for ISKCON News on Jan. 28, 2011
The organization of society into four social orders for work and four religious orders for spiritual practice advocated by Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita , known as varnasrama dharma, provides both hope and frustration for those searching for alternatives to the failing social orders of modern societies. The hope centers on the idea that a balanced, well functioning social order which promotes peace, prosperity, and God consciousness will provide a positive alternative to the strife, confusion, and imbalance which characterize social life around the world. The frustration centers on understanding the enormity of the challenges which must be surmounted to actually establish the four social orders for work. And, in this decidedly godless age, finding enough people interested in adopting the four religious orders for spiritual practice.
Some argue that total withdrawal from modern society is necessary. Indeed, most discussions in the Hare Krishna movement about establishing varnasrama dharma seem to center on developing solitary self-sufficiency as a first step. I would suggest that while self-sufficiency is undoubtedly an important component in establishing varnasrama dharma, an equally important component is the redistribution of wealth in society. The very design of a functioning varnasrama dharma structure has wealth being generated in only one of the eight divisions, the mercantile division of the social orders for work. So, unless there are some serious plans for the redistribution of wealth how will the seven remaining divisions function? They won’t. And if they don’t, then the entire system fails. Thus, redistribution of wealth in society is not only an important component; it is the essential first step.
Of course, there are few issues as politically “hot button” as the redistribution of wealth in society. The still raging health care debate in America regularly features favorable and unfavorable reference to the redistribution of wealth. This subject can also be quite spirited when debated amongst religionists, even those of the same faith. I refer you to Catholic Answers Forums, the largest Catholic Community on the Web (http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=494521), where there is a lively discussion of the following quote from St. John Chrysostom:
"Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person's gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people's hearts first - and then they will joyfully share their wealth."
Yes, redistribution of wealth can be polarizing, but the need for positive alternatives to modern society necessitates taking a risk. The question then is not whether to, but how to effect such redistribution of wealth. I agree with St. John Chrysostom that a key is changing people’s hearts, yet we needn’t be limited to simply awaiting mass epiphanies to effect the large scale redistribution of wealth necessary to establish varnasrama dharma. There are some practical steps that can be taken by both government and individuals to encourage people to change their hearts.
In varnasrama dharma the governance division of the social orders for work is given the power to tax the people. Such power is meant to beneficially facilitate the redistribution of wealth in society. In addition to playing this role in redistribution of wealth those in governance are also required to personally give in charity, and by their example to encourage all eight divisions of the social order to give in charity. While there are many examples in the Vedic literatures of tremendous charitable acts of kings, merchants, and common people in days gone by, there are also contemporary examples of governments promoting charity.
In America during the early 1900’s the United States government passed laws regulating taxes and establishing tax-exempt status for philanthropic organizations. Based on this government encouragement of charity today the United States has become the most charitable country in the world, giving $307.65 billion in charity in 2008 according to a report issued by the Giving USA Foundation at Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy. The report goes on to say that the biggest chunk of the donations, $106.89 billion or 35%, went to religious organizations. The second largest slice, $40.94 billion or 13% went to education, including gifts to colleges, universities and libraries. In other areas of giving $21.64 billion or 7% went to heath care organizations, $23.88 billion or 8% percent to Public Society Benefit organizations, and $6.58 billion or 2% to Environmental and Animal protection organizations. Individual giving, which is always the largest component of charitable contributions, was an estimated $229.28 billion, or 75% of the total.
In Hungary there is an example of government sponsored encouragement for charity even more relevant to the establishment of varnasrama dharma. In 1996 the Hungarian government passed a law which provided for the option of deciding on the destination of one percent of one’s income tax, which the taxpayer could choose to go to either a church of a non-government organization. It is no coincidence that the Hare Krishna movement in Hungary, which greatly benefited from this law, has taken perhaps the most significant strides towards establishing a self-sufficient community based on the principles of varnasrama dharma found in the Hare Krishna movement today. Please visit the Eco-Valley Foundation website at www.ecovalley.hu.
Members of the Hare Krishna movement are not the only ones looking for alternatives to the ills of modern society. Indeed, I would think it fair to say that large segments of people around the world are disillusioned with their societies. Therefore, rather than withdrawing from the broader society around us, I would advocate positioning varnasrama dharma to attract the charitable inclinations of individuals looking for positive alternatives. People like Toby Ord.
As reported in the BBC News Magazine on December 13, 2010 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11950843):
“When Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg pledged to give away most of his wealth during his lifetime, some British commentators bemoaned the lack of philanthropy on this side of the Atlantic.
But an academic at Oxford University is living off little more than £300 a month in an act of charity-giving that is arguably more impressive than those of Zuckerberg, Gates, Buffett and co.
Toby Ord, 31, has in the past year given more than a third of his earnings, £10,000, to charities working in the poorest countries. He also gave away £15,000 of savings, as the start of his pledge to give away £1m over his lifetime. And he's started a campaign to recruit, Bill Gates-style, other people to give up at least 10% of their lifetime's earnings in the same way. A year on, 64 people have joined his movement Giving What We Can and pledged £14m.
Echoing the philosophy of Bill Gates, who believes going public encourages other people into acts of generosity, Ord set up Giving What We Can to share ideas about "good" charities and inspire each other. The figure of a tenth originates from the Christian tithes, a tradition that many people still follow today.”
Although Toby Ord and his growing group of givers are secular by orientation, their commitment to charity has essentially become their chosen path in life, a kind of duty almost characteristic of dharma. He says, "I've also changed the way I look at the world. I don't want more stuff. If someone said to me 'Here's one thousand pounds' and I had to spend it on myself I would feel anxious about that because I just want to help people more and it would be a very frustrating time… I've made some simple material sacrifices but sufficiently small that I don't really care about them. In terms of emotional comfort, you feel more satisfied with what you're doing with your life."
People like Toby Ord manifest a natural inclination to charity because charity is God’s plan for redistribution of wealth in society. Our role should be to interact with and encourage people like Toby Ord because varnasrama dharma is both dependent on the God given inclination to charity, and nourishes the charitable inclinations of society. Giving in charity, encouraging others to give in charity, and serving God’s plan in a manner which will elicit charity is a viable approach to the enormous challenged of establishing varnasrama dharma. Isolationism will only make our task harder.