In this age of inflation and economic crisis, the solution lies in adopting the Vedic model of natural living.
His Holiness Bhakti Raghava Swami is a disciple of Srila Prabhupada. He presently serves as a sannyasi and initiating spiritual master within the Krishna consciousness movement. During the early days of ISKCON Mayapur, he lost one leg due to an attack with bomb in Mayapur. However, in spite of this handicap, he travels extensively. He is involved in many projects related to varnasrama, promoting rural development, and he is the main force behind Global Varnasrama Educational Social Cultural Organization (GLOVESCO). He currently preaches in India, Nepal, and many Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia and Indonesia.
Here we present an interview with him.
BTG: How were you introduced to Krishna consciousness?
Bhakti Raghava Swami (BRS): Although I had completed my graduate studies from the University of Ottawa and secured a decent job as a qualified social worker, like many young people trying to understand this world, I was frustrated and not content in life. My introduction to Krishna consciousness was gradual. Leaving my job was the first step to getting disentangled. I suddenly had more time to read and think; I began devouring books on eastern philosophy, practiced yoga, and took interest in martial arts. My karate teacher was helpful in my search by pointing out the devotees chanting in downtown Toronto while we were on our way to a tournament. He made a remark to the effect that these people (the Hare Krishnas) may look odd to most people but they are involved in something very deep. Wanting to read books that would give me more clues about life, I went to our Timmins Municipal Library in my home town and found a book entitled “One Hundred Best Books,” which mentioned the Bhagavad-gita. In reading a summary of the Gita in that book, I came to know about Krishna. After some time, I decided to systematically visit various spiritual groups. There were some six to eight groups on my list, the Hare Krishnas being at the bottom. Nonetheless, I decided to join the devotees soon after I received Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is from a devotee on the street in Ottawa. He also gave me an invitation to attend the Sunday Feast at the Ottawa temple located at that time on Besserer Street. My first visit was positive. In particular, I was attracted to the prasada I still remember my first jallebis! the philosophy, and the gentle words and behavior of the devotees.
BTG: What did you find distinctive or unique about Krishna consciousness?
BRS: What I found unique about Krishna consciousness was the more complete and detailed explanations about both the material and spiritual world. I had spent seven years in seminary, and during that time I developed doubts about spirituality in general and Christianity in particular. Krishna consciousness gave clear information and explanation about God and the spiritual world, while Christianity spoke of Lord Jesus as the son of God. Coming in contact with Krishna consciousness was like being introduced to Lord Jesus’ father, Lord Krishna, and to Krishna’s abode in Vaikuntha. The mystery of the Trinity as presented in Christian theology the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit no longer remained a mystery in Krishna consciousness. The Father was Krishna, the Son was all of Krishna’s created living entities who can become perfect sons like Lord Jesus by taking to bhakti-yoga and the Holy Spirit was Paramatma, the Lord present as Paramatma in each atom and in everyone’s heart. The basic teachings of Christianity and Krishna consciousness are largely the same, being in both cases personal and devotional, except for the misunderstanding within Christianity about re-incarnation. But Krishna consciousness appealed to me with its more clear understanding of God and His creation.
BTG: What has inspired you to focus your energy on varnasrama development?
BRS: It took me about twenty-five years to “discover” varnasrama-dharma within ISKCON. I call it a discovery because it was only when I read Srila Prabhupada’s essay on Gita-nagari and a 1949 letter he wrote to Dr. Patel, the then Deputy Prime Minister of India, that I discovered the “Four Movements” that Srila Prabhupada explained would spread the mission of Lord Caitanya all over the world. Those four movements are the (1) Sankirtana Movement (holy name and books), (2) Deity Worship Movement (establishing temples), (3) Spiritual Initiation Movement (congregational preaching), and (4) Classless Society Movement (social reform through the varnasrama system).
That revelation came in 1994, when I first visited Indonesia. It was there that I became more attracted to varnasrama, especially while working with university students who were soon to graduate and enter the material world, away from devotee association. By late 1998 a growing interest in varnasrama had developed, and in the early part of 2000 my post-graduate studies increased my conviction about the need to fully introduce varnasrama culture.
BTG: Your Master’s thesis in Education compares Indian gurukula and Indonesian pondok pesantren. Can you tell us what inspired this? How did this study shape your understanding of implementing varnasrama in modern times?
BRS: I wanted to stay longer in Indonesia, and one way to do that was to become a full-time student. So I decided to take up post-graduate studies in education. I had graduated in 1968, and here I was in year 2000, some 32 year later, aged close to 55, wanting to take up formal studies. Education was a field that has always interested me. In the context of varnasrama, this was perfectly natural for me also because a sannyasi is primarily meant to be a teacher.
I began to realize how education plays a crucial role. The university I chose, State University of Yogyakarta, was specializing in training educators, and one of the courses was named PLS, Pendidikan Luar Sekolah (literally, Education Outside Schools). It was easy to take traditional education as a subject of research. And to my pleasant surprise I found that Indonesia still had remnants of the old gurukula system called pondok pesantren. Pondok refers to a place like an ashrama, and pesantren comes from the word Shastra. From Shastra, santri is derived, which means “those who study scriptures.” As it turned out, the present system of pondok pesantren in Indonesia replicates the traditional Indian gurukula.
The result of the thesis clearly demonstrated the close parallel between the gurukula system in India and that of pondok pesantren in Indonesia. Both utilize the five basic principles found in traditional education: (1) definition of education [having both material and spiritual content], (2) disposition of both teachers and students, (3) delivery of knowledge within a boarding school setting and delivered through a traditional language, such as Sanskrit or Arabic, (4) design of curriculum based exclusively on scripture, and (5) goal of education being that of self-realization.
BTG: You have concentrated a significant amount of your energies in India. Can you explain if and how you feel India can return to varnasrama?
BRS: We need to correct the abuses that polluted the original varnasrama system, daiva-varnasrama, and explain its scientific nature. Within daiva-varnasrama, everyone is focused on practicing bhakti and serving Lord Krishna. To change the tide, we must show by example how a simplified lifestyle based on land and cows, agriculture, not industry, being the main source of economy is the preferred system leading towards sustainability. Much of the growing trend towards eco-friendly living and natural economy needs to be connected to the traditional values and systems available through varnasrama, wherein people live in harmony with nature and one another. Having models of such varnasrama communities will go a long way to help restore faith in varnasrama. We need the system itself. Only when they see living examples will people take to this simplified lifestyle.
But first, two important components are needed. One component is the establishment of training and educational centers. Within ISKCON, these are referred to as varnasrama colleges, where one can learn about the four varnas and four ashramas. Training in the traditional educational systems of gurukula is also of paramount importance. The Global Village Initiative Committee (GVIC) has been developing a curriculum for establishing such varnasrama colleges, and these should soon be available to devotees, at least here in India, through the ISKCON Daiva Varnasrama Ministry (IDVM). More information is available at iskconvarnasrama.com and idvm.com.
The other component has to do with building awareness. ISKCON should see itself not just as a spiritual organization but as a movement dedicated to social reform. One of the main purposes of the Lord’s descent is to re-establish the principles of dharma, which must be understood in its two features of bhagavata-dharma (pure science of the soul and Supersoul) and varnasrama-dharma (pure science of the conditioned soul living in the material world), both essential and mutually supportive. If we only stress the devotional aspect and neglect the practical dimension, we are misunderstanding the actual meaning of dharma. In other words, our lifestyle must reflect our philosophy. Our occupations must be in accord with a more natural lifestyle. The European industrial revolution was the beginning of our present deviation, and it continues unhampered and is rapidly destroying our planet.
BTG: Given the impending global challenges climate change and economic crisis there is an increasing mainstream recognition of the importance of eco-friendly living. What do you feel are the special insights that varnasrama can offer in addressing these challenges?
BRS: The varnasrama socio-economic model can indeed offer special insights to leaders and common people around the world. We should know that we are at the threshold of a global collapse on all fronts because we have significantly deviated from more natural systems. We could say that we have deviated from dharma itself. Dr. Vandana Shiva, a well-known environmentalist, speaks of three main crises threatening the planet. Interestingly enough, she connects this to our having deviated from principles of dharma. Here is how she puts it:
“Climate chaos and peak oil are converging with a third crisis the food crisis. The food crisis results from the combined impacts of the industrialization and globalization of agriculture. . . . The real solution must be to search for right living . . . right living is dharma . . . Ecological balance and social justice are intrinsic to right livelihood, to dharma. Dharanath dharma ucyat: that which sustains all species of life and helps maintain harmonious relationships among them is dharma. That which disturbs the balance and her species is adharma.”
She is, of course, from India and close to the Vedic culture. But even someone like Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, recognized agriculture as the best means by which a nation can prosper:
“There seem to be three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbors. This is robbery. The second is by commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way, where a man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favor as a reward for his innocent life, and his virtuous industry.”
The root of our problem is greed, which leads to over-emphasis on economic development. In the past few decades leaders and socially conscious individuals have been organizing conferences in different parts of the world to educate the general populace and to help bring about urgently needed changes. Although many such conferences and seminars have involved thousands of participants and required huge expenditures budgets, the response has been slow to manifest. Srila Prabhupada has already warned us: present day modern society with its overemphasis on economic development through industry is a doomed society. Unfortunately, even Prabhupada’s own followers have not yet taken this warning seriously.
The daiva-varnasrama system Srila Prabhupada advocated is based on the standard traditional concepts that form the basis of Vedic culture and lifestyle. Not only is ISKCON meant to be an educational and cultural movement, in addition to its spiritual pursuits, but it is also meant to bring about social change. We must therefore see it as a social reform movement.
Some of the notable insights directly related to the socio-economic model upon which varnasrama is based are related to the following four principles: (1) the standard lifestyle for any sustainable society must be agrarian-based, (2) an agrarian-based culture more easily leads one to both material and spiritual prosperity and well-being, (3) concepts of sustainability, self-sufficiency, respect for nature, respect for mankind, and the pursuit of self-realization form the basis of such a life-style, the effects of which are a balanced ecology, bio-diversity, natural growth, and harmony and peace within society, and (4) the foundation of varnasrama is based on God consciousness, where respect for humans and all forms of life, especially the cows, is of paramount importance.
The interview was conducted by Caitanya Carana Dasa on behalf of BTG.