Sunday, 5 February 2012

Varnashrama and Vaishnavism

One of my relatives has a very bad opinion of ISKCON because of some wrong propaganda he came across. Like me, he comes from a Çré Vaisnava South Indian family. Recently, when he visited my house, he got his hands on the book Brahmina and Vaishnava, a compilation of famous lectures delivered by Srila Bhaktisiddhänta Sarasvati Thakura, establishing the superiority of a Vaishnava over a Brahmina. When he read it, his opinions about ISKCON further worsened. He wrote to me raising his concerns over the philosophical basis of Vaishnavism in general, and ISKCON in particular.

What follows is my reply to his numerous concerns.
Question 1: I know that Varnashrama is bona fide. Krishna has mentioned about it in the Bhagavad-gita. Where does this concept of Vaishnavism come from? Isn’t it a recent fad? As far as I know, people in different sections of the Varnashrama can worship any god like Brahma, Viñëu or Çiva.

a) Varnashrama—what is it?

Varnashrama is the bifurcation of the society into spiritual and social orders. The four varëas are Brahmina, kshatriya, vaisya and çüdra. The four äçramas are brahmacarya, grihasta, vänaprastha
and sannyäsa. In a Varnashrama society, everyone follows the rules and regulations according to their specific varëa and äçrama.

b) Where does this Varnashrama system come from? On what basis is the bifurcation made?

Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita (4.13) that He creates the Varnashrama society. Cätur-varëyaà mayä såñöaà guna-karma-vibhägaçaù: “According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me.”

There are three modes of material nature, i.e. goodness (sattva-guna), passion (rajo-guna) and ignorance (tamo-guna). A Brahmina is in the mode of goodness, a kshatriya is in the mode of passion, a vaisya is in the mixed modes of passion and ignorance and a çüdra is in the mode of ignorance. So, based on the material mode that a person is in and based on the type of work he does, he is classified into one of the four varëas.

c) Is there anything wrong with being in one of these three material modes? At least goodness seems to be a good mode to be in, right?

All these three modes bind a person to this material world. As confirmed in Bhagavad-gita (14.5), sattvaà rajas tama iti guëäù prakåti-sambhaväù/ nibadhnanti mahä-bäho dehe dehinam avyayam: “Material nature consists of three modes—goodness, passion and ignorance. When the eternal living entity comes in contact with nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, he becomes entangled by these modes.”
That’s why Krishna thus advises Arjuna in Bhagavad-gita (2.45), trai-guëya-viñayä vedä nistrai-guëyo bhavärjuna: “The Vedas deal mainly with the subject of the three modes of material nature. O Arjuna, overcome these three modes.”

So, irrespective of whether one is a Brahmina, ksatritya, vaisya or çüdra, he is in a state of entanglement.

d) But what is the problem with being entangled in this material world? Isn’t it a good place to be in? If not where should one endeavor to go to?
Krishna describes this material world in Bhagavad-gita (8.15).  Mäm upetya punar janma duùkhälayam açäçvatam/ näpnuvanti mahätmänaù saàsiddhià paramäà gatäù: “After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogés in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.”

So, Krishna uses two words to describe this material world: duùkhälayam (miserable) and açäçvatam (temporary). He also confirms this point in the next verse.

ä-brahma-bhuvanäl lokäù punar ävartino ‘rjuna

mäm upetya tu kaunteya punar janma na vidyate

“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunté, never takes birth again.”

It is clear from the above verses that the aim of human birth is to get disentangled from this temporary material world which is filled with miseries, and go to the abode of Viñëu, from where no one has to come back to this material world. This is also confirmed in the Upaniñads where the abode of Viñëu is described as na ca punar ävartate na ca punar ävartate: “From where no one returns to this material world.”

e) But how to overcome these three modes, disentangle oneself from this miserable material world and go back to the abode of Viñëu?

Krishna gives the solution for this in Bhagavad-gita (14.26). Mäà ca yo ‘vyabhicäreëa bhakti-yogena sevate/ sa guëän samatétyaitän brahma-bhüyäya kalpate: “One who engages in full devotional service (bhakti), unfailing in all circumstances, at once transcends the modes of material nature and thus comes to the level of Brahman.” And in Bhagavad-gita (7.14), He says daivé hy eñä guna-mayé mama mäyä duratyayä/ mäm eva ye prapadyante mäyäm etäà taranti te: “This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it.”

f) So, what exactly is this Vaishnavism? Is it ancient or is it a recent fad?
This process of performing bhakti or devotional service for the pleasure of Viñëu (surrender unto the Lord as mentioned in Bhagavad-gita (7.14) is also an integral part of devotional service), which alone is capable of extricating one from this material world, is called Vaishnavism. That is why the Vaishnava schools, as popularized by Rämänujäcärya, Vallabhäcärya, Madhväcärya, Caitanya Mahäprabhu, etc., are otherwise called bhakti schools. So, Vaishnavism is not new. Bhagavad-gita and all the other çruti and småti scriptures widely talk about and extol Vaishnavism. This point will be well established based on scriptural quotations in the subsequent sections.

g) What is the aim or goal of a Varnashrama society?

Before getting into details about the differences between Varnashrama and Vaishnavism, we need to first understand the aim of a Varnashrama society, based on what the scriptures say. The aim of a Varnashrama society is essentially to please Viñëu. This is confirmed in Çrémad-Bhägavatam (1.2.13). Ataù pumbhir dvija-çreñöhä Varnashrama-vibhägaçaù/ svanuñöhitasya dharmasya saàsiddhir hari-toñaëam: “O best among the twice-born, it is therefore concluded that the highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one’s own occupation according to caste divisions and orders of life (Varnashrama) is to please Hari or Lord Viñëu.”

Therefore, only by performing devotional service or bhakti for the pleasure of Viñëu can one perfect Varnashrama. In other words, only a true Vaishnava can perfectly achieve the goal of Varnashrama. In fact, a Vaishnava lifestyle is that essential component without which the goal of Varnashrama cannot be accomplished.

Question 2: Why are you unnecessarily comparing a Brahmina and a Vaishnava?

a) Can’t I just follow the rules and regulations of my varëa and äçrama without striving to please Viñëu? Won’t I get any benefit? I see so many people following all the brahminical rules of the Varnashrama system perfectly. Just that they worship other gods and not Viñëu. What is the problem?
Srimad-Bhägavatam (1.2.8) answers this question clearly.

dharmaù svanuñöhitaù puàsäà

viñvaksena-kathäsu yaù
notpädayed yadi ratià

çrama eva hi kevalam

“The occupational activities a man performs according to his own varëa and äçrama are only so much useless labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Personality of Godhead.”

It is also stated in Çrémad-Bhägavatam (11.5.3) that:

ya eñäà puruñaà säkñäd

ätma-prabhavam éçvaram

na bhajanty avajänanti

sthänäd bhrañöäù patanty adhaù

“If any of the members of the four varëas and four äçramas fail to worship or intentionally disrespect the Personality of Godhead, who is the source of their own creation, they will fall down from their position into a hellish state of life.”
So, if the rules of varëa and äçrama are perfectly followed without following the aim of pleasing Viñëu, such a Varnashrama society is called asuri-Varnashrama or demoniac Varnashrama. As mentioned in the above verses, such a system leads only to useless labor and hellish condition. But a Varnashrama system, in which the principle of pleasing Viñëu according to the Vaishnava practices is perfectly followed, is called daivi-Varnashrama or divine Varnashrama. Therefore Varnashrama, when properly followed, gives rise to a Vaishnava society whose only aim is to please Viñëu. Thus, whenever there is a comparison made between a Brahmina and a Vaishnava in the scriptures, it is to be understood that the Brahmina mentioned belongs to the asuri-Varnashrama. Such a person may be perfect in executing his duties according to his varëa and äçrama, but he does not necessarily worship Visnu.

Question 3: Can one be considered a true Vaishnava if he fails to adhere to the Varnashrama rules? All our äcäryas highlight importance of Varnashrama-dharma. So, how can one ignore Varnashrama and become a Vaishnava? Has Krishna mentioned in Bhagavad-gita that it is enough to follow Vaishnavism and forget Varnashrama?

a) Varnashrama rules v/s Vaishnava rules—what is the hierarchy?
In a daivi Varnashrama society there are two sets of rules. The Vaishnava rules and the Varnashrama rules.  Padma puräëa clearly states which rules should take precedence.

smartavyaù satataà viñëur
vismartavyo na jätucit
sarve vidhi-niñedhäù syur 
etayor eva kiìkaräù

“Lord Visnu should always be remembered and never forgotten at any time. All the other rules and prohibitions mentioned in the çästras are to be considered as servants of these two principles.”

So, it is clear that the Vaishnava principle of Viñëu worship takes precedence over any Varnashrama rule. In fact, all the other Varnashrama rules and prohibitions are stated to be mere servants of the main principle of Viñëu worship.

b) Are there any circumstances under which the Varnashrama rules can completely be bypassed?

If anyone has completely surrendered to Viñëu he has absolutely no need to follow any rules of the Varnashrama system. This is also explained in Çrémad-Bhägavatam (11.5.41).

devarñi-bhütäpta-nåëäà pitèëäà

na kiìkaro näyam åëé ca räjan

sarvätmanä yaù çaraëaà çaraëyaà

gato mukundaà parihåtya kartam

“O King, one who has given up all Varnashrama duties and has taken full shelter of the lotus feet of Mukunda, who offers shelter to all, is not indebted to the demigods, great sages, ordinary living beings, relatives, friends, mankind or even one’s forefathers who have passed away. Since all such classes of living entities are part and parcel of the Supreme Lord, one who has surrendered to the Lord’s service has no need to serve such persons separately.”
The above verse clearly concludes that a completely surrendered Vaishnava has no need to follow the secondary Varnashrama rules. Such a Vaishnava is above the Varnashrama system. In other words, for such a person the Varnashrama designations of a Brahmina or a kshatriya are only superfluous.
Krishna clearly emphasizes this point by concluding with this famous verse 18.66:
sarva-dharmän parityajya
mäm ekaà çaraëaà vraja
 ahaà tväà sarva-päpebhyo 
mokñayiñyämi mä çucaù

“Abandon all varieties of dharma and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” (Bhagavad-gita 18.66)

All varieties of dharma include Varnashrama-dharma also. So, if “mäm ekaà çaraëaà” (“surrendering only to Krishna”) is there then “sarva dharman parityajya” (“abandon all varieties of dharma including Varnashrama-dharma”) is definitely okay.

In fact, Närada Muni goes a step further and mentions in Çrémad-Bhägavatam (1.5.17).

tyaktvä sva-dharmaà caraëämbujaà harer
bhajann apakvo ’tha patet tato yadi
yatra kva väbhadram abhüd amuñya kià
ko värtha äpto ‘bhajatäà sva-dharmataù

“One who has forsaken his prescribed Varnashrama duties to engage in the devotional service of the Lord may sometimes fall down while in an immature stage, yet there is no danger of his being unsuccessful. On the other hand, a non-devotee, though fully engaged in his Varnashrama duties, does not gain anything.”

In the above verse, concentrate on the first half of the verse. Närada Muni very clearly mentions that even if one gives up his Varnashrama duties and takes up to bhakti completely, he doesn’t lose anything. So, this clearly establishes that Varnashrama is not a pre-requisite to become a Vaishnava. So, it is not absolutely imperative to follow Varnashrama in order to become a Vaishnava.

c) Are there any practical examples of such perfected Vaishnavas who had transcended the Varnashrama designations?
·         According to Varnashrama rules only a Brahmina can become a teacher. But Ramanujäcärya accepted Käïcipürëa, who was a vaisya, as one of his gurus.
·         Eight out of the twelve Älvärs, were not from brahminical families. But still, they are considered as topmost teachers of the Vaishnava philosophy.
·         Another practical example is Välméki Muni. Being a butcher (lower than a çüdra), he had absolutely no qualification according to the Varnashrama rules to become a teacher. But the timeless epic Rämäyaëa that he wrote is still read and relished by the topmost Brahminas also.

 These examples clearly establish that in practical life, great äcäryas like Ramanujäcärya also considered an advanced Vaishnava more qualified to be their spiritual master, though he may not be qualified to be a teacher according to the Varnashrama rules

Question 4: Are there any examples of Vaishnavas who did not follow Varnashrama duties? Is there record of any Brahmina sages who did not do sandhyä-vandana and other brahminical rituals?
Answer:  Yes there are many examples.
·         Jaòa Bharata was a born Brahmina and a Vaishnava who went to the abode of Viñëu after his life. But still, he never followed any of the brahminical rules, what to speak of sandhyä-vandana.
·         Çukadeva Goswämé, the son of Vyäsadeva, was a born Brahmina, but he never followed any of the brahminical rules, but yet he was the topmost Vaishnava chosen to speak Çrémad-Bhägavatam.
·         Paraçuräma, an incarnation of the Lord, was a Brahmina by birth and qualities, but executed the duties of a kshatriya.
In fact, Sri Mädhavendra Puri, a renowned äcärya in the Madhva-Vaishnava-sampradäya, wrote:

sandhyä-vandana bhadram astu bhavato bhoù snäna tubhyaà namo
bho deväù pitaraç ca tarpaëa-vidhau nähaà kñamaù kñamyatäm
yatra kväpi niñadya yädava-kulottaàsasya kaàsa-dviñaù
                       smäraà smäram aghaà harämi tad alaà manye kim anyena me                             
“O my prayers three times a day (sandhyä-vandana), all glory to you. O bathing, I offer my obeisances unto you. O demigods! O forefathers! Please excuse me for my inability to offer you my respects. Now wherever I sit, I can remember the great descendant of the Yadu dynasty [Krishna], the enemy of Kaàsa, and thereby I can free myself from all sinful bondage. I think this is sufficient for me.” So, here is one person who directly answers the question. He is a topmost Vaishnava who had given up his sandhyä-vandana because of his remembrance of Krishna.
By Balaräma Shakti Däsa

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