Rethinking Varnasrama

Rethinking Varṇāśrama

How changing our current thinking on the utility of varṇāśrama-dharma can reconnect it with ISKCON’s overall preaching mission and solve some of ISKCON’s most troubling social problems.

by Krishna-kirti das, 9/30/2013

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Introduction

Within ISKCON for the past three decades there has been much discussion about varṇāśrama-dharma, but little has been achieved in terms of its actual implementation among the general population of devotees. This is understandable, since the emphasis of varṇāśrama thought and practice within ISKCON for a long time has been on farming and cow protection. Thus if a devotee is not going to live on a farm, varṇāśrama is generally not a part of his life. Other matters take priority. Varṇāśrama within ISKCON thus remains a niche interest that is disconnected in precept and practice from the lives of most of ISKCON’s devotees. Consequently, it is largely disconnected from ISKCON’s overall mission.

ISKCON’s overall mission is the propagation of the saṅkīrtana movement to society at large. Although this particular purpose comes fourth in a list of purposes enumerated in ISKCON’s official charter, all the other purposes are subsumed by it. It makes ISKCON unique among Vaiṣṇnava societies, and ISKCON’s emphasis on it accounts for its unparalleled success.

But as Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu demonstrated on numerous occasions, the saṅkīrtana movement also demands a pure way of life. Without it, spiritual progress is virtually impossible. Yet the regulative principles that comprise a sufficiently pure life are not spiritual in and of themselves. They are not causes for love of Kṛṣṇa to manifest in one’s heart, but they will prevent its development if transgressed. These regulative principles are fundamental to varṇāśrama-dharma, and some of them have proven difficult for ISKCON’s members to follow.

The difficulty devotees have had in following them is associated with varṇāśrama’s enduring disconnect from most of ISKCON. While this disconnect has several related causes, much of it arises from an overemphasis of certain aspects of varṇāśrama at the expense of others that should be given more importance. Another aspect of varṇāśrama that Śrīla Prabhupāda spoke about but which is no less important than the others is the male-female relationship, as regulated by the varṇāśrama system.

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