“A person who personally practices the tenets of religion as they are enjoined in the shastras and who also teaches others the same principles is called religious. Simply professing a kind of faith is not a sign of religiousness. One must act according to religious principles, and by his personal example he should teach others. Such a person is to be understood as religious.” (The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 30)
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In the Vedic system, brahmanas are considered the highest societal division. For those who have heard about the Indian caste system, the concept of brahmanas, the highest class, and untouchables, the lowest class, is usually what garners the most attention. This class-based society isn’t actually determined by one’s birth, but rather by the qualities that a person exhibits. The divisions of the varnashrama-dharma, the purified form of the caste system, already exist amongst the members of society; the Vedas just give us a formalized breakdown and an open recognition of these differences. When these groups work together, there is peace and harmony, and when they don’t, you get a never-ending struggle for control and power.
Why is there a struggle? In simple terms, in a “classless” society every person will want to be the head. Every designated area of space has a controller. Whether we are talking about a person’s body, a household, a school, a community, or even a country, there will always be a leader, someone who is in charge of governance and the rule of law. In the body, the controller is the soul, or atma. This soul belongs to the individual; hence living entities are often referred to as ishvara, or controllers. God is also ishvara, but His dominion is over the entire creation. The world we live in can be thought of as one of His bodies. In a household the controller is the husband or the elderly family members, in a community the mayor or governor, and in a nation the President. In the modern age, government officials are elected through popular vote. As a result there is always a struggle between those members of society who want to become the leader. Since a classless society is unnatural, there will always be a struggle between those who want to break free from the pack.
The Vedic system for societal maintenance, technically known as varnashrama-dharma, doesn’t subscribe to this classless idea. Every living entity is certainly equal, for there aren’t any differences in the qualities of different atmas. However, the material qualities a person possesses, gunas, certainly do vary. One person may be good at taking in knowledge and processing complex thoughts and ideas. Another person may be courageous and expert at providing defense, while another is good at performing trade and handling business. There are still others who provide the best service known to man, being able to perform manual labor perfectly and without much rest. Since every person possesses different qualities, the varnashrama-dharma system calls for each person to stick to their prescribed duties, while working for the common interest of all mankind.
In order for people to cooperate with each other, there must be a leader, someone to provide guidance. In the varnashrama-dharma system, the intellectual leaders are the brahmanas. When compared to the body of a human being, the brahmanas can be thought of as the brain. The brain is in charge of the functions of the rest of the body. Though it is only located inside the skull, its presence is felt throughout. A body can continue to survive without arms, legs, and a stomach, but if the brain should be removed, the result would be instant death. In this regard, the brahmanas can be thought of as the most important members of society. One doesn’t become a brahmana simply by birthright. While it is certainly beneficial to take birth to brahmana parents, this doesn’t automatically qualify a person to lead society. To act as the brains of society, one must have the sufficient knowledge and training.
Vedic information is primarily transmitted in the Sanskrit language, which is so nice because all of the words have deep meanings. Aside from identifying the highest class in society, the word “brahmana” actually means something. A brahmana is one who knows Brahman. What is Brahman? Most of us know about God and His supreme authority in the spiritual and material worlds. The Vedas tell us that God has an eternal form which is difficult to comprehend. It is difficult to see God’s form because He has this glaring effulgence which comes off of His body. We can think of it in terms of the sun and the sunshine. It is difficult to look at the sun directly due to its brightness and the rays that emanate off of it. God, in His original form of Lord Krishna, has the same potency. In fact, the sun is merely a manifestation of His external energy.
“That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all existences, undivided in the divided, is knowledge in the mode of goodness.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.20)
The effulgence beaming off of Krishna’s body is Brahman. Brahman includes all things matter and spirit. This means that we are also part of Brahman. Since we are all part of this energy, every living entity is equal in its constitutional position. One person can’t take up any more of Brahman than anyone else. Therefore, one who understands Brahman, i.e. a brahmana, understands that there is a non-dual nature between the living entities. Since we are all part of the complete whole, there is really no difference between any of us. This includes other forms of life such as plants, aquatics, birds, and beasts. For a person to be considered a qualified brahmana, they must understand these facts, along with the difference between matter and spirit. As mentioned before, the soul is the ishvara of the body, meaning that matter is subordinate to spirit. The soul is purusha, or the enjoyer, and the body is prakriti, or matter or the enjoyed.
How does one become a brahmana? There is a training process. In order to realize Brahman, one must become detached from their senses. All activity is considered material by default. This is because everything that we do is aimed at pleasing the senses of the body, a body which is made up of matter. To understand Brahman, one must become detached from the senses. The key components to spiritual life are vairagya and jnana. Vairagya is renunciation, refraining from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. Jnana is knowledge, understanding the difference between matter and spirit and the absolute nature of Brahman.
“The Supreme Lord said, The indestructible, transcendental living entity is called Brahman, and his eternal nature is called the self. Action pertaining to the development of these material bodies is called karma, or fruitive activities.” (Bg. 8.3)
Once a person becomes a bona fide brahmana, they have specific duties they must take up. The varnashrama-dharma system is based on a person’s qualities and the work they perform. The symptoms of a brahmana are kindness, peacefulness, self-control, compassion, and intelligence. One must also perform certain kinds of work in order to maintain their status as a brahmana. Two of the primary activities of a brahmana are the studying of the scriptures and the teaching of others about Vedic knowledge. In order to teach, one must first be following the Vedic principles themselves. This is the definition of being religious. Simply saying that you belong to a particular faith is not enough; one must be a believer and a practitioner. This commitment to religious principles was at the core of the movement started by Lord Chaitanya some five hundred years ago. He wanted people with brahminical qualities to take up spiritual life and then go around and teach others about God.
How is this system any different from the religious practices of other faiths? What is so unique about Lord Chaitanya’s movement? In today’s world, most everyone belongs to a particular faith. This faith is usually inherited from the parents. If our parents are Hindu, we will claim to be Hindu. If our parents are Christian, we will claim to be Christian, and so on. But as mentioned before, a person must be practicing the principles of their religion in order to be considered religious. Otherwise, there is no meaning to a person’s faith. This also applies to those who simply go through the motions of religious functions and rituals. On the one hand, going through these functions certainly is a good thing because it increases the chances that a person will take a sincere interest in spiritual life. At the same time, if our emotions aren’t invested in service to God, we can’t claim to be religious. Lord Chaitanya’s movement is unique in that He doesn’t ask people to change their faith, but rather to be true to their word. Lord Chaitanya’s mission is to make honest men out of all the people who claim to be religious.
If people aren’t interested in spiritual life even after attending church so many times, what will turn things around? The necessary ingredient is the instruction of a person who is following the religious principles. This person must also understand the reason behind their activities. For example, our parents likely told us to go to sleep on time during our childhood years. Simply going to sleep on time is enough to give us the intended benefit of proper rest, but what if we were to ask our parents why we had to sleep at a certain time? Children are known for asking nagging questions, and if parents don’t have a good answer, the child will be less likely to adhere to the restrictions imposed on them. A good parent not only will impose rules, but also will understand the reason behind them.
“All purposes that are served by the small pond can at once be served by the great reservoirs of water. Similarly, all the purposes of the Vedas can be served to one who knows the purpose behind them.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.46)
Spiritual life works in the same way. In order to get others to take to spiritual life, one must be practicing the regulative principles themselves, and also understand the purpose behind them. Lord Chaitanya, who was a preacher incarnation of God, taught His associates and disciples to first elevate themselves to the brahmana standard. What does this entail? The first guideline is that one must refrain from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling. The other aspect to brahmincal life is the execution of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Devotional service can include any activity as long as it is dovetailed with service to God. Lord Chaitanya’s favorite process of devotional service was the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
These two processes, abstention from sinful activities and regular chanting, are enough to elevate one to the status of a brahmana. But in order to teach others how to become brahmanas, one must understand the reasoning behind these processes. The restrictions are easy to understand. Human life is meant for the cultivation of spiritual knowledge, so one must eliminate all hindrances to the acquisition of that knowledge. As we all know, doing well on a test requires concentration and long hours of studying. The same holds true with getting good grades in our classes. A person must be sober in order to think clearly, thus they should refrain from all activities that take away their sobriety. Meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex all involve agitation of the mind, diverting it from its supreme object of worship. These restrictions aren’t meant simply to punish the living entities, but rather to help them focus on the primary task at hand, the acquisition of spiritual knowledge.
Chanting is the most important of all religious practices. God’s names are absolute, just as He is. This means that any person can chant Hare Krishna and be in direct association with the Lord. Chanting also helps one surpass the realization of Brahman, and go directly to worship of God’s personal form of Krishna. The beauty of understanding Krishna is that one automatically understands Brahman as a result. Krishna is the source of Brahman, so it would make sense that His devotees would acquire all knowledge relating to His expansions.
Lord Chaitanya’s formula is quite simple. Become a devotee of Krishna and then talk about Him with others. “Wherever you go, and whomever you meet, simply tell them about Krishna’s instructions.” Where does one go to find these instructions? We can hear directly from Krishna by reading the classic Vedic texts like the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam. No one needs to change their religious affiliation. They can remain in their current position and still take to chanting and reading about Krishna. One who practices the principles of the scriptures is religious and worthy of teaching others. If we have any interest whatsoever in spiritual life, we should seriously consider taking up Lord Chaitanya’s recommendations. It only takes a few qualified brahmanas to change the whole world for the better.