When varnasrama goes wrong
Both Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Prabhupada urged us to implement Varnasrama Dharma, presenting it as a necessary step for Krsna Consciousness to spread through the world.
Varnasrama is important because it regulates material activities, allowing one to live in a pious way. Someone that is in a platform of pure devotional service is already situated in the supreme dharma, but all the others, that are still acting (at least partially) in the material platform need to live a pious life in order to be able to advance in their spiritual lives. A pious life is a foundation that allows one to build his spiritual life. As Srila Prabhupada used to quote, "a sinful man can't approach God". Without varnasrama, devotees that are not very serious in spiritual life tend to slowly just fall back into their past sinful habits, and thus gradually abandon Krsna Consciousness.
Just as people in satya-yuga, a small community of sages living in the forest don't need varnasrama because they are solely dedicated to spiritual activities, but as soon as the community grows and starts to include families, children, etc., the need arises as a solution for the material side. A community has many needs: different products need to be bought and sold, different services are needed, different types of training are needed, schools for the children, etc. The varnasrama system offers a culture, a set of rules and the knowledge necessary to run a society in a progressive way.
Just like a machine, a society demands specialization: different people, with different talents can develop and practice different sets of knowledge and execute different activities that are useful for the society. Someone needs to teach and train, someone needs to manage, someone needs to produce and sell, and someone has to work. There should be values, morals, etc. so people can perform their work in an honest way. Modern societies are based in values that are opposed to spiritual cultivation, varnasrama offers a much better solution from the spiritual standpoint, being thus a much better basis for a spiritually progressive society. More than that, the main component of the varnasrama system is training: the idea is to teach people how to be proper human beings, instead of just giving them technical knowledge like in modern universities. Our acaryas knew about that, therefore they were promoting the idea.
However, there is more than one type of varnasrama, and therefore we need to be able to differentiate and choose the right one. Varnasrama also needs to be reconciled with the higher vaishnava principles to be useful in our communities, otherwise we may end-up losing the spiritual essence, defeating the whole purpose.
First point to understand is that varnasrama is not a spiritual system. It's useful as a foundation for spiritual activities and it can be spiritualized when practiced as a service to Krsna, but in itself is a material system. In fact, varnasrama by itself is a system tainted with materialism, mixed with the idea of dharma, artha, kama, and moksha: religiosity, material development, sense gratification, and impersonal liberation. This is the type of varnasrama that is rejected by Caitanya Mahaprabhu in his talks with Ramananda Raya.
As Vaishnavas, we follow daiva varnasrama, which is the varnasrama system in its pure form, where all duties are executed for the satisfaction of the Lord, as a foundation to our devotional practices. In the daiva varnasrama system, the stages of artha and kama are accepted only to the degree they are useful for our service and spiritual practice, and the ultimate goal of moksha is replaced by the idea of achieving pure devotional service. A Vaishnava may acquire riches, but he engages such resources in the service of Krsna, therefore he doesn’t become entangled. He may build a family, but he doesn't see himself as the proprietor or enjoyer, it’s not “his” family, but Krsna’s family who he is maintaining. In essence, in the daiva varnasrama all of our activities are executed for the satisfaction of the Lord, and with the purpose of advancing spiritually.
In the materialistic varnasrama, the wife serves the husband with the mentality of obtaining material facilities and a better situation in the next life, while in the daiva varnasrama system she serves the husband as a service to The Lord. As we can see, in the first case the center is ourselves, while in the second the center is Krsna.
As the service and spiritual practice have primal importance, sometimes part of the rules and regulations of the varnasrama system may be adjusted if they are not favorable for the performance of one’s service.
This divine system is explained in the Srimad Bhagavatam:
"The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self. By rendering devotional service unto the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna, one immediately acquires causeless knowledge and detachment from the world. The occupational activities a man performs according to his own position are only so much useless labor if they do not provoke attraction for the message of the Personality of Godhead. All occupational engagements are certainly meant for ultimate liberation. They should never be performed for material gain. Furthermore, according to sages, one who is engaged in the ultimate occupational service should never use material gain to cultivate sense gratification. Life's desires should never be directed toward sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation, since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal of one's works." (SB 1.2.6-10)
Sometimes, we may not be able to distinguish the materialist varnasrama (or asuric varnasrama) from the pure daiva varnasrama, and this can lead to many misunderstandings. We should not forget that the four original principles of our mission, as transmitted by Lord Caitanya to Sanatana Goswami (CC Antya 4.80) and adopted by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and Srila Prabhupada are to teach the principles of pure devotional service to the public, to open centers for the cultivation of Krsna consciousness, to cultivate service to the holy dhama, and to teach people about how to practice renunciation. We practice daiva varnasrama as a support for these principles, not as a substitute for them.
“ ‘Krsna is the origin of Lord Visnu. He should always be remembered and never forgotten at any time. All the rules and prohibitions mentioned in the sastras should be the servants of these two principles.’ (CC Madhya 22.113)
To try to simply discard the idea of varnasrama, considering it impractical or unimportant is a serious mistake. On the other hand, if we just try to apply the rules of the varnasrama system (which includes roles for men and women) in an inflexible way, without adjusting to higher principles and exceptions, we deviate from Srila Prabhupada’s teachings in a different way, becoming some kind of orthodox Hindu sect. There are cases of devotees who, under the pretext of following Srila Prabhupada, try to push some kind of right-wing fundamentalism. This can be even more dangerous than someone who just rejects his teachings. The caste system of medieval India is an example of how varnasrama can go wrong when the principles are not properly understood.