By Suresvara Dasa

While spreading Krsna consciousness worldwide, Srila Prabhupada used the Sanskrit term varnasrama at least four ways, and applied it differently to ISKCON, over three time periods.

To honor the fiftieth anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s incorporation of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, BTG presents Part Six of a ten-part series celebrating Srila Prabhupada’s unique, transcendental position in ISKCON, as well as every follower’s foundational relationship with him.

Between 1965 and 1977 Srila Prabhupada wrote dozens of books, opened over a hundred centers, and initiated thousands of disciples worldwide. By the summer of 1977 his nonstop sacrifice had taken its toll on his body. Returning to Vrindavan1 to continue translating Sanskrit texts about Krishna into English, Prabhupada commented that his days on earth were numbered. When a disciple later asked if he had any regrets, Prabhupada acknowledged he had “one lamentation.”

“That you have not finished translating the Srimad-Bhagavatam?”2

“No, that I have not established varnashrama.”3 (Interview with Abhirama Dasa, 18 February 1996, Vrindavan)


That timeless culture which shepherds us from the material to the spiritual realm, varnashrama comes up repeatedly in Prabhupada’s teachings. Yet Prabhupada had been so busy spreading the Hare Krishna movement he scarcely had time to demonstrate varnashrama’s practical application in the modern age. Indeed, only in the last years of his life did he identify varnashrama’s social/spiritual features as the key to attracting humanity en masse to Krishna.

“This is the next aspect of Krishna consciousness which I wish to push forward . . . . On these farms we can demonstrate the full varnashrama system. If these farms become successful then the whole world will be enveloped by Krishna consciousness. . . . In the cities we are interested for preaching, but we cannot present the ideal varnashrama system; this is possible only at the farms, so they are very important.” 4 (Letter excerpts from Srila Prabhupada to Hari Sauri Dasa, recorded in TKG’s Diary, 10 August 1977)

Despite the importance Prabhupada gave to varnashrama, his followers have been slow to embrace this aspect of his mission. To understand why, and what to do now, our first challenge is to recognize the different ways Prabhupada used the term.

Four Ways5

One: Vedic Varnashrama

According to India’s Vedic literature, Krishna consciousness once flourished globally with a culture at once scientific and spiritual, down to earth and out of this world.6 Developing their natural vocations (varnas) and transcending them in stages (ashramas), people found harmony and fulfillment working together to please life’s giver, the Supreme Person.

In the Bhagavad-gita (4.13) the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, asserts, “According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me.” As parts of the body work together to serve the whole, in varnashrama four broad vocational groups7 cooperate to serve the social body.

In Vedic times the guarantors of that cooperation were samskaras, sacred rites of passage through stages of spiritual progress. Prior to conceiving a child, for example, cultured people meditated on the divine, well aware that life comes from life and that the quality of their progeny would reflect the quality of their consciousness.

“That is Vedic civilization,” Srila Prabhupada observed, “samskara before the birth and immediately after the birth, then one after another. .. . Marriage is also another samskara. . . . There are dasha-vidhasamskara [ten purificatory rites] . . . [but] where is samskara going on [today]? Nobody takes care of . . . samskara. Still, they are declaring that ‘I am brahmana [highborn].’ Therefore the conclusion is kalau shudra-sambhavah: ‘Everyone is [lowborn]. (Morning Walk, 10 April 1974, Bombay)

Indeed, modern chaos reflects the general quality of the world’s population, as if born of a bottle of beer on Saturday night. The sacred act that once called a soul to enter the world and know God is today routinely reduced to a sport hostile to its natural outcome, conception. And those who make it into a womb often don’t make it out.

As much as Prabhupada liked to present Krishna consciousness as the positive alternative to modern civilization, he knew the days of classic Vedic varnashrama – “the days of yore,” he called them – were gone. To spread Krishna consciousness everywhere in modern times would require a special adaptation of varnashrama culture “according to time, candidate, and country.”8

Two: Dormant Varnashrama

Classic varnashrama may be gone, but its dormant realities endure, awaiting activation. For example, despite utopian attempts to make humanity classless, by nature classes remain. Speaking with a Russian professor in Moscow during the Soviet era, Prabhupada compared varnashrama to the sun:

So . . . sunshine is here in America, in Russia, in India – everywhere. Similarly, this varnashrama system is prevalent everywhere in some form or other. Just like the brahmanas. The brahmanas means the most intelligent class of men, brain, brain of the society. . . . Then the kshatriyas, the administrator class. Then the vaishyas, the productive class, and the shudras, the worker class. These four classes . . . are everywhere present in different names. And because it is creation by the original creator . . . it is prevalent everywhere, varnashrama.
(Conversation with Professor Grigoriy Kotovsky, 22 June 1971, Moscow)

The professor speaking with Prabhupada was an intellectual, others in his school were administrators, still others workers, and so on. By divine design different classes of people exist, not to exploit but to help and cooperate with one another. Oblivious of the Lord’s design, classes clash and suffer. The equality we seek finds perfection in devotional service, where all classes are valued as servants of the Supreme. When these values are forgotten, the Lord’s natural varnashrama order becomes corrupted, as India’s history shows.

Three: Materialistic Varnashrama

“The vitiated caste system of present India is never sanctioned by the scriptures,” Prabhupada wrote Indian Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Sardar Patel. “But the caste system is made by God according to quality and work of the subject and it was never designed for the benefit of accidental birth right.” (Letter to Dr. Patel, 28 February 1949, Calcutta)

Corrupt brahmanas claiming power and privilege based on birth have obscured the truth and beauty of India’s original varnashrama culture. Though typecast by the nature we acquire at birth, by engaging in devotional service we can rise above nature’s modes to realize our spiritual potential by cooperatively serving the Lord.

Lacking loving service, too often we compete and bargain with one another, treat God like Santa Claus, and run a ritualistic race to heaven. East or West, such materialistic religion wearies us, as it wearies God. It’s love we’re all after, intimate exchanges of selfless service, the divine life of varnashrama culture.

Four: Divine Varnashrama

Varn ash rama that elevates us from material to spiritual consciousness is called daivi, or divine. Prabhupada’s divine varnash rama for the modern day includes four essential features: (1) pure devotional service to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, as the goal of life; (2) local, land-and-cow economics as the model for sustainable living; (3) varnashrama colleges for vocational and spiritual retraining; and (4) the introduction of varnashrama principles “according to time, candidate, and country.”9

Borrowing a phrase from the English poet Wordsworth, Prabhupada sometimes referred to divine varnashrama as “plain living and high thinking.” When Krishna descended to earth, He Himself lived this way – in a bucolic village as a boy, and later in a clean-and-green city as a youthful prince. If we could show the world a better way to live, Prabhupada reasoned, everyone would eventually take the divine varnash rama journey home.

Prabhupada’s conclusion was the fruit of a lifetime of preaching. But since most modern Hare Krishna people don’t live the way Krishna lives, we’ve been slow to understand how Prabhupada’s application of varnashrama to ISKCON evolved over time.

Three Applications

One: Forget Varnashrama

From 1966 to 1973, the majority of his global preaching years, Srila Prabhupada often dismissed varnashrama as impractical. “Therefore this is the panacea, to engage everyone in Krishna consciousness, chanting Hare Krishna. . . . This is the only remedy. Now you cannot again introduce this system of varnashrama.” (Bhagavad-gita lecture, 30 December 1968, Los Angeles)

While he was launching ISKCON, Prabhupada’s priority was to put a head back on society: “At the present moment the society is headless, a dead body, or head cracked, crazy. There is head, nonsense head. . . . What is the use of nonsense head? Therefore there is a great necessity of creating a class who will act as brain and head. That is Krishna conscious movement.” (Lecture, 4 July 1970, San Francisco)

Since brahmanas are the head of the varnashrama social body, as much as possible Prabhupada was engaging his disciples in brahminical activities: chanting Hare Krishna, worshiping in the temple, studying and distributing books, staging spiritual festivals, and so on. For the most part, this strategy worked, but not always, as this exchange with an early follower illustrates:

One day after a lecture [Raphael] approached the Swami, stood beside the dais, and spoke up, exasperated, impatient: “I am not meant to sit in a temple and chant on beads! My father was a boxer. I am meant to run on the beach and breathe in big breaths of air. .. .” Raphael went on, gesticulating and voicing his familiar complaints – things he would rather do than take up Krishna consciousness. Suddenly Prabhupada interrupted him in a loud voice: “Then do it! Do it!” Raphael shrank away, but he stayed.
(Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita, Volume 2, Planting the Seed, Chapter 1)

And most stayed in those heady days of spiritual revolution. Though pleased with the counterculture youth flocking to his clarion call to chant, Prabhupada wanted to give Krishna consciousness to everyone. Soon Krishna would set the world stage to help Prabhupada make varnashrama culture more relevant and urgent, starting with his own followers.

Two: The World Needs Varnashrama

In 1973, owing to artificial manipulation of the oil supply in the Middle East, the world experienced an “energy crisis.” High prices, long gasoline lines, and violence dramatized the folly of a civilization dependent on finite fossil fuels.

Amid the angst, Srila Prabhupada saw an opportunity. Walking and talking with leading disciples the following spring, Prabhupada noted that if we could show the public a better way to live, they would be more inclined to listen to Krishna. “Because if the people are in chaos, how they’ll be able to accept the great philosophy? It requires cool brain.” (Morning Walk, 14 March 1974, Vrindavan)

Indeed, a brain nourished by fresh milk from protected cows, Prabhupada wrote, “can assimilate the subtle form of spiritual knowledge” (Light of the Bhagavata, text 27). To show the world a better way to live, Prabhupada’s followers would have to learn and teach the secrets of varnashrama culture. “[A] varnashrama college has to be established immediately,” Prabhupada declared. “Everywhere, wherever we have got our center, a varnashrama college should be established.” (Morning Walk, 12 March 1974, Vrindavan)

The devotees were astonished. Why was Prabhupada reversing his attitude toward varnashrama? But as they continued to walk with him, they began to understand his new tack as an extension of his compassion.

“Devotee, personally, he has no problem, but he pushes himself in this degraded society to teach . . . how to live, how to become gentlemen. Otherwise, we have no business. But if we don’t give them the opportunity, they’ll not be able to come to Krishna consciousness.” (Morning Walk, 14 March 1974, Vrindavan)

Since devotees are already with Krishna, Prabhupada continued, they don’t need varnashrama. But humanity needs varn ashrama to learn how to live and come home to Krishna. It wasn’t long before Prabhupada would further extend his compassion by telling the devotees how much they also needed varnashrama, humanity’s “steppingstone for spiritual understanding” (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, 2.31, Purport).

Three: You Need Varnashrama

On February 14, 1977, in his quarters in Mayapur, India, Srila Prabhupada reminded the devotees how important it was for them to inspire and educate people by following varnashrama principles. When a disciple pointed out that Lord Chaitanya10 dismissed varnashrama as “external,” Prabhupada replied, “Our position is different. . . . Our duty is that we shall arrange the external affairs all so nicely that one day they will come to the spiritual platform very easily, paving the way.” (Conversation, 14 February 1977, Mayapur)

When another disciple wondered why devotees, who were already on the spiritual platform, beyond the designations of varna and ashrama, should follow varnashrama principles, Prabhupada questioned his presumption:

Varnashrama . . . should be established to become Vaishnava [devotee]. It is not so easy to become Vaishnava. . . . If Vaishnava, to become Vaishnava is so easy, why so many . . . fall down? It is not easy to become Vaishnava.

The longer Prabhupada preached in the West the more he saw how even his own followers would need the varnashrama bridge to come to Krishna. As his life on earth was coming to a close, Prabhupada knew that building the bridge – a bridge the whole world could cross – would be a great challenge.

His Varnashrama Challenge

In Part 5 of this series, we saw how Prabhupada expanded the Hare Krishna movement in phases. Whereas earlier phases focused on brahminical concerns and activities – holy names and holy books, temples and deity worship, initiation and congregation – the varnashrama phase invites everyone to help build a spiritual society.

In the Bhagavad-gita (12.8–10) Lord Krishna makes a similarly progressive entreaty. “Just fix your mind on Me,” He advises the saintly listener. For those less advanced the Lord then recommends the disciplines of devotional yoga. “In this way you will develop a desire to attain Me.” And for those not ready to follow strict vows, Krishna recommends working for Him.

In his commentary to text 10, Prabhupada reaches out to all kinds of people:

There are many devotees who are engaged in the propagation of Krishna consciousness, and they require help. So, even if one cannot directly practice the regulative principles of bhakti-yoga, he can try to help such work. Every endeavor requires land, capital, organization, and labor. . . . This voluntary service to the cause of Krishna consciousness will help one to rise to a higher state of love for God, whereupon one becomes perfect.

Since most people live in or near cities, it is efficient to engage them in building city temples to attract everyone to Krishna. At the same time, the modern urge to live a simpler, more natural way of life will find fulfillment the more we engage people in building spiritual communities that live the way Krishna lives.

“So this Krishna consciousness movement is trying to revive . . . village organization, as you are trying here. Krishna, in His natural life, is a village boy in Vrindavan. Vrindavan is a village. . . . But it does not mean that we shall avoid city life or town life. No. Everything, every place is Krishna place. Everywhere there should be Krishna consciousness. (Lecture, 15 July 1976, Gita-nagari)

Krishna’s daivi-varnashrama village holds the missing pieces to the modern eco-puzzle. “If these farms become successful then the whole world will be enveloped by Krishna consciousness.” And since the varnashrama college holds the blueprints to the village, “The varnashrama college has to be established immediately. Everywhere, wherever we have got our center . . .” 11

Town or country, reviving divine varnashrama culture will help us envision our natural role in Krishna’s world. And by accepting one another as the Lord’s eternal servants, we’ll find the freedom, equality, and classlessness we seek in this life and the next.

In the next issue:

Having seen the scope of Srila Prabhupada’s varnashrama vision, in Part 7 of our series we’ll look at how to find our individual mission in his mission.


1. The earthly counterpart of Krishna’s eternal abode, located some ninety miles southeast of New Delhi, India.

2. “The Beautiful Story of the Supreme Personality of Godhead,” the cream of Vedic literature.

3. Varnashrama culture teaches us how to practice our varna (vocation) throughout the stages of spiritual life (ashrama).

4. By “farms” Prabhupada meant agrarian-based villages with social/spiritual features. Varnashrama cities also included these features, unlike the modern materialistic cities Prabhupada mentions.

5. For more about the ways Prabhupada used varnashrama, see the July/August 2000 issue of BTG (#34/4 in the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase).

6. Apart from scriptural evidence, modern archeologists continue to unearth Vedic artifacts worldwide:

7. The four vocational groups: (1) priests, teachers, counselors; (2) soldiers, statesmen, administrators; (3) agriculturalists and businessmen; (4) artists, craftsmen, laborers.

8. Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya-lila, 23.105, Purport.

9. Ibid.

10. Lord Krishna’s “golden avatar,” who popularized chanting Hare Krishna and dancing.

11. For more about the varnashrama college, see the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase: Contents/Compilations/Varnasrama-dharma/VD2