What is Dharma?
Vedas-The Sole and Ultimate Authority
The Changing Dharma
Dharma in Other Religions
Benefits of the Practice of Dharma
Kinds of Dharma
Fundamentals of Dharma
What is Dharma?
Vedas-The Sole and Ultimate Authority
The Changing Dharma
Dharma in Other Religions
Benefits of the Practice of Dharma
Kinds of Dharma
Fundamentals of Dharma
Non-violence (Ahimsa), Truth, Purity, Self-control
Varnasrama Dharma (The Four Castes) Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Sudra
The Four Asramas (Student, house-holder, recluse, renunciate) Brahmacharyasrama, Grihasthasrama,
In Satya-Yuga, there was a different set of Dharmas or laws; in Treta-Yuga they changed into another form; in Dvapara Yuga, the Dharmas were different from the Dharmas of other Yugas
From the Bhagavad Gita
Some verses with reference to Dharma
By Swami Shivanada; The Divine Life Society, Rishikesh
Silent adorations to the Lord, the Embodiment of Dharma, the Controller and Protector of Dharma and the fountain-head of Dharma.
What is Dharma?
What is Dharma? Dharma is so called, because it holds: Dharma alone holds the people, etc. The word Dharma is derived from the root DHR- to hold- and its etymological meaning is ‘that which holds’ this world, or the people of the world, or the whole creation from the microcosm to the macrocosm. It is the eternal Divine Law of the Lord. The entire creation is held together and sustained by the All-powerful Law of God. Practice of Dharma, therefore, means recognition of this Law and abidance by it.
That which brings well-being to man is Dharma. Dharma supports this world. The people are upheld by Dharma. That which accrues preservation of beings is Dharma. Dharma leads to eternal happiness and immortality.
That which is Dharma is verily the Truth. Therefore, whosoever speaks the truth is said to speak Dharma, and whosoever speaks Dharma is said to speak the truth. One and the same thing becomes both.
Dharma includes all external deeds, as well as thoughts and other mental practices which tend to elevate the character of a man. Dharma comes from the Divine and leads you to the Divine.
Definition of Dharma
No language is perfect. There is no proper equivalent word in English for the Sanskrit term Dharma. It is very difficult to define Dharma.
Dharma is generally defined as ‘righteousness’ or ‘duty’. Dharma is the principle of righteousness. It is the principle of holiness. It is also the principle of unity. Bhishma says in his instructions to Yudhishthira that whatever creates conflict is Adharma, and whatever puts an end to conflict and brings about unity and harmony is Dharma. Anything that helps to unite all and develop pure divine love and universal brotherhood, is Dharma. Anything that creates discord, split and disharmony and foments hatred, is Adharma.
Dharma is the cementer and sustainer of social life. The rules of Dharma have been laid down for regulating the worldly affairs of men. Dharma brings as its consequence happiness, both in this world and in the next. Dharma is the means of preserving one’s self. If you transgress it, it will kill you. If you protect it, it will protect you. It is your soul companion after death. It is the sole refuge of humanity.
That which elevates one is Dharma. This is another definition. Dharma is that which leads you to the path of perfection and glory. Dharma is that which helps you to have direct communion with the Lord. Dharma is that which makes you divine. Dharma is the ascending stairway unto God. Self-realisation is the highest Dharma. Dharma is the heart of Hindu ethics. God is the centre of Dharma.
Dharma means Achara or the regulation of daily life. Achara is the supreme Dharma. It is the basis of Tapas or austerity. It leads to wealth, beauty, longevity and continuity of lineage. Evil conduct and immorality will lead to ill-fame, sorrow, disease and premature death. Dharma has its root in morality the controller of Dharma is God Himself.
Maharshi Jaimini defines Dharma as that which is enjoined by the Vedas and is not ultimately productive of suffering.
Rishi Kanada, founder of the Vaiseshika system of philosophy, has given the best definition of Dharma, in his Vaiseshika Sutras:
“That which leads to the attainment of Abhyudaya (prosperity in this world) and Nihsreyasa (total cessation of pain and attainment of eternal bliss hereafter) is Dharma”.
Vedas-The Sole and Ultimate Authority
The four Vedas, the Smriti texts, the behaviour of those who have entered into their spirit (the spirit of the Vedas) and act according to their injunctions, the conduct of holy men and satisfaction of one’s own self- these are the bases of Dharma.
In the matter of Dharma, the Vedas are the ultimate authority. You cannot know the truth about Dharma through any source of knowledge other than the Vedas. Reason cannot be the authority in the matter of Dharma. Among the scriptures of the world, the Vedas are the oldest. This is supported by all leading scholars and antiquarians of the entire civilised world. They all declare with one voice, that of all books, so far written in any human language, the Rig-Veda Samhita is undoubtedly the oldest. No antiquarian has been able to fix the date when the Rig-Veda Samhita was composed or came to light.
The Changing Dharma
Just as a doctor prescribes different medicines for different people according to their constitution and the nature of their disease, so also Hinduism prescribes different duties for different people. Rules for women are different from the rules for men. The rules for different Varnas (castes) and Ashramas (the four stages of life) vary. But, non-violence, truth, non-stealing, cleanliness and control of the senses, are the duties common to all men.
Dharma depends upon time, circumstances, age, degree of evolution and the community to which one belongs. The Dharma of this century is different from that of the tenth century.
There are conditions under which Dharma may change its usual course. Apad-Dharma (apad = distress) )is such a deviation from the usual practice. This is allowed only in times of extreme distress or calamity.
What is Dharma in one set of circumstances becomes Adharma in another set of circumstances. That is the reason why it is said that the secret of Dharma is extremely profound and subtle. Lord Krishna says in the Gita: “Let the scriptures be the authority in determining what ought to be done and what ought not to be done” – Gita, Ch.16- 24). The truth of Dharma lies hidden. Srutis and Smritis are many. The way of Dharma (which is) open to all is that which a great realised soul has traversed.
Dharma In Other Religions
All other religions also lay stress on Dharma. Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Islam are all remarkably alive to its value. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Kant, Swedenborg and Spinoza are all striking examples in the interesting history of Western philosophy for the high pedestal on which they have placed morality, duty and righteousness, and adored them all as the only means to the attainment of the goal of life. Each religion lays greater stress on certain aspects of Dharma.
Benefits of the Practice of Dharma
Of the four grand objects of human aspirations ( Purusharthas), viz., Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha, Dharma is given the foremost rank in the scriptures. Dharma alone is the gateway to Moksha, to immortality, infinite bliss, supreme peace and highest knowledge. Dharma alone is the primary Purushartha. Dharma is the first and foremost Purushartha. Through the practice of Dharma alone can you ever hope to achieve the crowning glory of all human endeavours, viz., Moksha (liberation) which is the best and the highest of all desirable things.
Practice of Dharma leads to the perfect realisation of essential unity or the final end, the highest good, namely, Moksha (liberation). The practitioner experiences peace, joy, strength and tranquillity within himself. His life becomes thoroughly disciplined. His powers and capacities are exceedingly intensified. He realises that there is one underlying homogeneous essence, a living truth, behind these names and forms. He is transmuted into divinity. His whole nature gets transformed. He becomes one with the Eternal. He beholds Brahman (the Supreme Reality) above, Brahman below, Brahman to the right, Brahman to the left, Brahman in front, Brahman at the back, Brahman within, Brahman without and Brahman pervading the whole world.
Kinds of Dharma
Dharma can be classified under two heads:
Samanya or the general, universal Dharma
Visesha or the specific, personal Dharma.
1.Contentment, 2.forgiveness, 3.self-restraint, 4.non-stealing, 5.purity, 6.control of senses, 7.discrimination between right and wrong, as also between the real and the unreal, 8. spiritual knowledge, 9.truthfulness and 10.absence of anger come under the general or universal Dharma.
The rules of the castes and orders of life are specific Dharmas. These are the tenfold characteristics of Dharma according to Manu.
Dharma assumes various kinds: Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Law), Samanya Dharma (general duty), Visesha Dharma (special duty), Varnashrama Dharma (duties of caste and Order), Svadharma (one’s own duty), Yuga Dharma (duty of the age or period in history), Kula Dharma ((duty of family), Manava Dharma (duty of man), Purusha Dharma (duty of male), Stri Dharma (duty of female), Raja Dharma (duty of king), Praja Dharma (duty of subjects), Pravritti Dharma (duty in worldly life) and Nivritti Dharma (duty in spiritual life).
Means the Eternal religion, the Ancient Law. This is based on the Vedas. This is the oldest of living religions. Hinduism is known by the name Sanatana Dharma. What the Vedas alone declare to be the means of attaining the summum bonum or the final emancipation, is the Sanatana Dharma or Hindu Dharma.
The foundation of Sanatana Dharma is Sruti (Vedas); Smritis are the walls; the Itihasas and the Puranas are the buttresses or supports. [Note: See Page “Hindu Scriptures”]. In ancient times, the Srutis were learnt by heart. The teacher sang them to his pupils and the pupils sang them after him. They were not written in book form. All the sects, all the philosophical systems, appeal to (look upon) the Sruti as the final authority. The Smriti stands next in authority to the Sruti.
Hinduism stands unrivalled in the depth and grandeur of its philosophy. Its ethical teachings are lofty, unique and sublime. It is highly flexible and adapted to every human need. It is a perfect religion by itself. It is not in need of anything from any other religion. No other religion has produced so many great saints, great patriots, great warriors and great Pativratas. The more you know of it, the more you will honour and love it. The more you study it, the more it will enlighten you and satisfy your heart.
India – The Home Of Religions
The religious history of the world tells us that from time immemorial, India has been the home of great sages, seers and Rishis. All the great religious ideals that have moulded the character of men, the loftiest tenets of ethics and morality that have raised human beings to magnanimous heights of divine splendour and all the sublime truths of spirituality that have made men divine and have moulded the spiritual ideals of nations and saviours of mankind, first arose in India. The spiritual horizon of India has always been illumined with the glory of the self-effulgent sun of wisdom of the Upanishads. Whenever there was any upheaval in any part of the world, the origin of this could be traced to the wave of spirituality caused by the birth of a great soul- a special manifestation of Divinity- in some part of India.
Hindus have had a culture, civilisation and religion millennia older than those of any other country or people. God did speak to the world through India’s Rishis, Yogis, Mahatmas, Alvars, prophets, Acharyas, Sannyasins and saints. Their teachings are really inspired. God is the one Light and Truth from whom emanate the teachings of all faiths.
India is the home and abode of religions. It occupies the proud first place in religious devotion and godliness. It is famous for its Yogis and saints. The goal of India is Self-realisation or attainment of God-consciousness, through renunciation. The history of India is a history of religion. Its social code and regulations are founded upon religion. Minus its Yoga, religion and its regulations, and India will not be what it has been for millennia. Some Hindus are still not aware of the distinguishing features of Sanatana Dharma. If every Hindu knew and understood what Hinduism is, the Hindus of today would all be gods on this earth.
May you all be endowed with the knowledge of Sanatana Dharma! May you all endeavour to protect the Eternal Dharma! May the secrets of Sanatana Dharma be revealed unto you all, like a fruit in the palm of your hand, through the grace of the Lord! May the blessings of Rishis be upon you all! Glory to the Vedas and Sanatana Dharma! Glory to Brahman (Supreme Reality), the source of all Vedas and Sanatana Dharma.
Every religion has a generic form or Samanya Rupa and a specific form or Visesha-Rupa. The general form remains eternally the same. It is never changed by any circumstance whatever. It is not affected at all by changes of time, place, surroundings and individual differences. This aspect of religion is called Sanatana or Eternal. That which changes according to the change of time, place and surrounding circumstances is the external aspect or ritual, of Dharma.
Samanya Dharma is the general Dharma or law for all men. Varnasrama Dharma are special Dharmas which are to be practised by particular castes and by men in particular stages of life. The Samanya Dharma must be practised by all, irrespective of distinctions of Varna and Asrama, creed or colour. Goodness is not the property of any one class, creed, sect or community. Every man possesses this virtue.
Fundamentals of Dharma
The Vishnu Samhita enumerates forgiveness, truthfulness, control of the mind, purity, practice of charity, control of the senses, non-violence, service of the Guru, visiting places of pilgrimage, compassion, simplicity, absence of greed, worship of the gods and the Brahmanas, and absence of malice as the ingredients of Samanya Dharma, the general law for all men.
The Mahabharata enumerates as the fundamentals of Dharma:
1.The performance of Sraddha or offering oblations to the forefathers, 2.Religious austerity, 3.Truth, 4.Restraint of anger, 5.Satisfaction with one’s wife, 6.purity, 7.Learning, 8.Absence of envy, 9.Knowledge of the Self and 10.Forbearance
It is said in Padma Purana that Dharma proceeds from continence, truthfulness, austerity, charity, self-control, forbearance, purity, non-violence, serenity and non-thieving and that one should recognise Dharma by these ten factors. According to this Purana, bestowing gifts on deserving persons, fixing one’s thoughts on Lord Krishna, adoration of one’s parents, offering a portion of the daily meal to all creatures and giving a morsel of food to a cow are the characteristics of Dharma.
According to Matsya Purana, freedom from malice, absence of covetousness, control of the senses, austerity, celibacy, compassion, truthfulness, forbearance and fortitude constitute the fundamentals of Sanatana Dharma.
Patanjali Maharshi, the exponent of Raja Yoga philosophy, recommends that ten virtues should be practised by all men. The first five are: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Brahmacharya (celibacy in thought, word and deed), Asteya (non-stealing) and Aparigraha (non-covetousness). These constitute Yama or self-restraint. The other five virtues are: Saucha (internal and external purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Svadhyaya (study of scriptures or recitation of Mantra) and Isvarpranidhana (consecration of the fruits of all works to the Lord). These constitute Niyama or religious observance.
The Gita enumerates the following virtues as Daivi-Sampat or divine qualities: fearlessness, purity of heart, steadfastness in the Yoga of Wisdom, alms-giving, self-restraint, sacrifice, study of the scriptures, austerity, straightforwardness, harmlessness, truth, absence of wrath, renunciation, peacefulness, absence of crookedness, compassion to living beings, non-covetousness, mildness, modesty, absence of fickleness, vigour, forgiveness, purity and absence of envy and pride. All these virtues are manifestations of the four fundamental virtues:
1.Non-violence, 2. Truth, 3.Purity, 4. Self-control
All the above virtues come under the above four cardinal virtues. The virtues that are enumerated under the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism and the virtues prescribed by Lord Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, also come under the above fundamental virtues.
The development of the divine qualities is indispensable for the attainment of Self-realisation. Brahman or the Eternal is purity. The Eternal cannot be attained without the attainment of purity. Brahman is Truth. The Eternal cannot be attained without practising truth. Brahman is fearlessness. The Eternal cannot be attained unless you become absolutely fearless. Attachment to the body causes fear and Dehadhyasa. If only you become fearless, then the identification with the body will vanish.
You have rendered the heart harder than flint, steel or diamond through greed, miserliness, harshness and rudeness. You can soften it only through the practice of mercy, sympathy, charity, generosity, magnanimity, harmlessness, mildness, disinterested action and untiring service of the poor. You have made the heart crooked and narrow through hypocrisy, untruthfulness, backbiting and tale-bearing. You can expand it through the practice of straightforwardness, truthfulness, purity of heart, alms-giving and non-covetousness. You have rendered the heart impure through lust. You can purify it through the practice of celibacy in thought, word and deed.
Ahimsa or non-violence is the most important virtue. That is the reason why Patanjali Maharshi has placed it first in Yama. Practice of Ahimsa must be in thought, word and deed. Practice of Ahimsa is not impotence or cowardice or weakness. It is the highest type of heroism. The practice demands immense patience, forbearance and endurance, infinite inner spiritual strength and gigantic will-power.
Ahimsa is a modification or expression of truth only. Satyam (truth) and Ahimsa always go together. He who is established in Ahimsa can move the whole world. In his presence, all hostilities vanish; lion and cow, cobra and mongoose, live together peacefully.
[Note: In support of this statement of Swami Shivananda, we cite the example from the life of Sri Ramana Maharshi as observed by the Scottish scientist Alick McInnes. The following extract is taken from the book “The Secret Life of Plants” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. Chapter titled ‘Dowsing Plants for Health’. The book was first published in 1973. :
“In South India, Alick McInnes, a Scottish scientist, witnessed the strange spectacle of Sri Raman Maharshi on his evening walk. Within seconds of his leaving his house, cattle tied up in stalls in the village half a mile away would struggle to get out of their ties. When released they careered along the road to accompany the old man on his walk, followed by all the dogs and children of the village. Before the procession had gone very far wild animals and even snakes joined it from the jungle. Thousands of birds appeared, almost blotting out the sky. There were tiny tits, huge kites, heavy-winged vultures and other birds of prey, all flying in harmony around the Maharshi on his walk. When he returned to his room, said McInnes, all the birds, animals and children would quietly disappear.”
-From the book “The Secret Life of Plants” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.]
We continue below with Swami Shivananda’s explanations on the topic of ‘Non-violence’ :
Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism lay great stress on Ahimsa. Lord Jesus also has emphasised much on Ahimsa in his Sermon on the Mount. He says: “If any one beats you on one cheek, show him the other cheek also”.
He who is firmly established in Ahimsa can hope to attain Self-realisation. He who practises Ahimsa develops cosmic love to a maximum degree. Practice of Ahimsa eventually leads to realisation of oneness or unity of Self. Such a man only can attain self-restraint. Retaliation – tooth for tooth, blow for blow – is the maxim, doctrine or principle of an Asura or a man of diabolic nature. This belongs to the beastly nature. To return good for evil is divine. Constant vigilance and alertness are needed in the practice of Ahimsa. If you are careless even a little bit, you will be carried away by the force of previous wrong Samskara (impression or tendency) and impulses and will become a victim of Himsa (violence), despite your good intentions.
Brahman (the Supreme Reality) is Sat or Existence-Absolute. Truth must be observed in thought, word and deed. If you are established in truth, all other virtues will cling to you by themselves. Harishchandra sacrificed everything for the sake of truth. He lives still in our hearts. Yudhishthira was also devoted to truth. There is no virtue higher than truth. Practice of truth and Ahimsa constitute the crown and glory of ethical life. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, the preceptor says in his convocation address to the students: “Satyam vada”-Speak the truth. The world is rooted in truth. Dharma is rooted in truth. All religions are rooted in truth. Honesty, justice, straightforwardness and sincerity are only modifications or expressions of truth.
Purity comprises both external purity and internal purity. Purity implies both purity of body and purity of mind. Purity of body is only the preliminary to purity of mind.
The body is the temple of God. It should be kept clean by daily bathing and clean dress. Cleanliness is a part of godliness.
The restriction in diet is best calculated to make the mind pure. Food exercises a direct influence on the mind. Sattvic food makes the mind pure. Purity of food leads to purity of mind. Mind is only made up of the fine essence of food. As the food is, so is the mind.
You must be pure in thought, word and deed. Your heart must be as pure as crystal; as pure as the Himalayan snow. Then only the divine light will descend. Purity comprises such virtues as frankness, innocence, straightforwardness and absence of all evil thoughts. He who is endowed with purity will find it easy to tread the spiritual path.
You must have perfect self-control or self-mastery. Self-control implies both control of the body and control of the mind. Self-control does not mean self-torture. You must lead a well-regulated and disciplined life. You must keep all the senses under your perfect control. The senses are like turbulent and wild horses. This body is like a chariot. Mind is the reins. Intellect is the driver. The Atman is the Lord of the chariot. If the senses are not kept under proper control, they will throw this chariot into a deep abyss. You will come to ruin. He who keeps the reins firm and drives this chariot intelligently by controlling the horses (senses), will reach the destination (Moksha or the abode of Eternal Bliss) safely.
Self-control implies self-sacrifice, annihilation of egoism, patience, endurance, forbearance and
humility. Overcome Raga or attachment by Vairagya or dispassion. Dispassion will dawn in your mind if you look into the defects of sensual life such as birth, death, disease, old age, pain, sorrow, etc. (Mithya-Drishti and Dosha-Drishti). Overcome anger and hatred by Kshama or forgiveness, love and selfless service. Overcome evil by good. Return good for evil. Overcome lust by the practice of Brahmacharya and regular Japa (repetition of Mantra or Lord’s name) and meditation. Conquer greed by charity, generosity and disinterested actions. Conquer pride by humility and delusion by discrimination and enquiry. Overcome jealousy by magnanimity, Atma-Bhava and nobility. Conquer egoism by self-sacrifice, self-surrender, self-abnegation and meditation on the non-dual, eternal, self-luminous Brahman, thy innermost Self, the Inner Ruler, the immortal.
May you all attain eternal bliss and immortality through the practice of the cardinal virtues or the fundamental Dharma.
The principle of Varnasrama Dharma is one of the basic principles of Hinduism. The Varnasrama system is peculiar to Hindus. It is a characteristic feature of Hinduism. It is also prevalent throughout the world according to Guna-Karma (aptitude and conduct), though there is no such distinct denomination of this kind, elsewhere.
The duties of the castes are Varna Dharma. The four castes are Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. The duties of the stages of life are Asrama Dharma. The four Asramas or orders of life are Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanprastha and Sannyasa.
The Principle (of Varnasrama Dharma)
Human society is like a huge machine. The individuals and communities are like its parts. If the parts are weak and broken, the machine will not work. A machine is nothing without its parts. The human body also can work efficiently if its parts and organs are in sound and strong condition. If there is pain in any part of the body, if there is disease in any organ or part of the body, this human machine will go out of order. It will not perform its usual function or work.
So is the case with the human society. Every individual should perform his duties efficiently. The Hindu Rishis and sages formed an ideal scheme of society and an ideal way of individual life, which is known by the name Varnasrama Dharma. Hinduism is built on Varnasrama Dharma. The structure of the Hindu society is based on Varnasrama Dharma. Observance of Varnasrama Dharma helps one’s growth and self-evolution. It is very indispensable. If the rules are violated, the society will soon perish.
The aim of Varnasrama Dharma is to promote the development of the universal, eternal Dharma. If you defend Dharma, it will defend you. If you destroy it, it will destroy you. Therefore, never destroy your Dharma. This principle holds true of the individual as much as of the nation. It is Dharma alone which keeps a nation alive. Dharma is the very soul of man. Dharma is the very soul of a nation also.
In the West and in the whole world also, there is Varnasrama, though it is not rigidly observed there. Some Western philosophers have made a division of three classes, viz., Philosophers, Warriors and Masses. The philosophers correspond to the Brahmanas, warriors to Kshatriyas and the masses to Vaisyas and Sudras. This system is indispensable to keep the society in a state of perfect harmony and order.
The Four Castes
In Purusha-Sukta of the Rig-Veda, there is reference to the division of Hindu society into the classes. It is described there that the Brahmanas came out of the face of the Lord the Creator, Kshatriyas from His arms, Vaisyas from His thighs, and the Sudras from His feet.
The division is according to the Guna and Karma. Guna (quality) and Karma (kind of work) determine the caste of a man. This is supported by Lord Krishna in the Gita, also. Lord Krishna says in the Gita: “The four castes were emanated by Me, by the different distribution of qualities and actions. Know Me to be the author of them, though the actionless and inexhaustible””(Ch.4-13).
There are three qualities or Gunas, viz., Sattva (purity), Rajas (passion), and Tamas (inertia). Sattva is white, Rajas is red and Tamas is black. These three qualities are found in man in various proportions. Sattva preponderates in some persons. They are Brahmanas. They are wise persons or thinkers. They are the priests, ministers or philosophers who guide kings or rulers. In some persons, Rajas is predominant. They are Kshatriyas and Vaisyas. The Kshatriyas are warriors or men of action. They fight with the enemies or invaders and defend the country. The Vaisyas are traders. They do business and agriculture and amass wealth. In some persons, Tamas is predominant. They are Sudras. Sudras are the servants. None of these qualities is highly developed in the Sudras. They serve the other three castes. In a broad sense, a Sattvic man, who is pious and virtuous and leads the divine life, is a Brahmana, a Rajasic man with heroic quality is a Kshatriya, a Rajasic man with business tendencies is a Vaisya and a Tamasic man is a Sudra.
Serenity, self-restraint, austerity, purity, forgiveness, and also, uprightness, knowledge, realisation and belief in God are the duties of the Brahmanas, born of their own nature. Prowess, splendour, firmness, dexterity, and also, not flying from battle, generosity and lordliness are the duties of the Kshatriyas, born of their own nature. Agriculture, cattle rearing and trade are the duties of the Vaisyas, born of their own nature. And action consisting of service is the duty of the Sudra, born of their own nature.
The Law of Spiritual Economics
The underlying principle of caste system or Varna Dharma is division of labour. Rishis studied human nature carefully. They came to the conclusion that all men were not equally fit for all kinds of work. Hence, they found it necessary to allocate different kinds of duties to different classes of people, according to their aptitude, capacity or quality. The Brahmanas were in charge of spiritual and intellectual affairs. The work of political administration and defence was given to the Kshatriyas. The Vaisyas were entrusted with the duty of supplying food for the nation and administering its economic welfare. The Sudras did menial work. The Rishis felt all these needs of the Hindu nation and implemented the system of Varna and Asramas.
This division of labour began in Vedic times The Vedas taught that the Brahmana was the brain of the society, the Kshatriya its arms, the Vaisya its stomach, and the Sudra its feet.
There was a quarrel between the senses, the mind and the Prana (life-force or vital -energy or life- breath) as to who was superior. There was a quarrel amongst the different organs and the stomach. If the hands quarrel with the stomach; the entire body will suffer. When Prana departed from the body, all the organs suffered. The head or stomach cannot claim its superiority over the feet or hands. The hands and the feet are as much important as the stomach or head. If there is quarrel between the different castes as to which is superior, then the entire social fabric will suffer. There will be disharmony, rupture and discord. A scavenger and a barber are as much important as a minister for the running of the society. The social edifice is built on the law of spiritual economics. It has nothing to do with superiority or inferiority. Each class contributes its best to the common weal or world-solidarity. There is no question of higher and lower here.
Character Determines Caste
A Brahmana (Brahmin or priest) is no Brahmana if he is not endowed with purity and good character, and if he leads a life of dissipation and immorality. A Sudra is a Brahmana if he leads a virtuous and pious life. What a great soul was Vidura! What a noble, candid, straightforward student was Satyakama Jabala of Chhandogya Upanishad! Caste is a question of character. Varna is not the colour of the skin, but the colour of one’s character or quality. Conduct and character count and not lineage alone. If one is Brahmana by birth and, at the same time, if he possesses the virtues of a Brahmana, it is extremely good, because certain virtuous qualifications only determine the birth of a Brahmana.
Use and Abuse of the Caste System
The Hindus have survived many a foreign conquest on account of their caste system. But they have developed class jealousies and hatred in the name of the caste system. They have not got the spirit of co-operation. That is the reason why they are weak and disunited today. They have become sectarians in the name of the caste system. Hence there is degradation in India.
The caste system is, indeed, a splendid thing. It is quite flawless. But the defect came in from somewhere else. The classes gradually neglected their duties. The test of ability and character slowly vanished. Birth became the chief consideration in determining castes. All castes fell from their ideals and forgot all about their duties. Brahmanas became selfish and claimed superiority over others by mere birth, without possessing due qualifications. The Kshatriyas lost their chivalry and spirit of sacrifice. The vaisyas became very greedy. They did not earn wealth by honest means. They did not look after the economic welfare of the people. They did not give charity. They also lost the spirit of sacrifice. Sudras gave up service. They became officers. They wished that others should serve them. The greed and pride of man have created discord and disharmony.
There is nothing wrong in Varnasrama. It is arrogance and haughtiness in men that have brought troubles. Man or the little Jiva (individual soul) is imperfect. He is full of defects. He is simply waiting for claiming superiority over others. The Brahmana thinks that the other three castes are inferior to him. The Kshatriya thinks that the Vaisya and Sudra are inferior to him. A rich Sudra thinks that he is superior to a poor Brahmana or poor Kshatriya or Vaisya.
The Four Asramas
There are four Asramas or stages of life, viz., Brahmacharya, or the period of studentship, Grihastha or the stage of the householder, Vanaprastha or the stage of the forest-dweller or hermit, and Sannyasa or the life of renunciation or asceticism. Each stage has its own duties. These stages help the evolution of man. The four Asramas take man to perfection by successive stages. The practice of the four Asramas regulates the life from the beginning to the end. The first two Asramas pertain to Pravritti Marga or the path of work and the two later stages- the life of Vanaprastha and that of Sannayasa- are the stages of withdrawal from the world. They pertain to Nivritti Marga or the path of renunciation.
Towards Orderly Spiritual Evolution
Life is very systematically and orderly arranged in Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). There is opportunity for the development of the different sides of human activity. Due occupations and training are assigned to each period of life. Life is a great school in which the powers, capacities and faculties of man are to be evolved gradually.
Every man should pass through the different Asramas regularly. He should not enter any stage of life prematurely. He can enter the next stage, only when each has been completed. In nature, evolution is gradual. It is not revolutionary.
Lord Manu says in his Smriti:
“Having studied the Vedas or two Vedas or even one Veda in due order without breaking celibacy, let him dwell in the householder order. When the householder sees wrinkles in his skin and whiteness in his hair and the son of his son, then let him retire to the forest. Having passed the third portion of life in the forests, let him, having abandoned attachments, wander as an ascetic in the fourth portion of life”.
In extraordinary cases, however, some of the stages may be omitted. Suka was a born Sannyasin. Sankara took Sannyasa without entering the stage of a householder. In rare and exceptional cases, a student is allowed to become a Sannyasin, his debts to the world having been fully paid in a previous birth. Nowadays, young Sannyasins without qualification are found in abundance. This is contrary to the ancient rules and causes much trouble.
The Brahmachari or the Celibate Student
The first stage, Brahmacharya, is the period of study and discipline. The student should not indulge in any pleasures. He stays in the house of his preceptor (or dormitories for students) and studies the Vedas and the sciences. This is the period of probation. The teachers in ancient India usually lived in forest hermitages. These hermitages were the Gurukulas or forest universities. The student begged for his food. The children of the rich and the poor lived together. The student regarded his teacher as his spiritual father and served him with faith, devotion and reverence.
The life of a student begins with the Upanayana ceremony, his second birth (born again or twice born or Dwija). He must be hardy and simple in his habits. He rises early, bathes and does Sandhya and Gayatri Japa. He studies scriptures. He takes simple food in moderation and takes plenty of exercise. He sleeps on a hard mat and does not use soft beds and pillows. He is humble and obedient. He serves and respects elders. He attempts to be chaste in thought, word and deed.
He ever (always) engages himself in doing services to his preceptor. He refrains from wine, meat, perfumes, garlands, tasty and savoury dishes, acids, spices. He refrains from women, and from injury to sentient creatures. He refrains from lust, anger, greed, dancing, singing and playing on musical instruments; from dice-playing, gossip, slander and untruth. He sleeps alone.
After the end of his student career, he gives a present to his preceptor according to his ability and returns home to enter the household life. The preceptor gives the final instruction and sends the student home. The teacher delivers a convocation address to the students at the conclusion of their studentship:
“Speak the truth. Do your duty. Never swerve from the study of the Veda. Do not cut off the line of progeny. Give the preceptor the fees he desires. Never swerve away from truth. Never swerve from duty. Never neglect your welfare. Never neglect your prosperity. Never neglect the study and the teaching of the Vedas.
Never swerve from the duties to the gods and the forefathers. Regard your mother as a Goddess (Matri Devo Bhava). Regard your father as a god (Pitri Devo Bhava). Regard your teacher as a god (Acharya Devo Bhava). Regard your guest as a god (Atithi Devo Bhava). Let only those actions that are free from blemishes be done and not others. Only those that are good acts to us should be performed by you and not others.
You should remove the fatigue of Brahmanas who are superior to you by serving them with seats (offering them seats) etc. Gift should be given with faith, in plenty, with modesty and sympathy. If there be any doubt regarding rites or conduct, then look up to the lives of great men and follow their examples. This is the injunction. This is the teaching. This is the secret of the Vedas. This is God’s word of command. This should be observed. Thus is this to be meditated upon.”
The Grihastha or the Householder
The second stage is that of the Grihastha or householder. The household stage is entered at marriage, when the student has completed his studentship and is ready to take up the duties and responsibilities of household life. Of all the Asramas, this is the most important, because it supports all the others. As all creatures live supported by the air, so the other Orders exist supported by the householder. As all streams and rivers flow to rest in the ocean, so all the Asramas flow to rest in the householder. The Grihastha is the very heart of Aryan life. Everything depends on him.
Marriage is a sacrament for a Hindu. The wife is his partner in life. She is his Ardhangini (partner in life). He cannot do any religious ritual without her. She stands by his left side when he performs any religious performance. Husband and wife keep Rama and Sita as their ideal.
A householder should earn money by honest means and distribute it in the proper manner. He should spend one-tenth of his income in charity. He should enjoy sensual pleasures within the limits of the moral law. A householder is permitted to enjoy conjugal happiness on one night in a month.
Panch Maha Yajnas
The householder should perform the Pancha Maha Yajnas. The five Yajnas are:
Deva Yajna. Offering oblations unto Devas (gods); with recitation of Vedic Mantras.
Rishi Yajna. Study the Vedas and the teaching of Vedas to students, and offering of oblations to Rishis.
Pitri Yajna. Tarpana or ablutions to departed souls and Sraddha or annual religious rites performed for departed souls.
Bhuta Yajna. Distribution of food to cows, crows and animals in general.
Atithi Yajna. Giving food to guests and honouring them.
Hospitality is one of the householder’s chief duties. He must ever feed first his guests, Brahmanas and his relatives, and then he and his wife should eat.
When the householder sees that his sons are able to bear the burden of his duties, when his grandsons are around him, he should know that the time has come for him and his wife to retire from the world and spend their time in study (spiritual) and meditation.
The Vanaprastha or the Recluse
The next stage is that of the Vanaprastha. Brahmacharya is a preparation for the life of the householder. Even so, Vanaprastha is a preparation for the final stage of Sannyasa. After discharging all the duties of a householder, he should retire to the forest or a solitary country place and begin to meditate in solitude on higher spiritual things. He is now free from social bonds and the responsibilities of life. He has ample time for study of scriptures. His wife may go with him or remain with her sons.
The Sannyasin or the Renunciate
The next stage is that of a Sannyasin. When a man becomes a Sannnyasin, he renounces all possessions, all distinctions of caste, all rites and ceremonies and all attachments to any particular country, nation, or religion. He lives alone and spends his time in meditation. He lives on alms. When he attains the sublime states of deep meditation he rejoices in his own Self. He is quite indifferent to sensual pleasures. He is free from likes and dislikes, desires, egoism, lust, anger, greed, and pride. He has equal vision and balanced mind. He loves all. He roams about happily and disseminates Brahma-Jnana or Knowledge of the Self. He is the same in honour and dishonour, praise and censure, success and failure. He is now Ativarnasrami, i,e., above Varna or Asrama. He is quite a free man. He is not bound by any social customs and conventions.
Such a Sannyasin is an ideal man. He has attained perfection and freedom. He is Brahman Himself. He is a Jivanmukta or a liberated sage. Glory to such exalted personages who are living Gods on earth!
Asrama Dharma Under Modern Conditions
At the present moment, the Asramas cannot be lived exactly according to the details of the ancient rules, as the conditions have undergone significant changes; but they may be revived in their spirit, to the great improvement of modern life. In these stages, no one should do the duty of another. The student or Brahmacharin should not do the duties of a householder, a recluse or a Sannyasin. The householder must not perform the duties of a Brahmacharin, Vanaprastha or a Sannyasin. A Sannyasin should not seek again the joys of the householder.
Peace and order will prevail in society, only if and when all people do their respective duties efficiently. The abolition of Varnas and Asramas will cut at the very root of social duties. How can the nation hope to live when Vranasrama Dharma is not rigidly practised?
The students of schools and colleges should lead a life of purity and simple living. The householder should lead the life of an ideal Grihastha. He should practise self-restraint, mercy, tolerance, non-injury, truthfulness and moderation in everything. Those who find it difficult to lead the life of the third and the fourth Asramas (Vanaprastha and Sannyasa) should, remaining in either of the other two Asramas, gradually withdraw themselves from worldly life and practise selfless service, study, and meditation.
In Satya-Yuga or the golden age, there was a different set of Dharmas or laws; in Treta-Yuga they changed into another form; in Dvapara Yuga, the Dharmas were different from the Dharmas of other Yugas; and in Kali-Yuga, they assumed still another form. The Dharma changes according to the changes of the cycles. Man is undergoing change. His nature gets transformed through experiences. Hence, his external form of Dharmas also should change.
That which is achieved through contemplation in Satya Yuga, through sacrifices in Treta Yuga, and through the worship of Lord Hari in Dvapara Yuga, may be attained through Kirtana or loud chanting of Lord Vishnu’s Name in Kali Yuga or Iron age.
In the Satya Yuga, the mind of men was generally pure. They had no distraction of the mind. There were neither cinemas, nor hotels, nor dancing halls and similar other distractions. Hence, meditation was easy and natural for them. That is the reason why contemplation has been prescribed for men of Satya Yuga. In the Treta Yuga, materials for the performance of Yajnas or sacrifices were easily available. The people had active tendencies. Therefore it was easy for them to perform Agnihotra, Jyotistoma, Darsa-Paurnimas and other Yajnas.
That is the reason why Yajna has been described as the external form of Sanatana Dharma in that age. In the Dvapara Yuga, there was the manifestation of Avataras and men could easily have direct worship of God. Hence, worship was prescribed as the principal form of Sadhana in that age. In the Kali Yuga, there are many distractions for the mind. People lack in Brahmacharya (celibacy), strength of will and power of enquiry or rational investigation. It is very difficult to procure materials for the performance of sacrifices. Therefore, Hari Kirtana or loud chanting of the Divine Name and selfless service of humanity have been recommended as the principal forms of Sadhana (in the Kali Yuga).
Follow your Dharma with zeal and enthusiasm. Discharge your duties faithfully. Develop all the virtues which constitute Dharma. Never deviate an inch from the path of righteousness. Stick to Dharma with all your heart, with your entire mind and with all your soul. Performance of one’s duties brings happiness, quick evolution and freedom. You will soon attain immortality, eternal bliss, supreme peace, perennial joy, absolute freedom and perfection. Glory to Dharma, the supreme light that leads you to the kingdom of eternal bliss and everlasting peace.
May the eternal Dharma of Hinduism be preserved forever.
May the bond of true love consolidate all Hindus!
From the Bhagavad Gita
The Blessed Lord said:
Whenever there is a decline in Dharma
(righteousness), O Arjuna, and rise of Adharma (unrighteousness), then I manifest Myself.
-Gita, Ch. 4, Verse 7:
(Yadaa Yadaa Hi Dharmasya, Glaanirbhavati Bhaarata
Abhyutthaanam Adharmasya Tadaatmaanam Srijaamyaham)
That which knows the path of work and renunciation, what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, fear and fearlessness, bondage and liberation- that intellect is Sattvic, O Arjuna.
-Gita, Ch 18, Verse 30.
That by which one incorrectly understands Dharma and Adharma, and also what ought to be done and what ought not to be done- that intellect, O Arjuna, is Rajasic.
-Gita, Ch.18, Verse 31.
That which, enveloped in darkness, views Adharma as Dharma and all things perverted- that intellect, O Arjuna, is called Tamasic.
-Gita Ch.18, Verse 32.
Better is one’s own duty (Swadharma) though destitute of merits, than the duty of another well performed. He who does the duty ordained by his own nature incurs no sin.
-Gita Ch.18, Verse 47.
One should not abandon, O Arjuna, the duty to which one is born, though faulty; for, all undertakings are enveloped by evil, as fire by smoke.
-Gita, Ch.18, Verse 48.
O Arjuna, bound by thy own Karma (action) born of thy own nature, that which from delusion thou wishest not to do, even that thou shalt do helplessly.