This series systematically explains some of the important philosophical concepts that form the foundation of the Vedic culture and the Krsna consciousness movement
PART I: The term Vedic society refers to a state that is organized according to directions given in the ancient Vedic literature. The Vedic social structure is not manmade but divinely inspired. And it is not an idealistic, imaginary system, but it existed in the past for thousands of years. The Hare Krsna movement is trying to revive an ideal society founded on the teachings of the Vedic literature. Although in the modern age it would be impossible to adopt all the aspects of the traditional Vedic society, the principles upon which the society ran are as appropriate today as they ever were.
The original Vedic society was different from India's modern-day caste system. The Vedic society is called varnasrama, which refers to its four material divisions(varnas) and four spiritual divisions (asramas). These divisions are not arbitrary; they are made according to natural differences in individuals. By organizing society into the divisions of atmarama, the state allows people to work according to their propensities and at the same time gradually elevate their consciousness. The ultimate goal of the atmarama system is self-realization, or Krsna consciousness.
The four varnas are:
1. sudra (laborer class)
2. vaisya (productive class)
3. ksatriya (avdministrative class)
4. brahmana (intellectual class)
If we analyze any society, we will find these divisions. Some people are inclined to crafts and manual work, some are inclined to business or agriculture, some to administration, and some to intellectual pursuits.
Modern secular, egalitarian society fails to recognize basic differences in individual propensities but adopts systems that use the individual as a commodity regardless of his nature or inclinations. Ultimately, no one benefits from such systems, because they are not natural. There cannot be equality on the physical platform. People obviously have different abilities and inclinations.
In the Bhagavad-gita (4.13). Lord Krsna says, "According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me." In other words, the four divisions of varna are determined by guna and karma, by one's qualities and one's work not by birth.
Therefore, if the son of a sudra (laborer) exhibits the symptoms of a brahmana(intellectual), he must be accepted as a brahmana. And if the son of a brahmanaeither has the qualities of a sudra or does the work of a sudra, he is considered asudra. The saint Narada Muni, one of the great authorities of Vedic culture, makes this same point in Srimad-Bhagavatam.
The failing of modern Hinduism is that its followers disregard this scriptural injunction. In Vedic culture there is a natural respect for the "higher" classes, especially the brahmanas. Today, however, the higher classes cling to their status even when they are unqualified. In order to maintain their false status, they have concocted the idea of caste by birthright This allows them to enjoy privileges, and it bars the members of the other castes from ever questioning their qualifications. The practice of recognizing caste by birthright has caused much resentment in modern Indian civilization.
The Vedic literature compares the four divisions of society to the human body. The legs represent the sudras, the belly the vaisyas, the arms the ksatriyas. and the head the brahmanas. All these parts work together for the benefit of the whole body. When one part of the body is sick, the whole body suffers. Similarly, when one part of society is not functioning properly, the whole system suffers. Therefore, each part is important.
Now let us discuss the functions of the four varnas:
The brahmanas are considered the head of society, and their duty is to teach and guide all other varnas. Bhagavad-gita (18.42) lists the qualifications by which they are recognized:
Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom, and religiousness these are the natural qualities by which the brahmanas work.
Formerly, brahmanas would study the Vedic scriptures and become expert in one or several fields of knowledge. They were teachers, doctors, priests, astrologers, political advisers, and so on. They never charged for teaching, but those who took advantage of their knowledge supplied them with their necessities of life. Thebrahmanas would not accept more than necessary for a simple, austere life, and if they owned more, they would give it away in charity.
The ksatriyas are the arms of society. They provide all levels of administrative service up to the king, and they are the soldiers and the police. Their qualifications are listed in Bhagavad-gita (18.43):
Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness. courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the natural qualities of work for theksatriyas.
Vedic society was a monarchy. Unlike modern political leaders, the ksatriyakings were extremely powerful and would lead their men in battle. Civilians were never involved in warfare, and on the battlefield, fighting was only between equals.
The power of the king was not unlimited. Every king had an advisory staff ofbrahmanas, and he followed their advice, recognizing their wisdom. Thus a monarch would treat even a poor brahmana very respectfully as his superior.
A ksatriya king was responsible for the well-being of his citizens. He would never think of exploiting them, and he knew he had to accept karmic reaction for their sinful activities and for his own mismanagement.
The Vedic monarchs had to not only qualify as good administrators and military leaders but also exhibit the saintly qualities of a devotee of Krsna. The goal of their leadership was to enable all people to make progress on the path of spiritual enlightenment. Therefore, all activities detrimental to this goal were severely restricted. Vedic ksatriyas enforced injunctions against meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling. According to Vedic science meat-eating destroys the quality of mercy, gambling destroys honesty, intoxication destroys austerity, and sexual promiscuity destroys physical and mental cleanliness.
There are instances in Vedic history of kings who deviated from their duties of protecting the citizens and encouraging them to follow religious principles. These deviant kings were removed from their post by the spiritual power of the brahmanas.But such cases were rare, since kings were not elected by the politically uneducated masses but were selected by the most enlightened members of society.
Kingdoms would flourish under the rule of saintly and powerful monarchs. There was justice for everyone, even for people without money. Unemployment was unknown, because society was basically agrarian. Vedic society encouraged individual ownership of land so that people could be self-sufficient without artificial dependence on machines, bank loans, and complicated marketing procedures.
Life under saintly monarchs centered on Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and because of regular sacrifices and spiritual practices, nature responded with ideal weather, abundant food, water, and other natural resources. The people were happy and satisfied, and they progressed toward the goal of life, self-realization.
The vaisyas represent the belly of society. Their responsibility in Vedic culture was farming, business, and cow protection. Nowadays wealth consists of paper that can lose its value at any time. People have left the land by the millions, trading a simple and natural life for hellish factories, polluted cities, and stressful jobs. Often their dreams of enjoyment are frustrated by unemployment poverty, crime, and other harsh urban realities.
In Vedic times, however, land, cows, grains, and gold were considered wealth. They represent natural wealth, and their value is much more consistent than that of stocks and bonds.
In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna states that the vaisyas have the specific duty to protect cows. The cow is the most useful animal. According to Vedic understanding, she is considered our mother because she gives us her milk. From milk a large variety of dairy products can be made: yogurt, cheese, butter, curd, buttermilk, ghee (clarified butter), various sweets, and so on. Ghee is an important ingredient in Vedic sacrifices, and therefore the cow is considered the mother of religion. Even after the cow dies a natural death, she leaves us her hide for many useful purposes. Therefore cow protection is essential for the vaisya community.
Although vaisyas engaged in business, in the Vedic society business and money-making were not regarded as the goal of life. Nor were people indoctrinated to work hard for an endless variety of products no one really needs. They were not constantly bombarded with advertisements designed to agitate their senses. Every morning people would go to the temple, and in the evenings they would assemble and listen to the scriptures.
The sudras are naturally inclined toward manual labor and service to others. They represent the legs of society. The sudras in Vedic society were not considered "untouchables." Their services were seen as a valuable contribution to the smooth functioning of the Vedic society. Imagine a society without a work force to take care of construction, maintenance, cleaning, or general services. It obviously couldn't exist.
The head, arms, belly, and legs all have to perform their part in order to be a complete body. These four varnas can cooperate peacefully for the benefit of society but this is possible only if this system has a proper spiritual foundation. Without that, people become polluted by material qualities. In the next issue, we will discuss the spiritual divisions of Vedic culture.