an essay by Bhakti Vikas Swami
In ascertaining the relationship between varnasrama and bhakti, devotees often quote Lord Caitanya’s rejecting varnasrama as external to bhakti:
“Lord Caitanya indicated that the varnasrama-dharma was simply external (eho bahya). Lord Caitanya wanted to impress upon Ramananda Raya that simply by executing the duties of varnasrama-dharma one is not guaranteed liberation.” (SB 4.24.53 purport)
However, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura states (in Sri Bhaktyaloka) that Lord Caitanya did not reject varnasrama as a means of social organization. Srila Bhaktivinoda quoted SB 1.2.8: “The occupational activities a man performs according to his own position are only so much useless labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Personality of Godhead.”
Srila Bhaktivinoda then commented: “From this one should not conclude that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has ordered us to discard varnasrama-dharma. If that had been the case, then He would not have instructed all living entities through His pastimes of completely following the orders of grhastha and sannyasa. As long as one has a material body the system of varnasrama-dharma must be followed, but it should remain under the full control and domination of bhakti. Varnasrama-dharma is like the foundation of one’s supreme occupational duty. When one’s supreme occupational duty is matured and one achieves his goal, then the process is gradually neglected. Again, it is also abandoned at the time of death.”
Even before he came to the West, Srila Prabhupada had written extensively about the importance of varnasrama-dharma. Yet when he started to stress the need to introduce it in ISKCON, some of his leading disciples offered objections based on the spiritual teachings that they had previously heard from Srila Prabhupada. An important conversation regarding this is partially reproduced below. I request devotees to kindly read this in full, as many devotees nowadays seem to be unaware of Srila Prabhupada’s varnasrama vision for ISKCON.
Satsvarupa: Lord Caitanya, when Ramananda Raya brought this up He said it was not possible in this age to introduce this.
Prabhupada: Yes. Not… He did not say possible. Eho bahya. [From Madhya 8.59: “The Lord replied, ‘This is external. You had better tell Me of some other means.’”] Caitanya Mahaprabhu was interested only on the spiritual platform. He had no idea of material side. He rejected material side.
Satsvarupa: But don’t we do that also?
Prabhupada: No. Our position is different. We are trying to implement Krsna consciousness in everything. And Caitanya Mahaprabhu personally took sannyasa. He rejected completely material. Niskincana [”one who has nothing to do with this material world”]. But we are not going to be niskincana. We are trying to cement the troubled position of the… That is also in the prescription of Bhagavad-gita. We are not rejecting the whole society. Caitanya Mahaprabhu rejected everything, eho bahya. Rejected meaning, “I do not take much interest in this.” Bahya. “It is external.” He was simply interested in the internal, the spiritual.
But our duty is that we shall arrange the external affairs also so nicely that one day they will come to the spiritual platform very easily, paving the way. And Caitanya Mahaprabhu, personality like that, they have nothing to do with this material world. But we are preaching. We are preaching. Therefore we must pave the situation in such a way that gradually they will be promoted to the spiritual plane, which is not required.
Satsvarupa: Varnasrama is not required.
Prabhupada: Not required. Caitanya Mahaprabhu denied, “I am not brahmana, I am not ksatriya, I am not this, I am not this.” He rejected. But in the Bhagavad-gita, the catur-varnyam maya srstam. [ [Bg. 4.13]: “According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me…”] So we are Krsna…, preaching Krsna consciousness. It must be done.
Hari-sauri: But in Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s practical preaching He only induced them to chant.
Prabhupada: That is not possible for ordinary man.
Hari-sauri: What, to simply induce people to chant?
Hari-sauri: He only introduced just the chanting.
Prabhupada: But who will chant? Who’ll chant?
Satsvarupa: But if they won’t chant, then neither will they train up in the varnasrama. That’s the easiest.
Prabhupada: The chanting will be there, but you cannot expect that people will chant like Caitanya Mahaprabhu. They cannot even chant sixteen rounds. (And) these rascals are going to be Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Satsvarupa: No. But if they at least will chant and take some prasada…
Prabhupada: Chanting will go on. That is not stopped. But at the same time the varnasrama-dharma must be established to make the way easy.
Hari-sauri: Well, at least my own understanding was that the chanting was introduced in the age of Kali because varnasrama is not possible.
Prabhupada: Because it will cleanse the mind. Chanting will not stop.
Hari-sauri: So therefore the chanting was introduced to replace all of the systems of varnasrama and like that.
Prabhupada: Yes, it can replace, but who is going to replace it? The… People are not so advanced. If you imitate Haridasa Thakura to chant, it is not possible.
Satsvarupa: We tell them go on with your job but chant also.
Prabhupada: Yes. Thakaha apanara kaje, Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Apanara kaja ki. Caitanya Mahaprabhu recommended, sthane sthitah. And if they do not remain in the sthana, then the sahajiya’s chanting will come. Just like the sahajiyas also have got the beads and…, but they have got three dozen women. This kind of chanting will go on. Just like our (name withheld). He was not fit for sannyasa but he was given sannyasa. And five women he was attached, and he disclosed. Therefore varnasrama-dharma is required. Simply show-bottle will not do. So the varnasrama-dharma should be introduced all over the world, and…
Satsvarupa: Introduced starting with ISKCON community?
Prabhupada: Yes. Yes. Brahmana, ksatriyas. There must be regular education.
Hari-sauri: But in our community, if the…, being as we’re training up as Vaisnavas…
Hari-sauri: …then how will we be able to make divisions in our society?
Prabhupada: Vaisnava is not so easy. The varnasrama-dharma should be established to become a Vaisnava. It is not so easy to become Vaisnava.
Hari-sauri: No, it’s not a cheap thing.
Prabhupada: Yes. Therefore this should be made. Vaisnava, to become Vaisnava, is not so easy. If Vaisnava, to become Vaisnava is so easy, why so many fall down, fall down? It is not easy. (Conversation, 14 February 1977)
Although Srila Prabhupada sometimes stated that varnasrama was not possible in the modern age, he also stated that “The Krsna consciousness movement, is being propagated all over the world to reestablish the varnasrama-dharma system and thus save human society from gliding down to hellish life.” (SB 5.19.19 Purport)
The harmonization of these two apparently contradictory statements is found in the following, that varnasrama should be introduced “as far as possible.”
modern civilization is not strictly following the Vedic injunction. Therefore, especially I have seen in the Western countries, there is no home practically. There is no homely happiness, because women are allowed to mix freely and there is no protection. They are not married, there is no husband. The father also does not take care. As soon as the girl becomes fifteen, sixteen years, she goes away. Therefore I have practically seen there is no home, there is no peace in the Western countries. These are very important things, that soft-hearted woman, vama-svabhava, they should be given protection. They should be trained up how to become faithful wife, affectionate mother. Then the home will be very happy, and without happiness we cannot make any spiritual progress. We must be peaceful. This is the preliminary condition. Therefore, as far as possible, the Vedic injunction is there should be division in the society, varnasrama. (Lecture, October 3, 1976)
There are literally dozens of quotes wherein Srila Prabhupada states the necessity and possibility of establishing varnasrama, and of the need of the Krsna consciousness to do so. Here is just one more:
Once the populace is situated in the varnasrama-dharma, there is every possibility of real life and prosperity both in this world and in the next. (SB 4.14.19, Purport)