“The gopis were not born of any highly cultured family; they were born of cowherd men, and yet they developed the highest love of Krishna. For self-realization or God realization there is no need to take birth in a high family. The only thing needed is ecstatic development of love of God. In achieving perfection in Krishna consciousness, no other qualification is required than to be constantly engaged in the loving service of Krishna.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 46)
In the Vedic tradition, the issue of spiritual masters, or gurus, and their disciples and descendants has always been a point of controversy. The Vedas, the original set of law codes on spirituality, government, science, and any other area of importance, were instituted by the Supreme Divine Entity, the person most of us refer to as God. Yet for this tradition to continue, highly qualified scholars – people dedicated to not only learning the truths about the Vedas, but also to practically applying them in their day to day lives – are required. Since such qualified men are few and far between, anyone who takes direct instruction from them or can trace their family heritage to them feels that they are in select company.
Everyone is looking for an edge in life, so it’s not surprising that someone who would bear such spiritual connections, either through association or family lineage, would feel they have a leg up in the pursuit for perfection in spiritual life. But the real benefit to learning from great sages and appearing in their family is that one is allowed to reacquaint themselves with their dearmost, original friend. Since this benefit cannot be matched, the boon of having a connection to a notable spiritual master takes on an added significance.
“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)
Let’s first establish just what actually constitutes a member of the higher class and why there needs to be one. Life on earth is meant for the cultivation of spiritual knowledge. When this knowledge is acquired and put to use through actions in everyday life, a living being’s consciousness gradually changes. When this consciousness is completely purified and directed at the Supreme Being in the spiritual sky, the person is deemed to have succeeded in the mission of life. More importantly, when this mindset is there at the time of death, the spirit soul residing within whichever life form it has adopted at that time will immediately be transferred to the spiritual sky, where it will never have to leave again. Life in the transcendental realm is similar to life on earth, except that everything is purified. All the sources of misery and anxiety are removed. Therefore one of the names for this realm is Vaikuntha, meaning a place free of anxiety and misery.
So how does one go about acquiring this purified consciousness? At the time of birth, the human being is no different than the animal. Through the discovery process, and more importantly the instructions provided by authority figures, a child learns the essentials of life and what’s needed to survive in it. In a similar manner, in order to change one’s consciousness towards the spiritual path, a bona fide teacher is required. This instructor not only must know the truths relating to the difference between matter and spirit, but they must also be directly connected with the spiritual world. This means that their consciousness must have already been previously purified, an event which then forever altered their way of life and thinking. Only such a purified person can impart the essential instructions to the fallen conditioned soul who is looking for rescue from the ocean of nescience.
The Vedas give a name to such an instructor: guru, or spiritual master. The spiritual master belongs to a class of men known as brahmanas. The living entity, though it falsely identifies with its ever changing body at the time of birth, is actually Brahman. The transcendent Lord has multifarious aspects and energies, and Brahman is one of them. The combination of all things spirit – the driving force behind all activities in this world – can be thought of as Brahman. Each individual spiritual spark is an equal part of Brahman. When one understands this impersonal energy, that every living entity is equal on a spiritual level, they are worthy of the title of brahmana.
Brahmanas are required in a society because it is very difficult to come to the understanding that all living entities are equal. There are many equality-type movements in existence today, but they all focus on the outer dress of the soul. There is no thought given to the fact that one’s dress may change in the next life, or that the soul residing within may have existed in a different type of body in a previous life. Attention is given completely to the current, temporary condition of whichever group is deemed as down-trodden and in need of help. The brahmanas know that every living entity is in need of instruction since their consciousness is contaminated. One who acquires the status of a brahmana thereby has an inherent duty to teach the other classes of society – be they administrators, warriors, merchants, laborers, or farmers – on matters pertaining to spirituality and how one can go about shifting their consciousness to the spiritual realm.
Since the brahmanas understand Brahman and have successfully shifted their consciousness, they are given special favor in society. They are seen as the highest division in a system known as varnashrama-dharma. This system is the breakdown of societal and life maintenance for all individuals. Since the brahmanas are so exalted, anyone who associates with them will feel very fortunate. In the early days of creation, any person who took birth from a brahmana father was also deemed a brahmana. This designation was given because the birth was conceived according to specific ritualistic functions. Also, the child would be brought up and trained by its own guru, meaning that one didn’t keep the brahmana designation for life without acquiring the necessary training. In more recent times, anyone who descends from a spiritual master through a tradition of instruction also feels privileged. A brahmana teaches one disciple, who teaches another, and so on. Anyone who finds their way into this chain and obtains the proper information about spiritual life feels they are fortunate for having descended from a particular notable spiritual personality.
The more common issue of contention relates to persons who descend from a great brahmana of the past through a bloodline. In India especially, those who descend from spiritual masters of the past are known as Brahmins, which is simply the current vernacular for a person who claims brahminical status off birth. The scriptures, the authorized Vedic texts, don’t support the notion that one can become a member of the highest class of society simply by taking birth in an exalted family. After all, a brahmana must understand Brahman to have their consciousness changed. If a person is born a Brahmin, but then takes to activities of meat eating and intoxication, it certainly means they have not understood Brahman. A person’s consciousness is exhibited through several outward symptoms, i.e. their behavior. Meat eating and intoxication are considered impure activities because they are indicative of a lack of intelligence. A person who understands that all spirit souls are an equal part of Brahman sees no need to inflict unnecessary harm on any form of life. Similarly, one’s consciousness cannot be focused on the spiritual world when they are intoxicated.
“Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness—these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.42)
A true brahmana is one who walks the walk in addition to talking the talk. Simply claiming to be religious is not enough; there has to be a change in consciousness manifested through activities and the exuding of specific qualities. Many modern day religious leaders proclaim that one must surrender unto a specific theistic personality in order to achieve salvation. If they neglect this surrendering, they will be punished severely, both in this life and the next. The method of acceptance involves a formal ritual and an open declaration of allegiance. Yet according to the Vedic definition, simply acknowledging the superiority of a specific spiritual personality is not enough. The key is to shift one’s consciousness. Lust, greed, and attachment to matter are so strong that many people will say or do anything to get what they want. In this regard, there is nothing to stop a person from going through perfunctory rituals, which give the appearance of surrender, but then afterwards focus their thoughts and activities on the service of some worldly entity. It also must be said that many of these spiritual leaders refuse to acknowledge the form, name, or propensity for activity of the Supreme Divine Entity. Moreover, they harshly condemn the practice of bowing down to or conceiving of a form for God. Yet from the example of the brahmanas, we see that the key ingredient in spiritual life is consciousness. This change in mindset involves surrender to a particular entity. If the form of Godhead is denied, the chances of worshiping something which does have a form – be it a woman, cat, dog, or political leader – increases.
“Especially in every brahmana’s house there must be a shalagrama-shila [stone representation of Vishnu] to be worshiped by the brahmana family. This system is still current. People who are brahmana by caste, who are born in a brahmana family, must worship the shalagrama-shila.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 13.86 Purport)
A bona fide brahmana is one who has shifted their consciousness and completely surrendered, both in thought and deed, to the Supreme Divine Entity, or God. A person claiming brahminical status simply off birthright can’t be considered a bona fide teacher. There is another side to this issue, however. While a person born as a Brahmin may be falsely puffed up by their stature, there are certain favorable elements to this mindset. Many Brahmins take their status in society very seriously. They thus take the necessary steps to cultivate spiritual knowledge. They perform religious functions on a daily basis, and more importantly, they worship Lord Vishnu. There are certainly innumerable forms of Godhead, but Vishnu is considered the original, equal to the Personality of Godhead who has a transcendental form, name, and pastimes. Vishnu is the same as Krishna or any other non-different expansion of the Lord. Those Brahmins who actually do take their status very seriously will be wholly dedicated to Vishnu worship from their birth. This not only helps the individual, but also any person related to them who grows up in such a purified environment. Brahmins have a much greater chance of refraining from eating meat, drinking alcohol, and taking to illicit sex than do others simply due to the perceived “high birth”. In addition, they have the greatest opportunity to take to chanting the Lord’s names found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
“O son of Pritha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth-women, vaishyas [merchants], as well as shudras [workers]—can approach the supreme destination.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.32)
So we see that the importance of taking birth in a “high” family really lies with the issue of God consciousness. If one has a chance to associate with Krishna through their family life, they are deemed to be the most fortunate person. The family status isn’t necessarily the important issue, but rather the nature of the activities that the family performs. Any person, regardless of their family lineage, can reach the topmost status by having their consciousness changed through activities performed in their daily lives. The gopis of Vrindavana best illustrate this fact. Around five thousand years ago, Lord Vishnu Himself came to earth in His original form of Lord Krishna.
Lord Krishna is a person, a Supreme Person, but nevertheless a personality just like the rest of us. Therefore, when He appears on earth, He retains His form as a person. Others mistakenly take Him to be an ordinary human being, but this is by design. Five thousand years ago, the Lord spent His childhood years in Vrindavana, which was a farm community inhabited by cowherds. The girls of the town also took part in tending cows, selling milk and yogurt, and churning butter. They performed these tasks in addition to maintaining their households. The gopis, the cowherd girls, weren’t educated in a formal setting, nor did they receive any direct training from a brahmana. Yet through their association with Krishna, they had their consciousness purified. They actually never thought of anything else except Krishna’s interests. Their love for Him remains the emblem of devotional consciousness, the high mark of spiritual practice. In fact, aspiring transcendentalists are advised to not even attempt to reach the level of consciousness of the gopis, but rather to seek their benedictions and help them in their service. One who is a sincere servant of Krishna is always willing to help one who wants to make progress in spiritual life.
The greatest benediction we can give to a child or family member is the association of Krishna at an early age. If we are born in a Brahmin family, the odds of achieving this association are certainly increased, but Krishna consciousness is something that can be taught by any person, provided that their thoughts are directed on the lotus feet of the sweet, all-blissful Lord. The gopis proved that a high birth is not necessary for achieving success in life. If we are fortunate enough to know about Krishna and chant His names on a regular basis, the greatest gift we can give to our family members and children is to pass on this tradition of devotional life. A child who grows up in an environment where devotional service is steadily practiced will certainly have a leg up on their journey towards the transcendental realm.