We all know “cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ” verse about varnasrama but what is our implied understanding of what happened there?
Typically, the assumption is that people lived unstructured lives and then Krishna somehow taught them how to organize themselves. This understanding makes us think that, similarly, right now we don’t have varnasrama but, prompted by Srila Prabhupada as Krishna’s representative, we can introduce it. That it’s an eternal system that somehow got forgotten and we have to revive it.
There could be different understanding, however, that does not contradict the one above but rather complements it.
Krishna created varnasrama NOT to organize people but to give living entities the method by which they can enjoy. They wanted to enjoy but didn’t know how and nothing worked. It was a situation similar to the one just before creating the universe – everything was ready, all the elements and their presiding deities were there, but no one knew how to move forward without the Lord showing the way. That episode is described in the Second Canto.
What this understanding provides is the answer to First World complaints that everything works there now already and conservative devotees attempts to change it and introduce varnasrama are laughable. They see varnasrama talks as a sort of demented alternative that is not attractive to anybody and doesn’t even work. Maybe somewhere in India women want to live this way but in the West? You are kidding, right?
The answer to this that ALL enjoyment is possible only because of varnasrama and there is no alternative, nor can we think of varnasrama as an alternative to anything – there is nothing but varnasrama when it comes to sense pleasure and creature comforts. Nothing.
Our problem is that varnasrama does not mean what we usually think it means. Usually we restrict it to brahmanas ksatriyas vaisyas and sudras, all working in the fields, and we don’t consider “guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ” – divisions of abilities and work. These divisions are always there. Always. We don’t need to introduce them as a magical alternative. People have been organizing themselves according to individual and group abilities and rewarding them according to the amount of work they put in and results they produce since forever. And they have a lot more experience with this than we do. Actually, it’s us who don’t have any experience to speak of. So why are we volunteering to teach something we don’t understand and don’t practice? Where is our humility?
I said that this understanding doesn’t contradict our usual one so let me try to reconcile – sure, there are many imbalances in how to the first world is run and there are many improvements that can be made there, fine tuning their divisions of labor and making their educations system responsive to individual needs and nurturing people and so on. But while considering this you don’t start “all your women should stay at home and cook”. This is just stupid.
Theirs is a legacy system with tons of historical constraints you can’t get around of. This is why in the First Canto Srila Prabhupada wrote that re-instituting varnasrama in the modern age is impossible. It’s impossible for them. For us, however, he was more than prepared to start from scratch – from getting our own land, growing our own food, making our own clothes and so on. Independently of what is going on in the outside world. This we can do and this is why “introducing varnasrama” looks like farm based life to us.
Back in the 70s we were ready to create our own alternative to western civilization, our own society that was expected to grow exponentially and gradually supplant the life around us. It didn’t happen and instead our devotees got jobs, bought TVs, and then internet happened and one thing led to another, smartphones appeared, too, and now varnasrama looks totally foreign to our lifestyles. Except maybe for someone somewhere in India.
It looks like a stalemate but please remember the understanding of varnasrama I outlined above – every time anyone tries to improve his life in terms of sense enjoyment he is practicing varnasrama already. It might not look impressive compared to varnasrama of our imagination but it’s varnasrama nevertheless. It uses the same laws, same principle of division according to guna and karma, and there are no alternatives. Every time they succeed it’s a win for varnasrama, never mind that it might fill us with hate that they somehow made it work when we thought they should have suffered defeat for not listening to us with our preaching about brahmanas and cows. They know better how the universe works and therefore they make it work. We are just talking – all talk, no action.
First of all, their gains are unimpressive even though they feel they are making big strides. They totally ruined their food, for example, and so everytime they catch an “organic meal” they get all excited. When I was growing up every meal was “organic” without any extra effort, so where’s the progress? They mean less processed food with as little chemicals and preservatives as possible but it’s literally the first product of any ISKCON’s varnasrama community – healthy, nutritious food. What’s their big gain? It’s literally the first step in Prabhupada’s program.
What else do they offer in their “first world”? Always on internet connection? Yeah, but it’s to people you never meet in real life and it’s not a substitute to actual, person to person communication, which is another fundamental feature of farm-based life. Even if they say “but I know these people! They are my family, Facetime helps me to be in touch with my family” the short answer is that in farm based varnasrama you’ll never get separated from your family to begin with so there will never be a need for Facetime. More likely you’ll have a much more pressing need for privacy as you contemplate your path of self-realization.
In other words, Prabhupada’s model of varnasrama, when it’s up and running, would be fully satisfying when it comes to sense enjoyment, so trying to establish this kind of varnasrama should never be given up and it WILL be the future of our movement – after we try and fail at everything else, as usual. In the meantime we have our little varnasrama challenges in our every day life and those have to be dealt with and outcomes appreciated. If you boss suggests that your talents might be better expressed elsewhere he is making a varnasrama based suggestion (if he actually means it, of course). He is making a guna-karma based recommendation. YOUR guna-karma, not some ideals from our mental pictures of varnasrama with cows. So his advice might have a lot of truth in it and he might be your genuine well-wisher at this point in time. He’d be like your guru and should be listened to and appreciated, as I said. It’s not quite like learning from a self-realized brahmana who can start fire by mantras but that’s the guru you deserve, a TV and internet addict who thinks pizza is legitimate food.
Like with that saying about governments – we get exactly what we deserve, and that includes varnasrama. One day we might evolve to the level necessary for living on a farm but in the meantime the same laws of the universe create our personal “custom varnasrama” and we better follow them.
Btw, the understanding of varnasrama I’m talking about is based on Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti explanation of “ya” in “varnyam” in the verse – he says it indicates selfish desires on the part of the living entities. They wanted it and the Lord provided. It’s not the only interpretation, however. Srila Baladeva Vidyabhusana, who is Srila Visvanatha’s disciple in our parampara, says that this “ya” was added by the suffix “śyan” which does not change the meaning. I don’t know how to resolve this apparent contradiction but I see how Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti’s explanation makes a lot of sense. Srila Baladeva, apart from that note on the suffix, does not challenge or contradict it, and neither does Srila Prabhupada.