Talking “Down” Varnasrama

During the 2014 North American GBC meetings, Anuttama Das and Nityananda Das shared a platform in a presentation; their topic was Varnasrama.  They talked “down” varnasrama. Key quotes by Anuttama Das, current chair of the GBC, as he said it, are found at the end of this article.

If a politician talks down the currency or economy of his country, even in a positive way, his career is practically finished. There will be no end of criticism and pressure for him to resign.

Varnasrama is like our currency. It is our true economy in all respects – true wealth as in the land and all that which goes with it, to always be in the association of devotees, and most of all, steady spiritual advancement is guaranteed.

Anuttama Prabhu starts by admitting he is looking at this issue from a different perspective, a communications perspective. He says this is the way that orients his thinking. Immediately, alarm bells go off. Prabhupada’s desire and thoughts on varnasrama takes a back seat in favour of his approach. Also, in his conclusion, he says that leaders in Iskcon who come from the West (pretty much most leaders), come out of some hippie culture and in twentieth century Iskcon, we have two cultures, hippie and Indian. These thoughts of his encapsulate his vision for Iskcon. The hippie culture in the modern world has evolved into polished liberalism (freedom of complete bodily sense gratification). And we can see how aspects of this freedom culture are being accepted as what should be seen as normal in Iskcon. An example is divorce, Anuttama Prabhu says divorce is not allowed but if you have to, then get divorced.

Although he acknowledges that Prabhupada speaks many verses where human life does not begin until you have varnasrama, he calls these statements “Simple Perhaps.”  He also sounds dismissive of the statement by Srila Prabhupada where he says, “Half my work is not completed because varnasrama is not in place.” His tone on this is as if it can be just brushed aside. So from his perspective, he thinks Srila Prabhupada’s statements on varnasrama are not to be taken seriously and he has a different view which he proceeds to give.

He relates an experience he had, and concludes that everyone is confused about their varnas. This could be true. Many devotees are not in favourable settings to work out what they would naturally like to do. Instead of dismissing varnasrama completely and sticking to an urban lifestyle which entangles us more in this material world, why don’t we at least try to follow Srila Prabhupada some way and direct devotees into farm communities. Srila Prabhupada said that living off the land is like the bija-mantra (seed) of varnasrama. So with time, everything will fall into place and evolve. In this setting, and with guidance from our brahmanas, devotees will fall into their natural occupations.

Then he talks about Srila Prabhupada’s demonstration of time place and circumstance. How he adjusted some things to allow women to live in temples, the number of rounds we chant and Western dress for preaching. He states how Srila Prabhupada says his only qualification is his following his spiritual master and he didn’t change anything but he adjusted a lot of things according to time, place and circumstance.

So, our only qualification should be that we follow Srila Prabhupada and don’t change anything. Srila Prabhupada gives the difference between principles and details. A basic principle is that one has to accept a spiritual master. Exactly how one follows the instructions of his spiritual master is considered a detail. So it’s out of the question to change principles within our society but are we qualified to change details or do we even know or understand what details are?

Srila Prabhupada’s adjustments are very much detail adjustments and he was qualified to make changes. In Iskcon, there are many factions pulling in different directions. For example, Srila Prabhupada gives us the minimum in austerity; the four regulative principles and to chant sixteen rounds daily, which if followed strictly brings us to the mode of goodness. For us, to follow the four regulative principles and chant is undisputedly the most important “core principle” Srila Prabhupada left us. Can we change the details within this principle?

One devotee may say that with all other things we have going on, to chant minimum sixteen rounds is too much. So he may canvass to make it eight rounds. Someone may say that it is difficult to follow the no illicit sex rule even within marriage so let’s introduce contraception. I heard devotees who eat chocolates say it can also be offered to Krsna so where does this leave us with no intoxication. Then what about tea, someone may ask? There’s no harm there.

Acting on the level of our spiritual advancement, there could be many different variations of how far we should go in changing details – if we even understand properly the difference between a principle and a detail. To use the example of Anuttama Prabhu about devotional dress, and how Srila Prabhupada allowed book distributors to wear Western clothing – we now see devotees questioning the necessity of using it not just for regular temple visits but also for sitting on the vyasasana and Deity service. So how far should we go?

Do any of us have the vision of Srila Prabhupada to change even details? No! Our adjustments will be dictated by our conditioned senses. The only way to have peace and harmony is for all of us to have a “default” position. And that is Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. It could be argued that we not only have core principles but also core details, as those within our four regulative principles. And to these, Srila Prabhupada made the final adjustments.

Anuttama Prabhu refers many times to the verse and purport read by Nityananda Prabhu for this class, SB 4.29.46 – where Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu says I’m not a brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya or sudra to indicate why varnasrama is not necessary. Just by looking at the verse alone; these lines, fully engaged in devotional service”“favoured by the Lord, who bestows His causeless mercy”“awakened devotees gives up all material activities”, we can know a devotee of this description definitely transcends the system of varnasrama. None of us as practicing devotees fit into this category. Even in the purport, Srila Prabhupada qualifies this level. He mentions the anyabhilasita-sunyam verse, completely free from mental speculation and furtive activities.  He mentions the following; “The Lord is awakened in ones mind if one constantly thinks of Him”“A pure devotee cannot remain a moment without being absorbed in thoughts of the Lord”“Always engaging in the Lord’s service”“Devotional service in Love and affection” – “This is the stage of becoming free from the contamination of the material world.”

But Anuttama Prabhu latches onto the last part of the purport where Lord Caitanya says He is not a brahmana etc, without fully understanding from the verse and complete purport the description of such an exalted devotee being described. Even the paragraph of the last part qualifying Lord Caitanya’s statement is clear in meaning of the devotee being described. “His engagement in material activities ceases completely. At that time, he attains the favour of the Lord and loses his faith in material civilization, which begins with varnasrama-dharma. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu speaks clearly of one’s becoming liberated from the varnasrama-dharma, the most exalted system of human civilization. At such a time one feels himself to be perpetually the servant of Lord Krsna, a position taken by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu Himself.”

Note how Srila Prabhupada refers to varnasrama-dharma as the most exalted system of human civilization. Western or variations of hippy culture mixed with this tradition does not even come close to the greatness of varnasrama. It is impossible to become a pure devotee living in towns and cities.

Anuttama Prabhu’s understanding of “Whatever you do, do it for Krsna”, is twisted. He implies that even mundane activities like sports should be done for Krsna. According to him, Srila Prabhupada adjusted things within the ashram, he introduced things like divorce. He says although divorce is strictly not allowed, people got divorced and because Srila Prabhupada allowed it, we should allow it – he gives the green light for divorce. He says, we have this as example of how to adjust within the ashram, but because we have no examples of Srila Prabhupada dealing with the varnas, we should not try to introduce it as varnas are a little complex and problematic. He gives the example of bowling and the concert pianist as ashram adjustments.

First, he gives his personal example. He married after ten years as brahmacari. His wife had an eight year old son from a previous marriage and he had to learn new duties, perform new sacrifices like bowling and baseball. Although he hadn’t bowled since he was a boy, he took his eight year old son out bowling. He wasn’t particularly good at it but he had to bowl for Krsna just as Arjuna shot arrows for Krsna, he says. So he thought, okay, I’ll do it for Krsna and mediated on Krsna and he made his highest score ever in bowls. So he takes this as a sign that you can do anything mundane for Krsna. His says his realization from this is to know what it means – whatever you do, somehow, do it for Krsna.

He remembers a concert pianist from Denver who joined. They told him, do what every other new bhakta does, wash pots. He says they weren’t so broadminded in those days – there wasn’t a lot of vision for being a concert pianist for Krsna, he thinks these days it is much better. So again, this idea of dovetailing everything for Krsna, bowling, baseball, concert pianist and he also includes the reasonable ones like plumbing. But his whole idea is we don’t need varnasrama. Varnasrama for him means if you are a bowler, do it for Krsna.

So that’s his idea of adjusting within the ashram. But he says the problem starts on the varna side with the tendency to categorise people and this makes his blood boil. According to him, this is the historical problem, the modern problem and the philosophical problem.

He gives another ashram adjustment example, of Srila Prabhupada, who he says was making money as a grhastha, cutting vegetables and shopping and cleaning, when he first came to New York. So he asks, “Is Srila Prabhupada a vaisya or sudra.

Or is he showing us the essence of vaisnava, clean for Krsna, preach for Krsna, make money for Krsna and bowl for Krsna with my kids if I have to. You know, we do it all for Krsna.”

Srila Prabhupada fits the description of Lord Caitanya’s much quoted line by Anuttama Prabhu, I ‘m not a brahmana, not a ksatriya etc. Srila Prabhupada does not need varnasrama, we do.

Instead of him calling Srila Prabhupada’s many references to varnasrama simple, perhaps he should consider that it is actually simple for the simple to understand. And Srila Prabhupada was the epitome of that simplicity. It gets complicated for us when we try to make changes to suit our lifestyle. He admits the application to the goal using his method is a little complicated because of our conditioning. Why then does he want to apply rules for how we should reach our goal instead of using the simple and default position, Srila Prabhupada?

Although he says “little complicated,” he says it also means that it is quite clear because we have the example of Arjuna in Bhagavad-Gita. But he forgets that Arjuna was a ksatriya and Krsna was simply asking him to do his “varna” duty and fight and varnasrama was firmly in place then. He gives the example of Srila Prabhupada saying that a factory worker doing his job “thinking of Krsna” is pure devotional service. But surely the factory worker who thinks of Krsna constantly will be an advanced devotee. How many devotees slogging out there amongst the non-devotees think of Krsna every working minute?

He says, one should always remember Krsna and never forget Him, Nityananda Prabhu also mentions this. It is not so easy to remember Krsna twenty four hours a day, working and living amongst non-devotees. Srila Prabhupada says in Madhya 22.113 purport that to always remember Krsna is only possible when one chants the Hare Krsna Mantra twenty four hours a day.

Because this is not possible for devotees at present, Srila Prabhupada qualifies his statement in that same purport to add; that because of other duties under the order of the spiritual master, the disciple should first chant sixteen rounds which is most essential then go on book distribution or engage in other direct services where he will always be reminded of Krsna. This serves as an impetus to remember Krsna. Srila Prabhupada also says that the conclusion is one must engage in things that will always make him remember Krsna and refrain from doing things that make him forget Krsna.

So in a farm community, with all neighbours as devotees and working around nature, we will learn to see clearly and appreciate how Krsna’s energies work and identify this with Him and remember Him in everything we do or see around us. In this way, we will become detached from the fruits of our work although we may still be attached to the work which will clearly be for Krsna.

Of course, devotees still need to preach in towns and cities but only the more “fixed up” and sincere ones. Those grhasthas living outside and devotees living in the temples that do not care about accumulating unnecessary wealth, who are engaged in direct service and living simply should go out and distribute books, go on harinama, preach the traditional way.

Honestly, bridge preaching in Iskcon is slowly replacing the direct and tested methods of book distribution and harinama sankirtana. During Srila Prabhupada’s years, we see how quickly this movement spread. The formula was mostly book distribution and harinama. Bridge preaching was limited, only for the scientist and university types. One may argue that a pure devotee is not physically present now and therefore the potency is not there to replicate the successes of the sixties and seventies. But Srila Prabhupada is always with us and we need to know how to tap into his pure potency to make this movement spread like wildfire. The only way is to follow his “default” method which includes his desire to have varnasrama. Purity is the force.

So Anuttama Prabhu says the ashram side of things is easy, just adjust, the essence is doing it for Krsna. His understanding of this is influenced by liberalism. Prabhupada did not say, “Allow It.” He was forced into a corner most of the time on these issues. What did we expect him to do, tell these devotees who got divorced or broke their sannyasa vows to leave Krsna. No! Naturally, he wanted them to advance in spiritual life, he came to deliver all the Jagai’s and Madhai’s on his spiritual masters order. He could see people were heavily conditioned in the West and therefore even during the last few days before leaving his body; he spoke of his desire for the devotees to establish varnasrama.

Note: Comments on Nityananda Prabhu’s part of the presentation will be sent in for posting shortly.

Key quotes from Anuttama Das – As he said it

“So, I’m going to look at this from a slightly different perspective. We all look at things from our different viewpoints so my take is a little bit going to be focusing on this concept of varnasrama and particularly looking at it from a communications perspective or at least or that’s the way that orients my thinking.”

“We also know there are many other verses where Prabhupada speaks a little more, simple perhaps – and just talks about how human life begins when there’s varnasrama and you don’t have human life until you have varnasrama.”

“As far as varnasrama, it’s interesting to see as far as the varna part, we don’t have many if any examples of Prabhupada putting that part of the formula in place. We really can’t see how did he adjust it, what did he apply, what didn’t he apply.”

“He did put all the ashrams in place, it’s interesting. The ashrams are there from the very beginning.”

“He very clearly demonstrated the essence of ashrams as what – Nityananda’s point – What’s the essence of ashrams? Do it for Krsna, doesn’t matter, like the quote from Lord Caitanya, I’m not a brahmana, I’m not a vaisya, I’m not a sudra, I’m not a grhastha etc – I’m servant of the servant of the servant.”

“So that principle he clearly showed us in practice, in principle, in teaching and also in practice that everything you do, whatever your ashram is you should dovetail for Krsna and he adjusted things within the ashrams.”

“And in many practical ways like we know, according to the sastra, according to the teachings, divorce, not allowed – Simply not allowed. And people got divorced and Prabhupada said okay, continue with your service. You know, absolutely not allowed but if you have to, you allow it.”

“To give up sannyasa is like eating your own vomit. Well, that’s a pretty graphic instruction, you know. And, when sannyasis gave up sannyasa, Prabhupada said okay, just don’t give up Krsna. So he adjusted. So very high principle but he adjusted.”

“Very strict standard but he adjusted and we have those examples with ashram and he put it in place and we have that to learn from. On the varna side, it’s a little more complex and I think problematic. If we understand that to mean as today’s purport and as Nityananda was highlighting, whatever you do, do it for Krsna, if you are a plumber, plumb for Krsna, if you are a singer, sing for Krsna, if you’re an accountant, account for Krsna, if you a musician, do music for Krsna.”

“To understand what the goal is the application is a little complicated because of our conditioning as Nityananda was pointing out. But what it means is quite clear and we have the example – you know right in the Bhagavad-Gita our foundational text, Arjuna is a warrior and his whole turmoil is what do I do and Krsna says you do what you do for me.”

“I give a very mundane example. I was a brahmacari for ten years and then I got married and my wife had been married before and had an eight year old son come into the family so when you’re a grhastha, you have to learn new duties and perform these sacrifices – “So I remember I have an experience when I took my eight year old son bowling for the first time and I hadn’t bowled since I was fourteen years old” – “But I remember standing in the bowling alley thinking, Krsna, I kinda get over how to get here, I’ve come to grips with my dharma for this stage of life but how did I get, what do I do now that I am here was my question. I really had that question. How do you bowl for Krsna? I mean you know, Arjuna shot arrows.” – “And I thought okay, I’ll do it for Krsna. Krsna, I’m going to knock these pins down for You.” – “And at the end, 216 was the number, like you know, 20% higher than I’d ever got. I thought, I don’t know if you can read into that too much, not encouraging devotees to become bowling professionals but for me it was kinda like, I think this is kinda a little bit what it means, whatever you have to do, somehow try to do it for Krsna.”

“The trouble starts with the varna side because there’s this tendency to categorise people. That’s the historical problem, that’s the modern problem, that’s the philosophical problem. Just like this little story I said in Alachua, this is what got my blood boiling.”

“And frankly, even if you look at the example of our founder acarya, you know Prabhupada the vaisya; he spent most of his grhastha life working making money. So is he a vaisya? – “Prabhupada cut the vegetables, that’s one sense brahmin, the other sense, you can get help with that, it’s a working kind of thing. You know Prabhupada did the shopping; Prabhupada had to clean up after the wedding. So is he a sudra because he is cleaning up after the wedding. Or is he showing us, as Nityananda pointed out, the essence of vaisnava is, there is no distinction. I clean for Krsna, I preach for Krsna, I make money for Krsna, if I have to I bowl with my kids for Krsna. You know we do it all for Krsna.”

“We kind of have two routes I think, modern routes in the 20 century in Iskcon and both of them have their plusses and advantages. One road is India culture and the other road is kinda hippie culture. Really, in terms of the West, most of the young leaders came out of some variety of sixties and seventies culture and some of it were really great, looking for higher spirituality, to one degree or the other being renounced, being able to live very simply etc.”

“And we know, if you mention caste, which is what they understand around the world, I mean, it’s a big question. Why – becomes a source of exploitation, prevents people from (indistinct) – it’s a source of discrimination, totally opposed modern concepts of egalitarianism.”

 “So, if its done right, in a varnasrama context, everyone in every aspect of society, all the different niches of society addressed, you got people that are driving trucks and doing plumbing and building buildings and building businesses and creating capital and creating jobs for people and managing and political leaders with good character that are leading and intelligent classes of people that are teaching and setting examples and care for people, you have that. So you got all those functions that are necessary for material society, they’re all there.”

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