Is a previous birth in varṇāśrama required for bhakti?

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.

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14 replies »

  1. The obsession of Smartas with birth based caste is a never ending example of intransigent Human stupidity. I have sadly found that the smarta “Vaishnavas” like the Madhvites and the Vadakalai Srivaishnavas are a good deal worse in this regard than even the smarta Advaitins. These smartas don’t even realise that these views are all the products of the virulently anti-Bhakti Purva Mimamsakas. In fact it was Kumarilabhatta who was the philosophical champion of caste realism and his rather stupid arguments provided no end of fun to Buddhist logicians like Dharmakirti who lampooned his ideas to smithereens with clear and unimpeachable logic.

    In order for caste by birth to actually be a thing, it necessary to demonstrate that a so-called Traivarnika (Brahmin, Kshatriya & Vaishya) has got a pure and unbroken lineage all the way back to the beginning of the kalpa and to one of the Prajapatis who got the ball rolling. Even back in the 7th -8th centuries CE when Dharmakirti and his pals lived, this seemed a remarkable stretch considering the well known Human propensity to screw anything and anyone and they evinced very logical and sensible arguments against caste purity. In our times when we literally have the ability to look into our ancestral genome and literally the history of Human frolicking since the beginning of the species, believing in caste purity in the face of this is stupid beyond comprehension. Genetic science has proven Dharmakirti correct and Kumarila wrong at least on the question of Varna. Each and everyone of us is a complex mixture and we’re not even pure Homo Sapiens as every Human being on the planet has got substantial infusions of Neanderthal, Denisovan and all manner of strange DNA in our gene pool. Also genetically speaking, strict caste endogamy cannot be pushed much further back before 2600-2700 years ago. This tiresome obsession of smartas with this topic is stupid beyond comprehension, unscientific and anti-Hindutva. Also there won’t be any varnas left in 200 years. At the present rate of urbanisation in India and intercaste marriage, caste will be History long before Lord Brahma blinks his eyes next!

    • I think that is being unfair to the other Vaisnava sampradayas. Bhagavad-gita itself talks about the four varnas and asramas as being created by Sri Krsna. It obviously predates Kumarila Bhatta.

      But then again the Gita does criticize the purva-mimamsaka view in verses like traigunya visaya veda nistraigunyo bhavarjuna; vedavada-ratah na anyat asti iti vadinah, kamatmanah svarga-para, janma-karma-phala pradam, etc.
      And the Bhagavata does so through the example of the Vedic brahmanas who do not serve Sri Krsna; only their wives do.

      I think part of the problem is that people talk past each other in an exchange between sampradayas. The definition of bhakti is very different in Sri Vaisnavism, from that in Caitanya Vaisnavism. Now if proponents from either side talk about bhakti, their idea of bhakti is very different. This needs to be recognized and understood. I think I will write an article on the difference. Bhakti in Sri Vaisnavism is performed through the varnasrama system.

      The rest of what you wrote is food for thought. I dont know anything about the debate between Dharmakirti and Kumarila Bhatta – perhaps you have a reference? More than genetics, I think the division is based on the nature of the mind – which is subtle and differs from person to person.

      • The book that I was using is “Caste and Buddhist philosophy” by Vincent Eltschinger and published by Motilal Banarsidass publishers. The Genetics stuff comes from many different sources though I’m sure you’ll find no trouble finding it all online easily as such information is ubiquitous these days.

      • Radhe Radhe Dear T. Krsna Das ji.
        Although you are right about foreigners interpreting our sacred scriptures in a bad way. These people weren’t talking about that. These people were just saying that since they are foreigners they shouldn’t be allowed to read even Purānas (even though non Dvijas are allowed to read them) and even learn Sanskrit (not to interpret some scriptures on their own but like even a normal bhakta from a foreign land can’t learn Sanskrit just because he is born there). That is what they were saying.

    • The Smartas are obsessed with it for sure. I’ve met Smartas who say foreigners shouldn’t even read Puranas and that they can’t even learn Sanskrit. Don’t understand what is the point of being obsessed with it so much.

      • In my experience, these guys are usually losers in real life and can only derive some modicum of self esteem by constantly harping on some imaginary lineage that they use as a battering ram on others. You never find them doing this in real life, only online because in the actual world they’d look totally ridiculous claiming superiority over others being such losers themselves.

      • Did you ask them why they hold such viewpoints?
        India’s experience with foreigners interpreting their sacred texts is not a good one. Is it a surprise that some people are opposed to it?

  2. Encouraging post. Sometimes I’ve heard from senior Vaisnavas that devotees born outside India need to take their next birth in India in order to progress in bhakti. Your article seems to indicate that there is no sastric evidence for this.

  3. Leave humans Mahaprabhu even gave Prema to animals while he was travelling through forests of Jharkhand and Rasikanand Prabhu gave Diksha to a mad elephant this shows that any living being in the world can have Krsna Prem by the mercy of Hari, Guru and Vaishnavas.

  4. What a wonderful discussion ! Making me think twice.
    My doubt here is without food, clothes and shelter there can be no human surviving. Practioner of Bhakthi is also such a dependent human. So the right question is (instead of varnashrama)”- can bhakthas function without “society” which one may call in any terminology- varnashrama or society or civilization?

    We dont argue about following government rules or traffic rules but we argue if vedic demands has to be met or not!

    • The discussion here is not of society although varnasrama can refer to society also. The path of varnasrama specifically refers to Vedic rituals – nitya, naimittika and kamya karmas. Bhakti is distinct from it.

      Today, Bhakti is being performed in all types of societies. Which tells you that it is independent of what society the bhakta is in.

      • Correct. I got ur point. I understand bhaktha is also part of society with social responsibilities.

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