We absolutely need Varnashrama, but for an entirely different reason

An interesting point I heard about varnasrhama recently but it might take me a while to get to it,  I’ll try to be brief. We have a long history with varnashrama. Srila Prabhupada wanted it, others say we are a preaching movement and can’t be wasting time on what Lord Caitanya rejected as “external”, but all these concerns deal with the mechanics of it, with brahmanas, cows, land, self-sufficiency etc. This point, however, is very different.

When Ramananda Ray proposed varnasrama to Lord Caitanya he wasn’t talking about first step in self-realization, he was talking about the ultimate goal of life and so varnashrama as he meant it was far far above our level of realization and is an absolutely necessary step on our path, we can’t go around it. This is the verse he quoted (CC Madhya 8.58):

varṇāśramācāra-vatā
puruṣeṇa paraḥ pumān
viṣṇur ārādhyate panthā
nānyat tat-toṣa-kāraṇam

varṇa-āśrama-ācāra-vatā — who behaves according to the system of four divisions of social order and four divisions of spiritual life; puruṣeṇa — by a man; paraḥ — the supreme; pumān — person; viṣṇuḥ — Lord Viṣṇu; ārādhyate — is worshiped; panthā — way; na — not; anyat — another; tat-toṣa-kāraṇam — cause of satisfying the Lord.

“ ‘The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Viṣṇu, is worshiped by the proper execution of prescribed duties in the system of varṇa and āśrama. There is no other way to satisfy the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One must be situated in the institution of the four varṇas and āśramas.’ ”

Please note “there is no other way to satisfy the Lord” line in it, it’s very important – he talks about varnashrama as the way to satisfy the Lord, the way to serve the Lord, and he speaks of unalloyed devotion here. We speak of varnashrama as a way to conduct our material affairs and to satisfy our material propensities and it means we speak of pursuing our selfish desires. The system itself might be the same but the consciousness of participants can’t be any more different. But there is more.

We can accept varanshrama as a way to organize ourselves – a bunch of selfish individuals at their core – into a cohesive society, and we accept it in the same way Americans accept existence of federal government. For us it’s a pact between thieves, it’s the way we can continue misusing Lord’s material energy without stepping on each other’s toes too much in the process. Ramananda Raya’s proposition is entirely different – the way to happiness lies in happiness of the Lord and to make the Lord happy one must submit his personal ambitions to rules and regulations of society.  He is talking about varnashrama not as a way to fulfill our material desires but as an arrangement to completely subvert them.

It’s not “I want this, you want that, let’s make a mutually beneficial arrangement” but “Lord wants us to act this way so forget about what you want”. Even though Ramananda Raya says the word varnashrama he means absolute and unconditional surrender to the Lord and he talks about what one should do after surrendering himself completely. Our surrender depends on the Lord appearing before us and personally telling us what to do, otherwise we don’t trust anyone, but Ramananda Raya here tells us that surrendered devotees submit themselves to otherwise totally external rules and regulations meant to materialistic people – because the Lord is in charge of everything and because everything is under control of the Lord. In effect, he talks about vision of a paramahamsa.

This is also a very “Gaudiya” mood of surrender – gopī-bhartuḥ pada-kamalayor dāsa-dāsānudāsaḥ, as Lord Caitanya put it, and the meaning of it is that we are not Lord’s servants but we are servants of His agents and we surrender to them, not to the Lord directly. It could be gopis, it could be guru, or it could be the system of varnashrama. Okay, guru we can accept, but these days we don’t expect him to meddle in our lives, we expect him to engage us in accordance with our nature, which is another way to say in accordance with our ambitions. Gurus should discover that special spark in us and enable us to achieve our full potential, or they should recognize how special we already are and engage us accordingly (example). We can, at least the best and the most humble of us, recognize the authority of a temple president or authority of senior devotees, but authority of a faceless “varnashrama”? Nope, we’d rather negotiate our relationship with it, accept some, reject the other, but not surrender ourselves unconditionally. We should be independently thoughtful, as we love to quote.

If you recognize yourself in the above paragraph then you should also recognize that Ramananda Raya is asking the impossible and even something irrational. It appears so because we still have our own plans on how to become happy, our own visions of our perfect situation in life, and that’s what makes us totally unqualified for that very first among Ramananda Raya’s proposals. Unless we give up all our plans for our happiness and entrust ourselves entirely to the Lord’s appointed agents we are unqualified to move beyond this point in the Ramananda Raya and Lord Caitanya’s conversation.

I hope you see now why it’s not about cows and brahmanas at all. I hope you can also see why our varnashrama projects do not go anywhere except in a few exemplary communities – we still make it about ourselves, about our own benefits, and we do not recognize varnashrama as the way of full surrender, specifically set up by the Lord, as He says in Bhagavad Gita. I admit that I can’t offer a practical solution here. It used to be “go to the temple, shave up, do whatever they tell you to do” but we don’t have temples like that anymore, generally speaking. So I don’t know what could be practically done in a current situation, but the underlying understanding should still be present – we must accept an outside authority as absolute. The bosses themselves might be imperfect but their material arrangements can’t hurt our souls. Whatever they do, they can’t hurt our spiritual progress. They can affect our bodies but we should be beyond bodily consciousness already, especially when we argue that varnashrama is external and not really necessary in our society.

Just think of it, it’s a very very high level of surrender and, unless one had reached it in previous lives, it’s a very very high stage of observable advancement. There ARE devotees who come to it, who come to an understanding that compared to the spiritual opportunities presented by ISKCON all ISKCON’s faults and imperfections are immaterial. I hope we all have seen it when a devotee takes up most menial services not to practice humility but because he genuinely sees the benefit of being of service, of any kind of service, and he sees this service as absolutely higher than his personal considerations of status and honor. That is surrender. Surrender is not putting on the armor to protect ourselves from untrustworthy elements but opening up our souls knowing that the Lord is always in full control of all His energies and therefore they all can and should be trusted no matter what. At all times.

Trusted with what? Not with preservation and comfort of our material bodies, of course, but that every blade of grass moves according to Lord’s will and for our ultimate benefit. The Lord wants the world to behave this way and our acceptance of “varnashrama” is the acceptance of this fact. When the Lord is happy that the world moves along according to His desire we become happy as well. Our happiness depends entirely on His and on happiness of His agents and energies. That is the mystery and this is what Srila Prabhupada taught us from the very beginning. But sometimes we think we know better. All the time, actually – I’m speaking for myself.

So the point is that advice to follow varnashrama in that conversation is not about the system itself but about accepting Lord’s authority and unconditionally submitting ourselves to it.

I’m afraid American pathos of freedom and rights, which has been spread all over the world, is wholly incompatible with this point while communism is about half way there – because communists put happiness of the community over their own and see community’s well-being as the root of personal happiness. Not God’s happiness yet but at least happiness and well-being of something outside of ourselves. They were die hard materialists but somehow they accepted reality of “party” and “community” and ascribed personal features to these concepts even though empirically there are only molecules and atoms. They considered ideals as reality and as reality higher than reality of everyday individual perceptions and concerns. But this article is not about communism.

One could object that ISKCON started in the US so something must be wrong in this analysis. Maybe, but Tamal Krishna Goswami and Vishnujana Swami came from a commune, if you remember. Naked hippie commune but nevertheless. Also hippies – they were not big on selfishness underlying mainstream society. Also Srila Prabhupada attracted people who grew up hearing “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” inspirational speeches. Now that the US is hopelessly divided we don’t hear it anymore and it affects our society as well. Everybody has to look after himself first and foremost, fly his own airplane, as we also love to quote.

That might be the reality but it doesn’t exempt us from the necessity of a full unconditional surrender to “varnashrama”.

This getting too long, however, so I don’t want to go into proving this point any further and will simply reiterate – we need varnashrama not to organize ourselves but so that we could surrender unto it. This was spoken five hundred years ago and today we have to find an equivalent of that suggestion. Temple devotees need to surrender to temple rules, for example, but everyone must surrender and stop making his own “spiritual” plans from that moment on.

Since I’m not sure I represent the views of the devotee who I heard this explanation from I won’t give his name here.

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