“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone's heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.61)
Question: “I understand that the brahmanas are the brains of society and thus it is important to listen to the brain, but what role does the heart play? Isn’t it equally as important? Should we listen to the heart or to the brain?”
Answer: The famous caste system of India is technically known as varnashrama-dharma. The term “caste” and the stigma attached to it are the result of a limited understanding of the purified system originally implemented by God. In the famous Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, states that He instituted the four varnas and four ashramas as a way for society to be divided up, with each person’s corresponding category of varna and ashrama determined by their inherent qualities and the work they perform. Since varnashrama-dharma is not such an easy concept to grasp for the layperson, analogies are used, with the most common one being to the body of a human being.
The highest varna, or division, in this system is the brahmana. A brahmana is a priest, a man of the cloth if you will. The word “brahmana” means one who knows Brahman, or the impersonal aspect of creation. Sometimes spiritual leaders will say that we are all God or that God is part of us. These statements refer to the nature of Brahman, an impersonal aspect that pervades all of creation. We are all God in the sense that we are tiny sparks that emanate from the original spiritual fire, God. Since there is no difference between the spark and the original fire, the spirit souls can be considered to be the same as God. At the same time, there is still the original fire which exists separately and autonomously from the sparks. In this respect, God is always superior to and different from the jiva souls.
A person who knows Brahman understands the nature of the sparks emanating from the fire and how they are all equal in constitution. This is certainly a high level of understanding that is not acquired so easily. To learn discrete math we have to go through years and years of training, studying for exams and solving complex equations. By the same token, understanding that all aspects of the creation, including matter and spirit, are part of one giant energy known as Brahman requires rigorous training of the body and mind. Through penance, austerity, and the study of scripture, a person can elevate themselves to the status of a brahmana.
Since the brahmanas are so intelligent, they are well-suited to act as society’s teachers. While there are teachers for just about every subject and discipline, there needs to be a set of instructors for society as a whole, who can guide the activities of everyone for the betterment of every individual. The brahmanas are the only people suited for this role since they are the only ones who understand the constitutional position of all forms of life. The other three varnas of the varnashrama-dharma system are the kshatriya [warrior/administrator], vaishya [merchant/businessman], and shudra [laborer]. While members of each of these divisions certainly do have positive characteristics, their knowledge is still considered inferior to that possessed by the brahmanas.
In order to help us better understand the system of varnas, the Vedas often use the analogy of the body, with the brahmanas taken as the brain. The brain can be considered the most important part of the body, for it directly guides the activities of the other parts. The arms, stomach, and legs are certainly important, but these body parts need to know how to act. For example, the arms can involve the body in unnecessary fighting or in eating too much unhealthy food. The stomach can also fail to divert its nutrients to the proper parts of the body. The legs can carry the body to dangerous places, putting one’s life in danger. In this regard, the brain is considered the most important because it is the decision maker. The brahmanas are considered the brains of society because they are to guide the activities of everyone else. When this brain is absent, there is no chance of peace and prosperity. To finish the analogy, the kshatriyas are the arms, the vaishyas the stomach, and the shudras the legs.
The keen observer will notice that the heart is missing from this analogy. Is this an oversight on the part of the Vedas? After all, isn’t the heart the most important aspect of the body? A person can be considered brain dead but still alive if the heart is beating. So who is the heart of society, and who should we listen to, the heart or the brain? One thing we should remember is that varnashrama-dharma is the system of maintenance for society; it is not the ultimate perfection of civilization or even of human life. Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s famous incarnation as a preacher, once posed questions relating to these issues to Ramananda Raya. The Lord asked him what he thought was the highest perfection of spiritual practice, and Ramananda Raya gave various replies, with Lord Chaitanya kindly rejecting each and every one as not being the most important aspect of spiritual life. Varnashrama-dharma was one of the replies that Ramananda Raya gave, but this was rejected by Lord Chaitanya as being subordinate to acquiring pure love for God.
“The Lord replied, ‘This is external. You had better tell Me of some other means.’ Ramananda replied, ‘To offer the results of one's activities to Krishna is the essence of all perfection.’” (Lord Chaitanya responding to Ramananda Raya’s claim that varnashrama-dharma was the ultimate goal of life, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 8.59)
This conversation resulted in the conclusion that the ultimate objective in life is to go beyond rules and regulations by developing a pure love for God, similar to the way the gopis of Vrindavana used to love Krishna when He was on this earth some five thousand years ago. Varnashrama-dharma and all the other rules and regulations of spiritual life are aimed at elevating one to this perfect consciousness, Krishna consciousness. Varnashrama-dharma doesn’t specifically address the issue of the heart of society because the entire system is aimed at connecting with the heart. The heart of society, and the universe for that matter, is Krishna. He is the center of everything, the original fire, the spiritual sun if you will. Listening to the heart is the goal of human life, so obviously this heart is more important than the brain.
Not only is Krishna the heart of society, but He is the heart in our body as well. Vedic information tells us that our identity comes from the individual soul residing within the heart. This soul, or atma, remains unchanged even after death. This soul jumps from one body to another through the process of reincarnation, but it always remains the source of our identity. Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story. In the hearts of every living entity, there is another soul, known as the Paramatma, which resides side-by-side with the atma. This soul is super or “param”, and it belongs to God. In order to take direction from the heart, to achieve pure Krishna consciousness, one must learn how to connect the individual soul with the Supersoul.
We see that taking direction from the heart is more important than following the dictates of the brain. This is something many of us understand already, for people commonly invoke the phrase, “I followed my heart instead of my brain”, or something to this effect. The important point is that one must first know how to take direction from the heart. Since Krishna is the heart of the universe and the heart of our bodies, He is the one who should be guiding our activities. Yet we can’t take direction from Him unless and until we reach into our hearts and connect our soul with His. In order to achieve this union, we need the help of our trusted old friend, the brain.
To illustrate this point, we need only look to one of the most famous religious books in the world, the Bhagavad-gita. Known as the Song of God, the Gita chronicles a discussion between a student and his teacher that took place on the eve of a great war. The student, the expert warrior Arjuna, was hesitant to fight against the opposing army. Not necessarily a conscientious objector, Arjuna was more distraught over having to fight against members of his own family who were fighting for the other side. Though the victor would earn the right to rule over a kingdom, Arjuna thought that such a reward wasn’t worth the price that would have to be paid. Thinking that he was following his heart instead of his brain, Arjuna decided that he wouldn’t fight and that he would lay down his weapons and let the other side win.
“The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words, you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.” (Bhagavad-gita, 2.11)
This is where Lord Krishna, Arjuna’s cousin, charioteer, and dear friend, stepped in. Krishna also happens to be God, so that is why the discussion that followed became as famous as it did. Krishna informed Arjuna that he was grieving over the body, something which is not worth worrying about. Birth and death come on their own, but the spirit soul residing within doesn’t change. The soul is never killed. Lord Krishna then provided a series of instructions and teachings, concluding with the most important instruction: “Just do everything for Me.” This is the ultimate objective for every person in life: to act in Krishna consciousness. At the end of their discussion, Arjuna decided to fight on, but to also remain detached from the outcome. He was fighting to carry out his prescribed duties as a kshatriya and also to carry out Krishna’s orders.
In the beginning of the Gita, Arjuna was listening to his emotions, generated from a heart which was temporarily disconnected from the ruler of the heart, the Supersoul, and emotionally attached to worldly objects. These emotions are part of the material body, a body which eventually gets discarded. These emotions are so strong that they can cause someone to think that they are following the dictates of the purified heart. When something is really heartfelt or coming out of the heart, it can only refer to things relating to spiritual life, for Krishna is the chief resident of the heart. How did Arjuna finally learn to take direction from a purified heart? He had a teacher, someone who acted as the brain from without.
“Yet in this body there is another, a transcendental enjoyer who is the Lord, the supreme proprietor, who exists as the overseer and permitter, and who is known as the Supersoul.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 13.23)
Arjuna was lucky enough to have God Himself appear as the external teacher, but what about for the rest of us? Who can teach us how to take direction from the purified heart, the Supersoul connected with our soul? This is where the brahmanas come in, more specifically the spiritual master, or guru. The spiritual master is the big brain, someone who can help us detach our material emotions and get us attached to our spiritual inclinations towards serving the Supreme. In this age of Kali, bona fide brahmanas are hard to find, so the instructions of all the great spiritual masters of the past have been synthesized into one short phrase, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
Chanting this one mantra is both a means and an end. In the beginning stages, it helps the individual draw the senses towards spiritual life, and in the mature stage it allows one to be totally in yoga, completely connected with the Supersoul residing within the heart. To help us in our yoga practice, the “big brains”, the acharyas, also advise that we refrain from the activities of meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. Along with bringing obvious negative side effects, these activities also cause a person to be more vulnerable to the effects of material emotions.
Krishna’s presence is so strong that He acts both as the heart and the brain of society. He is the core of all life, material and spiritual, and through His bona fide representatives, the spiritual masters, He is the greatest advisor and well-wisher to the conditioned souls. If we follow the instructions of the great Vaishnavas, devotees of Vishnu who automatically achieve brahminical status, we can surely listen to our purified heart the same way that Arjuna did. This will benefit us both in this life and the next.