Question: In the purport to Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 4.12.48, Śrīla Prabhupāda writes:
Unless one is twice-born one cannot understand the transcendental characteristics of the Lord and His devotees. Study of the Vedas is therefore forbidden for śūdras.
What does it mean that being twice-born is the qualification for understanding transcendental knowledge?
My reply: The verse itself says, “celebrate the story of Dhruva by narrating it amongst cultured people (dvi-janamana).”
The reason for narrating to cultured people is twofold: (1) Cultured people are an educated audience who will really benefit from hearing the narration. (2) Cultured people are educated, so if some part of the narration is not right, they will correct it.
In this purport, Prabhupāda uses the term “twice born” to means someone with dīkṣā. He is not talking about traditional caste when he says śudra. He uses the terms to mean someone who has not gotten dīkṣā.
See, immediately before the section quoted above:
Anyone can join the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and be initiated to become twice-born. As recommended by Sanātana Gosvāmī, by the process of initiation and authorized training, any man can become twice-born.
So, what he means is that dīkṣā and the corresponding śikṣā that follows (“authorized training”) is a requirement for effectively performing sādhana (śravaṇa, kīrtana, etc.). This is practical. It’s not strange. Dīkṣā is the acceptance of a teacher and school. Without dīkṣā there is no solid connection to the teacher and school – so who will reliably and solidly guide you (śikṣā)? Without a solid, consistent, reliable guide how will you always correctly understand these sophisticated topics? So, dīkṣā is mandatory for gaining transcendental knowledge by the process of sādhana.
This doesn’t necessarily mean one has to “take initiation” in the common sense that we often think of it in ISKCON. But it does most certainly mean that one needs to fully and clearly accept and be accepted by a teacher who has realized Krishna-bhakti-tattva to a much, much greater extent than we have.
Question: In the same purport, Śrīla Prabhupāda also writes:
Simply by academic qualifications a śūdra cannot understand the transcendental science. At the present moment, throughout the entire world the educational system is geared to produce śūdras. A big technologist is no more than a big śūdra.Kalau śūdra-sambhavaḥ: in the Age of Kali, everyone is a śūdra. Because the whole population of the world consists only of śūdras, there is a decline of spiritual knowledge, and people are unhappy. The Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement has been started especially to create qualified brāhmaṇas to broadcast spiritual knowledge all over the world, for thus people may become very happy.
What does it mean when it says that the education system is geared to produce sudras? Does that mean individuals who can’t think for themselves or are only interested in sensual satisfaction by making money working for someone else, or does it mean that their inherent propensities of being brahminical or ksatriya or vaisya like are simply not recognized and encouraged?
My reply: We have said that advanced subjects should be discussed with highly cultured people. Now there is a clarification of who is to be considered “highly cultured” (dvija). Prabhupāda says that conventional modern education does not make a person highly-cultured when the subject of discussion is bhakti-tattva.
Modern education primarily trains people how to perform certain tasks and operate certain technology (śudra). It often involves training in business and agriculture (vaiṣya), management and politics (kṣatriya), and even the principles of teaching and learning (brāhmaṇa). But Prabhupāda is not really taking about śudra in this vocational context. He is speaking of śudra as a person who is not cultured in bhakti, who has not been accepted and educated by a bonafide Vaiṣṇava school. Modern schools teache people various vocations, some of which are indeed the vocations of non-śūdra varṇas, but it very rarely involves significant wisdom about life itself, and almost never involves any bhakti-tattva. Therefore having a modern education does not make one a dvija (cultured person) in this context. Acceptance by these schools and teachers does not constitute “dīkṣā” and “śikṣā” relevant to bhakti-tattva.
Having or not having an academic degree or background doesn’t make one or prevent one from being “highly cultured” (dvija) in relation to bhakti. People who are highly cultured in relation to bhakti are people with Vaiṣṇava dīkṣā and śikṣā. Maybe they also have modern academic degrees, maybe they don’t. That’s irrelevant. Maitreya here recommends that we discuss Bhāgavatam with them. For they will benefit most and we will benefit most, because they will be able to correct our errors. Narrating Bhāgavata-kathā to those with no educational background in bhakti (specifically, those without a functioning guru-disciple relationship) isn’t ideal, because they won’t be able to understand much, and they won’t be able to correct us accurately.