“This institutional function of human society is known as the system of varnashrama-dharma, which is quite natural for the civilized life. The varnashrama institution is constructed to enable one to realize the Absolute Truth. It is not for artificial domination of one division over another.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.13 Purport)
The varnashrama-dharma system, or that which is commonly known as Hinduism or the spiritual tradition of the Vedas, provides guidance on how society should be maintained and also how to systematically divide up one’s duration of life into successive functioning units of time that provide a progressive increase in knowledge that ideally culminates in full spiritual enlightenment. Just as the different grades in a school system indicate the ascending levels of intelligence of the students and the corresponding difficulties in studies, the entire lifespan of the individual is similarly compartmentalized in a way to allow for a smooth and peaceful transition to a blissful afterlife. The soul exists forever, so its future fortunes should be the primary focus for all forms of life. In the lower species, there is no chance for even becoming aware of the presence of spirit or its makeup. Only with an advanced consciousness, which can be best developed in the human form of body, is there a chance at reaching the supreme destination, that one place where heat, light and electricity paradoxically remain in vast abundance without requiring any external source of energy. The proprietor of the spiritual land, its king whose term in office never expires, is so wonderful and effulgent that all the necessities of life are abundantly available. The varnashrama-dharma system brings the best opportunity for pushing along as many souls as possible to that imperishable land.
“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me. And, although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.13)
In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, states that He instituted the system of four varnas and four ashramas based on the qualities of the individual and the work ascribed to them. Nowhere does He mention birth, family heritage or social standing as the determining factors. Indeed, this wholly scientific system of dividing society into categories based on the qualities of individuals and the work they should perform is not bigoted in any way, nor is it something that needs to be apologized for. Because of the influence of Kali Yuga, the age of quarrel and hypocrisy we currently find ourselves in, the original system instituted by Krishna has degraded to the point that high status is being claimed simply off of birthright, without any of the necessary qualities and work exhibited.
In the pure form of the system, the divisions of social orders, or varnas, are the brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra. There must be an intelligentsia, the brains of society, for others to be guided properly. Similarly, able and brave protectors of the innocent are also required. Without law and order, each person would simply make up their own rules and regulations, thus causing many collisions in interests. The influence of the senses is so strong that even the thief thinks that he is abiding by dharma, or religiosity. A humorous instance of this behavior can be seen in the communities which share and distribute live and unauthorized concert recordings, which are more commonly known as bootlegs. Though many bands don’t mind the practice, with some even encouraging it, audience members are generally prohibited from recording any of the performance while attending a concert. After all, the music and compositions are copyrighted material belonging to the performing artists. But to have a memento, something enjoyable to hold on to from the concert experience, some audience members will bring their video cameras and audio recording devices.
The bootleg itself is a stolen item, for it is copyrighted material that is prohibited from being distributed. The interesting part comes when the bootlegger decides to share their rare gems with others. For audio recordings, the taper will often insist that no one else downgrade the quality of their original source. This means that if the concert was recorded in a lossless format or on compact discs, the taper doesn’t want others converting the music into mp3 format, which requires compression and thus a downgrade in sound quality, and distributing it to others. Similarly, those who shoot concert footage often author DVDs to be distributed to others. Stipulations are again made prohibiting the practice of reauthoring, wherein the video footage is extracted and then set up on a new DVD with brand new menus, thereby removing the original author and taper from the scene altogether. Those who violate these stipulations are viewed as outcastes and breakers of respected codes of conduct, i.e. sinners.
Even in a society where known contraband is distributed, there is seen the desire to implement rules and regulations. In the absence of a kshatriya order, a section of society that maintains the law and protects the innocent, thieves will be more prominent and rise to varying levels of power. There must also be a source of revenue and production in a healthy society. Without businessmen, whose primary aim is to earn a profit, necessary goods and services would be scarce, as would be jobs. A job, after all, only comes about through a desire to increase productivity. Often times a massive layoff brings hatred and scorn for the proprietor of the business, but we should ask ourselves how and why the jobs existed in the first place. An owner of a company only hires a worker if they think that the prospective employee will help increase output, and thus lead to an increase in profit. When profits start to dwindle, naturally the jobs will start to diminish as well.
Since workers play such an important role in the production of goods and services, they must also be present in abundance in society. In this way we have the four social orders, or varnas, recommended by Krishna. Thus far in this discussion nowhere do we see anything about a Hindu faith or a social pecking order based on birth. All parties are meant to work cooperatively for a peaceful condition to result. In the absence of such a system, when individuals don’t have clearly defined roles and qualities to live up to, chaos would naturally ensue.
A common scenario from the business world can help us better understand the scientific basis behind the divisions. Let’s say there is a project at the office that needs completion. If each of the parties involved decided to act as the leader, nothing would get done. “Well, maybe we should do this…Maybe we should do that…I don’t like that idea…Let’s talk about this some more.” Not only is there competition over which course of action to take, but there is also no confidence or focus on the part of the workers. If, on the other hand, everyone has clearly defined roles suited to their specific abilities, there is a much better chance of successfully reaching the target objective. The leader makes everything happen; he or she decides who will perform what task. Then the workers, knowing their roles, can dedicate themselves to their activities without the distractions of added thoughts and pressures.
The varnashrama-dharma system, which is headed by the brahmanas, or priestly class, is meant to provide a similar focus to all individuals during every stage of life. In addition to the social orders, there are the divisions of spiritual life, wherein one starts as a student and gradually progresses to the stage of full enlightenment facilitated through total renouncement from material life. Can we imagine what school would have been like if there weren’t any grades or teachers steering our learning efforts? In the absence of instruction tailored to each student’s level of intelligence, no one would learn anything, and thus the valuable time spent in a youthful form would go to waste.
In the Vedic system, at the very beginning of instruction students are taught the differences between spirit and body and the need for taking the interests of the Supreme Lord to be paramount. After student life, marriage can be entered into, wherein the solidified family bond provides sustenance to the other orders of society. After many years in marriage, a touring type of retirement can be accepted, where the wife accompanies the husband on spiritual pilgrimages and the like. And then finally, towards the latter years, there can be total renunciation from worldly affairs. This freedom brings the best opportunity for gaining liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
The most important aspect is the ultimate reward, the reason for all the other rules and regulations being put into place. One who thinks of Krishna, or God, at the time of death, never has to return to the perishable land. This means never again having to endure the long years of schooling and the hard work required to maintain a family. As the soul is ever blissful, it always seeks out an ultimate reservoir of pleasure. The only entity that never fails to provide happiness to those seeking it is Krishna. He is described as ananda-mayo ’bhyasat, or always blissful; so anyone who associates with Him will bask in spiritual enjoyment.
Since life on earth is so stressful, anything we can do to limit our worries and fears should be welcome. Knowing how to act in every single situation and which course of action to take removes many of the common doubts and fears. When the essential functions of daily life can be carried out under an autopilot type mentality, there is much more time left for searching after real pleasure. The varnashrama system is meant for this purpose and no other; allow for every single person to undertake tasks they are naturally suited for, and let them carry out those engagements without any doubt. Then all the time that was previously spent in worry and fear can be used to regularly chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
This mantra is the secret weapon in our war against the illusory forces of material nature. Due to the degradation of society brought on by the Kali Yuga, the original and pure version of the varnashrama-dharma system is very difficult to implement today. But this doesn’t mean that the same principles of regulation and prescribed duty can’t be followed to some degree or another. Fortunately for us, one system of activity is so powerful that it is universally applicable, irrespective of societal conditions. This sublime engagement not only serves as the guiding force for regulative activities and achieving peace of mind, but adherence to it simultaneously brings about a drastic shift in consciousness. Only through bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, can any person, regardless of their qualities and the material work prescribed to them, make advancement in spiritual life during any part of the day.
The core requirement of bhakti-yoga is that one simply think about Krishna. Whatever tool can be used to facilitate this constant remembrance, which represents a link in consciousness to the Supreme, or yoga, should be adopted. Chanting is the most effective method, as it brings association with Krishna in an instant. Just hearing the name of the Lord is enough to evoke cognizance of His forms, qualities and pastimes. The holy name can even be heard just within the mind by remembering the phrase “Hare Krishna”. The bhakti mindset can be further maintained by regulated activities, such as chanting Krishna’s name a prescribed number of rounds daily on a set of japa beads, rising early in the morning and worshiping the deity, cooking and offering spiritually infused food known as prasadam, and reading books written by great acharyas and devotees, those who dedicate their whole lives to serving, honoring and glorifying Krishna.
Even one given to the life of a shudra, a member of the laborer class, can continue their hard work every day without any qualms by regularly remembering Krishna within the mind. Goswami Tulsidas very nicely points out that just as the trees lining the route to the heavenly realm are worshipable, so are the devotees who chant the names of the Lord but happen to have a low birth. Being naturally prone towards menial labor or running a business is deemed a low birth because the activities undertaken are deeply mired in the modes of passion and ignorance, levels of activity which make advancing in spiritual understanding very difficult. Indeed, after working hard during the day at the jobsite, the natural tendency is to relax at night by eating meat, drinking alcohol or having sexual relations. For the business magnate, the desire for future profits and expansion of the business never ceases, even in the off hours. Therefore these classes of men have difficulty in understanding the presence of the soul and how the body constantly goes through change. Recognizing sinful activities and how they further delude the intelligence of the individual is also made more difficult.
But one who chants the name of Rama or Krishna or any other authorized name that describes the Supreme Lord in all His glory not only purifies their consciousness, but they also become a figure of worship. Who would ever imagine worshiping a janitor or a business owner? Would we ever think of walking up to a store manager and offering him our obeisances? But Tulsidas carefully crafts his poetry, so his words describing the glorious nature of the devotee having a low birth are not hyperbole in the least bit. One who regularly chants the names of God naturally remembers the Lord at all times. As such, they are wholly capable of teaching others how to perform bhakti. They may not be acquainted with all the rituals and functions of spiritual life that are known to the brahmanas, but since they are in constant touch with Krishna, their knowledge is perfect. The worship of a Vaishnava, or devotee of Vishnu/Krishna, is actually better than worship of Krishna Himself, for the devotee can show others how to find pure spiritual bliss.
Whatever mode of work we find ourselves in, we can adopt the principles of bhakti and remain satisfied by knowing that advancement is taking place. Our daily occupational duties can be carried out in an involuntary manner, similar to the way the heart and the lungs operate within the body. When the mind is released from worry by knowing the primary objective in life and the ultimate source of pleasure, so much time is freed up for finding and enjoying spiritual life. Consciousness is the gateway to happiness, and when it is fixed on the lotus feet of Shri Krishna, there is never a chance of being in an extended unpleasant condition, either in the present life or in the next.