Vanity thought #930. Rethinking varnashrama

Varṇāśrama has always been a hot topic in our society and I, too, wrote about it quite a lot. Yesterday, for example, it came up as the proper model for the caring society as opposed to our current temple based communities.

Actually, it’s not true to call ISKCON a temple based society. Our temples might be more like Indian ones where everyone regularly comes to worship but there are societies where temples play a much more central role. They are not only places to perform religious rituals but also centers of education, trade, and pretty much entire social life.

Big temples in India “employ” thousands of servants but that is not quite what I’m talking about. In countries like Cambodia or Thailand temples historically been anchors for the rest of the society. Children learned to read there, all local affairs were discussed there, all local entertainment was provided there and all local trade was conducted there, too, because that’s where people were for most of their time and that’s where markets had most customers. Even prostitutes plied their trade there. Churches and monasteries have been practically sole places of education in Europe, too.

Our temples are not like that, yet we don’t have much of a society outside our temple walls either. It has been a model for ISKCON from the very beginning – move into a new area, open a temple, start preaching from there. In Śrila Prabhupāda’s days we were in an expansion mode and that meant opening more and more new temples in far out places. We didn’t built anything beyond that, a few gurukulas here and there notwithstanding.

When Śrila Prabhupāda left we were still in that expansionist mode and we didn’t know anything else. It took us years and decades to come to the realization that we also need to build a working varṇāśrama and we still haven’t agreed on what it would look like. The argument goes that after seeing explosive growth of our movement Śrila Prabhupāda wanted us to concentrate on building our internal strength. “Time to boil the milk” referred to reading up on our philosophy and “only 50% of my work is done” was about varṇāśrama.

Yet our model is still the same. All our exciting news stories are about successful preaching. I remember one I heard last year about one devotee setting up on a college lawn and gradually expanding into opening a center with a few initiated bhaktas. It was given as a reminder that preaching still works and Lord’s mercy still flows to those who engage in it. This makes sense and it is, indeed, very encouraging, but look what it advocates: move into a new area, start preaching, open a temple, preach some more, replicate the model elsewhere.

I seriously doubt we will ever build varṇāśrama this way.

According to some reports, if our authorities have a chance to acquire agricultural land in the countryside and a chance to buy land downtown, they’d prefer to buy property suitable for temples in the middle of large cities. These properties are costly to maintain and they offer no tangible benefits to our society apart from providing a place to hang out on weekends, as I described yesterday. They don’t build communities, they don’t engage our congregation, they don’t bring us together, they are not substitute for varṇāśrama.

Once we get those pricey temples we pretty much close ourselves to pursuing anything else. We are stuck with them and we are stuck with the kind of communities that form around places of worship, ie no more than occasional visitors and benefactors.

Should I mention that Śrila Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī wasn’t too keen on building temples and that Śrila Prabhupāda often cited him saying that he’d rather sell the marble and print books instead? This attitude in our predecessor ācārya should not be dismissed as a little quirk, at least where I grew up it was pretty much the modus operandi – temples are good only as places to recharge batteries for preaching and book distribution.

At this point I want to state that the yuga dharma for this age is sañkīrtana, not temple worship and not varṇāśrama. If we don’t preach we die. It’s as simple as that and there’s no other way.

The argument for building varṇāśrama as a foundation of our society is solid. It would provide for genuine interaction between our devotees because it’s a collective effort where everyone is dependent on everyone else (and not so much on our formal leadership). The question of institutionalized care won’t even arise, it would be like legalizing love within families – it’s naturally there, without any extraneous efforts. Our busybodies on strategic planning committees will probably concentrate on legislating detachment instead, so they won’t be out of jobs either.

We could also use examples of our varṇāśrama communities in our preaching. We would finally have something to show people to prove that Kṛṣṇa consciousness works and that we offer a real alternative to modern age materialism.

This argument, however, is not very convincing to me. Amish have their communities, too, and so do ex-hippies living off the grid but their appeal is very very limited. I’m afraid we’ll be very disappointed when no one takes up on our offer to move into the country and live without electricity in close proximity to the cows. It would smell fishy instead, pardon the pun.

Natural living is the most prominent feature of such self-sustaining communities and it wins applause and appreciation everywhere including ISKCON but this initial enthusiasm covers another, far more important characteristic – they don’t preach. They CAN’T preach – they are too busy and comfortable in their own little world and they purposefully avoid any contact with the rest of the society.

As such varṇāśrama goes against the yuga dharma and should be abandoned.

We can make attempts to reconcile these two models, take the best parts of both and put them together, or try to correct the worst aspects of both and have them develop in parallel, but it’s still fixing the unfixable – varṇāśrama is not meant for preaching, it’s not meant for sañkīrtana, it’s not meant for developing bhakti but for building a happy and prosperous life in this world and the next.

We hope that by building proper self-sustaining communities we’ll provide everyone with best opportunities for chanting the Holy Name but that is not what Lord Caitanya taught us. Chant first, everything else will come later. Actually, it was even more blunt than that – chant first and you’ll forget about everything else.

What we are saying instead is that we can’t chant unless we have a working varṇāśrama. We point out at various social ills in our society which would not be present if we had arranged our lives perfectly and we say that the cure for these ills lies in implementing varṇāśrama, as per Prabhupāda’s orders.

Well, there must be something wrong with our understanding of what Prabupāda’s orders were if following them comes at the expense of preaching. Yes, preaching is expansionist and so in a limited world it’s unsustainable but it’s still the only method for spiritual advancement in this age, not following varṇāśrama rules.

We explain very nicely how Lord Caitanya’s rejection of varṇāśrama in His talks with Rāmānanda Rāya wasn’t really a rejection but only a comment on its comparative value vis-à-vis pure unalloyed love of God but that conversation didn’t touch on the comparative value of preaching. Love of God is the best, agree, but to attain this love is impossible without sañkīrtana.

Varṇāśrama communities will certainly help us develop genuine care and interest in each other’s lives but this love and care will be build on material relationships and material dependencies. Spiritual relationships are formed only on the basis of sañkīrtana, not on being an integral part in a food chain.

So, I agree with criticism of our temple based communities but I insist that the solution to it is more preaching, not less. If varṇāśrama will make us into better preachers than I’m all for it, if not, then we need some other solution and varṇāśrama would not be a big loss, if any loss at all.


One comment on “Vanity thought #930. Rethinking varnashrama

  1. Pingback: Vanity thought #931. Question of priorities | back2krishna

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