This article is motivated by a reader’s comment on a previous article. It was proposed that anyone who succeeds on the path of bhakti must have been part of the three varṇas – brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya or vaiśya – in a previous life.
I responded with the example of Nārada. It is well known that Nārada was born as a śudra to a maid, and yet, in that very life, he achieved siddhi, becoming an associate of Bhagavān Himself. To this, the pūrva-pakṣin further responded that Nārada had been a Gandharva in a previous life, and it was because of his birth in that class that he became qualified for spiritual knowledge or brahma-vidyā, and that qualification carried over to his future life.
A key principle enunciated by the Bhāgavata, and brought out emphatically by Śrī Jīva Goswami, is that bhakti is a result of bhakti. This bhakti does not come to someone because of some qualification in that person, but it is entirely yadrcchayā – bestowed upon a highly fortunate recipient by the grace of a bhakta. So the notion that a person is required to have been born in the three varṇas of varṇāśrama goes entirely against Śrī Jīva Goswami’s theology. I plan to write a series of articles on varṇāśrama and its distinctiveness from bhakti, and this is the first one among them. In the rest of the articles, I will take up other pūrva-pakṣas put forth by opponents in their comments on some recent articles. Stay tuned!
In the Bhakti Sandarbha, Anuccheda 58, Śrī Jīva Goswami takes up Śrī Nārada’s teachings in the seventh canto. Śrī Nārada first gets into a long exposition on the duties of the various varṇas and āśramas in that Canto. Then Śrī Nārada talks about himself. This would have been the perfect time for him to explain how varṇāśrama ultimately led to his status as an associate of Bhagavān. But, Śrī Jīva Goswami notes that he does no such thing.
Śrī Nārada describes that he was a handsome Gandharva named Upabarhaṇa in a previous birth. He was cursed by sages to become a śudra in the next life as punishment for his disrespectful behavior. In that life, he got to hear Hari-kathā from the devotees of Bhagavān, which led to his becoming Bhagavān’s associate after death.
Śrī Jīva writes (I bolded the part that refutes the opponent’s view):
tat-tat-sarva-dharma-kathanānte tu svayam eva svasya tṛtīye gandharva-jātau janmany ānuṣaṅgikaṁ bhagavad-gāna-mātraṁ sat-karmoktvā, dvitīye ca śūdra-jātau janmani sat-saṅgaja-śravaṇādi-mātraṁ tad uktvā, svasya tādṛśa-bhagavat-pārṣadatva-paryanta-phala-prāptau tathāvidham api sva-dharma-lakṣaṇaṁ kāraṇāntaraṁ nādṛtavān |
After concluding his description of the respective duties pertaining to the various varṇas and āśramas, however, Śrī Nārada personally admitted [in Chapter 15 of the seventh canto] that in the matter of his attaining the fruits of practice, up to and including becoming an associate of Bhagavān, he did not consider the execution of his prescribed duties (sva-dharma), even of the kind he had just elaborated (tathā vidham api), as a separate or additional cause. Rather, in regard to his first birth as a Gandharva, the only virtuous act (sat-karma) that he made mention of is incidentally (ānuṣaṅgika) singing the glories of Bhagavān. Similarly, in regard to his subsequent birth as a śūdra, he spoke only of hearing about Bhagavān in the company of the sat, or those established in the path of virtue.
Śrī Nārada does not credit varṇāśrama forany benefit for his success in bhakti despite having lectured on it up to that point. This refutes the view that one must belong to varṇāśrama in this or some previous life in order to arrive at bhakti.
As usual, Śrī Jīva supports his interpretation by quoting Śrīdhar swami. First, Śrī Jīva notes that Śrī Nārada, with the main purpose of emphasizing the distinctiveness of bhakti from varṇāśrama, speaks the following verse later on in the same chapter (SB 7.15.68):
yathā hi yūyaṁ nṛpa-deva dustyajād āpad-gaṇād uttaratātmanaḥ prabhoḥ
yat-pāda-paṅkeruha-sevayā bhavān ahāraṣīn nirjita-dig-gajaḥ kratūn
O King, just as by the grace of Your worshipful Lord [prabhoḥ, Śrī Kṛṣṇa], who is the very Self of all of you (ātmanaḥ), you have crossed over insurmountable difficulties, and just as by service to His lotus feet you have conquered all the directions and performed many elaborate sacrifices, [so too by the grace of Śrī Kṛṣṇa alone, who transports one to the other side, you will cross the ocean of saṁsāra]. (sb 7.15.68)
He quotes Śrīdhar swami:
etac ca sarva-sādhāraṇam uktam | bhaktasya tu bhaktir eva sarva-puruṣārtha-hetur iti pāṇḍavān eva lakṣyīkṛtyāha—yathā hi ||
Śrīdhara Svāmī comments as follows: “And this (etat) [i.e., Nārada’s complete body of instructions pertaining to the respective duties of varṇāśrama] is intended for people in general (sarvasādhāraṇam). For a bhakta, however, bhakti alone is the cause of the attainment of all aspired for ends (puruṣārthas). To point this out by way of reference to the Pāṇḍavas themselves, Śrī Nārada spoke the above verse.”
The delineation of varṇāśrama and bhakti as two separate paths is one of the unique characteristics of the Caitanya sampradāya. Bhakti-sādhana, and bhakti-siddhi, both do not require birth in varṇāśrama society.