For many of us, trying to understand the subject of varṇāśrama-dharma can be difficult and confusing; therefore, we tend to discuss it in basic terms as the four occupational (varṇas) and four familial divisions (āśramas) of human society.
However, varṇāśrama-dharma is more substantive and relevant to aspiring Vaiṣṇavas than a simple definition of social divisions. It is “bhagavad-racita” (designed by the Supreme Personality of Godhead). The Lord’s divine intention for creating varṇāśrama is to elevate the consciousness of human society and bring the living entities back to their original constitutional nature:
cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ
“According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me.” [Bhagavad-gītā As It Is / Transcendental Knowledge / 4.13]
When we dovetail our psychophysical nature (acquired by material energy) and act for the pleasure of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, we are working in the transcendental mode of devotional service (bhakti); such actions are free from karma and bondage to material energy. Everyone is acting according to their nature—either spiritually or materially.
In this connection, Kṛṣṇa states:
sadṛśaṁ ceṣṭate svasyāḥ prakṛter jñānavān api
prakṛtiṁ yānti bhūtāni nigrahaḥ kiṁ kariṣyati
“Even a man of knowledge acts according to his own nature, for everyone follows the nature he has acquired from the three modes. What can repression accomplish?” [Bhagavad-gītā As It Is / Karma-yoga / 3.33]
Varṇāśrama-dharma is listed under two headings, namely, “daivī-varṇāśrama” and “āsurī-varṇāśrama.” One is divine—the other is not. When varṇāśrama is correctly understood through the authority of Vedic literature, under the guidance of a bonafide Vaiṣṇavas guru (a Kṛṣṇa conscious spiritual master), the real goal of varṇāśrama-dharma becomes evident, and its importance to aspiring Vaiṣṇavas realized. The ultimate effect is complete freedom from the clutches of matter and reinstatement in the eternal spiritual atmosphere (Vaikuṇṭha).
Three cumulative topics leading to this determination are: (1) recognition of the true nature of the jīvas (the living entities) as being different from their temporal manifestations, (2) understanding of the five conditions of consciousness and their resultant effects on the jīvas’ behavior (culminating in bhakti), and (3) adherence to the “sādhya-sādhana” (goal and process) of daivī-varṇāśrama-dharma.
The Nature of the Living Entities
The jīvas’ constitutional nature is sat-cit-ānanda (eternally existent, fully cognizant, and completely blissful). However, when the jīva leaves Vaikuṇṭha and descends into jaḍa-jagat (the temporary material atmosphere), its true nature becomes subjugated by the power of māyā-śakti (the illusory potency). The resultant effect is that its duration of life, its self-awareness, and its happiness, become extremely limited.
Inescapably bound to saṁsāra (the wheel of repeated birth and death), the materially conditioned jivas continuously transmigrate through 8,400,000 species of life. One’s conditioned consciousness at the time of death (from its human form) determines its reincarnation into its next form.
Bhagavān Śrī Kṛṣṇa confirms this in the Bhagavad-gītā:
yaṁ yaṁ vāpi smaran bhāvaṁ tyajaty ante kalevaram
taṁ tam evaiti kaunteya sadā tad-bhāva-bhāvitaḥ
"Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his present body, in his next life, he will attain to that state without fail." [Bhagavad-gītā As It Is / Attaining the Supreme / 8.6]
Continuously enthralled by the fanciful displays of the illusory energy, it remains forever bound and bewildered. The more intensely it seeks material enjoyment, the farther it falls into darkness. In such a stupefied state of a deep sleep, it accepts itself as nothing more than matter, and continues forever on the path of delusion, moving further and further away from its original home.
The Five Conditions of Consciousness
“The spirit soul deluded by māyā passes through five distinct conditions: ācchādita-cetanā, covered consciousness; saṅkucita-cetanā, contracted consciousness; mukulita-cetanā, budding consciousness; vikasita-cetanā, unfolded consciousness; and pūrṇa-vikasita-cetanā, full-blown consciousness.” [Śrīla Bhaktivinode Ṭhākura / Jaiva-dharma / 16.4]
In the first condition, ācchādita-cetanā (covered consciousness), the jīvas are born into deficient bodily forms, including plants, trees, and rocks, etc. They have completely forgotten their eternal nature and are now forced to accept their existence in the six transitory stages of birth, growth, maintenance, production of by-products, dwindling, and death. In this condition, there is no capacity to inquire into the nature of the self, of God, or of the relationship between the two. Due to severe karmic reaction, they exist, with scarcely a sign of consciousness.
In the second condition, saṅkucita-cetanā (contracted consciousness), the bodies of these materially conditioned jīvas include insects, birds, beasts, reptiles, and aquatics, etc. These souls have a level of consciousness that allows them to be more aware of their surroundings but are unaware of the ultimate purpose of life. They possess the ability to interact with others, develop relationships, and show emotions, etc. Nevertheless, their principal concern is focused on eating, sleeping, mating, and defending.
In the third condition, mukulita-cetanā (budding consciousness), the jīvas have attained the human platform. Such jīvas include those who lack faith in Bhagavān, those who are nīti-śūnya (lawless and immoral), and those who are nirīśvara-naitika (atheistic, but moralistic and law-abiding).
In the fourth condition, vikasita-cetanā (unfolded consciousness) exists the further evolved human beings. They include the seśvarā-naitikas (who are theistic and have faith in Bhagavan), and the sādhana-bhaktas (whose actions are tempered by the regulations of sādhana-bhakti and who are gradually acquiring the spontaneous attraction of rāgānugā-bhakti).
In the fifth condition, pūrṇa-vikasita-cetanā (full-blown consciousness), are the bhāva-bhaktas, who possess spontaneous attraction and spiritual attachment (rati). [At this stage, rati, which is counted as one of the nine forms of prema-bhakti, makes a ”shy” appearance.]
Regarding these five conditions of consciousness, Śrīla Bhaktivinode Ṭhākura states:
“The material conditioning of the jīva remains therefore throughout the period of sādhana-bhakti, even spilling over into the beginning stage of bhāva-bhakti, though only residual amounts persist. Therefore, the authorities in our line have included sādhana-bhakti and bhāva-bhakti within the five levels of consciousness considered māyā-kavalita, under the influence of māyā.” [Śrīla Bhaktivinode Ṭhākura / Jaiva-dharma / 17.5]
[It should be noted here that sādhana-bhakti and bhāva-bhakti are included under the heading of māyā-kavalita, not because they are influenced by māyā, but because the sādhaka (the practitioner of bhakti-yoga), is to some degree, influenced.]
Prema-bhakti, on the other hand, is situated above the five conditions of consciousness and is not influenced by māyā to even the slightest degree.
The Sādhya-Sādhana of Varṇāśrama-dharma
“Amongst those souls who are liberated, complete emancipation from subservience to māyā is only eventually accomplished by those jīvas blessed with śuddha-bhakti to Śrī Hari. The imprisonment of the jīva began when the jīva forgot his position as the eternal servant of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. This forgetfulness is the original offence of the jīva and is the root of all the jīva’s subsequent offences. Only the mercy of Śrī Kṛṣṇa can forgive all these offences and nothing else. Therefore, the mercy of Śrī Kṛṣṇa is alone the indispensable instrument that can fully release the jīva from the captivity of māyā.” [Śrīla Bhaktivinode Ṭhākura / Jaiva-dharma / 7.5]
The system of daivī-varṇāśrama, as opposed to āsurī-varṇāśrama, includes sādhana-bhakti. This system enables the sādhaka to advance on the bhakti-mārga (path of devotional service) and reach the ultimate divine position of śuddha-bhakti (unalloyed devotional service), which is the Sādhya (the goal of life)—kṛṣṇa-prema.
Sādhana (the process), contains two parts, namely, vaidhī-bhakti (regulative) and rāgānugā-bhakti (spontaneous). These two parts are also referred to as vaidhī-sādhana-bhakti and rāgānugā-sādhana-bhakti. Sādhana-bhakti is one of the ten meanings for the word bhakti (devotion); the other nine are different forms of prema-bhakti (pure loving devotion).
The Vaiṣṇava guru does not emphasize a system that may continue the disciples material bondage—even that of dharma (religion), artha (economic development), kāma (fulfillment of desires), and mokṣa (liberation). The Vaiṣṇava guru’s priority is in cultivating the consciousness of pure loving devotional service to Lord Hari. Śuddha-bhakti (unalloyed devotional service) is the objective of sādhana-bhakti, and the real purpose of varṇāśrama-dharma.
mokṣādi ānanda yāra nahe eka bindu
"For a devotee who has actually developed bhāva, the pleasure derived from dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣa appears like a drop in the presence of the sea." [Cc. Ādi 7.85]
In “Prema-Vivarta,” by Śrīla Jagadananda Pandita, Svarūpa Dāmodara Goswāmī replies to Raghunātha dāsa’s inquiry regarding householders and their prescribed duties in Varṇāśrama.
Svarūpa Dāmodara Goswāmī states:
“The sincerely devoted person intelligently executes from amongst his prescribed duties of varṇāśrama only that which is conducive to pure devotional service. And by diligently rejecting those duties which are detrimental, he attains the platform of pure devotion [śuddha-bhakti]. Therefore, one should not be overly attached to stringently following the prescribed varṇāśrama duties, but he has to simply unflinchingly render unalloyed devotional service, and by so doing, he emulates the hallowed path of saintly persons. Rejecting the overly rigid rules and regulations of varṇāśrama assists in elevating one to the platform of a pure Vaiṣṇava. The most important regulation is to constantly remember Lord Kṛṣṇa, and the strictest rule is to never forget Him.” [Prema-Vivarta 17 / Śrīla Jagadananda Pandita / The Standards Of Vaiṣṇava Etiquette Reflects The Class of a Devotee]
In conclusion, when discussing varṇāśrama-dharma, its different objectives and motives must be clear. Are we referring to nitya-dharma (eternal dharma) or naimittika-dharma (impermanent dharma)? Is it daivī-varṇāśrama-dharma or āsurī-varṇāśrama-dharma? One is Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa centric (pure and unadulterated) whereas the other is egocentric (impure and adulterated). If the objectives and motives are not clear, we may unwittingly accept spiritual dharma as material dharma (or vice versa) and hinder our progress on the path back to Godhead. As Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, our goal is pure bhakti as laid out by the ācāryas in our line. By traversing this hollowed path, we can achieve the highest goal of life—kṛṣṇa-prema.
In the next edition of Śaraṇāgati-tattva Monthly, we expand on the topic of nitya-dharma, including, saṅkīrtana-dharma (the yuga-dharma), and śaraṇāgati (the mood of pure unadulterated loving devotion, śuddha-bhakti).