“A person’s conduct and character explain whether they are from a high or low family, whether they are heroic or just falsely proud and arrogant, and whether they are pure or impure.” (Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 109)
One’s character, determined by their innate qualities and the work they perform, determine whether or not they are high born. Simple birthright is not enough. One may claim to be pure and pious, but this character needs to be proven by the actions they perform.
“The unsuccessful yogi, after many, many years of enjoyment on the planets of the pious living entities, is born into a family of righteous people, or into a family of rich aristocracy.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.41)
On a material level, people generally crave beauty, knowledge, and a high birth. To take birth in a pious, learned, or rich family is considered a great honor. It means that a person certainly must have executed noble deeds in their previous life. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t get just one life, but rather we are allowed to take birth as many times as we want to. That is God’s mercy upon us, the living entities. This entire cosmic manifestation emanates from Brahman, the source of which is Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Some people mistakenly take Brahman to be everything, but the authorized Vedic scriptures definitively declare that God is a person, and the Supreme Personality is Krishna. He has many expansions and forms based on time and circumstance, but Krishna is still the original. He expands Himself as Paramatma, the Supersoul residing in the hearts of every living entity, and also as Brahman for the benefit of the spirit souls. We are all part and parcel of God, equal to Him in quality, but inferior in quantity. God is great, and we are His subordinates. Desiring to lord over material nature, the Lord created the material world and allowed us to take birth here in the form of living entities, jivas.
“Furthermore, O Arjuna, I am the generating seed of all existences. There is no being-moving or unmoving—that can exist without Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 10.39)
The theory of evolution posited by Charles Darwin states that species gradually evolve over time through natural selection, with inferior species making way for superior ones. In actuality, it is not the species that evolve, but rather the types of bodies that the spirit souls take birth in. The material creation emanating from Brahman consists of three gunas or qualities: goodness, passion, and ignorance. Combing these qualities in infinite proportions, we get up to 8,400,000 varieties of species. It is not that spirit souls only take birth as human beings. Rather we start off as lower species and gradually work our way through other types of bodies such as animals, aquatics, etc. The human form of life is considered the most beneficial since it represents our chance to know and understand God. Plants, animals, reptiles etc. are not capable of committing sin since there are no laws governing their behavior. That is the benefit of taking birth as an animal. One is free to engage in eating, sleeping, mating, and defending without any karmic consequences. Human beings, on the other hand, are given a higher task known as dharma. More than simple religiosity, dharma is the eternal occupational duty of the spirit soul. Therefore the term we know as religion is actually referred to as sanatana dharma in the Vedas. The revolutionary acharya Ramanuja defines sanatana as something that has no beginning nor end. Thus dharma is something that never changes.
This occupational duty can only be executed in the human form of life. In one sense, taking birth as a human being is, in itself, a high birth. In the society of human beings, there are further divisions based on a person’s qualities and the work they perform. If one is born in an aristocratic family, a family of brahmanas, or even better, a family of Vaishnavas, then he is considered to have a high birth. Taking birth into a wealthy family means not having to worry about food, shelter, or clothing. All the governments of the world today are obsessed with the economic problem, regularly holding summits to figure out how to distribute wealth more equitably. Aristocratic families don’t have to worry about this problem. Being born in a brahmana family is one step above an aristocratic family because the brahmanas are considered the highest class of society. In the varnashrama system, the first division is that of the priestly class of men, the brahmanas. This division naturally exists in any society, for we always see a group of people who are more prone to the cultivation of knowledge. Brahmanas live in the mode of goodness, meaning their activities are guided by knowledge of the Vedas. If one is born in a brahmana family, it means that their family lineage, or gotra, traces all the way back to a great sage of the past, such as Vashishta, Bharadvaja, Upamanyu, Katyanana, Gautama, etc.
“If one simply maintains an official position in the four varnas and ashramas but does not worship the Supreme Lord Vishnu, he falls down from his puffed-up position into a hellish condition.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.5.3)
Taking birth in a family of devotees, Vaishnavas, is the greatest boon. While brahmanas engage in the cultivation of knowledge, the performance of sacrifices, and the educating of the other classes of society, a Vaishnava, or devotee of Lord Vishnu, is considered further advanced because they have reached the highest platform of love and devotion. The purpose of human life is to know and love God. All systems of governance, and dharma itself, exist to help one reach this understanding. This love for God exists naturally, but it is currently in a dormant state due to the effects of nature. If one is born in a Vaishnava family, it means they are automatically exposed to Krishna-katha, talks about Krishna, from their youth. Since a child is the essence of innocence, if they are allowed to hear about Krishna, they are more likely to rekindle their loving relationship with Him. Then, no matter what else happens in their life, that love will always remain.
But simply having a high birth in a brahmana or Vaishnava family is not enough. One may be born a human being, but it doesn’t mean that they will always stay one in future lives. A person’s material desires and the work they perform determine the type of body they receive in subsequent lives:
“Those who are envious and mischievous, who are the lowest among men, are cast by Me into the ocean of material existence, into various demoniac species of life.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 16.19)
A high birth is a great opportunity, but if one acts impiously or exudes impure qualities, they have squandered a golden opportunity. Bona fide brahmanas are described as shuchi, meaning clean and pure. The status of shuchi doesn’t come automatically by birth. One has to actually display purity in their actions. In society today, one is considered learned and high class if they can speak very well or if they have a degree from a respectable university. People are very proud of their advanced degrees, thinking themselves to be very learned. Elections today are won and lost based on a candidate’s debating skills. Debating involves arguing relative truths, so simply using word jugglery doesn’t actually show signs of purity. In the Vedic definition, one must, at a minimum, abstain completely from meat eating and intoxication in order to be considered pure. Meat eating is bad for many reasons, the primary of which is the negative effect it has on karma. In today’s age, there is an ample food supply of milk, grains, and fruits. Violence towards animals is not required. Thus meat eating today is done simply for the satisfaction of the taste buds. Since karma represents the highest system of fairness, one can naturally conclude that meat eaters will have to suffer the consequences for their violence in the future.
This penchant for unnecessary violence shows signs of impurity. Intoxication is also another unclean habit. A brahmana’s main business is to act as the role model for the rest of society. They are God’s representatives, sent to teach others how to love Him. If a brahmana is addicted to intoxication, they must be considered impure. A caste brahmana, one born in a brahmana family, cannot claim brahminical status if they engage in meat eating or intoxication. Also, a brahmana must be familiar with the injunctions of the scriptures. The primary injunction of the Vedas is that Lord Krishna is God and that mankind’s highest duty is to serve Him with love and respect. A person engaging in any other type of dharma cannot be considered a true brahmana. In previous times, all the great sages such Vyasadeva, Narada Muni, and Maharishi Valmiki all met the proper requirements to be considered shuchi.
The above referenced statement was made by Lord Rama to a group of brahmanas belonging to the royal family of Maharaja Dashratha. God takes birth as a human being from time to time to enact pastimes and to reinstitute the proper standard of dharma. Lord Rama was one such incarnation. At the behest of His father Dashratha, Rama left the kingdom of Ayodhya for the forest, where He was to remain for fourteen years. After the death of Dashratha, Rama’s younger brother Bharata wanted Rama to return to the kingdom and rule as king. Rama wouldn’t budge however, since He wanted to fulfill the order originally given to Him by His father. People tried to persuade Rama otherwise, with one plea coming from one of the brahmanas of the royal court. This brahmana used some word jugglery, almost espousing atheism in a sense, as a way to convince Rama that His dharma was to return to the kingdom. The brahmana actually didn’t believe in what he was saying, but rather was just trying anything to get Rama to come back.
Lord Rama used this brahmana’s speech as an opportunity to give all those present a lecture on what actually constitutes dharma and who should be considered learned and wise. Simply wearing the dress of a brahmana and having a sacred thread are not enough. Character is determined by actions. Rama not only spoke these words, but He lived by them. Rama means one who gives pleasure, and this was certainly true in His case. All the citizens of Ayodhya loved Him very much. His wife Sita Devi and younger brother Lakshmana were so attached to Rama that they insisted on serving His exile term alongside Him.
In this age of Kali, everything has turned upside down. Brahmanas by birth are acting like shudras, fourth class people, and shudras by quality are pretending to act like brahmanas. For this reason, the primary dharma for the people of this age is the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. By regularly chanting this mantra with faith and devotion, and abiding by the four regulative principles of devotional life, one can elevate themselves to brahmanical status, and more importantly, they can become devotees. God judges our character, not our family lineage. Great devotees like Shavari, Hanuman, Vibhishana, and countless others were loved and adored by Lord Rama. None of them were born as brahmanas, but their qualities were on par or even exceeded those of the greatest sages. This shows the true greatness of devotees. They rise above all material designations to become the highest class people.
Categories: varnashrama dharma