India is known for its wandering sadhus & fakirs, and for the caste system. The sadhus are generally regarded positively or sometimes as an interesting oddity. They practice various austerities and renunciations. The caste system rightfully gets a lot of negative press. The caste system was made illegal in 1950 by the Indian constitution. But there are numerous reports of caste discrimination still going on. What is the natural caste system, and what renunciations are recommended for this age?
The Varnasrama system
In the Gita the natural classes of people, and bhakti yoga, are explained. The natural classes of people are the basis of the Varnasrama system. That system was perverted into a caste by birth system. The Varnasrama system works off of the natural propensity of people (as opposed to a caste by birth system). In the Varnasrama system each person is drawn towards a service by their natural abilities and personality. Just because your father was a Brahman or a street sweeper, has no bearing on what job you are naturally suited for. Each person has their Varnasrama-dharma, their duty performed according to the system of four varnas (social divisions) and four ashrams (stages in life).
Four varnas – brahmanas (priests, teachers, and intellectuals), kshatriyas (police, army, and administration), vaishyas (farmers, merchants, and business people), sudras (artisans and workers).
Four ashrams – brahmacari (student life), grishasta (household life), vanaprastha (retirement), and sannyasi (renunciation).
The Varnasrama system is far superior, and more natural, than the caste system. It is also important to understand Varnasrama when discussing devotional service and renunciation for this age. Some people are naturally drawn towards a brahmacari life, some are drawn to grihastha. Both are important for the longevity of society, and useful for spreading Krishna consciousness. A husband and wife can support each other in their service, and raising kids is very fulfilling for some people. In this way we are drawn to a type of life, and then use that for Krishna.
In Krishna consciousness we try to follow the precepts of Varnasrama, but even Srila Prabhupada said it is not possible to reintroduce the Varnasrama system in the age of Kali.
He comes above the highest principle of brahmanism. This is the greatest gift to the humanity, that even he is in the, I mean to say, fallen condition, the most degraded position, he can be raised to the highest position simply by chanting. This is the only remedy. Now you cannot again introduce this system of varṇāśrama. It is not possible. But if one takes to Kṛṣṇa consciousness, automatically he becomes immediately a brāhmaṇa and above the brāhmaṇa. A Vaiṣṇava is above the brāhmaṇa.Lecture on BG 3.18-30 — Los Angeles, December 30, 1968
Even though we will likely never set up a full Varnasrama system, we do try to incorporate the ideals in our lives. If we are true to our nature, we will have a better chance of serving Krishna in everything we do.
Recommended Process for the Kali Yuga
In the Kali Yuga we have been instructed by Krishna that devotional service, bhakti yoga, is the recommended method of spiritual advancement for this age. He spoke the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna right before the battle at Kurukshetra. The Gita was spoken over 5,000 years ago. Over the centuries there have been many deviations from the actual teachings of the Gita.
Krishna plainly says that service to Him (bhakti yoga) and following your dharma (duty) is the recommended method for spiritual advancement in this age. Unfortunately the mayavadis (atheists) have distorted the teachings of Krishna. In many commentaries on the Gita they do not even realize the importance of bhakti yoga. They pick and choose what parts they want to be literal and what is allegory. Very similar to what many Christian “scholars” have done with their bible.
The Bhagavad Gita is not a very long book, if you just read the verses (slokas). But without background information it is hard to get the real meaning of the Gita. That is why it is important to read the Gita with an authorized commentary. The best one written is the Bhagavad Gita As It Is, with translation and commentary by AC Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada.
In the Nectar of Devotion (Chapter 14) Srila Prabhupada is talking about renunciation. He says we do not need the artificial austerities of yoga practice. Transcendental loving service to Krishna – devotional service itself – is the way to advance spiritual life. Devotional service is our renunciation. If you like food, you can be a cook and make nice food for Krishna. After offering the preparations to Krishna, you can honor the prasad (spiritualized food). Then it is renunciation.
Rejecting anything which is not offered to Krishna is actually renunciation.
Lord Caitanya came to the world 500 years ago to revive the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. He stressed public chanting (sankirtan), association with devotees, and service to Krishna. In this age we are short lived and have short attention spans. We no longer have to sit under a tree and meditate for 10,000 lifetimes to see God. We serve Krishna, chant the Hare Krishna mantra, and can attain advancement.
The wandering sadhus of India may or may not be on the right path. Some are wandering preachers and have found God. Some are searchers, but still lost in maya (illusion). Some may just be performers/beggars covered in ash. It is best for us to follow the teachings of Krishna & Caitanya and practice bhakti yoga, in loving service to God. This is a very degraded age, but the opportunity for spiritual advancement has never been easier.
Non-attachment to the Material World
Some people ask why devotees get married, if we are supposed to be practicing non-attachment. Also they ask why we use modern tools (like the internet) if we are ‘renounced’. These questions come about from confusion about what Krishna consciousness teaches. We really do not practice non-attachment; everyone is naturally attached to things. That is human nature. We are taught how to dovetail our attachments to serve Krishna. We also do not renounce anything that can be used to serve Krishna.
You do not need to artificially renounce the world. We use what is in the world for Krishna. Do not give up anything that can be used in the service of the Lord. Family life can be used as a devotional service. I only received one order from my guru; that was to raise my children in Krishna consciousness (I was a single father). My service to my guru was in how well I raised my children.
We utilize everything for the enjoyment of Krishna, not for ourselves. As long as something is in our life, we use it. When it is gone, it is gone. Not only items, but people as well. They come and go in our life. That is just a fact of life in the material world. Many people have a hard time accepting that. Instead of being attached to everything or everyone in our life, dedicate everything to Krishna. As we serve Krishna our life is fulfilled and complete. Our relationship with Krishna is permanent, everything else is temporary.
Living in the temple as a brahmacari makes renunciation, or non-attachment, a bit easier. You are surrounded by other devotees, and living with Krishna. Family life can be a huge distraction, if you let it. We live away from the temple, so have less association with devotees. Of course we have to work to provide for our family. Most of us will not be working in a devotional setting. Every part of your day is trying to distract you from your devotional service. So we have to dedicate everything we do and everything we have to Krishna. The husband and wife can be a good team, but if there is disharmony in the home there will likely be disharmony in your service. Family life can be fulfilling, but is prone to difficulty.
There is love in the material world, but it is a shadow of the real love found in the spiritual world. Unfortunately we are not living in the spiritual world and must do the best we can here in the material ocean. We love our spouse and children, but we need to not be overly attached. For example if your spouse leaves, it will hurt. You may try and convince them to stay, but if they are insistent, there is little you can do. How do you handle that? If you are overly attached, you may follow them, watch them, try and entice them back – basically stalking. If it is not meant to be, then it is not meant to be. This does not mean you did not love them, but you understand the impermanence of the material world.
Some of the difficulty comes with how far you will go as a parent for your children. We want our kids to succeed, but do we risk ourselves to ensure them? When you are in a plane and they are giving the safety speech they always say that in an emergency put your air mask on before helping someone else with theirs (even your child). It is natural to try and protect our kids, but if you pass out from lack of air – you both can die. Quite often this world is described as the material ocean. There are a lot of good examples that come from that comparison. We are all drowning in this material ocean, trying to find our way back to the spiritual world. A drowning person cannot save another drowning person. First you must be swimming well, only then you can carry someone else.
I was not raised in Krishna consciousness; I was raised in a Euro-centric judeo-christian world. I have often been accused of being uncaring because I have naturally known that everything and everyone is temporary (or it is a lesson I just learned extremely young?). I enjoy what I have in life, I love my friends and family, but I do not get overly attached. In Krishna consciousness this is not a problem, outside of Krishna consciousness it is seen as anti-social. Family life is meant to be a team effort. We all support each other, and the goal is for all of us to make spiritual advancement. You can get help and support from others, and association is very important, but ultimately we all make this journey alone. Having help along the way is essential, though.