The concept of Varnashramadharma in Ancient Indian Society

The concept of ‘Varnashramadharma’ developed in ancient Hindu society. In India, morality may be both social and personal with the latter being emphasised sometimes. Morality as an institution of life has been recognised from the age of the Vedas. Rather, it has been recognised as the most basic element in human life.


All virtues and duties related to social as well as individual life are discussed in relation to human conduct in its varied relationships and various stages of its development. The whole thing is done under a threefold scheme of Dharma-sadharanadharma, Varna-dharma and Ashrama-dharma. From early times Indian Society is divided into four, with specific duties assigned to each other.


The term ‘Varnashramadharma’ consists of three words - ‘varna’, asrama, ‘dharma’. Theoretically, the Varna system refers to the segmental division of the Hindu society into four classes. The asrama system refers to the segmental division of life of an individual into four stages. Dharma refers to the duty of an individual.


Thus, Varnashara-madharma suggests certain duties of an individual as a member of society relating to their stage of life. It does not depend on social status, temperament of specific power and capacities.


The various virtues and duties that man in general is advised to cultivate and follow come under sadharana dharmas. They are general in the sense that they are expected to be inculcated and followed by every man, irrespective of the class or stage of life he belongs.


But, as is well known, Sanatana Dharma divides society into four classes and every individual’s life span into four stages. Consequently, it prescribes specific duties relevant to each class and stage of life.


In the Varnashramadharma system, there are four varnas ie Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra.


Brahman is the class of the priests and teachers. Kshatriya is the class of the kings, warriors and aristocrats. Vaishya is the class of traders, merchants and people engaged in other professions. Sudra is the class of cultivators and workers etc.


Originally, these four classes were determined by the capacity and profession of the individual not by birth. The duties of these classes are determined according to inborn quality and nature.


In the Gita, Lord Krishna said that on the principle of Guna and Karma, varnas are made by Him-

Chaturvarnam maya sristang

Gunakarmavibhagasah”        (4th chapter, sloke no 13)


The Brahmanas are those who have sufficient control over mind and senses, maintain purity of body and mind, practice austerity, forgiveness, wisdom, uprightness etc. Their specific duties are studying and teaching of the Vedas, performance of sacrifices, giving and accepting alms etc.


The Kshatriyas possess qualities like courage, heroism patience, resourcefulness, not fleeing from a battle, generosity and leadership. The specific duties of a Kshatriya is to protect people from external aggression and internal disturbances, govern them with the goal of peace and prosperity for their subjects, chastising the wicked, charity etc.


The duties of the Vaishyas are cultivation and trading. They are the business men of society. The duty of sudras are to serve the other three classes.


According to Hindu society every man has four stages in life. These are called ‘asramas’ with their names being. The stage of Brahmacharya, Garhasthya, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa.


The first stage of Brahmacharya is that of a student. Here the individual is taught to practise perfect self-control. It is the period of preparation & training. A person should live on alms in the manner prescribed by the scriptures, avoid wine, meat & sleeping during day time. The duty of a Brahmachari is to lead a celebrated life based on simplicity, chastity, austerity and obedience.


The second stage is that of a grhi or householder. After the period of Brahmacharya, one should marry and get settled in life. The individual has to perform different type of duties, as a family man, member of a wider social organization and as a citizen. An individual in this stage has to perform five great sacrifices –

  • Bhutayajna: Sacrifice to animals.  ·        
  • Manusyayajna: Sacrifice to men in the form of serving and entertaining of guests. ·
  • Devayajna: Sacrifice to Gods in the form of offering incense to the sacred fire.
  • Pitryajna: Sacrifice to ancestors in the form of paying respect to them by observing sraddha rites.
  • Brahmayajna: Sacrifice to Brahma or the Veda by reading sacred texts. 

The third stage of individual life is Vanaprastha. In this stage, one should develop a detached view towards worldly objects, retire to a quiet place, meditate upon higher spiritual matters and practise penance, non-violence etc.


We find a detailed analysis, along with its moral significance, of the qualities and duties of a Vanaprastha in Manu's Dharma Sastra. He says the Vanaprastha should continue to offer the five great sacrifices like the householder, the only difference being that whereas the householder performs the sacrifices with the aim of attaining Artha and Kama, the Vanaprastha should be inspired by no such worldly motive. 


The fourth and the last stage of human life is Sanyasa. This is the stage of renunciation. In this stage an individual should devote himself to attaining moksha or nirvana.


Thus, ‘Varnashramadharma’ refers to the performance of duty of a person in accordance with his position or status in the society, stage of life and is called his Swadharma.


From ancient times man has lived in some form of society. In every society some form of social gradation is there. As a social being every person has some specific duties to perform. The duty of one’s own is called swadharma. The duty of a person should be performed in relation to a person’s role in society and stage of life. Different classes are made according to the inherent qualities and actions of men.


According to the Bhagavad Gita life depends upon action. Action is better than inaction. No one can remain inactive for a single moment. The four classes of society are made according to their qualities and actions. Sattva predominates in the Brahmanas. Rajas predominates in the Kshatriyas, to which Tamas is subordinate. Tamas predominates in the Sudras, to which rajas is subordinate.


The Gita states that every individual is born with particular aptitudes. His position in society is determined by particular aptitudes. By performing duties based on his true nature he can serve society well and realise his infinite self.


Social duties demand what may be called division of labour. The different phases of life is based on the apparent realisation of the fact that life is a staircase in which one can ascend gradually by way of discharging necessary duties relative to each stage. For ascending higher and higher in the scale of life, it is necessary to divide it into certain broad phrases.


It may be pointed out that the greatest downside of the concept of Varnashramadharma is the perceived degradation of the sudras in the society. But, if the things are taken in the right perspective there is no cause for degrading the sudras. Classification of duties or dharma never serve as a real cause for degradation of the sudras.


The concept of Varnashramadharma is based not only on the concept of division of labour, but also on the concept of division of dignity of labour. The services of all classes have been deemed to be equally valuable for the society in their own ways.


Some question the relevance of Varnashramadharma in today’s scientific and technological age. The demands of modern life go contrary to the ideas inherent in the Varnasrama system. The social and economic foundation on which the Varnasrama system stood lies shattered now. The vocational basis of the Varna system is destroyed yet the importance of this concept cannot be ignored.


If the concept of Varnashramadharma is equated with casteism then it may be considered as a hindrance to social progress. Having said that the original idea of Varnashramadharma is a great one. It works as a principle of spiritual unity amongst the four classes not to forget that it is also an excellent mechanism of social adjustment. No society can flourish unless its members realise the duties and perform them sincerely.


Also read

1 Why we cannot be so one-dimensional on caste

2 Caste as Social-capital

3 Caste is a socio-political institution

4 What is DHARMA  

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