by Mathuresha Dasa
Confusing “cast” with “caste” is an innocent error, but mistaking Lord Krishna’s varnashrama system for an oppressive, hereditary class structure is a far more serious blunder.
Baseball, to most anyone’s mind, has little in common with the Indian caste system, which rigidly divides society into four hereditary classes. But for me there’s a subtle link between the two, as the result of an injury I sustained while at bat during an impromptu after-dinner game in the early spring of 1967. My school friend Bill Lightbody was pitching, his sister and two brothers fielded, and the three Lightbody family dogs ran noisily after whoever had the ball. Selecting a likely pitch, I zeroed in and swung hard. My torso turned gracefully with the swing, but my left foot stuck tightly in some early-spring mud. The combination of twisting torso and stuck foot gracefully tore a ligament in my left knee.
Next morning the doctor drained half a cup of fluid from the swollen joint and set my leg, thigh to ankle, in a plaster cast that chafed and itched me to distraction. Three weeks later, when the doctor removed the cast, I found that my leg, though healed, was weak and shrunken from disuse and had turned an unsightly pale brown. Although a month or so of special exercises returned me to form, nevertheless I had missed most of the spring backyard season, sidelined by a freak accident and an ungainly hunk of plaster.
Indian castes also sidelined people—for life. At least that’s the understanding I had gleaned from grade school courses in world history. In the caste system you were by birth either a brahmana (intellectual or priest), kshatriya (soldier or administrator), vaishya (farmer or merchant), or shudra (artisan or laborer). Caste kids, I learned, were never asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up? A fireman? A doctor? A baseball player? The President?” If Dad was a ditch-digger, caste kids dug ditches; if he was a pencil-pusher, they pushed pencils. And, cruelest of all, if a ditch-digger’s son and a pencil-pusher’s daughter got a crush on each other, forget it. No inter-caste marriages. In so many ways, caste designations, which were freak accidents of heredity, kept people from playing the game of life. It’s not that I spent the spring evenings of 1967 silently commiserating with caste-bound Indians, but camouflaged in the underbrush of my unspoken thoughts, “cast” and “caste” walked hand in hand.
Yes, I know, the words “cast,” as in “itchy plaster cast,” and “caste,” as in “oppressive Indian caste system,” have completely different origins. They are homophones—words that sound the same but share no etymologicalroots. “Cast” derives from the Middle English casten, “to throw,” while “caste” derives from the Portuguese casta, meaning “race,” “lineage,” or “breed.” But so what? A lot of people make the same mistake. Only a couple of centuries ago the two words had exactly the same spelling. And besides, even now, years after my own etymological enlightenment, I can’t think of anything that better conveys the idea of the stifled hopes, shattered dreams, wasted abilities, and frustrated ambitions for which the caste system is allegedly responsible than the image of a weak, shriveled, discolored limb wrapped tightly in gauze and plaster of Paris. Cast vividly illustrates caste. Not bad for a homophone.
Correcting a Castely Mistake
Although confusing one word with another may sometimes be educational, confusing the Indian caste system with the four- class social system described in India’s ancient Vedic literaturesis a serious blunder.
How so? Because the Vedic literatures do not advocate a hereditary class system. Rather, they point out that in every civilized human society there is a natural division of intellectuals, administrators, businessmen, and laborers. Whether we look at ancient India or at modern Western nations, the four general occupational divisions are present, functioning within society like parts of the same body. They exist whether we recognize them or not.
The intellectual class, composed of scholars, scientists, and members of all the learned professions, is the head of the social body, providing advice, direction, and knowledge. The administrative class is the arms, organizing, policing, and protecting. The mercantile class is the stomach nourishing the body through agriculture and trade. And the working class is the legs, serving the other classes with skilled and unskilled labor.
Service, however, is the dharma, or inherent function, of all classes, not just of the workers. As the parts of our physical body cooperate for the well-being of the entire body, so each class serves society with its particular skills and capacities. Although we might correctly assert that the head is the most important part of any body, no sensible person cares only for his head. As I lay on the ground beside home plate on that spring evening, my throbbing knee had my full attention, and it continued to get special treatment until I was back on my feet and fit to play again. Pain in any part of the body draws the immediate attention of the total person. Similarly, disturbance in any of the four classes should draw the concern of the entire social body, beginning with the head.
From the Bhagavad-gita we learn that the four- class social system, known as varnashrama, exists in all places and at all times because it was created by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, simultaneous with the creation of human society itself. Just as many theists hold that the design of the universe indicates a supreme designer and creator, so proponents of varnashrama point to the existence of a universal four-class social structure throughout history. This, they say, confirms Krishna’s statement that these classes are not chance occurrences but His doing.
Krishna also, informs us in the Gita that the two primary criteria for identifying the four social classes are not birth and family tradition but qualification and work. For example, in our everyday experience a person who knows how to build with wood (qualification) and who regularly uses this skill to, say, construct houses (work) is known as a carpenter. That is his occupational service to society, his dharma. Similarly, a person who knows medical science and spends his time trying to cure diseases or to repair the torn ligaments of backyard athletes is called a doctor. Continuing in this way, we could survey any society and define innumerable classes simply by discovering the qualifications and activities required to fulfill particular social functions—banker, baker, candlestick maker, baseball player, and so on.
Easy enough. And nothing so very new. The unique contribution of the Gita and other Vedic literature is, first of all, to point out the four general occupational categories and, secondly, to recommend standards of ideal behavior for each category. The essence of all these ideal standards is that every human being should become self- realized by devoting his occupational skill to the service of Krishna, or God. Devotional service to Lord Krishna immediately raises the devotee to the transcendental platform, above the bodily conception of the self. In ordinary consciousness we think, “I am this body. I am a carpenter, a doctor, an athlete, a man, a woman. I am young, or I am old. I am Hindu, Muslim, Christian.” But in devotional consciousness, or Krishna consciousness, we are able to grasp the Gita’s instruction that we are not the temporary body but are the eternal individual souls within the body, and that as such we are eternal parts of Lord Krishna, the supreme soul.
While our ordinary dharma may be to serve society with our occupational skills, our sanatana (eternal) dharma begins with using those same skills to directly satisfy the Supreme Lord. In the Gita Krishna advises, “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give way, and whatever austerities you perform—do that as an offering to Me.” Lord Krishna has specifically designed the varnashrama social system so that each individual can easily reestablish his or her eternal relationship with God and so that society as a whole, united in the common cause of devotional service, may function as one healthy body, fulfilling both its material and spiritual needs.
Proper use of the varnashrama divisions results neither in divisiveness nor in occupational immobility, but in a oneness of purpose and in the full exercise of individual skills for Krishna’s pleasure. In varnashrama, everyone has not merely an occupation or job but a calling in devotional service.
Without devotees and devotional service, the natural four- class social body has no life.
Hereditary Baseball And Other Legacies
Whether we’re talking of class distinction or of spiritual elevation, birth counts for little in the Vedic scheme of things. Nevertheless, Vedic authorities acknowledge that family tradition may strongly influence one’s choice of occupation. After all, it’s not unusual for a boy to aspire to be “just like Daddy” and to take advantage of his father’s experience in a particular field.
A baseball field, for example. Of the 1,147 men who played in the major leagues during the 1980 season, 47 (4 percent) were the sons of former major-league players. If you consider that millions of young men were competing for those major-league spots, it turns out that sons of baseball players are fifty times more likely than others to play pro ball. Of all major American sports, baseball has the highest percentage of father-son pairs. Hockey and football are next, with basketball in last place. (“The Natural Choice,” Psychology Today, August 1985.)
Caste baseball? Hardly. Not if ninety-six percent of all major leaguers are first generation. Moreover, sports buffs say that the high degree of career following in baseball is due to a legacy of knowledge and experience, not to genes. Baseball sons can tag along with dad to spring training, hang around the ballpark and dugout, rub shoulders with their father’s friends, and thus begin to refine their own abilities at an early age. Inherited physical characteristics, experts claim, are far less important than knowledge and training. And, I can add, knowledge and training are simply means of passing along genuine qualifications, because no matter what else you have going for you, you’ll never make the majors if you can’t hit or throw a baseball, or if you rarely play the game. The same goes for any occupation. We’re not going to allow a surgeon’s son to operate on us simply out of deference to his father. When I injured my knee on that fateful night in 1967, I went to our long-time family doctor. As the Gita confirms, qualification and work are what count most.
The legacy of Vedic knowledge directs the members of society, regardless of occupation or class, to devote themselves to the Personality of Godhead, thus qualifying themselves to purely love Him. Family heritage, public and private education, and cultural tradition are only incidental. In any setting, devotion imbues an individual with transcendental qualities.
Within this overall devotional context, however, the Vedic literature recommends standards of behavior for each social class.
Most importantly, the Gita enjoins intellectuals to cultivate, among other things, peacefulness, self-control, austerity, and wisdom. Even a schoolboy doing his homework, what to speak of a scholar or scientist engaged in research work, requires a peaceful, controlled mind. Beyond this, a learned man should know the difference between the self and the body and should therefore understand that to feverishly gratify the body, as lower animals do, is not the purpose of human life. Animals are interested only in eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. While human beings also must fulfill these needs, the primary necessity of human society is self- realization. Without realization of the self and God, a human being’s behavior can be no better than an animal’s. As the brains of the social body, the intellectual class has a responsibility to keep human society human.
When the social brain is not self-controlled and self- realized, the rest of the social body, following suit, goes whole hog for sense gratification. This is just the opposite of devotional service. In a society centered on devotional service, everyone works cooperatively to satisfy Krishna, whereas in a whole-hog society it’s ultimately every man for himself, every nation for itself, at the trough of material enjoyment. The conflicts human society faces today—between individuals, between classes, between nations—are whole-hog conflicts stemming from ignorance of the eternal soul and from the consequent animalistic greed to dominate the resources of this planet.
A four-class varnashrama society headed by a class of learned, self-controlled individuals has the potential to transform whole hogs into self-realized souls and devotees of the Supreme Person. This would eliminate, or greatly reduce, the present level of conflict.
A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
How can society be organized for the peace and well-being of all? Srila Prabhupada discusses this question with Mr. C. Hennis of the U.N.'s International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, in May of 1974.
Mr. Hennis: The International Labor Organization is interested in promoting social justice and protecting the worker.
Srila Prabhupada: By natural arrangement, the social body has four divisions: the brain division, for guidance; the arm division, for protection; the belly division, for sustenance; and the leg division, for assistance. Every one of them is meant for maintaining the social body, and the whole body is meant for maintaining every one of them. But if you think about it objectively, the brain is the first division, the arms are the second, the belly the third, and the legs the fourth.
To keep your body healthy, you care for all these different divisions. But if you simply take care of the legs and not the brain, then you do not have a good, healthy body. The United Nations is taking care of society’s fourth division, the workers. What care are they taking of the first division? That is my question. At the present moment in society, there is very, very little care for the first-class men, the thoughtful men.
Mr. Hennis: The International Labor Organization has as one of its major aims to promote social justice. And that means that every class of worker has its proper place in society, should have a full measure of human dignity, and should have a proper share in the rewards for labor…. We are trying to insure a measure of uniformity in social justice, in treatment of labor and protection of labor, and in security, occupational safety, and health, and in all these things that are of importance to the worker, as well as in payments to professional workers such as architects, nurses, doctors, veterinarians, and so on.
Srila Prabhupada: According to the Vedic conception of society, the higher three classes—the intelligent, the protective, and the productive classes—are never to be bound to an employer by a salary. They remain free. Only the fourth class, the laboring class, is employed.
My point is that the United Nations should now think how the whole human society can live peacefully, with a real purpose in life—not whimsically, without any purpose in life. Wherever I go, when I ask any gentleman, “What is the purpose of life?” he cannot explain, That means there is no truly intelligent class. Nobody knows life’s real, spiritual purpose—realizing the self and realizing God.
Mr. Hennis: Well, I think that the International Labor Organization is devoted to the reduction of inequalities between the different classes of men with a view to getting them all a better share of the good things of life, and by that, they may begin to reach a greater degree of human happiness—as they understand it, as the people themselves understand it. It may be that they don’t understand it well.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. For example, in America the laborer class is very highly paid. But because there is no spiritual guidance—no intelligent class—the laborer class is wondering, “Now I have some money—so how shall I use it?” And often they misspend their money on drinking. You may think that you are guaranteeing the laborer class a good living, but because there is no intelligent class to guide them—no brain in the social body—they will misspend their money and create disturbances.
Mr. Hennis: Well, we try to look after that in an indirect way. As I said, we don’t tell people how to spend their money. We don’t tell them what to do in their free time. We do try to make sure that they have proper facilities for leisure, that they have proper opportunities, sports grounds, swimming pools, and so forth, although that’s not our primary concern. But what we do try to do—and this will interest you very much—we have a very big program concerned with workers’ education. We endeavor to provide programs of education to the worker in teaching him how to understand the problems of modern industry, to understand the problems of management, the people on the other side of the bargaining table; to understand how to read a balance sheet, for example, in a company or understand what are the problems that face the management as distinct from the workers in a firm; to understand the basic rudiments of economics and finance and that kind of thing.
Now clearly, if a man wants to drink, he wants to drink. But we feel … we are not interested in the drink particularly, except in that it represents a hazard at work. Then it may be dangerous to the man in his occupation. There, of course, we are interested in it.
Srila Prabhupada: No. That is not the point. The point is that everyone in society should be guided by the intelligent class, the brain. Therefore the brain must be properly maintained. That is our point.
Mr. Hennis: Well, I would say, to the extent that all this has a bearing on improving a man’s position in his job, improving his skills at work, and improving his ability to represent his fellow man in trade unions and that kind of thing, we are concerned with it. We are concerned with improving his general culture, his general education, and in particular his education as a worker in relation to industrial and trade-union life in general. We hope by this means a man will improve his status, and by improving his status, he will have other things to think about than just getting drunk.
Srila Prabhupada: We want the laborers to work intelligently, for life’s real purpose. And life’s real purpose is to please God and realize God. Not that the laborers should simply become hard-working like asses, without any intelligence, without any purpose in life. Of all the animals, the ass is the most hard-working—but he is still an animal, because he does not know why he is working. You see? No intelligence. We don’t want that. We want an intelligent class to offer guidance, so that laborers can work with intelligence and realize God. That is the difference between you and us.
A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
This conversation between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and India’s ambassador to Sweden took place in Stockholm, in the fall of 1973.
Srila Prabhupada: In America and India and so many countries all over the world, they have a “secular state.” The government leaders say they don’t want to favor any particular religion, but actually they are favoring irreligion.
Ambassador: Well, we have a problem, We have a multi-religious society, so we people in government have to be careful . We can’t take too strong a position on religion.
Srila Prabhupada: No, no. The government must take a strong position. Of course, the government should be neutral to all forms of bona fide religion. But it also has a duty to see that the people are genuinely religious. Not that in the name of a “secular state,” the government should let the people go to hell.
Ambassador: Well, that’s true.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, if you are a Muslim, then it is the duty of the government to see that you are really acting as a Muslim. If you are a Hindu, it is the government’s duty to see that you are acting as a Hindu. If you are Christian, it is the government’s duty to see that you are acting as a Christian. The government cannot give up religion. Dharmena hina pashubhih saman: if people become irreligious, then they are simply animals. So it is the government’s duty to see that the citizens are not becoming animals. The people may profess different forms of religion. That doesn’t matter. But they must be religious. “Secular state” doesn’t mean that the government should be callous—“Let the people become cats and dogs, without religion.” If the government doesn’t care, then it isn’t a good government.
Ambassador: I think there’s a lot in what you say. But, you know, politics is the art of the possible.
Srila Prabhupada: No. Politics means seeing that the people become advanced, that the citizens become spiritually advanced. Not that they become degraded.
Ambassador: Yes, I agree. But I think the primary duty of the government is to provide the conditions in which gifted people, spiritual leaders like you, can function. If the government does any more than that, it might even corrupt the various religious groups. I think government should be like an umpire in a game—provide the conditions, provide the conditions for free speech.
Srila Prabhupada: No. Government must do more than that. For instance, you have a commerce department—the government sees that the trade and industrial enterprises are doing nicely, properly. The government issues licenses. They have supervisors and inspectors. Or, for instance, you have an educational department—educational inspectors who see that the students are being properly educated. Similarly, the government should have expert men who can check to see that the Hindus are really acting like Hindus, the Muslims are acting like Muslims, and the Christians are acting like Christians. The government should not be callous about religion. They may be neutral. “Whatever religion you profess, we have nothing to do with that.” But it is the government’s duty to see that you are doing nicely—that you are not bluffing.
Ambassador: Surely … as far as moral conduct is concerned. But more than that, how is it possible, you know?
Srila Prabhupada: The thing is, unless you are actually following religious principles, you cannot possibly have good moral conduct.
yasyasti bhaktir bhagavaty akincana
sarvair gunais tatra samasate surah
harav abhaktasya kuto mahad-guna
manorathenasati dhavato bahih
“One who has unflinching devotion to God consistently manifests all godly qualities. But one who has no such devotion always must be concocting schemes for exploiting the Lord’s material, external energy—and so he can have no good moral qualities whatsoever.” [Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.18.12]
As long as you have faith in God, devotion to God, everything is all right. After all, God is one. God is neither Hindu nor Christian nor Muslim. God is one. And that is why the Vedic literatures tell us,
sa vai pumsam paro dharmo
yato bhaktir adhokshaje
“The supreme duty for all humanity is to achieve loving devotional service to the Supreme Lord. Only such devotional service—unmotivated and uninterrupted—can completely satisfy the self.” [Bhag. 1.2.6]So one must be religious. Without being religious, no one can be satisfied. Why is there so much confusion and dissatisfaction all over the world? Because people have become irreligious.
Ambassador: In Moscow, so many people are hostile to religion, completely against it.
Srila Prabhupada: Why do you say Moscow? Everywhere. At least in Moscow they are honest. They honestly say, “We don’t believe in God.”
Ambassador: That’s true. That’s true.
Srila Prabhupada: But in other places they say, “I am Hindu,” “I am Muslim,” “I am Christian … .. I believe in God.” And still they don’t know anything about religion. They don’t follow God’s laws.
Ambassador: I’m afraid most of us are like that. That’s true.
Srila Prabhupada: [Laughs.] I should say that in Moscow at least they are gentlemen. They cannot understand religion, so they say, “We don’t believe.” But these other rascals say, “Yes, we’re religious. In God we trust.” And yet they are committing the most irreligious acts. Many times I have asked Christians, “Your Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Why are you killing” They cannot give any satisfactory answer. It is clearly said, “Thou shalt not kill”—and they are maintaining slaughterhouses. What is this?
from Back To Godhead Magazine #14-02/03, 1979
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
Recently a national news magazine ran a full-page ad entitled “I Think That Ad Is Lying.” The text announced, “Most advertisers work very hard to make sure their advertising is completely honest and truthful. But if you ever see an advertisement or commercial that you think takes liberties with the truth or makes questionable claims, there is something you can do about it. Write to the National Advertising Review Board.”
On receiving a complaint, the NARB (which is made up of leading advertisers and business organizations) will go after the advertiser and ask for some substantiation of the claims made. Believe it? We don’t. Anyone who thinks that he is going to stop advertising lies by writing to the NARB is in illusion. Newspaper, magazine, and TV advertising thrives on a lie—the lie that we can attain happiness only by buying more and more material things—and no advertising board has any intention of recanting.
The NARB ad assures us, “Most advertisers work very hard.” That is probably a fact, but it is dubious whether they are working hard “to make sure their advertising is completely honest and truthful.” Rather, they seem to be working hard to create a mirage. For example, on the flip side of the NARB ad we find a full-page ad for Virginia Slims. Here we learn that although seventy years ago a woman smoking a cigarette would have been considered scandalous, now an up-to-date fashion model can hold a Virginia Slim with impunity—implying that by inhaling smoke and nicotine, “You, too, can become a happy, liberated woman.” Women’s liberation aside, the linking of the Slim cigarette with freedom and well-being is a deliberately created illusion. Far from being a symptom of progress, cigarettes are so unwholesome that the government requires that each ad display the statement, “Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.” And yet the billboards show virile men (including cowboys from imaginary Marlboro country) and photogenic women, all bravely overlooking the government’s warning—and asking us, “Why don’t you overlook it, too?”
Shouldn’t we report this to the NARB? And shouldn’t we also complain that too many liquor firms want us to believe that regularly drinking their product will produce wonderful happiness rather than intoxicated states that may cause our premature death? The same illusion is repeated, with variations, in every ad: “You, too, can be young, beautiful, wealthy, strong, happy—simply by buying our product.” In his 1978 Harvard commencement address, Alexander Solzhenitsyn made an acute comment: “Your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?”
And yet, how can we complain to the NARB about this total lie? Their ad actually warns us that they’re not serious about their pledge to go after the cheaters. “If truth,” their ad states, “or accuracy in a national ad or commercial is your concern (not matters of taste or matters of editorial or program content), the advertiser will be asked for substantiation of the claims made.” If the NARB doesn’t want to hear our concern with an ad’s “taste” or “content,” then where is the question of its honesty or truthfulness? What is the point of distinguishing whether a lie is “accurate” or “inaccurate”? Does an “accurate” lie become true? The NARB’s quasi-public-service approach is really more like an attempt to kick us in the face, to insult our intelligence. Perhaps they think our intelligence has already been vanquished by decades of mass exposure to their billboards and commercials.
Advertising has such a stranglehold on the truth that practically speaking, newspapers and magazines exist as vehicles for paid ads or commercials. And that’s why journalists and editors have to keep coming up with those sensational “stories”—just to sell the ads. (For instance, a photo of Hare Krishna devotees is often included in an article about dangerous cults, simply because shaven-headed Krishna monks are easily identifiable as “cultists.” So what if it’s an untruth? It helps get those papers and magazines sold, and that’s what the media are all about.) So our very news media have become simply accomplices in lying.
As many people realize, the happiness of the men and women in the advertisements is an illusion. But as with most other illusions, this does not mean that the real thing doesn’t exist somewhere else. In a mirage on the desert, the animal thinks he sees water, and he runs after the illusion until he dies. Water exists—but not in the mirage. Similarly, there is real happiness, undoubtedly, and real well-being, but we cannot attain it by running after some advertiser’s dreamland where we’re told we’ll be happy by buying Brand X, Y, or Z. In Bhagavad-gita, the ancient guidebook to spiritual well-being, real happiness is described as something not dependent on extravagant material consumption:
The stage of perfection … is characterized by one’s ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses…. Upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain.
In his commentary on this verse, Srila Prabhupada has written, “As long as the material body exists, one has to meet the demands of the body—namely eating, sleeping, defending, and mating. But a person who is in pure bhakti- yoga, or Krishna consciousness, does not arouse the senses while meeting the demands of the body. Rather, he accepts the necessities of life, making the best use of a bad bargain, and enjoys transcendental happiness in Krishna consciousness.”
Transcendental knowledge is rarely seen in public nowadays, and much of the blame lies with commercial interests that are covering over our most precious possession—spiritual life. But even a mass advertising or propaganda campaign for hedonistic living cannot extinguish man’s original God consciousness. Nor can anyone ever be satisfied simply by more and more material accumulation. So the devotees of Krishna are suggesting that the real path to happiness is the revival of our original God consciousness. And although the age may be sold out to commercial interests, it is never too late for an individual to reject the mass mind control of even the most powerful advertising machinery and turn his individual soul in the direction of the Supreme. There he will find his original state of eternity, bliss, and knowledge.
by Jayadvaita Swami
Not so many years ago, no one gave a damn. You could gum up a river with factory sludge, chop down rain forests wholesale, spray fluorocarbons into the air like a kid sprinkling confetti, and no one would say boo.
No longer. Grade-school kids want to grow up to be ecologists. New York tycoons sort their trash to recycle. Rock singers play concerts to save prairies and wetlands. Political candidates tell us they’re worried about the fate of the three-toed baboon.
Caring about the environment helps you feel good about yourself. At the supermarket you choose paper instead of plastic. You write your thank-you notes on paper made from ground up newsprint and cotton waste. You chip in a few dollars for Greenpeace. Hey, you care about the earth. You’re a righteous person.
Yet too often our concern for the earth lacks a metaphysical grounding. Intuitively, living in harmony with the earth feels right. If the earth is the house we’re going to live in, why litter the rooms with beer cans or pee all over the carpet?
But in an ultimate sense, so what? If life is just a series of chemical reactions, what does it matter if the chemicals go messy? Species come and species go. Why get all mushy and teary-eyed if a few berserk bipeds wipe out some hundred thousand kinds of their neighbors? The earth may be our mother, but sooner or later she’s going to blow to atomic dusting powder anyway. And from a cosmic point of view that’s just a few mega-moments down the line. So why all the fuss?
You can say it’s for our children, it’s for future generations. But they’re also just a flash in eternity. Why bother for them?
Guardians of the green remind us urgently that dirtying and devouring the earth is short-sighted. But to be far-sighted we have to look beyond what seems clean, pleasant, and harmonious on a physical spot of earth on a brief ride through the universe. We have to ask ourselves not only how well we’re treating the earth but why we’re on it and where we are ultimately going.
Otherwise, though ecologically aware, we’re metaphysically dead.
by Ravindra-svarupa Dasa
originally published in Back to Godhead Magazine in 1980
The Republican Party seems to have emerged from its recent national convention as a reconstituted American conservative party, and the November elections may give the voters at least the appearance of choice between a clear right and a clear left. They say this is a good thing, but I have always had a problem making that kind of choice, and I suspect a lot of other people do too. My problem is that both sides seem to make good sense.
Confronted with an advocate of either the right or the left, I have always been able to see his point. This used to put me in a paralyzing bind and make me at heart rather guiltily apolitical. I envied the assurance of those who could make themselves partisans of one side or the other. Of course, there was always the center, the traditional refuge of ideological wimps like me. But I need consistency, and you pay dearly for contradiction, especially when it is embodied in social policy. So there I was stuck.
I could not reject the appeal of the left to my highest ideals, to my unshakable intuition that all people are equal and that social fact ought to reflect it. Yet when the right insisted, with hard-eyed realism, that people are in fact not equal and no amount of sentiment is going to make them so, I had to agree. Each side had a strong case, although I did note that neither seemed to embrace its position because of disinterested observation of the nature of things. The right had the social upper hand and wanted to keep it; the left was on the bottom and wanted a leg up. As for me, I was out of it altogether; I could identify neither with those who had power nor with those who wanted to seize it. Yet I didn’t doubt the importance of the issue—American presidential elections might be, as critics claim, all make-believe, but the fate of the world hangs in the hostility between the capitalists on the right and the communists on the left, and that no one can ignore.
I did not become a devotee of Krishna to resolve my political impasse, but among the unhoped-for bonuses Krishna consciousness gave was a social doctrine that resolves this intractable dilemma, that unifies, without contradiction, in concrete social policy the absolute equality of all people with the relative inequalities their differing abilities and aptitudes create. This social vision provided something I would have thought impossible: a society with clear division of labor into classes, but without exploitation, enmity, and conflict. This was an extraordinarily enlivening discovery, for I saw that it is the solution to the political face-off that threatens the whole world.
Varnashrama-dharma, as the social manifesto of the Krishna consciousness movement is called, is the blueprint for a spiritual civilization, for it is based upon the idea that people are spiritual beings. As living creatures, we are tiny but eternal sparks of the supreme living being, although we are now confined within mortal material bodies. We cannot plausibly expect to attain happiness by relying on our bodies, since they are certain to become diseased, to age, and finally to die. Rather, our welfare can rest only upon cultivation of our authentic and eternal self, the soul. We suffer unremittingly because we identify ourselves with our bodies, besieged as they are by material nature. So if a society wants to secure the highest good for all its members, it must arrange for all of them to attain enlightenment concerning the true self and thus enter into a full, pure consciousness that is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. At the same time, such a society must satisfy, as simply and efficiently as possible, all needs of the body. Varnashrama-dharma is designed to achieve both these goals.
A materialist would immediately object that since “the soul” is a metaphysical concept referring to something we cannot experience, any social system based on it must be quite dubious. But it is simply false that the soul cannot be experienced (it is, indeed, the condition for our having any experience at all), and the varnashrama society is designed precisely to foster that experience. And since materialistic society creates the conditions that make experience of the soul virtually impossible, the objection in effect begs the question.
We are spiritual beings in material bodies, and it is varnashrama-dharma that integrates and reconciles the absolute equality of all people as spiritual beings with the relative inequalities imposed upon them by the conditions of their material embodiment. It calls for society to be divided into four occupational groups (called varnas) and four spiritual orders (ashramas).This division into varnas is quite natural. No civilized society can do without four classes: intellectuals (called brahmanas), political and military leaders (kshatriyas), farmers and merchants (vaishyas), laborers and artisans (shudras). Lack of any one of these would obviously cripple a society. They form the head, arms, belly, and legs of the social body, which can be healthy only if all the parts are sound and working cooperatively. What is more, every human being is born with a constellation of innate qualities and aptitudes that places him into one of these four groups. (Personal qualities alone determine membership; membership by birth, as in the Indian caste system, is not the authentic varna system.)
If I describe the duties and qualities of each of these varnas, you will be able to recognize intuitively the four human types.
The brahmana, or intellectual, knows the absolute truth by theoretical knowledge and direct realization, and in light of that he guides the practical policies of the political leaders. As the head of society, he has the vision to direct the actions of the whole body. By occupation the brahmana is a teacher, and he instructs everyone not only in the particular service of his varna but also in the universal service to God, the basis for self- realization. A youth suitable to be trained as a brahmana must have a love of study and a desire for knowledge. He is naturally peaceful and tolerant and is spontaneously attracted to purity, to self-control and to austerity. He is honest and instinctively religious.
The kshatriya’s service is to protect the other members of society. He governs and when necessary fights. A person suitable to be trained as a kshatriyamust be quite intelligent, but his intelligence will have a more practical direction than a brahmana’s. He has great natural courage and is attracted to performing great deeds at personal risk. He is a natural-born leader, resourceful and determined. His body is strong; his character, forceful. He is spontaneously liberal and generous, and he likes to use his strength to protect others.
A vaishyas occupations are farming, trade, business, and-this is important-cow protection. Vaishyas produce the wealth of society. They must also be intelligent, but their intelligence is of a shrewder, narrower sort than the kshatriyas. Vaishyas are not as passionate as kshatriyas, and they lack their courage and liberality of spirit. Heroism impels the kshatriya, profit, the vaishya. Cow protection prevents the vaishyas from succumbing to greed and exploitation. Regarding as his mother the cow which gives him milk and as his father the bull which plows to produce grains, the vaishya learns to live in a personal, harmonious, nonexploitative way with the animals-and with the earth-that produce his wealth. Cow protection instills religious principles in the vaishyas and keeps them close to the land.
Those who are not intelligent enough to be brahmanas, kshatriyas, or vaishyas are shudras. They do the manual work of society. Since they lack the intelligence for the independent action of the others, shudras work under supervision as general assistants to the three other varnas.
I think that the advantages of recognizing these divisions are evident. Since they are based on natural character and aptitude, it is possible to discern the tendency of a child at an early age and to tailor his education to develop his natural talents and to cultivate the virtues peculiar to his position. This would go a long way toward solving the problems of vocation and motivation that now, plague our educational system. With the explicit recognition of four separate groups, each can develop as a distinct subculture. Each varna requires its own set of particular duties and values (called sva-dharma), and no end of confusion and misery is caused by not recognizing this, by trying to impose the standard of one on all, or by concocting some “universal” standard that fits no one. If we recognize the four varnas, then people will be fulfilled by working with all their talents and energy, and society will prosper by their contributions.
Of course, I hear the loud objection: You have just argued for an incredibly reactionary class structure (shudras, indeed!) that will have all the abuses intrinsic to such divisions. The higher groups will exploit the lower, social injustice will flourish, and hatred and conflict will tear it apart.
The answer to this problem is sanatana-dharma, “eternal religion and duty.” Although each varna has its particular sva-dharma, all share equally in the single, overarching, universal dharma called sanatana-dharma. This is the intense common consciousness of cooperative subordinate service to God. In the practice of sanatana-dharma, everyone is absolutely equal. It is more important than sva-dharma, and it effectively prevents the exploitation of one group by another.
The intuition of the equality of all people is a fundamental spiritual insight. It is a fact that demands recognition in concrete social policy. At the same time, the material differences among people also demand recognition. The error of the right, however, is to see such differences as fundamentally important and to give spiritual equality only lip service (if any service at all), putting it safely in the next world. The left errs, on the other hand, in the application of its insight. It tries to impose a spiritual fact upon a material condition, imposing equality by fiat where it does not exist.
Varnashrama-dharma synthesizes material difference with spiritual oneness. It recognizes that people are born with innately different material capabilities and that it is no service to individuals or society to pretend otherwise. Therefore, varnashrama-dharma has class division, but without exploitation, injustice, envy, and conflict. This is how.
First of all, the goal of all members of the varnas is self-realization, so that the standard of advancement in life for everyone is a matter of spiritual development, not material aggrandizement. Although an individual performs a particular service according to his material condition, his foremost duty in life is to understand himself as a spiritual being, distinct from his temporary material body. This is sanatana-dharma. and it offers a powerful means of spiritual realization (taught in the Bhagavad-gita) equally available to all the varnas, independently of material qualifications. Therefore, success or advancement in life does not depend upon getting riches, power, or social prestige.
Furthermore, varnashrama society is God-centered. The sanatana-dharma, the eternal religion or essential nature, of the infinitesimal spiritual beings is to serve the one infinite supreme being. They do this by offering the fruits of their labor in devotional service to God, who in this way is concretely recognized as the supreme enjoyer of everything. Exploitation arises only when a person forgets his position as servant and tries to usurp the position of God by utilizing another’s goods or labor for his own enjoyment. I may serve another, but if I see that he is in fact as much a servant as I, then he will not be exploiting me, nor will I be envious of him. In the intense common consciousness of the supremacy of God and of the universal bond of subordinate servitorship to God, which the leaders, above all, teach by their own actions, lie the harmony and cooperation among varnas that prevent exploitation, envy, and conflict. Since everyone’s duty is devotional service, the material differences among engagements do not matter. Cleaning the streets and running the government are of equal worth, and every person can become perfect by doing his own work in the service of God.
Of course, if anyone in a responsible position loses his sense of subordinate service and begins to exploit his facilities for his own enjoyment, the evils of class division which we have experienced in our time will arise. One strong safeguard against this is the institution of ashramas, a division of life into four stages that is especially to be observed by the brahmanas and the kshatriyas. This system enjoins that a person must first be educated as a celibate student (brahmacarya) before marriage, family, and “worldly” life (grihastha). Grihastha life must end at fifty or so, when husband and wife leave family and social affairs and cultivate renunciation and spiritual life (vanaprastha). Finally, when they are sufficiently prepared, they separate, and the husband spends the end of his life as a wandering mendicant preacher (sannyasa). In this way the ashrama system insures that the socially most powerful people will also be the most renounced.
The soundness of the whole varnashrama-dharma system ultimately rests upon the brahmanas. They educate all members, and their teaching will have force, commanding the respect of the powerful and passionate kshatriyas, as longas they themselves set the highest example of purity and renunciation. The purity of brahminical culture is the foundation of varnashrama-dharma.
This system might remind you, as it did me when I first heard it described, of the society of medieval Europe, a purportedly God-centered civilization with its four orders of clergy (brahmanas), feudal lords (kshatriyas), bourgeois (vaishyas), and serfs (shudras). For a time, at least, the European kings required priestly sanction to rule; they were crowned by the pontiff. The ideal king was supposed to be saintly. Yet this society was only a rather primitive approximation of varnashrama-dharma. The brahmanas never came to a sufficiently high standard of purity, and when they became corrupt, the civilization lost what spiritual vision it had, and the whole system crumbled. And it is still crumbling.
For the collapsing of the primitive medieval varnashrama-dharma has taken more than five hundred years, and it constitutes all of our modern European history. It began with the corruption of the brahmanas. When the brahmanas become tainted by worldly ambition, they lose their moral and spiritual authority-the only power they ever possess-and the kshatriyas begin to see them as worldly princes on the same level as themselves. There is no longer any justification for brahminical preeminence, and therefore the kshatriyas break loose from brahminical domination, a social revolution epitomized in Europe by the Protestant Reformation. Without brahminical direction and restraint, the kshatriyas rapidly lose self-control and become intolerable tyrants. No longer can they justify their sovereignty by divine sanction. The vaishyas therefore rebel against the oppression of a corrupt and useless nobility, an upheaval epitomized by the French Revolution. The clever and enterprising vaishyas come to life, accumulate capital, build up industry and commerce and, in their untrammeled greed for profit, ruthlessly oppress and exploit the shudras, who mount their own rebellion, an upheaval exemplified by the ongoing communist revolution.
The concept of varnashrama-dharma thus makes our own history intelligible, and several things become clear. One is that we have formed our ideas of society, class, and their relations on the basis of a society in various stages of progressive decay or collapse, and we are now living through the terminal state of that collapse. The idea of varnashrama-dharma is thus quite relevant to our contemporary social and political experience.
We can see the present conflict between the left and the right, the communists (shudras) and the capitalists (vaishyas), as the terminus of a long process of social decay, and neither side, therefore, has any future, any real hope of creating a just and sound society. Both are rooted in the past and are expressions of social putrefaction. Certainly, European and American society in the twentieth century has become fatally infected by vaishya values run amok. But shudra values run amok are no improvement. As a totally materialistic philosophy, communism fosters rather than eliminates the seeds of exploitation and conflict, encouraging the very conditions it seeks to ameliorate. Consequently, under communism there will never be a society free from the domination of one group by another, of the many by the few, and that domination will be carried on by the most brutal means possible. Both capitalist and communist ideologies are products of exploitation and envy, and neither can therefore hope to eliminate them. They cannot offer release from the process of social degeneration because they are created by it, and their conflict will merely insure, one way or another, the eventual destruction of civilization.
If there is any chance for a restoration of human civilization, the impetus must come from outside the conditions of decay. It must begin with the creation of brahmanas. The Krishna consciousness movement was designed specifically to make those brahmanas, the nucleus of a complete varnashrama-dharma society. A modern varnashrama-dharma society does not have to repeat the spiritual, social, and technological shortcomings of medieval Europe. Krishna consciousness provides a much higher standard of purity than was available to the medieval brahmanas. (That you can verify for yourself.)
And a new varnashrama-dharma society can use all the technological achievement of our time in divine service. Thus the Krishna consciousness movement is the seed of a new culture, potentially a complete human civilization, springing up just when the old and primitive varnashrama civilization reaches the final stages of its destruction. It offers an alternative to all of us trapped in that destruction.
We have come a far way from the Republican national convention. But I hope that when you are faced with the choice between right and left—in November, and afterwards, as the president conducts the conflict with the communist nations—you will look at it in a new light. Varnashrama-dharma does solve that intractable political problem. It is a radical solution, in the sense that it goes to the root of the difficulty, and it calls for a respiritualization of human society. That may seem to ask for a lot, but, on the other hand, the times may give us no alternative.
by Jayadvaita Swami
originally published in Back to Godhead Magazine, October 1997
So we’re headed for Mars. Forget the moon. Mars is the place to go.
Hey, we’re exploring, we’re questing for knowledge, we’re searching for signs of life out there. It’s science—get it?
So every twenty-six months between now and the year 2005 we’re going to send machines up there. And 2012 is the target date for landing the first man on Mars.
But I have a question: What happened to the moon?
When I was a kid, back in the sixties, the place to go was the moon. It was the same story: We were exploring, we were questing, we were on our way to answering age-old questions about life and the universe.
So we spent billions of dollars, we brought back some rocks, and then we sent some guys up there.
Great. But why aren’t we going back? The way America’s space wizards used to tell it, by the year 2000 the moon was going to be a regular tourist stop. We’d have our colonies there. Russians and Americans would be finding peace and friendship on the moon.
The moon! They promised us the moon!
But now, nearly three decades later, the moon is passed. No colonies, no busy little camps of scientists up there, no prospecting for minerals, no military installations, no moon shots, no nothing.
Instead: “Hi ho! Hi ho! It’s off to Mars we go.” (Price tag: half a trillion dollars.)
There’s one person who wouldn’t be surprised, and that’s Srila Prabhupada, the spiritual master who brought us the Hare Krishna movement. In the days when the whole earth was watching man’s first steps on the moon, Srila Prabhupada said it was bunk.
According to the Vedas, Srila Prabhupada said, the moon isn’t such an easy place to land. The moon, say the Vedas, is Candraloka, a heavenly planet. And it’s not cold and desolate—it’s full of life. It’s an abode of pious souls, born there as a reward for the noble deeds of former lives.
And those pious souls on the moon aren’t keen on receiving tourists, especially not low-minded beer-drinking meat-eating Americans on a mission to “conquer space.” Even to get into America, Srila Prabhupada noted, you need a visa. Try to bust your way in, and you’re up against the American government. No documents, no permission, and you’re blocked out. Then why should the moon be so easy?
Srila Prabhupada’s conclusion: We didn’t go. Either it was a hoax, or the space conquerors could have veered off course—or been purposely diverted—and had landed, bewildered, on the dark Vedic planet Rahu. Or who knows what. But one thing was sure: they didn’t go.
That was a hard message to swallow. Hadn’t we seen them on the moon with our very eyes? But Srila Prabhupada considered our eyes undependable. On television you can see a gorilla climb the Empire State Building, he argued. And do we have to believe it’s real?
The scientists may trust their eyes, he said. We trust the Vedas.
And for the next several years he kept challenging us with a question: If we really went to the moon, why aren’t we going back?
Even now, a quarter century later, when we’ve got our eyes set on Mars, it’s a question he could still be asking.
from Back To Godhead Magazine #14-05, 1979
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
Here we are in the middle of the sexual revolution, and yet, amazingly, more and more people are touting chastity. Says former game-show star Jaye P. Morgan, “Your perceptions deepen, and you reach a higher level of awareness. And the good effects are cumulative. I feel much better now….” “Now that I’m celibate, I feel fresher,” says a Chicago businessman. “My energy level is higher, and my mind isn’t so clogged up.”
What could be the real reason for this surprising trend? Are we losing our taste for sex? Not exactly. As psychoanalyst Mildred Newman points out, “For years there has been a trend in the direction of chastity. People have begun to feel terrible about indiscriminate sex with so many partners.”
Adds psychiatrist Dr. H. Colton, “Many of my clients have been badly hurt by the pain of multiple separations from many different partners. That, to me, is the most negative aspect of the sexual revolution…. People go from one relationship to the next, and in the process they experience great pain.”
Writer Janet Dailey says, “I don’t think there’s a woman born who doesn’t wish that the first man she met would be the one she married.” Dailey and her cowriters at Harlequin Enterprises, along with author Barbara Cartland, are heightening the popular mood with what Human Behavior magazine has called “the paperback virgin,” the heroine of the book racks who says, in effect, “Save yourself, because some day your prince will come.”
For people who would prefer that “some day” be sooner rather than later, India’s traditional Krishna conscious culture offers a happy solution: the couple’s parents seek expert spiritual guidance and arrange for an early marriage, based on complete psychospiritual compatibility. The record shows that this kind of spiritually- based marriage really works. For one thing, the woman doesn’t have to wait ten or twenty years (or her whole life) for her prince to come, and she can give her heart and not worry about some day having to take it back.
This kind of relationship turns out happy and successful because it’s based not just on “biological need” but on enlightenment. In fact, in Bhagavad- gita Lord Krishna affirms, “Sex that accords with religious principles, married sex for producing spiritually enlightened children—that sex I am.” The couple have sex with intelligence and discretion, not in a doglike way but in a godly way. And they produce enlightened children who easily become self-realized, liberated from the material world’s cycle of death and rebirth. Naturally the children help their parents do the same.
Not only do the couple satisfy their desire for the temporary pleasures of family life, but also they follow the Bhagavad-gita’s path to eternal, spiritual pleasures. Day by day they experience that the inner self can find full happiness only in the eternal loving relationship we all have with Krishna, the Supreme Self (Krishna’s very name means “the all-beautiful, all-attractive one”). So both husband and wife save themselves for Him.
After the children are grown, the couple leave home and, travel together to holy places of pilgrimage. Eventually they make their amicable parting of the ways—she to live with her eldest children or at a holy place, he to travel as a monastic teacher, both of them to attain self-realization and realization of God. (Then, too, people who are spiritually precocious can bypass the married phase altogether, stay celibate, and start concentrating on self-realization earlier in life.)
Of course, our modern quasi-culture hardly makes chastity easy. “This new chastity is more challenging,” notes Dr. Joyce Brothers, “because the pressure from the culture is very strong not to be chaste.” The mass mind manipulators want to keep us ever conscious of our genitals, always ready to hark when a new book or bath soap promises to win us newer and more desirable sex partners. So even if we want to avoid “the pain of multiple separations,” it’s going to be extremely difficult…
… unless we can find a genuinely higher pleasure. “The embodied soul may be restricted from sense enjoyment,” Krishna says, “but the taste for sense objects will remain. Yet he can stay fixed and peaceful in consciousness by experiencing a higher taste.” (Bg. 2.59] As Srila Prabhupada explains, “Seekers of the Absolute Truth are never allured by unnecessary engagement in sense gratification, because the serious students seeking the Absolute Truth are always happily overwhelmed with the work of researching the Truth…. When one is actually Krishna conscious, he automatically loses his taste for pale things.” The natural pleasure of our loving relationship with Krishna is so great that it alone gives complete satisfaction and happiness, and we can easily go beyond short- lived, insignificant material pleasures—for lasting, unlimited spiritual pleasures.
Once we become spiritually fulfilled, we’ll be finished with sexual problems. In the latter part of our lives, if not much earlier, we’ll abstain to concentrate on self-realization and the unlimited pleasure within. Yet during married life, sex for the express purpose of producing children is also chaste. In other words, once we’re Krishna conscious, chastity will follow as a natural by-product. We won’t be interested, per se, either in sex or no sex, but in doing all that we do in devotion to the Supreme.
by Ravindra Svarupa Dasa
With theories being established, taught, and discarded like disposable napkins, a father wonders whether his child will get a real education.
In the summer of 1970, I felt for the first time the fear that parents know when their child ventures out into the world. My daughter Emily wasn’t even three years old, a toddler. Yet one morning, as I watched her walking down the street to play, I suddenly saw her facing the whole sweep other future.
At moments like this, a person really comes face-to-face with the question of education. I started to think of what I could teach her to help her through the assorted puzzles of this world. And, much to my dismay, I realized that I had nothing to say.
Not that I was uneducated, by ordinary standards. I had majored in philosophy in college, studied literature for a year in graduate school, and had gone on to two years’ study in religion, also in graduate school. Yet, though I’d pondered for some seven years the greatest works of human thought (and in prestigious universities, under the tutelage of the best professors), all that came to mind as I watched my daughter playing were the hollow slogans of the day: “Be cool,” “Don’t get hung up.”
I marveled. Was this all I had gotten from my education? Surely I had studied many sides of many issues, explored the world-views of many cultures and the Zeitgeists of many ages, traced out the thought waves of many geniuses. Still, for certain, I knew nothing. There was nothing I could give my child. And who could say she would learn anything more from her years of schooling than I had learned from mine?
Now, as I look back, I am amazed at my gullibility. I remember being a college freshman, tremulously but hopefully taking my seat in the old high-ceilinged lecture room where shining dust slowly swirled in the bars of sunlight. “Introduction to Philosophy,” read my schedule card. Now, I thought, I would really find the answers to the questions that persistently troubled me: “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?”
“What is philosophy?” asked the instructor, a thin young Englishman with blond (almost whitish) hair and a very confident manner. He began writing our answers on the blackboard.
I raised my hand. “Philosophy means trying to find out who you are, where you’ve come from, and where you’re going.”
He wrote it down.
“Yes,” said the instructor, slowly and carefully, “there is a person in this department who goes around asking those questions”—he paused—“and I reply, ‘My name is Kevin Wright, I am coming from College Hall, and I am going to Bennett Hall!’ “ He stood grinning at me.
I was dumbstruck—and ashamed of my naivete. Here was philosophy! The great professional thinkers of the day had concluded that real philosophers don’t bother with the kind of childish questions that bothered me.
But I remained bothered, nonetheless. By my senior year I knew well what the inquirer in The Rubaiiyat of Omar Khayyam had meant when he said:
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint,
and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door
where in I went.
“Why are you in philosophy?” I asked one up-and- coming young professor.
“To win arguments,” he replied.
Another advised me, “Success in philosophy is understanding clearly what you’re confused about.”
I still didn’t know anything after several years of graduate school, but by then I had devised a practical test by which to judge competing philosophies. This test had nothing to do with the process of argument and speculation—from that I derived only frustration. The arguments, counterarguments, and counter-counterarguments were interminable. Besides that, to be famous as a philosopher, you had to put forth a new position; mere agreement would put an early end to your career. Therefore, since I was awash in an endless, stormy sea of differing philosophies, and since there was no hope of establishing once and for all any single philosophy as true, when various teachers would argue their positions I would just think to myself, “If I accept your philosophy, I’ll at best become the same kind of person as you. Is that what I want to be?” This was my practical test, and on that basis I never found any philosophy I could accept.
It was in that same year, 1970, after twenty years of schooling, that I finally found my first real teacher: His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Here was a man I could follow. Perfectly calm and self-assured, he radiated a personal warmth and a sincerity of purpose that were completely lacking in my previous teachers. And when he spoke the philosophy of Krishna consciousness, every syllable seemed to carry the weight of eternal truth. No tinge of doubt or cynicism or flippancy marred his words.
I was with him a few years later when he dramatically demonstrated why my so-called education had been such a disaster. Sitting behind his desk in a room filled with his students, Srila Prabhupada had just been introduced to a professor from a large university who had brought along several students of his own.
“What do you teach?” Srila Prabhupada inquired.
“Hinduism,” answered the professor.
“And what is that Hinduism?”
“I don’t know,” came the immediate response.
“You don’t know?” repeated Srila Prabhupada, his eyebrows raised in astonishment. Then he asked the question that went with Socratic directness to the basic defect of Western education:
“If you don’t know, how can you teach?”
The professor was caught by surprise; evidently, this idea had never occurred to him. He tried to evade the question by giving many reasons why he didn’t know, but Srila Prabhupada pressed his point. The logic of it was inescapable: If you don’t know something, how can you possibly teach it?
Srila Prabhupada made a further point. A person who does not know something, but who teaches it anyway, is a cheater. Again the logic was inescapable: the professor was constrained to admit, in front of Srila Prabhupada’s students and his own, that he himself was indeed a cheater.
So, I had been cheated, and what was to prevent my children from being cheated also? Education means to acquire knowledge from a teacher, but if the so-called teacher has no knowledge, how is education possible? Of course, he may instruct us in a technical skill or practical craft, but Srila Prabhupada, like the ancient Greeks, doesn’t count that as actual knowledge; it is techne, “know-how,” the mere mastery of a trade.
But the educators are keeping up the bluff. Finding themselves unable to know the truth, they fashion their own ignorance into philosophical doctrine and teach that as the truth. Their thinking seems to go something like this: “If we can’t find out who we are or where we’ve come from, then such questions are meaningless. If we can’t discover a standard of knowledge free from cultural or historical bias, then there is no such standard.” At least in this way they can give courses in ignorance and award doctorates to the most distinguished. And, they hope, perhaps no one will notice—the emperor has no clothes.
But a few of us are noticing, under the tutelage of His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada. I can remember the very moment when the root of Western education’s problem became clear to me....
It was still and quiet, just past dawn, and a mist hung over Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. An occasional motorist speeding along the river road could observe (with some surprise, no doubt) a small band of people walking slowly along the bank. Srila Prabhupada and a group of his disciples were taking a morning walk. The steady tapping of his cane on the pavement underscored the cadence of his soft, low voice.
“Your Western knowledge is defective,” Srila Prabhupada said. He stopped and stood firm. “It is like this: 1 see that one man has died, and another, and another, and so on.” He checked off the deaths in th0e air with small strokes of his cane. “Still, I think that I might not die. Just because so many have died, does it follow that I must also die? Don’t your scientists believe like that—that even though so many have died, they themselves might not? This is the defect. Your process of knowledge is ‘the ascending process.’ That process is defective, because it always leaves some doubt. All your so- called knowledge is based on this defective principle.”
I felt elated. Of course! I recalled the philosophy texts. It was the “Problem of Induction”! Suppose I want to find out whether all robins are red-breasted, and I examine n number of robins (n can be any great number, even a million). My premises and conclusions proceed something like this:
1. Robin 1 has a red breast.
2. Robin 2 has a red breast.
3. Robin 3 has a red breast.
… . … . … . … . … . .
n. Robin n has a red breast.
Therefore, all robins are red-breasted. Yet, although all my premises are true, the conclusion can still be false, for there is no guarantee that “robin n + 1” won’t have a blue or green breast. Only if I examine every single robin can my conclusion be guaranteed. Of course, this test is impossible; the inductive process can never give me absolute certainty that all robins have a red breast. And, consequently, all experimental generalizations, all scientific “laws”—indeed, the entire body of mundane knowledge, which rests inevitably on the inductive process—is doubtful.
“But we know we shall die,” Prabhupada was continuing. “How? Not by speculation, but because Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita [2.27], jatasya hi dhruvo mrityur: ‘For one who has taken birth, death is certain.’ Therefore, because God says I must die, and He has perfect knowledge—is that not the definition of God, that He has no defect?—because He says it, therefore we can accept it as true.”
“But, Srila Prabhupada,” I interjected, “Western philosophers like John Stuart Mill, David Hume, and Bertrand Russell have also noticed this difficulty with induction. But their reaction was to become skeptics.”
“Skeptics!” exclaimed Srila Prabhupada. “Skepticism is not allowed! That is another speculation!”
“Yes! ‘Because I cannot know; therefore, no one can know.’ Just see what rascaldom this is!‘I am ignorant, so everyone must be ignorant.’ “
In other words, the skeptic understands that because of the defect in induction, he can have no knowledge. But then, on the basis of that same faulty inductive process, he claims that no one can have any knowledge. This is “another speculation,” and thus completely unacceptable.
“This is my challenge,” said Srila Prabhupada. “I am challenging that all your Western knowledge is defective. You have no knowledge. I have come here to give you actual knowledge and defeat these rascal speculators!” Prabhu-pada’s fiery eyes darted at us. His words carried real authority. After all, he had behind him a five-thousand- year line of spiritual masters coming from Lord Krishna Himself.
In the car driving back to the temple, Srila Prabhupada added, “I could understand if they would simply say, ‘I don’t know.’ But instead they say, ‘Maybe,’... ‘perhaps,’... ‘it could be,’... ‘it might be.’ You are a resident of this city,” Srila Prabhupada continued, turning to me, “and a visitor here may ask you directions. Is it very good, if you don’t know, still to say, ‘Go this way’; ‘try going that way’? Better just to tell him, ‘I don’t know.’ Similarly, the so-called educators speculate, put forth big theories, and thus mislead everyone.”
I remembered that when I was in college, mankind had supposedly emerged five million years ago, and civilization had spread into Europe from Mesopotamia. But these days, humans seem to have appeared three million years ago, and European ruins predate Mesopotamian ones. The old teaching, being false, never was knowledge, and the new teaching is equally liable to change any day. In fact, a revision in the theories of human prehistory occurs practically every week.
Someone digs a hole, discovers a few bones, and constructs a theory that supposedly explains all the evidence. Then “those in the know” teach this theory as fact. Meanwhile the digging continues, fresh evidence contradicts the established theory, and a new theory emerges to become the new teaching. Then another hole... and another... and another.... The “learned sector” establishes, teaches, and discards theories like disposable napkins. At no point is there even the remote approximation of knowledge, since all these theories about the distant human past are based on diggings covering only an infinitesimal fraction of the earth’s surface. Nevertheless, so-called scientists disseminate so many “facts” about human prehistory, which the innocent public then accepts.
But can real knowledge and truth change on a week-to-week basis? If the authorities or experts keep changing their teachings, can we call such teachings knowledge? And if the experts are not transmitting knowledge, can we say that they are educating us? We’re seeing our great expert leaders are blind, and when the blind lead the blind, everyone falls into the ditch.
In The Underachieving School, educational critic and teacher John Holt vividly describes his frustrating experiences with obsolescent and amorphous knowledge. He argues that teachers and students are wasting their time and may as well “abandon the panicky quest for certainty and understanding and order and... be willing to swim, to suspend themselves—I think of a bird in air or a fish in water—in the uncertainty and confusion and bafflement in which it is our fate to live for the rest of our lives.”
Here is the cop-out of today’s educator. Confusion is king. But, just as the word hot implies that somewhere there is something that’s cold, the very word blind implies that somewhere there is someone who can see. Should we really “abandon ... certainty and understanding and order” and so readily embrace “uncertainty and confusion and bafflement”? Srila Prabhupada gives us good reason to think otherwise.
by Jayadvaita Swami
Following Vedic tradition, sons come to Gaya to worship the Lord, insuring auspiciousness for their departed fathers. This is not the place where Buddha attained enlightenment. That’s Bodhgaya, about twelve kilometers south.
But Gaya itself, as a place of pilgrimage, has an importance of its own. Pious Hindu sons from all over India come here to make offerings and give prayers for the sake of their father after he has passed away.
The temple here is small and crowded, and at first we see only aimless crowds milling about from chamber to chamber. But gradually we make out the order of things: the temple priests guiding groups of pilgrims from function to function, place to place. Some pilgrims sit beneath thatched shelters by the riverside, chanting mantras. Some offer sandalwood chips into a fire in a temple shrine. And ultimately, on behalf of their fathers, all the pilgrims pour water on the temple’s main object of worship, a stone imprint of the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
The idea is this: We all perform both pious and sinful acts, which in the next life (or lives after that) bring both good and bad results. This is the familiar idea of karma—you reap what you sow. Pious acts in this life, good results in the next; sinful acts, bad results.
Since most of us are neither entirely pious nor entirely sinful, the fruits we can expect are mixed—some bitter, some sweet. The laws of karma take all our acts into account, so even the most pious soul may sometimes get stuck with a bitter dose of fate. And the most bitter is that he may have to suffer as a ghost or be sent to the worlds of hell.
According to Vedic writings, the soul travels life to life from one body to the next. Sometimes I may be born into a wealthy family, sometimes a poor one, sometimes heavenly circumstances, sometimes hellish. And sometimes, caught in a sort of twisted karmic loop, I may be denied any body at all. It is then that I must live as a ghost—a disembodied spirit.
This is far from liberation. A liberated soul is free from all material desires, so he’s also freed forever from material existence. But the disembodied soul—the ghost—is still bound by material desires. He’s frustrated, however, because he has no body with which to fulfill them. While other souls make progress, the ghost may hang stranded in his twisted loop for many generations.
Or consider the hellish worlds. Even some places on earth are so miserable, so wretched, that we speak of them as hellish. Similarly, the Vedic writings tell of entire planets where pain and suffering prevail. These are the worlds of hell.
In the Vedic conception, hell is not eternal. Just as on earth one may have to live for many years in poverty or disease, one may have to suffer for thousands of years in hell. A pious son, therefore, to save his father from the possibility of hellish or ghostly life, goes to worship Lord Vishnu at Gaya.
Vishnu, or Krishna, the Supreme Lord, is supremely pure. He alone awards liberation from all material miseries. When a pious son makes an offering to Lord Vishnu and then by ritual and meditation gives the remnants of that offering to his departed father, the father is purified of sins, and if he is suffering from ghostly or hellish life, he is released.
To perform this offering is the traditional Vedic duty of a son. A pious son, therefore, is called putra, or “one who can deliver his father from hell.”
Dipping in the waters of the Phalgu River outside the temple, I naturally think of my own father, the memory dimmed by nearly twenty years, yet persisting nonetheless. And as other pilgrims bob in the water around me, it strikes me that each must also be thinking of his father. We’re afloat in the river full of thoughts and affections flowing back over generations.
Generations have come here before us—our fathers thinking of theirs. And if we’re Krishna conscious our thoughts flow back not only to our father, grandfather, or great-grandfather but all the way back to the original father, Krishna. As all rivers have a source, the source of all generations is the original person, Krishna, worshiped here in Gaya as Lord Vishnu.
By coincidence we’re here in Gaya on the appearance day of Lord Nrisimhadeva, Lord Vishnu’s incarnation as half lion, half man. Nrisimhadeva came to protect the great devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a five-year-old boy, and to killPrahlada’s demonic father, Hiranyakashipu. This is a long history, but the point that concerns us here is that after saving Prahlada from the tortures of his demonic father, Lord Nrisimhadeva offered Prahlada any benediction he might ask.
“My dear Lord,” Prahlada said, “I don’t want to do business with You, like a merchant. I just want to serve You, You don’t have to offer me any benediction.”
But when the Lord insisted, Prahlada replied, “All right. My father was demonic, so You have killed him. Now please give him liberation from the cycle of birth and death.”
Lord Nrisimhadeva, however, told Prahlada that such a request was unnecessary. “Because you are My pure devotee,” He said, “ten generations of your forefathers and ten generations of your descendants will automatically be liberated.”
This is a kind of extra inducement from the Lord. Krishna says, “Give up all other duties and surrender to Me.” But we may think, “If I surrender, then what about my mother and father and my family duties?” So Krishna gives a special promise: “Just surrender to Me, and your family will get the highest benefit.”
A Krishna conscious person knows that ties in bodily relationships—whether father and son, brother and sister, or whatever—have no lasting meaning, because the body itself never lasts. The soul travels from lifetime to lifetime, body to body, and only for the stretch between one birth and the death that follows do we think of a particular family as “mine.”
Still, a devotee has sympathy and affection for all living beings. This naturally includes those whose karma has in this life cast them in the role of his father and mother and friends.
But affection for friends and relatives shouldn’t stand in the way of spiritual advancement. If we’re trying to get to the root of all existence—and this is the real goal of human life—we shouldn’t let ourselves get lost in the branches of a family tree.
Spiritual life means finding the root of everything. The Bhagavad-gita says that after many lifetimes of searching, we at last find that this root is Vishnu, Lord Sri Krishna, the Personality of Godhead. It is then that we surrender to Him, saying, “Krishna is everything!”
As by watering a root we automatically give water to the leaves and branches, by serving Krishna we give the best service to all living beings, including all the branches and twigs of our family tree.
A devotee of Krishna, therefore, is the best kind of son. He not only journeys once to Gaya to pour water on the footprints of Lord Vishnu, but he gives full devotion to the feet of the Lord in all the activities of his life.