Plato: Goodness and Government
In 1972 and 1973, Srila Prabhupada held a series of philosophical discussions with his personal secretary, Syamasundara, while traveling around the world. These sessions were recorded and published to provide an understanding of Western philosophy, psychology, and science from the viewpoint of the timeless teachings of India’s Vedic literature. In the following conversation, the striking similarities between Plato’s ideal state and that outlined in the Bhagavad-gita prompt one to ask, “Could Plato have gotten his ideas from India’s ancient Vedas?”
Syamasundara: Plato believed society can enjoy prosperity and harmony only if it places people in working categories or classes according to their natural abilities. He thought people should find out their natural abilities and use those abilities to their fullest capacity—as administrators, as military men, or as craftsmen. Most important, the head of state should not be an average or mediocre man. Instead, society should be led by a very wise and good man—a “philosopher king”—or a group of very wise and good men.
Srila Prabhupada: This idea appears to be taken from the Bhagavad-gita, where Krsna says that the ideal society has four divisions: brahmanas [intellectuals], ksatriyas [warriors and administrators], vaisyas [merchants and farmers], and sudras [laborers]. These divisions come about by the influence of the modes of nature. Everyone, both in human society and in animal society, is influenced by the modes of material nature [sattva-guna, rajo-guna, and tamo-guna, or goodness, passion, and ignorance]. By scientifically classifying men according to these qualities, society can become perfect. But if we place a man in the mode of ignorance in a philosopher’s post, or put a philosopher to work as an ordinary laborer, havoc will result.
In the Bhagavad-gita Krsna says that the brahmanas—the most intelligent men, who are interested in transcendental knowledge and philosophy—should be given the topmost posts, and under their instructions the ksatriyas [administrators] should work. The administrators should see that there is law and order and that everyone is doing his duty. The next section is the productive class, the vaisyas, who engage in agriculture and cow protection. And finally there are the sudras, common laborers who help the other sections. This is Vedic civilization—people living simply, on agriculture and cow protection. If you have enough milk, grains, fruits, and vegetables, you can live very nicely.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam compares the four divisions of society to the different parts of the body—the head, the arms, the belly, and the legs. Just as all parts of the body cooperate to keep the body fit, in the ideal state all sections of society cooperate under the leadership of the brahmanas. Comparatively, the head is the most important part of the body, for it gives directions to the other parts of the body. Similarly, the ideal state functions under the directions of the brahmanas, who are not personally interested in political affairs or administration because they have a higher duty. At present this Krsna consciousness movement is training brahmanas. If the administrators take our advice and conduct the state in a Krsna conscious way, there will be an ideal society throughout the world.
Syamasundara: How does modern society differ from the Vedic ideal?
Srila Prabhupada: Now there is large-scale industrialization, which means exploitation of one man by another. Such industry was unknown in Vedic civilization—it was unnecessary. In addition, modern civilization has taken to slaughtering and eating animals, which is barbarous. It is not even human.
In Vedic civilization, when a person was unfit to rule he was deposed. For instance, King Vena proved to be an unfit king. He was simply interested in hunting. Of course, ksatriyas are allowed to hunt, but not whimsically. They are not allowed to kill many birds and beasts unnecessarily, as King Vena was doing and as people do today. At that time the intelligent brahmanas objected and immediately killed him with a curse. Formerly, the brahmanas had so much power that they could kill simply by cursing; weapons were unnecessary.
At present, however—because the head of the social body is missing—it is a dead body. The head is very important, and our Krsna consciousness movement is attempting to create some brahmanas who will form the head of society. Then the administrators will be able to rule very nicely under the instructions of the philosophers and theologians—that is, under the instructions of God-conscious people. A God conscious brahmana would never advise opening slaughterhouses. But now, the many rascals heading the government allow animal slaughter. When Maharaja Pariksit saw a degraded man trying to kill a cow, he immediately drew his sword and said, “Who are you? Why are you trying to kill this cow?” He was a real king. Nowadays, unqualified men have taken the presidential post. And although they may pose themselves as very religious, they are simply rascals. Why? Because under their noses thousands of cows are being killed, while they collect a good salary. Any leader who is at all religious should resign his post in protest if cow slaughter goes on under his rule. Since people do not know that these administrators are rascals, they are suffering. And the people are also rascals because they are voting for these bigger rascals. It is Plato’s view that the government should be ideal, and this is the ideal: The saintly philosophers should be at the head of the state; according to their advice the politicians should rule; under the protection of the politicians, the productive class should provide the necessities of life; and the laborer class should help. This is the scientific division of society that Krsna advocates in the Bhagavad-gita [4.13]: catur-varnyam maya srstam guna-karma-vibhagasah. “According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me.”
Syamasundara: Plato also observed social divisions. However, he advocated three divisions. One class consisted of the guardians, men of wisdom who governed society. Another class consisted of the warriors, who were courageous and who protected the rest of society. And the third class consisted of the artisans, who performed their services obediently and worked only to satisfy their appetites.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, human society does have this threefold division, also. The first-class man is in the mode of goodness, the second-class man is in the mode of passion, and the third-class man is in the mode of ignorance.
Syamasundara: Plato’s understanding of the social order was based on his observation that man has a threefold division of intelligence, courage, and appetite. He said that the soul has these three qualities.
Srila Prabhupada: That is a mistake. The soul does not have any material qualities. The soul is pure, but because of his contact with the different qualities of material nature, he is “dressed” in various bodies. This Krsna consciousness movement aims at removing this material dress. Our first instruction is “You are not this body.” It appears that in his practical understanding Plato identified the soul with the bodily dress, and that does not show very good intelligence.
Syamasundara: Plato believed that man’s position is marginal—between matter and spirit—and therefore he also stressed the development of the body. He thought that everyone should be educated from an early age, and that part of that education should be gymnastics—to keep the body fit.
Srila Prabhupada: This means that in practice Plato very strongly identified the self as the body. What was Plato’s idea of education?
Syamasundara: To awaken the student to his natural position—whatever his natural abilities or talents are.
Srila Prabhupada: And what is that natural position?
Syamasundara: The position of moral goodness. In other words, Plato thought everyone should be educated to work in whatever way is best suited to awaken his natural moral goodness.
Srila Prabhupada: But moral goodness is not enough, because simple morality will not satisfy the soul. One has to go above morality—to Krsna consciousness. Of course, in this material world morality is taken as the highest principle, but there is another platform, which is called the transcendental (vasudeva) platform. Man’s highest perfection is on that platform, and this is confirmed in Srimad-Bhagavatam. However, because Western philosophers have no information of the vasudeva platform, they consider the material mode of goodness to be the highest perfection and the end of morality. But in this world even moral goodness is infected by the lower modes of ignorance and passion. You cannot find pure goodness (suddha-sattva) in this material world, for pure goodness is the transcendental platform. To come to the platform of pure goodness, which is the ideal, one has to undergo austerities (tapasa brahmacaryena samena ca damena ca [SB 6.1.13]). One has to practice celibacy and control the mind and senses. If he has money, he should distribute it in charity. Also, one should always be very clean. In this way one can rise to the platform of pure goodness.
There is another process for coming to the platform of pure goodness—and that is Krsna consciousness. If one becomes Krsna conscious, all the good qualities automatically develop in him. Automatically he leads a life of celibacy, controls his mind and senses, and has a charitable disposition. In this age of Kali, people cannot possibly be trained to engage in austerity. Formerly, a brahmacari [celibate student] would undergo austere training. Even though he might be from a royal or learned family, a brahmacari would humble himself and serve the spiritual master as a menial servant. He would immediately do whatever the spiritual master ordered. The brahmacari would beg alms from door to door and bring them to the spiritual master, claiming nothing for himself. Whatever he earned he would give to the spiritual master, because the spiritual master would not spoil the money by spending it for sense gratification—he would use it for Krsna. This is austerity. The brahmacari would also observe celibacy, and because he followed the directions of the spiritual master, his mind and senses were controlled.
Today, however, this austerity is very difficult to follow, so Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has given the process of taking to Krsna consciousness directly. In this case, one need simply chant Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare and follow the regulative principles given by the spiritual master. Then one immediately rises to the platform of pure goodness.
Syamasundara: Plato thought the state should train citizens to be virtuous. His system of education went like this: For the first three years of life, the child should play and strengthen his body. From three to six, the child should learn religious stories. From seven to ten, he should learn gymnastics; from ten to thirteen, reading and writing; from fourteen to sixteen, poetry and music; from sixteen to eighteen, mathematics. And from eighteen to twenty, he should undergo military drill. From twenty to thirty-five, those who are scientific and philosophical should remain in school and continue learning, and the warriors should engage in military exercises.
Srila Prabhupada: Is this educational program for all men, or are there different types of education for different men?
Syamasundara: No, this is for everyone.
Srila Prabhupada: This is not very good. If a boy is intelligent and inclined to philosophy and theology, why should he be forced to undergo military training?
Syamasundara: Well, Plato said that everyone should undergo two years of military drill.
Srila Prabhupada: But why should someone waste two years? No one should waste even two days. This is nonsense—imperfect ideas.
Syamasundara: Plato said this type of education reveals what category a person belongs to. He did have the right idea that one belongs to a particular class according to his qualification.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, that we also say, but we disagree that everyone should go through the same training. The spiritual master should judge the tendency or disposition of the student at the start of his education. He should be able to see whether a boy is fit for military training, administration, or philosophy, and then he should fully train the boy according to his particular tendency. If one is naturally inclined to philosophical study, why should he waste his time in the military? And if one is naturally inclined to military training, why should he waste his time with other things? Arjuna belonged to a ksatriya [warrior] family. He and his brothers were never trained as philosophers. Dronacarya was their master and teacher, and although he was a brahmana, he taught them Dhanur Veda [military science], not brahma-vidya. Brahma-vidya is theistic philosophy. No one should be trained in everything; that is a waste of time. If one is inclined toward production, business, or agriculture, he should be trained in those fields. If one is philosophical, he should be trained as a philosopher. If one is militaristic, he should be trained as a warrior. And if one has ordinary ability, he should remain a sudra, or laborer. This is stated by Narada Muni in Srimad-Bhagavatam: yasya yal-laksanam proktam. The four classes of society are recognized by their symptoms and qualifications. Narada Muni also says that one should be selected for training according to his qualifications. Even if one is born in a brahmana family, he should be considered a sudra if his qualifications are those of a sudra. And if one is born in a sudra family, he should be taken as a brahmana if his symptoms are brahminical. The spiritual master should be expert enough to recognize the tendencies of the student and immediately train him in that line. This is perfect education.
Syamasundara: Plato believed that the student’s natural tendency wouldn’t come out unless he practiced everything.
Srila Prabhupada: No, that is wrong—because the soul is continuous, and therefore everyone has some tendency from his previous birth. I think Plato didn’t realize this continuity of the soul from body to body. According to the Vedic culture, immediately after a boy’s birth astrologers should calculate what category he belongs to. Astrology can help if there is a first-class astrologer. Such an astrologer can tell what line a boy is coming from and how he should be trained. Plato’s method of education was imperfect because it was based on speculation.
Syamasundara: Plato observed that a particular combination of the three modes of nature is acting in each individual.
Srila Prabhupada: Then why did he say that everyone should be trained in the same way?
Syamasundara: Because he claimed that the person’s natural abilities will not manifest unless he is given a chance to try everything. He saw that some people listen primarily to their intelligence, and he said they are governed by the head. He saw that some people have an aggressive disposition, and he said such courageous types are governed by the heart—by passion. And he saw that some people, who are inferior, simply want to feed their appetites. He said these people are animalistic, and he believed they are governed by the liver.
Srila Prabhupada: That is not a perfect description. Everyone has a liver, a heart, and all the bodily limbs. Whether one is in the mode of goodness, passion, or ignorance depends on one’s training and on the qualities he acquired during his previous life. According to the Vedic process, at birth one is immediately given a classification. Psychological and physical symptoms are considered, and generally it is ascertained from birth that a child has a particular tendency. However, this tendency may change according to circumstances, and if one does not fulfill his assigned role, he can be transferred to another class. One may have had brahminical training in a previous life, and he may exhibit brahminical symptoms in this life, but one should not think that because he has taken birth in a brahmana family he is automatically a brahmana. A person may be born in a brahmana family and be a sudra. It is a question not of birth but of qualification.
Syamasundara: Plato also believed that one must qualify for his post. His system of government was very democratic. He thought everyone should be given a chance to occupy the different posts.
Srila Prabhupada: Actually, we are the most democratic because we are giving everyone a chance to become a first-class brahmana. The Krsna consciousness movement is giving even the lowest member of society a chance to become a brahmana by becoming Krsna conscious. Candalo ’pi dvija-srestho hari-bhakti-parayanah: Although one may be born in a family of candalas [dog-eaters], as soon as he becomes God conscious, Krsna conscious, he can be elevated to the highest position. Krsna says that everyone can go back home, back to Godhead. Samo ’ham sarva-bhutesu: “I am equal to everyone. Everyone can come to Me. There is no hindrance.”
Syamasundara: What is the purpose of the social orders and the state government?
Srila Prabhupada: The ultimate purpose is to make everyone Krsna conscious. That is the perfection of life, and the entire social structure should be molded with this aim in view. Of course, not everyone can become fully Krsna conscious in one lifetime, just as not all students in a university can attain the Ph.D. degree in one attempt. But the idea of perfection is to pass the Ph.D. examination, and therefore the Ph.D. courses should be maintained. Similarly, an institution like this Krsna consciousness movement should be maintained so that at least some people can attain and everyone can approach the ultimate goal—Krsna consciousness.
Syamasundara: So the goal of the state government is to help everyone become Krsna conscious?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, Krsna consciousness is the highest goal. Therefore, everyone should help this movement and take advantage of it. Regardless of his work, everyone can come to the temple. The instructions are for everyone, and prasadam is distributed to everyone. Therefore, there is no difficulty. Everyone can contribute to this Krsna consciousness movement. The brahmanas can contribute their intelligence; the ksatriyas their charity; the vaisyas their grain, milk, fruits, and flowers; and the sudras their bodily service. By such joint effort, everyone can reach the same goal—Krsna consciousness, the perfection of life.
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