Varnasrama Education In The Modern World

By Karuna Krishna Dasa - 25.6 2018

Complementarity relationship between the Brahmacari Ashram and the Grihastha Ashram

When Srila Prabhupada began his preaching labor in the West, in New York City, towards the second half of the 1960s, he synthesized in a sentence the essence of ISKCON’s philosophy: “The process of Krishna consciousness is simultaneously easy and sublime.” Although the phrase became very popular in those days, and was widely used as a slogan for the young preachers of our movement, it has been only with the passing of the years that we have been able to understand what Srila Prabhupada tried to communicate with that wording. The word “easy” does not mean “cheap”. ISKCON as a hereditary, spiritual institution of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, has its goal as a creation of a community of pure devotees, people who serve God, without personal motives, uninterrupted and free of material desires. The progress in Krishna Consciousness should be shown by a gradual disappearance of the manifestations of lust, anger and greed in the heart of its practitioners. For that reason, we now understand that the word “easy” used in this slogan means “possible” or “available”. In this way, if we follow this process it will be “easy” to reach positions like “sublime” within Pure Bhakti.

The Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was liberal in extreme, accepting within the movement of Sankirtana people considered to be degraded by the followers of the Vedic culture, however, its liberality did not preclude simultaneously that he was very strict in requiring all his followers’ faithful compliance with the complete standard in spiritual practices.

The problem that ISKCON faced in this conjuncture is that history has demonstrated that there are more persons who approach the temples, attracted by the spiritual potency of Bhakti, than those who are capable of following all the principles and rules and regulations that the ISKCON demand from its practitioners. The real problem for ISKCON has been in seeing new followers and practitioners, in the course of time abandoning these principles, rules and regulations (either partially or totally) in the absence of skill to guide and to attend to these frustrated practitioners with a spirit of ripeness and comprehension. In the process of “Cultural transplantation” that Srila Prabhupada conducted in the West, one of the main concerns was to establish respect for the Ashrams, the stages of life by which a devotee should pass all the parameters of civilized people according to the Vedic perspective. Truly, our Founder Acharya showed a big worry in teaching to its young students the concepts of regulated “Brahmacarya”, celibate student and “Grihastha“, married life. The above mentioned work was not by any means simple, the first ISKCON followers were individuals coming from the counter-culture.

According to the Vedic principles, the spiritual life of a person begins by the practice of Brahmacarya, which is the basis of the four Ashrams. There is no possibility of controlling the mind and the senses without following the principles of Brahmacarya, and there does not exist possibility of reaching success in the spiritual life and obtaining pure Bhakti if he/she does not learn to control the mind and senses.

The Vedic culture has always been very careful not to allow unrestricted relations between men and women. Particularly speaking, a Brahmacari, a celibate student, has his/her sexual relations restrained in consideration of an entire emphasis on the study of scripture and service to his/her spiritual master. In his brilliant essay, “Cleaning the House and Cleaning the Heart”, Prabhu Ravindra Svarupa summarized as follows the difficulties that Srila Prabhupada experienced while trying to establish, for the first time, the Brahmacari Ashram in ISKCON:

“His first followers were young, immature, lacking in training and experience. Many suffered from mental, moral and spiritual disorders that came from their experiences in the counter-culture and the Vietnam War. The ISKCON of those early times absorbed the contempt that the counterculture felt from society and its institutions. As a result of these attitudes, often the devotees were unnecessarily hostile and confrontational with all authority figures (including their own parents).

Some sought to support this hostility with verses of Scripture, taken out of context. The temples were filled with candidates for the Brahmacari Ashram that lived under the great pressure to be able to fulfill vows and commitments, many of which exceeded their reality. In those times, there were not many mature and experienced devotees that could guide them with healthy advices. The problems, flaws and failures, in following in the beginning could not be recognized and not much less controversial. As result of this intolerant ambience, many candidates simply were disappearing overnight, but equally, many new candidates were coming to the temple to occupy its place”.

In general, this atmosphere described here by Prabhu Ravindra Svarupa, ISKCON of the first times, continued to exist several years after the departure of Srila Prabhupada, until the mid-90s in which ISKCON, recognizing the difficulty that many experienced in living as Brahmacaris of temple full-time, began to give emphasis to the programs of congregational preaching, develop a change of attitude and vision toward the devotees called “externals”. Going on from the time, and particularly after the change of century, the populations of the communities of Brahmacaris of the temples of ISKCON in the Occident diminished drastically, while we fix now our attention in other big Ashram that Srila Prabhupada established in the Occident: Grihastha Ashram.

In 1969, three couples of young people, Grihasthas disciples of Srila Prabhupada, were very successful in inaugurating an ISKCON temple in London and that impressed greatly Srila Prabhupada who said the following thing in a class in 1971, in Bombay, India:

“My spiritual master formed many more Brahmacaris and Sannyasis for his work of preaching, however, I am going to train more Grihasthas, because in Europe and North America boys and girls, are interrelated so closely that there is difficult to maintain a Brahmacari. We do not need false Brahmacaris. The life of a married person is known as a Grihastha Ashram, which is as good as Sannyasa Ashram. Ashram means the place where there is Bhagavad Bhajana, God’s glorification. It makes no difference if one is a Sannyasi, Grihastha or a Brahmacari. The main target is to realize Bhagavad Bhajana. I would like to inform you that these married disciples are helping me very much and give a practical example, I tell them that many years ago, one of my God-brothers, a Sannyasi with so much reputation, was sent to London by my spiritual master to inaugurate a temple, but after three or four years of being there, he was unable to perform this task, so he was called back to home. However, I have commanded to three couples of Grihasthas and in a year, they have opened a beautiful temple”.

As a result of these successes, Srila Prabhupada encouraged for those years the Grihastha Ashram among his disciples, but sadly, because of the lack of maturity of many of them, those relationships could not be maintained.

It has been more than fifty years since ISKCON was founded in 1966 and with regard to the topic of education within the Ashrams, we wish to make the following analysis and reflections:

The Ashrams of Brahmacari and Grihastha in ISKCON have been established by Srila Prabhupada, strictly in accordance with the codes and Vedic principles which are ancient and millenarian (as e.g. the rules of Yajñavalkya that describe the behavior of a Brahmacari). These codes and principles are eternal and may not be altered or changed. However, taking as a basis the experience gained after five decades, it is necessary to rethink new strategies on the most efficient way in which these same principles, rules and standards can be applied and used in the daily practice of the young Brahmacaris and Grihasthas of ISKCON today.

We must not forget that, for example, there is a great difference between the life of a Brahmacari of the ancient Vedic times and a Brahmacari that lives in a temple of ISKCON today. Brahmacaris of the ancient Vedic times lived in forests in the school of the Guru and in that situation of social isolation and contemplative silence they devoted themselves exclusively to the service of their spiritual master, avoiding all contact with the opposite sex until the moment in which they entered to family life. On the contrary, the Brahmacaris of the temples of ISKCON are young people who come to the institution after having had (in most cases) a lot of frustrating and traumatic experiences in the materialistic life, both in its adolescence and in their early youth. They will not be able to avoid having contact with young girls inside the temple and out of it and also they will have to treat with money, digital technology, easy access to mass media, etc. This young people Brahmacaris need to be supervised and directed by mature devotees, already experienced in the difficulties originating from this Ashram. A beginning of confidence must exist between the young man Brahmacari and his leader. This principle of confidentiality must allow the young practitioners to be able to reveal to his spiritual counselor all its internal crises, having the security that this information will be kept in reserve. We must note with sadness that this culture of secrecy is still not much in ISKCON. Also it is important to understand the time of duration of the life needed in this Ashram. Although it was never forced on anyone to remain forever in the Ashram of Brahmacaris, in practice, ancient Ashram of Brahmacaris was structured and the things were managing as if they all were going to remain forever there, which demonstrated to be a big error. Some successful Ashram of Brahmacaris of India can serve like example in these topics.

Besides, on the other hand, there is also a large difference between the life of a Grihastha of the ancient Vedic times, who lived in an agricultural society and a Grihastha of present society that has to be able to reconcile their professional lives, and family and social relations with the model of devotional behavior of a married person within Krishna Consciousness. The working environment and social relations in which they live the life of a modern ISKCON Grihastha, is highly polluted and he must be able to counteract the pernicious influence, getting involved in devotional activities and preaching. For a Grihasthas couple, both participants must maintain common goals and their main objective will have to be to restore their eternal relation as God’s servants offering him all their love and devotion. A favorable change that has happened in the formation of Grihasthas Ashram of the contemporary ISKCON is that in contrast to earlier times, now one thinks of the topic of the psychology of the Krsna conscious couple. They offer to themselves workshops of resolution of conflicts and speak with everyone more openly about these topics in ISKCON worldwide.

As a curious fact, we wish to point out that, in places where the Ashrams of Brahmacaris have disappeared, persons are devoted to the community of Grihasthas, and they seek to learn about the principles of the Brahmacari Ashram and seek as far as possible to assimilate in their lives these same principles of behavior. Truly, the Ashrams of Brahmacaris and Grihasthas are not opposites but complementary and it is in this same spirit that we can try to restore respect for the Vedic Culture.

Karuna Krishna Dasa is Secretary of the National Council of ISKCON, Peru, Vice President of the Administrative Board of ISKCON, Chosica, Former President of ISKCON, Cusco and Director of Education of ISKCON-Peru.