29 September 2010

Money and Varnashrama Culture

Money, that ubiquitous substance that everyone the world over pursues to fulfill their desires, is rather young in the history of the world—a mere 2,500 years or so old. Prior to that there was no such thing as we now understand it anywhere on this planet. The earliest form of money found in India was that of the Greeks, and is estimated to have arrived there not before the fifth century BCE.[1] Prior to that time all trade was done by barter exchange. There was no notion of “the economy”, and such a thing was certainly not the focus of everyone as it is today.
Often when I make this point someone will cite the fact that Balarama wagered gold coins in His chess gambling match with Rukmi, and that this is therefore “proof” that money was in India at that time. While coins may well have been crafted as a convenient way to handle gold, those coins did not serve as a medium of exchange as money does today. Indeed, in the KRSNA Book (Chapter 11) Srila Prabhupada explains that in those days trade was done by exchange: “Upon hearing the vendor call, ‘If anyone wants fruits, please come and take them from me!’ child Krishna immediately took some grains in His palms and went to get fruits in exchange. In those days exchange was by barter; therefore Krishna might have seen His parents acquire fruits and other things by bartering grain, and so He imitated.”
Understanding this point is essential for our correct understanding of how the varnashrama culture operated, because we often hear devotees assuming it to be the case that money was a feature of Vedic society. It was not, and there are important reasons for that. We will come back to money and varnashrama culture below, but let’s first look at how varnashrama culture functioned.
Varnashrama culture functioned by the cooperative effort of all segments of society. From the Bhagavad-gita we learn that people are divided into categories known as varnas, and that each group would work according to their guna and karma, or their own nature. Many people have experience of the great satisfaction achieved by doing work that they genuinely like to do, which is another way of saying that it is according to their guna and karma. Each varna had their “duties,” which are explained in the dharma shastras. In the varnashrama culture members would voluntarily do this duty understanding that doing so would lead them to a heavenly reward and a higher birth in their next incarnation. Further, the ksatriya was tasked with seeing that everyone had proper engagement. This protected both the individual as well as the group. Their duties were typically performed in cooperation with others, each person reciprocating the service of others with his own service.
We can get some insights into the social dynamics of the varnashrama culture from Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja’s description of Bangladeshi culture in his book Glimpses of Traditional Indian Village Life. There he writes:
“Bangladeshi culture does not promote individual dynamism, competitiveness, or the type of efficiency required for technological advancement. Rather, although not uninterested in economic development, a Bangladeshi is more concerned to preserve the indigenous group culture that fosters the sharing and cooperativeness necessary for a traditional labor-intensive agrarian society... Necessity also dictates maintaining good relationships with neighbors. Most people aren’t well situated economically, so those who have more are expected to help those with less. It’s a culture of sharing and responsibility toward others... Bangladeshis emphasize dependence on others and a sense of group identity. They usually say “our house” and “our country” rather than “my house” or “my country.”... The group lends support when a member is in difficulty, whether moral, social, or economic. Reciprocally, members have obligation to the group, one of which is conformity. In fact, the pressure to maintain fellowship with the group is extremely strong. In this way the group regulates the behavior of its members, keeping them within the bounds of acceptable conduct.
I want to underscore that efforts that were made to maintain the group dependency, because individual members falling away from the group would threaten the survival of the entire group. Although I do not know that varnashrama culture is intact amongst these Bangladeshis it is not unreasonable to extrapolate their experience to varnashrama culture, since it must also have been a labor-intensive culture that depended on the support of the group. Varnashrama culture also functions on the basis of such mutual dependence. The varnashrama culture is often compared to a social machine, and if important parts are removed from the machine it cannot function. We learn from the Bhagavatam how the varnashrama culture began to disintegrate with the fall of the brahminical class, then later the ksatriya class, and now it is the vaisya class that is wreaking havoc all over the world.

Adding Money to Varnashrama Culture
What would happen if money is added to a mutually-dependent group such as the Bangladeshis or varnashrama culture? Let’s consider the influence of money. Typically money makes us feel independent of others because money allows us to purchase our necessities in the market. This gives us a sense of freedom which we have come to value in modern society. The result is that when a person has money, they don’t need others and don’t have to conform to the group standard. They are free to act independently. If I have money I don’t need you. And if you have money you don’t need me.[2] It should not be too difficult to see that the effect of money is to destroy the group solidarity of the mutually-dependent cultures, which in turn destroys the culture itself. We have a recent example of this from the formerly isolated area of Ladakh.
Anthropologist Helena Norberg-Hodge, was the first foreigner accepted to make her home in Ladakh (Kashmir). She had the privilege of living there over the course of three decades, coming to know life in the traditional villages before the intrusion of Western culture. She documented what it was like both before and after the influx of the West, and how the Ladakhi culture was destroyed. She writes:
“A Western tourist can spend more [money] in a day than what a Ladakhi family might in one year. Seeing this, Ladakhis suddenly felt poor. The new comparison created a gap that never existed before because in traditional Ladakh, people didn’t need money in order to lead rich and fulfilling lives. Ladakhi society was based on mutual aid and cooperation; no one needed money for labor, food, clothing, or shelter...In the traditional economy, Ladakhis knew that they had to depend on other people, and that others in turn depend on them. In the new economic system, local interdependence disintegrates along with traditional levels of tolerance. In place of cooperative systems meeting needs, competition and scarcity become determinants for survival.” [3]
Another important aspect is place: in mutually-dependent societies everyone has a place from which to relate to others. they may wish to have a higher status, but in any case they have some status. Having a place gives a person a sense of belonging and a sense of security. With the introduction of money we can be free, but our place can only be had when we have a job. Without a job we have no place in society and thereby become alienated. This increases the sense of voidism and impersonalism that has so alienated the masses of people in the modern day.
What we learn from these cultural lessons is that we cannot successfully mix these two cultures: the modern culture with its artifacts such as money, and the traditional of mutually-dependent relationships. Indeed if we want to have a close and supportive community we have to combine our interests, and particularly our economic interests. This will do much to bring us closer together and give us a real sense of security.
Unfortunately in our efforts to understand and establish rural communities we have not understood the necessity of village economics, and thus we have not been able to achieve the successful results that we so desired. In our future efforts to establish the varnashrama culture we must be careful to understand the proper functioning of the varnas, the positive results of mutual-dependency, and what is necessary to protect the budding culture from undesirable cultural influences.

[1] Studies in Indian Coins, D. C. Sircar, Moltilal Banarsidass Pub., Delhi, 2008, pgs. 4, 8, 349
[2] Of course this is illusory since without the help of many others our money is useless.
[3] Helena Norberg-Hodge, The Pressure to Modernize and Globalize, from Case
Against the Global Economy, Jerry Mander, and Edward Goldsmith, editors, Sierra Club Books, 1997

Revolt of the Elites

Christopher Lasch, a well-known American social and cultural critic, argued in his last book that democracy was withering in the hands of professional and managerial elites who lack a sense of social and civic values. By 1994, Lasch had come to believe that the economic and cultural elite, who historically have insured the continuity of a culture, had lost faith in the traditional values, and had become detached from the concerns of the common man. Modern elites, he wrote, are not anymore connected with their geographical and social background and roots, and do not accept any constraints and limits in the pursuance of their egotistical interests, which are basically money oriented. Money is what counts. Only money. Only “my money.”
Moreover, the elites have lost interest in the plight or the needs of the common man, and have become alienated from them, and “the professional classes in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension.”  Lasch called it a Revolt of the Elites, also the title of his book. Sensing this disconnect, the working class has responded with a sense of apathy and become alienated from the intellectual class of “symbolic analysts.” This is a breakdown of the social order. Lasch was increasingly concerned about the future of the world and questioned whether democracy can survive. His last question of his last book (before passing on) demonstrates his concern for the future: can a society survive when a significant portion of its elite have forsaken its founding principles?
We can answer that question from the Vedic perspective of history: No. When the brahmanas began to fail in their duty, the entire varnashrama culture began to fail. Next the ksatriyas failed, and now, the vaisyas are having their turn at neglecting their duties to the detriment of the entire world. As the world cascades down the slippery slope of tamo-guna the orientation of the entire society is: every person for themselves.

I Got Mine
Those three short words sum up the attitude of many people in the world today. It’s actually an abbreviated form of “I got mine, and that’s all I care about. You didn’t get yours? That’s your problem, not mine.” Although the phrase “I got mine” is perhaps the most recent expression of the attitude it is not new. Students of the Bhagavad-gita can recognize attachment, envy, selfishness, and a lack of empathy in these statements. These qualities are characteristic of the modes of passion and ignorance. This consciousness shows up in all sorts of ways. Some think that it is an expression the “conservatives.” Indeed, I recall years ago hearing a conservative radio-show host ranting against having to pay anything for the less able, who must simply be lazy ner’ do wells, and freeloaders, who suck the energy of those who are willing to work. Their idea is that everybody has an equal chance in this world and they have gotten what they have by their ability and hard work, and all others have likewise. If you don’t have as much as me that is the result of your own lack of initiative and effort.
This is the consciousness of “every man for himself.” It is a consciousness that has more or less pervaded all of Western culture, in part because there is no longer a “social contract” within Western culture. The generally understood idea of a social contract is that free men establish a political community through a social contract in which each gain civil rights in return for subjecting himself to civil law and political authority. This is not the kind of social contract that I refer to. Instead, I mean the inherent social contract based on the natural abilities of men that is established in Vedic culture. By combining their interests and committing their efforts to mutual advantage everybody’s interests are served. Each contributing what they have to offer: the brahmana his vision and spiritual guidance, the ksatriya his strength, protection, and facility, the vaisya his organizational and wealth-creating abilities, and the sudra his labor. Formerly it was the case that all varnas committed to doing their duty according to the dharma shastra, working together for the common good. This is the Vedic social contract, which extended even into the Middle Ages in the form of the feudal culture. But with the increase of tamo-guna that system was purposely destroyed.
A succinct explanation of how the social contract formerly worked and how it was destroyed is given by social psychologist Eric Fromm in his book The Sane Society:
“The breakdown of the traditional principle of human solidarity led to new forms of exploitation. In feudal society the lord was supposed to have the divine right to demand services and things from those subject to his domination, but at the same time he was bound by custom and was obligated to be responsible for his subjects, to protect them, and to provide them with at least the minimum—the traditional standard of living. Feudal exploitation took place in a system of mutual human obligations, and thus was governed by certain restrictions. Exploitation as it developed [under the money economy] was essentially different. The worker, or rather his labor, was a commodity to be bought by the owner of capital, not essentially different from any other commodity on the market, and it was used to its fullest capacity by the buyer. Since it had been bought for its proper price on the labor market, there was no sense of reciprocity, or of any obligation on the part of the owner of capital, beyond that of paying the wages. If hundreds of thousands of workers were without work and on the point of starvation, that was their bad luck, the result of their inferior talents, or simply a social and natural law, which could not be changed. Exploitation was not personal any more, but it had become anonymous, as it were. It was the law of the market that condemned a man to work for starvation wages, rather than the intention or greed of any one individual. Nobody was responsible or guilty, nobody could change conditions either. One was dealing with the iron laws of society, or so it seemed.” [1] 
As we moved into the 20th and 21st centuries the concepts of the “free man,” the “rugged individual,” and the idea that “everyone is equal,” has been indelibly drilled into the consciousness of the people through repeated propaganda. These three ideas have been used to separate people and to destroy their mutual dependence. Indeed, following the principle of “divide and conquer” the government also sought to destroy any mutual dependence. Nineteenth century social critic Peter Kropotkin explains how the formerly strong bonds between the people were long ago broken in order to force them to depend on an impersonal and authoritative state:

For three centuries the States [governments], both on the Continent and in these islands,  [British Isles] systematically weeded out all institutions in which the mutual-aid tendency had formerly found its expression. The village communities were bereft of their folkmotes[1], their courts and independent administration; their lands were confiscated. The guilds were deprived of their possessions and liberties, and placed under the control, the fancy, and the bribery of the State’s official. The cities were divested of their sovereignty, and the very springs of their inner life—the folkmote, the elected justices and administration, the sovereign parish and the sovereign guild—were annihilated; the State’s functionary took possession of every link of what formerly was an organic whole. Under that fatal policy and the wars it engendered, whole regions, once populous and wealthy, were laid bare; rich cities became insignificant boroughs; the very roads which connected them with other cities became impracticable. Industry, art, and knowledge fell into decay. Political education, science, and law were rendered subservient to the idea of State centralization. It was taught in the Universities and from the pulpit that the institutions in which men formerly used to embody their needs of mutual support could not be tolerated in a properly organized State; that the State alone could represent the bonds of union between its subjects; and the State was the only proper initiator of further development. By the end of the last century the kings on the Continent, the Parliament in these isles, and the revolutionary Convention in France, although they were at war with each other, agreed in asserting that no separate unions between citizens must exist within the State; that hard labour and death were the only suitable punishments to workers who dared to enter into “coalitions.” “No state within the State!” The State alone, and the State’s Church, must take care of matters of general interest, while the subjects must represent loose aggregations of individuals, connected by no particular bonds, bound to appeal to the Government each time that they feel a common need. Up to the middle of the [19th] century this was the theory and practice in Europe.[2] (emphasis mine)

Not only are we now free and equal, and depending on ourselves alone, we are divided. Having the state in between the people has isolated them. Even worse, having been acculturated to this idea we think of independence as good and the proper way to live, and distrust or even fear having to depend on others, thinking it a source of shame. Having lost the culture of mutual dependence, and having nobody to depend on but ourselves, many people have lost a sense of responsibility, and have indeed become untrustworthy. When we are not called on to be responsible we do not behave responsibly. Parents and teachers know that what we become depends a great deal on what is expected of us.

The evolution of this social decay has worked its way so deep into society that many people are no longer concerned about others. “I got mine. That’s all I care about.” The real tragedy lies in the fact that we are not equal, and we need the help of each other. However, when this consciousness continues for an extended period of time it has a severe impact on the social structure, resulting in a two-tier society—the have’s and have-nots. Currently less than 1% of the people own more than 40% of all wealth, while 50% of the people own 1%.[3] It is clear that the elite, rather than protecting and guiding the lower classes, now either exploit them, or neglect them. Famed maverick economist E. F. Schumacher, author of the classic text on caring economics, Small is Beautiful, observed the results of this mentality in India during the several years that he lived there. He noted that the educated classes felt no obligation to serve their less endowed countrymen. Indeed, they used their education as a ticket to escape the plight of the poor—“I got mine. That’s all I care about.” Schumacher asked how the general welfare of the people could possibly improve if those with ability and know-how did not apply it to the general welfare. His answer: it cannot. Despite not being trained in India’s spiritual wisdom, he chided the elite of India that it was their duty to look after, and even lift up, the lives of the less capable. Although the lessons were already present in their own scriptures, their duty had to be shown to them by an outsider (to little avail even to this day, however).

Varnas and Duty
What Schumacher was saying without realizing it, was that the different orders of society, the varnas, have an obligation to each other. When they follow their duty properly the varnashrama social system functions to everyone’s benefit. If they do not, as in modern society, we have what Srila Prabhupada called “asuric varnashrama.”
The Srimad-Bhagavatam recounts how, with the increase of rajo-guna and tamo-guna, the elite began to fail in their duty. As everyone focuses on their narrow interests, parts of the social machine cease to function. Eventually the breaking point is passed and the entire society fails. We have witnessed the decline and failure of several Western cultures on these grounds.
The social system of varna is established by Sri Krishna Himself. As He states in the Bhagavad-gita (4.13, 15): “According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me. And although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer, being unchangeable...All the liberated souls in ancient times acted with this understanding and so attained liberation. Therefore, as the ancients, you should perform your duty in this divine consciousness.”
Note that Sri Krishna admonishes us to follow in the footsteps of the liberated souls and perform our duty in the varna system. In ISKCON we take it as a given that we are taking up the Vedic culture, and we have added a part of the culture of Krishna Consciousness to our lives. But the fact of the matter is that in many ways we mirror the dominant, materialistic culture, including its asuric varnashrama. After all, most of us spend most of our time immersed in it, and we are subtly, but very powerfully, affected by it. Just as Lasch observes that the elite have focused on their own narrow interests we can observe the same in our Society. It’s the way the world works, and unconscious of it we follow its ways. And that part, that speaks to us so subtly as the expression of the values that underlie our existence, has yet to change.
The fact is that we live mostly unconsciously without thinking of how society works. This is because we are raised up in a culture from the time of being infants and that culture is instilled in us. We no longer see it, and it acts invisibly to us. As we attempt to become Krishna Conscious it is imperative that we begin to live consciously and see the connection between our actions and the consciousness that they reinforce. Actions affect consciousness. This is why in spiritual training we learn how to offer obeisances by bowing down, touching our heads to the floor, how to respect seniors by standing up or bowing down, to offer obeisances before taking prasadam, and so on.
Still there are an entire host of issues that we conveniently overlook because, to date, we have not developed within our society acceptable alternatives that are in keeping with our philosophy. Among these are: the concept of private ownership, the concept that everyone is equal, money as a means of maintenance, the lack of a social contract, and the concept of marital divorce. In all of these areas we follow the ways of the dominant culture despite the fact that they are diametrically opposed to the philosophy of Krishna Consciousness. Why? Because they are a part of the culture that we live in, and in order to survive in that culture we must live according to their values. If we did not it would be very difficult to remain in the social network of the dominant culture. All of which underscores the need for us to establish a cultural alternative that includes the social orders of varna, and an economic foundation that allows us to fully live our spiritual culture with its attendant values.

Revolt of the Elites in ISKCON?
By referring to the elites of ISKCON I am referring to men of ability, specifically those of a ksatriya and vaisya nature. Now we may ask, what is their duty in the present day? Well, it is no different than in previous times. The higher orders of society have a duty to create the circumstances in which the culture functions. Because, by themselves, the majority of the population, those of a sudra nature, cannot do that. Not even with the help of the brahmanas. Those of a sudra nature have a difficult time to look beyond the immediate future, or their immediate self-interest. The brahmanas lack the passion to make it happen. Men with different abilities are required. Men who have ability to see the long-range in terms of time, who understand the effort required to create a specific result, and who can direct the labor of others toward that purposeful end.
And as Lasch is attempting to point out, when they do not, the society cannot function. At the beginning of Kali yuga it was the brahmanas that failed to execute their duties properly, and rule passed to the ksatriyas. Then as the ksatriyas failed, control passed to the vaisyas. Now we are witnessing the failure of the vaisyas in terms of global economic disaster, extreme disparity, billions of helpless and hopeless people, etc., and rule will pass to the sudras. Srila Prabhupada explains it thus:
“At present, human society is specifically cultivating the mode of ignorance (tamo-guna), although there may also be some symptoms of passion (rajo-guna). Full of kama and lobha, lust and greed, the entire population of the world consists mostly of sudras and a few vaisyas, and gradually it is coming about that there are sudras only. Communism is a movement of sudras, and capitalism is meant for vaisyas. In the fighting between these two factions, the sudras and vaisyas, gradually, due to the abominable condition of society, the communists will emerge triumphant, and as soon as this takes place, whatever is left of society will be ruined. The only possible remedy that can counteract the tendency toward communism is the Krishna consciousness movement, which can give even communists the real idea of communist society.” Cc Adi 8.20 purport
Although communism has ostensibly faded into the annals of history the general idea still holds—everything will collapse under the influence of tamo-guna, regardless of what you call it. We are witnessing the manifestation of the same tamo-guna under capitalism in the form of predatory economics, disaster capitalism, vulture capitalism, casino capitalism, etc., various pejoratives that have certainly been earned. Unless this Krishna Consciousness Movement demonstrates how the upper classes of society, the elite, can, under the influence of sattva-guna and suddha-sattva, transcendental goodness, guide and protect the lower classes, whatever is left of society will be ruined. The selfishness of looking after  only one’s immediate interests are the symptoms of tamo-guna, and this must bring the result of tamo-guna—collapse and destruction.
Now the question arises: will they? Will the upper classes of our Krishna Consciousness Movement rise to the occasion and demonstrate how to guide society to a higher purposeful end? Unfortunately, that is in doubt. The problem is that within our society we have not adopted the social relationships of the varnas. Instead, our devotees live according to the ways of the dominant culture. This is to say that the men of ability, those who can lead and guide society seem to content themselves with living the modern lifestyle and doing their duty to the Society by making financial contributions. While this financial help is certainly necessary, I dare say that it is not enough.
Let me make this point more clear by stating that in my observation of our efforts to establish the varnashrama culture, it is mostly devotees of a sudra nature that participate (that is not to be taken as a criticism. These are good and honorable men, and far superior than the vast majority, especially considering that they are devotees of Lord Krishna). The men of greater ability, those of a vaisya or ksatriya nature, however, are noticeable by their absence. I am aware that there are exceptions to this rule and that the situation is different in different parts of the world. Still, the observation generally holds.
When are the men of ability going to take up their duty and begin to participate in establishing the varnashrama and daiva-varnashrama culture? Will they give up their lucrative careers and businesses, and comfortable lifestyles to live simply and help build an alternative spiritual culture based on self-sufficiency? Without them the varnashrama culture cannot be established, and this Krishna Consciousness Movement cannot offer any possible remedy to the debilitating influences of the age. Is it that the men of our society have also developed the idea “I got mine?” Is it that they are also in revolt, to leave those of less ability to function as best as they can without their guidance and assistance? Is it that they have not been trained to understand their duty to the other orders of society and how to apply it? Or is it because their leaders have not understood the imperative of the daiva-varnashrama culture? Whatever the reason, it is time that we all understand the urgent need for the varna culture and begin to seriously move in that direction. If not, the only remedy that Srila Prabhupada spoke of to save this world will not exist, and society will indeed be finished.

[1] folk·moot  (fōk'mōōt') n. A general assembly of the people of a town, district, or shire in medieval England.

[1] Eric Fromm, The Sane Society,  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1955, p. 92
[2] Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin, Mutual Aid—A Factor of Evolution, Chapter 7,1902. From The Project Gutenberg, online.
The above quotes are borrowed from and expanded upon in my Spiritual EconomicsUnderstanding and Solving the Economic Problem.  Please see www.spiritual-econ.com; http://spiritual-econ.blogspot.com; http://gitagrad.blogspot.com.   
[3] The Guardian, 6 Dec 06. http://www.guardian.co.uk/