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varnAshrama dharma of Hinduism from traditional viewpoint

|| Hari OM ||

|| ShrI guru sharaNam ||

Note: This article is an extraction of longer article, 'Hindu Dharma - Traditional Overview'. The aim is to provide basic information on sanAtana dharma also known as Hinduism. The below title is the 14th article. To maintain similarity, here too we are starting the article with number 14 and not 1. The links of full article are:

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Not all links are updated to latest version. Editable Doc is the main article which is updated.

NOTE: This article attempts to present Traditional Overview of Varna vyavasthA and Ashrama dharma collectively known as 'varNAshrama dharma' in sanAtana dharma.

14. varnAshrama dharma

varNa is often translated and used interchangeably with the word ‘Caste’. Caste is not the word of Indian Origin, but of Portuguese origin. Caste is not varNa. Caste is translated as ‘jAtI’ (jātī) which is a subset of varNa. There are four varNa-s – 
  • brAhmaNa (Brahmin, also written as brAhmin), 
  • kshatriya (xatriya), 
  • vaishya, 
  • SUdra (shUdra, śūdra). 

Within brAhmin varNa, there are many jAtI-s.

varNAshrama dharma is made up of two words varNa [dharma] and Ashrama [dharma].

14.1. Varna Dharma

Opinion of traditional vaidika āchārya-s like Sankarāchārya, Rāmānujāchārya, Madhvāchārya, etc is that ‘varNa is by guNa but guNa is by birth because we take past lives into account’. It is a misconception that varNa is purely based on guNa-s only. This is explained later in an article Traditional view of varṇa dharma.   

Let's understand four varṇa-s in brief.

14.2. Brāhmaṇa-s

Veda-s are of utmost importance. They have to be protected. Veda-s are not short texts that can be easily memorized. Further the mantras (verses) contained in them have their own potency when they are pronounced properly. To ensure this, a full proof system was developed by great rishi-s (Seer) so that not even a bit of information gets corrupted while orally passing from one person to another. Each verse in veda called as shruti vacan (commandment of shruti) has
- a rishi (seer to whom this verse was revealed),
- a devatā (God / Demigod to whom this verse is attributed or dedicated) and
- chandas or meter in which a verse has to be sung or chanted.

14.2.1. Veda-s can only be preserved by oral tradition

Veda-s cannot be preserved in written form even with svara-s (musical annotations) as they are insufficient to describe pitch, length and the depth of a particular character in a particular word. This can only be known by listening it from an accomplished master. Mantra is sound. Sound is nothing but a kind of energy and vibration. We are all affected by vibrations and energy. When a vedic mantra is properly pronounced, it produces divine positive vibrations. Anyone who hears them or is present in vicinity receives these vibrations and his subtle body, mind and nADI-s are cleansed and purified. Each vibration has it's own frequency. Hence to generate a particular frequency, one needs to pronounce a word in a definite way to produce desired effect. This is the reason why veda-s cannot be preserved in books. They must be chanted.

To master one veda, it takes around 10 years. Hence to master 4 Vedas, it would take 40 years of dedication. Further the works mentioned in vedas are to be carried out faithfully to ensure universal well being and for personal spiritual development. This is a Herculean  task. For this purpose, an entire class was created, who was entrusted with this responsibility. They came to be known as brAhmin-s. Their foremost duty is to learn, recite, practice and teach veda-s. brAhmin-s also carry other duties like being a pujArI (priest), performing various rites and rituals like marriage ceremony, after-death ceremony, etc. They also teach various arts like warfare, economics, etc.

14.3. Kshatriya-s

Society needs to be safe guarded against any foreign attack and needs to be governed properly to function effectively. Duty of protection and administration is entrusted to kshatriya-s.

14.4. Vaishya-s

Agriculture and trading are the heart of any community for its sustenance. These duties are entrusted to vaishya-s. They are the business community. While the modern education has special courses for management and in doing business, SD already has a special varNa in whom art of doing business is in their blood. There is a popular saying that mARvArI-s (a mArvArI speaking business community practising either Hinduism or Jainism) and Jains learn art of doing business in their mother’s womb. They don't need to enroll in a 2 year course on Business management.

14.5. Śūdra-s

Śūdra-s (shudra-s) are helping and trading class. They are essential for running of society. Without them society would collapse. They do not need to learn veda-s. Ensuring their spiritual progress is the duty of brAhmin. If he stops chanting vedas, it is shudra who has to suffer, as he is entrusted with different vocation. If a shudra starves, it is vaishya community which has to be blamed. If shudra feels insecurity, Kshatriya has to protect them. Kanchi Paramacharya says that there are some portions of veda-s which Sudra-s are supposed to chant. However, he has not pinpointed verses or sections to be chanted by Sudra-s.

The common perception is that Sudra-s do not enjoy the same status as that of other three varṇa-s. However, brahmins and other varṇa-s have restrictions on diet, behaviour and freedom. brAhmin-s are supposed to follow restrictions strictly than other varNa-s. Sudra-s enjoy liberty in restrictions. According to KarpAtrI svAmI, a highly revered saint and most preferred and deserving sanyAsin to hold title of SankarAchArya (of jyotirmath), a sudra gets purified and gains same merits by simply looking at the temple doom as a brAhmin priest gets from performing pUjA.

Kanchi Paramacharya says:

We must note that they (Sudra-s) are comparatively free from the discipline and rituals to which the rest are tied down. In the past, they knew more contentment than the other castes, living as they did by the side of the lord. Vyasa himself says: "Kalih saduh, Sudrah saduh" (The age of Kali is no way inferior to other ages nor the sudras inferior to other castes. Kali is indeed elevated and Sudras exalted. ) In other yugas or ages Bhagawan is attained to with difficulty by meditation, austerities and puja, but in Kali he is reached by the mere singing of his names. The Brahmin, the Kshatriya and the Vaisya are likely to have self pride, so they cannot attain Atmic liberation easily. The Brahmin is likely to be in vain about his intellectual superiority, the Kshatriya about his power as a ruler and the Vaisya about his wealth. So these three varnas will tend to stray from the path of dharma. A member of the fourth varna, on the contrary is humble. (source)

Mahatma Gandhi says,

"Varnasrama is, in my opinion, inherent in human nature, and Hinduism has simply reduced it to a science. It does attach to birth … The divisions define duties, they confer no privileges. It is, I hold, against the genius of HInduism to arrogate to oneself a higher status or to assign to another a lower ... Varnasrama is self-restraint and conservation and economy of energy ...

" I have often shown the distinction between varnasrama and untouchability. I have defended the one as a rational, scientific, fact and condemned the other as an excrescence and unmitigated evil ... I do regard varnasrama as healthy division of work based on birth ... Varnasrama, in my opinion, was not conceived in any narrow spirit. On the contrary, it gave the labourer, the Sudra, the same status as the thinker, the Brahmin. It provided for the accentuation of merit and elimination of demerit, and it transformed human ambition from the general worldly sphere to the permanent and the spiritual. The aim of the Brahmin and Sudra was common -moksa of Self-realisation, not realisation of fame, riches and power. " (source)

14.5.1. What a sudra can do

bhagavAn in uddhava gItA says that all four varNa-s are devoted to me. Hence a sudra can be as devoted to Ishvara as a brAhmin. There is no reason for not being so. However, like women, a sudra is relieved from the burden of protection veda-s which is a full time job. Topic of status of women in sanAtana dharma is discussed later. Except learning and chanting veda-s, a sudra can do pretty much everything  that other varNa-s can do, learn sanskrit, learn Agama shAstra-s, practice yoga and tantra, learn any arts like dancing, singing, etc. sudra can do all things that he is capable of and if financially his parents can afford to educate him. Like vaishya, a sudra also has natural advantage to learn trading and other occupation of their parents from childhood. If family is fairly rich, they can educate their son or daughter and a sudra can very well become an engineer or a doctor. There is no question about his intelligence or about his abilities.

14.5.2. Why a sudra cannot touch a brAhmin?

In kayuga, it is said that a man incurs sin only by his wrong deeds and not by touching a sudra. In other yuga-s, there was so much of purity that certain rules were established, which cannot be applied in today’s life. Alternatively, purANa-s and itihAsa have predicted decline of varNa dharma and that a sudra will sit next to a brahmin indicating that the older custom of sudra-s being forbidden to touch a brAhmin has melted away. Still, we will try to understand the reason why sudra-s cannot physically touch a brAhmin. There is a belief that it pollutes brAhmin. How is this possible? Lets try to understand the reason behind this belief.

In order to understand, we must also take into account the other side of circumstances that a (financially) poor sudra-s live in. This should not be taken as a racial discrimination nor is an insult to them. It may sound politically incorrect, but we are just presenting the other side of coin. Generally, poor people are more concerned about their livelihood. If we see the life of a hawker or a road side tea vendor, they have strive daily to earn money just sufficient to fulfill their daily basic needs. In other words if they do not work the next day, they are going to starve. Hence the whole focus of their life is to earn money. Labourers, unlike middle class, are on daily wages even today. We can understand that the entire focus, the whole energy, their thinking, etc is on ‘how to earn and fulfill basic needs’. For them money is very important, important than middle class or a higher middle class. All this is due to their circumstances. Hence their consciousness is strongly embedded in physical body. Due to the condition in which they live, they have little time to devote to Ishvara, as after a full day of hard work, they need to get rest and take adequate sleep. Life of a brAhmin is completely opposite. A brAhmin is not allowed to work no matter if he is born in a (financially) poor family. He has to depend upon donations received from society.

Devotion to Ishvara raises one’s consciousness to such a level that the devotee is able to detach himself from his mind, body and intellect. For this constant efforts for many years is needed. The words like ‘mudha’, or ‘impure’ or ‘polluted’ does not mean that the physical body of any person is polluted or is infected with some disease. These words are connected with the evolution of consciousness, and inner purity, i.e. purity of mind. Again, there is no connection between mind and intellect. An intelligent person can be short tempered and arrogant while an average person can be very humble. Again, the nature of mind or deeds does not indicate the evolution of consciousness. A noble person, who is a great social worker and having down to earth personality does not indicate that he has detached himself from his physical body. Noble character is not a benchmark of evolution of consciousness, though it definitely helps in spiritual progress.

Let's understand the words mudha, ignorant fool, impure, and polluted. Adi SAnkarAchArya jI in his famous composition moha mudgara, also known as bhaja govindam, has said, ‘ bhaja govindam, bhaja govindam, govindam bhaja mudha madhe’. This spontaneous composition was composed when the great saint saw an old man parroting shAstra-s but his inner eye was not opened. He had not progressed spiritually instead of practising and reading scriptures since many years. He knew that the path of renunciation is difficult, hence he advised old man to sing glories of the Lord as his consciousness was still strongly embedded in physical body. Upanishads say that we are not the body, the jIva, which as per Adi Sankara is not different from Brahman, the supreme reality.

So here mudha which is often translated as ‘ignorant fool’ or simply ‘fool’ means a person whose consciousness is strongly embedded in physical body. This means that though you read a thousand times that ‘I am not body’, still mind does not detach from body, but continues to believe and experience itself as physical body. In such a person, the vibrations are not much spiritual. They do not help others to excel in spirituality. Vibrations of subtle body and mind definitely affect environment and nearby persons. On the other hand, a brAhmin is walking on a devout path to raise his consciousness. He is chanting veda-s and upanishads that teach us to raise our consciousness from physical body know the true nature. A life of brAhmin near to that of is that of a sanyAsin in terms of purity. Hence vibrations of his subtle body and mind are purer than that of a sudra who constantly thinks of taking care of his body and how to fulfill his basic necessities. Though, in general, consciousness of all is embedded in physical body, in case of (financially) poor sudra, there is little or no effort to raise it to higher plane. Hence a brAhmin is not supposed to interact with a sudra physically.

The author again request readers to take this explanation in right spirit. As said earlier, now with changing time, situation is changing and hence there is downfall in the life of brAhmins as few are interested in carrying out their vocation by birth and Government is encouraging lower varNa-s to study Government gives many grants and benefits to lower varNa-s so that they can take admission in schools and colleges.

14.6. Dalits, Mahadalits, Outcasts, BCs, OBCs, SCs, STs and vanavAsi-s (AdivAsi-s)

Dalit or a mahadalit is not a varNa created by Lord brahmA jI. It is a man-made jAtI (and not varNa). Outcasts became outcasts because maybe their ancestors were excommunicated due to some or other reason. They are simply the lower jAtI-s.

SC and ST are Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes. These are the people living in forests. Hence they are called as vanavAsi-s. vana means ‘forest’ and vAsa means ‘to live’. However, Britishers, for political reasons coined the word ‘AdivAsi’ meaning the first or original inhabitants. Adi means ‘First’. In other words they called them as aboriginals, the original forest and cave men, the oldest inhabitants of India. They created this word ‘AdivAsi’ so that they can make us believe that like their ancestors, Indian ancestors too lived a primitive life and were forest dwellers and cave men. They want us to believe that we have progressed from stone age and Britishers have evolved into superior race and has invented many things. They did not want us to believe in our glorious past, in the life of rAma and kRShNa. For them rAma and kRShNa are imaginary creations. SC, ST and vanavAsi-s are still living in forests and living a primitive life. They are less connected with modern society, though they may earn their living by selling their work in nearby village. Like sudra-s they too, in general, do not make any efforts to raise consciousness to higher plane.

BC means Backward Class and OBC means Other Backward Class. Both are collective terms used to lower financially poor castes. OBCs are in a better financial position than BCs and can sustain on themselves, while BC which covers SC, ST and dalits have to depend upon others for earning and survival.  some OBCs are rich, and some are super rich. One of OBCs caste (jAtI) is ‘Patels’. Patels are generally farmers or traders. After earning money, the educate their children and the business expands. Next generation is born in rich family and so adheres to the customs and etiquette of ‘rich’ Class. Such people are accepted by other varNa-s and often mix with them. Still they do respect brAhmin-s as they are needed for priestly work on an occasion.

SC, ST and vanavAsI-s have their own customs. They believe in Ishvara and worship him in their own way and follow their own customs.

We must understand that Ishvara will always give us birth in a family, varNa, jAtI and environment that helps us progress spiritually and fulfill our dis-satisfied desires (vAsanA-s) with which we have taken birth in this human body.

We must also acknowledge that bhArata has produced many great Dalit saints and leaders from lower jAtI-s. Great men are born in all traditions, all varNa-s, all jAtI-s and in all societies.

Let's understand why varNa vyavasthA was created.

14.7. The ultimate purpose of varṇa dharma

Today, the functions of Kshatriya-s, Vaisya-s and Sudra-s have changed and become mixed. Even so the work of the government goes on somehow. Defence, manufacture of various articles, trade, labour - all these go on somehow. But, unlike in the past, there is jealousy as well as rivalry in all fields. Even so, the duties of the three castes are carried out despite the fact that varna dharma has broken up. They are a practical necessity for day-to-day life as well as for the functioning of the government. So they are performed, albeit unsatisfactorily.

The ultimate purpose of varṇa dharma is to rise above varṇa and āshram dharma and achieve moksha.

14.8. beyond varṇa-s

While the standard practice is to stick to dharma of your varNa, after one receives initiation into any mantra, guru grace is on his disciple. No matter if the disciple is of any varNa, if s/he practises meditation and mantra chanting diligently as per guru-s instructions, then one day s/he might become inwardly pure sufficiently to become a sanyAsI. Traditionally, in vedAntic system, sanyAsa is not given to women, but her spiritual progress is not hampered. In recent years many saints have given sanyAsa dikshA to women also.

After one becomes a sanyAsI, one is above varNa. There is no varNa sub-division within sanyAsa. Monastic life is the best suitable for spiritual upliftment, as one does not have to worry about anyone else. It’s just you and God. The world of sanyAsI is himself, God and guru, nothing more. shAstra-s teach us to detach us from physical body, mind and intellect. varNa is linked to mind. It is the mind and intellect that makes distinctions. After detaching the ‘I’ from physical body, mind and intellect, one realises that this ‘I’ is not anyone of them but is something very different. It is pure consciousness. In soul-consciousness or in God-consciousness there are no thoughts, there is no distinction, there is no activity inside soul. A soul is a witness. Soul does not have any gender, nor does it have any varNa. Hence an advanced sAdhaka (meditator) rises his consciousness and by being a witness, it does not have to adhere to the dharma of mind or intellect. Such a person will see the in each person, in each living being, there abides the same divinity. This experience produces the bhAva (feeling) of samadarshana. ‘sama-darshana’ means to know by direct experience that there is same divinity in each one of us. Naturally such a blessed soul (pavitra jīva) has already transcended the boundaries of varNa dharma and gender.

shAstra-s teach us to be ‘sama-darshina’ and not sama-vartina’ meaning to see or to experience same divinity within all, but not to behave in same way with all. One cannot behave in a same way with mother, wife, sister and daughter. One cannot deal with boss, subordinate, colleague and a stranger in same ay. One cannot give grass to cow, dog, elephant, tiger, pigeon, and a man though each one of us has same divinity. Cow can eat grass, but not dog. Dog can eat chapati or some veg and non-veg food too, but elephant cannot each non-veg food. Tiger cannot eat veg food.    
However, in practice, while dealing with society, such a blessed soul will still maintain different relations with different people as per their age, experience and their post.

But to rise or ascend to such blissful state, one has to adhere to some rules, some guidelines, and should not cross certain boundaries. These rules are created by those great rishi-s who have mastered the act of being a witness, and have merged their individual consciousness into supreme consciousness. varNa vyavasthA is one such rule. Our dharma, including varNa dharma is a systematic structured arrangement for everyone to progress spiritually and finally rise above varNa dharma into the realm of equality. The ultimate aim of vedAnta is renunciation of all worldly attachments, be it possession of worldly objects, property, family, friends, money, or even attachment towards one varNa and jAtI.

It is foolishness to break this arrangement while our consciousness is strongly embedded in our physical body. Physical body is a cage, as it has caged infinite consciousness into a limited shape and space. As one detaches oneself from this case by dis-associating with it, one becomes free. In other words, one is freed from the cage.  Similarly, by dis-associating with mind, intellect and ego, one is freed from them and no more suffers the deeds of mind, is not affected with decisions that intellect makes and the ego that binds us to physical body and takes everything upon itself by clinging onto the fruits of results. One becomes free of suffering. Where there is no suffering, there is happiness. But this happiness is different. It does not arise as a result of achieving any object, on the contrary, it manifested by itself when the desire for achieving object with renounced. Since this happiness does not depend upon any external object, it stays for a long time, has a lasting effect and does not fade away no matter in whatever condition you are. It’s impact is very deep. This happines, born out of dispassion gives a sense of deep peace and a feeling of completeness. The intensity and sweetness of this bliss and deep peace is far more than that we have ever experienced by gaining material objects. It is incomparable. But this dispassion must be born out of proper understanding.

The real sanyAsa is absence of desires (in mind). Hence, even if one has not taken sanyAsa, while living within society, one can live a detached life like that of sanyAsI and staying immersed in Ishvara while doing work. One may think how is this possible? The simple answer is that our mind is divided into two parts. One part keeps thinking and other takes control of physical activity. Classic example driving or riding bike. We change gears, apply brakes, raise throttle, do everything and still we keep thinking about something. If one has doubts that only those who have good concentration can progress, the answer is, it is not true. Any person, be it an average Joe, who just manages a passing grade in exams, can also practise spirituality. How? Let’s understand with an example. When we are watching TV and suddenly story takes turn and becomes interesting, we are so engrossed in TV that we forget the surroundings, we forget our body, we forget the position in which our body is, even if we are not sitting in comfortable position, we still stay in that position until the climax is over. Even body pain is not experienced. What matters is where your mind is, where your heart is and not physical body. A lover constantly thinks of his / her ‘love of life’ even while doing work. If this is possible, then why can’t a devotee who with immense faith in the Lord surrenders and then does all the work can’t remember him? If one can remember loved ones, why can’t one remember the great Lord who is the creator of this entire world, the substratum of entire universe.

varNa-s are there not to keep us shackled in them. They are there to raise us beyond them, but in a proper and a systematic way. We must trust our ancestors, our rishi-s who worked selflessly for all mankind without any want of reward under the divine intuitive guidance of Īshvara, the all powerful, all merciful, all compassionate, full of unconditional love and bliss, unborn supreme reality.

Always remember - no rule is permanent. Every rule has it’s advantages and limitations. Advantage is that it will make sure that we progress until we are do not rise above it. Rules help one keep a check one oneself and do not cross boundary. Limitation is that rule itself or any kind of discipline cannot, by itself, raise us beyond it. It just guides us through a path that ultimately raises us above it. One rule cannot be applied throughout the whole life. It is applicable only upto a certain point, until one attains certain level of inner purity. The difference between a laymen and an advanced sAdhaka is that the later has purified his mind to a great extend.

We all long for freedom. Moksha is absolute freedom. This means, freedom from adherence to rules too.  Rules are for disciplining and training mind. But are we mind? No, then whom to discipline? It is our association with mind, i.e. association of ‘I’ with mind, that binds us, i.e. binds ‘I’ to mind, and hence we have to adhere to the dharma of mind, but not otherwise. We will have to train our mind, discipline it, keep a check on it. Once the attachment is destroyed, there are no rules to follow as the purpose of following the rules is fulfilled. In other words, as a result of ripening of fruits of disciplining mind, one transcends the very mind.

Though a detached soul is free not to adhere to varNa and Ashram dharma, it is a personal choice. Some saints continue to do their work even after they transcend mind, body and intellect. Hence a weaver like Sant Kabir didn’t quit his profession even after getting enlightenment. sanyAsa is a state of mind and not a way of living.

As said earlier, attachment to anything is what matters. Proper way to transcend varNa and Ashrama dharma is to detach from mind, body and intellect. We must have this broader picture and accept varNa dharma and any kind of discipline positively.

We will now continue to discuss more on varNa dharma and why it is by birth.

14.9. Why varNa by Birth?

No varNa is higher or lower. It is just division of vocation by birth. In bhagavad gItA BG 4.13 and 18.41-48, Adi Sankara and other prominent vaidika AcArya-s explain us that varNa is based upon guNa (qualities), but guNa is inherited by birth because we count fruits of action of past lives into account. So getting birth in a family of brAhmin (brAhmaNa) is considered as a result of living an ethical, moral and spiritual past life or lives. However, today brAhmin-s and other varNa-s do not carry their prescribed duty, hence the natural advantage of being born in a particular varNa is lost. A materialist or an atheist Brahmin is Brahmin for name sake only, he is more or less like a Sudra. So a spiritual soul might be born in a pious and religious vaiSya family then materialistic Brahmin family, as his / her purpose to excel in spirituality may not be fulfilled by living in such Brahmin family as s/he does not get opportunity and encouragement to walk on spiritual path since childhood.

14.10. Jātī, Kula and Gotra

Jātī is a subset of varṇa. It is further subdivision of a varṇa on the basis of occupation. Jātī-s are not created by God, but are manmade.

Kula is a subset of Jātī. It is about our family and extended family. We all have heard words like ‘Yādava kula’. It represents a particular clan.

Gotra means a family clan, where the descendants are in an unbroken male line from a common male rishi. Person belonging to same gotra is considered as close relative having common male ancestor.

14.10.1. Marriages with First cousin banned in Hindu Dharma smriti-s

First cousins are said to belong to the same gotra. Marriage within same gotra is banned in dharma shāshtra-s. Recent study suggests that children whose parents are first cousins doubles risk of birth defects. Child may suffer a severe problem, such as a congenital malformation or learning disabilities. Our ancestors may have well understood this problem have must have banned marriages. Study also suggests that children born through parents who have married second cousin also have high risk of congenital disability.

An interesting article explaining validity of discouraging marriage within same gotra with scientific basis is published here.
Note: The article is well researched and well written. Though the author has done some research to pen this article, since the author has not traced the original source of his/her extracts, we cannot give 100 % legitimacy to the claims made by author on scientific background, however the effort of the author is much appreciated and we personally believe the information to be true.

We will now understand Āshram dharma.

14.11. Āshrama dharma

We have already seen what is varṇa dharma. Like varṇa dharma, Ashrama dharma is also divided into four parts –
brahmacharya, grihastha, vānaprastha and sanyāsa āshram.

Average life expectancy is taken to be 100 years. Time duration for practicing one āshram is 25 years. One is expected to stay in one Ashram for 25 years. Though this period is not strictly followed, this is said to be the maximum time one can stay in one āshram. For first 25 years of life brahmacharya is to be observed, then for next 25 years comes grihasta i.e. to lead a family life. Next 25 years, one has to live in forest with or without wife and contemplate on inner meaning of scriptures. Finally in last 25 years, one renounces the society and becomes a monk in search of highest truth, brahman, after knowing brahman, nothing more needs to be known. The purpose of human birth is fulfilled.

Learning of veda-s and by hearting verses might take around 25 years. After that up to 50 years one has to carry the burden of family and social relations.  Grihastha is the most important āshrama in the sense that it is the only Ashram in which money can be earned. Hence a grihastha nourishes and supports other three āshram-s. Not much is said about vānaprastha Ashrama. vānaprastha āshrama is described in manu smriti Chapter 6, verses 1-28. It is said in Nirnaya Sindhu, one influential dharmashastra, that vAnaprastha Ashrama is ‘kālivarjya’ i.e. inoperative in the kālī yuga (Kali Yuga / Kalyug). Today, only grihastha and sanyāsa Ashrama are being followed. It is said in dharma smriti-s like manu smriti that even after attaining sufficient inner purity, if a mimAmsaka i.e. the one who is actively engaged in vedic rites and rituals, does not renounce the society and become a monk, but continues practising karma kāṇḍa with no selfish motive until death, then such a person after death ascends to brahmaloka where Bhagavān Brāhmā jī himself initiates him into brahmajṅāna and the jīva at the end of kalpa (eon) will finally merge into brahman without any pain. Such a jīva will get liberated at the time of destruction of world. All jīva-s residing in brahmaloka are capable of experiencing brahmajṅāna and never suffer from pleasure and pain but experience intense bliss, as brahmaloka is the highest amongst all loka-s says Kanchi Paramacharya. It is believed that for such a soul, there is no return back to earth.

The idea of Ashram dharma is to purify the mind. When one becomes inwardly pure, then it is time to leave the society and contemplate on the inner meaning of vedānta and meditate on the highest truth, the Brahman. If a person attains inner purity in childhood, then such a person is considered worthy of skipping grihastha and vAnaprastha Ashram and enter into sanyAsa Ashram. After taking sanyāsa, one stops associating oneself with his varNa one's varNa and views all people with an equal eye. All sanyāsin-s strive for only one goal in life – moksha i.e. liberation from the cycle of birth and death by realizing and abiding in natural state, our true nature which is Brahman.

14.12. Advantage of Vocations by Birth

When vocations are practiced by birth, there is a guarantee for everyone to get employment. A person has natural advantage as he learns his vocation by birth from his childhood. Today, when this arrangement is broken, everyone wants to do the best work. Sadly, best today means, the work which gives 'good money'. Hence there is competition for becoming a doctor or an engineer, which was absent in earlier times. Not giving freedom is not bad. The ultimate purpose of Religion is to up-root ego.

14.13. Advantages of varNa dharma by Birth - Explanation from Yogic POV

mantra is a sound created to resonate in a particular frequency. We all know that sound has vibrations and these vibrations influence the speaker as well as audience and all those who are in speaker’s vicinity. vedic mantra-s are specially formulated in a way that when they are pronounced correctly, they produce vibrations that cleanse our psychic nerves (nADI-s), chakra-s and our subtle bodies. They cleanse environment. In addition to vibrations, mantra-s have a definite meaning. Chanting them keeping the meaning in mind creates divine thoughts that float and influence all those in its vicinity. Regular chanting of mantra-s has a purifying effect not only on the one who chants them, but also on the nearby environment. We experience these divine vibrations as bliss or peace of mind or natural focus or attraction to a deity when we enter into any temple.

As one chants vedic mantra-s, their nADI-s, chakra-s and subtle bodies purify and expand in size. Their house is also purified and vibrates with divine energy that helps one uplift spiritually. Children subconsciously absorb these thoughts and vibrations. Hence kids (both boys and girls) grow up in a spiritual environment and get in tune with mantra-s on subconscious level. It is said that the child in the womb also absorbs all kinds of thoughts and vibrations that it can catch without discriminating them as good or bad. Hence a vedic couple and their children have natural tendency and better understanding to carry on the tradition of protecting veda-s by continuing oral tradition. People of other varNa-s do not have this advantage. It is the foremost duty of a brahmin to protect veda-s. His wish of protecting veda-s, spiritual vibrations, thoughts all gets transferred to his family members, especially his children and grandchildren. His successors pass these vibrations and thoughts to the next generation and so on. In this way, knowledge and subtle spiritual vibrations are passed on from generation to generation. It is due to this reason that varNa by birth was practised in ancient days.

Here an argument can be made that an AchArya can grace his disciple and bestow spiritual vibrations on him. Hence even if the disciple is not a Brahmin, he can still purify himself inwardly and can progress spiritually. While this argument is true, a Non-Brahmin disciple has to constantly stay in guru’s company, and the inner transformation happens later after his initiation and with intense practice. While in case of Brahmin by birth, he enjoys natural inner purification without making any efforts, as the vibrations of his father and grandfather keeps purifying him. A Brahmin kid has a natural tuning for learning karma kANDa. Hence a Brahmin is the most suitable choice for carrying on vedic tradition.

Alternatively, God gives us birth in an environment that helps us fulfil our dis-satisfied desires and progress spiritually. In this case too, a vedic brahmin family is a better choice as brahmins are expected to live a pure life similar to an ascetic, but living in society.

However when the family tradition has collapsed, there is little advantage to stick to varNa by birth. Still, the advantage is not completely lost. Just like a bicycle keeps moving even after paddling is stopped, similarly, the ‘spiritual push’ given by our ancestors since ages keeps us moving. Brahmins still have spiritual energy to take up our their vocation by birth. With the passing of each generation, this push gets slower and slower and may one day fade away if vedic karma kANDa is not practised. We must not let this happen. We must make efforts to restore varNa dharma and encourage Brahmins to take up their vocation entrusted to them. Once Brahmins show interest in taking up their vocation by birth, Brahmins can educate other varNa-s  the importance of following vocation by birth.

14.13.1. Solution to end discrimination based on caste

While we get a proper understanding of importance of varNa and Ashram dharma, we cannot shy away from the practice of discrimination against any varNa or jAtI. A problem cannot be solved by shying away from them and keep defending it with a blind eye without seeing what is going around in our society. Practical implementation is what matters and not just theory. A good or an ideal theory is of no use unless it is successfully implemented in our daily life. We must also make sure to remove the weeds of non-vedic elements that has creeped into society. Though it is the nature of mind to keep creating difference and ego to induce superiority and inferiority complex in our mind, consistent efforts are to be made so that discrimination against any varNa is dropped from our mind for ever.   

Let us assume that varNa dharma is completely eradicated. In this case, ‘caste conflict’ will cease to exist, but it’s place will be taken by ‘Class Conflict’. Rich, powerful, influential people with political backing will always exploit and subdue poor and ordinary citizens.  The solution does not lie in removing varNa dharma altogether, but to train our mind as such that it’s stops creating differences based on varNa.

Is chopping off head a solution for curing headache?

Our efforts should be in the direction that purifies our mind and brings us closer to God. As one progresses spiritual, his / her antakaraNa gets purified and lower animal emotions (pashu vritti) fades away. Heart purifies, divine emotions like compassion for all (dayA and karuNA), bhakti, peace, nonviolence, patience, obedience, guilelessness, being in harmony with nature, and other qualities begin to cultivate and blossom.

In order to uproot discrimination, two types of efforts are necessary to be practised simultaneously. First is to practice spiritual discipline and increase Ishvara bhakti and another is to renounce any lower emotion.  If spiritual discipline is not practised, then mind cannot be trained to renounce. The quality of discrimination will still remain in our mind. Mind cannot stay without thinking and creating differences. It needs something to which it can hold onto. Hence when one thing is renounced, mind holds onto another object. For example, a person quits smoking, but starts taking tobacco. In order to fly, two wings are needed, both efforts are to be simultaneously practised so when with one hand discrimination against varNa is renounced and on other hand, it is substituted with Ishvara bhakti.   
varNa and Ashram dharma has been the backbone of sanAtana dharma and the very reason for the sustenance of our dharma since thousands of years. They need to be properly understood and implemented in a fair way for universal well being and harmony.

After understanding advantages of vocation by birth from vedic POV, lets under understand it with another angle.

14.14. More on varNa dharma and Ashrama dharma

varNa dharma, which is the unique feature of SD has often come under criticism. The very reason why our dharma is sustained since time immemorial is being criticized by revisionists and social reformers, without understanding the importance of varNa and Ashrama dharma in maintaining communal harmony, peace and universal well-being, for peaceful and harmonious running of society. The misunderstanding and evil practices that have creeped into our society is not because of faulty SD, but due to our faulty understanding. Our dharma smriti-s are the most flexible one in the world up to the extent of removing absolute laws and creating new laws, as said in parASara smriti which is most suited in kali yuga. parAshara smriti is quoted in later section ‘Hindu dharma has the most flexible civil laws‘. Discarding varNa dharma is like offering a solution of chopping off head if one is having a headache. Can this be a solution? Cure the headache and not decapitate the head. Tossing up vedas and upanishads in wild for free may look ethically and morally great specially by the revisionists advocating equality of all, but it gives rise to a great danger of misunderstanding them. An unclean mind, a destructive mind reading upanishads by himself / herself is like a disaster waiting to happen. If it was possible that anyone can correctly understand upanishads and veda-s by themselves, Guru-Sishya paramparA would not have existed and there would be no need to live a life of monk.

However, vocations by birth may be overridden, if an individual has attained inner purity early than expected or have attained purity by birth due to merits of his past life. In such a case, a disciple can be initiated into vedAnta, which expounds the highest truth. Still, in order to maintain discipline and avoid chaos and excessive competition, certain restrictions have to be imposed for the good of all. Not being authorized to learn veda-s does not mean that one does not have right to chant God's name, learn Agama shastra-s practice yoga, read itihAsa and purANa-s and even know the essence of upanishads in simple words. Only authentic chanting is forbidden for Sudra-s as it is a full time job.  Women are forbidden for taking sanyAsa, but they are not forbidden to gain knowledge of vedAnta, realise their true nature and be eternally free from cycle of birth and death.

We have understood why varNa is by guNa but guNa is inherited by birth. We will now understand why varNa cannot be purely based on guNa-s.

14.15. Why not varNa purely based on guNa-s?

This question is often asked by so-called advocates of equal rights for all. However, not all purposefully try to denigrate and break our social culture. There are many people who genuinely believe in equal rights for all. They should not be blamed just for having a non-traditional view.

Before trying to understand why varNa cannot be purely based on guNa-s, we acknowledge that even in past such efforts to grant equal status to all were made by saints.

14.15.1. Resistance to varNa dharma

In medieval past and in around 9th century AD there were some saints who strongly opposed varNa dharma to an extent that they discarded veda-s and  established a new independent sect. Great examples are Lord Buddha and mahAtmA basavaNNa also reverentially called as maharshi baSeSvara (Basheshwara) who created a casteless vIra Saiva (Veera Shaiva) or lingAyat sect. lingAyat-s worship Siva linga and wear Siva linga as a locket. Siva linga represents formless aspect of Sankara bhagavAn and has trinity and all the deva-s inside it. So worshipping Siva linga is worshipping the whole brahmANDa (universe), trinity and all the devI-devatA-s. nAtha yogi-s, the followers of great yogi-s, the mahAsiddha guru gorakshanAtha, the disciple of guru macchindernAtha (matsyendarnAtha) also teach yoga to all those who deserve irrespective of caste or gender. They practice laya yoga, which is to merge (laya) in brahman via  sound which is heard in the right ear like sound of damaru or a flute, etc. It is like arriving at ocean shore by following the sound of waves of ocean. Though one does not know where the ocean is, by following the sound of waves, one can reach ocean shore. tantra was developed for all irrespective of caste, creed or sex.

14.15.2. Difference between modern and medieval reformers

Medieval reformers did oppose tradition Varṇa dharma, however their approach was different than modern reformers. We will take examples of Maharṣhi Basavaṇṇa, Lord Buddha and the Nātha lineage.

Maharṣhi Basavaṇṇa revolted against varṇa dharma and the vedas. He rejected both. But on the other hand, he gave Śiva bhakti. He founded a new sect from the same āgama shāstra-s that Hindus use and considered them as authentic and revere them just like vaidika-s revere vedas.  It is interesting to note that he did not burn copies of either dharma smriti-s like Manu Smriti or burn vedas, but he founded a new parallel philosophical school which does not believe in varṇa dharma. Unlike modern saints like Sriram Sharma Acharya and Dayananda Sarasvati, Basavaṇṇa didnt began preaching ‘vedas are for all’. He didn't initiated people from all varṇa-s to perform vedic rituals. Same was the case with Lord Buddha. Infact Buddhists and Jains are said to learn and master vedas and gain positive information from them. Both Takshashilā and Nālandā taught all kinds of scriptures of various faiths prevailing at that time. One needs to learn philosophies of rival sampradāya-s in order to find faults and refute them.

Lord Buddha is said to oppose vedas. By vedas we mean pūrva mimāmsā, the karma kaṇḍa part, which has rites and rituals. Brāhmins during his time might have got corrupted and would be threatening laymen to face the consequences and incur sin if they do not perform a particular vedic yajna. Hence Lord Buddha must have opposed vedas not to defame or denigrate them, but the wrong unlawful use of vedas in order to extract money by instilling fear in hearts of laymen. Brāhmins could only earn from donations. Ours is a demanding mind. Demands keeps increasing day-by-day. Another point was to maintain their superiority or rather take advantage of their superior position over other varṇa-s. Hence Lord Buddha must have rejected the then prevalent implementation of veda-s. In other words Lord Buddha, in my opinion, didnt reject veda-s themselves, but their corrupted implementation. We know that saints often revere scriptures of rival sampradAya-s. An example is that of a great nArayAra saint GYAna sambandha. He won a debate against Jain sAdhu-s. Feeling humiliated, they began burning their scriptures, GYAna sambandhara stopped them from doing so, hold their hands and explained them that it is not that there is problems with scriptures, but with our own understanding about them.

Lord Buddha began to taught laymen in their daily used language Pālī and not in sanskrit, as it’s use was reduced only to the elites. Lord Buddha didn't broke the entire varṇa dharma or disturbed the vedic injunctions, but he insisted on living a moral and ethical life than to use vedas to extract money by instilling fear in heart of men and women.  In one hand Lord Buddha took away the vedas from us but in return he did gave his own doctrine of nonviolence, faith, moderation and eight golden rules.

The rejection was more of nonviolent type i.e. non-acceptance of scriptures. Unlike modern reformists, who are busy finding faults in a system or scripture and keep denigrating them, these saints didn’t took away bhakti and the path to salvation. They didn't make one atheist or materialist. Though the present teachings of Mādhyamika school of Lord Buddha founded by Srī Nāgārjuna looks like an atheist philosophy, as it says sUNya avasthA (zero state, state of nothingness is the final state), many Hindus believe that original teachings of Lord Buddha are not the same. Lord Buddha remained silent on a question about God’s existence. His silence, from vedic perspective, is the perfect answer to the questioner as the final state of Self Realisation cannot be described. It can only be expressed by staying silence as silence (maun) is the only expression that describes it. Even the practical answer such as ‘no matter I had said Yes or No would further confuse the questioner’ does not sound atheist.

Nātha Yogī-s like Mahāyogī-s Gorakhnātha and Matsyendranātha didn’t object to varṇa dharma nor they spoke against veda-s. They preached an old spiritual system based on mantra chanting. They wrote their own texts which was divinely revealed to them. They also adapted works from tantra-s. Since tantras are for everyone, there is no restriction to learn them. The only caution to be taken is to test and cross check the spiritual maturity and nature of disciple before passing him subtle knowledge that results in piṇḍa-siddhi i.e. mastery over five bodies.

These saints were men of lofty character and influenced men and women by their noble character more than engaging in polemical debates (shAstrArtha). They showed men and women the path of salvation and instilled Self Respect in hearts of all varNa-s. Modern reformers and social activists, on the other hand just keep bashing our religion and quote isolated verses without understanding the context.

14.15.3. The traditional view of varNa dharma

The topic of varNa-vibhAjana (division on the basis of varNa) and varNa dharma (duty of varNa) is debated extensively since ages. Should varNa be on the basis of guNa-s or on basis of birth? Examples supporting both claims are quoted extensively. We will try to give the traditional POV. Various examples in purANa-s and mahAbhArata and in rAmAyaNa can be found which support both theories of varNa by birth and by guNa-s. Dharma smriti-s are however clear on this matter that varNa is by birth. Veda-s do not clarify its stand in varNa either. We should note that only 5 % of veda-s remain rest is not extant anymore.

Had there been no Adi Sankara bhagavadpAda, God knows what would have left for us to practice. According to Adi Sankara, varNa is by guNa, but guNa is inherited by birth. Similar is the opinion of other traditional AcArya-s. Hence this is the traditional view of all vaidika AchArya-s. References in support of this claim can be found in their commentaries on gItA verses related varNa dharma i.e. BG 4.13, BG18-41-48.

However, lets for time being consider that varNa is purely based on guNa-s and try to reach a conclusion.

We all have three guNa-s - sattva, rajasa and tamasa. In the night, tamasa is predominant, in brahma-muhurata (3:30 am to 5:30 am) sattva is prevalent and during day time, it's rajasa. Hence each person is a brAhmaNa in early morning and sudra in night. This does not sound correct. Again, even during daytime, our mood is not the same, sometimes, the effect of sattva is predominant for few minutes or hours. Another moment one can get angry and have rajasa. Cursing others and pledging to take revenge makes one tAmasika. So a person within 5 minutes has changed from brAhmin to kshatriya to sudra. How is this possible? It does not make any sense.

Now let's imagine that if a person though born in lower varNa is promoted to higher varNa say brAhmaNa. Now suppose that s/he commits a mistake. Now has that person downgraded himself / herself to a kshatriya or vaishya or Sudra? Again after regretting his actions, performing some rituals and penance, one purifies and can again become a brAhmaNa. But as soon as one makes mistake or carries out a sinful act, one is no more a brAhmaNa, as any karma based on rAjasika or tAmasika guNa like murder, beating others, robbery, stealing of credits, killing animals, etc, is not of brAhmanical nature. Hence such a person looes his brAhmanical status and so loses his right to perform vedic rites and rituals even for the sake of repentance. In other words, if varNa is strictly based on guNa or say brAhmaNa is a ‘quality’, then in this case, brAhmaNa is not allowed to make any mistakes as making mistakes downgrades him or her. Does this make any sense? We are all humans and we all make any mistakes. What is important is to realise our mistake and make strong sincere effort to correct ourselves and not repeat our mistakes.

Now suppose a Sudra claims to a pure at heart, is intelligent and wants to learn veda-s or become a priest. A bigger question is who is going to judge whether a person has a particular guNa. Qualities and desires are invisible. Hence to understand the desires (vAsanA-s), we will have to judge the actions, as actions are grossest form of vAsanA and vAsanA is subtlest form of action. Without trial and error what is the other choice? Are there any saints who can look into mind and declare predominant quality of a person. If there are, how many saints genuinely do have this ability? What if a person after spending some time realizes that he is not suited to become a priest or loses interest in it or that Guru finds him / her incompetent? Answers to these questions are not easy. We have a practical problem if everyone is given a free run to let their mind loose and choose whatever they want to do and live the way they want to live. We would not say this is anarchy, but it's definitely a mess and there will be many souls who would have lost direction and clarity and on their goal of life. Hence it is better to stick to our own varNa. BhagavAn in gItA (BG 3.35) also says the same that svadharma is better than para-dharma even though paradharma looks better.

Today, not many brAhmin-s practice vocation prescribed by great saints. brAhmin-s have chosen to earn money by trading of shares or do job or business. If this is the case that the highest of varNa do not stick to their vocation, why would other varNa-s? The answer is not easy. There are two reasons for sticking to our varNa dharma.

  1. No one denies that a Sudra can be an intelligent and probably even intelligent than brAhmin. But chanting veda-s is not only dependent upon intellect. It requires a pure and spiritually matured mind which is possible only after accumulating merits of many of many past lives. Today's education system does not consider 'nature' and 'mental makeup' of any person. It only depends upon recitation, retention power and intelligence. Suppose if ‘A’ get 95 % in HSC exam (12th grade) but is of destructive mindset and ‘B’ gets 90 % but his mind is constructive, who will get admission first? Again, if you do not get admission in your field of choice, students select another branch and later they get job in a field that is not related to their study nor do they like work they are doing. This produces stress in mind as there is no 'liking' for the work, which after certain years manifests as incurable disease, one keeps cursing his fate and life goes on in negative direction. Had the person working in the field of his liking, there would not have been too much stress. Nature, mental makeup and purity of mind are important factors which should not be neglected. Not every person is fit for any kind of job.
  2. Practicing vocation by birth is a choice. It is the choice of brAhmin-s to dedicate their lives for veda-s or to live for earning. This does not mean that those who are doing Job do not deserve to chant veda-s. Being born in brAhmin family gives one a great opportunity which is not possible if one is born in a family of a poor Sudra where both parents and even children have to work for their livelihood else they die of starvation.

14.16. Future Prediction of deterioration of varNa dharma and it’s solution

itihAsa (mahAbhArata) and purANa-s have predicted that in kalyuga, as time passes, the dark effect of kalyuga will increase which will lead to deterioration of varNa dharma, the backbone of SD, and varNa-s will mix with each other. sUdra will sit next to brAhmin (brahmANa), sudra-s will become a leader of all (minister), etc. and vedic dharma will decline. In such case, varNa-Sankara prajA will be created i.e. inter-caste marriage will increase for e.g. a brAhmin will wed a vaiSya. They children are not considered as brAhmin. They are called as varNa-Sankara and they cannot perform what a pure brAhmin can do.

Since the traditional path of vedic karma kANDa and other vocations related to varNa will get deteriorated (but not become extinct), and the path of GYAna (advaita) is not for all, a simple cross-varNa solution for spiritual progress was recommended. It is the path of bhakti. Chanting of mahA mantra hare rAma, hare rAma, rAmA hare hare, hare krShNa, hare krShNa

This post first appeared on INDIASPIRITUALITY, please read the originial post: here

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varnAshrama dharma of Hinduism from traditional viewpoint


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