costa Rica) communities of Sri Caitanya Sangha are certainly destined to set relevant examples for the devotees of Hari Bhakti. This article clearly reflects a deep understanding of why Srila Prabhupada emphasized daiva varnashram dharma. Thank you.

    “Varnasrama-dharma is favorable when it assists in worshipping Lord Sri Krsna and Sri Guru, and when it assists in developing bhakti; otherwise it is unfavorable.” – Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayan Goswami Maharaj (http://bvml.org/SBNM/vd.html) <– a great article on Varnashrama Dharma

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