© 1997 VNN


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 question.

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 succession.

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 VNN editorial
section )

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 lives better.

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 sales@parashara.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.

Yours Truly,
Dharmapada Das / Dean De Lucia