For many years, ISKCON’s Gita Nagari farm community in Pennsylvania has held annual Labor Day retreats, on topics from improving japa meditation to understanding the nature of the guru.
This year’s retreat, set to run from Friday September 2nd to Monday September 5th, will tackle an intriguing subject: Varnashrama Dharma.
Varnashrama generally refers to a social structure consisting of four varnas, or occupational groups, and four ashramas, or stages of life. However there are many nuances to it, with seemingly contradictory statements on it running through Srila Prabhupada’s works. There have also been debates in the devotee community over the years as to how it can be applied in modern times, or even if it can be applied.
Significantly, though, Varnashrama was clearly very important to Srila Prabhupada, who in his later days stated that fifty per cent of his work remained unfinished because he had not implemented Varnashrama Dharma.
“We aim for our conference at this retreat to have a broad and balanced, rather than a one-sided or narrow approach to the topic,” says GBC Romapada Swami, who was inspired to make the event happen. “Because it’s a topic that needs multiple perspectives to understand what it is and how to apply it.”
Romapada Swami hopes that through the retreat, devotees will gain a deeper understanding of Varnashrama and feel inspired to begin the process, something that has still not been practically realized by Prabhupada’s disciples and grand-disciples.
At the conference, entitled “Exploring Varnashrama,” ISKCON Laguna Beach temple president Tukarama Das will bring his exhaustively researched approach to the questions “Did Srila Prabhupada want Varnashramam? And if so, what did he mean by ‘varnashrama’?” In his talk, Tukarama will present Prabhupada’s quotes on the topic, and attempt to harmonize the varying statements he made on issues like Varnashrama and Bhagavata Dharma, Brahmanas and Vaishnavas, etc.
Tukarama — who has concluded that for Srila Prabhupada, the first step in Varnashrama is farms centered around cow protection — will also discuss how to take that first step in a practical way. It’s something he has first-hand experience in, heading up the ISKCON Escondido farm which supplies the San Diego and Laguna Beach temples with protected cow milk and many varieties of vegetables.
Braja Bihari Das, who handles mediation and conflict resolution in ISKCON, will also attempt to reconcile seemingly contradictory statements on Varnashrama by Srila Prabhupada. And he’ll ask, “What are the questions we should be asking regarding Varnashrama? Why are there different opinions? And how can we have fruitful discussions on topics we have varying opinions on?”
Romapada Swami (right) and Ravindra Svarupa Das speak at last year’s Gita Nagari Labor Day retreat
Meanwhile Sivarama Swami, who is behind the New Vraja Dhama farm in Hungary which has been vastly successful in both spiritual and simple living efforts, will give a talk entitled “Varnashrama: Why devotees need to adopt it, and the first steps to doing so.”
He’ll discuss Prabhupada’s statements on the feasibility of Varnashrama today, the qualities devotees must develop in order to be eligible for the Varnashrama system, and the challenges in changing to a lifestyle that’s very different from that of the world around us.
Devamrita Swami will speak about the Amish as an example of a different social order sustaining over time in modern America and Canada.
Abhirama Das will share personal instructions Prabhupada gave him on Varnashrama, and talk about co-existing with other communities, like the Amish, who have similar simple-living-based lifestyles. He’ll also talk about how to get started on Varnashrama, and how to develop a Varnashrama community connected to a city preaching center, something he hopes to do himself with his New York City-based Harinama ashram.
Kaunteya Das will take an academic look at the different responses in ISKCON to the idea of Varnashrama, and like other speakers will also look at reconciling Prabhupada’s apparently icongruent statements on the topic.
Finally, Dhruva Das and his wife Parijata Dasi, who are currently heading up Gita Nagari’s resurgence in cow protection, milk production, and local food production, will talk about Prabhupada’s paper on spiritual rural communities, “The Conception of Gita Nagari.”
They’ll also discuss how to create successful collaborations between farm and city ISKCON centers, which they are currently doing. And they will talk about how whether or not a community has defined social orders, we invariably act in various capacities or service roles anyway, such as deity worship, administration, trade, cow protection and more.
“The essential thing is that devotees are utilizing their natures in service to Krishna,” they write in their summary of their upcoming talk. “Equally important is mutual respect among the devotees carrying out these services. And, of course, remembering the paradoxical teaching that devotees are understood to be transcendental to the varnas.”
While the adults are chewing on all this brain food, their children aged 5-12 will also be engaged in Varnashrama themed activities, including a visit to an Amish farm, an evening campfire, verse recitation, and identifying and learning about local plants.
The 200 or so devotees expected to attend from the U.S., Canada and Europe will also participate in absorbing kirtans with senior devotees like Sivarama Swami, Vatsala Das, Satarupa Dasi, and Abhirama Das.
“We hope that after attending this retreat, devotees will understand more about what Prabhupada wanted in relation to Varnashrama,” concludes Romapada Swami.
To register for the retreat, please click here: http://goo.gl/forms/pNS4AiFsOydr4sgI2
Alternatively, you can email organizer Satya-sara das at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jan 22, 2023
Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies