“Ultimately the aim of varnashrama-dharma is to turn a crude man into a pure devotee of the Lord, or a Vaishnava. Anyone, therefore, who becomes a Vaishnava accepted by the first-class Vaishnava, or uttama-adhikari Vaishnava, is already considered a brahmana, regardless of his birth or past deeds. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu accepted this principle and recognized Shrila Haridasa Thakura as the acharya of the holy name, although Thakura Haridasa appeared in a Mohammedan family.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.2 Purport)
Friend1: The four varnas.
Friend2: Don’t forget the four ashramas, too.
Friend2: Yes. That is a better definition for what commonly passes as “Hinduism.”
Friend1: Right. I’ve heard it said that you can’t really define Hinduism.
Friend2: It’s become more of a cultural thing. I have my faith. You have yours. But if you look at the Vedas, the books on which Hinduism is based, there is no mention of a specific faith. The truths are presented in a scientific way. “The soul does this. The body is like that. The soul moves here. The different planets come and go. Happiness and sadness.” And as you began this conversation, the different occupations for man.
Friend1: I like that it is beyond dogmatic insistence. It’s not just, “Follow me or you’re doomed.”
Friend2: Right. It’s more like, “Wake up, man. See what is really going on. You’re already in a tough spot. As a spiritual individual, life is meant to be much better. Here is how to escape from illusion.”
Friend1: Alright, let’s focus on the first part of varnashrama-dharma.
Friend2: Varna? That Sanskrit word means “color.” For this context, it refers to an occupation. It’s something you do. The determination is made from guna and karma, which are quality and work, respectively.
“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)
Friend1: Okay, so that is the point of debate, I guess. You said karma, which makes sense. I can’t be a priest unless I know how to do priestly duties. But you also mentioned guna, which are material qualities. Those appear at the time of birth, do they not?
Friend1: So how can someone not born a brahmana become one? If I don’t have the qualities of a leader, I’d make a pretty bad general in an army. You see how some people are naturally gifted for business. They are always thinking of expanding profits. They don’t get dispirited at a downturn in fortune. They have no problem lying to potential customers about the actual profit margin.
Friend2: Well, of course the gunas arrive at the time of birth. The gunas are what cover the individual, who is spirit soul at the core. Krishna explains that at the time of death the living entity carries his mentality into the next life. The travel of the subtle body (mind, intelligence, and false ego) is like the air carrying aromas. Then another gross body comes in the next life.
“The living entity, thus taking another gross body, obtains a certain type of ear, tongue, and nose and sense of touch, which are grouped about the mind. He thus enjoys a particular set of sense objects.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.9)
Friend1: So isn’t that an argument in favor of the caste system, where varna is determined by heredity?
Friend2: Not at all.
Friend1: Why not?
Friend2: The qualities can come to any person, in any circumstance. You see athletes whose children are also athletes. You also see athletes with children who have no athletic ability whatsoever. The occupation of the parents isn’t guaranteed to be passed down to future generations.
Friend1: Okay, that’s one argument. Do you have any others? You realize that the people supporting the caste system will say that others do have an opportunity for upward mobility; it just doesn’t come in this lifetime. If they follow their prescribed duties inherited from the parents, then in the next life, upon rebirth, they get a better opportunity. Advancement takes place, but in a different way.
Friend2: There is truth to the idea of moving up in successive births. You can go from the mode of ignorance to the mode of passion, and then goodness. But that doesn’t mean that only genetics play a role in the gunas at the time of birth.
Friend1: How do you know that, though?
Friend2: There are many examples, from both today and history. I’ve already explained that you see people whose qualities are different from their parents. From the past there is the example of Prahlada Maharaja. He was born in a Daitya family. This is literally a race of demons. They were all bad characters. They were against God. But Prahlada had completely different qualities. Krishna even says that among the Daityas, He is Prahlada.
“Among the Daitya demons I am the devoted Prahlada; among subduers I am time; among the beasts I am the lion, and among birds I am Garuda, the feathered carrier of Vishnu.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 10.30)
If someone within the race of horrible people can be a representation of the Supreme Lord, what does that tell you about your caste system by birth?
Friend1: That’s a good point.
Friend2: There’s also the example of Haridasa Thakura. He was born in a Muslim family. He got so much hell from the authorities for practicing devotion to Krishna. He was so humble, accepting whatever came his way. He didn’t hold a grudge. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu declared him to be the namacharya, which is the foremost teacher on the chanting of the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Friend1: These are very good arguments. Just because I am a doctor doesn’t mean my son becomes one automatically. He has to undergo the proper training. I’ve heard that argument, as well.
Friend2: Right. Totally makes sense.
Friend1: What would you say is the best argument? To the person who insists that people not born into a caste can enter into it.
Friend2: Well, you’re never going to convince those people. And it doesn’t matter, really. If someone is steeped in ignorance, it’s not my duty to get them out of it. If they are open to hearing logic, reasoning and quotes from shastra, then they are fortunate.
Friend1: Okay, let’s say you are speaking to someone with an open mind. They’re unsure about the issue. What would you say to them?
Friend2: The best argument is prasadam.
Friend1: The Lord’s mercy? What do you mean?
Friend2: Prasadam and tirthas. People honor prasadam as sacred. It is food offered to the Supreme Lord with love and devotion. It starts out as material elements. But the mood of the preparer and the manner in which it is placed in front of the deity transform it.
Friend2: Tirthas are nothing more than earth. They are places on earth; i.e. land. Yet people travel from far away to visit. They feel a spiritual infusion as a result of the physical association. They feel a sense of peace. They know there is a benefit to visiting these places.
Friend1: Oh, for sure. The spiritual tourism industry exists for this very reason.
Friend2: So if food can become sacred when associated with Krishna, why not a person? If land suddenly becomes important since it was long ago touched by the lotus feet of the transcendental body of God the person, why isn’t the person who wears the symbol of the footprint of the Divine on their forehead considered sacred? If a person offers up their entire life to serving God, why does it matter what caste they were born into?
Friend1: Wow. Yeah, you can’t argue against that.
Friend2: Of course, there should be sincerity. There are cheaters everywhere, even among those wearing tilaka. The principle is still valid. Rama did not care that Hanuman was in a monkey body. Krishna offered the jewel of Vedic wisdom to someone in the warrior caste. Whatever occupation you are in, just find a way to use your work for pleasing God. It isn’t that difficult, really. Then everything will take care of itself.
Material qualities from birth coming,
So how shudra a brahmana becoming?
Must not for next birth await,
And gradually to higher state?
Best argument from prasadam take,
How from ordinary like Divine to make.
With pilgrimage site principle the same,
So blessed those who chant holy names.