by Krishna Dharma Dasa
Westerners see India’s reverence for the cow as superstition, but for those who appreciate her gifts, the sacred cow is worthy of her name.
Holy cow! We have all heard that expletive enough times, but what on earth is holy about the cow? I remember some years ago my mother was much maligning India for the “primitive and superstitious” practice of cow worship. To a city boy whose only contact with cows was the Sunday dinner, her criticism seemed quite sensible.
In Vedic religion there is in fact a ceremony—go- puja—extant for thousands of years, in which the cow is worshiped. But just how primitive is it? . Is the cow some kind of symbolic god?
For the Indian villager with his agrarian life, the conservation of natural resources is an integral part of daily existence. He is expert in using nature’s gifts to manufacture all his requirements, from his mud hut to his homespun clothes. And protecting cows has always been the most important feature of the village conservation program; every homestead has at least one cow.
The cow and bull are indispensable in rural India, where about eighty percent of the population lives. The cow, eating only grass, happily supplies milk, which provides virtually all of the nutrients our bodies need. From milk we get cheese, curd, butter, ghee (clarified butter), whey, cream, yogurt, and an endless variety of milk-based preparations well known to experts in traditional Indian cookery. Because the cow supplies milk, she is accepted in the Vedas as our mother.
In India it is well known that cow dung has antiseptic properties, and in any Indian village one will see cow-dung patties drying in the sun to provide an excellent fuel for cooking fires. The urine of the cow is prescribed as a medicine for the liver by the Ayur-veda, the Vedic scripture on the science of healing.
The bull is also an invaluable asset to the small farmer. The strong bull enjoys working all day pulling a plow through the fields. How quaint, you may say, but not very efficient or practical these days. Well, the use of the bull may be slower than machinery, but it does not compact the soil and reduce its productivity as does heavy modern machinery. There are other problems with machinery in India, such as its inability to cope with seasonal changes and monsoons. (What to speak of the problems of finding spare parts or a mechanic.) Because the bull provides for food. he is considered our father.
In Vedic society it was recognized that a symbiotic relationship exists between man and cow. The cow produces far more milk than her calf requires. If the calf is allowed unrestricted access to the udder, mastitis will develop, which could lead to the cow’s death. When the cow is done calving, she will peacefully continue to produce milk. Of course, if she’s not milked, she will feel pain.
People object now about the exploitation of cows in dairies that are more like factories. The calves are taken from their mothers at birth, and the cows are slaughtered when past milking age. This is not the Vedic system, which demands that the cow be as well looked after as most people today look after their dogs. But are there any practical examples of the Vedic system in operation, where the cow is not grossly exploited and made to suffer in exchange for her milk and flesh?
Of course, rural India is one good place to look. Another example is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), among whose principles is cow protection. Indeed, in the Bhagavad-gita cow protection is given the status of a religious principle. All ISKCON farms are dedicated to this important principle, and the results can be seen. The cows are happy and peaceful and produce abundant, creamy milk. On ISKCON farms (there are fifty worldwide), the cows and bulls capture many prizes at local shows.
One of the main purposes of ISKCON is to establish self- sufficient farming communities. The farming techniques employed are traditional and organic and as far as possible avoid the use of modern machinery. Men and animals work harmoniously together to glean just enough for survival, forgoing machines designed to produce more for profit-making. The Vedic tenet of ahimsa, or nonviolence toward all living entities, is carefully observed. Thus, of course, animal slaughter of any kind is avoided, and even a plant’s life is taken only to provide subsistence. If items cannot be indigenously produced and need to be bought, excess milk can be sold to provide the necessary money. Otherwise, the milk is converted into long-lasting ghee for future use or barter.
The cow is therefore the basis of the Vedic economy and is accorded the highest possible regard. On the ISKCON Hertfordshire farm. the grounds of the United Kingdom’s main temple of Krishna, ten cows are looked after by Dushyanta dasa and three or four other groundsmen.
“A man can easily maintain himself and his family with an acre or two and a cow,” says Dushyanta. “This may sound idealistic, but consider the immense amount of land now given over to livestock for commercial farming. To produce one kilo of beef protein requires twenty kilos of vegetable protein as feed. We graze our cows, and each one needs only one acre. An acre of land can produce three hundred pounds of vegetable protein or twenty pounds of beef in an equal amount of time. Even day our cows each give an average of forty to fifty pints of milk. To kill these cows for food would not make economic sense.”
Srila Prabhupada was appalled by the slaughter of thousands of cows every day in the West. To him it just did not make sense. Such a useful creature is being killed for her flesh. It is like taking an expensive car and demolishing it for its scrap value. We value our machines, but can any machine produce milk from a little grass?
Srila Prabhupada writes, “While living. the cows give service by giving milk, and even after death they give service by making available their skin. hooves, and horns, which may be used in so many ways. Nonetheless, the present human society is so ungrateful that they needlessly kill these innocent cows.”
The Vedic literature tells how Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, takes the role of a cowherd boy for His pastimes. In fact, one of Krishna’s names is Govinda, meaning “one who gives pleasure to the cows.” Five thousand years ago, Krishna appeared as the son of the leader of a cowherd community. At that time a man was wealthy not if he had a pile of paper money but according to the number of cows and the amount of land he possessed. Krishna’s community had hundreds of thousands of cows. Thus the members of the community are described as having been very rich. They paid tax to the king with ghee, cheese, and whole milk and would also barter these products for cloth and other items in the market.
The cow also appears in religious symbolism in the Vedic literature. Religion is symbolized by the form of a bull, known as Dharma. In one well-known Vedic history. Dharma was attacked by Kali, the personification of the bad qualities of this age. Kali had broken three of Dharma’s legs (symbolizing cleanliness, austerity, and mercy) when the king arrived on the scene. He was immediately ready to kill Kali, who begged for his life. The king allowed Kali to live in certain places only, one of them being wherever animal slaughter was taking place.
ISKCON farms are developing in most countries, and they invite anyone to visit and see the Vedic economic system in practice. “Simple living and high thinking” is the underlying principle of ISKCON farm life. A respect for all living entities as part of God forms the basis for a life very much in harmony with nature. And for the cow, there will always be a special regard, thanks to her free and bountiful gifts.
by Jivanuga Dasa
Manipuri dancers inspire audiences with a glimpse of Manipur’s Vaishnava culture.
During the early 1970’s Srila Prabhupada expressed to Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami that the Manipuri traditions of music and dance, such as rasa-lila and sankirtana, are so infused with the Vaishnava culture that they are cultural representations of Krishna consciousness. If properly presented, he said, these cultural expressions could be powerful and inspirational. Taking heed of Prabhupada’s words, Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami formed Ranganiketan in 1987.
“Ranganiketan,” which means House of Colors, began its first international tour in 1990, with engagements in Europe and North America. Since then the troupe has put on nearly 400 performances for more than 250,000 people on four continents. It has appeared at the University of California (Berkeley), at EPCOT Center (Walt Disney World), and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Ranganiketan is the most extensively booked performing arts company of its kind from India.
The troupe gives special emphasis to educational programs. More than half of Ranganiketan’s performances take place before young audiences. Carefully created instructional materials prepare students for the performance, and lectures and demonstrations help them further understand what they’ve seen.
The cultural activities of Ranganiketan don’t stop at the stage. Troupe members are also adept in various offstage arts, especially the creation of Manipuri prasadam, the traditional cuisine, which has delighted people wherever the troupe goes.
Ranganiketan performances give samples of the music, dance, and martial arts of northeastern India. Thang-ta is a weapons- oriented form of martial arts that dates from the time of the Mahabharata. Both men and women learn these arts from an early age. With precision and strength, Ranganiketan artists demonstrate the various forms of Thang-ta, using swords, shields, scimitars, and occasionally their bare hands.
The acrobatic drum dances are powerful demonstrations of sankirtana that blend complex beats with the devotional mood of Narottama Dasa Thakura. Performed with the pung (Manipuri mridanga), the drum dances serve as an auspicious invocation before the performance of the rasa-lila.
The classical rasa-lila is the most important of the various types of Manipuri devotional dance. It expresses the quintessence of Vaishnava culture and philosophy—the yearning of the individual soul to surrender to the supreme soul, Lord Sri Krishna. Through that surrender, the soul attains transcendent happiness and the highest fulfillment of spiritual desire. In Manipur, rasa-lila performances can feature 108 dancers and last up to twelve hours. On tour, of course, the dances are shorter and the dancers fewer, but they give an authentic taste.
by Yogeshwara dasa
From the museums of New York City to the Latin Quarter of Paris, a young man pursues the ultimate in creative expression.
I came of age in the mid ‘60s, at a time when progressives and liberals held sway in American society and the mood was full throttle into the bright future of technology and the unlimited creative potential of man. Odd- kid-out in most social activities (I attended expensive schools on scholarships, which put me in a socially awkward position), I ended up spending weekends and after-school hours wandering through New York City’s cavernous museums, filled with stone and canvas monuments to the Creative Animal. In one afternoon I could journey on foot from prehistoric cave paintings to Renaissance pietas, and from there to modern art and the latest in pop, op, and the psychedelic rest.
Of course, I visited not only the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art, but also the Museum of Natural History. There I was struck by the apparent parallel between the evolution of art and the evolution of man. First came the cavemen, with their cave paintings—rough, simplistic products of an obviously lower order of intelligence. Then, as man began wearing clothes, shaping tools, and tilling the earth, he produced the crude religious paintings and iconography of early civilization. Finally, as man grew more civilized, art grew more sophisticated, until Homo sapien was producing an artistic legacy as complex and unfathomable as his own neurological organs.
But this apparent parallel evolution ofart and man was too pat; it left an empty feeling in my stomach. Though my own culture accepted such a parallel, some part of me disagreed with the premise that art viewed chronologically was synonymous with art viewed progressively. The free-floating Calder mobiles appealed to my sense of aesthetics, but did that place them somehow above the simpler works relegated to sections marked “Tribal Talismans”? The sensual curves of a Moore sculpture attracted my adolescent mind, but were they “better” than the three-thousand-year- old works designated “Hindu Deities”? The open- ended canvases of Jasper Johns made me think about how his work affected me, but did I feel any less affected by the delicate miniature encrusted with gold and labeled “Krishna: Indian Forest God”?
These exhibits were consistently arranged so as to suggest that objects of art were no more than cultural artifacts. The arrangement was no doubt the work of anthropologists, art historians, sociologists, and others, who had a vested interest in making culture central, who addressed themselves, it seems, to people unwilling to bring themselves to consider anything that might transcend human experience.
Yet despite my intimations of a higher criterion than cultural relativity for evaluating art, when I met devotees of Lord Krishna for the first time, in 1969, I still believed that art could change the world without recourse to transcendent realities. Universities’ in Europe and the United States abounded with such courses as “Existentialism and Modern Art,” “Physics for Poets,” “Social Trends in Art History,” “Picasso and the Collective Unconscious,” “Music as a Force for Change.” What these courses all had in common was, first, an insistence on the interrelationship of the arts and, second, the idea that art should be about a personal “inner vision” that judiciously avoids other- worldliness. Like the perfectly ordered historical art exhibits I had known during my high-school days, the university catalogs also treated art as one of the Humanities, as a subject that deals only with human meanings. Art, they too were saying, can be understood only within the context of culture.
The devotees, however, lived with an art that went beyond such notions. In those early days of the Krishna consciousness movement in France, readings from the Bhagavad-gita and group chanting of Hare Krishna took place on Sundays in the Latin Quarter, at a gray two-story hangout for students, artists, poets, and musicians. Perched precariously on a folding chair, in the corner of a room that sat about thirty, was a three-foot-high color poster of Gopala (Krishna), the Supreme Lord and the speaker of the Gita. The name Gopala means “cowherd boy,” and in the picture Gopala was sitting gracefully, with His arm around a calf, looking off into the distance.
“Who’s that in the picture?” I asked a devotee who stood peeling apples by the door.
“That’s Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
“And the idealized setting in the background—that’s supposed to be heaven?”
“No, not heaven, but the spiritual world—the really ideal setting, where everything is eternally full of knowledge and bliss.”
I watched the devotees meticulously arrange the apple sections on a brass tray, offer the tray before the poster of Gopala, bow down, and then dance and sing before Him. After a few moments the ceremony stopped, and a young man in robes and a shaved head began reading from the Bhagavad-gita in French. “Krishna’s nature,” he explained after one verse, “is spiritual, God is not limited by material elements, as we are. His body is not subject to laws of decay and death. And since He is absolute. He remains spiritual in all His manifestations. His appearance in wood or stone or paint transforms the material medium into His own spiritual substance. We should not think that a Deity or painting of Krishna is an idol. It is Krishna Himself, graciously appearing in a form visible to us, to help us remember Him.”
Unexpectedly, here was a challenge to my long-held belief in the cultural relativity of art. Extrapolating freely, I concluded that the Bhagavad-gita had this to say about art: Art can contain more than human elements; under certain conditions a work of art can serve as a vehicle for higher, transcendental forces, whose impact on the viewer or hearer (in the case of music, drama, or poetry) doesn’t depend on intellectual grasp or cultural relevance. The mere act of seeing or hearing spiritual art produces a spiritually uplifting effect. Though one’s intellectual awareness of the image or sound—one’s sense of its meaning or purpose—enhances the effect, such awareness is not prerequisite. Spiritual art is like fire: potent, able to act on anyone who comes near it.
I began spending evenings with some of the devotees. The small room they shared was filled with posters, photos, and drawings of all sizes and shapes. There were depictions of Krishna with His cowherd boyfriends, Krishna in His various incarnations, sages and saints from the scriptural histories. None of it struck me as very developed artistry. The features were often naive, the composition unimaginative, the proportions out of whack. But the greatest travesty, in my eyes, was the lack of a challenge to the viewer. So little in any of these pictures left anything at all to the onlooker’s interpretive skills. It was pure representational art. The spectator did not participate at all; he was a passive watcher. There was Krishna tending His cows in His village, Vrindavana, and there were the trees and flowers, all neatly dressed, best blossoms forward. It was clear that the artist had done his job quite well by painting exactly what he had seen—or rather exactly what he had read in the scriptures the devotees were always quoting. The artist had painted, and now the observer had only to gaze.
But to the devotees, those pictures were windows on the spiritual world. Each morning they would sit for an hour or more, concentrating on them as they chanted Hare Krishna on their beads. It became clear that the artists’ identities were of little importance to the devotees who sat entranced before these paintings. They had been done “right” (according to scripture), and that was all that mattered.
Many months later Srila Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual guide of the Krishna consciousness movement, visited Paris. By that time I had myself become a devotee of Krishna, and Srila Prabhupada’s visit seemed a good opportunity to clear up some of my lingering questions about the role of art in spiritual life. I waited until I could meet with him in his quarters, and then I dove right in.
“What is the function of art in spiritual life, Srila Prabhupada?” He looked up and studied my face for what seemed a long time.
“It is to put things in their proper place for best utility,” he said.
I didn’t understand what he meant,butrather than ask the same question again, I said, “Some artists might disagree with you. Sometimes it is considered art to take an object out of its proper place and give it a life of its own. Some artists argue that a work of art is a reality in itself, that it doesn’t depend for its ‘being’ on anything or anyone else. They say that art is most beautiful when accepted as a self-sufficient reality.”
“Beauty and art are different,” he corrected. “Beauty is something that satisfies my eyes. Your eyes may be satisfied by something, my eyes by something else. According to your idea of beauty, my beauty may be unacceptable. Beauty is a kind of sense gratification.”
“Yet the object of our vision may be beautiful, even if we can’t appreciate it.”
“No. If I like it, then it is beautiful. If I don’t, then it isn’t. There is no such thing as a standard of beauty. Just like nowadays artists make ‘beautiful’ paintings”—he waved an imaginary paintbrush wildly in the air above his head and laughed. ‘I don’t like it, but someone else may say it is very beautiful. So beauty and art are different. Art means arranging things for the highest utility. Beauty may satisfy but not have any higher utility. A picture, a poem—anything—is art when it serves the very best utility.”
Utility was obviously the crux of his definition. “If someone’s work fulfills that qualification of highest utility, is he an artist?”
“Yes. An artist isone who knows the standard of best utility.”
I opened Webster’s. “One definition the dictionary gives for artist is ‘one specifically skilled in the practice of a manual art or occupation, as cooking.’ If we apply that definition to spiritual life, a sincere laborer working for Krishna—a carpenter or a cook—is actually an artist.”
“Oh, yes, anyone who performs his work for the satisfaction of Krishna, who knows His relationship with Krishna, is a true artist.”
That was the moment when I at last understood his use of the word utility. He was defining art as any work that brings the performer, as well as all who come in contact with the work, away from the cycle of birth and death and closer to God. In other words, true art is yoga. By this definition of art as yoga, Srila Prabhupada was not denying the need, in painting, for rules of composition or balance in color and design. Rather, he was expanding the meaning of art beyond the traditional forms of painting, sculpture, music, drama, poetry, and so on to include every field of human endeavor—a notion described in Bhagavad-gita (2.50):
A man engaged in devotional service rids himself of both good and bad actions even in this life. Therefore, strive for yoga, which is the art of all work.
In the simple acts of devotion—the offering of foods to the Lord, the humble recitation of His holy names, the striving for a saintly life—one can also perceive God. The same inspiration is communicated by the art of work as by a work of art. In effect, Krishna in the Gita exhorts all members of society to become artists by performing their work as an offering of love to Him.
“In other words,” I asked, “would we say that anyone who works on behalf of Krishna, according to Krishna’s direction, is an artist?”
“Yes. A devotee knows the standard of utility. He knows how to put things in their proper place to inspire love for Krishna in himself and others.
Srila Prabhupada stopped speaking, and a thoughtful silence filled the room. I began thinking back to my first days in the movement, when I had met a young Scottish devotee named Digvijaya. No one knew how to “put things in their proper place” better than Digvijaya. He was the cook in the old London temple. A simple country boy with a knack for detail, Digvijaya cooked liked nobody’s business and kept an immaculate kitchen that boasted rows of pots sparkling from the hours of patient scrubbing he had put into them. Attracted by his fastidious habits and feats of cookery, I would sometimes go down to the basement work area and help him prepare an offering for the Deities.
“You like to work for Krishna in the kitchen, don’t you?” I rather clumsily asked him one evening. Digvijaya looked a little flustered and went on with his cooking. Finally he looked up and said, “Actually, I don’t consider myself advanced enough spiritually to serve Krishna directly. I’m happy just cooking for His pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada. And if he offers the preparations to Krishna on my behalf, I know they will be accepted.”
This was a young man whose culinary skills could hold their own with many professionals’, yet he was obviously humble about his work. During our talk he had revealed to me the secret of spiritual cooking: don’t speculate. “The best recipes have been around for thousands of years,” he said. “What Krishna likes has already been tried and tested, and then recorded in the scriptures. A spiritual chef,” he had concluded, “is one who learns how to make a dish just as Krishna has always liked it, since time immemorial.”
Now, two years later, Srila Prabhupada was confirming the same principle as the essence of spiritual art. Don’t speculate. Your work is meant to be an offering of love for Krishna, not a product of artistic ego. So let Krishna guide your efforts.
“Real art, then,” I said, “means simply to do something for Krishna’s pleasure?”
“Yes,” Srila Prabhupada replied. “That is also the definition of love: to do something for the pleasure of the beloved.”
“But what about artists as a class of people? What about art as a specific field of creative endeavor—art in the classical sense—painting, sculpture, music? Does spontaneity play no part in Vaishnava [devotional] art? And how do the artists derive inspiration if everything is already laid out in the scriptures?”
“All these questions will be answered when you visit the artists who paint for my books.”
Many months later I had that opportunity. At the devotee artist studios (then in Los Angeles), much was like what I had seen in dozens of other studios: paintbrushes, canvases, some reference books. But there were new elements as well. Music played constantly in the background—devotional songs that set a mood for the work at hand. Sometimes two or even three artists at a time worked to complete a painting, each contributing his or her best effort, either in background design, facial details, jewelry, architecture, or whatever. The artists, in their discussions, constantly referred to one or another Vedic scripture. Clearly they had studied their subjects well, and they drew details for the work from the ancient texts.
I asked one young man where he had received his training. He had graduated from a well-known art school, he said, and after becoming a devotee he had gone to India. What was an artist’s training like in India? “Oh, very intense,” he said. “An artist in the devotional tradition never attempts a sculpture or painting of Krishna unless his teacher has sanctioned both the work and his readiness to execute it. The forms of Krishna are divine; when depicted by one who is not in the proper devotional mood, they are offensive.”
I noticed a young woman prepare her brushes by washing them in a sink down the hall. There was a bathroom closer by, but, she explained, through the agency of these brushes Krishna would appear on canvas, and so she preferred not to wash them in the bathroom. Before applying the first strokes to her canvas, she folded her hands and offered Sanskrit prayers before a picture of her spiritual master.
The artists were trained technicians intheir craft. In the sculpture workshop a heavyset man with a clean-shaven head applied filler to a bust of Old Age, a character in a diorama depicting birth, death, and rebirth. He looked at the bust, and, for my benefit, broke down the visual impression into colors, contrasts, perspectives, relationships, planes, and other aspects that had escaped my untrained eyes.
Yet beyond the technical prowess, these artists were seeing Krishna, not only in the immediate form of the sculpture or painting but also in the thousand and one details of life’s every moment that escape the notice of materialistic men. These artists knew the true value of their resources. The very tools of their trade acted as an inspiration for their work. Krishna was in the earth and clay, in the water and paints. He was the light of the sun that illuminated their studios. Nothing in their work was separate from Him, and by His presence the work itself became transformed into an act of meditation and prayer:
I asked several of the artists what they felt was the most important part of their work. Though one or two spoke of abstract concepts—like detachment from the finished product—the majority agreed that the most important part of their work was a strong daily program of morning sadhana, the devotional and meditative practices that begin around 4:30 a.m. and end by 8:30 in every temple of the Krishna consciousness movement. Without that regularity of spiritual discipline, they all agreed, they could never put brush to canvas or chisel to stone.
Over the course of the last few years, my deepening appreciation for spiritual art has cast in a different light the culturally based ideas of art that I grew up with. Instead of a progressive development in the arts, the contents of our museums seem to evince man’s increasing estrangement from his Spiritual roots. The further we divorce ourselves from the notion of a higher being and a life beyond matter, the more abstract and cerebral and sterile our artistry grows. And what usually passes as spiritual is in fact merely a negation of what we take to be material: form, personality, recognizable elements of creation. As a result, the spiritual reality—a world filled with spiritual variety, spiritual form and personality—remains hidden from our view.That spiritual reality, says theBhagavad-gita, is revealed in proportion to one’s renunciation of such concepts as “I am the creator” and “I am the artist” and one’s acceptance of one’s role as a servant of God.
No matter how innovative, lyrically spontaneous, or technically adept, the artist with no spiritual training or vision can never transcend in his work the limitations placed upon him by his alienation from God. Because such an artist is competing with God, he can never become a pure medium for the expression of God’s infinite creativity.
On the other hand, even an untrained devotee artist can become such a medium. This is true because the transcendental quality of a work of art is a result not of technical skill but of the artist’s purity of devotion, his desire to glorify God through his work. Properly guided, even an unskilled devotee artist can bring out the Supreme Spirit for all to see, as exemplified by the following anecdote told to me by one of the artists in Los Angeles.
Once, while traveling by plane, Srila Prabhupada chanted Hare Krishna around his beads with a drawing of Krishna pinned to the back of the seat in front of Him. This is a common practice among devotees who travel, but it was striking that Srila Prabhupada had chosen this particular drawing to meditate upon. It was done in crayon—the straightforward, untutored work of a child. It had little aesthetically redeeming value. But to Srila Prabhupada it was finer than a Rembrandt, more meaningful than a Degas, more intriguing than a Picasso, because it was Krishna drawn by the loving (albeit naive) hand of His young devotee. In that simple sketch was abundant subject matter for Srila Prabhupada’s artistic contemplation: devotion, sincerity, earnest labor, and a six-year-old’s humble offering of love to God.
A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Srila Prabhupada: The defect of the Western countries is that practically there is no social structure. The father and mother divorce, and the children become aimless. In most cases this is the defect.
Director: That happens. Yes.
Srila Prabhupada: I have seen this pattern with many of my students. Their whole family becomes disrupted, because the father and mother—even in old age—divorce. I have seen the mother of one of my students. His father was a very good businessman. Very nice family, with a good income. All of a sudden, the father and mother disagreed about something and got a divorce. The sons were thrown into confusion; the daughters were thrown into confusion.
Director: That’s the kind of cases we deal with.
Srila Prabhupada: The father married again, and the mother married again. They were not happy, and also, the business closed. So by this one instance I can understand how, in the Western countries, people have broken away from the traditional social structure. Of course, the root cause is godlessness. That is the root cause.
Director: And now divorce is getting easier, too. Isn’t it?
Srila Prabhupada: That is a very dangerous law—to allow divorce. Divorce should not be allowed. Even if there is some disagreement between husband and wife, it should be ignored. The great political strategist Canakya Pandita says, dampatye kalahe caiva bahvarambhe laghu kriya: “The husband and wife’s quarrel should not be taken very seriously.” Further, aja yuddhe: “A marital fight is just like a fight between two goats.” The goats may be fighting very spiritedly, but if you say “Hut!” they will go away. Similarly, the fight between husband and wife should not be taken very seriously. Let them fight for some time; they will stop automatically. But now when the husband and wife fight, each goes to a lawyer, and the lawyers give encouragement. “Yes, let us go to the divorce court.” This is going on.
So the first defect of modern society is the law allowing divorce. Another defect: there is no method for training a man to become first-class. That method is there in the Vedic civilization. Now, of course, that method is also abolished, due to the degradation of this modern age.
Formerly, though, society was divided into four classes—brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas, shudras: advisors, administrators, merchants, and workers. The brahmanas were first-class men—ideal. But in today’s society there is no ideal man. Society should have some living example, so that people can see, “Oh, here is an ideal man.” And the ideal man is described here in our Bhagavad-gita. Any man can be trained. And if even just one percent of the people become ideal, the remaining ninety-nine percent will see and follow. But now there are no ideal men. That is the defect.
So we are training people to become ideal men. That is the purpose of this movement. And in practical terms, you can see what our students were in their previous life and what they are now. Therefore, the government should establish an institution to create ideal men. We can help.
Director: But becoming an ideal man would be very difficult for the grown men who come to us, although it would be possible for the kids who come.
Srila Prabhupada: No, even the grown men can live according to these spiritual principles, just as my disciples are living. My disciples have not been with me since childhood; when they met me, they were already grown men. They are coming from the same group. But they are now saintly. It is simply a matter of training them.
The thing is, at present I have no facility. Whatever I have done has been by personal endeavor and their cooperation. None of your Western governments has helped me, nor did my government help me, although we are struggling to make a class of men ideal. Of course, they appreciate, but they do not give us any practical support.
For instance, we have purchased this house by our endeavor, with great difficulty, because we have no income. I write my books; then we sell and get some income. So somehow or other, we expand, but no government is helping us. Rather, they are facilitating brothels and liquor shops.
At least, formerly in India there was no drinking propaganda. Now the government is even making that. They are opening wine shops. In India, even in the British period, drinking was very, very restricted. Very, very restricted. First of all, in Indian society if anyone drank, he was rejected; he was not regarded as a gentleman. A drunkard was never respected.
Similarly, meat-eaters. A meat-eater was considered a third- class man. In our childhood we saw that when people learned to eat meat, they did it very secretly, not within their own home. Instead, they ate meat far away from home, with someone else doing the cooking. It was considered very abominable to eat meat or to drink.
As for illicit sex, that also was very rare. Young women were kept strictly under the supervision of parents. The father would see that his daughter did not mix with any boy. If a girl were to go out at night and not come back, then her life would be finished—nobody would marry her. So the father had to keep his daughter with great care. And he was very, very anxious to find a suitable boy to whom he could hand his daughter over for marriage. We saw all this in our childhood. But now these nice social customs are slackened. Jawaharlal Nehru, our late prime minister, introduced the divorce law, and now Indian society is in a chaotic condition.
Director: What can you do if society wants divorce? Society wants it that way.
Srila Prabhupada: “Society wants it.” That’s like your child wants to go to hell—but it is not your duty as his father to allow him to go to hell.
“Society wants it.” Society does not know the proper standard of spiritual behavior, nor does the government know how to uplift people. The government does not know. For all the government knows, the animals and we human beings are the same. Simply, the animals loiter naked, and we are nicely dressed—that’s all. Civilization finished. I remain an animal, but my advancement is that I am very nicely dressed. That is the standard now.
But our Vedic civilization is not like that. The two-legged animal must change his consciousness. He must be trained up as a human being.
[To a disciple:] Bhagavad-gita lists the qualities of the first-class man. You can read them.
Disciple: Samo damas tapah shaucam kshantir arjavam eva ca / jnanam vijnanam astikyam brahma-karma svabhava-jam: “Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom, and religiousness—these are the natural qualities by which the brahmanas work.”
Srila Prabhupada: So people should be trained according to these spiritual principles. The way to immediately solve all society’s problems is to start an institution for training the four natural classes of men. Begin it. If there is no training, how can you expect nice citizens? If you allow a child to smoke from the very beginning and to commit all kinds of other sinful activities, how can you expect him to be a nice gentleman when he is grown up? It is not possible.
Creating ideal men is possible through this Krishna consciousness movement. As you have said, older men may not be so much inclined to come and join. But if we train men from their childhood, then everything is possible. It is not that all men can be trained up spiritually. But if even a small percentage of ideal men are in society, at least people will think, “Oh, here is the ideal.”
But now there is no such facility. We are training our students, but sometimes people laugh: “What is this nonsense?” They criticize. These leaders of society do not encourage us. Yesterday I was talking with a priest, and about illicit sex he said, “What is the wrong there? It is a great pleasure.”
We are training our students according to actual spiritual principles, and so we are proclaiming that illicit sex is sinful. In fact, our first condition is that one must give up these four things: illicit sex, meat-eating, intoxication, and gambling. This is my first condition before accepting people as my students. So they agree and they follow.
Director: But not all the people we encounter will do that.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, they will do that, if a regular institution runs on in this way—with all facility.
A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Srila Prabhupada: The social body should have a class of men who act as the brain and guide everyone so that everyone can become happy. That is the purpose of our movement.
Mr. Hennis: That’s a valid point, because it has always been affirmed in every society that there is a need for a priestly class or a class of philosophical leaders.
Srila Prabhupada: But now the so-called priestly class are amending the Biblical injunctions according to their whims. For instance, the Bible enjoins, “Thou shalt not kill.” But the priestly class is like the other classes—sanctioning slaughterhouses. So how can they guide?
Mr. Hennis: But the animal world is entirely composed of beings who eat one another. I suppose that the justification that people have for maintaining slaughterhouses is that it is just a cleaner way of killing than for a lion to jump on the back of an antelope.
Srila Prabhupada: But as a human being you should have discrimination. You should be guided by your brain, and society should be guided by the “brain class” of priestly, thoughtful men. Nature has given human beings the fruits, the vegetables, the grains, the milk, which all have great nutritional value, and human beings should be satisfied with these wholesome foods. Why should they maintain slaughterhouses? And how can they think they will be happy by being sinful, by not following God’s commandments? This means society has no brain.
Mr. Hennis: My organization isn’t directly concerned with giving people brains.
Srila Prabhupada: Your organization may not be directly concerned. But if human society is brainless, then no matter how much you may try to organize, society can never become happy. That is my point.
Mr. Hennis: My organization is concerned with taking away the obstacles that prevent people from attaining a proper brain. One of the obstacles is just plain poverty.
Srila Prabhupada: No. The main thing is, society must learn to discriminate between pious and sinful activities. Human beings must engage in pious activities, not sinful activities. Otherwise, they have no brain. They are no better than animals. And from the moral point of view, do you like sending your mother to the slaughterhouse? You are drinking the milk of the cow—so she is your mother—and after that you are sending her to the slaughterhouse. That is why we ask. Where is society’s brain?
Mr. Hennis: Of course, when you speak of the distinctions that are made between pious activities and sinful activities—
Srila Prabhupada: Today practically no one is making this distinction. We are making it, and we have introduced these ideas by establishing farm communities and protecting our cows. And our cows are winning awards for giving the most milk, because they are so jubilant. They know, “These people will not kill me.” They know it, so they are very happy. Nor do we kill their calves. At other farms, soon after the cow gives birth to a calf, they pull her calf away for slaughter. You see? This means society has no brain. You may create hundreds of organizations, but society will never be happy. That is the verdict.
Mr. Hennis: Well, we can’t be accused of engaging in sinful activities when we don’t think what we are doing is sinful.
Srila Prabhupada [Laughing]: Oh? You don’t think you can be accused of breaking the state law—just because you don’t know what the state law is? The point is, if your priestly class have no knowledge of what is sinful, they may instruct you, “Don’t do anything sinful”—but what good is that? You must have a priestly class who know what is sinful, so that they can teach you. And then you must give your sinful activities up. When these young people came to me, I told them, “Flesh-eating, illicit sex, gambling, and intoxication—these things are sinful. You must give them up.” If we do not give up these sinful activities, nature punishes us. So we must know the laws of nature, what nature wants. At the very least, nature wants that we human beings stop our sinful activities. If we do not, then we must be punished.
Mr. Hennis: We are just trying to give people a fair share of the material things of life: proper wages, decent homes, decent opportunities for leisure.
Srila Prabhupada: That is all right, but people must know what is sinful and what is pious.
Mr. Hennis: Yes, but I don’t think you can properly expect to indoctrinate people. At least, you can’t expect an international organization to indoctrinate people.
Srila Prabhupada: As an international organization for peace and well-being, the United Nations should maintain a class of men who can act as society’s brain. Then everything will be all right. Simply legs and hands working without any direction, without any brain—that is not very good. The United Nations was organized for the total benefit of human society, but it has no department that can actually be called the brain organization.
Mr. Hennis: That’s true. That’s true. They are servants of the membership, servants of the various states of the world. We are only the servants of these people. What we try and do is let them get together and help them understand their problems.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, help them understand. At the very least, help them understand what they should do and what they should not do. At least do this much.
Mr. Hennis: This we do try to do to the extent that it is possible for the secretariat to shape and evolve a philosophy. We try to do it. But of course, we can’t adopt a completely radical approach. We do what we can, in the manner of a good servant and the manner of a good steward, to try and hope the leaders are on the right path and the right direction.
Srila Prabhupada: If society does not know what is sinful and what is pious, it is all useless. If your body has no brain, then your body is dead. And if the social body has no brain, then it is dead.
A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
This exchange between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and some of his disciples took place in Vrindavana, India, during March of 1974.
Srila Prabhupada: In this age the politicians’ business will be to exploit the poor citizens, and the citizens will be embarrassed and harassed so much. On one side there will be insufficient rain and therefore scarcity of food, and on the other side there will be excessive taxation by the government. In this way the people will be so much harassed that they will give up their homes and go to the forest.
Atreya Rishi dasa: Nowadays the government simply collects money and does nothing.
Srila Prabhupada: The government’s duty is to see that every person is employed according to his capacity. There should be no unemployment—that is a very dangerous situation in society. But the government has drawn people off the land and into the cities. They have made the consideration, “What is the use of so many people working on the land? Instead we can kill animals and eat them.” It’s all very easy—because they don’t care about the law of karma, the inevitable results of sinful activities. “If we can eat the cows, why should we take so much trouble to till the land?” This is going on all over the world.
Atreya Rishi dasa: Yes, the farmers’ sons are giving up farming and going to the city.
Srila Prabhupada: You know this nonsense of “topless, bottomless”? The leaders want that. They want the hotels to pick up college girls and let them be enjoyed by the guests. All over the world the whole population is becoming polluted. So how can people expect good government? Some of the people will take charge of the government, but they are polluted. So wherever we have a Hare Krishna center we should immediately establish. a college for training people—first, according to their natural talents (intellectual, administrative, productive, and laboring). And everyone will be elevated to spiritual awareness by performing the spiritual activities we prescribe—chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, hearing the science of self-realization from Bhagavad- gita, and doing everything as an offering to Krishna. Everyone’s life will become devotional service to the Supreme Lord.
At the same time, for the management of practical affairs we have to organize and train the different social divisions, because there are different kinds of brains. Those who have very intellectual brains should become brahmanas—priests, teachers, advisors. Those who are fit for management and protection of others should become kshatriyas, administrators and military men. Those who are fit for producing food and taking care of the cows should become vaishyas, mercantile men. And those who can assist the others and take up trades and crafts should be shudras, workingmen.
In the social body, just as in your own body, there must be divisions of work. If everyone wants to be the brain (the intellectuals) or the arms (the administrators), then who is going to act as the belly (the farmers) or the legs (the workingmen)? Every kind of occupation is needed. The brain is needed; the arms are needed; the belly is needed; the legs are needed. So you will have to make the social body organized. You have to help people understand the Supreme Lord’s natural social divisions: some people will work as the brain, others as the arms, others as the belly, and still others as the legs. The main aim is to keep the social body perfectly fit.
You must make sure that everyone can engage in the kind of occupation he is suited for. That is important. The thing is, every kind of work can be devotional service to the Lord—the main point is to see that people are engaged in that spirit in their natural work. For instance, when you are walking, your brain is working—“Go this way; go that way; a car is coming”—and your brain says to your legs, “Come to this side.” Now, the work of the brain and the work of the legs are different, but the central point is one—to get you safely across the street. Similarly, the central point of the social body should be one—everyone should help in serving Krishna.
Satsvarupa dasa Goswami: Will this kind of college be for the general public?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, for anyone. For instance, an engineering college is open for everyone; the only requirement is that people must be ready to take up the training. This is our most important program now, because people all over the world have been misguided by these so=called leaders. Children can attend a Krishna conscious primary school, and then, when they are grown up, they can attend a Krishna conscious college for further development in their occupational work and their devotional life.
Atreya Rishi dasa: Will we teach business, also?
Srila Prabhupada: Not this modern business—no. That is rascaldom. “Business” means that you produce enough grain and other crops so that you can eat sumptuously and distribute to everyone—men and animals (especially the cows)—so that they will become stout and strong. That way the cows can supply milk and the human community can work hard, without suffering from disease. We are not going to open mills and factories. No.
Yadubara dasa: Srila Prabhupada, what class do the arts and crafts come under? In our society today artists and musicians are accepted as philosophers.
Srila Prabhupada: No, an artist is a workingman. At the present moment your colleges and universities are giving too much stress on the arts and crafts. Therefore the whole population is workingmen. No real philosophers, no wisdom. That is the difficulty. Everyone is being drawn by the attraction of getting a high salary. They take a so-called technical or scientific education and end up working in a factory. Of course, they won’t work in the field to produce crops. Such people are not philosophers. A philosopher is one who is searching out the Absolute Truth.
In your Western countries the rascals are writing about the philosophy of sex, which is known to the dog. This kind of philosophy can be appreciated by rascals, but we do not appreciate it. Someone who is searching after the Absolute Truth—he is a philosopher. Not this rascal Freud—elaborating on how to have sex. In the Western countries the people have all become low-class, and Freud has become their philosopher. “In the jungle, the jackal becomes the king.” That’s all.
What is the actual knowledge in this so-called Western philosophy? The whole Western world is struggling along for industry, for making money—“Eat, drink, and be merry.” wine and women. That’s all. They are less than low class. This is the first time the attempt is being made to make them human beings. Don’t mind that I am using very strong words—it is a fact. They are animals, two-legged animals. Rejected men. Vedic civilization rejects them as the lowest of the low. But they can be reclaimed.
Westerners can be reclaimed, just as you Westerners—my students—have been reclaimed. Although you come from the lowest situation, by training you are becoming more than brahmanas. There is no bar to anyone. But unfortunately, these rascals do not agree to accept this opportunity. As soon as you say, “No more illicit sex:” “no more meat-eating,” they become angry. Rascals and fools. As soon as you give them good lessons—education—they become angry. If you give a snake nice milk and banana, the result is that he will simply increase his poison. But somehow, by Krishna’s grace, you are becoming trained. You become trained and revise the whole pattern of Western civilization, especially in America. Then a new chapter will come in. This is the program. Therefore Krishna conscious colleges are required.
A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Srila Prabhupada: Actually, I’ve seen in New York that in some quarters, it is so nasty. Disaster. So many storefronts and houses lying vacant. Just after my arrival there. I would sometimes walk to see various parts of the city. Hellish condition. People said it was risky, but [laughing] I did not know that it was risky.
One electrician who was my friend said. “Oh, Swamiji, you are going to that quarter? It is not for you. Don’t.”
“Oh, I do not care. What have I got that they could take from me?”
So I was going here and there in New York City. So many nasty quarters. London, also. So many houses vacant.
Disciple: Srila Prabhupada, some say there is more chance of being killed in New York City than in the jungle. Violent criminals are roaming the neighborhoods to rob and rape, because they know that very often, modern society isn’t going to do much to stop them. These thugs can literally get away with murder.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. People warned me not to go to Central Park in the evening. They said at night nobody goes there.
Disciple: That’s quite true, Srila Prabhupada. At night ordinary people are afraid to go there. They have to stay inside, behind locked doors. Nobody can go to the park. Except the muggers and killers. They practically own the place.
Srila Prabhupada: Such an important park in such an important city, and no one can go there.
Disciple: Srila Prabhupada, it seems people are realizing how bad this modern civilization is. But is there anything this civilization has done that’s good—even if just by accident? People are hoping against hope. because their civilization is so bad.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. That is why they support this “accident” theory of the universe. Because ordinarily in their civilization, there is no good. There is no possibility of good. But some good may come by accident, that’s all. Otherwise, jagato ‘hitah: world destruction—in their civilization, there is only fault.
But accidentally, good sometimes comes. Accidentally, this Krishna consciousness movement came here [laughing], although it was already going on in India. Nobody here called for Krishna consciousness—the scientists. the politicians. But as if by accident it came. As if by accident they got this benefit. They cannot explain the workings of God: therefore, they take everything as an accident.
[To disciple:] Go on reading.
Disciple [reading from Bhagavad- gita 16.9]: “The demoniac are engaged in activities that will lead the world to destruction. The Lord states here that they are less intelligent The materialists, who have no concept of God, think that they are advancing. But according to Bhagavad-gita, they are unintelligent and devoid of all sense. They try to enjoy this material world to the utmost limit and therefore always engage in inventing something for sense gratification. Such materialistic inventions are considered to be advancement of human civilization, but the result is that people grow more and more violent and more and more cruel—cruel to animals and cruel to other human beings. They have no idea how to behave toward one another. Animal killing is very prominent amongst demoniac people. Such people are considered the enemies of the world, because ultimately they will invent or create something which will bring destruction to all. Indirectly, this verse anticipates the invention of nuclear weapons, of which the whole world is today very proud. At any moment war may take place, and these atomic weapons may create havoc. Such things are created solely for the destruction of the world, and this is indicated here. Due to godlessness, such weapons are invented in human society; they are not meant for the peace and prosperity of the world.”
Srila Prabhupada: Now discuss.
Disciple: If we look back over this century, Srila Prabhupada, we can’t find many years of peace. The Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, the Second World War. the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and hundreds of what they call “low-intensity conflicts.” But always some kind of war going on. Whether in the Middle East or Latin America or Africa, people are always fighting over land and industrial resources. It seems some kind of war always has to be going on.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, always some war. “Cold war” or “hot war,” as they say. When there is the fire of physical combat that is a hot war. And when there are diplomacy and politics, that is a cold war. So war is going on. Sometimes it is hot; sometimes it is cold. There is no peace.
Disciple: And what’s more, Srila Prabhupada, we even see that among the so-called God conscious communities, still there are such horrible activities going on. Fighting.
Srila Prabhupada: No. no. we don’t say that all fighting has to stop. We are drawing a distinction between fighting by demons and fighting by demigods. If you are a demon and you come to attack me. then I must defend myself. What can I do?
If you start a war, you are a demon. Shall I decline from fighting you? “No, no. I am a demigod—I shall not fight. You can kill me.” Is that intelligent? I’ll have to fight
But war starts by the instigation of the demoniac. The Kurukshetra war—it was not started by Arjuna. It was started by Duryodhana.
(To be continued.)
by Satyaraja Dasa
Thinkers both inside and outside the Vedic culture recognize the natural principles underlying the Vedic social system.
In a recent conversation with a well-to-do Hindu gentleman in New York City, I happened to mention that I was twice- initiated—a brahmana priest who regularly chanted the condential Gayatri mantra and sometimes officiated at Vedic ceremonies. He was taken aback.
“How is that possible?” he asked. “You’re not born Indian or to brahmana parents.”
My Hindu friend—his name, I soon came to learn, was Amarnath—obviously believed that brahmanahood is related to birthright, a common misconception in India. Wanting to set things straight, I decided to fill him in on the ancient varnashrama system as it was originally espoused in Vedic texts, millennia ago. This system is described in the earliest portions of the Vedic literature (Rig Veda 10.90.12), where the various classes of society are compared to the human body. One part may be positioned higher than the other, but all parts are necessary for the body’s proper functioning. Varnashrama is further delineated in the Vishnu Purana (3.8.9) and in Bhagavad-gita (4.13), where it is described as a natural component of any well-established society.
Briey, the varnashrama system comprises four basic material occupations or duties (varnas) and four spiritual stages (ashramas). The varnas are (1) brahmanas (intellectuals and priests), (2) kshatriyas (warriors and administrators), (3) vaishyas (farmers and business people), and (4) shudras (manual laborers and general assistants). Most people exhibit qualities that reflect an overlapping of these categories, but one occupational inclination will eventually predominate.
The four spiritual stages (ashramas) are (1) brahmacarya (celibate student life), (2) grihastha (married life), (3) vanaprastha (retired life), and (4) sannyasa (renunciation and complete dedication to the Absolute). But we will not concern ourselves in this short article with these spiritual stages of life, both because of limited space and because it was not the subject of the discussion between Amarnath and I.
Birthright Or Birth-Wrong?
I pointed out to Amarnath that Vedic culture takes into account the psychophysical nature of individuals before assigning a place for them in the varnashrama system. Unfortunately, this system has devolved into the modern-day caste system, where people are classified according to birth. If one is born into a brahmana family, for example, one is automatically considered a brahmana, regardless of qualifications. This superficial reading of varna has led to the jati system, with its innumerable sub-castes and variations on the original four varnas. This system has caused considerable confusion, civil strife, and social unrest in Indian society.
In the early 1970s, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual preceptor of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, discussed this topic with a prominent Indologist in Moscow:
Prof. Kotovsky: According to the scriptures—the Puranas, etc.—every member of one of these four classes of varnas has to be born within it.
Srila Prabhupada: No, no, no, no.
Prof. Kotovsky: That is the foundation of all the varnas.
Srila Prabhupada: You have spoken incorrectly. With great respect I beg to submit that you are not speaking correctly. In the Bhagavad-gita [4.13] it is stated, chatur-varnyam maya srishtam guna-karma-vibhagashah: “These four orders of brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras were created by Me according to quality and work.” There is no mention of birth.
Prof. Kotovsky: I agree with you that this is the addition of later brahmanas who tried to perpetuate these qualities.
Srila Prabhupada: That has killed the Indian culture.
The Varna System According To Gandhi
The varnashrama system emphasizes “quality and work,” not birth. People t into particular categories according to their qualifications, not the families they were born into. While birth may point one in a particular direction or help in other ways, it is never the sole factor in determining one’s lifelong occupation. For example, birth in a judge’s family may afford one a good education and provide one’s vocational inclination early in life, but it doesn’t guarantee judgeship. Again, this “quality and work” criterion in relation to varna is clear from the Gita itself, though few modern Indians are aware of this.
Amarnath, for instance, insisted that while ancient Vedic texts, and thus Prabhupada, as a modern representative of these texts, may endorse the idea that varna is about quality and work, “modern Hinduism,” as he called it, has another story to tell. He pointed out that most Indians today say that varna refers to birthright. We both wondered aloud: What, if anything, do they base this on? Even Gandhi, considered by many to be the father of “modern Hinduism,” himself totes the “quality and work” line:
Varna is generally determined by birth, but can be retained only by observing its obligations. One born of Brahmana parents will be called a Brahmana, but if his life fails to reveal the attributes of a Brahmana when he comes of age, he cannot be called a Brahmana. He will have fallen from Brahmanahood. On the other hand, one who is born not a Brahmana but reveals in his conduct the attributes of a Brahmana will be regarded as a Brahmana.
A Few Words From Bhaktivinoda Thakura
Social stratification occurs naturally, and it cannot be dictated by birthright. Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838-1914), a great scholar and saint in the Krishna conscious tradition, observes how the varna system naturally occurs in all societies:
When we consider the modern societies of Europe, whatever beauty exists in these societies depends upon the natural varnashrama that exists within them. In Europe, those who have the nature of traders are fond of trading and thereby advance themselves by trade. Those who have the nature of kshatriyas adopt the military life, and those who have the nature of shudras love doing menial service.*
But Bhaktivinoda is critical of the prevailing caste system, specically because it points to birth as the selective criterion of one’s varna.* He writes that the original varna system was pure and based on scientific (vaijnanika) principles.* He further writes that from the time of the Mahabharata (roughly five thousand years ago) the system had become corrupt and deviated from its original purpose, that is, to help people gradually develop love of God. Bhaktivinoda called the original system, which centered on spiritual principles, daivi-varnashrama (divine varnashrama)—a far cry, he says, from the current-day caste system.*
As for the societies of the Western world, while Bhaktivinoda recognizes a natural varna system within these societies, he stops short of calling them scientific (vaijnanika) varnashrama: “Though the nations of Europe follow the varna system to some extent, it is not scientific… . In Europe, and, for that matter, in all countries except India, it is the nonscientic varna system that guides them.”* Bhaktivinoda is here expressing his appreciation for the system as it is elucidated in Vedic texts, which elaborate on specific principles for determining the part of society in which a particular individual may belong.
Briey, Bhaktivinoda summarizes the Vedic perspective:
- Varna should be determined by studying the nature of a child after examining a child’s associations and tendency toward learning during childhood.
- At the time of selecting varna there should also be some consideration of the varna of the mother and the father.
- Varna should be determined, at the time of education, by the family priest, father, respectable seniors, and spiritual preceptor.
- In case of dispute, there should be a two-year trial period and a review committee to examine the case after that time.
Bhaktivinoda goes on to write of an unscrupulous class of brahmanas and kshatriyas who, to establish authority over others, rewrote books like the Manu- samhita and other dharma-shastras so that these respected texts appear to endorse birthright as a preeminent qualication for brahmanahood. This, he writes, contributed to the fall of a once glorious society in the Indian world.
The Varna System According To Plato
The Greek philosopher Plato—though apparently unaware of Vedic texts—recognized social divisions that are strikingly similar to those of the varna system. In his Republic,he argues that social classes correspond to a hierarchy of personality types. The class predominated by the philosophical intellect, he says, is the highest, after that come those dominated by the emotions, and finally we find those in whom “the appetites” (sensual desires) predominate. Further, says Plato, one finds that society is naturally divided in a similar way. On top are the philosopher- kings, who rule; below them are the warriors, whom he refers to as “auxiliaries,” since they assist the king; and finally we have the merchants and workers, whom Plato combines into one distinct category.
He compares rulers to gold, auxiliaries to silver, and those in the third class to brass and iron. According to Plato, golden parents will tend to have golden children, as silver parents will naturally have silver children, and so on. But sometimes, he admits, golden parents may have silver, brass, or iron children, and the reverse is also true. When this occurs, says Plato, one must be flexible enough to acknowledge that a golden child born to an iron parent, for example, is indeed golden—his birthright should be disregarded in favor of his natural quality.*
Prabhupada’s teachings on this point concur with Plato’s. Both say that birth is not the sole criterion but can afford one a better chance in a particular area of endeavor. Prabhupada says: “It is not that one automatically becomes a brahmana because he is born in a brahmana family. Rather, he has a better chance of being trained as a brahmana if his father is a brahmana, just as one has a better chance of being trained as a musician or a cobbler if those are his father’s occupations. However, it is not that a cobbler cannot become a brahmana. If he acquires the qualifications, he should be considered a brahmana.”
All Varnas For Krishna
Amarnath accepted the point: Vedic texts and their modern- day representatives, like Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Prabhupada, endorse the varna system as natural and beneficial, and as an asset in developing love for God. Further, Gandhi and Plato accept the basic premises of the varna system—even down to the fact that it should be based on inherent quality and natural inclination rather than family status and birthright. Still, we agreed, being born in a particular family may help because if one is educated from birth in the duties of a specific occupation, then one will more likely develop expertise in that field.
As we reviewed one of the other central points of our discussion, Amarnath was disturbed, but he had to admit that it rang true: In the present epoch of world history (Kali, the age of quarrel and hypocrisy), the actual varna system has degraded into what is now known as the caste system, so much a part of modern India. As noted, this is because brahmanas and kshatriyas wanted to maintain their status without developing the necessary education and qualifications to legitimately do so. They deceptively emphasized birthright and powerfully enforced their position among the common people, creating the oppressive atmosphere now associated with the Indian social system.
“What to do?” Amarnath asked.
In response, I presented the basic message of the Krishna consciousness movement: By proper work, according to one’s inclination, one can gradually advance in one’s pursuit of God. Anyone properly engaged can rise to the level of a brahmana and, further, to that of a Vaishnava,or a pure devotee of Krishna. Vaishnavas both embrace and transcend the varna system. They engage their God-given talents in Krishna’s service—this is the essence of the varna system—but accept all classes equally, for all are directing their endeavors in the service of Krishna. This, as Bhaktivinoda tells us, is the daivi,or divine, varna system.
Prabhupada referred to a story from the Mahabharata known as “the enchanted pool.” King Yudhishthira was once called upon to answer questions before being allowed to drink deeply from a pool of beautiful, clear water. One of the questions was “What makes a true brahmana? Is it birth, learning, or good conduct?” Yudhishthira replied, “Birth and superior learning do not make one a brahmana. Good conduct alone does.” Thus, by action anyone can rise to a higher spiritual level. In this context, birthright is never mentioned, and is merely a peripheral consideration.
Amarnath was convinced.
“But how can we convince others?” he asked. “Get them to read Srila Prabhupada’s books,” I answered. “There one finds the essence of all Vedic knowledge, as well as the most valuable insights of thinkers like Gandhi and Plato.”
A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Srila Prabhupada: Now India is faced with so many problems on account of imitating Western civilization.
Guest: Not simply because of the increased population?
Srila Prabhupada: There is no question of increased population. This idea, I say always, is foolishness.
Srila Prabhupada: The birds and beasts are also increasing their population. Who is giving their food? There are 8,400,000 species of life. Out of that, 8,000,000 species are other than human beings, and 400,000 species are human beings. Out of that, the civilized persons are very few. And all the problems are in the so-called civilized population.
We know that God is the original father. He is supplying maintenance for everyone. If there is increase of population, God has enough resources to feed them. It is not a problem of increasing population but of demonic civilization.
Journalist: I was going to ask you about that—civilization.
Srila Prabhupada: The demonic civilization—not increasing population—is creating the problem. So far as I have studied, in America, in Africa, and in Australia there is so much vacant space that if the present population of the world were increased ten times there would still be enough food.
Journalist: You think there’s enough food?
Srila Prabhupada: There are enough provisions. But we have made artificial divisions. “This is America.” The Americans went from Europe and illegally occupied America. Now they won’t allow anyone to come there. Similarly, the Australians won’t allow anyone to come there. The same with New Zealand, Africa. Why? Our philosophy is that everything belongs to God and we are all sons of God. Everyone has got the right to live at the cost of God.
Journalist: But the values of Western civilization have …
Srila Prabhupada: Western civilization created the artificial idea that “this is Africa, this is America, this is Europe.”
Journalist: Therefore that has made living as children of God impossible.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Because the one son of God is not allowing the other son to come in. He hasn’t got the right to forbid. Say your father has ten sons. So all the ten sons have the right to use the property of the father. That is the law. Similarly, all the living entities—not only human beings but birds, animals—all of them have the right to use the property of God. This is called spiritual, or transcendental, communism.
According to Vedic civilization, a householder has to see that even a lizard in the room has his food. A householder would stand on the street, and before taking his food, he would say loudly, “If anyone is hungry, please come. I have food.” And if there is no response, then he takes.
Journalist: That’s a very difficult doctrine for many people in civilization.
Srila Prabhupada: But that is real civilization. In animal civilization, as soon as one dog comes, another dog barks, “Yow! Yow! Yow! Why are you coming?” Just like here, and everywhere, the immigration department is asking, “Oh, how long will you stay?” Why should they ask that? A human being is coming. In Vedic civilization, even if an enemy comes to your home you receive him with such friendliness that he forgets that you are his enemy.
Journalist: But it must be very difficult for you to preach these values.
Srila Prabhupada: It is difficult because this civilization is demonic. India welcomed everyone, but the result was they were occupied. Your English people were welcomed. Lord Clive was welcomed, but he intrigued to occupy India. And his statue is worshiped here in London. But what was his credit? He made an intrigue—he illegally entered India and made an occupation. That is Western civilization.
Journalist: That’s really what I was going to ask. You must find life very difficult preaching values of brotherhood in present-day society.
Srila Prabhupada: Brotherhood is natural. In a family of ten sons, naturally they are brothers. But one son is intriguing how to take the whole property. That is going on. That is demonic.
Journalist: How do you stop that?
Srila Prabhupada: By Krishna consciousness. As soon as you are educated that God is one—the Father is one—and we are all sons, then the whole solution is made.
A Course in Vedic Knowledge VII
by Pavanesana dasa
The goal of Vedic society is to bring people closer to God. Attachment to God and attachment to matter are diametrically opposed. The more people are attracted to material life, the less they will be inclined to spiritual life, and vice versa. Therefore the varnashrama system stresses progressive detachment from material enjoyment
This does not mean that people in Vedic society were deprived of enjoyment. They were restricted for their own benefit from the types of sense gratification that cause suffering and continuous bondage in the cycle of birth, old age, disease, and death. And they were encouraged to enjoy in a more refined way, in accordance with religious principles. This type of pleasure is much more enjoyable and conducive to health and well-being, and it elevates one to higher consciousness and spiritual awareness, instead of degrading one to lower forms of life.
The greatest attachment in the material world is due to sexual pleasure, described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam as a tight knot binding one to this material world. Sexual activity that ignores religious principles increases one’s desire to stay in the material world and decreases one’s spiritual intelligence. Therefore in Vedic society sex was limited to marriage, and it was for procreation only.
Now let us analyze the functions of the four ashramas:
The brahmachari ashrama is student life, the first quarter of a man’s life. Education in Vedic society did not consist of mere accumulation of data—facts, figures, equations, dates, formulas, and so on. Neither did it consist of speculative attempts to explain the world in terms of big bangs and primordial soups. Vedic education was intrinsically spiritual. It taught the student practical knowledge about using the material body in conjunction with the laws of God in order to live happily in this material world and to attain the goal of life, pure God consciousness.
This does not mean. however, that people in the Vedic ages had inferior material knowledge. Unlike our modern society, with its inductive attempts to gain knowledge. Vedic society derived highly developed knowledge from a perfect source: the Vedic scriptures, which emanate from God Himself. In this ancient literature we find descriptions of things modern man prides himself on having invented only recently: nuclear technology, airplanes, and space travel, to name a few.
In Vedic society boys from the age of five would receive their education from a spiritual master, or guru. They would live in his residence, called an ashrama, strictly observe celibacy and sense control, and serve him with humility and dedication. The guru would teach them according to their natural inclination, or varna. At age twenty-five the student could enter the householder ashrama. Girls would be educated by their parents and live at home up to the time of their marriage.
The grihastha ashrama is married life. the second quarter of life. In family life there is the natural tendency to accumulate money and acquire material objects. All four ashramas are for spiritual advancement, but only the grihastha ashrama allows for making money. Therefore, the entire Vedic society was maintained by the householder ashrama.
This may seem unfair to us today. Everyone wants to acquire as much as possible and not have to share it with others. But the Vedic system counteracts this materialistic tendency by establishing charity as the religious duty of the householder. For example, before taking his meal, the grihastha was supposed to step into the street and call out loudly three times: “If anyone is hungry, he should come and eat in my house.” Only then would he and his family eat.
The grihastha understood that charity to saintly persons is not a liability but an asset in one’s spiritual account. In Vedic society brahmacharis and sannyasis used to beg from the householders. Begging helped the brahmacharis and sannyasis culture humility and enabled the grihastha to use some of their money for a spiritual cause.
The householder benefited by the association of saintly persons because he received valuable spiritual instructions from them. He knew that a society without holy men and God conscious preachers, without charity and sacrifices, is a hellish situation.
The stage of retirement from family life is called vanaprastha. It is the third quarter of life. Modem society postulates the goals of life as wealth, fame, beauty, sense gratification, ample opportunity for sex, and so on. Consequently, people often continue trying to attain these things until they die. Politicians cling to their power even when they’re senile or invalid. Dying businessmen pray to their doctors to prolong their life just a little so that they can finish some business. Aging film stars get face lifts in a vain attempt to trick nature.
Vedic society was based on the understanding that the spirit soul is covered by a temporary body subject to birth, old age, disease, and death, and that the soul is the real life—eternal, distinct from matter, and full of knowledge and happiness. The body, along with all material attributes like fame, wealth, and beauty, will perish sooner or later.
When the householder reached age fifty, he would enter the vanaprastha order, giving up his sexual relationship with his wife and gradually retiring from business and family life. He would travel to places of pilgrimage, often accompanied by his wife, and devote more time to spiritual practices, such as reading the holy scriptures and meditation.
Instead of increasing his attachment to matter at the end of life, he would gradually detach himself from worldly affairs. He knew that material accomplishments have no value at the time of death. When the soul transmigrates into another body, all assets like cars or bank accounts have to be left behind. A man is born without a penny, and he has to leave this world in the same condition. At death the only useful asset is knowledge of one’s true self and of one’s relationship with God. With this objective the retired householder would prepare himself for the final stage of life.
The renounced order, sannyasa. is the last stage of life. In Vedic society it was entirely reserved for spiritual advancement The sannyasi would leave his family in order to give up any attachment to his wife and children. He would travel without any possessions, without any insurance plan or material security, and simply depend on Krishna. His only business was to become Krishna conscious and convey his realizations to others.
The sannyasis were the spiritual leaders of society. They lived by the charity of the householders, and anyone would be honored and happy to receive sannyasis in his house, for their presence afforded an opportunity to hear realized transcendental knowledge.
The Vedic literature states that charity given to a qualified brahmana is returned a thousand times in the next life. and charity given to a fully realized devotee is returned by unlimited multiplication. And we find the following statement regarding the benefit of associating with saintly persons: “The verdict of all revealed scriptures is that by even a moment’s association with a pure devotee, one can attain all success.”
By their preaching, sannyasis created a potent spiritual atmosphere. Their very presence reminded the attached householders that they too would one day have to renounce their possessions—either voluntarily or at death—and that they had better prepare for this ultimate test.
Vedic society did not see life as a one-time event but as a continuous cycle. Preparation for the next life and worship of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, were essential ingredients of social life. Simple living and high thinking enabled people to concentrate on their long-term goal of spiritual perfection and God consciousness.
Today’s materialistic society is devoted exclusively to the pursuit of short-term goals. God consciousness is thought of as impractical, outdated, unrealistic, or non- progressive. But this kind of thinking has stripped people’s lives of meaning and lasting values. It has created an atmosphere of anxiety, because people have nothing to live for. Society has lost its soul.
Materialistic persons desperately try to prepare for any conceivable problem or calamity. But no one is preparing for the one disaster that’s sure to strike—death. Spiritual knowledge means to understand that death is not the end of all our efforts. but the final exam of one lifetime, which determines our next destination.
Spiritual culture is not a matter of East or West Indian or American. It is the eternal right of every human being, for it leads to the perfection of life. So modern life is certainly a different culture from the Vedic one. But must we follow the culture in which we were born and raised if it is entirely opposed to the progressive values of life?’
Materialistic values, even if they seem progressive, accomplish only one thing: the endless repetition of birth, old age, disease, and death. The Vedic literature tells us that all activities that do not provoke an attraction for the Personality of Godhead are nothing but a waste of time, because they obstruct us from attaining our spiritual destination.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.10) states:
Life’s desires should never be directed toward sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation. since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal of one’s works.