Satisfaction of Vishnu is the ultimate goal of life. If we also accept this to be the inherent natural proclivity of every living entity we could, with broader vision, acknowledge that there could be many ways to achieve this aim depending on time, place and circumstance. In the first six chapters of Bhagavad-Gita there are several paths delineated, however bhakti-yoga, or the direct path of pure devotion, is declared to be the topmost means of pleasing the transcendent Lord. A nice analogy to illustrate this point is the story of a world traveler who is planning his journey while looking at a globe of the Earth planet. If, for instance, he desired to travel from Calcutta to Delhi he could choose to travel in many different directions. He could map out a route from Calcutta eastward that traversed the globe, crossed many oceans and deserts, and finally arrived in Delhi after several months of circumambulating the planet. A more direct route would be to simply catch the Rajdhani Express from Howrah station and arrive in Delhi the next day. Besides devotional service, another system of satisfying Vishnu discussed in Bhagavad-Gita is that of varnasrama-dharma. While this is not as direct as bhakti-yoga the two paths are interrelated in at least a few different ways that will be discussed herein.
Varnasrama is often misunderstood to be the same as the modern day Hindu caste system. This is far from reality although many present day adherents to the caste system are not even aware of this. In the caste system one’s social position is determined by birth; whereas the original varnasrama system spoken of in the Bhagavad-Gita and other Vedic literatures holds that one’s status in society should be determined by one’s character and natural inclination towards work. This is stated implicitly in the Bhagavad-Gita chapter four: guna-karma-vibhagasah. Srila Prabhupada elaborates in the purport to this verse:
“The tendency of a particular man towards work is determined by the modes of material nature which he has acquired.”
In the varnasrama system the entire society is engaged in sacrifice to the Supreme Lord. This means that even a laborer in the mode of ignorance can gradually become elevated to the mode of goodness by the development of knowledge and detachment. Such knowledge comes by a gradual progression from work with attachment to the results to detached niskama-karma-yoga within varnasrama. As a pious individual becomes more and more convinced that he is not this body and identifies more with the spiritual self there is every opportunity for further elevation to bhakti-yoga by dint of association with the devotees of the Lord.
Bhakti-yoga is characterized by spiritual identification and attachment. In this process one understands one’s eternal constitutional position as a servant of Krishna and even in this life performs one’s activities accordingly. This is one of two kinds of sva-dharma. The other sva-dharma is that which pertains to the body in terms of prescribed varnasrama duties and serves as a stepping stone for spiritual understanding.
At this point a question may be raised as to whether or not someone who becomes aware of their spiritual sva-dharma in bhakti-yoga should give up their sva-dharma within the varnasrama system. In chapter three Krishna emphatically teaches Arjuna that this is not an acceptable course of action. Krishna educates Arjuna that although a self-realized man has no purpose to fulfill in the discharge of prescribed duties he still has no reason not to perform such work. He continues to explain that one who has achieved self realization in bhakti-yoga should still perform their prescribed duties in varnasrama just to set the example for the common man. Krishna further qualifies this by stating that although He Himself has no prescribed duties, wants or needs, He still engages in prescribed duties just to prevent men from becoming degraded by imitation.
In conclusion, we can see clearly a few ways in which bhakti-yoga is related to varnasrama-dharma. Varnasrama gradually develops transcendental knowledge and material detachment within the practitioner which makes the heart fertile for the seed of bhakti to be received. It is considered as a stepping stone for spiritual understanding and should be adhered to even within the process of bhakti-yoga at least for the sake of setting a good standard for others. Srila Prabhupada explains this concluding point in a lecture on Bhagavad-Gita 2.31 in London, 1973:
“Krishna is trying to put Arjuna in the dilemma, ‘This way or that way, you must have to fight. If you think that you are not in bodily concept of life, then it is My order, `You must fight.’ If you think that you are in bodily concept of life, then you are a ksatriya, you must fight. Both ways you have to fight.’ This is Krishna’s conclusion.”
BG 6.47 : “And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me-he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.”
BG 2.48 Purport : “It is said in the Vishnu Purana that in the varnasrama-dharma the whole aim is to satisfy Vishnu.”
BG 4.13 : “guna-of quality; karma-and work; vibhagasah-in terms of division”; “According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me. And although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the nondoer, being unchangeable.”
BG 2.31 Purport : “There are two kinds of sva-dharmas, specific duties. As long as one is not liberated, one has to perform the duties of his particular body in accordance with religious principles in order to achieve liberation. When one is liberated, one’s sva-dharma -specific duty- becomes spiritual and is not in the material bodily concept. In the bodily conception of life there are specific duties for the brahmanas and ksatriyas respectively, and such duties are unavoidable. Sva-dharma is ordained by the Lord, and this will be clarified in the Fourth Chapter. On the bodily plane sva-dharma is called varnasrama-dharma, or man’s steppingstone for spiritual understanding. Human civilization begins from the stage of varnasrama-dharma, or specific duties in terms of the specific modes of nature of the body obtained. Discharging one’s specific duty in any field of action in accordance with the orders of higher authorities serves to elevate one to a higher status of life.”
BG 3.18 : “A self-realized man has no purpose to fulfill in the discharge of his prescribed duties, nor has he any reason not to perform such work. Nor has he any need to depend on any other living being.”
BG 3.21 : “Whatever action a great man performs, common men follow. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.”
BG 3.22-23 “O son of Prtha, there is no work prescribed for Me within all the three planetary systems. Nor am I in want of anything, nor have I a need to obtain anything-and yet I am engaged in prescribed duties. For if I ever failed to engage in carefully performing prescribed duties, O Partha, certainly all men would follow My path.”