When defining the “Dharma” of an individual, Hinduism uses “Varna” as one metric and “Ashram” (stage) as another. Varna decides the duties of an individual on a broad level while “Ashram”(stage) decides the duties on a narrow level. Dharma of an individual is thus a byproduct of what his varna is and what stage in life he is currently into.
A couple of examples.
Consider a man whose varna is Brahmin. His duty on a broad level is to teach and propagate knowledge to others. However, when this Brahmin is walking the final phase of his life and living the life of a “Parivrajaka”, his Dharma is not to teach people and seek knowledge but refrain himself from leading an active life. It does not matter how much knowledge he has, he must let go because now he is a wandering ascetic.
Consider a man whose varna is Khastriya. His duty on a broad level is to protect people and fight for what is right. However, when this Khastriya is walking the final phase of his life and living the life of “Vanaprastha”, unlike a Brahmin, he still has to protect what is right and fight for the truth. He cannot say “No” since a Khastriya has no “Parivrajaka” phase in his life.
Hierarchy and segregation is a fundamental necessity of any organization. No organization can sustain itself without proper hierarchy and division.
Human society is also an “organization” where every member has to play his part. Most people wonder what is the need of “Caste” based division when it creates inequality among people. But we cannot refute the fact that Inequality is the law of nature and there must be principles and doctrines which leads to efficient management of “Inequality”
“Varna” system was introduced in Hindu society to preserve order and limit “Chaos”. Please note that varna and jati are two distinct concepts, while Varna defines the duty and Dharma of an individual, Jati is just a reflection of the group the family lineage belongs to.
The four varnas are
Duties of a man based on his Varna
Duties of a Brahmin – Study, teaching, performing rituals, enduring knowledge, giving and receiving gifts.
Duties of a Kshatriya – Study, performing the prescribed rituals, living by the profession of arms and protecting life.
Duties of a Vaishya – Study, performing the prescribed rituals, agriculture, cattle rearing and trade.
Duties of a Shudra – Service, the profession of an artisan or entertainer other economic activity which helps other 3 Varnas achieve their objectives.
The Stages in a Man’s Life and duties in each stage
- study of the prescribed scriptures.
- tending the ritual fires; following the ritual ablutions.
- living on alms only.
- abstinence from sexual desires of any form.
- possessing no property.
- being devoted to his teacher, the teacher’s son and his fellow students.
- Earning his livelihood by pursuing his own profession
- Marrying a woman of the same varna but not of the same Gotra
- Procreating children through sexual intercourse with his wife at appropriate time
- worshiping gods, ancestors and guests
- sacrificing his own pleasures for those dependent on him (wife, children, parents)
- Being the last to enjoy what is available.
- Observing Celibacy.
- Sleeping on the bare ground.
- Not dressing his hair, No luxuries.
- Visiting Pilgrimages.
- Living on things gathered from the forest.
- Being neither dependent on charity nor dependent on own’s wealth.
- Renouncing the temptation of all sensual pleasures (anger, greed, lust, fear, attachment, ego, regret, jealousy, insensitivity, hatred)
- Refraining from all active life.
- Renouncing all possessions.
- Giving up attachment of all forms.
- Living on the charity and mercy of others.
- Never staying in one place for long.
- Maintaining inner and outward purity.
Not everyone has to go through all the 4 stages – Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Parivrajaka.
- A Shudra can only lead the 2nd phase (Grihastha) and is not entitled for the other three phases of life.
- A Vaishya can only lead the 1st (Brahmacharya) and 2nd phase (Grihastha) and is not entitled to lead the other two phases of life.
- A Khastriya can only lead the 1st (Brahmacharya), 2nd (Grihastha) and 3rd phase (Vanaprastha) and is not entitled to lead the “Parivrajaka” phase of life.
- A Brahmin is entitled to lead all the 4 phases of life.
Some Examples when Dharma is not upheld (based on Varna and Ashram)
1. Let’s say a Brahmin denies to lead Vanprastha and wants to directly become a “Parivrajaka” after “Grihastha”. In this case, his “Dharma” is not upheld since he has not observed one phase of life and has jumped from the 2nd phase to the final one.
2. If a Vaishya retires into the Jungle trying to lead “Vanaprastha”, his “Dharma” is not upheld since he is not entitled to live the stage of life of a “Khastriya” or a “Brahmin”.
3. A Shudra who is devoted to a “Grihastha” life cannot abaondon his family / children and retire into the Jungle. Doing so will make him “Adharmik”.
4. In modern life, most of the people live the life of a Vaishya. We study (Brahmacharya) and then we enter marital life (Grihastha) and we never retire into the unknown. Retiring from work and living in material world is not “retirement”, since the subject must give up all his possessions and live the life of a hermit or ascetic.
5. Let’s say a Brahmin goes to different universities to seek education. Then he marries a woman, produces children and stays in the profession of “Knowledge”. He earns good amount of money, builds a house and at 50 years of age, retires from work and settles down.
Is he a real Brahmin? The answer is a No. This is because although the Brahmin has observed Brahmacharya and Grihastha and not taken up a profession that is not his Dharma, he has not observed “Vanaprastha” and “Parivrajaka” phase of life. He has not learned how to let go of his possessions (wealth, relationships). Hence, his Dharma is not upheld.
6. Let’s say a Khastriya goes to a university, takes up a job as as administrator of a town, marries, produces children, earns money and then retires at the age of 50. He then goes to his parental village and tries forming reforms, fixes law and order, helps protect the weak farmers against landlords for the rest of his life.
Is he a real Khastriya? The answer is Yes he is. He has led all the three phases of life and has dedicated his last phase in preserving law and order and helping establish Dharma for the weak in a location unknown to him (“Vana-prastha”)
The observance of own’s Dharma leads to heaven and eternal bliss. When Dharma is transgressed, the resulting chaos leads to the extermination of this world. Whoever upholds his own dharma and follows the rules of the Varnas and the stages of life will find Joy, peace, prosperity and enlightenment.