01/23/98 - 1530
Varnashram Dharma and Astrology
USA (VNN) - by Dharmapada Das
Much attention seems to have been centered on the idea of promoting
varnashram dharma within ISKCON, and seems to have been something
which Shrila Prabhupada encouraged and made statements about.
I think that a collective realization has dawned on the movement
as a whole that some kind of varnashrama dharma is necessary.
At some point in the movement's history, the devotees were encouraged
to distribute books to the exception of other things. But it became
obvious that we couldn't all distribute books always. So there
had to be something else to do.
There are a few varnashram contradictions which don't seem to
have anything really terrible about them ( which is refreshing
given the current climate in which so many heavy issues are being
weighed), they are just contradictions. For example, we know that
cow protection and business are the activities of the mercantile
community. And some of us devotees are inspired to take up these
activities. But then what about our brahminical initiation? Some
of the vaishya devotees make a connection by saying that they
are really teaching cow protection and providing a good example
for society ( who's looking? ), which is fine, but at some point,
somebody would have to be just a vaishya because the devotees
can't stand around teaching each other. I mean, if you're teaching
people how to be vaishyas, then somebody would have to join and
be the one who gets taught and ends up being a vaishya. Even so,
such a vaishya devotee would still probably take brahminical initiation
because everyone in the movement eventually does. There does seem
to be some kind of contradiction to this type of thing. And as
far as devotees that do straight business are concerned, there
doesn't seem to be any way to rationalize it or connect it back
to brahminical dharma- those devotees just seem to have a double
identity. They are simply vaishyas, which is fine, but then why
is such importance placed on everyone becoming a brahmin? Some
devotees put on hats to hide who they are and go sell stickers
at football games, or falsely collect under one guise or another,
but don't feel that such activity is outside of brahminical activity
because begging is brahminical and the nondevotees are being engaged
in ajÒata sukriti, pious activity without knowing it, which is
also a brahminical thing to do. But that kind of begging doesn't
seem to be very directly brahminical, or at least we can say that
it probably doesn't spawn much in the way of brahminical consciousness.
It really seems to be just some kind of sales activity. And then
there are those that set up stands and sell trinkets, incense
and varied paraphanalia. Some of them hide the fact that they
are devotees, some of them don't but should, because that type
of activity makes our brahmins look like a group of people that
are materially speaking mediocre, not at all on a par with the
modern day version of brahmins such as teachers, doctors, lawyers,
ect. For one thing, the Kali yuga brahmin dresses well; not in
baseball caps and tennis shoes. Compare the way a Catholic priest
dresses, they always wear really nice shoes, to the way our devotees
dress. Or how about the way that the Mormon preachers dress? They
wear really nice suits.
Many devotees who are considered vaishyas seem to have better
consciousness than some devotees who are considered brahmins so
this phenomenon becomes yet another varnashram conundrum. ( As
they say, " go figure " ). And actually, being a brahmin who is
really a vaishya is probably better than being a devotee who ends
up working karmi jobs where devotees sometimes have to hide their
true identity or abide by a different scheme of values or norms
of behavior from the adopted brahminical ones. Why be a brahmin
if you are not going to work like one? And a brahmin shouldn't
serve another man, although any brahmin living in an ISKCON center
has to have permission to do almost anything. An ISKCON brahmin
is kept very dependent, in every way; he doesn't even have the
kind of everyday autonomy over his personal affairs that the nondevotees
do. The movement imposes not a little socialistic determinism
over personal affairs and even over a devotee's economic activity.
So if we are producing a brahminical class, how come they have
no autonomy of lifestyle, what to speak of autonomy of thought?
A brahmin is supposed to be like a university professor with tenure;
free to think on his own.
Another noteworthy observation is that, even though we have lots
of brahmins who are vaishyas and even a few brahmins who work
as sudras, we don't have too many brahmins who work as Kshatriyas
( warriors ). I mean, there are a few who live in rural ISKCON
facilities that practice karate and guard this or that, and give
the skinny prabhus a hard time once in a while. But these devotees
who consider themselves kshatriyas, but who took brahminical initiation
anyway, can't at all come near to living by the principles of
real kshatriyas because if they tried, the police would arrest
them. Anyway, they are few.
One thing to keep in mind is that what is really important is
just to be a bhakta. Varnashram dharma has a minimized role in
Gaudiya Vaishnavism. But brahminical dharma is conducive to Krishna
consciousness so it is worth conserving and developing. In order
to do so we have to be honest an introspective with ourselves.
One hard truth which we have to come to grips with on the path
to introspection is that you are what you do. It's not as if you
can say " Oh, I just work a karmi job or sell incense but I'm
really a brahmin." I don't really want to criticise ( me, criticise?
), I just want to make the point that our brahminical dharma in
ISKCON isn't developing well.
So just how are we supposed to live the life of brahmins? In Vedic
times or even more traditional post Vedic times, a brahmin could
get a donation from a Vaishya or Kshatiya and build a temple and
make a living from puja. But thanks to abuses of the Nityananda
Vamsha type, where the brahmin priest rakes in the money and then
spends a nice weekend in the clubs of New Delhi, Shrila Prabhupada
discouraged this economic option for a brahmin, even though it
is traditional. Any brahmin priest has to offer voluntary worship
in ISKCON with a stipend at most, and that's just the way it has
to be. I understand and accept this.
Begging is another traditional brahminical way of earning a living,
but modern day Western society disapproves of it in an extreme
fashion. There are even laws against begging, and it would ruin
the Hare Krishna movement's reputation. So begging is out of the
Teaching Sanskrit was another traditional brahminical profession,
but precious few would get very far with it nowadays. There are
a few university positions available, but nothing on a large scale.
One Indologist, A.M. Chaterjee, relates in his book Shree Krishna
Chaitanya that " Our survey of the known disciples of Narottama
indicates that a substantial number were brahmins. This had its
advantages. The brahmins were essentially teachers and many of
them used to run schools or ' tols.' It follows then, that after
their initiation by Narottama, most of them must have professed
the Vaishnav thought-system and transmitted it to their students.
Ganganarayana Chakravarti, one such brahmin disciple of Narottama,
had 500 students in his school " ( P - 64 ).
Again, this isn't such a viable avenue nowadays, at least in the
Western democracies, because the governments already provide free
schools for everyone. It would be difficult to preach to the general
population through schools anyway, because the parents of any
prospective students in the West would not be receptive. After
all, the brahmin Chaitanyites who preached through their schools
were operating in post Vedic India. But who knows, this idea of
preaching through schools and making a living at it might be possible
for devotees living in third world countries. How about operating
pre schools and kendergartens.
As far as ISKCON children are concerned, the movement already
has a ministry of education which operates schools of, by and
for the movement. So schools are another example of a traditional
brahminical activity which has been institutionalized by our movement
( as in the case of family-owned temples ). There is certainly
no question of harnessing any kind of profit motive as an engine
for developing brahminical dharma because the movement doesn't
permit brahmins to have any individual initiative. What a contradiction!
This leaves little option for an aspiring ISKCON brahmin except
to serve as an employee or order-taker within the institution's
framework, or to just forget about it and become some kind of
vaishya, and confine any brahminical dharma to wishful thinking.
Anyway, teaching provides little opportunity for the exercise
of brahminical dharma mostly because the government provides free
schools; teaching our own children within the movement would not
provide enough brahminical dharma to go around.
Medical practice was formerly carried out by brahmins, but nowadays
it ,too, is impractical as a brahminical dharma. The profession
is hard to get into and strictly regulated such that there is
no opportunity to provide any expression of anything brahminical
or Krishna consciouss. Devotees could practice alternative medicines
to some degree, such as herbal remedies. That way, they wouldn't
have to hide the fact that that they are devotees, and they could
use that medium to express a limited amount of Krishna consciousness.
To be a medical counselor is a much more respectable platform
for preaching Krishna consciousness than sidewalk stands featuring
incense and trinkets from India. And though a devotee could practice
Ayurveda, the complete Ayurveda has not survived, and Ayurvedic
doctors had to be astrologers, too. Hey, wait a minute! What an
interesting idea, astrology!
Astrology is an interesting avenue. It does survive as a complete
system, which is not the case of Ayurveda. Parashara Rishi left
us a complete astrological treatise called " Brihat Parashara
Hora Shastra." Parashara doesn't claim to be only explaining the
first steps of astrology. It is obvious from his conversation
with Maitreya that a complete system is being outlined. Who could
be more bonafide and authoritative than the father of Vyasadeva
( Parashara )? In his treatise, Parashara several times mentions
that he heard such and such a technique from Brahma and that he
learned this and that from Narada. So the system itself is integral
and as perfect as can be because it originates from the disciplic
Essentially, what is it about astrology which is so brahminical?
The fact that it is an advise-giving activity. An astrologer gives
advise in terms of time and karma, and tries to point out what
the will of the Supreme is. After all, astrology is a study of
time and Krishna does identify himself with time in the Gita:
" Kalo 'smi loka kshaya krit pravritto- Time I am the great destroyer
of all the worlds."
And imagine how much it facilitates one's Krishna consciousness
to practice a straightforward, Krishna conscious profession. A
devotee astrologer can answer the door with a dhoti or sari on,
tilak, and greet the client with the Holy Names. A devotee astrologer
doesn't have to hide what he is.
Compare this scenario with something I heard recently about a
gurukul graduate who was preparing himself to go to a foreign
country to teach English; this was his first job. In a way, that's
fine; I have taught English myself. A person has to do what he
has to do in order to build himself up economically, and teaching
English doesn't incurr much karma in and of itself. But what good
does it accomplish if we teach the nondevotees how to carry on
material life better? What if the nondevotee turns around and
applies for a job with a hamburger company, and puts on his resumÈ
that he studied English? That is not the kind of brahminical profession
that we exactly want to target.
But astrology is different because it is a natural platform for
preaching and brahminical dharma. An astrologer naturally introduces
concepts from the Bhagavad Gita into the interpretation such as:
the parampara system ( Evam parampara praptam ), the doctrine
of reincarnation and karma. In fact, it is hard to interpret unless
these themes are introduced. To be an astrological advisor of
a person is a very influential position to be in, and such a position
can help a devotee to introduce a person into Krishna consciousness.
Maybe most devotees don't realize it, but the situation is the
following, that there is a substantial market out there for a
straight-up, traditional part of Gaudiya Vaishnav traditional
culture- astrology. Vedic astrology has taken New Age circles
by storm over the last 15 years. New Age astrologers have incorporated
Vedic techniques into their interpretations or have gone over
to Vedic astrology completely.
Just to give the reader an idea, the Trascendental Meditation
group ( Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ) has a full-range program of Vedic
dharmas which they offer: They have a program which they call
" Gandharva Music," whereby they teach tablas, sitar and such,
a program of Ayurveda, and a " Jyotish " astrology program. People
who are interested in these attractive and traditional types of
dharmas get funneled into their program.
People are naturally interested in these arts; I know I joined
because I was attracted by deity worship, kirtan, reading the
Bhagavat, Sanskrit, and devotional music such as Shrila Prabhupada
singing " Chintamani," with a vina droning in the background.
But devotees soon learn that these things do not exactly constitute
a integral part of daily Hare Krishna movement life. The devotees
are encouraged to perform what I have labeled " gobs of work "
and minimize their sadhana, i.e., reading, memorizing verses,
learning Sanskrit, practicing the mridunga drum are all minimized,
and the devotee that strays from the course is put back on it.
We are told not to read " too " much, that it's more important
to serve, et cetera. One result of this is a generation of devotees
that don't have the grasp on the philosophy which the previous
one did, and a lot of alienated devotees, too. And lost opportunites
to reach the intelligent class of men, from middle class and professional
backgrounds, who are attracted to the traditional Vedic and brahminical
arts, and nurturing their minds. They go to the program which
the Maharishi people offer because, for one thing, it's the only
game in town.
In a way, it causes an astrologer with a Hare Krishna movement
perspective, or any devotee with a Hare Krishna movement perspective,
to experience a bit of chagrin. These brahminical arts are a natural
part of our heritage. For example, astrology and devotional music
are there in our literature. In the days of street kirtan, before
the result consciousness in relation to books and collection came
about, it was the devotees who were known for kirtan and singing.
But we didn't evolve too much along those lines, and nowadays
you find fewer and fewer devotees who can play a good drum although
individual outstanding examples, which are not typical of any
norm, are not lacking. The point being that the devotees were
first with a lot of these things, it's as if the Maharishis and
New Agers ran off with the stolen bread and captured the market
of intelligent, spiritually minded souls. I have already pointed
out that we were the first ones with several brahminical dharmas,
but we were the first ones in other ways, too. Brahminical dharmas
aside for a second, Spiritual Sky incense was basically a Hare
Krishna movement first, and it was sold off in order to orient
the devotees towards book distribution. So many jobs could have
been created, so many families supported, so much Laxmi could
have been earned for the temples, but short-sighted management
nipped the program.
And we had bliss Bars before any other such bars, at least that
is my impression. But they went under; I heard through the grapevine
that the corresponding temple in that zone scraped so much off
the top that there wasn't enough to invest back into the business
and down it went. To tell the truth, this case is a little bit
different; it wasn't a case of a theory or a certain policy of
the movement which gave a bad result, it's just an example of
heavy-handed, clumsy management suffocating up what some individuals
were trying to do. ( I advise the readers to familiarize themselves
with my article " Let's Get the Socialism Out of ISKCON " in the
In the meantime, the Sikhs came out with a bar called " Whadoaguruchew?
", which got distributed in the 7-11 chain, no less. They must
have made millions for their organization that way. But ISKCON
ran its effort into the ground with its all-encompassing socialistic
management structure which imposes more than a guiding hand.
Astrology appeared in ISKCON before any New Agers even had a notion
of such a thing as " Vedic " astrology. Nalini Kantha started
interpreting charts in Los Angeles in the late Seventies. But
management nipped that program, too; ISKCON management took advantage
of some mistakes that Nalini made ( anything new is going to be
imperfect until it has been refined and established ) to basically
invoke memories of the Salem witch trials! They didn't succeed
in stopping him as an individual, but they did succeed in disallowing
any astrology programs, despite interest on the part of the devotees.
But what if that young gurukul graduate could be working himself
into a career as a brahmin right now instead of preparing karmis
to learn English in foreign countries so that they can go work
for Mc Donalds? I mean a career as a brahmin- you know, a brahmin.
Nothing adapted, nothing undercover, no stretch of the imagination,
no round about logic- a brahmin. Just like Nilambar Chakravarti,
Mahaprabhu's grandfather- a brahmin like on the pages of Chaitanya
Charitamrita. It is the devotees of Krishna that should be known
as skilled astrological interpreters, mridunga, tabla and sitar
players, and Ayur Vedic practitioners. The devotees can provide
a very bona fide and very spiritual follow-on for people who become
interested in brahminical arts in the form of Chaitanya Vaishnavism.
Instead, the New Agers have stolen the bread and if you even mention
the Hare Krishna movement to them or to any spiritually minded
seeker, for that matter, they think you're an object of pity because
they know how similar to a cult our movement is. But nobody finds
Krishna Bhakti or Hare Nama through the New Agers; we should be
represented in the astrology and Ayur veda market.
The elitist ISKCON social and political structure has produced
a few shinning examples in every category, but the average devotee
is a rather ordinary product in terms of traditional brahmincal
skills and learning; as I mentioned before, the current crop doesn't
get the same amount of exposure to the literature as in the past.
That was the one category where we always shined. We are children
of a harsh father ( ISKCON management, not Shrila Prabhupada )
because we are not allowed to develop in the way that we love
and enjoy. Blinders are put on us and we are turned into workers
who have to obey others, even to the point of having personal
and economic decisions made for us. That is not the definition
of a brahmin, there is another varna which corresponds to that
description. I'm not going to mention which of the four it is,
but it begins with " s," and it isn't vaishya or kshatriya. (
Thank you GBC ).
But I'm not suggesting that all the devotees drop what they are
doing to go practice astrology. It would be a matter of hurry
up and wait. First of all, it takes many years of pondering the
astrological literature, several hours a day, to get a handle
on interpretation. You can't read three books and hang your shingle.
Most devotees have adult responsibilities which preclude the type
of study necessary. And then there is the matter of orientation.
When one studies the astrological literature, one has to be able
to distinguish, almost similar to the way in which devotees have
to be able to distinguish between Mayavadi presentations and Vaishnav
commentaries of the Vedic literature. Western and Muslim astrology
have infiltrated pure Vedic astrology, hodge-podging is rampant.
One has to know what to look for, as well as which books to read,
whose commentaries and which authors. And then one should get
worked into interpretation by an astrologer who is practiced.
For these reasons, gurukul would be a perfect place for an astrological
program. The gurukul children have their entire youth, their student
years, to ponder astrology and to observe how the planets work.
I say see how the planets work because the astrological principals
cannot be applied mechanically, everything blends and a prospective
interpreter needs time to absob experience. That way, when the
students mature and graduate, they can take their place in society
as counsellors and brahmins by profession, and not have to sell
trinkets in flea markets or put on sock caps and sell stickers
at footbal games and lie through their teeth, or teach nondevotees
how to speak English so that they can carry on their material
Of course, astrology will not be in any gurukul curriculum anytime
soon. It's just too controversial an issue at the moment and the
powers that be are very conservative; they don't seem to share
the vision that I have outlined here. And any program in ISKCON
might be very narrow in terms of access. So I advise that parents
go outside of the movement's framework in relation to an astrological
education for their children and to begin things on their own.
Books can be purchased right away and the kids can begin studying
and familiarizing themselves with Vedic astrological principals.
In the beginning, it might be a bit difficult; it would be like
one's first exposure to the Bhagavatam. But after a while, the
beginner starts to put things together; finishing touches can
always be added later with the help of a more experienced interpreter.
I would like to facilitate those interested by indicating some
appropriate reading. In general, the books of B.V. Raman are very
nice. Specifically, Hindu Predictive Astrology, How to Judge a
Horoscope, Parts I and II, and Notable Horoscopes are good books
to begin with. They can be ordered through Geovision Software,
whose e - mail is email@example.com, and whose number is: 1-800-459-6847,
and from J.D.R. Ventures, area code 330, number 263 - 1308: an
India gentleman named Dipak is the owner and gives personal good
service. Don't become sidetracked to other books which might be
suggested if you don't know what you're doing; you don't know
if the book being suggested is faithful to pure Vedic astrology
or not, but the reader can feel very comfortable with the books
of B.V. Raman. For example, Krishna culture offers quite a few
titles, but I have observed several books in their catalogue which
are decidely sub standard.
Finally, I'll leave my e - mail address open for anyone who has
questions or would like some additional orientation for getting
started, even though it is actually a simple matter of just purchasing
a few books and doing it.
I thank all the readers for their indulgence and I look forward
to hearing from a few of you.
Dharmapada Das / Dean De Lucia
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