The Caitanya tradition, being based squarely on the Bhāgavata purāṇa, has a different understanding of bhakti as compared to other Vaisnava traditions such as the Madhva tradition or the Śrī Vaisnava tradition. Unlike these other traditions, in the Caitanya tradition, bhakti and varṇāśrama are two different or distinct paths with different outcomes/destinations. Here I explore Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī’s commentary on Bhagavad Gītā 18.66 that makes this point clear.
Śrī Babaji’s translation of the verse is below.
sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja
ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ
parityajya — abandoning completely; sarva-dharmān — all [attachment to] conventional duties; vraja — seek; śaraṇam — refuge; mām — [in] Me; ekam — alone; aham — I; mokṣayiṣyāmi — will free; tvām — you; sarva-pāpebhyaḥ — from all sins; mā — do not; śucaḥ — grieve.
Abandoning completely all [attachment to] conventional duties, seek refuge in Me alone. I will free you from all sins; do not grieve.
Consistent with Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī’s commentary, Śrī Babaji has translated the word sarva-dharmān as “all conventional duties”. I present Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī’s commentary and my translation of it below. He begins by imagining a question on Arjuna’s part –
nanu tad-dhyānādikaṁ yat karomi tat kiṁ svāśrama-dharmānuṣṭhāna-pūrvakaṁ vā, kevalaṁ vā ?
Should I perform meditation and other items [which Śrī Kṛṣṇa recommended in the previous verse] accompanied by performance of the dharmas appropriate for my āśrama, or should I perform them exclusively?
[In response to Arjuna’s question, Śrī Kṛṣṇa replies]
tatrāha sarva-dharmān varṇāśrama-dharmān sarvān eva parityajya ekaṁ mām eva śaraṇaṁ vraja |
Completely giving up all varṇāśrama-dharmas [sarva-dharmān], take shelter of me alone.
He then explains how to interpret the word parityajya. I will not provide a full translation, as this part is somewhat peripheral to the matter at hand. According to Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī, it does not mean sannyāsa, which is how Śrī Śaṅkarācārya has translated it. This is because Arjuna is not qualified for sannyāsa; Śrī Kṛṣṇa wants him to fight the war. Instead, this instruction is specifically meant for Arjuna, and it is precisely because he is representative of a common person in varṇāśrama society, it can be extended to others. Second, he explains that parityajya does not indicate the giving up of fruits of action (as in karma yoga) but rather not performing the actions themselves. This is because this final instruction of the Gita must be in harmony with the Bhāgavata purāṇa, and also because of the use of the prefix ‘pari’ in parityajya, which indicates complete giving up of other dharmas. In the Bhāgavata purāṇa, there are several verses which explain that the adhikāra for karma ceases for a person who has developed faith in bhakti. He cites SB 11.5.41, 11.29.32, 11.20.9, 11.11.37, with which there must be harmony of meaning (sahaikārthasyāvaśya-vyākhyeyatvāt) of 18.66.
Based on all this, he interprets the instruction in verse 18.66 as follows:
ekaṁ māṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja = seek refuge in Me alone, + na tu dharma-jñāna-yoga-devatāntarādikam = and not varṇāśrama dharma, jñāna, yoga, and other devatās.
Now, many traditions find the interpretation of giving up varṇāśrama-dharma to be an outrageous stretch. After all, Śrī Bhagavān Himself has enjoined varṇāśrama-dharma both in the Bhagavad Gītā and other scriptures like the Vedas. Isn’t it an offense to give it up? Giving up nitya or naimittika karma can cause the accrual of sin as they are enjoined by the Vedas themselves for every person who is within the varṇāśrama fold.
Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī answers this doubt as follows:
na ca mad-ājñayā nitya-naimittika-karma-tyāge tava pratyavāya-śaṅkā sambhavet |
One should not doubt that following my order to give up nitya-naimittika-karma will cause one to accrue sin.
He gives the reasoning:
veda-rūpeṇa mayaiva nitya-karmānuṣṭhānam ādiṣṭam adhunā tu svarūpeṇaiva tat-tyāga ādiśyate ity ataḥ kathaṁ te nitya-karmākaraṇe pāpāni sambhavanti ?
The nitya karmas [part of varṇāśrama-dharma] are enjoined by me only in the form of the Vedas. Now, I myself am recommending that they be given up completely (svarūpeṇaiva). So how can there be sin due to not performing these dharmas?
He finally adds a rather startling piece of insight:
pratyuta ataḥ paraṁ nitya-karmāṇi kṛta eva pāpāni bhaviṣyanti sākṣān mad-ājñā-laṅghanād ity avadheyam |
In fact, after this instruction of mine, sins will accrue if nitya-karmas are performed, because of transgressing my [final] order.
That is, anyone who dabbles in varṇāśrama-dharma, even after taking up bhakti, is disobeying Śrī Kṛṣṇa ‘s order. One cannot hope to please Him this way.
It is equally crucial to understand verse SB 11.20.9, in which the call is to continue in varṇāśrama-dharma so long as one does not develop faith in bhakti. After one develops faith in bhakti, one loses the right to varṇāśrama-dharma. The commentary to SB 11.20.9 by both Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī and Śrī Jīva Goswami make this amply clear. I might take that commentary up in a future post if there is interest expressed by readers.
Given all this, the current claims prevalent in some sects of the Caitanya tradition, that bhakti cannot be performed without varṇāśrama-dharma, are incorrect. Further, the confusion caused by mixing of varṇāśrama-dharma with bhakti contradicts the crystal clear and unique explanations of the Goswamis and Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī, and befuddles sādhakas. Separation of bhakti and varṇāśrama is in fact part of the very definition of bhakti given by Sri Rūpa Goswami. This definition of bhakti is one of the defining features of the Caitanya tradition.
In the understanding of the Caitanya tradition, varṇāśrama and bhakti are two separate paths with separate results. A person who is on the bhakti path, does not have the adhikāra for varṇāśrama, and vice versa. When a bhakta continues to maintain faith in varṇāśrama, he gets the fault of disobeying Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s instruction to give them up.