Varnashrama Dharma (वर्णाश्रमधर्मः)

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Varnashrama Dharma

The principles of varna (samskrit : वर्णः) and ashrama (samskrit : आश्रमः) are founded upon the principles of Purushartha (पुरुषार्थः) viz. dharma (धर्मः), artha (अर्थः), kama (कामः), moksha (मोक्षः) that are the foundation of India’s culture. These Purusharthas together with varna and ashrama sum up the entire principles of Indian culture.[1] It is said that, observance of Varnashrama Dharma helps one’s growth and self-evolution.[2] Through the fulfilment of these dharmas, the social, physical, psychological, intellectual and adhyatmika life became complete.[1]

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

In order to understand the relevance of Varna and Ashrama concepts, it is esssential to understand the Indian Outlook of life. The perfect outlook of life considers four aspects which form inseparable ingredients of the very notion of perfection viz.

  • society
  • the individual
  • the universe
  • God

These four principles sum up the central objectives of what may be called the human perspective.

No man in this world is complete, and no man can be complete.The human personality is an admixture of various levels or, we can say, forces. The wisdom of the ancients was such that they contemplated a system of introducing some sort of perfection into the social order by bringing together the various partial endowments of personalities into an ordered system, which gave the shape of perfection. This vision of perfection took into consideration four objectives of human existence known as the Purusharthas and is worked out through the administration and organisation of society, and the discipline of the individual. The organisation of society took the form of the varna system, and the discipline of the individual took the form of the ashrama system. These are the famous varna and ashrama orders of the regulation of life as a whole.[3]

Varna System

The Varna System, as mentioned above, is the reflection of ancient wisdom on the organisation of the society. Elaborating on this, Swami Krishnananda says,

"Everyone has needs, but no one has the capacity to fulfill all their needs. What I have, others may not have; and what others have, I may not have. Therefore, in order that social solidarity may be ensured so that there may be some sort of perfect image produced in the totality of the social structure, the varna system was thought to be the most advisable method to be adopted."[3]

What is Varna ?

‘Varna’ does not actually mean colour in a grammatical sense. It means the colour which is philosophically or metaphysically attributed to the so-called gunas of prakrti (प्रकृतिः) - sattva (सत्त्वम् | purity), rajas (रजस् | passion) and tamas (तमस् | inertia). These three properties of prakrti are the basis or the substratum of what are known as the colours. It is said that Sattva is white, Rajas is red and Tamas is black. With respect to a particular individual, it refers to the colour of the property preponderating in some measure ie. how much sattva, how much rajas, how much tamas is there in an individual. No one is wholly sattvik, wholly rajasik or wholly tamasik; there is some percentage of each guna (गुणः । quality) in different individuals in various proportions.[3][2] For example,

  • Those in whom Sattva preponderates, are Sattvik in nature ie. they are pious, virtuous and lead the divine life; and are in a broad sense referred to as brahmanas. Being wise and good thinkers, they take up social responsibilities like that of priests, ministers or philosophers who guide rulers. In view of their inherent nature, serenity, self-restraint, austerity, purity, forgiveness, as also, uprightness, knowledge, realisation and belief in the Supreme are described as the duties of brahmanas. Thus, the Brahmanas were in charge of spiritual and intellectual affairs.
  • Those in whom Rajas is predominant, are Kshatriyas. They are warriors or people of action and take up social responsibilities like tackling social enemies or invaders and defend the society. Thus, a Rajasik person with heroic quality is a Kshatriya and in view of this nature, prowess, splendour, firmness, dexterity, as also, not fleeing away during testing times, generosity and lordliness are described as the duties of Kshatriyas. Thus, the work of political administration and defence was given to the Kshatriyas.
  • Those in whom Rajas and Tamas are predominant are Vaishyas or traders. In view of their nature, they take up social responsibilities like running businesses, agriculture, cattle-rearing, trade etc. and amass wealth. Thus, a Rajasik person with business tendencies is a Vaishya. And thus, the Vaishyas were entrusted with the duty of supplying food for the nation and administering its economic welfare.
  • Those in whom Tamas is predominant, are Shudras. Neither of the three qualities are highly developed in them. Therefore, they take up the social responsibility of assisting the other three varnas. In short, a Tamasik person is a Shudra.[2]

In short, a group of individuals who have the capacity to reflect maximum amount of sattva are those who can think better in terms of the higher reason behind things than those who are predominantly rajasik or tamasik. So is the case with the other properties—rajas and tamas. Rajas has a tendency to activate everything, and tends towards energetic movement. While, tamas is very heavy, dense and static. It can neither move like rajas, nor think like sattva.[3]

The Bhagavad Gita also says that the division of the society into the four varnas is based on Guna (quality) and Karma (kind of work).[2]

चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः । तस्य कर्तारमपि मां विद्ध्यकर्तारमव्ययम् ॥४-१३॥[4]

cāturvarṇyaṁ mayā sr̥ṣṭaṁ guṇakarmavibhāgaśaḥ । tasya kartāramapi māṁ viddhyakartāramavyayam ॥4-13॥

Meaning: The four varnas were emanated by Me, by the different distribution of qualities and actions. Know Me to be the creator of them, though actionless and inexhaustible.[2] While, the Shabdakalpadruma describes Varna as Jati and enumerates the 4 kinds of Varna as Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra.

वर्णः जातिः | सा च ब्राह्मणः क्षत्रियो वैश्यः शूद्रश्च |[5]

varṇaḥ jātiḥ | sā ca brāhmaṇaḥ kṣatriyo vaiśyaḥ śūdraśca |

The Origin of Varna Concept

Talking of the Origin of Varna Concept, Shabdakalpadruma says,

एषामुत्पत्त्यादिर्यथा | यदा भगवान् पुरुषरूपेण सृष्टिं कृतवान् तदास्यशरीरात् चत्वारो वर्णा उत्पन्नाः | मुखतो ब्राह्मणाः बाहुतः क्षत्रियाः ऊरुतो वैश्याः पादतः शूद्रा जाताः |[5]

eṣāmutpattyādiryathā | yadā bhagavān puruṣarūpeṇa sr̥ṣṭiṁ kr̥tavān tadāsyaśarīrāt catvāro varṇā utpannāḥ | mukhato brāhmaṇāḥ bāhutaḥ kṣatriyāḥ ūruto vaiśyāḥ pādataḥ śūdrā jātāḥ |

Meaning: When Bhagavan created the world in the form of Purusha, the four varnas got created from his body. From the mouth - the brahmanas, from the arm - the kshatriyas, from the thigh - the vaishyas and from the feet - the Shudras were born. This concept is first found in verse 12 of the Purusha Sukta in the Rgveda (Mandala 10, Sukta 90). It says,

ब्राह्मणोऽस्य मुखमासीद्बाहू राजन्यः कृतः । ऊरू तदस्य यद्वैश्यः पद्भ्यां शूद्रो अजायत ॥१२॥ (Rig.10.90.12)[6]

brāhmaṇo'sya mukhamāsīdbāhū rājanyaḥ kr̥taḥ । ūrū tadasya yadvaiśyaḥ padbhyāṁ śūdro ajāyata ॥12॥ (Rig.10.90.12)

Meaning: The Brahmana (representing adhyatmik wisdom and splendour) was His mouth; the Kshatriya (constituting administrative and military prowess) became His arms. His thighs were the Vaishya (who formed commercial and business enterprise); of His feet the Shudra (repository of the productive and sustaining force) was born.[7]

This image that we have in the Purusha Sukta of the Rgveda is illustrative of a very important significance hidden behind this system, namely, the organic character of people. As the human body is one organic completeness, society is also supposed to be that. The body is supported by the legs which stand firmly on the ground, and the legs are connected to the main trunk through the thighs, and there is the trunk, the whole body, and there is the voice which speaks the wisdom thought by the mind. That there is a cooperative action in an organism of the human personality is well known to every person, and we have no partiality or favouritism in regard to any limb of our body. It is improper to think that the legs are inferior to the head, the heart, the trunk, the arms, etc. says Swami Krishnananda.

The intention of any type of organisation, including the organisation of the physical body itself, is not to pinpoint the superiority or the inferiority of any particular aspect or organ, but to achieve the collective focusing of force, and the cooperation that is behind these apparently isolated limbs, for a purpose entirely transcendent to themselves.[3]

The Purpose of Varna System

Social integration and personal integration are absolutely necessary prior to our endeavor at cosmic integration and divine integration. We do not exist for our own selves, we exist for a purpose which is beyond ourselves.There is need for organisation of society because when we come together in a group, we have a greater strength; therefore, there is a chance of achieving greater success. Thus, we come together in a group, in a team spirit, and create a cumulative effect which will achieve the purpose. Also, the attempt of the ancient masters in India was to transform every activity into a form of adhyatmikity; With this intention, it was endeavored that even the humdrum activities of life in the midst of human society be converted into a highly purposeful worship, we should say, for the attainment of a superior goal. Because, there is a cosmic urge towards a higher evolutionary achievement, and we have to contribute whatever we can, under the circumstances we are placed, towards an ushering in of a better day and a greater light by way of this evolutionary activity or movement. Hence, the envisagement of this structure of the varna system has a part to play in the system of the evolution of the universe itself.[3]

The Rationale behind the Varna System

As no man is complete—no man is wholly adhyatmik, no man is wholly intellectual or rational, no man is wholly emotional or active, and no man is wholly capable of manual work, etc.—a necessity is felt to bring together the various partialities into a wholeness for the welfare of society.

Every action is preceded by a thought. The thought is the constitution that we lay at the very outset before we implement a procedure. Hence, there must be people to think of the way to organize things.There would be the thinking or the rational type of people who contribute their might of knowledge for the purpose of the wholesome evolution and growth of society in its entirety; others would work vigorously by contributing their own abilities to maintain the organisational order or system; others would help in a third manner, by providing the economic means of sustenance; and there should also be people who would act like the pillars of the entire edifice of society, the footstool of the whole picture called human organisation. That we need people to work, and we need people to provide the economic means of sustenance by the procedure is well known. There is also a need for organisation and administration. And there is, above all, a need to think. Therefore, the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras are not superior and inferior types of people in society. This very poor interpretation is a travesty of the originally good-intentioned system.[3]

Ashrama System

It has already been enumerated above that the organisation of the society took the form of the Varna System. However, it is not enough if we have an organisation of skeleton individuals. They must be powerful individuals. And so the ancient adepts did not forget the need to discipline the individual.The more the capacity of an individual, the greater also is the strength of society. Healthy, robust, well-educated, and highly idealized individuals are necessary for creating a perfect human society. So, while it is necessary to organise individuals into a society because of the partiality of endowments of different individuals, it is also necessary, at the same time, to see that the individuals themselves are disciplined and perfected to the extent possible under the circumstances available. This perfection of the individual is attempted through what is known as the ashrama system.[3]

What is Ashrama ?

According to Shabdakalpadruma,

आश्रमः, शास्त्रोक्त- धर्म्मविशेषः। आश्राम्यन्ति स्वं स्वं तपश्चरन्त्यत्र । स चतुर्विधः । ब्रह्मचर्य्यं १ गार्हस्थ्यं २ वानप्रस्थ्यं ३ सन्न्यासः ४ । इति स्मृतिः ॥ ब्रह्मचारी । गृही । वानप्रस्थः । भिक्षुः । इत्यमरः ॥[8]

āśramaḥ, śāstrokta- dharmmaviśeṣaḥ। āśrāmyanti svaṃ svaṃ tapaścarantyatra । sa caturvidhaḥ । brahmacaryyaṃ 1 gārhasthyaṃ 2 vānaprasthyaṃ 3 sannyāsaḥ 4 । iti smṛtiḥ ॥ brahmacārī । gṛhī । vānaprasthaḥ । bhikṣuḥ । ityamaraḥ ॥

Meaning: Ashrama is a distinguishing feature of Dharma mentioned by Shastras. It refers to 4 stages in life.

According to Smrti, the 4 Ashramas are According to Amarakosha, the corresponding Ashramavasins are called
Brahmacharya Brahmachari
Garhasthya Grhi
Vanaprasthya Vanaprastha
Sannyasa Bhikshu

Swami Krishnananda says, Ashrama (आश्रमः) is an order. It is a stage of life through which one has to pass by means of an educational career and a process of training, whereby the forces or powers of the individual are harnessed for the purpose for which they are intended.The ashramas are four, even as the varnas are four. While the four varnas—Brahmana (ब्राह्मणः), Kshatriya (क्षत्रियः), Vaishya (वैश्यः), Shudra (शूद्रः) —constitute the adhyatmik, political, economic, and manual aspects of the complete structure of human society, the ashramas—Brahmacharya (ब्रह्मचर्यम्), Grhastha (गृहस्थः), Vanaprastha (वानप्रस्थः), Sannyasa (सन्न्यासः) —constitute another order altogether, which is towards the achievement of individual perfection.[3] So, the educational process takes the form of ashrama dharma.

The Chandogya Upanishad says,

त्रयो धर्मस्कन्धा यज्ञोऽध्ययनं दानमिति प्रथमस्तप एव द्वितीयो ब्रह्मचार्याचार्यकुलवासी तृतीयोऽत्यन्तमात्मानमाचार्यकुलेऽवसादयन्सर्व एते पुण्यलोका भवन्ति ब्रह्मसँस्थोऽमृतत्वमेति ॥ १ ॥[9]

trayo dharmaskandhā yajño'dhyayanaṃ dānamiti prathamastapa eva dvitīyo brahmacāryācāryakulavāsī tṛtīyo'tyantamātmānamācāryakule'vasādayansarva ete puṇyalokā bhavanti brahmasam̐stho'mṛtatvameti ॥ 1 ॥

Meaning:There are three aspects of Dharma. Yajna (यज्ञः), study of the vedas (अध्ययनम्) and giving gifts (दानम्) form the first aspect. Austerity (तपस्) is the second. Wearing out his life in the household of the preceptor practicing continence is the third. All these lead to the attainment of virtuous worlds. He who is steadfast in Brahman (ब्रह्मन्) attains immortality.

Explaining the verse further, it is said, the life of a household man (Grhastha) is implied by the first aspect ie. sacrifice, vedic studies and charity; By the word tapas (austerity), the vaikhanasa (वैखानसः) or vanaprastha and parivrajya (परिव्राज्यम्) or sanyasa are implied as tapas is foremost in them. The third one is the brahmacharya. The four ashramas are here thus summarised by these three and amongst all these ashramas, he who is steadfast in Brahman and who realises Brahman attains Moksha (मोक्षः).[10]

So, the ashrama dharma is nothing but a process of education in a school; and our seers of the past visualised the whole of life as a period of studentship. We are students from birth to death. And this is mentioned with great emphasis in the above verse from the Chhandogya Upanishad.[3]

Therefore, it cannot be said that Brahma samstha exclusively relates to the fourth Ashrama, Sanyasa. Any one in any ashrama can gain knowledge of Brahman and become liberated.[10] And the various activities of our lives are parts of our apprenticeship in this school of education called life. We are educated gradually through the adaptation of our individuality to the reality outside in terms of the levels of our personality, which are especially taken into consideration by the ashrama system. We have levels of individuality; We are the physical body, but we are also, at the same time, the vital force; we are the mind, and we are the intellect and the spirit. We have to enable each of these layers of our personality to blossom into completeness by giving each stage its own due, and considering each stage as a necessary step in the process of education.These four orders only mean that there is a necessity for everyone to keep in mind the principle of perfection present in each person, each individual—and, again, a need for cooperation and collaboration. These stages of life, called the ashramas, are the processes of enabling the flowering of our personality into perfection, which is reached in the highest form of enlightenment.[3]

The Purpose of Ashrama system

We have various types of desires. We are a bundle of desires, and these desires have to be sublimated. The ashrama system attempts to sublimate the desires, and not suppress them. Perhaps the ancient sages of India knew very well that the so-called id, or the ego, or the superego of psychology, is there in every individual. Though they did not call the forces of the individual by these modern names, they knew of their presence. They knew what havoc these forces can work if they are not tamed, and also what good they can do if they are properly utilised. The energies of the system have to be harnessed for the supreme purpose of divine enlightenment. This is the great purpose of the educational system through the ashrama dharma.[3]

Universality of the Ashrama System

Explaining the object and purpose of Ashrama Dharma, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swami, the Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, said;

Ashrama Dharma deals with the conduct of an individual during different stages of his life.

  • In the first stage, as a brahmacarin, he devotes himself to studies in a gurukula.
  • In the second stage, as a youth, he takes a wife, settles down in life and begets children.
  • In the third, as he ages further, he becomes a forest recluse and, without much attachment to worldly life, engages himself in Vedic Karma.
  • In the fourth stage, he forsakes even Vedic works, renounces the world utterly to become a sannyasin and turns his mind towards the Paramatman.

These four stages of life or ashramas are called Brahmacharya (ब्रह्मचर्यम्), Garhasthya (गार्हस्थ्यम्), Vanaprastha (वानप्रस्थः) and Sannyasa (सन्न्यासः), thereby establishing its universal applicability, irrespective of the varna or class or caste of an individual. During each one of these stages, greater importance was required to be given to one particular obligation while discharging other obligations as well.[11]

Importance of the Ashramas

  • Brahmacharya as the Foundation to Self-moulding

The Guru-Shishya relationship, which comes into relief when we think of the first stage of ashrama dharma, namely Brahmacharya, tells us much about the need for physical discipline. The Brahmachari (ब्रह्मचारी) — the lad who is just budding into youth — is given the fullest type of physical training by means of the seva (सेवा | selfless service) that he is expected to render to the master. By this discipline, he is given the very outlook of his life, not merely the opportunity of disciplining the body. He knows how he has to conduct himself before others and in respect of other things, and a sort of ground is paved in the beginning itself for the contribution that he has to make later on when he becomes an adult, a unit of human society, as a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra.[3]

  • Grhasthashrama as the sustainer of other Ashramas

Grhasthashrama is hailed as the most important, as it carries with it onerous responsibilities of maintaining and sustaining persons belonging to the other three ashramas. Manusmrti says,

यथा वायुं समाश्रित्य वर्तन्ते सर्वजन्तवः । तथा गृहस्थं आश्रित्य वर्तन्ते सर्व आश्रमाः । । ३.७७ । ।

यस्मात्त्रयोऽप्याश्रमिणो ज्ञानेनान्नेन चान्वहम् । गृहस्थेनैव धार्यन्ते तस्माज्ज्येष्ठाश्रमो गृही । । ३.७८ । ।[12]

yathā vāyuṁ samāśritya vartante sarvajantavaḥ । tathā gr̥hasthaṁ āśritya vartante sarva āśramāḥ । । 3.77 । ।

yasmāttrayo'pyāśramiṇo jñānenānnena cānvaham । gr̥hasthenaiva dhāryante tasmājjyeṣṭhāśramo gr̥hī । । 3.78 । ।

Meaning: Just as all Creatures subsist by deriving support from air, so do the other states subsist by deriving support from the Householder. Because men in all the three states are sustained with knowledge and food by householders only, therefore the householder’s state is the highest state. It is the householder who helps men in other stages of life with knowledge brought about by the expounding of the meaning of the Veda.[13]

It is the foundation of family the structure based on 'Dharma'. Hence the saying, धन्यो गृहस्थाश्रमः | dhanyo gr̥hasthāśramaḥ | It is during this ashrama the husband and wife discharge both economic and social responsibilities jointly, they undertake any profession or avocation or employment private or public and through it earn money and also serve society. They bear the economic responsibility of providing maintenance to those who belong to the other three ashramas ie., financing the education of their children as well as younger brothers and sisters etc., maintaining those who have crossed the stage of Grhasthashrama and have ceased to earn income, and/or have entered 'Vanaprasthashrama' as also those who have entered the fourth stage ie., 'Sannyasa', whether they are members of their family or not. Thus, it constituted the best form of private sector social security.[11]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Swami Krishnananda, The Heritage of Indian Culture (Chapter 4)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Swami Sivananda (1999), All About Hinduism, Uttar Pradesh: The Divine Life Society.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 Swami Krishnananda, The Heritage of Indian Culture (Chapter 5)
  4. Bhagavad Gita, Adhyaya 4.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Shabdakalpadruma
  6. Rigveda, Mandala 10, Sukta 90, Verse 12.
  7. Swami Krishnananda, Daily Invocations, Rishikesh: The Divine Life Society,
  8. Shabdakalpadruma
  9. Chandogya Upanishad, Adhyaya 2, Khanda 23, Verse 1
  10. 10.0 10.1 Ranga Ramanujamuni, Principal Upanishads (Vol 2), Edited by Dr.N.S.Anantha Rangacharya, Bangalore (2003),
  11. 11.0 11.1 Justice M.Rama Jois, Dharma - The Global Ethic (Chapter 1.5.5)
  12. Manusmrti, Adhyaya 3
  13. Ganganath Jha (1920-39), Manusmrti (Vol.4), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.