Plato (428?-347 BC) was one of the most creative and influential thinkers in Western philosophy. The chief student of Socrates, he founded the Academy in Athens in 387 BC, beginning an institution that continued for almost a thousand years and came to be known as the first European university. There are some striking similarities between Plato’s ideal state and the one Kṛṣṇa outlines in the Bhagavad-gītā. But, as Śrīla Prabhupāda points out, Plato erred in his conception of the soul and of the goal of education.
Disciple: In the Republic, Plato’s major work on political theory, Plato wrote that 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.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: This idea appears to be taken from the Bhagavad-gītā, where Kṛṣṇa says that the ideal society has four divisions: brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas, and śūdras. 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-guṇa, rajo-guṇa, and tamo-guṇa, 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-gītā Kṛṣṇa says that the brāhmaṇas—the most intelligent men, who are interested in transcendental knowledge and philosophy—should be given the topmost posts, and under their instructions the kṣatriyas 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 vaiśyas, who engage in agriculture and cow protection. And finally there are the śūdras, common laborers who help the other sections. This is Vedic civilization—people living simply, on agriculture and cow protection. If you have enough milk, grain, fruits, and vegetables, you can live very nicely.
The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 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 brāhmaṇas. Comparatively, the head is the most important part of the body, since it gives directions to the other parts. Similarly, the ideal state functions under the directions of the brāhmaṇas, who are not personally interested in political affairs or administration because they have a higher duty. At present this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is training brāhmaṇas. If the administrators take our advice and conduct the state in a Kṛṣṇa conscious way, there will be an ideal society throughout the world.
Disciple: How does modern society differ from the Vedic ideal?
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Now there is large-scale industrialization, which means exploitation of one person 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, kṣatriyas 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 brāhmaṇas objected and immediately killed him with a curse. Formerly, the brāhmaṇas 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 Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is attempting to create some brāhmaṇas 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 brāhmaṇa would never advise opening slaughterhouses. But now, the many rascals heading the government allow animal slaughter. When Mahārāja Parīkṣit 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 protect the cows and provide the necessities of life; and the laborer class should help. This is the scientific division of society that Kṛṣṇa advocates in the Bhagavad-gītā [4.13]: cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ. “According to the three modes of material nature and the work ascribed to them, the four divisions of human society were created by Me.”
Disciple: 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.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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.
Disciple: 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.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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 Kṛṣṇa 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.
Disciple: 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.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: This means that in practice Plato very strongly identified the self as the body. What was Plato’s idea of education?
Disciple: To awaken the student to his natural position—whatever his natural abilities or talents are.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: And what is that natural position?
Disciple: 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.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: But moral goodness is not enough, because simple morality will not satisfy the soul. One has to go above morality—to Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Of course, in this material world morality is taken as the highest principle, but there is another platform, which is called the transcendental (vāsudeva) platform. Man’s highest perfection is on that platform, and this is confirmed in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. However, because Western philosophers have no information of the vāsudeva 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 (śuddha-sattva) in this material world, because pure goodness is the transcendental platform. To come to the platform of pure goodness, which is the ideal, one has to undergo austerities (tapasā brahmacaryeṇa śamena ca damena ca). One has to practice celibacy and control the mind and senses. If one has money, one 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 Kṛṣṇa consciousness. If one becomes Kṛṣṇa conscious, all 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 brahmacārī would undergo austere training. Even though he might be from a royal or learned family, a brahmacārī would humble himself and serve the spiritual master as a menial servant. He would immediately do whatever the spiritual master ordered. The brahmacārī 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 Kṛṣṇa. This is austerity. The brahmacārī 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 Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu has given the process of taking to Kṛṣṇa consciousness directly. In this case, one need simply chant Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare and follow the regulative principles given by the spiritual master. Then one immediately rises to the platform of pure goodness.
Disciple: 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.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Is this educational program for all men, or are there different types of education for different men?
Disciple: No, this is for everyone.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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?
Disciple: Well, Plato said that everyone should undergo two years of military drill.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: But why should someone waste two years? No one should waste even two days. This is nonsense—imperfect ideas.
Disciple: 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.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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 kṣatriya family. He and his brothers were never trained as philosophers. Droṇācārya was their master and teacher, and although he was a brāhmaṇa, he taught them Dhanur Veda, not brahma-vidyā. Brahma-vidyā 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 śūdra, or laborer. This is stated by Nārada Muni in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam: yasya yal-lakṣaṇaṁ proktam. The four classes of society are recognized by their symptoms and qualifications. Nārada Muni also says that one should be selected for training according to his qualifications. Even if one is born in a brāhmaṇa family, he should be considered a śūdra if his qualifications are those of a śūdra. And if one is born in a śūdra family, he should be accepted as a brāhmaṇa 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.
Disciple: Plato believed that the student’s natural tendency wouldn’t come out unless he practiced everything.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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.
Disciple: Plato observed that a particular combination of the three modes of nature is acting in each individual.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Then why did he say that everyone should be trained in the same way?
Disciple: 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.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: 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 brāhmaṇa family he is automatically a brāhmaṇa. A person may be born in a brāhmaṇa family and be a śūdra. It is a question not of birth but of qualification.
Disciple: 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.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Actually, we are the most democratic because we are giving everyone a chance to become a first-class brāhmaṇa. The Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is giving even the lowest member of society a chance to become a brāhmaṇa by becoming Kṛṣṇa conscious. Caṇḍālo ’pi dvija-śreṣṭho hari-bhakti-parāyaṇaḥ: Although one may be born in a family of caṇḍālas, as soon as he becomes God conscious, Kṛṣṇa conscious, he can be elevated to the highest position. Kṛṣṇa says that everyone can go back home, back to Godhead. Samo ’haṁ sarva-bhūteṣu: “I am equal to everyone. Everyone can come to Me. There is no hindrance.”
Disciple: What is the purpose of the social orders and the state government?
Śrīla Prabhupāda: The ultimate purpose is to make everyone Kṛṣṇa 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 Kṛṣṇa 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 Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement should be maintained so that at least some people can attain and everyone can approach the ultimate goal—Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
Disciple: So the goal of the state government is to help everyone become Kṛṣṇa conscious?
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, Kṛṣṇa 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 prasādam is distributed to everyone. Therefore, there is no difficulty. Everyone can contribute to this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement. The brāhmaṇas can contribute their intelligence, the kṣatriyas their charity, the vaiśyas their grain, milk, fruits, and flowers, and the śūdras their bodily service. By such joint effort, everyone can reach the same goal—Kṛṣṇa consciousness, the perfection of life.
Disciple: In a very famous allegory in the Republic, Plato describes representatives of humanity chained in a dark cave and able to see only shadows cast by the light of a fire. One person breaks free and sees the outside world, and he returns to the cave to tell the people there that they are living in darkness. But the cave-dwellers consider him crazy.
Prabhupāda: This is just like our story of Dr. Frog. He had never gone out of his dark well, so he thought, “Here is everything.” When he was informed about the vast Atlantic Ocean, he could not conceive of a body of water so expansive.
Similarly, those who are in the dark well of this material world cannot conceive of the light outside, in the spiritual world. But that world is a fact. Suppose someone has fallen into a well and he cries out, “I have fallen into this well! Please save me!” Then a man outside drops down a rope and calls, “Just catch hold of this rope and I will pull you out!” But no, the fallen man has no faith in the man outside and does not catch hold of the rope. Similarly, we are telling everyone in the material world, “You are suffering. Just take up this Kṛṣṇa consciousness and all your suffering will be relieved.” Unfortunately, people refuse to catch hold of the rope, or they do not even admit they are suffering.
But one who is fortunate will catch hold of the rope of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, and then the spiritual master will help him out of this dark world of suffering and bring him to the illuminated, happy world of Kṛṣṇa consciousness.