For the past two days I questioned our common understanding that varṇāśrama is the next goal for our movement. Take Transcendental Diaries, which I discussed yesterday – all five volumes have about 3,000 pages between them and varṇāśrama is mentioned maybe only on 30, and that includes general lectures and conversations. So, out of all events Hari-śauri Prabhu thought were worth mentioning in Śrila Prabhupāda’s life varṇāśrama deserved way less than 1% (discounting general stuff).
Was it really that important? I don’t think so.
This, however, puts me in danger of making my own decisions about what Śrila Prabhupāda considered important and what not. My position is that, not being his disciple, I have no right to my own judgment even if I have all evidence in the world.
We, second and now third generation devotees, have no right to our own understanding of Śrila Prabhupāda, we can approach him only through our gurus, his authorized representatives. They are the ones who tell us what Prabupāda thought, what he wanted, what he ordered, and how relatively important all those orders and wishes were.
Predecessor ācrāryas, just like Kṛṣṇa Himself, are revealed only through the mercy of one’s guru, never independently. Does it mean I’m breaking this principle when I say varṇāśrama wasn’t such a big deal?
Yes, if my own conclusions are at odds with what I heard from my guru, GBC, or our community. This, however, is not the case. Varṇāśrama as our most important goal is not promoted by people I pledge allegiance to. That doesn’t mean they don’t consider it seriously but it means that they never consider establishing varṇāśrama on par with preaching and book distribution. I’m lucky that everything I found on my own confirms what I heard from my authorities. Some people in some situations might not be so lucky.
My guru wrote a book about varṇāśrama many years ago and there was time when I was totally fascinated by the subject but that fascination never meant to eclipse preaching and book distribution. Like with Śrila Prabhupāda, it was more like a theoretical discussion or maybe a challenge to materialists around us, not an order to implement varṇāśrama rules in our own lives.
Actually, this is not entirely correct – as devotees, our lives are already arranged according to varṇāśrama and the more time we spend perfecting our sādhana the closer we approach to varṇāśrama ideals. There’s no contradiction there – preaching and varṇāśrama go hand in hand.
That’s not how some varṇāśrama “zealots” see it, however. They insist on forcing everyone into strict varṇāśrama norms – men, women, managers, everyone. The biggest battle so far is about position and duties of women. Should they be restricted to managing household affairs or should they be allowed to work? Should they concentrate on raising children or should they be allowed to dump them at gurukulas? There’s also the big battle for rights to guruship which takes women’s cause a bit too far, imo.
“Conservatives” in our society insist on traditional interpretation of varṇāśrama rules and duties while “liberals” write articles and books arguing that historically women had far more freedom than it first appears from our books. Latest dispute I’ve seen involved women’s right to perform deity worship at home. Some say it’s no problem, some say that only husbands were meant to worship the deities. There are quotes to support both sides.
When it comes to varṇāśrama, “conservatives” would be more appreciative about it while “liberals” would be more, shall we say, practical.
If you stumble into any of these camps you’d be surrounded by people absolutely sure of their views and any word of dissent would be dealt with harshly. Such is the nature of human beings, nothing we can do about it.
Who should we follow? Well, some ISKCON gurus got right in the middle of this fight and their disciples might have no leeway in this matter but, generally speaking, there’s no official push for enforcing varṇāśrama in our society. Officially it is seen as an ideal and as one of the goals Prabhupāda stated for our mission but it’s not be all and end all. We try our best and if it doesn’t happen we don’t get stuck on it and go do something else. If there’s another chance we’ll surely take it but with all the other things on our plate that we CAN succeed at we don’t worry too much about varṇāśrama.
When I say varṇāśrama is not terribly important for my own reasons I also happen to describe the existing situation, so there’s no contradiction, it’s just how things are. What I have found is not anything new but a possible explanation of the reality around us, so there’s no heresy. At least I hope there isn’t.
What about “conservatives” vs “liberals” battle – can it ever be settled? I think it can be done easily but not on terms they expect it to be resolved. It won’t be victory of one side over the other but it will be a victory of sañkīrtana over ignorance.
When people are engaged in preaching they escape mundane worries of this world. Our conservatives and liberals try to fix problems that shouldn’t exist. Well, problems will always exists in the material world but they should not exist in our consciousness. If we were fully engaged in sañkīrtana we wouldn’t be worried whether our women are better off at home or preaching, we wouldn’t be worried whether our children should be home schooled, shipped off to Mayapur, local gurukula, or attend a regular school. These are just not the kind of things that trouble minds of devotees even if decisions have to be made all the same.
For those fully engaged in service every choice is seen as a tribute to Kṛṣṇa and every choice is seen as directed by Him. In this consciousness material considerations don’t come into the picture at all, whatever works for Kṛṣṇa is automatically the best regardless of how we feel about it. It’s a kind of sacrifice that we make very happily and never think twice.
Once we forget about serving the Lord and allow our consciousness to be overcome by the cloud of dualities, problems start piling up and we become torn between all possible solutions. We start to see ourselves as being in charge and as being responsible for our own lives. We start to think that we are masters of our own destiny. We think that we have become mature but actually we only have become more materialistic and lost the vision of the big picture.
So, when a squabble arises over some banal matters like varṇāśrama rules for the modern age it’s a sign that we should not follow it at all but we should rather seek shelter of sañkīrtana and preaching. Life is short, we can’t allow ourselves to spend so much time obsessing over such trivial things. We can’t allow ourselves to be sucked into that vortex. It’s called a deep well of material existence for a reason. Chewing the chewed is another great metaphor for this giant waste of time.