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A Handbook of Hindu Religion: Varṇas and Asramas


Although our religion and philosophy consider mokṣa (beatitude) as the primary object of our desire, still they recognise three other objects which are to be attained consistent with the primary one. They are dharma, artha and kāma. These three are collectively known as Trivarga and along with mokṣa, as the caturvarga. These are not only ends in themselves but are also means to the principal object, mokṣa. Dharma is the practical method by which mokṣa can be attained. It regulates the conduct of a person who aims at mokṣa. It may be called a code of Ethics. The underlying principle in our code of Ethics is that one should prefer what is good or meritorious (śreyas) to what is pleasant or pleasurable (preyas). The man who prefers the latter is called ignorant while the man who prefers the former is called wise. The wise man knows that the pleasures of the world are transitory and perishing and that everlasting pleasure is only mokṣa. Even the joys of svarga and Brahmaloka which are gained by sacrifices and tapas are only transitory. So if a man has to attain everlasting joy, he must control his senses and realise his self. This is possible by following the course of dharma, When we follow dharma, we must follow it without any object in view, i.e. for its own sake, dedicating it to God. Then only will it contribute to our good or śreyas. Again dharma includes not only rules of conduct but also principles of character. The latter are more important and produce better results than the former. The former without the latter are ineffective.

Dharma regulates the conduct of man in all aspects of life—religious, social, political and healthy. It is divided into two categories varṇa-dharma and āśrama-dharma. Our religion has divided the society into four classes or varṇas according to the nature and aptitudes of its members and prescribed dharma for each class. Again it has divided man's life into four stages or asramās and prescribed dharma for each stage. The division of the society into four classes or varṇas is peculiar to our country. For that reason, it need not be declaimed or discouraged. It is based on the principle of social economy. So it is prescribed as one of the duties of the king to maintain the varṇa-dharma and āśrama-dharma. If a king is not able to maintain dharma properly, he is described as an incompetent king. He is given power to punish people who do not follow the dharma of their class and state in society.

It is not possible to mention all the varṇa-dharmas and āśrama-dharmas here but a few important ones will be noticed. It is the duty of the Brahman to study and teach the Veda, to perform sacrifices for himself and for others, and to give and receive gifts. The first in each pair of duties enumerated above is also prescribed for the Kśatriya and the Vaiśya. The special duty of a Kśatriya is to protect the people and their dharma. Agriculture, cattle rearing and trade are assigned to the Vaiśya. The only duty assigned to the Śudra is to help the other castes in carrying on their duties. In this way, the varṇas specialise in religion, politics, economics and labour according to their station in life, whatever its nature.

In addition to the above social duties, certain religious duties are enjoined, most of which are common to all the castes. These are comprehensively known as the saṁskāras. They are Garbhādhāna or ceremony for conception; Puṁsavana or ceremony of wishing a male child; Sīmantonnayana or ceremonial parting of the hair; Jātakarma or birth rites; Namakarana or naming; Annaprāśana or giving solid foodto the child; Caula or tonsure; Upanayana or investiture with the sacred thread; and Vivāha or marriage. After Upanayana, the study of the Veda is prescribed and at the end of the Vedic study five more saṁskāras are prescribed. So to the Hindu life itself is a sacrament from birth to death or conception to cremation. Every act is an adoration of God including the smallest details of life relating to birth, food, study and duties of the family.

In addition to the above saṁskāraswhich are enjoined once for a life time, there are some others which are to be performed daily or at regular intervals. The daily duties are the performance of the five mahāyajñas viz., brahmayajña or reciting the Veda; pitṛyajña or oblation to the pitṛs or forefathers; devayajña or worship of God; bhūtayajña or offering bali or food to all creatures; and manuṣyayajña or feeding the guests. The aim of these yajñas is to bring out the solidarity and unity of all living beings, human, super-human and sub-human and the obligations of the house-holder to the world in general owing to his birth and station in life. Then there are the twenty-one sacrifices— 7 pāka-yajñas, 7 haviryajñas and 7 somayajñas- which may be performed some at specific times and others at suitable times, but all at the option of the doer. But śrāddha, one of the pākayajñas, is considered as essential and one who omits it is counted as a patita, because every one owes his life to the parents and progenitors.

The object of these saṁskārasis to make the life of a man spiritual. Our people are of the opinion that man is not on an animal level and should not be guided by the animal instincts of self-preservation and multiplication and feelings of anger, fear and jealousy. Being endowed with mind and reason, he should rise above the animal level and feel that he has come from God and has to return to God and that he should make himself fit for it. He is morally free and not bound by instincts like animals. So he must live and move in a spiritual world and his dress, food and acts must have a spiritual meaning. Every saṁskāra is intended to be an act of purification making the soul more and more fit to approach God. So Upanayana is considered to be the most important saṁskāra as, in it, the man is initiated into the worship of God by means of Vedic stanzas and is invested with the sacred thread in token whereof. Worship of God is the essence of religious life. Marriage is also a spiritual act which enables a man to perform Vedic rites which exalt him spiritually and to continue the race which redeems him from his debt to the fore-fathers. By these saṁskāras one’slife becomes living in and for God.

For this purpose our religion teaches not only the above saṁskāras but also detailed rules of conduct which are ethical aids to spirituality. Some of these will be defined below. 1. Śauca or śuddhi is keeping the mind, speech and body clean. Keeping the mind clean is to prevent it from lapsing from sattva into rajas and tamas. Keeping the speech clean is not to utter lies or words calculated to cause pain to other beings. 2. Viveka is discrimination between good and bad, between body and soul. 3. Ārjava is identity of purpose between body, speech and mind. 4. Samatva is feeling pleasure and pain at the pleasure and pain of others. 5. Tusti is being satisfied with what one has. 6, 7. Śama and Dama are controlling the mind and the senses from being attracted by undesirable objects. 8. Dāna is giving to others what one has. 9. Tyāga is renouncing what is not good to oneself. 10. Daya is pity or sympathy for the suffering of others. 11. Mārdava is association with goodness. 12. Lajja is moral sensitiveness. 13. Kṣamā is the spirit of endurance or ability to bear pain caused by others, or by extreme cold or heat. Kṣānti and titikṣā are synonymous with this. 14. Dhairya is courage to do one's duties even in the face of extreme danger. 15. Śraddhā is reverence to the elders. This is otherwise called Āstikya. 16. Tapas is physical exercise to make the body fit for religious duties. 17. Sthairya isthe will to do one's duty. 18. Vairāgya is the renunciation of sense inclinations. The practice of these good qualities is given preference over the above-named saṁskāras. Even though a man undergoes all the above saṁskāras, it is of no avail if he does not possess these qualities. If, on the other hand, a man possesses these qualities, it does not matter even if he does not undergo all the saṁskāras.

Hinduism not only insists on the practice of these virtues but also on the avoidance of vices of which the chief are given below. 1. Kāma is the desire for sensual pleasures. 2. Krodha is anger causing pain to others. 3. Lobha is the instinct of possession. 4. Mōha is delusion or mistaking one thing for another. 5. Mada is conceit arising from egoistic enjoyment and it causes moral confusion. 6. Mātsarya is envy or jealousy at other's prosperity. 7. Dambha is self-advertisement. 8. Māna is the feeling of superiority to others and insulting them. 9. Pāruṣya is conduct leading to other's displeasure. 10. Ajñāna is ignorance of what is good and what is bad. 11. Ahaṅkāra is egoism expressed in terms of self-elation and the feeling of superiority to others. It includes identification with the body. 12. Mamakāra is the sense of possession or mineness. 13. Pramāda is perversity due to ignorance. 14. Īrṣyā is envy. 15. Asūya is attributing evil to good people. Of these the first six, viz., kāma, krodha, lobha, moha, mada and mātsarya are the chief and are called arisadvarga or the six inner enemies of spirituality. Of these again the first three, kāma, krodha and lobha are considered to be more baneful than others. Lastly kāma is the worst of all the enemies as it is the sourse of all the other vices.

A man's life is divided into four parts and each is called an āśrama. The four āśramas are stages in the pilgrim's progress to God or stages in the process of spirituality. They make the man given to secular life turn his mind towards spiritual life and finally lead to the realization of the supreme Self. The first āśrama is brahmacarya. A man enters brahmacarya at the age of seven or eight. It is the period of study and the whole attention of the student should be absorbed in study at the residence of his teacher (gurukula). Brahman is the Veda as the source of spiritual knowledge and so brahmacarya is the study of the Veda. The highest of all studies is Vedic study. The object of the study is to attain mastery over animal nature. The Brahmacārin has to lead a well-regulated life, practice self-control and observe celibacy. He should be moderate in his food, speech and conduct. He should beg his food and partake as much of it as his teacher prescribes for him. He should avoid excess of salt, acid and pungent substances. He should avoid meat and intoxicating drinks. He should not use scents and flowers. He should not sleep in the daytime. He should not indulge in toilet. He should not drive in carts or coaches. He should not use footwear. He should shun objects that cause kāma, krodha and lobha. He should act with viveka. He should not indulge in music or dancing. He should not find fault with others and should not himself commit faults. He should regularly perform the sandhyāvandana or the worship of God in the Sun as the light of lights. A student is not required to pay for his studies. The Guru is maintained by the state and the tuition is free. He has to acquire knowledge and culture through service and devotion to his teacher. The most essential duty of the student is reverence to the teacher.

Then the student enters into the married life, the stage of his life called gārhasthya. He should select a fair and suitable bride of a different gotra. Marriage is a sacrament meant for spiritual life and not for sexual and sensual satisfaction and his partner should participate in his pursuit of dharma. Every man is a member of the social organism. He owes his body and mind or psycho-physical make-up to his forefathers, ṛṣis and gods and so he has to repay his debt of gratitude to them. The Gṛhastha has to do his duties and not assert his civic rights. The duty to the fore-fathers consists in the performance of śrāddha to them and the continuance of the species worthy of the race. The duties to the ṛṣis, lie in the study of the Vedas as they are the Vedic seers of God. The Gods are pleased by Vedic sacrifices and worship. The first and the third can be accomplished only with the assistance of a wife. So marriage is a religious sacrament, according to our people and not a civil affair to satisfy our senses. Not only the above three functions, but also the remaining two of the pañch-yajñas can be performed only with the assistance of a wife to look after the house. So our people assigned domestic work as the primary duty to the wife. It is also the duty of a gṛhastha or householder to feed all people who are in need of food, the brahmacārin, the other gṛhasthas who approach him for food, the sannyāsin who has neither home nor relations, and even the vānaprastha. So every other āśrama depends upon the gṛhasthāśrama for its support as the children depend upon their mother. As a Gṛhastha has to offer bhūta-bali also, even the birds and insects derive support from him. So a Gṛhastha is the mainstay of the society and his āśrama is the most humanitarian and therefore the bes.t of the āśramas.

Pañca-yajñas are thus based on the idea of life as an opportunity for service and self-sacrifice and not for sense-enjoyment. It is giving back to the universe what a man has taken from it for self-maintenance.

The next is the vānaprasthāśrama. When a man reaches old age and is subject to dotage and is blessed with a grandson, he should leave the gṛhasthāśrama and retire to the forest either with or without his wife, after transferring the management of the family to his son and spend his life in contemplation. Retirement to the forest is only for inner spiritual quiet. His food consists of roots, fruits and similar forest products. He practises ascetic self-control by fasts and enduring sufferings. He should also perform the five mahāyajñas. This āśrama is only a training period for the next or sannyāsāśrama or the life of renunciation and contemplation.

The Sannyāsin gives up all sense attractions and attachments and even the celestial pleasures of Svarga. Though he lives in solitude he may enter the city and seek alms for the sustenance of his body. He has no attachments or aversions.

He returns love for hatred and lives for others. He is one with God and sees all things in God and God in all things. He is a veritable God on earth. This āśrama is the fruition of the other āśrama and the fulfilment of life. The life of dutifulness ends in the deified life; it is attitude that matters and not the detailed acts. As the Gitā says, whatever a man's station in life, he can get freedom or mukti by doing his prescribed duty without attachment and absolute devotion to God.

Thus though the āśramas appear to be different stages in the spiritual development of man, starting with brahmacarya and ending with vānaprastha it is held in a larger sense that each āśrama is an end in itself. A man can attain moksa by performing his prescribed duties well and without desiring any fruit in any āśrama. Purity of soul, detachment from worldly objects and absolute devotion to God will secure salvation to a man in any stage of life. There are relative duties due to birth, birthplace and social environment and these duties should not be inconsistent with obligatory or optional duties. Every duty is really a worship of the Deity who is the real actor or kartu. He is the act and the actor.

Now coming to the rights and duties of women, there is fundamental difference in our Śāstras between puruṣadharma and stridharma.

Women are always dependent upon men and can never be independent. Women have their share of duties but they are not allowed to discharge them independently- Men too cannot practice dharma independently of women, but the difference is if a man begins to perform a rite, his wife has to co-operate and help him; a woman, on the other hand, cannot undertake to do a work without the permission of her husband. If she does anything against the wishes of her husband, it will turn fruitless. The upshot of all this is that the primary duty of a wife is to follow the wishes of her husband (pativratā). According to our Śāstras marriage is a sacrament (saṁskāra) and not a civil or social affair, and so the marital tie is unbreakable. A women, once married, cannot desert her husband even if he were addicted to vices or devoid of good qualities. Conversely a man cannot abandon his wife and if he does so he is publicly censured. Husband and wife should be attached to each other for life, and love and be contented with each other.

Although independence has been denied to women in religious duties, she is the mistress of the house. All domestic duties are in her charge and she commands equal respect with her husband in the family—nay more. It is said that the father deserves hundred times more respect than the teacher and the mother thousand times more than the father. A man may abandon his father but he should, under no circumstances, abandon his mother. The wife also deserves equal respect because our sāṣtras say that a man is born in the form of his son through his wife. As he is born in his wife, she is called his jaya. Where women are respected, there the Gods rejoice;any rite becomes fruitless if it is done in a place where women are not respected; a woman is the light of the house; she is prosperity incarnate;so says our sāṣtra.

As there are good deeds to be performed, so there are also bad deeds to be avoided. So the sāṣtra not only commands us to do certain duties but also prohibits us from commiting certain other acts. Just as the good deeds are calculated to produce merit, so the bad deeds or prohibited actions cause sin. Our seers were not only wise enough to lay down certain rules of conduct but were also prudent enough to warn us from doing- wicked deeds. These deeds are either harmful to ourselves or to the society. One who does not want to lose his merit or acquire sin, should avoid them. A Gṛhastha should not covet another man's wife. No man should cause hiṁsa or harm to another. A man of one caste should not encroach upon the duties of another caste, except in cases of dire necessity. Oneshould not utter a lie. There are various prohibitions with regard to food. Generally food which is rājasic and tāmasic should be avoided. It should not excite the senses and animal instincts. It should not lead to slothfulness and apathy. Liquor and stealing are strictly prohibited.

When there are injunctions and prohibitions, it is natural that there should be omissions and commissions, as to err is human. These have to be rectified and this is done by prāyaścittās or self-purifications. The underlying principle is repentance for lapses and sin. A man should feel repentance for what he has done and should benefit by experience. This is brought about by means of the prāyaścittās. The most common form of purification is penance and fasting or physical mortification leading to the purification of the soul. The derivative meaning of prāyaścittā is penance and determination (not to repeat the act). These expiatory ceremonies purify the mind of the person and prevent his spirituality from being lowered by the omissions and commissions. The prāyaścittāa are prescribed for slips or unintentional mistakes but not for willful misdeeds or omissions. There is no atonement for willful wickedness. The man is doomed for life. In our daily round of duties, we may unwittingly omit some details and we may not be aware of it. In order to ward off the evil effects of such omissions, it is usual to perform an act of atonement for them at the end of every ceremony. Our people are very scrupulous in the discharge of their duties and want to make sure of the merit of the actions. Remorse is vital to virtuous life.

Our system of fasts (vratas) and festivals are calculated to help us in self-purification and development of the sattva character. If sattva increases, we will be free from egoism and resign ourselves to the will of God and attain salvation by His mercy. Fast reduces the force of the material body and enables the spiritual nature to attain ascendancy. Festivals are not simple feasts or dinners. They remind us of the advents of God on earth or commemorate the mighty deeds of God undertaken to purify the world by destroying the wicked and protecting the good, for the redemption of humanity. They are the outward expressions of our gratitude to God for His immense and constant mercy. If we do not express our gratitude to God, we will be guilty of ingratitude for the trouble that He has taken to make us approach Him. Dīpāvali, for instance, is a day of rejoicing and remembrance of the good that Śrī Kṛṣṇa did to the world by killing the cruel demon, Naraka, on the previous day. Saṅkrānti commemorates the release of the world from the clutches of the demon Bali whom Viṣṇu drove away by His prowess. It also demonstrates the immense mercy of the Lord who pardoned him in spite of his wickedness because he supplicated and who even took upon himself the burden of protecting him so long as he lived. Another class of festivals is the celebration of the birthdays of the avatāras of God and of saints who have bequeathed to us their wisdom of the things of this world and the worlds beyond.