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APRIL 2015

ARTICLE OF THE MONTH

Varnashrama Dharma: A Logical View


With the rise of individual ideologies, there has been a noisy protest against varnashrama
dharma, with the argument against it running as follows: "The concept of the division of varnas
as practiced now is erroneous. Any attempt to protect it is not correct. It is wrong to say that
people born in the respective castes naturally belong to that particular varna and it is also wrong
to prescribe unique functions and a unique way of life for each varna on the basis of birth. This is
because the supposed characteristics that are the distinguishing marks of different varnas are
really not unique to the members of that particular varna only. The so-called unique qualities
gunas of a particular varna are not exclusive but found in the members of the other varnas
also".
This argument needs to be examined carefully with a balanced mind. Before critically examining
it, one has to consider what this argument has already conceded and then analyze what remains
to be decided. It concedes that for an orderly social life a division into four groups based on the
principle of varnadharma is necessary. It is also conceded that this arrangement should be
based on gunas. Further, what the Shastras prescribe as appropriate guna for a particular varna
should be the deciding factor for inclusion in a varna whether the varna be decided on the
basis of the present guna of the individual or on the basis of birth. Their argument is that varna
should be decided by worth and not birth by an individuals actions and character acharana
and charitra.
How far is this contention correct? It is evident that all the three gunas, sattva, rajas and tamas,
are found in every individual. Each individual sometimes acts in a sattvika manner while at other
times he may act in rajasic or tamasic manner, which means that the manifestation of a
particular guna depends on circumstances and its presence cannot be detected if it is not
manifest. Further, the very same guna gets manifested in different persons differently. Tamas
may render a person lazy and keep him without activity. But it may send another person to sleep
and may induce somebody else to get drunk. A person may be angry under the effect of rajas
while one may just frown, another person may thrash and another may even kill. When
sattvaguna is predominant one may embrace a child with love while some other may begin to
study a holy book and yet another go into deep meditation.
Why do such differences exist? It depends on the intensity of the other two gunas. Though all the
three gunas are present in everyone, different persons are driven to act differently. It may also
drive a person to act differently at different points of time. Therefore, if only one could decide by
observing a person the proportion in which these gunas exist in him and in what direction these
are changing, then one may perhaps be able to decide his varna. But is it humanly possible to
decide or measure these changes? Can any doctor examine one's pulse and give a certificate

for this? Or can it be measured with the help of any instrument? Even if it is possible, will anyone
accept such results arrived at by another person? Even if someone can decide it, what can be
the criterion of this validity? If one can decide it unilaterally for oneself, it should not lead to
conflict in society because the system of varna is only for peace and harmony in the society.
Who can then determine the gunas of individuals? And for what purpose and how? These are
the questions that confront us. Who can decide it if not God Himself? That which is not to be
done by any human can be done by God alone. This can be taken as the definition of God. None
else can create either the world or the living beings. It is only the omniscient and omnipotent God
who can create them. I am the one who indulges in karma as prompted by my crazy will and who
must perforce enjoy its fruits. On the other hand, the Almighty God is free from the performance
of any karma or the enjoyment of its fruits, but is the perennial witness to my gunas and the
karmas I indulge in under their influence. Thus it is only He, who is immanent in all beings, who
can decide the individuals characteristic guna.
If one asks what is the need for deciding the individuals gunas it is this: I am caught
inextricably in the maze of these gunas and the karmas that they induce me to perform. I must
transcend these gunas to attain absolute peace. It is only He who can lift me out of this morass
and bless me with salvation - the state which transcends these gunas and leads me to absolute
bliss. I have to agree to attain this state of moksha, I have to perform appropriate karma,
prescribed by Him, to become deserving of attaining moksha. The karma that I have to perform
should depend on my inherent gunas and should have the ability to regulate these gunas. But I
am ignorant of both: what those gunas are and how I can transcend them through karma. It is
Almighty God who alone can determine this. How does God determine my gunas? He Himself
has declared this. Gunas and karmas have a non-exclusive relationship and are mutually
dependent. Each one is affecting the other perpetually. That is why gunas are extremely
complicated. God, who is always witness to my gunas and karmas at the time of my death,
determines my gunas in the next birth, making me take birth in an appropriate family. When I am
born in that family, the appropriate karma is prescribed by Him for me. If I follow that, I can
evolve to a higher plane. If I discard it, it leads to my regression. The declaration
"Chaturvarnyam maya srishtam guna karma vibhagashah" (Gita 4.13) clearly enunciates how
gunas originate: They have their source in individual swabhava. It implies that they are the
product of the individuals samskaras acquired in his past lives, and karma is what is prescribed
for the present life.

Ashrama Dharma
Thus far regarding varnadharma. Now what is ashrama dharma? A man with discrimination
knows that tireless effort is inevitable all through life "Kurvanneveha karmani jijivishet shatam
samah" (Isha Upanishad 2). Effort for what purpose? For attainment of moksha. But there is no
worldly life in moksha, and as man is under the influence of the gunas, there is no liberation of
man from worldly life. There is no instant transition to moksha. An individual has to make his way
towards moksha only through worldly life. In view of this, Shastras have prescribed a four-stage
advancement towards the goal of moksha. These are the four ashramas. The foremost is the
brahmacharya ashrama wherein the effort is directed towards adhyayana or study. This
adhyayana should at least introduce him to the concept of moksha. The second is grihastha

ashrama. In this stage the effort aims at performing karmas that prepare the mind for attaining
moksha. The third is vanaprastha ashrama. Though as a householder, one enjoys the worldly
pleasures being prompted by gunas, subsequently the person having attained wisdom decides
to spend his life in a forest abode and his effort there is directed towards performance of tapasya
to attain moksha. When this effort reaches its fulfilment, the person, having reached a state of
complete renunciation, will lead his further life always immersed in the thought of Almighty God
and this is the final stage of sannyasa ashrama.
These ashramas are meant to lead a person by stages through virtuous deeds, enabling him to
transform his gunas and finally attain moksha that transcends gunas. Therefore, it is wrong for a
person to claim "I am endowed with the guna of some other varna, and hence I can perform the
karma of that varna better and I will adopt that karma." But that is not correct Shreyan
swadharmo vighnati Paradharmath swanushtitaah. Swadharme nidhanam shreyah, para
dharmo bhayavahah Even if a person cannot perform the karma of his own varna properly, the
attempt made by such a person to perform his prescribed karma brings him credit. Adopting the
karma of another varna can only be harmful. Performing the karma prescribed for ones varna
alone is the way forward (Gita 3.35).

Current Issues in Varnashrama


It is true that passage of time brings about deterioration in any system and people governed by
that system start showing laxity in observing the codes of that system. This is the law of nature.
Shastras reveal that even this dharma established by the sages of yore gradually loses its hold
on the society in the course of time. Dharma which stands firmly on four legs in the Krita Yuga,
with the advent of new yugas gets deprived of these supporting legs one by one, till in the Kali
Yuga it is left with only one leg for its support. With the entry of the Kali Yuga, Parikshit, who was
none other than the scion of the noble Pandavas, being the son of Abhimanyu and grandson of
Arjuna, behaves like a depraved youth. Offended on getting no response to his query from saint
Shamika, who was seated in deep meditation, Parikshit garlands him with a dead snake. If such
is the effect of the Kali Yuga even on a person of noble descent, what could be its effect on
common people! They begin to lose faith in the Vedas and start to value more their own little
knowledge. Varnashrama dharma, which is the bedrock of a healthy social order, gradually loses
its hold on the society. Some clever people, who depend solely on mere perception and
inference, formulate their own individual ideologies.
Thus, whenever deficiencies crop up in a system, attempts should be made to set them right and
not destroy what has come down from times immemorial. Remedy for headache does not lie in
cutting off the head. The varnas are the limbs of the purusha. Varna dharma is the blood of this
society. Therefore, it is in the interest of all that the intellectuals and well-wishers of the society
try to clean up this system and make it workable. Intellectuals of our society should apply their
minds and examine the deficiencies that have cropped up in varna dharma dispassionately and
thoroughly and suggest solutions which can lead to peace and harmony in the society.

This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji.
However, any errors are entirely the author's own.

References & Further Reading:

Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Mahaparivrajaka (A Novel Based on Shankaracharya's


Life and Philosophy)