Varnasrama, the Vedic social system

Varnasrama | Brahmana | Ksatriya | Vaisya | Sudra | Brahmacarya
Grhastha | Vanaprastha | Sannyasa | Panca - (maha) yajnas

Introduction | Definition | Analogy of the body | Goals
Sacraments (samskaras) | Identification of one's varna
Destinations | Degradation of the varnasrama
Further resources

Introduction

Until today one's position in an Indian society is based on the birth in a particular family. This is known as the so-called "caste system" criticized by many.

However, this is not the original system but it's degraded form. The degradation took place gradually over last 5,000 years due to internal and external reasons. This gradually destroyed the traditional Vedic civilization with its balanced and natural lifestyle and focus on the spiritual advancement ("simple living, high thinking").

Society should be simple. At the present moment, however, everyone is engaged in technological advancement, which is described in Bhagavad-gita as ugra-karma--extremely severe endeavor. This ugra-karma is the cause of agitation within the human mind. Men are engaging in many sinful activities and becoming degraded. In this way they are spoiling their lives.

This system is not limited to India, it is universal. It is not, however, universally recognized.

The main characteristics of the Vedic society are the support of the brahmanas and the protection of the cows and environment
(SB 7.2.12).

Nowadays these activities unfortunately have low priority. Many problems of modern society stem from their neglect as well as from the wrong division of society which does not employ people according to their qualities and inclinations. It also does not provide proper training to develop them. Human culture does not begin unless one accepts the principles of varnasrama-dharma.

Definition

The original system is created by Krsna,
the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself:

Bhagavad-gita 4.13:

catur-varnyam maya srstam
guna-karma-vibhagasah
tasya kartaram api mam
viddhy akartaram avyayam

catuh-varnyam--the four divisions of human society; maya--by Me; srstam--created; guna--of quality; karma--and work; vibhagasah--in terms of division; tasya--of that; kartaram--the father; api--although; mam--Me; viddhi--you may know; akartaram--as the nondoer; avyayam--unchangeable.

According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me. And although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the nondoer, being unchangeable.

PURPORT

The Lord is the creator of everything. Everything is born of Him, everything is sustained by Him, and everything, after annihilation, rests in Him. He is therefore the creator of the four divisions of the social order, beginning with the intelligent class of men, technically called brahmanas due to their being situated in the mode of goodness. Next is the administrative class, technically called the ksatriyas due to their being situated in the mode of passion. The mercantile men, called the vaisyas, are situated in the mixed modes of passion and ignorance, and the sudras, or laborer class, are situated in the ignorant mode of material nature. In spite of His creating the four divisions of human society, Lord Krsna does not belong to any of these divisions, because He is not one of the conditioned souls, a section of whom form human society.

Human society is similar to any other animal society, but to elevate men from the animal status, the above-mentioned divisions are created by the Lord for the systematic development of Krsna consciousness. The tendency of a particular man toward work is determined by the modes of material nature which he has acquired. Such symptoms of life, according to the different modes of material nature, are described in the Eighteenth Chapter of this book.

A person in Krsna consciousness, however, is above even the brahmanas. Although brahmanas by quality are supposed to know about Brahman, the Supreme Absolute Truth, most of them approach only the impersonal Brahman manifestation of Lord Krsna. But a man who transcends the limited knowledge of a brahmana and reaches the knowledge of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krsna, becomes a person in Krsna consciousness--or, in other words, a Vaisnava. Krsna consciousness includes knowledge of all different plenary expansions of Krsna, namely Rama, Nrsimha, Varaha, etc. And as Krsna is transcendental to this system of the four divisions of human society, a person in Krsna consciousness is also transcendental to all divisions of human society, whether we consider the divisions of community, nation or species.

"Brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras are distinguished by the qualities born of their own natures in accordance with the material modes, O chastiser of the enemy." (BG 18.41)

"If one shows the symptoms of being a brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya or sudra, as described above, even if he has appeared in a different class, he should be accepted according to those symptoms of classification." (SB 7.11.35)

The task of the brahmana is to study and advise, the ksatriya to protect, the vaisya to cultivate, and the sudra to serve. (BG 18.42-44) Those who do not fit into the varnasrama system - like aborigines - are considered avarna (classless).

kshatram brahmamukham cha aasiit vaishyaaH kSatram anuvrataaH shuudraaH sva dharma nirataaH triin varNaan upachaariNaH

"The warrior class, Kshatriyas, is turned towards the Brahmanas, the scholarly class, for intellectual and religious support. The trading class, Vaishyas, is the follower of the Kshatriyas, the ruling class, for the state's economy is dependent on the rulership. And the fourth one, Shudras, the working class, while performing its own duties, is always working for the other castes." (Valmiki Ramayana 1.6.19, translation from Valmikiramayan.net)

Analogy of the body

According to the Vedas (Rg Veda 10.90 etc.) the four varnas are created from the body of the Lord's universal form (virat-purusa). Thus their roles are analogous to the bodily limbs whose proper cooperation is essential for the healthy body.

"The virat-purusa's face is the brahmanas, His arms are the ksatriyas, His thighs are the vaisyas, and the sudras are under the protection of His feet. All the worshipable demigods are also overtaken by Him, and it is the duty of everyone to perform sacrifices with feasible goods to appease the Lord." (SB 2.1.37)

"The brahmanas represent His mouth, the ksatriyas His arms, the vaisyas His thighs, and the sudras are born of His legs." (SB 2.5.37)

"The brahmanas and Vedic knowledge come from the mouth of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the ksatriyas and bodily strength come from His arms, the vaisyas and their expert knowledge in productivity and wealth come from His thighs, and the sudras, who are outside of Vedic knowledge, come from His feet. May that Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is full in prowess, be pleased with us." (SB 8.5.41)

Ship analogy: brahmana is a helmsman, ksatriya a captain, vaisya the cooks and sudra the sailors. Only if they cooperate, the ship can reach its destination.

Goals

"Maharaja Yudhisthira said: My dear lord, I wish to hear from you about the principles of religion by which one can attain the ultimate goal of life--devotional service. I wish to hear about the general occupational duties of human society and the system of social and spiritual advancement known as varnasrama-dharma." (Srimad Bhagavatam 7.11.2)

"O best among the twice-born, it is therefore concluded that the highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one's own occupation according to caste divisions and orders of life is to please the Personality of Godhead." (SB 1.2.13)

Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.13.11p.:

The four statutes and orders of human society--brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras, as well as brahmacaris, grhasthas, vanaprasthas and sannyasis--are all divisions of quality, education, culture and spiritual advancement attained by practicing control of the mind and the senses. All these divisions are based on the particular nature of each individual person, not on the principle of birth.

In the Visnu Purana (3.8.9) it is stated:

varnasramacaravata
purusena parah puman
visnur aradhyate pantha
nanyat tat-tosa-haranam

"One can worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Visnu, by proper discharge of the principles of varna and asrama. There is no alternative to pacifying the Lord by execution of the principles of the varnasrama system."

Visnu worship is the ultimate aim of human life. Those who take the license of married life for sense enjoyment must also take the responsibility to satisfy the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Visnu, and the first stepping-stone is the varnasrama-dharma system. Varnasrama-dharma is the systematic institution for advancing in worship of Visnu. However, if one directly engages in the process of devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, it may not be necessary to undergo the disciplinary system of varnasrama-dharma. The other sons of Brahma, the Kumaras, directly engaged in devotional service, and thus they had no need to execute the principles of varnasrama-dharma.

"According to the system of four varnas and four asramas, people generally worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana, who is situated as the sun-god. With great faith they worship the Supreme Personality as the Supersoul according to ritualistic ceremonies handed down in the three Vedas, such as agnihotra and similar higher and lower fruitive acts, and according to the process of mystic yoga. In this way they very easily attain the ultimate goal of life." (SB 5.22.4)

"By practicing in this way, whether one be in the brahmacari-asrama, grhastha-asrama, vanaprastha-asrama or sannyasa-asrama, one must always realize the all-pervading presence of the Supreme Lord, for in this way it is possible to understand the Absolute Truth." (SB 7.12.16)

The brahmana maintains his life by studying and teaching the Vedas, the member of the royal order by protecting the earth, the vaisya by trade, and the sudra by serving the higher, twice-born classes. (SB 10.24.20)

"Those who are followers of this varnasrama system accept religious principles according to authorized traditions of proper conduct. When such varnasrama duties are dedicated to Me in loving service, they award the supreme perfection of life." (SB 11.18.47)

Sacraments (samskaras)

The purpose of sacraments is to create good population - by gradual purification to attain to the mode of goodness (sattva-guna). If not followed, the result is varna-sankara (degraded) population which is a burden for the society. Vedic scriptures warn against it. In that society cannot be any peace and prosperity regardless of legislative adjustments. Similar rites of passage are known from many ancient cultures.

The most important samskara is garbhadhana - purification of parents's consciousness before conceiving their child (consciousness during conceiving influences the character of the soul). References are e.g. in SB 3.16.35 p., 3.20.28 p., 4.22.53 p., 5.2.2 p.

"Those who have been reformed by the garbhadhana ceremony and other prescribed reformatory methods, performed with Vedic mantras and without interruption, and who have been approved by Lord Brahma, are dvijas, or twice-born. Such brahmanas, ksatriyas and vaisyas, purified by their family traditions and by their behavior, should worship the Lord, study the Vedas and give charity. In this system, they should follow the principles of the four asramas [brahmacarya, grhastha, vanaprastha and sannyasa]." (SB 7.11.13)

Monier-Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary p.1120 lists 12 samskaras:

1. garbhadhana (begetting the child) (Manu-samhita 2.26; 3.45-50)
2. pumsavana (making male child)
3. simantonnayana (parting of wife's hair)
4. jata-karma, medha-janana (creating child's good intelligence) (Ms. 2.29)
5. nama-karma, -karana, -dheya (name-giving) (Ms. 2.30)
6. niskramana (first leaving the house) (Ms. 2.34)
7. anna-prasana (feeding the first grains) (Ms. 2.34)
8. cuda-karma, -karanam (hair-cutting) (Ms. 2.35)
9. upanayana (initiation, sacred thread ceremony) (Ms. 2.36 onward)
10. kesanta (hair-cutting in adolescence) (Ms. 2.65)
11. samavartana (finishing the education) (Ms. 2.108; 3.3-4)
12. vivaha (wedding) (Ms. 3.20 onward)

Gautama-dharma-sastra 8.8 lists 40 samskaras.

The following are also sometimes counted among the samskaras:

Sosayanti homa
Pausti karma
Karana-vedha
Putra Murdhabhighranam
Vidyarambha
Antyesti
Safe delivery
Nourishment
Piercing of the ears
Smelling the son's head
Entering school
Funeral ceremonies

Some details about Hindu birth samskaras.

More: Sacraments

Ten samskaras for Vaisnavas are described in detail by Srila Gopala Bhatta Gosvami in his Sat-kriya-sara-dipika. A translation of this book is available from the Bhaktivedanta Academy, Mayapur.

For Vaisnavas the most important samskaras are panca samskara received through the harinama and mantra-diksa. They are:

Tilaka-dharana (Putting on tilaka)
Mudra dharana (Placing Visnu's symbols, such as conch, lotus, club and disc, on the body)
Nama-grahana (Taking the name of Visnu)
Mantra-grahana (To receive a Vaisnava mantra)
Salagrama-arcana (Receiving the right to worship a salagrama sila)

Identification of one's varna

Jiva Gosvami, one of the greatest acaryas in our line of disciplic succession, recommended that one examine the motivation that causes one to join the Krsna consciousness movement. In his society of Vaisnavas, he had his leaders interview the new entrants and ask them why they wanted to surrender to Krsna. If they replied that they were distressed, it indicated that they were of the sudra category. If they were in need of money, it indicated that they were of the vaisya category. If they were curious to see what was going on, then it indicated that they were of the ksatriya category and if they were seeking wisdom it indicated that they were of the brahmana category. The four orders of social division in the varnasrama correspond to the four classes of pious men who surrender to Krsna.

Destinations

"...The brahmanas who maintain their sacred rites attain Prajapatya (Brahma's) region. "The ksatriyas who never quit the battleground in fear attain Indra's region. The vaisyas who strictly adhere to their duties attain the region of the Maruts (wind gods). "The sudras who serve others attain the region of Gandharvas. The region attained by the eighty-eight thousand sages who have sublimated their sensual feelings can be attained by pupils who remain continuously with their preceptors [brahmacaris]. The region of the seven divine sages is obtained by forest-dweller [vanaprastha]. "The region from which the sage never returns, the region of Brahman, the Blissful, is for the ascetics [sannyasis] who control their minds, who renounce and who sublimate their base passions." (Garuda Purana 1.49.24-29)

Degradation of the varnasrama in Kali-yuga

"At that time the people in general will fall systematically from the path of a progressive civilization in respect to the qualitative engagements of the castes and the orders of society and the Vedic injunctions. Thus they will be more attracted to economic development for sense gratification, and as a result there will be an unwanted population on the level of dogs and monkeys." (SB 1.18.45)

"People who are lowest among men and bewildered by the illusory energy of the Supreme Lord will give up the original varnasrama-dharma and its rules and regulations. They will abandon bathing three times daily and worshiping the Lord. Abandoning cleanliness and neglecting the Supreme Lord, they will accept nonsensical principles. Not regularly bathing or washing their mouths regularly, they will always remain unclean, and they will pluck out their hair. Following a concocted religion, they will flourish. During this age of Kali, people are more inclined to irreligious systems. Consequently these people will naturally deride Vedic authority, the followers of Vedic authority, the brahmanas, the Supreme Personality of Godhead and the devotees." (SB 5.6.10)

"The brahmacaris will fail to execute their vows and become generally unclean, the householders will become beggars, the vanaprasthas will live in the villages, and the sannyasis will become greedy for wealth." (SB 12.3.33)

kaler dasa-sahasrani
madbhaktah samti bhu-tale
ekavarna bhavisyamti
madbhaktesu gatesu ca

"For 10,000 years of Kali such devotees of Mine will fill the whole planet. After the departure of My devotees there will be only one varna [outcaste]." (Brahma-vaivarta Purana 4.129.59)

 Vaisnava verse book:
"Note that this phrase (kalau sudra-sambhavah) originates from the following verse found in the Skanda Purana:

asuddhah sudra-kalpa hi
brahmanah kali-sambhavah

asuddhah - impure, sudra-kalpa - like sudras, brahmana - brahmanas, kali-sambhavah - born in Kali-yuga, present age of degradation

In the Kali-yuga brahmanas will certainly become like (be born as) impure sudras. (Without samskaras and spiritual training, the brahmanas of Kali-yuga are considered sudras.)

Further resources

Among the dharma-sastras (category of scriptures dealing with social and religious rules) one can find very elaborate treatment of the varnas and asramas with their roles and duties in the Manu-samhita, the lawbook of humanity:

"In reply to questions asked by certain sages, he [Svayambhuva Manu], out of compassion for all living entities, taught the diverse sacred duties of men in general and the different varnas and asramas." (SB 3.22.38)

"All the Manus offered their prayers as follows: As Your order carriers, O Lord, we, the Manus, are the law-givers for human society, but because of the temporary supremacy of this great demon, Hiranyakasipu, our laws for maintaining varnasrama-dharma were destroyed. O Lord, now that You have killed this great demon, we are in our normal condition. Kindly order us, Your eternal servants, what to do now." (SB 7.8.48)

Related:

Vedic system

Vaisnavas and Varnasrama