Q. What is varnasrama dharma and what is its relevance to Gaudiya Vaisnavism and the times in which we live?
A. Varnasrama dharma refers to India’s scripturally based socioreligious system consisting of four varnas, or social orders (brahmana-kstriya-vasya-sudra), which vaguely correspond to priest, warrior, merchant, and laborer, and four ashrams, or spiritual orders (brahmacari-grihasta-varnaprastha-sannyasa), which correspond to celibate student, householder, renounced householder, and monk. The essence of varnasrama dharma is to attain balance in life between material and spiritual pursuit. The idea behind it is that one who understands one’s psychosomatic reality is better equipped to lead a well-balanced life and pursue the spiritual ideal. To this extent, varnasrama dharma has value in relation to the goal of life.
The Srimad Bhagavatam says, dharmah svanusthitah pumsam visvaksena-kathasu yah notpadayed yadi ratim srama eva hi kevalam: “Execution of one’s duty in varnasrama is only so much labor if it does not give rise to love for Hari katha.” (SB 1.2.8) It also says, atah pumbhir dvija-srestha varnasrama-vibhagasah svanusthitasya dharmasya samsiddhir hari-tosanam: “O best among the twice-born, it is therefore concluded that the highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties of varnasrama is to please the Personality of Godhead.” (SB 1.2.13) These verses fall in the section of Srimad Bhagavatam where Suta Goswami answers questions from the sages concerning the highest dharma. In this very important section, it is explained that varnasrama dharma is only as valuable as its execution pleases Hari, and we know from the Bhagavatam itself that varnasrama dharma does not do this very well compared to how well Bhagavata dharma pleases Hari. Bhagavata dharma essentially means a life centered on devotion to Bhagavan Sri Krishna.
Q. It seems to me that much of the varnasrama discussion going on in Gaudiya Vaisnavism today is coming from men trying to maintain the patriarchate in order to keep women in their proverbial place. There are legitimate issues of family values behind it as well, as the family is not faring very well today, but don’t you feel that such issues could be dealt with more easily without mixing in all the extra stuff the varnasrama debate brings with it?
A. I agree that many of those advocating the implementation of varnasrama have a very superficial idea of what varnasrama dharma actually consists of. Varnasrama is very detailed and complex. The idea of four divisions of labor and four ashrams is the basic framework, but one would have to study the dharma sastra to fill in all the details. Such a study might disenchant many of its modern-day advocates because most are simply picking and choosing what appeals to them about varnasrama while leaving the rest out. A cursory look into the “no sannyasa for women” issue in the name of upholding varnasrama would be revealing. Such research would mandate no sannyasa for the vast majority of men as well, unless they are ready to sleep in the forest and wear tree bark for underwear. Otherwise, clearly, Bhagavata or Vaisnava dharma is above varnasrama dharma. Bhakti sastra transcends the dharma sastra.
Q. What do you mean when you say that bhakti sastra transcends dharma sastra?
A. Dharma sastra is meant for regulated religious life, which ideally should lead to bhakti. Bhakti sastra describes the goal and the means to attain that goal, which in both cases is of course Visnu bhakti. Bhakti is hearing, chanting, and so on, about Krishna. If one has faith that all dharmic obligations are fulfilled by bhakti alone, one treads the path of suddha (pure) bhakti. Performing one’s duties in varnasrama only indirectly pleases Bhagavan, in a similar way that being a good citizen pleases the president. Varnasrama is not the same as bhakti because bhakti is about cultivating a personal relationship with Bhagavan.
Ultimately only bhakti can give bhakti, but it is good to be religious also, which is what the dharma sastras are about. Indeed, advanced devotees are inclined to preach to the religious sector, giving them the opportunity to develop faith in bhakti. However, addiction to so-called dharma—religious duties—can also be a problem. People too addicted to religious duties may have difficulty developing faith in bhakti. Such persons tend to be concerned that if they do not follow the dharma sastra they will be culpable even while engaged in bhakti. Krishna addresses this in Bhagavad-gita when he says, sarva-dharman paratyajya: “Forgoing all religious injunctions (dharma), take exclusive refuge in me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” (Bg 18.66)
Q. If Vaisnava dharma is superior to varnasrama dharma ,why did Thakura Bhaktivinoda tell his foremost disciple, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, to preach “daiva varnasrama,” and what does this term mean?
A. Daiva varnasrama has two meanings. One meaning is a varnasrama system in which one’s varna is not determined exclusively by birth, but rather in consideration of guna (quality) and karma (vocation). The second meaning of daiva varnasrama refers to a form of varnasrama for devotees. This second meaning was conceived of by Bhaktivinode Thakura to give support to newcomers trying to take up the practice of bhakti. Vaisnava dharma is superior to varnasrama dharma, but this does not mean that neophyte practitioners on the path are automatically transcendental to the influence of the modes of material nature. Devotees still need to be engaged according to their propensities, at least until they are pure enough to no longer be driven by those propensities.
Q. What did Bhaktivinoda Thakura mean by the term “daiva varnasrama?”
A. Srimad Bhagavatam (12.2.12-14) says, “By the time the age of Kali ends, the bodies of all creatures will be greatly reduced in size, and the religious principles of followers of varnasrama will be ruined. The path of the Vedas will be completely forgotten in human society, and so-called religion will be mostly atheistic. The kings will mostly be thieves, the occupations of men will be stealing, and lying and needless violence will reduce all the social classes to the lowest level of sudras. Cows will be like goats, spiritual hermitages will be no different from mundane houses, and family ties will extend no further than the immediate bonds of marriage.”
More important than this is what the Bhagavatam has to say about the beginning of Kali-yuga, which has to do with the speaking of the Bhagavatam itself. Srimad Bhagavatam 1.18 details how the degradation of the brahminical class marked the beginning of the age of Kali-yuga. This chapter describes how after the disappearance of Sri Krishna, a brahmana boy cursed the great devotee Maharaja Pariksit because the king had ostensibly disrespected his father. This incident set Kali-yuga in motion, showing that when brahmanas, who are supposed to be the leaders of varnasrama society, become proud and corrupt, the whole varnasrama system becomes corrupt. This also prompted the speaking of the Bhagavatam, in which it is established that the best means of deliverance in Kali-yuga is taking shelter of the holy name of Krishna.
Study of essential scriptures, such as Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Mahabharata, reveals that one’s social position (varna) is actually determined by one’s qualities and activities and is not simply a matter of birthright. When birth alone is the determining factor, the result is asura varnasrama, or what’s commonly known today as the caste system. This corruption of varnasrama was prominent during the time of Thakura Bhaktivinoda, so he ordered his disciple Srila Bhaktisiddhanta to establish the correct conception of varnasrama, in which guna and karma determine one’s social position (varna). Furthermore, he wanted to establish a type of varnasrama that would aid those on the path of Vaisnava dharma, which is superior to ordinary varnasrama dharma. Of course, at the time, many people thought differently, thinking that varnasrama brahmanas were superior to Vaisnavas. Moreover, the same misconception in which birth dismissed one’s actual qualifications had overflowed into Vaisnava dharma, and thus in some Gaudiya Vaisnava lineages gurus were determined by birth alone regardless of their qualities or realization. Seeing such confusion infiltrating Gaudiya Vaisnavism, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta sought to establish daiva varnasrama for devotees who still had material desires, even though the path of bhakti transcends varnasrama.
Thus Thakura Bhaktivinode taught that basically there were three types of varnasrama: a-daiva varnasrama (ordinary varnasrama), asura varnasrama (the caste system), and daiva varnasrama (varnasrama for Vaisnavas). His idea of daiva varnasrama for devotees comes from the following verses of Srimad Bhagavatam: “Having awakened faith in the narrations of my glories, being disgusted with all material activities, knowing that all sense gratification leads to misery, but still being unable to renounce all sense enjoyment, my devotee should remain happy and worship me with great faith and conviction. Even though he is sometimes engaged in sense enjoyment, my devotee knows that all sense gratification leads to a miserable result, and he sincerely repents such activities.” (SB 11.20.27-28)
Faith alone makes one eligible to tread the bhakti marg , but on entering this path one is not immediately freed from material desire. Ordinarily, those with material desire are eligible to follow the karma marg, or varnasrama dharma. However, faith in bhakti relieves them of this burden, even while material desires remain. At the same time, devotees should not artificially act as if they were fully realized paramahamsas, because in most cases they will be drawn down by their material propensities in spite of their faith. Therefore, let there be an arrangement to engage them accordingly in consideration of bhakti. This is the idea of daiva varnasrama for devotees. It was meant to serve as a support for bhakti that would provide a sense of material balance in a society of devotees.
Given the socioreligious culture in which this idea arose, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura organized his disciples into four service groups and four ashrams roughly analogous to the divisions of occupation and spiritual status described in varnansrama dharma. For example, in his daiva varnasrama those inclined to study, preach, and worship the Deity were considered brahmanas, and only they could take sannyasa. Those inclined toward management were considered ksatriyas. Householders who funded the preaching and temples were considered vaisyas, and those with faith who performed seva but had little spiritual discipline were considered sudras. He grouped his disciples like this while making it clear that Vaisnava dharma was transcendental to varnasrama dharma.
The vision of Bhaktivinoda in this regard and the dynamic attempt to implement it by Bhaktisiddhanta are noteworthy. Through their vision and efforts, they provide us with a precedent for emphasizing the need for horizontal support to bring material balance to those involved in the vertical growth that Gaudiya Vaisnavism is ultimately about. Interestingly enough, contemporary spirituality could not agree more. It stresses that vertical spiritual progress, although not dependent on horizontal development, is nonetheless facilitated by bringing psychological and social balance, as well as ethical principles, into the life of the practitioner.
We should be proud to be members of the Bhaktivinoda parivara, and those involved in Gaudiya Vaisnavism, regardless of sect, should understand that they are indebted to Thakura Bhaktivinoda, who saw the need to interface our tradition with modernity to keep it alive in the world. We would not know of the vision of Bhaktivinoda were it not for Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura and his disciples.
It should be clear that the corruption of varnasrama dharma, which inordinately stressed birth over one’s qualities and activities, overflowed into Gaudiya Vaisnavism as well. Thus in preaching the proper conception of varnasrama, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura also preached against the idea that birth in a particular parivara alone qualified one for the position of guru or acarya. This of course led to his conception of the bhagavata guru parampara, as discussed in my book Sri Guru Parampara: Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, Heir to the Esoteric Life of Kedarnatha Bhaktivinoda.