The principle of Varnasrama Dharma is one of the basic principles of
Hinduism. The Varnasrama system is peculiar to Hindus. It is a
characteristic feature of Hinduism. It is also prevalent throughout the
world according to Guna-Karma (aptitude and conduct), though there is no
such distinct denomination of this kind, elsewhere.
The duties of the castes are Varna Dharma. The four castes are
Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. The duties of the stages in life
are Asrama Dharma. The four Asramas or orders of life are Brahmacharya,
Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa.
Human society is like a huge machine. The individuals and communities
are like its parts. If the parts are weak and broken, the machine will
not work. A machine is nothing without its parts. The human body also
can work efficiently if its parts and organs are in sound and strong
condition. If there is pain in any part of the body, if there is disease
in any organ or part of the body, this human machine will go out of
order. It will not perform its usual function or work.
So is the case with the human society. Every individual should
perform his duties efficiently. The Hindu Rishis and sages formed an
ideal scheme of society and an ideal way of individual life, which is
known by the name Varnasrama Dharma. Hinduism is built on Varnasrama
Dharma. The structure of the Hindu society is based on Varnasrama
Dharma. Observance of Varnasrama Dharma helps one’s growth and
self-evolution. It is very indispensable. If the rules are violated, the
society will soon perish.
The aim of Varnasrama Dharma is to promote the development of the
universal, eternal Dharma. If you defend Dharma, it will defend you. If
you destroy it, it will destroy you. Therefore, never destroy your
Dharma. This principle holds true of the individual as much as of the
nation. It is Dharma alone which keeps a nation alive. Dharma is the
very soul of man. Dharma is the very soul of a nation also.
In the West and in the whole world also, there is Varnasrama, though
it is not rigidly observed there. Some Western philosophers have made a
division of three classes, viz., philosophers, warriors and masses. The
philosophers correspond to the Brahmanas, warriors to Kshatriyas and the
masses to Vaisyas and Sudras. This system is indispensable to keep the
society in a state of perfect harmony and order.
The Four Castes
In Purusha-Sukta of the Rig-Veda, there is reference to the division
of Hindu society into four classes. It is described there that the
Brahmanas came out of the face of the Lord, the Creator, Kshatriyas from
His arms, Vaisyas from His thighs, and the Sudras from His feet.
This division is according to the Guna and Karma. Guna (quality) and
Karma (kind of work) determine the caste of a man. This is supported by
Lord Krishna in the Gita, also. He says in the Gita: “The four castes
were emanated by Me, by the different distribution of qualities and
actions. Know Me to be the author of them, though the actionless and
inexhaustible” (Ch. IV-13).
There are three qualities or Gunas, viz., Sattva (purity),
Rajas (passion) and Tamas (inertia). Sattva is white, Rajas
is red and Tamas is black. These three qualities are found in man in
varying proportions. Sattva preponderates in some persons. They are
Brahmanas. They are wise persons or thinkers. They are the priests,
ministers or philosophers who guide kings or rulers. In some, Rajas is
predominant. They are Kshatriyas. They are warriors or men of action.
They fight with the enemies or invaders and defend the country. In some,
Tamas is predominant. They are Vaisyas or traders. They do business and
agriculture and amass wealth. Sudras are the servants. None of these
qualities is highly developed in them. They serve the other three
In a broad sense, a Sattvic man, who is pious and virtuous and leads
the divine life, is a Brahmana, a Rajasic man with heroic quality is a
Kshatriya, a Rajasic man with business tendencies is a Vaisya and a
Tamasic man is a Sudra. Hitler and Mussolini were Kshatriyas. Ford was a
Serenity, self-restraint, austerity, purity, forgiveness, and also,
uprightness, knowledge, Realisation and belief in God are the duties of
the Brahmanas, born of (their own) nature. Prowess, splendour, firmness,
dexterity, and also, not flying from battle, generosity and lordliness
are the duties of the Kshatriyas, born of (their own) nature.
Agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade are the duties of the Vaisyas,
born of (their own) nature. And action consisting of service is the duty
of the Sudras, born of (their own) nature.
The Law of Spiritual Economics
The underlying principle in caste system or Varna Dharma, is division
of labour. Rishis studied human nature carefully. They came to the
conclusion that all men were not equally fit for all kinds of work.
Hence, they found it necessary to allocate different kinds of duties to
different classes of people, according to their aptitude, capacity or
quality. The Brahmanas were in charge of spiritual and intellectual
affairs. The work of political administration and defence was given to
the Kshatriyas. The Vaisyas were entrusted with the duty of supplying
food for the nation and administering its economic welfare. The Sudras
did menial work. The Rishis felt all these needs of the Hindu nation and
started the system of Varnas and Asramas.
This division of labour began in Vedic times. The Vedas taught that
the Brahmana was the brain of the society, the Kshatriya its arms, the
Vaisya its stomach, and the Sudra its feet.
There was a quarrel between the senses, the mind and the Prana as to
who was superior. There was a quarrel amongst the different organs and
the stomach. If the hands quarrel with the stomach; the entire body will
suffer. When Prana departed from the body, all the organs suffered. The
head or stomach cannot claim its superiority over the feet and hands.
The hands and feet are as much important as the stomach or head. If
there is quarrel between the different castes as to which is superior,
then the entire social fabric will suffer. There will be disharmony,
rupture and discord. A scavenger and a barber are as much important as a
minister for the running of the society. The social edifice is built on
the law of spiritual economics. It has nothing to do with superiority or
inferiority. Each class contributes its best to the common weal or
world-solidarity. There is no question of higher and lower here.
Character Determines Caste
A Brahmana is no Brahmana if he is not endowed with purity and good
character, and if he leads a life of dissipation and immorality. A Sudra
is a Brahmana if he leads a virtuous and pious life. What a great soul
was Vidura! What a noble, candid, straightforward student was Satyakama
Jabala of Chhandogya Upanishad! Caste is a question of character. Varna
is no more the colour of the skin, but the colour of one’s character or
quality. Conduct and character count and not lineage alone. If one is
Brahmana by birth and, at the same time, if he possesses the virtues of
a Brahmana, it is extremely good, because certain virtuous
qualifications only determine the birth of a Brahmana.
Use and Abuse of the Caste System
The Hindus have survived many a foreign conquest on account of their
caste system. But they have developed class jealousies and hatred in the
name of the caste system. They have not got the spirit of co-operation.
That is the reason why they are weak and disunited today. They have
become sectarians in the name of the caste system. Hence there is
degradation in India.
The caste system is, indeed, a splendid thing. It is quite flawless.
But the defect came in from somewhere else. The classes gradually
neglected their duties. The test of ability and character slowly
vanished. Birth became the chief consideration in determining castes.
All castes fell from their ideals and forgot all about their duties.
Brahmanas became selfish and claimed superiority over others by mere
birth, without possessing due qualifications. The Kshatriyas lost their
chivalry and spirit of sacrifice. The Vaisyas became very greedy. They
did not earn wealth by honest means. They did not look after the
economic welfare of the people. They did not give charity. They also
lost the spirit of sacrifice. Sudras gave up service. They became
officers. They wished that others should serve them. The greed and pride
of man have created discord and disharmony.
There is nothing wrong in Varnasrama. It is arrogance and haughtiness
in men that have brought troubles. Man or the little Jiva is imperfect.
He is full of defects. He is simply waiting for claiming superiority
over others. The Brahmana thinks that the other three castes are
inferior to him. The Kshatriya thinks that the Vaisya and Sudra are
inferior to him. A rich Sudra thinks that he is superior to a poor
Brahmana or a poor Kshatriya or Vaisya.
At the present moment, the Varnasrama system exists in name only. It
has to be rebuilt properly. Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras,
who have fallen from their ideals and who are not doing their respective
duties, must do their respective duties properly. They must be educated
on right lines. They must raise themselves to their original lofty
level. The sectarian spirit must die. They should develop a new
understanding heart of love and devotion, with a spirit of co-operation,
sacrifice and service.
The Four Asramas
There are four Asramas or stages in life, viz., Brahmacharya
or the period of studentship, Grihastha or the stage of the householder,
Vanaprastha or the stage of the forest-dweller or hermit, and Sannyasa
or the life of renunciation or asceticism. Each stage has its own
duties. These stages help the evolution of man. The four Asramas take
man to perfection by successive stages. The practice of the four Asramas
regulates the life from the beginning to the end. The first two Asramas
pertain to Pravritti Marga or the path of work and the two later
stages—the life of Vanaprastha and that of Sannyasa—are the stages of
withdrawal from the world. They pertain to Nivritti Marga or the path of
Towards Orderly Spiritual Evolution
Life is very systematically and orderly arranged in Sanatana Dharma.
There is opportunity for the development of the different sides of human
activity. Due occupations and training are assigned to each period of
life. Life is a great school in which the powers, capacities and
faculties of man are to be evolved gradually.
Every man should pass through the different Asramas regularly. He
should not enter any stage of life prematurely. He can enter the next
stage, only when each has been completed. In nature, evolution is
gradual. It is not revolutionary.
Lord Manu says in his Smriti: “Having studied the Vedas or two Vedas
or even one Veda in due order without breaking celibacy, let him dwell
in the householder order. When the householder sees wrinkles in his skin
and whiteness in his hair and the son of his son, then let him retire to
the forest. Having passed the third portion of life in the forests, let
him, having abandoned attachments, wander as an ascetic in the fourth
portion of life.”
In extraordinary cases, however, some of the stages may be omitted.
Suka was a born Sannyasin. Sankara took Sannyasa without entering the
stage of a householder. In rare and exceptional cases, a student is
allowed to become a Sannyasin, his debts to the world having been fully
paid in a previous birth. Nowadays, young Sannyasins without
qualification are found in abundance. This is contrary to the ancient
rules and causes much trouble.
The Brahmacharin or the Celibate Student
The first stage, Brahmacharya, is the period of study and discipline.
The student should not indulge in any pleasures. He stays in the house
of his preceptor and studies the Vedas and the sciences. This is the
period of probation. The teachers in ancient India usually lived in
forest hermitages. These hermitages were the Gurukulas or forest
universities. The student begged his food. The children of the rich and
poor lived together. The student regarded his teacher as his spiritual
father and served him with faith, devotion and reverence.
The life of the student begins with the Upanayana ceremony, his
second birth. He must be hardy and simple in his habits. He rises early,
bathes and does Sandhya and Gayatri Japa. He studies scriptures. He
takes simple food in moderation and takes plenty of exercise. He sleeps
on a hard mat and does not use soft beds and pillows. He is humble and
obedient. He serves and respects elders. He attempts to be chaste in
thought, word and deed.
He ever engages himself in doing services to his preceptor. He
refrains from wine, meat, perfumes, garlands, tasty and savoury dishes,
women, acids, spices and injury to sentient creatures; from lust, anger,
greed; dancing, singing and playing on musical instruments; from
dice-playing, gossip, slander and untruth. He sleeps alone.
After the end of his student career, he gives a present to his
preceptor according to his ability and returns home to enter the
household life. The preceptor gives the final instruction and sends the
student home. The teacher delivers a convocation address to the students
at the conclusion of their studentship:
“Speak the truth. Do your duty. Never swerve from the study of the
Veda. Do not cut off the line of progeny (after giving the preceptor the
fee he desires). Never swerve away from truth. Never swerve from duty.
Never neglect your welfare. Never neglect your prosperity. Never neglect
the study and the teaching of the Vedas.
“Never swerve from the duties to the gods and the forefathers. Regard
your mother as a god (Matridevo Bhava). Regard your father as a
god (Pitridevo Bhava). Regard your teacher as a god
(Acharyadevo Bhava). Regard your guest as god (Atithidevo Bhava).
Let only those actions that are free from blemishes be done and not
others. Only those that are good acts to us should be performed by you
and not others.
“You should remove the fatigue of Brahmanas who are superior to you
by serving them with seats, etc. Gift should be given with faith, in
plenty, with modesty and sympathy. If there be any doubt regarding rites
or conduct, then look up to the lives of great men and follow their
examples. This is the injunction. This is the teaching. This is the
secret of the Vedas. This is God’s word of command. This should be
observed. Thus is this to be meditated upon.”
The Grihastha or the Householder
The second stage is that of the Grihastha or householder. The
household stage is entered at marriage, when the student has completed
his studentship and is ready to take up the duties and responsibilities
of householder life. Of all the Asramas, this is the most important,
because it supports all the others. As all creatures live supported by
the air, so the other Orders exist supported by the householder. As all
streams and rivers flow to rest in the ocean, so all the Asramas flow to
rest in the householder. The Grihastha is the very heart of Aryan life.
Everything depends on him.
Marriage is a sacrament for a Hindu. The wife is his partner in life.
She is his Ardhangini. He cannot do any religious ritual without her.
She stands by his left side when he performs any religious performance.
Husband and wife keep Rama and Sita as their ideal.
A householder should earn money by honest means and distribute it in
the proper manner. He should spend one-tenth of his income in charity.
He should enjoy sensual pleasures within the limits of the moral law. A
householder is permitted to enjoy conjugal happiness on one night in a
The householder should perform the Pancha Maha Yajnas. The five
DEVA-YAJNA—offering oblations unto Devas, with recitation of Vedic
RISHI-YAJNA—study of Vedas and teaching of Vedas to students, and
offering of oblations to Rishis.
PITRI-YAJNA—Tarpana or ablutions to departed souls and Sraaddha or
annual religious rites performed for departed souls.
BHUTA-YAJNA—distribution of food to cows, crows and animals in
ATITHI-YAJNA—giving food to guests and honouring them.
Hospitality is one of the householder’s chief duties. He must ever
feed first his guests, Brahmanas and his relatives, and then he and his
wife should eat.
When the householder sees that his sons are able to bear the burden
of his duties, when his grandsons are around him, he should know that
the time has come for him and his wife to retire from the world and
spend their time in study and meditation.
The Vanaprastha or the Recluse
The next stage is that of the Varnaprastha. Brahmacharya is a
preparation for the life of the householder. Even so, Vanaprastha is a
preparation for the final stage of Sannyasa. After discharging all the
duties of a householder, he should retire to the forest or a solitary
country place and begin to meditate in solitude on higher spiritual
things. He is now free from social bonds and the responsibilities of
life. He has ample time for study of scriptures. His wife may go with
him or remain with her sons.
The Sannyasin or the Renunciate
The next stage is that of a Sannyasin. When a man becomes a
Sannyasin, he renounces all possessions, all distinctions of caste, all
rites and ceremonies and all attachments to any particular country,
nation, or religion. He lives alone and spends his time in meditation.
He lives on alms. When he attains the sublime state of deep meditation
he rejoices in his own Self. He is quite indifferent to sensual
pleasures. He is free from likes and dislikes, desires, egoism, lust,
anger, greed and pride. He has equal vision and balanced mind. He loves
all. He roams about happily and disseminates Brahma Jnana or Knowledge
of the Self. He is the same in honour and dishonour, praise and censure,
success and failure. He is now Ativarnasrami, i.e., above Varna
and Asrama. He is quite a free man. He is not bound by any social
customs and conventions.
Such a Sannyasin is an ideal man. He has attained perfection and
freedom. He is Brahman Himself. He is a Jivanmukta or a liberated sage.
Glory to such exalted personages who are living Gods on earth!
Asrama Dharma Under Modern Conditions
At the present moment, the Asramas cannot be exactly lived according
to the details of the ancient rules, as the conditions have changed very
much; but, they may be revived in their spirit, to the great improvement
of modern life. In these stages, no one should do the duty of another.
The student or Brahmachari should not do the duties of a householder, a
recluse or a Sannyasin. The householder must not perform the duties of a
Brahmacharin, Vanaprastha or a Sannyasin. A Sannyasin should not seek
again the joys of the householder.
Peace and order will prevail in society, only if and when all people
do their respective duties efficiently. The abolition of Varnas and
Asramas will cut at the very root of social duties. How can the nation
hope to live when Varnasrama Dharma is not rigidly practised?
The students of schools, and colleges should lead a life of purity
and simple living. The householder should lead the life of an ideal
Grihastha. He should practise self-restraint, mercy, tolerance,
non-injury, truthfulness and moderation in everything. Those who find it
difficult to lead the life of the third and the fourth Asramas should,
remaining in either of the other two Asramas, gradually withdraw
themselves from worldly life and practise selfless service, study and
The Highest State
Varnasrama pertains to body alone, but not to the pure,
all-pervading, immortal soul or Atman. Attain Knowledge of the Self and
become an Ativarnasrami like Lord Dattatreya. Hear what he says:—
Mahadadi jagat sarvam
Na kinchit pratibhati me
Brahmaiva kevalam sarvam
“The whole world, from Mahat downwards, does not shine in Me.
Everything is Brahman only. Where then is Varnasrama?”
May you all have comprehensive understanding of Varnasrama Dharma!
May you all develop universal love and brotherhood! May all barriers
which are made by man for his own self-aggrandisement and self-assertion
and which create discord and disunion, be broken asunder!