athaitad apy aśakto ‘si kartuḿ mad-yogam āśritaḥ
sarva-karma-phala-tyāgaḿ tataḥ kuru yatātmavān
If, however, you are unable to work in this consciousness of Me, then try to act giving up all results of your work and try to be self-situated.
Bhakti-yoga, as described previously by Kṛṣṇa in the Gita’s 12th chapter, has three stages: The best stage is to emotionally allow your heart and mind to wrap themselves up in Śrī Kṛṣṇa. The second best stage is to work for this by forcing your heart and mind to wrap themselves up in Śrī Kṛṣṇa. The third best stage is to work towards that by forcing your body to only do things relevant to the service of Śrī Kṛṣṇa.
These are the three levels of doing bhakti-yoga –according to this chapter. Now, in this verse we have a fourth level, outside of bhakti-yoga, but supportive of it. How do we know it is outside of bhakti yoga? Because Kṛṣṇa says so explicitly.
athaitad apy aśakto ‘si kartuḿ mad-yogam āśritaḥ
“If you don’t even have the power to take shelter of my-bhakti-yoga that I have just described…”
Now we come to several levels of practice which are not directly bhakti yoga, but which can support and enhance our ability to participated directly in bhakti yoga. What are these? In a nutshell, they are Varnashrama-dharma.
Varnashrama-dharma is not Kṛṣṇa-bhakti. By no means does this mean that varnashrama-dharma is useless for bhakti-yoga. But still, be clear, varnashrama-dharma itself is not bhakti yoga.
What is varnashrama-dharma? It is all the duties of a brahmacary, or a grihasthi, of a vanaprasthi, or of a sanyassi. It is all the duties of a shudra, or a vaishya, or a kshatriya, or a brahmana. What are all these duties? These are all things that allow us to pursue our ambitions and our karmic habits and propensities and proclivities, talents, etc. but prescribe doing so in a manner that is not degrading to the consciousness – but is instead purifying and uplifting to the consciousness.
What is the point of purifying and uplifting consciousness? The better come into contact with the divine consciousness. Therefore varnashrama dharma is good for bhakti-yoga – it is a support system for bhakti-yoga. But please be clear that it is not itself bhakti yoga.
An iron rod in fire also gives off light and heat, a lot like fire. But its not fire, its iron. Be clear about the similarities of the iron and fire, and also be clear about the differences.
Why does varnashrama purify our consciousness? How can it be purifying to follow ones ambitions, desires, habits, proclivities, etc? That is exactly what Kṛṣṇa explains in this text.
Give up all the fruits of what you want to do.
Doing what I want to do for the sake of enjoying the results will get me nowhere in spiritual life. It will only thicken the crusty layers of gunk and filth surrounding my pure self. That is not varnashrama dharma! Doing the things I am pushed by karma to do is Varnashrama dharma when I utilize the results of my actions for the sake of serving the needs of others.
In real varnashrama dharma, everyone is supporting everyone else. No one is supporting themselves. The wife supports the husband. The husband supports the wife. The parents support the children. The children grow up and support the parents. The family supports the community, the community supports the family. The shudras work for everyone, and everyone takes care of all their needs. The vaishyas give money to the government, the kings give land and resources to the vaisyas. The brahmanas guide everyone, everyone feeds the brahmanas. The kings protect everyone, everyone obeys the kings. Etc. etc. etc. etc. The brahmacaris cultivate knowledge, so they can be useful to society when they become grihasthas. The grihastas take care of all the other ashramas – so they are useful to society. Etc. etc. etc. Every single person is serving the needs of every other person. Every single group is serving the needs of every other group. This is why Varnashrama is beautiful and purifying.
Greed is not a part of varnashrama dharma. Accumulation of excess wealth is not a part of varnashrama dharma. Disregard for the needs of others and selfish absorption in ones own ambitions is not varnashrama dharma. Keeping ones door locked is not seen in varnashrama. Keeping ones refrigerator closed neither. Opening ones home to the world is the trademark of varnashrama dharma.
It helps us open our heart to the world.
Now, something should be said about exploitation. As we see varnashrama dharma became the caste system. Which is wildly exploitive. So something must be said to safeguard this.
Someone very wise, I believe it may have been Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur, said, “Dedicate yourself to serving the desires of God and serving the needs of humanity.” The distinction between desires and needs is very important to safeguard against exploitation. We are not dutybound to open our homes and wallets to the desires of others! We are duty bound to open them to their needs.
To conclude – a word about why Varnashrama supports bhakti-yoga.
Bhakti means to comepletely be in love with Kṛṣṇa. What is love? How can you do love-yoga without having a crystal clear definition of what love is!? Love means to completely forget yourself in deference to completely focusing on the desires of your beloved.
So, as you can see, in love there is no space whatsoever for selfish-ego.
That is why varnashrama dharma supports bhakti yoga, the yoga of love. Because it conditions us to be less selfish.
We should not underestimate the value of this. Chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa is the only real medicine for the soul, and the only truly essential practice of Śrī Krsna Bhakti-Yoga. But following varnashrama dharma really helps us truly chant. Why? Because we cannot truly chant without love. We cannot have love when we are selfish. Varnashrama dharma makes us less selfish.
“Varnashrama dharma” doesn’t necessarily mean farming, cows, white dhotis, marriage, dandas, saffron dhotis, et. al. Not at all. These are inconsequential. Varnashrama dharma means dedicating yourself to serving the needs of others by the fruits of your work.
If we dedicate ourselves in this way, our nama-bhajan will improve. Kṛṣṇa has said so here in this text. There is no merit in doubting Kṛṣṇa.