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):

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.

Vanity thought #1689. Single purpose

I wonder if my recent speculation about single flavor experiences through an apparent variety of services can be applied elsewhere, in particular to Kṛṣṇa līlā? It’s not how we imagine it, that’s for sure, but there are good arguments in support of it, too.

The starting point was our possible connection with Lord Rāmacandra – we don’t seem to fit in His epic story with Sītā and then war with Rāvaṇa but if we think of Him as a perfect king then varṇāśrama could be our way. Lord Caitanya wasn’t interested in it, Kṛṣṇa wasn’t interested in it either, but Lord Rāmacandra seems like the perfect patron Lord of performing our varṇāśrama duties.

When we talk about varṇāśrama duties we can talk about our real life experiences and that’s where it might get real speculative but I don’t think that there could be a big disagreement here. We seem to do a lot of things under the aegis of varṇāśrama and going to work feels very different from relating to one’s wife or children but once we get over the duality of our experiences we can all see the underlying driver – desire to serve the Lord to the best of our ability.

I’d argue that it’s the same motivation regardless of external engagement. It doesn’t matter whether our duties are pleasant or stressful at each given moment, we still have to perform them because doing so would please the Lord. I’d argue that it’s the only way to find a real connection between our activities here and Kṛṣṇa – everything we do must be done for His pleasure only regardless of our feelings and regardless of the results. Our guru wants us to be perfect little soldiers in this battle, too, though following varṇāśrama rules is not very high on the list of things we should be doing for Lord Caitanya’s mission.

Speaking of Lord Caitanya – everything we do for Him must somehow be connected to saṅkīrtana, to spreading the glory of the holy name. I’ve written a couple of posts about this back in December – it’s entirely possible to build our entire society around this single preaching mission so that every devotee, from temple pot cleaner to best book distributor to temple president see themselves not as cooks, managers, or salesmen but as servants of saṅkīrtana. It’s a beautiful attitude to have, the best ever possible, and we have had experiences of implementing it successfully. Maybe now is not the time for it, I don’t know, but when it worked it worked wonders.

Once we learn to see that connection in each bit of our service we should realize that it is driven by one and the same “rasa”, just like following varṇāśrama. We want other people to appreciate Kṛṣṇa, that’s our single motive behind everything we do. I put “rasa” in quotes there because we don’t have a name for it – it’s not exactly dāsya, even though we are servants. Lord Caitanya’s mood is described as audārya, meaning magnanimity or generosity, and it could be a sub-rasa under mādhurya or something, I wouldn’t delve into Six Gosvāmīs literature just yet to find out exactly – if they even mentioned audārya it might have been in different context anyway.

The same attitude was displayed by Prahlāda Mahārāja, btw, who is in dāsya mood but there’s an argument that his compassion towards other living beings was manifestation of compassion of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. There’s an argument that rasas are not building up from śānti to mādhurya but rather spread down from Śrī Rādha to all other devotees who display parts of her complete spectrum of devotion. Some get this audārya and some choose to serve the Lord without it (if it’s even possible).

I’m not a sucker of compassion, a word I believe is generally abused in our movement, but that’s what Lord Caitanya’s mercy is – compassion. It’s what drives His saṅkīrtana movement even though saṅkīrtana itself can contain any other rasa. The best place to feel this magnanimity is in Māyāpura, it just permeates the whole atmosphere there and it is clearly different from the atmosphere of Vṛndāvana. To feel real sweetness of Vṛndāvana is impossible without being qualified for it but no one can escape the audārya of Māyāpura.

That’s probably why Śrīla Prabhupāda made us come to our annual festivals to Māyāpura so that we can recharge our batteries and return to preaching with full enthusiasm. It just doesn’t happen to those visiting Vṛndāvana where the most common reaction is to withdraw and dedicate oneself to chanting and recollecting Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes.

Anyway, it is possible to see all service under varṇāśrama as driven by one single motive, one single rasa. It’s possible to see all service under saṅkīrtana as driven by one single rasa, too. Is it possible to see all service to Kṛṣṇa in a similar way?

On the surface of it – no, because Kṛṣṇa has a variety of devotees serving in a variety of rasas. That is not the case with Lord Rāmacandra as the king of Ayodhyā and it’s not the case with Lord Caitanya. We reject Gaurāṇga-nāgarīs who pretend to have various relationships with Mahāprabhu from His pre-saṅkīrtana days and accept only serving to His preaching mission as legitimate means of relating to Him. Relationships with Kṛṣṇa are not so restrictive.

What could be restrictive is our personal relationships with Him. In the spiritual world we might indeed be a one trick pony. Even those devotees playing in manjarīs focus on one single aspect of their service, afaik. Usually it’s decorating something in preparation of the visit of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. From description of other gopīs we can see that they are all expert in one particular field. Some are good a putting tilakas, some are good a cooking, some are good a playing musical instruments and so on. It is quite possible that they do not know how to do anything else and can’t care less about Kṛṣṇa’s relationships with calves or cowherd boys, it just doesn’t occur to them because they are too busy doing their own thing.

We also have examples of seemingly inanimate objects that serve only one single purpose – like the rope and the milk in Dāmodara līlā. They might be aware of everything else that is going on but all their lives they wait for that single moment when the Lord finally interacts with them.

Another argument is the fact that devotees on higher stages of progress are given one single mantra to worship the Lord and these mantras disclose one single devotional sentiment. From Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s commentary on Brahma-Saṁhitā I remember that everyone worships the Lord with mantras there. It’s only for us there’s a difference between mantra and the “real life” but in the spiritual world the sound and the reality are non-different.

One mantra, one sentiment, one rasa, one service – seems logical. It does not allow for personal variety but it should allow for variety of actions to express that sentiment, just as saṅkīrtana or varṇāśrama.

The only problem is pastimes where gopīs and Kṛṣṇa interact in unpredictable ways, especially when other devotees are involved, too. In those pastimes there aren’t any restrictions on what each and every person would do. Within limits, of course, because gopīs behave as gopīs and gopas behave as gopas. Still, some of these personalities are very versatile in their service. To this I could answer that we are never going to reach their platform, and that even with this versatility there’s always one single motive behind it anyway. Gopīs do not have any other interest but Kṛṣṇa or Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, as the case may be, everything they do serves this singular purpose in one single mood.

Hmm, it seems my new speculation is holding up very nicely. It would be great to check it out personally but for that one would need to visit the spiritual realm which is not on the cards, unfortunately. Maybe one day…

Vanity thought #1662. A touch of envy

Maybe my memory is very selective but I can’t remember if there’s a simple answer to a question why modern civilization is so successful at what it does. We can easily dismiss this success as heading in the wrong direction, we can blast it for not paying any attention to the spiritual side of life, but we don’t have an answer to why it works at what it does when, in Kali yuga, it should fail miserably instead.

Well, Kali yuga isn’t over yet and current period of prosperity is still only a short blip on Kali’s five thousand year history, but still – why are these atheistic materialists so successful? It’s this success that lets them declare that they don’t need God anymore and they’ve been on this godless path for about a hundred years now and are still going strong. What’s the matter?

My answer is that their atheism is phony. They might declare that there’s no God but they still vehemently defend God’s laws. Things have changed since approximately the turn of the century and the millennials are not sticklers for the rules anymore but then the millennials haven’t produced anything of notice so far and probably never will. It’s the old school science that still carries the burden and they know the difference between right and wrong better than anyone else, sometimes even better than us – as in cases when we in ISKCON failed by their standards in areas like child or women protection.

These days there’s a serious push for alternative, non-religion based morality but all they are doing is offering non-religious justification for the same rules, they are not inventing anything new. There are cases now where they use a completely new rule book, like sexual relationships, but so far they have nothing to show for it and they can’t built a sustainable society that generates enough new members with the way they practice sex now. Everything else, as I said, is just another justification for the old, God given rules of no kill and no steal.

As I said yesterday, from the point of view of the universe and the law of karma acknowledgement of God is not necessary for the kind of results they need, simply following the rules would be enough. They are not going to discover God or attain self-realization but they are not aiming for those goals so it’s not considered a failure in their view. They can completely detach the rules from God and the rules would still work because the universe is self-sustaining that way, it has everything it needs to maintain its human population without drawing on Kṛṣṇa’s resources – pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate – it’s complete.

We, as devotees, should know this as we should know that these rules work precisely because they are originally God given, no matter what the atheists say. Kṛṣṇa personally set up the varṇāśrama system, He said so in Bhagavad Gītā (BG 4.13). Outside of India it’s not called varṇāśrama, of course, but the human societies all over the world naturally divide themselves into four varṇas and aśramas.

There are students, there are householders, there are retired people, and there’s no sannyāsa because no one in Kali yuga is capable of following it. There are rulers, there are businessmen, there is labor, and there are academics and consultants. Soviets tried to create a classless society but they still had their workers and farmers and their intelligentsia, and they also had their untouchable ruling class and plenty of ideologists to oversee every section of the society. Soviet Union collapsed anyway and with it their classless experiment.

In any society there are clear traditional rules for everyone to follow. Everyone knows who to seek safety and protection from and who to give protection to. Everyone knows when to get up and what to do during the day, everyone knows when it’s time to work and when it’s time to relax. Everyone knows the duties of the fathers, mothers, husbands, sons etc, and they are remarkably similar all across the world. Farmers everywhere get up before sunrise, for example, while the rulers tend to overindulge in sense gratification and sleep late, while teachers and academics are natural moral examples for everyone else to follow.

When we talk about Bible based rules we instantly remember the ten commandments but these commandments do not explicitly describe how the society should function, I’m not even sure it’s possible to trace the duties of kings or farmers to Biblical origins. This gives an opening for the atheists to propose evolution as the root of our rules but every religious person unquestionably attributes them to God anyway, whether it’s actually said in the Bible or Koran to get up early or not. Procreation is a clear God given order, on the other hand, and so are other duties for the āśramas. We know varṇāśrama is God given, Muslims and Christians know it’s God given, so let’s not waste time on exploring the possibility that it’s the product of gene mutation and natural selection.

And here is the deal – people following their prescribed rules naturally please Viṣṇu and they know when Viṣṇu is pleased or not because Lord’s satisfaction registers deep in their hearts. Mothers know that raising their kids is ultimately satisfying even against all the arguments about lost sleep and missed career chances. Husbands providing for their families also know that it makes them happier than thoughts of running away from this unnecessary burden.

When it comes to their professional lives people also know that doing their jobs is what brings them the ultimate happiness, not their remuneration packages. Things gradually change, of course, but there are still billions of people in the world who would prefer to honestly do their jobs and would not sell out no matter what. People know when Viṣṇu is pleased and nothing can replace that odd feeling of deep satisfaction, they don’t need to know His name to feel it.

A coupe of days ago I argued that democracy as a system of government is a form of saṅkīrtana, too, because it’s congregational and it’s dedicated to perfecting God given rules for the society – if done with the attitude of jointly considering how to better implement Lord’s will.

These people aren’t nominally devotees but their engagement with the Lord through following His rules is to be admired, which we never do in our society. We never appreciate the kind of sacrifice these non-devotees perform and we do not acknowledge how it might actually please our Lord. We claim the Lord all to ourselves and we can’t accept the possibility that other people, especially our sworn enemies – atheists, might please Him, too.

We shoot for the stars, as I said yesterday, but we measure our progress on the material level by the same standards as atheists and this means that we must engage in the same type of sacrifice – strictly following God’s rules, which we don’t like to do because we consider ourselves very special. Or maybe we even hope to avoid honestly performing our duties because we expect the holy name to compensate for our shortcomings. Since we pursue the same materialistic goals – building big temples, collecting big money, and attracting a big number of followers, this attitude becomes offensive because it means we maintain our material attachments despite of chanting.

So, when atheists succeed in whatever endeavor our reaction has a mixture of it all – envy that the Lord favors them and not us, laziness to follow the same rules and procedures, and an offensive attitude of desiring the same success for ourselves. And what we don’t normally see is how this success is ultimately attributed to serving the Lord even if attained by avowed atheists.

Vanity thought #1661. Equal opportunity Lord

From the very first day we joined Hare Kṛṣṇas we’d heard how special our movement is, and all over our books there are innumerable quotes about exalted position of Kṛṣṇa’s devotees. It takes a long time to realize that all those advantages do not necessarily refer to us but to really pure souls. On the other hand, we ARE covered by Lord Caitanya’s mercy regardless of our advancement, thanks to the protection of Śrīla Prabhupāda and the entire paramparā.

This is a bit tricky, of course. We can’t say that we spit on thought of sex enjoyment because the bliss we find in chanting the holy name is so overwhelming. We can’t claim that liberation is standing there with folded hands in our presence. We can’t claim to have greater powers than yogīs and jñānīs. We can’t claim that we are above the modes of material nature. We are short of pure devotees mentioned in our literature in so many ways, and yet denying these advantages being given to us would be denying the power of paramparā.

We can’t say that Kṛṣṇa does not take personal interest in each and every one of us because that would cast doubts on the extent of His mercy or the extent of His power. We can’t say that Kṛṣṇa is too busy looking after the entire universe and all the real pure devotees in it so He can’t spare time for us – because that would imply Kṛṣṇa has limits and these limits would depend on our estimates of what is difficult and what is easy for Him. In this regard I think He’d reciprocate with our feelings and act as if it’s indeed too difficult for Him to engage with us directly. I don’t mean He would show Himself directly to our material senses but take direct interest in our well-being. For showing up personally the universe has a schedule, He won’t do it according to our will, or, rather, we won’t be able to express sufficient desire to cause Kṛṣṇa’s descent the way Advaita Ācārya did.

We should also remember that Kṛṣṇa sees the bigger picture and He knows past, present, and future. Our own estimates, however, are limited by our karma and we can’t see how all little pieces in our life must eventually come together and bring us to the sate of perfection. Kṛṣṇa gives us spiritual benedictions which we can’t perceive at the moment with material mind and senses and within material concept of time. It doesn’t mean that they are not there, however, and they all will be manifested at the appropriate moment, most likely at the moment of death. Until then our experience of life in this world is not much different from that of the atheists.

On the bodily platform we have no other stick to measure Kṛṣṇa’s mercy but material success, whether it’d be expressed in money, fame, good health, good character, the ability to convince others etc etc. These are the same qualities that are present in every other human being and even in animals but to different degrees. Experience shows that we hardly ever possess them in larger quantities than others, even atheists. We aren’t smarter, we aren’t more honest, we aren’t richer, we aren’t better in anything we can think of. Our lifestyle gives us a big leg up in the race for such material perfections but it’s not enough to actually win.

We can look at fellow religious groups and wonder why they can build much bigger temples than ours, or how they an attract a lot more followers, or how they can keep their congregation together, or how they can attain position of power. After fifty years all we can show is Tulsi Gabbard, for example, and she is not even from ISKCON per se. There was a time when we made a big splash but by now we are rather ordinary. For the larger society it’s not bad to have us around because we are essentially harmless, but we are not essential and if we suddenly dissolve ourselves hardly anyone would miss us or ever remember we existed.

Isn’t this proof that we are not God’s special people? Does it mean that we are crappy devotees and Kṛṣṇa doesn’t care much about us? No, it rather means that our Lord is impartial to everyone and He gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed.

What we should not forget is that our deal is to chant everyday and follow four regs so that at the moment of death we don’t miss our biggest chance at spiritual success. Everything that happens before that can be safely discounted and forgotten. We are not here to compete in material success and if we still expect material proof that our Kṛṣṇa is the real God then our devotion is very immature and our desires are harmful to our own spiritual well-being and Kṛṣṇa won’t satisfy them for our own sake.

Material success is nothing, it’s the very first step in God realization and as such it’s available to everyone regardless. Remember that conversation between Lord Caitanya and Rāmānanda Rāya where Lord Caitanya quickly dismissed following varṇāśrama? Varṇāśrama is what gives material benedictions and it’s the go to prescription in any religious system. Even the most uneducated and unenlightened men would be told to live according to God’s laws without bothering them with details. In fact, there aren’t any details to bother Christians and Muslims with – God’s own nature and own pastimes are not available there even to the most advanced practitioners. It’s all “just live according to God’s law, will you?”

In Kṛṣṇa consciousness it’s dismissed outright because we are being given access to the real nectar instead. We shouldn’t even be paying attention to perfecting varṇāśrama because our lives are short and we’d better try and achieve success in chanting. It would be foolish for us to seek parity with aforementioned Christians or Muslims. In fact, even atheists can implement perfect varṇāśrama and reap its material benefits. For material success it doesn’t matter whether they worship God or not as long as they follow the same prescriptions. In Vedic culture this was epitomized in philosophy of karma-mīmāṁsa and in modern society it’s epitomized by democracy.

This last point might need further elucidation but I’ll leave it for tomorrow. Suffice it to say that we should not be competing for this low hanging fruit at all, we’ve got better things to do with our lives.

Vanity thought #1555. New Age

It looks to me that our ISKCON gradually transitioned itself into a new era, not quite what we had when Śrīla Prabhupāda was present. For a couple of decades after his departure we tried to maintain the same spirit but now we are firmly in the new epoch. Some holdouts would say it’s a degradation, those living it now think they are living the dream, otoh. Who is right? Who is wrong? Should we continue or should we try to change our course before it’s too late?

A few days ago I mentioned Navīna Nīrada as the last vestige of saṅkīrtana and it turned out that he just gave a class (mp3) in Māyāpura on the topic. It’s that time of the year when ISKCON has a worldwide Prabhupāda marathon to take advantage of the holiday spirit, when people are ready to part with their cash somewhat easier than usual. These days it might be necessary to explain that “marathon” here means book distribution marathon.

Management arranges for inspirational talks by saṅkīrtana leaders and invites old timers to revive the spirit. Navīna Nīrada is fifty, for example. Again, it might be necessary to explain that saṅkīrtana here means book distribution, not group chanting in the streets. Hmm, for a while we’ve seen transformations of this word, too.

At first it meant harināma, when we had no books to sell. Devotees would accompany harināma parties and hand out leaflets. Then we got books and selling books meant money so temple authorities preferred book distribution to singing in the streets. This has inspired HG Aindra Prabhu to start his revolution of 24-hour kīrtana in Vṛndāvana. In the West, meanwhile, devotees discovered that it was easier to sell lots of other stuff, like candles, soap, paintings etc, and that came to be called saṅkīrtana, too. Thankfully, it didn’t last forever and books were soon back in the center, but distributing books is hard so we went back to chanting, but not by walking the streets but by holding nondescript yoga classes and anonymous bhakti festivals. I hope for most devotees going on saṅkīrtana still means distributing books but just to be clear…

Several things have changed in the world. One is that everybody knows Hare Kṛṣṇas, we are not a novelty anymore. Some play on the feelings of nostalgia but hardly anyone plays on surprise and a violent assault on the senses that was so overwhelming in the early days – I mean bright colored saris and dhotis, drums and karatālas, amazing free sweets, awesome, top quality books, and the enthusiastic chanting. We still do that but somehow it’s not very “assaulting” these days, sometimes it’s just a lonely devotee walking in the crowd singing to him/herself.

Another problem is that people do not read paper books as often as before and that makes us feel apprehensive and outdated. I’m sure saṅkīrtana devotees can turn it around to their advantage and present our books as something really valuable, compared to electronic junk filling their gadgets, or they just ask for donations with books given away as an afterthought, which isn’t cool.

I’ve noticed that these days devotees often ask for donations first, on the strength of their religiosity or our charitable activities, and then give a corresponding value book as a reward. That’s not how our books should be distributed – one single sentence from Prabhupāda’s books is more valuable than all the charities in the world. Books are not afterthought, they are the most valuable thing our society has ever had. We should make people want books and be ready to give an arm and a leg for them, and that’s what devotees like Navīna Nīrada do when they distribute them.

When Hare Kṛṣṇa exploded in Soviet Union all Russian books were printed in Sweden and therefore were outrageously expensive, Bhagavad Gīta cost something like a quarter of a monthly wage, and yet devotees were so inspired and convinced of its value that they sold them by thousands a day. Price is not an obstacle – our lack of conviction is. We don’t see them as valuable ourselves, we think we know them, we understand them, and they are our possessions, we have so many of them lying around. We’ve lost the feeling of urgency, having spent years trying to change our own lives, most of it in vain. We are trapped in the period between neophyte excitement and paramahaṁsa realization of our books spiritual value.

The most profound change, however, has been in how our temples maintain themselves. Because book distribution is relatively hard our managers found easier ways – by relying on congregation. We serve people and people donate. Likewise, one successful business can maintain a temple quite easily, we don’t require that much to function. We also reduced the number of temple dependents by marrying off our brahmacārīs. Some temples do not even have resident devotees anymore, maybe a paid pūjārī and that’s all.

Means of sustenance dictate everything in materially conditioned life and so we ceased to see ourselves as a book distribution movement. Big festivals like Ratha Yatras give us more exposure and more fame anyway, we can invite ISKCON big shots to preside and participate, big shots attract big congregation and bigger donors, that’s the way to go forward. If you want to succeed you need to get appropriate credentials as a pūjārī or as a scholar, become someone who fits in this new scheme of things. Book distributors usually aren’t a part of this, even if successful ones are valued as sources of income, too.

In this atmosphere old school devotees like Navīna Nīrada appear as a dying breed and no one takes them seriously anymore, only as a tribute to the tradition, not as an inspiration to move forward. As usual, he asked the audience what they were doing in Māyāpura. Most were studying something, taking vaiṣṇava courses and advancing their vaiṣṇava education, the rest were various temple devotees, which usually means providing some profitable services because no one lives in Māyāpura for free. He asked how many were saṅkīrtana devotees and he got only a few hands rising.

To him it was a crisis of identity because he was taught that we are all saṅkīrtana devotees, only that some of us have to stay back and provide essential supporting services. In his view there are no kitchen devotees, only saṅkīrtana devotees who have to go and help in the kitchen. Similarly, the pūjārīs are needed so that saṅkīrtana devotees can be inspired by a darśana of nice deities during their morning program. Even temple deities are supposed to serve saṅkīrtana that way, and why wouldn’t they? It’s a movement of Caitanya Mahāprabhu, it’s HIS mission, why would He be interested in simply eating, sleeping, and getting dressed?

This clarify of vision is not there anymore and Navīna Nīrada was right that we have a crisis of identity. People do not see themselves as saṅkīrtana devotees, they see themselves as aspiring pūjārīs, managers, scholars, valuable businessmen – whatever personal aspirations they have in our movement, but it’s rarely book distributors.

I wouldn’t necessarily conclude that it’s a bad thing, though. It’s not ideal, but if we want to have a sustainable society and build varṇāśrama we have to get to this stage, it’s unavoidable. Varṇāśrama is not a system for book distributors, it’s a system for common men to fulfill their common desires and get some spiritual benefit out of it as well. Book distributors need to find themselves some other place, even in daivī-varṇāśrama the goal is to please the Lord, not necessarily book distribution or any other forms of preaching. The model of daivī-varṇāśrama is Vaikuṇṭha and there’s no preaching there, book distributors will not be appreciated.

Saṅkīrtana is a gift from Goloka – golokera prema dhana, hari-nāma-saṅkīrtana. It has no comfortable place in this world and it will always be in some crisis of identity or the other, and we can’t expect everyone in our society appreciate it equally, not unless we are all on the same transcendental platform. We can be trained to respect saṅkīrtana but unless it manifests its glory in our own spiritual life it will be just words, we should not be surprised by our lack of natural enthusiasm.

I can’t claim to know what saṅkīrtana is, but thanks to the old training I can’t see myself as part of this new ISKCON either, even if I have nothing against this development and support it wholeheartedly, it’s just not for me. I’d rather die with good memories than invest myself into something I see as spiritually legitimate but still inferior.

Vanity thought #1477. Work or leisure?

In modern culture people are defined by their work. First question after one learns someone’s name is about their occupation. Even if a person is very successful and doesn’t need to work for a living anymore, we still want to know how he achieved that success. If someone simply inherited his fortune we feel unsatisfied in our inquiry, we want to know what that person has accomplished himself, what he wants to do with his own life, even if unsuccessfully.

Any job will do, we can learn to respect even managing a drug cartel, appreciating the skill while being totally aghast at methods and effects on society. A billionaire scion can afford to fail in many of his endeavors but we need to know that he tried at least something, and then we’ll use that something to define his nature from now on. Here we have a sign of controversy, though – he might not express himself through something we would call “work”. Drinking, gambling, and whoring might be his main and only interests but we don’t accept them as his nature, we need something else. Philanthropy would do but only if it’s seen as a serious effort, not signing checks away to charities he doesn’t even bother to read the names of. Painting or even taking photos would probably do, too, as long as it’s not an endless stream of selfies but a quest to discover beauty and inner meaning in the world.

That last one is not a job but a hobby, a leisure activity, and there are plenty of those to occupy even the penniless among us, but can we use hobbies to define our nature? Usually no, but there are voices that demand recognition of leisure as a legitimate if not a primary indication of our true character. There are arguments that, historically, work wasn’t that important until very recently.

There are two ways to approach this question. First, work is something we are forced to do to maintain ourselves. We don’t have to like it but we must be willing to make sacrifices and modern culture demands giving all we can in order to get maximum monetary rewards. In this sense work is not something we want to do with our lives but it’s something we are prepared to tolerate the most, so it must say something about our nature even if we pretend to hate it. We hate all the other things even more, so work is special.

The other view is that it’s only leisure that truly defines us and our nature but this view is very rare these days. Leisure is seen as luxury for the rich or idleness of the lazy. We all must have some rest so leisure is seen as a counterweight to work in our work/life balance. Note how it’s “work/life”, meaning that work and life are opposites, and so if you want to define life you shouldn’t be looking at work.

Modern asuric culture puts everything upside down and so it takes us a while to appreciate the notion that taking money for the work we don’t like is ugly. I wanted to compare it to prostitution but lots of prostitutes seem to enjoy what they are doing and consciously avoid unpleasant clients. There are people who half-jokingly refer to their work as selling their souls but there aren’t many who would see it as a serious problem that needs immediate attention. Everyone’s doing it so it must be okay, they conclude at the end of their tirades.

The ideal of work was probably best captured by Ayn Rand and in her vision it was driven by desire of self-fulfillment, not rewards. Her heroes were making the world a better place because they could and wanted to, not because they were paid to do so. I think everybody agrees that if they could do that and not worry about money it would have been perfect, unfortunately this kind of self-expression has become a rare luxury these days.

It’s heroes like Rand’s that gave birth to a term “workaholic” around the same time, in the middle of the 20th century. Industrialism finally reached the stage when people found freedom through work, even if we blame Nazis for daring to put this slogan on the entrance to Auschwitz. Somehow, if we survive in our cubicles and don’t die like Nazi prisoners it makes it alright and we should be thankful to our managers.

However, even if we do agree on Rand’s ideal we should remember that it’s shifted in time comparing to our present situation. In order to find such a field where we would be happy to apply ourselves without concern for rewards we need to be free from slavery of work for money first. Maybe not literally free but at least mentally free so that we have time to contemplate our true inspirations, and that’s where leisure comes back with force.

Etymology of the word itself shows that it once meant “opportunity to do something”, and it is also related to “license”, which means the same thing. That’s for the Latin origin of the term, if we turn to Greece then Greek word for leisure became skola in Latin and then school in English – a time for learning and preparation to do something with your life. It’s not how we usually understand leisure these days, but, perhaps, it’s only our ignorance speaking.

We just have to learn to do it right – the leisure, and then it will all fall into place because then we will see our real svabhava, as was discussed yesterday. Then our svadharma will become apparent, too, and then we can apply Kṛṣṇa’s injunction to do that and not worry about anything else, including failure.

The modern work that we have to do for a living, even if we come to like it, will not be seen as following Kṛṣṇa’s advice then. I mean when we apply for a job we want to “fill the position” – somebody else’s position, somebody’s else interest and requirement, not ours. It’s the corporation that needs a warm body in that chair, it would be us doing someone else’s work and fulfilling someone else’s aspirations. Succeeding in that would still be worse, from the spiritual progress point of view, then failing in our own leisure. I’ll quote that verse again (BG 18.47):

    It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly. Duties prescribed according to one’s nature are never affected by sinful reactions.

Yeah, sure, we’ll get paid, but we’ll accrue sinful reactions, too, and problem with sins is that they deprive us of our taste for devotional service, which happens right away, long before manifestation of the unpleasant physical reactions. Therefore determining our svabhava and then our prescribed duties is very important for our spiritual progress, it’s not just a question of organizing a proper varṇāśrama. We can wait for varṇāśrama, we don’t really have a choice there, but we can’t put our spiritual progress on hold, we must do something about it now and that means figuring out our svabhava right away.

Next question is how to do this “leisure” thing right.

Vanity thought #1432. Swing vote 5

Any talk about the importance of human form of life should actually start with Prahlāda Mahārāja’s famous instruction to his fellow demons, the very first in the chapter (SB 7.6.1):

    One who is sufficiently intelligent should use the human form of body from the very beginning of life — in other words, from the tender age of childhood — to practice the activities of devotional service, giving up all other engagements. The human body is most rarely achieved, and although temporary like other bodies, it is meaningful because in human life one can perform devotional service. Even a slight amount of sincere devotional service can give one complete perfection.

Prahlāda Mahārāja didn’t talk about specifics of human conditioning and he was talking to sons of demons, persons who were not supposed to be inclined to devotional service at all. Otoh, they were just children, their minds susceptible to any kind of preaching. We don’t know if Prahlāda said the same things to their parents, though why not? It’s not like he was risking anything extra after his father tried to kill him in a million different ways.

Our position is different, we won’t normally dare to provoke such strong reactions to our preaching so we might hold our tongues. I’m not saying it’s right but unless you are Prahlāda Mahārāja don’t stir a hornet’s nest. He was protected from being bitten but we are too selfish and shouldn’t pretend to be more devoted than we really are. Meaning we’d talk to demons to increase our own prestige and to show how great and fearless we are rather than as an expression of genuine concern for their spiritual well-being, which we don’t possess yet.

Anyway, we must utilize our human form of life, no questions about that, but there are questions about how, what obstacles we might face, and how to avoid hitting them and breaking our noses.

We can’t change our karma and whatever Kṛṣṇa sends our way but we can control our reaction to it, to a degree. Mostly it means avoiding certain kind of desires because as spirit souls it’s the only thing we can possibly control. This control is never full, we are bound to react to our surroundings, but if there’s any free will for us in the material world it’s in trying to control these reactions. Sometimes we foolishly accept likable things and thoughtlessly reject unpleasant things, and that’s when analytical knowledge might come handy.

We should avoid the company of sense enjoyers, for example. Men who are too attracted to women and just won’t shut up about it, which means practically everyone we know outside our community. We should avoid celebrities and politicians like a plague, too. Their energy is just too strong to resist for ordinary people, they are charismatic and their blind dedication to fame and glory is contagious. Just a faint possibility that we might run into them when taking a certain course of action should be enough for us to change our minds and stay out of their orbit and gravitational field.

The criteria for these decisions is pretty simple – is it easy to remember the Lord with devotional attitude in their presence or not? Is it easy to utilize our human form of life in their company or not? If we know the answer and understand the reasoning behind it we might be able to control our minds and so won’t develop unnecessary attachments that would define what our “human form of life” actually is, for it is always changing, both from one life to another and from one life situation to the next.

Another powerful influence on our “human form of life” could be poverty. I’ve wrote quite a few posts about it two years ago but today I want to approach this topic from a slightly different angle.

Śrīla Prabhupāda sometimes mentioned a Sanskrit saying that I can’t trace to any śāstric sources: Dāridrya-doṣo guṇa-rāśi-nāśi. It means that poverty destroys all good qualities. Sometimes he used it to describe India of his time, how Indian poverty destroyed all vestiges of the Vedic civilization. He also often described India as a lame man who needs help of the abilities of the blind man (westerners), so that together they can make their lives perfect.

One aspect of this thought is this – poverty is detrimental to preaching. Prabhupāda could do it in America in the beginning but after that the power of his American disciples was indispensable to spreading the cult of Lord Caitanya.

The dāridrya-doṣo saying talks about ordinary people, though, not devotees. Is it applicable to us? Most of the time poverty in our books is described as a boon that brings all good fortune, spiritually speaking, and we must voluntarily accept it if we want to become pure devotees, there’s no other way. Example of Puṇḍarīka Vidyanīdhi doesn’t count, he was not a conditioned soul, he didn’t need to give up any attachments because he never had any. We need to accept poverty to cleanse our hearts from unnecessary appreciation for wealth and creature comforts.

It doesn’t mean that we should welcome poverty as a society, however. We should fight it. We can’t build a varṇāśrama unless we learn how to produce wealth and provide all necessities for every member of our community. We are shooting for spiritual communism here, with all the needs met and provided in exchange for serving the Lord. If our leaders fail to beat poverty in our own ranks we, as a society, will quickly lose all good qualities just like that saying warns.

Varṇāśrama is supposed to indulge our material desires in a Kṛṣṇa conscious way but if we remain poverty stricken then instead of purifying them we’ll just fan them stronger. Our envy of others will increase if we sense even slight disadvantage on our part. We’ll become bitter, we’ll start scheming, and we’ll use every opportunity for sense enjoyment that comes our way. Our minds would be impossible to control and we’d accept all kinds of degrading conditions in exchange for a few dollars. We’ll have no problems with lying and cheating if it finally puts bread on our tables, our women would prostitute themselves to get clothes and ornaments, even if mentally, their chastity will be lost, our children will grow resenting us and Kṛṣṇa consciousness in general, and everything will eventually be ruined.

I hope our leaders understand this and, from available evidence, we are doing okay in this regard, poverty is not the main problem for our society. The days when we were forced to sell all kinds of crap at baseball games just to feed ourselves are gone, hopefully for good.

This creates a dichotomy, however, because goals of varṇāśrama and our personal goals are very very different. At some point varṇāśrama is useful, of course, but eventually we must give it up and disassociate ourselves from its pursuits. If we had a perfect daivi varṇāśrama then we could see everything we do as directly connected to the Lord but until that happens varṇāśrama means people trying to have sex, people trying to make money, people trying to become famous, people trying to make a living off their knowledge – not the kind of company we are supposed to keep. One day we should make enough spiritual progress to realize that we should stay away from them nearly as far as we should stay away from non-devotee materialists.

Varṇāśrama is like soap in this sense – it helps to remove dirt but it has to be washed off, too. Then we can utilize our human form of life to its full potential, as Prahlāda Mahārāja instructed. That’s when we can cast a true swing vote and make our lives perfect.

Let me end with a phrase from the quote above once again:

    .. practice the activities of devotional service, giving up all other engagements.

There goes varṇāśrama.

Vanity thought #1286. Pseudo religion

For the past few days I’ve been writing about all the good things about ISIL, how they are honestly trying to do God’s work and everything, as if this outfit should somehow become acceptable. By the modern standards, however, their complete disregard for human lives and exceptional cruelty should rule out any compromises whatsoever. Should we care about modern standards? Not really, but that doesn’t mean that we should be any less critical about ISIL’s barbarism. Ideally, we should be able to disqualify them on religious grounds but that is not so easy.

Well meaning atheists and their supporters apply a very simple logic – ISIL kills a lot of innocent people and therefore it cannot represent religion. Those atheists who won’t give religion any credit would argue that ISIL is a perfect example that religions, and especially Islam, are evil. We, as devotees, need to find a better ground for our judgment than that, preferably with śāstric quotes, but we don’t have any about Islam.

If ISIL was an offshot of Hinduism we would have nailed them down a long time ago but ISIL are Muslims, we have no idea what goes on in that religion and how to tell its real and sincere followers from their “apa-sampradāyas”. Our basic test of sincerity, starting with four regs, is too high and so no Muslim would ever pass it. After what people like Aurangazeb did to Vṛndāvana we will never have a soft spot for that religion, too. For us his rule was like what ISIL is for Middle East now. Whatever religious arguments he might have had for his destruction of our temples we will never find them acceptable.

So, is there any real spiritual component to ISIL and their brand of “varṇāśrama”? I don’t think so.

On the other hand, they talk about God. They might not use the “best” aspects of Godhead, in a sense that their version of God is too vengeful and cold hearted, but they still talk about God. Their God’s name might not be authorized in our scriptures but they still mean the creator and the controller of the universe who is beyond the perception of the material senses and who should be the sole object of human devotion. However crippled their understanding might be, it’s still God. So, how could this God allow His followers to commit such atrocities in His name?

As I said, the common answer is that that they can’t be doing God’s work and their version of Islam is a gross deviation. When I read explanations why it’s a deviation, however, I wasn’t totally convinced. They seemed to argue about details, pretty much like we would argue about implementation of the laws of Manu. And, as I said, we don’t know Islam well enough to pass our own judgment on what is true and what is false there, so we need a different approach.

I have a little theory that all successful deviations must split from the main tree very close to the roots. I have no proof of that, it’s just a theory, it explains some cases better than alternatives and that’s all I have.

It goes like this – when a sincere follower starts to deviate from the path Kṛṣṇa, at first, doesn’t take his mistakes seriously. We all are bound to do some stupid things under the influence of the modes of nature, no big deal, api cet su-durācāro and all that (BG 9.30). When, however, the living entity expresses deeper commitment to the pursuit of deviating ideas Kṛṣṇa actually helps them deviate (BG 7.21):

    As soon as one desires to worship some demigod, I make his faith steady so that he can devote himself to that particular deity.

The verse says “demigod” but it’s the principle that matters. In the previous śloka Kṛṣṇa spoke about people who lost their knowledge because they have material desires, meaning deviants from the path of pure, selfless devotion. These people then surrender to other devatās, and that’s where “demigod” comes from in the just quoted verse.

The point is, when the living entity makes a conscious decision to pursue any other path but unadulterated devotion, Kṛṣṇa helps him to fulfill that desire. To succeed on that path takes time, karma doesn’t work instantly, so when we see a successful deviant we must keep that in mind. What we see at that moment is the fruit of his deviation, not its case, which we must trace further back in time, close to the roots.

Rittviks of Bangalore are now building the tallest temple in Vṛndāvana, for example (as far as I understand from the news). If their project is complete we might feel there’s something wrong with it but it won’t tell us what was wrong with rittviks in the first place. We could say “these dudes are so vain”, we could say “these dudes value money and material achievements over Vraja mood of devotion”, we could say so many things, but I bet we wouldn’t be able to figure out that they were actually rittviks just by looking at the temple.

I suppose we could conclude that vanity, pride, and desire to be better devotees than others is at the core of rittvikism and it would probably be correct because all these things are interconnected and feed off each other, it’s a chicken and egg dilemma, but my point is that to find the actual religious deviation we should look past the visible results and back into the history, close to the philosophical roots.

In case of ISIL, the success is obviously there because they achieved what no other Islamic group could achieve in hundreds and hundreds of years – start a caliphate. The last caliphate, Ottoman Empire, was a successor to the previous ones, they didn’t start it from scratch, so, perhaps, we are talking about something really unprecedented in history of modern Islam. The root of their deviation, however, is hidden from us and we don’t know Islam well enough to dig it up. I’m sure something went wrong, however.

One possible reason is that this group of Muslims is too concerned with ruling the actual world. They are too attached to varṇāśrama, so to speak, they see it as the ultimate goal rather than a first step which might not be even necessary. We have ideas like that in our movement, too, carried by the “fifty-percenters” – devotees who think that now, after building a world wide preaching movement, our next step should be building varṇāśrama, even though ideally it should be the other way around. The debate whether old rules like the ones found in laws of Manu should be followed or not, and if yes, then how, is also all too common.

There’s a similar split in the Islamic world, too, and that’s something I haven’t mentioned when I talked about recent Atlantic’s article about ISIL. Most salafist, the sect ISIL nominally belongs to, interpret Dar-al-Islam, the land of Islam, to mean spiritual place and spiritual practice, not necessarily an actual state enforcing paradise on Earth. They see the excesses of trying to establish control over the land and create this caliphate thing as being detrimental to their spiritual progress. They see this war and its associated killings as a loss of their spiritual purity, and that’s something they value more than transient control over a piece of land.

We can relate to this argument, too – we need to reject anything that is unfavorable to our service. I mean, varṇāśrama needs kṣatriyas and kṣatriyas have their own code of conduct that would be incompatible with ours. They are not vegetarians, they drink and gamble, too. We are not going to train our devotees to do any of that, no matter how dear and important varṇāśrama might appear to some of us.

So, if we were to pick up sides in this great inter-Islam struggle, we should, perhaps, pick those who say that all this brutal fighting over land and pride of being in the Caliphate are completely misplaced and detrimental to pursuit of actual spiritual progress. I could only add that it doesn’t mean siding with those who strive to make Islam compatible with comfortable lives in atheistic societies either, those Muslims are clearly wrong, too.

Vanity thought #1285. Islamic varnashrama

This is what this ISIL Caliphate really is – an attempt to establish Islamic version of varṇāśrama, and not just varṇāśrama but daivī-varṇāśrama. They are not content on simply running their place by sharia law, or organizing everybody’s duties, they center their entire existence around fulfilling the will of Allah. We can, of course sneer and smirk and say that their merciless killings have nothing to do with serving God whatsoever but that’s how ISIL see it himself and, truth be told, they follow the right principles.

I first wrote about them probably half a year ago and I still think that if they weren’t so bloodthirsty they would have been praised everywhere, not just by Muslims but by all religious people around the world.

This is an important point most ISIL conversations miss completely – people do not want to put an end to ISIL, they want to put an end to their brutality, rapes, and slavery. Atheists, of course, would never accept any kind of religion based society and so ISIL would never get their approval but who cares what they think anyway.

Varṇāśrama elements in their structure are obvious but that is true for practically any society because these divisions were created by Kṛṣṇa and no one had ever been able to overcome them.

Their Caliph, for example, has to be a born and bred kṣatriya, but that is true for every society as well, even democratic ones. Blood lines are not as important in democracies, but they are not very important for caliphates either, they cannot justify having an ineffectual leader just because he was born into a right family.

The caliph is also not the supreme authority, the supreme authority in ISIL and, I guess, in every sharia based society is shura, the council of brāhmaṇas. They are the ones who set the policies and make all the important decisions, the caliph only implements them and takes all the public credit.

This could be used as a counter argument to those who do not see ISIL’s current leader as authoritative enough. He can read his statements from the paper, for all we care, he is not the one who writes them anyway, and if he oversteps his boundaries the shura would surely put him in place. It’s like Iranian presidents, I guess. They are the public face of the regime controlled by religions authorities from behind.

I don’t know what ISIL has for vaiśyas, I’ll say a few words about their economics later. I don’t know what they have for śudras but I could argue that their slaves would qualify.

There has never been slavery in India, afaik, so it seems unreasonable to compare śudras with slaves but in general their positions and duties are similar. I’m not even sure “free” śudras had significantly more rights than slaves. We mostly object to slavery for its exploitation and mistreatment of people, next wave of complaints has to do with lack of freedom of movement, but that was true about serfs in the Middle Ages, too, and things like the right to vote or freedom of speech never applied to śudras at all. Even slaves could complain, I believe, it’s just that in the west no one would listen, which brings me back to mistreatment and exploitation – our real grief with slavery.

In terms of aśramas, Islamic societies do not reinvent wheels either. There are students, there are householders, and there’s no big deal if there are no sannyāsīs because it’s Kali Yuga anyway.

People’s duties are very well established, just as it should be in varṇāśrama. Men should be doing men’s work and women should be doing women’s. This inequality between sexes is another major gripe westerners have with ISIL and Islam in general but if we tried to establish our varṇāśrama we would have come under exactly the same fire, too.

Many devotees in ISKCON want to modify traditions described in our books to better fit into the modern society but they are being firmly opposed by “conservatives”. We don’t want to trade śāstric injunctions for feminist brownies but so far we fight these battles internally.

If we tried to have varṇāśrama for real the people, media, and governments would be on us just as they are onto ISIL now. Forget the outrage over beheadings, we won’t be allowed to set up a state where women do not have the same rights as men. Arabs are getting away with this because they got their statehoods when no one cared and because they have oil.

If we managed to take over some state’s power even legitimately, through elections, we’d have American bombs falling on us out of humanitarian concerns in no time. There would always be some “coalition of the willing” to teach us how to lead our lives.

Speaking of bombings – last big outrage was about Jordanian pilot who was burned alive and video put up on the internet. There seems to be no justifications for this kind of atrocities but ISIL, surprisingly, came up with a good one. They’ve found a verse in their books that says they are free to execute the aggressor in exactly the same way he killed their people. There are other verses that say only Allah Himself can use fire as punishment but such contradictions are too common and are used mostly for the sake of arguments.

Real question is – did the pilot deserve to die? And did he deserve to die in this despicable way? In the west we stopped executing prisoners of war long time ago but ISIL does not live by modern rules, they take theirs from interpretations of Koran that were made over a thousand years ago. According to their laws, death was a just punishment.

I guess the world could have lived with that but burning him alive? In response, ISIL says that he dropped bombs which did exactly the same things to their children, so they burned him AND buried him under a pile of rubble. I’m not sure this is exactly what happened but I can understand their rationale here. They’ve also tried to negotiate, Jordan wouldn’t budge, and so blood was spilled.

It all started with executing two Japanese hostages and Jordan got involved when Japanese asked Jordanians to negotiate on their behalf but that was a serious miscalculation because, in ISIL’s eyes, Jordan has no moral standing whatsoever, they’ve sold out to “crusaders” completely.

Why did they have to execute the hostages, however? They said that Japan contributed 200 mil dollars to fighting against ISIL so they asked for the same amount in exchange for releasing hostages. This makes sense, but why punish innocent people for the actions of their governments?

This is another thing that is unacceptable to the modern men. Muslims, however, have no problem with assigning collective blame and spreading karma around to those who contributed even in the most insignificant ways. If you think about it, in democracies people elect their governments and so they SHOULD share some responsibility for how governments used this mandate. People, however, assume that election rights should carry no responsibility whatsoever.

In any case, intricacies of karma are very hard to understand and in this aspect ISIL clearly deviates from real God’s law but, otoh, if they do manage to execute innocent hostages it doesn’t mean that the law of karma was broken either.

Another aspect of this brutality is that we see only a tip of it. We react only to a handful of executions but ISIL implements them on a much large, well organized scale. First thing they do after conquering a city is to kill all those they consider irredeemable, like gays. They also crack down heavily on any kind of crime and they do not tolerate corruption. Personal integrity is considered a great virtue for ISIL leadership and they make sure they are seen as absolutely clean in this regard.

So, they run a quick shock and awe campaign to demonstrate that they are fully in charge but after that they hand over city management to the same officials who were doing it before. They try to reduce interruptions to a minimum so that ordinary folks have nothing to complain and all in all it’s seen as business as usual.

We are shocked by the brutality, true, but others say that by Middle Eastern standards ISIL are not much worse than anybody else. They do seem to enjoy the support of the general population, after they purged or converted all dissenters. It seems it’s not only the ISIL that is medieval there, the entire regions looks uncivilized.

What else? Oh, like the Taleban, ISIL bans all music and mundane entertainment. We, if we tried varṇāśrama, would have done the same, too, but at least we have kīrtanas. Being Muslims, ISIL also bans any kind of personal imagery. If Allah cannot be drawn then depicting ordinary people should not be done, too. Even faceless manikins should follow the rules – no nudity. Again – we would have done the same.

In short – it’s easy to blame ISIL for many things they do wrong but if we were in their shoes we would have done a lot of offensive stuff, too. I don’t think we would use ANY kind of violence to establish varṇāśrama, the days of Paraśurāma are long gone, but the west would find plenty of reasons to outlaw us all the same, and in that sense we can learn a lot from ISIL experience. We just need to look beyond blood and gore and concentrate on underlying momentum and reactions to it.

Vanity thought #1243. On the future

Weekends are days when I’m so engrossed with mundane matters that I can’t honestly speak on things related to Kṛṣṇa, I probably shouldn’t even try. First reaction to this is instead write about something else and then find a way to somehow turn it towards Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Is it a cheap, insincere trick? Not really, I do try to see outside world form Kṛṣṇa conscious POV, I hope that whatever I do notice does come from something related to the Lord. Since I spent much of the past week discussing geopolitics, I couldn’t help but notice how geopolitics could help us understand the world around us and, especially, our future.

Generally, we shouldn’t worry too much about it. Things will happen on their own terms, we are just powerless observers and at best we could hope to be used as Kṛṣṇa’s tools. If that happens to be the case we should appreciate Kṛṣṇa’s energy working for His pleasure, otherwise she can do whatever she wants, it has nothing to do with us. There’s a nexus, however, between our spiritual duties and natural course of events. We want to be active ingredients, we want to leave our mark on the world, we want to shape events, we commit ourselves, we invest our energy, focus our consciousness. Do we create new karma in the process? Quite possibly.

Actions in Kṛṣṇa consciousness should not result in karmic reactions but that depends on purity of our intentions. If we want to control the world, we are bound to experience the results. Dhruva Mahārāja was successful in his search for the Lord but his initial intentions caused him to be stuck without Lord’s association for thousands of years. We can guess why the Lord imposed such conditions on him but in any case we should be careful with our material desires, the Lord might compel us to see them fulfilled instead of taking us back home.

So, we want to establish worldwide varṇāśrama. We are ready to commit ourselves, we take is as our mission, we tell ourselves that establishing varṇāśrama was half of Prabhupāda’s work and so we need to continue with it. Some are not so enthusiastic about it and we view them as not respecting Prabhupāda’s wishes and lacking faith in the words of our ācāryas. Whatever pure devotee wants, Kṛṣṇa will see it happen, we say. Our choice is to be a part of it or to stand by the side and miss all the mercy.

Okay, I might return to that, but let’s look at the world around us and see where it is going and whether we have a real chance to take over.

Recently I saw a panel of pundits discussing post Charlie Hebdo situation, they raised important questions and they were cautious enough with sweeping answers, which drew my attention. However, they obviously didn’t look at it form a “geopolitical” point of view. I’ve used that word so many times it already annoys me but I haven’t fount any better yet.

So, the Muslim problem. It practically doesn’t exist in the US but causes so much trouble in France. Why? Obama, in his recent meeting with British Prime Minister, rightly stirred the debate towards the question of nationalism. American Muslims, he said, are American. French Muslims, OTOH, are not French. This puzzled the panel a bit but the answer was so painfully near I would have phoned the studio if I was into that kind of political enthusiasm.

From European point of view, which gave us the rise of nation states, the US isn’t truly a nation. European national identity is a product of geography, culture, and history. The US is just over two hundred years old but even that history is restricted to the original WASP population. Blacks have become part of that history a hundred and fifty years ago, through the civil war, and immigrants were joining in as they arrived. Great Depression, WWII, civil rights movement – save for the very recent arrivals, there’s something that can unite everybody, but not around national identity, around abstract, ethnically agnostic values. Apart from freedoms, American Dream is open to everybody, and they call it a melting pot for a reason.

French history, OTOH, goes back thousands of years. The current core values were forged around the time of the US war for independence but, unlike the US, there was no equivalent of Martin Luther King to contribute anything significant in the very recent past. If you weren’t around at the end of the 18th century you missed everything that really matters. Muslim immigrants, comprising ten percent of the population now, weren’t there. They weren’t there for the world wars either. They have no history of any significance to share, they can’t become French in true sense of French national identity. Christians, who sacrificed so much during the revolution, made their uneasy peace with secular society, Muslims didn’t have time yet.

Or look at the UK – Muslims arrived there around the same time as they did in France, the are all post-colonial immigrants. They do not share in legends of the King Arthur, Magna Carta means nothing to them, and neither does eternal rivalry with Germany or suspicion of everything continental. British national identity is shaped by victories in wars that Muslims didn’t fight in. Even if they happily identify themselves as British Muslims, terms like “English Muslim” or “Scottish Muslims” are unthinkable. Good thing that the UK is a union, French are not so lucky.

Now take Germany – they national history also goes back at least a thousand years but recently their national identity has been influenced not by victories but by defeats. They were forced to redefine themselves around values brought to them by winners. Victorious nations like US and UK could say “whatever we do, is right, just, and moral” while Germans were forced to think “whatever we did was wrong, whatever we want to do, we should run it by Americans first”. When Muslims arrived in Germany during this period of soul searching they joined in almost immediately, it has become part of the shared history and part of their national identity as “German Muslims”.

I am not sure about numbers but what I heard on TV is that 60% of German Muslims consent to gay marriage vs 0% of Muslims in the UK. I hope these numbers are right and so perfectly illustrate power of history and geography over people’s thinking. If they are wrong, I’ve seen some others that might not be as striking but confirm the same point in a slightly different way – differences between Muslim opinions in Europe follow differences between white people opinions. They do not live in isolation, the world around them influences them perhaps more than their interpretations of Koran.

The same is true about us, too. We want varṇāśrama, right? Well, there would be no gay marriage and women’s rights there. Our proposals would be completely unacceptable to the modern society. What will happen then? Does anyone really think we’ll have it easier than Muslims? Does anyone think we will be allowed to build our own communities based around traditional “subjugation” of women? If we do manage to create some sort of a country or a real political entity with our cow based economy, it wouldn’t be allowed to survive. It wouldn’t be allowed to be born in the first place.

First thing that would happen is that atheists would start practicing their freedoms – half naked, bra-less women frolicking the streets, unrestricted, in your face criticism of the devotees and the scriptures, and lots of other things that would not allow vaiṣṇava culture to survive on any scale.

What would happed if we insist on enforcing our rules? War. Forcing us to accept their ways and forcing them to accept ours will quickly escalate into violent confrontation – just look at what happens to Muslims, it’s a perfect blueprint for trying to establish our own way of life.

Fact of the matter is, varṇāśrama is impossible in the current, west dominated world. Perhaps Muslims should slug it out first, let them and the atheists destroy each other, perhaps the world would emerge far more tolerant after that. Then we might have a real chance.

Luckily, our own numbers are so small that we can fly under the radar for a long time to come, and our numbers are probably big enough to sustain ourselves. It means that all my speculations about future do not change anything, except, perhaps, subdue our appetite for worldwide varṇāśrama revolution. Let’s start small first.