“The common religion of all classes of human beings, regardless of whosoever and whatsoever one may be, is devotional service. Even the animals may be included in devotional service to the Lord, and the best example is set by Shri Vajrangaji, or Hanuman, the great devotee of Lord Shri Rama.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.8.18 Purport)
Question: “Why would God create different classes and castes? What is the purpose behind such distinctions?”
Answer: The central tenet of Vedic philosophy is that we are not our bodies, aham brahmasmi. This is the first instruction given to aspiring transcendentalists for it serves as the foundation for the rest of Vedic teaching. The point of human life is to come to the understanding that we are spirit souls at our core, and then to use this knowledge to break free of material attachments and gain an attachment for God. This love and attachment for God is known as bhakti. But at the same time, the Vedas give us other systems of management, almost sub-religions in a sense, which make distinctions based on a person’s qualities and work. The primary system of governance is varnashrama dharma. So on one hand we are taught that everyone is the same constitutionally, but then we are also told that there are differences. These two ideas may seem contradictory but they are not.
The Vedas represent perfect knowledge. They were passed down originally from God Himself, imparted into the heart of Lord Brahma, the first created being. Veda actually means knowledge, and since it comes from God, this knowledge is free of any flaws. As living entities, our true identity comes from the atma, or spirit soul, inside of us. The soul is different from the material body, which consists of five gross and three subtle elements. Unlike our body which is temporary, our spirit soul is eternal. It has never taken birth, nor can it ever perish.
“Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.17)
The event we know to be death, is actually just a changing of bodies. Just as a person puts on new clothes each day, the soul changes material bodies at the time of death. The current body becomes old and useless, so God is kind enough to give us a new one in the next life. Though our spirit souls are constitutionally the same in nature as God, quantitatively we are different. We are great, but God is the greatest. He is the Supreme Controller, Ishvara, residing in the hearts of every living entity. Whereas we have knowledge of our current life’s experiences, God has knowledge of the lives of every living entity, past, present, and future. Though we are quantitatively different from God, we are actually equal with all other living entities. Even the animals have spirit souls inside of them.
So why do we see different types of species, with varying levels of intelligence? This is due to guna and karma. Guna means material qualities. As soon as a spirit soul enters the material world, it acquires these material qualities which consist of the modes of goodness, passion, and ignorance. Just as an expert chemist mixes elements together in varying proportions to create new compounds, so the three modes of nature can be combined in varying degrees to produce different species, 8,400,000 varieties in total. Along with guna is karma, which is fruitive work and desire. One works very hard during the daytime so that they can have enough money to maintain a home, a spouse, and children. Thus the work is performed for a desired result. This is the general nature of material world. It is governed by karma. Even people that are pious, they too perform work for specific purposes such as altruism, philanthropy, etc. With the combination of our gunas and karma, God gives us an appropriate body to take birth in. Birth doesn’t happen just once either. As long as material desire is still there, we continue to take birth after death.
Since every person is born with different qualities and desires, they all act differently. For this reason, God instituted the varnashrama dharma system so as to allow for a peaceful society. Dharma means occupation duty, varna refers to the different classes or castes, and ashrama refers to the four progressive stages of spiritual life.
“According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me…” (Bg. 4.13)
The idea is that everyone is born with specific occupational duties and that they should faithfully execute them with detachment. The four varnas are brahmana (priests), kshatriya (warriors/administrators), vaishya (merchants/businessmen), and shudra (laborers). These four divisions exist by nature since people are automatically prone to fall into one of these four categories. In India, this system gradually degraded to a point where people started claiming to belong to a specific varna simply off birthright. A person born of a brahmana family claims brahminical status even though they are addicted to impure activities such as intoxication and meat eating. The original system instituted by Lord Krishna specifically states that the divisions are made by quality and work. The four ashramas of brahmacharya (celibate student life), grihastha (married householder life), vanaprastha (retired family life), and sannyasa (complete reununciation) go hand-in-hand with the four varnas. By default, it is assumed that a person will live to 100 years of age, thus they should divide their life into twenty five year increments based on the four ashramas.
“It is far better to discharge one’s prescribed duties, even though they may be faulty, than another’s duties. Destruction in the course of performing one’s own duty is better than engaging in another’s duties, for to follow another’s path is dangerous.” (Bg. 3.35)
Though people perform different work based on their occupation, it is never assumed that one person is better than another. Everyone is still equal in a spiritual sense, but the material distinctions are necessary for there to be peace and prosperity. A peaceful and happy society requires all four classes working together equally. Since the qualities of a brahmana are different from those of a shudra, it is not advised that a shudra haphazardly take up the occupation of a brahmana, and vice versa. To understand this point, one can look at the example of a baseball team. In Major League Baseball, teams have a 25 man roster for most of the season. A team consists of players playing specific positions in the field. There are pitchers, outfielders, infielders, and catchers. To be successful in baseball, one requires good pitching and good hitting. The object of the game is to score more runs than the other team. A game consists of nine innings, with one inning consisting of each team batting once until they make three outs. Thus a team can have good hitters and score many runs, but if their pitching is weak, they will have trouble keeping the opposition from scoring more runs.
Since there are so many different positions in baseball, each player has specific requirements he must follow in order to be successful. For example, a starting pitcher only pitches once every five days. The reason for this is that starting pitchers can stay in the game for upwards of seven innings to nine innings, which equates to a heavy strain on their arm. The act of throwing a baseball requires a violent arm motion. For pitchers, this is the only way to throw effective fastballs, curveballs, and changeups. Even the slower pitches still require a violent arm motion since it is actually the grip on the baseball that causes a pitch to drop in speed. Starting pitchers require at least four days of rest in between starts so that their arm can properly heal. Since the pitcher’s primary duty is to get other hitters out, he is usually pretty weak when it comes to batting. A position player on the other hand, must be a good hitter since he plays every day. Playing in the outfield, infield, or catching, everyday players don’t suffer nearly the same arm strain that pitchers do. Since they play all the time, they must be very good at hitting; otherwise they wouldn’t be valuable to the team.
Now both the starting pitcher and position player are equal members of the team. Work is required from both of them in order for the team to be successful, but no one would ever mistake a starting pitcher for a regular hitter. In fact, sometimes teams will bring in one of their position players to pitch when the game is out of hand and the score is lop-sided. These hitters usually don’t do well at all when pitching, but it doesn’t really affect the outcome of the game any. There is a natural desire for position players to want to imitate pitchers every now and then. Yet these experiments can yield dangerous results. Often times it is seen that a position player will get injured after pitching an inning or so in relief. This makes sense because a pitcher works very hard on his mechanics to make sure that there isn’t any unnecessary strain on any part of the body. Hitters don’t have this experience, so that’s why they get injured more easily when pitching. When starting pitchers come to bat, they usually perform just as poorly as the hitters who pitch. For this reason, many pitchers are instructed to bunt when they get up, basically sacrificing their out in order to advance a runner.
Just as a successful baseball team requires everyone to follow the duty of their position, so the material world requires all of us to abide by our dharma. The idea is that not everyone will take to spiritual life right away. We are all born into ignorance as soon as we come out of the womb. We require the help of our parents and teachers in order to have a proper education. On a spiritual level, little children are the same as their parents and teachers, but it would be quite silly to put the children in charge of schools. The idea is that students should make gradual progress until they have the necessary knowledge. Varnashrama dharma works the same way, except that elevation takes place not only in this life, but in future ones as well. Dharma is also our governing force. The term shastra actually means that which governs. No one would prefer to live without a government since anarchy would ensue, which then leads to chaos. In a similar manner, dharma is there to keep law and order. It exists for our benefit.
Though dharma is certainly important, the aim of human life is to rise above the material conception of life. This higher platform is referred to as devotional service, or bhagavata-dharma. Loving God is the highest occupation for man, and this love can be given by anyone, regardless of their material dress:
“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.” (Bg. 9.32)
Studying history, we see that great devotees of the past have all come from different backgrounds. Lord Hanuman, the great devotee of Lord Rama, was actually born in the monkey kingdom. Women such as Kunti Devi, Sita Devi, and Shrimati Radharani were all perfect devotees of God whose intelligence far exceeded to that of great scholars and mental speculators.
So how did these devotees rise above material designations? They engaged in the processes of devotional service: hearing, chanting, remembering, worshiping, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering prayers, carrying out the Lord’s orders, becoming friends with God, and surrendering everything to Him. The recommended process for this age is chanting, that also of the congregational variety referred to as sankirtana. Though we must acknowledge that differences do exist between people, we shouldn’t take material qualities to be the ultimate identifying factor. Everyone is a spirit soul at the core. Through steady practice of dharma, one can realize this fact. Sankirtana yajna is the dharma for everyone in this age. Chanting God’s names can be practiced by anyone at any time. We simply have to execute our occupational duties while simultaneously practicing devotional service, and we will surely make progress. This formula will work for everyone.
Categories: varnashrama dharma