Varnasrama: An Elusive Goal
by Vyapaka dasa
nama om visnu-padaya krsna-presthaya bhu-tale
srimate bhaktivedanta-svamin iti namine
namas te sarasvate deve gaura-vani-pracarine
The Hare Krishna movement has not fulfilled its responsibility in regards to spiritual, self-sufficient community development as envisioned by its Founder/Acarya, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. If this is to change, past mistakes and misconceptions must be re-evaluated using the writings and spoken word of Srila Prabhupada as the litmus test of success. Presently there is a wide gap in the understanding of how to bridge the philosophy of Krishna consciousness to the practical skills needed to build a sustainable, spiritually-focused society. Progress is dependent on narrowing this gap.
Srila Prabhupada illustrates the fallacy of modern civilization and points the way on how to develop our communities by the following instruction:
When everyone is working in the city to produce nuts and bolts, who will produce food grains? Simple living and high thinking is the solution to economic problems. Therefore the Krishna consciousness movement in engaging devotees in producing their own food and living self-sufficiently so that rascals may see how one can live very peacefully, eat the food grains one has grown oneself, drink milk, and chant Hare Krishna.
(Teachings of Queen Kunti 18; Liberation from Ignorance and Suffering)
The understanding that everything belongs to Lord Krishna (God) is the starting point and that to maintain this realization requires strict adherence to the basic tenets of Krishna consciousness. The key to success is illustrated in an excerpt given in one of Srila Prabhupada’s classes:
Don’t try to enjoy independently. Just like here, in this temple. Every one of us trying to enjoy life in connection with Krishna. As soon as we are disconnected with Krishna consciousness, this kind of foodstuff or this kind of living, simple living, will not satisfy you. You'll be tossed by the waves of material nature.
(Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.3.11-12; Los Angeles, May 29, 1972)
As a glove fits the hand, it is a pre-requisite that a strong spiritual program be implemented as the backbone of a sustainable social system. If we are able to achieve this successfully, the preaching opportunities will be vast since the world is waiting for a practical example of a spiritually-based community, living in harmony with nature. Fortunately, Srila Prabhupada and the timeless Vedic scriptures provides a blueprint of the harmonious social setting called varnasrama dharma.
Varnasrama comprises the sectioning of society into four different varnas and four different asramas. The varnas are meant for the proper organization and functioning of the social aspects of civilization while the asramas are meant for developing our spiritual consciousness (the hand which fills the glove), which simultaneously provides an understanding of one’s place in nature. Asrama is key since it provides the spiritual strength and morality to avoid the pushings of the mind and senses toward over-consumption and the striving for material pleasures.
The four varnas and their responsibilities are defined as:
1. Brahmana: the teachers and guardians of society who may act in the role of other varnas (except sudra) during a time of need.
2. Ksatirya: the administrator and military class.
3. Vaisya: responsible primarily for cow protection, food production, trade and banking.
4. Sudra: capable assistants to the other three varnas.
The four asramas are:
1. Brahmacharya: student
2. Grihasta: married life
3. Vanaprastha: retired
4. Sannyasa: renounced.
A detailed understanding of the different asramas is not required for this discussion, so we will not delve into them other than acknowledging that asrama is an essential underpinning for all social arrangements. Without proper functioning asrama, as detailed in the Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam, the Vedic model degenerates into a caste system and crass materialism. Therefore, a sustainable society is dependent upon the marriage of asrama with properly implemented varnas (material skills). But the discussion is to develop an understanding on how the rural communities of the Hare Krishna movement can evolve themselves practically so as to better embody the vision of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Direction can be derived from the basic teachings of Anthroplogy.
It is revealed therein that there are four basic types of social arrangement. They are:
1. Hunters and Gatherers
2. Pastoral Nomads
3. Extensive Agriculturists
4. Intensive Agriculturists
Each societal classification has a specific means of food production, political hierarchy and mechanisms for redistributing wealth. It is significant that scholars choose to categorize different types of society based upon their means of producing their sustenance. Food production is the basis of every society and its importance must not be minimized and through its efforts an understanding of one’s place in nature is revealed.
For example, the basic tenets of Krishna consciousness has important applications in designing and maintaining a food-producing landscape. It is very significant that the Vedas prohibit unnatural means of growing food such as through the use of inorganic fertilizers as revealed by Srila Prabhupada in a 1976 letter:
We shall never use this artificial fertilizer on our farms. It is forbidden in the sastras (scriptures). If you plant easily grown crops once in the year, then the earth will not become exhausted. Don't overuse the land...
(Letter to Rupanuga, 11 January, 1976)
The responsibility of food production falls onto the shoulders of vaisyas and the devotional community would be remiss to neglect this. It is compulsory that in the development of a varnasrama society that the vaisya sector be given early consideration. Even today, the Krishna conscious movement is fully dependent upon the charity of the vaisyas. There is no escaping this relationship. They are the sole producers of wealth and any neglect along these lines is shortsighted and previous indifference to the vaisyas has been the cause for failure of many rural communities. It is just that simple.
Each varna has its particular importance and none can be neglected for the harmonious functioning of a varnasrama society. However, to repeat, the defining characteristic of the vaisya role is that it acts as the engine of society. If this engine isn’t tuned properly the result will be repeated backfiring and unfulfilled potential. This is at the heart of the problem regarding our ineffective rural development and which can be typified by the sentimental approach to cow protection. Ill-conceived attempts have snuffed the life air out of so much effort to develop communities with the obvious conclusion that cow protection is greatly misunderstood. Srila Prabhupada in a conversation with a banker defined the various “varnic” responsibilities as follows:
Our Vedic philosophy is that everyone must work. But there must be division of work. Just like in your body there are different parts. The head department, the arms department, the belly department, and the legs department. These are different parts. So all these departments must work for the total benefit of the body. That is our philosophy. Nobody should sit idle. But he must work according to his capacity. Brain must work for giving direction. Hand must work for giving protection. Belly must work for supplying food, energy. And leg must work for carrying the body. So similarly the society must be divided: the brain of the society, the arms of the society, the belly of the society and the legs of the society. That will make perfection. The brain will give direction That is the brahmanas. The arms will give protection. That is the ksatriya. And the belly will give energy, food, that is vaisya. And the legs will carry the body. That is sudra. This is... Whole society should be divided into four divisions, the brahmanas, the ksatriyas, the vaisyas and the sudras. And they should work cooperatively for the total benefit of the body. This is perfect life.
(Room Conversation with Banker; September 21, 1973, Bombay)
Historically, the Krishna consciousness movement has focused primarily on brahminical activities since it lends itself perfectly to developing Krishna consciousness. However, to date much of the brahminical tutelage and meditation have been dedicated to skills more attune to the urban and temple setting. As already noted, an important part of their dharma is teaching and in times of emergency, they can take to a different varna in order to teach its proper functioning. The movement’s brahmincal component must change focus and begin to investigate more fully into the practical application of the principles of varnasrama dharma. This is a bonafide responsibility of the brahmanas and an essential first step on the path to self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, few of our brahmanas have understood the role of food production in society, likely because food is readily available in the marketplace and coupled with an inherent prejudice against teaching skills considered to be on a lower social rung. Adding to this would be the complication that our devotional community reflects modern demographics with 98% of the population residing in cities. Therefore, they simply know little about it. Subsequently, the movement has focused on the laudable efforts of preaching, deity worship, prasadam and book distribution. All important vehicles but they play only a limited role in regards to rural development. Nor do these activities properly address the entire social teachings of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. As a result, the Hare Krishna movement’s vaisya class is in need of direction and inspiration. If a sustainable food system can be developed with the surplus processed and sold into urban centers, the beginnings of a viable economy can develop providing the necessary infrastructure to the community. Employment brings devotees. An expanding devotional community develops a skill pool and provides a demand for education and temple facilities. In this way, the diversity and subsequent health of the community broadens with the importance of the ksatriya and brahmana coming into clear focus. It is important to note that until the physical assets of the community are paid off, commercial activity will be a prerequisite to a more sweeping effort regarding self-sufficient development. There is no alternative.
Certainly, economic activity need not solely focus on food products but can include a variety of commercial efforts. Crafts, e-business, restaurants, herbal supplements, ayurvedic clinics, nursing homes, prasadam distribution, to name just a few, can all be part of the mix. To be effective, the business need only be situated in the country rather than specifically defining types of activity. As well, in this regard, it would be beneficial, though not compulsory, that rural communities are situated in proximity to urban markets and services.
From the outset, it is essential that we understand where the pitfalls of earlier attempts at rural development lie. Before any credible plan can be postulated, an understanding of the shortcomings of earlier attempts must be analyzed. There is no advantage to shooting oneself in the foot a second time, or third and so on.
Undoubtedly, poorly thought out cow protection programs have caused considerable setbacks to community development. The herds have been allowed to expand beyond the community’s carrying capacity, resulting in a monopolization of the land for feed and pasture forcing a turning to the urban vaisya community for donations to support the unemployed, or at least underemployed, herds. To my knowledge, there is no example of this either in history or within Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. The bovine population has traditionally been given in charity contrary to the modern mutation where the cows are given charity to. Inarguably, it is activity spurred by necessity, but it must be emphasized that it is unsustainable and must be removed from any future plans for rural development. The vaisyas must generate wealth in order to be effective. They give in charity rather than receive it. Any variance from this will spell failure.
In 1975 Srila Prabhupada encountered the problem of a misconceived cow program during his visit to the New Talavan farm. After hearing a description of the farm he noted that all of the field crops were being grown for the cows. His instruction was that food for devotees must also be grown.
Nityananda: Down the road we have fifteen acres of sorghum, grain for the cows.
Prabhupada: And everything for the cows, but what for the man? They will give everything for cows because they will eat cows, other farmers. But you utilize the animals for growing your food.
Brahmananda: The idea is we should maintain the animals, but then the animals should provide foodstuffs for the men.
Brahmananda: And that way there is cooperation.
Prabhupada: Yes. The animals, bulls, should have helped in spite of that... instead of that machine. Then it is properly utilized. And others, they cannot utilize these animals. Therefore, what they will do? Naturally they will send to slaughterhouse. But we are not going to send to the slaughterhouse. Then what we will do? They must be utilized. Otherwise simply for growing food that the cows and bulls we engage ourself? You are already feeling burden because there are so many bull calves. You were asking me, “What we shall do with so many bulls?”
(Walk Around Farm; August 1, 1975, New Orleans)
Our cows and oxen must be made to pay their keep and fulfill their social responsibility of producing vegetables, milk and grain. If they are allowed to continue to abrogate this duty, it is only natural that some will conclude that the herds are a burden and the risk of abandonment arises. This has already occurred in our movement and this will perpetually repeat itself until done correctly. The cows must be honored and protected but must reciprocate by producing food. Unemployed animals lying day after day in their pee and poop can, and likely will be, used as an argument for their slaughter. This situation cannot be allowed to continue. It is not enlightened cow protection.
Recent attempts to train the oxen have also ended in failure. Some years ago, an ISKCON affiliate delivered a program with over a dozen teams being trained. It was reported by a director of this organization that only one team was currently utilized and that is to haul firewood. During my stay at New Vrindavana for nearly one year, this organization’s team of oxen was observed to be constantly unemployed. And recently, we were informed by them that no trained team is available east of the Mississippi. The situation is grave and underscores the ineffectiveness of these stand-alone “cow protection” programs. They are ill-conceived.
To simply provide basic sudra teamster skills does not suffice. These skills must be supplemented with agricultural expertise empowering the teamster to produce grain for their family and community rather than photo opportunities. Until cows and oxen are made to produce milk, grains, pastures and pulses, they are not protected. For our villages to be considered self-sufficient, the farmers, cows and oxen must produce enough food to feed themselves in addition to producing a surplus sufficient to feed the community. Only at this point will the devotional vaisyas be acting in a manner fulfilling the injunctions of Srila Prabhupada.
Education for the Vaisya
His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada was clear that modern agricultural schools are not required for training vaisyas but rather they should learn from their fathers how to work the oxen, till the land and harvest crops.
Seemingly, few, if any, working models are currently available within the movement to provide this practical education. This, coupled with the urban upbringing of the devotees provides few facilities for our devotees to learn first hand. So as a first step, a concerted effort to provide agricultural training is required until the necessary skills are transferred to different projects, where they can take on a life of their own.
For our communities to become dynamic, it is imperative that the farms add diversity to the crop mix and break the near monopolization of land for cow fodder. Different families must cooperate to have mutual cow ownership and lactations must be stretched to their limit in an effort to reduce the cow population. Grain production is not difficult and should be one of the first objectives of the rural based vaisyas.
I am not in direct contact with the ISKCON Ministry of Agriculture but if they are to have a lasting, beneficial effect, they must evolve from their current effort devoted to collecting reports on cow herds and morph into an educative organization teaching agricultural practice using an existing functioning farm as a backdrop. If they are incapable of this, then at least be instrumental in linking devotees with essential agricultural skills with those who are lacking the same. Everyone has skills and realizations to offer and such an exchange will add enthusiasm and vigor to the fold.
Without doubt cow protection is a vital component of a vaisnava self-sufficient society and an essential part of the Vedic paradigm. However, to date, its overemphasis coupled with a lack of basic agricultural skills and animal husbandry has prevented the communities to develop properly, resulting in a deep cynicism within the devotional community taking root. Future action must ensure that these problems are brought into focus and dealt with.
A thriving vaisya community is essential to the proper functioning of a varnasrama society. As the vaisya seed germinates and fructifies, the necessary employment for sudras, taxation resources to fund social projects administered by the ksatiryas and funds to build temples and support brahmanas becomes available, providing necessary resources for full varnasrama development. Neglect of their importance is a recipe for social impotence.
It is noteworthy that Srila Prabhupada was heading towards Gitanagari to implement his plans for developing varnasrama. In 1977, Gitanagari possessed the richest topsoil and agricultural resources in the movement. So it was no mistake that His Divine Grace headed there to teach us how to establish varnasrama. No society can develop beyond the vigor of its topsoil and this must become a fundamental understanding in our efforts at developing self-sufficiently.
Obviously, in regards to varnasrama, the land and cows were foremost in Srila Prabhupada’s mind. We must follow his example by using them as the building blocks of a sustainable varnasrama society. Nuts and bolts just won’t do the trick.
As a means to stimulate ideas on how to proceed, the following suggestions are offered as a starting point for discussion.
- Brahmanas must take the lead in establishing agricultural extension programs and must become capable at showing that a rural setting is advantageous to developing Krishna consciousness.
- Greater emphasis must be given to simple living and higher thinking with an emphasis on rural living as the perfect setting for this lifestyle choice.
- Increased efforts in establishing small working examples regarding agricultural autonomy be encouraged.
- Manpower and financial resources must be focused on developing functioning examples of rural independence.
- Develop a means of communication where individuals who are actively involved in these endeavors are able to trade information and develop solidarity.
- Encourage those devotees with vaisya propensities to further develop their skills but in a rural setting. Employment must become locally based with fathers and husbands at home each night with the family.
- Establish businesses on farms with their products being marketed into the cities in a cooperative effort with the urban based devotional community.
- Introduction of private ownership or long term leases on existing properties to individuals capable and willing to develop rural communities.
If progress can be made in respect to these priorities, it should become evident that varnasrama need not be as ephemeral as past experience has shown. Even in today’s chaotic situation, its presence can be readily seen. The varna divisions are empirical and evident everywhere. The devotees must not fear developing alliances with the like-minded in regards to self-sufficiency, even though they may not agree with all aspects of our philosophy or our ultimate goal. Their practical skills and realizations can assist us greatly and save us years of individually moving up the learning curve. We can learn volumes from outside sources and by Srila Prabhupada’s grace, it can be easily dovetailed in Lord Krishna’s devotional service.
All glories to Srila Prabhupada.