Varnashrama and Society as we know it

As I reflect on the Yājñasenī book, I have also been thinking to some extent about kṣatrīya-dharma, which is of course the principal theme of the book as a whole. The Mahābhārata is about polity. The largest section, the Bhīṣma-parva, is almost wholly concerned with guidance for rulers. And, after all, kṣatrīyas run the place, the politicians and so on, and they have a real influence on the way people live. Even Krishna, the avatar who has come especially to reestablish dharma, to vanquish the wicked and bring succor to the dispossessed and devoted, is a kṣatrīya.

So what is the kṣatrīya ethic?

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, Srila Prabhupada took a walk with his disciples here in Vrindavan and suddenly said, "We must start a Varnashram college." And he began to explain his concept of varnashram dharma and the ideal way of forming community, in microcosmic settings, close to the land, simple living and high thinking.

So, it was decided, as things were usually decided quickly in those days; if Prabhupada wanted it, someone was there to get it done. So word percolated to Dallas, the Gurukula, and the powers-that-be, the GBC and whoever else--I never asked about the chain of command, and I was sent to New Vrindavan with the four oldest boys in the Dallas Gurukula. There we were to live in a house, which they used to call Prabhupada's house because he had stayed there, just down the road from Madhuvan and where they built the palace.

Anyway, I got to thinking about varnashram then, and indeed, it was in the air. There were a couple of ex-Green Berets (or so they claimed) who had become devotees, and my assistant was also a Vietnam veteran. A kind of military ethos descended for a little while on the whole of New Vrindavan, a kind of generalized paranoia was instituted and this paramilitary gang started giving talks on self-defense and so on. The spirit infused even me and my ex-Marine assistant and we would do things like march the kids, however many we happened to have, left-right left-right, in-step all the way to Madhuvan for arati, chanting Hare-Krishna, Hare-Krishna to keep time.

The system we followed at the grandiosely named Varnashram College was to have classes in the morning, then send the boys out in the afternoon to different parts of New Vrindavan to learn useful skills. I still don't know if they actually learned anything. I was too glad of the afternoons off to pay much attention.

That summer Prabhupada came to NV and he was, as usual, surrounded by leaders like Bali Mardan, whom I remember particularly on that day. We were actually sitting on the lawn outside Prabhupada's house at the time. I was confused about varnashram dharma. Prabhupada had said we should divide our group into four basic categories according to propensity and work, and that is what was going on. I was a teacher, therefore a Brahmin. But Prabhupada had always emphasized that we were devotees, Vaishnavas, who were "more than Brahmins," who only adopted the roles of the four varnas in order to set example for the rest of society.

Me reading to Prabhupada with other devotees and students.

I don't exactly remember what my question was, but it had to be repeated for Prabhupada, and Bali Mardan did so in a way that I found deliberately distorting, in order to get a rise from Prabhupada and in order for him to project that he was in the know about what Prabhupada thought, with a little twist of "what a fool this lowly disciple is for asking such an obvious question" thrown in for measure." And so Prabhupada gave the customary response that devotees were above the varnas. But that did not answer my question about how we were supposed to organize ourselves, even in a small community, as varnas.

At any rate, varnashram has not preoccupied me much since then. Mahaprabhu said, "Give up varnashram and just do bhajan," so I stopped giving it much thought. I just assumed I had a brahminical nature, for what it is worth, and decided to follow my nature.

But a couple of years ago, I read Osho's commentaries to the third and fourth chapters of the Gita and was impressed by one particular insight he made about the varnas. He associated brahmins with shudras and kshatriyas with vaishyas. He said that an incomplete brahmin is more likely to become a shudra, whereas an incomplete kshatriya will tend to become a vaishya.

Prabhupada used to say, I believe, that America was ruled by vaishyas and the USSR by shudras. Which is dead right. And he was also right to say that the brahmins, or intellectuals, themselves guided by higher spiritual principles, should guide society. Osho added the insight that brahmins and shudras are natural allies, as in Lenin's alliance of the intelligentsia and the working class.

The alliance of the kshatriya and vaishya classes is too obvious to require much discussion. But the intelligentsia generally favor egalitarian ideas, while the alliance of power and money pushes towards fascism and militarism. The corruption of the intelligentsia and working class, in their effort to establish equality, is in bureaucratic Byzantism.

In democracies, the natural tendency of the power elites is to divide the working classes who dominate numerically. Anyone who works for a paycheck, even if he may think of himself as an intellectual or as a business person, is working class.

When other are in charge, brahmins are dangerous because they seek the truth. Kshatriyas and vaishya are not interested in the truth, so much. Of course, they are interested in truths related to their area of competence, but the whole truth is really a brahminical preoccupation. It is a way of thinking. Brahmins think in terms of ultimate purpose, kshatriyas power, vaishyas money. Shudras, doing a good job.


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