Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9  No. 2


Varna-âśrama Dharma and Caste


Ram Swarup*



Varna-âśrama Dharma: Social System


Hindu dhrama has also been described as varna-âúrama dharma which represents an important facet of ancient Hindu thinking. The old sages saw that men are broadly divided into four psychological types (chaturvarna), a very different thing from the caste-system with which it is often confused. They found that these psychological differences were natural and their variety matched the variety of man’s needs. Similarly, they thought of man passing through four stage: as a student when he should be acquiring knowledge both vocational and liberal; then as a householder when he enters life, marries, earns and creates wealth for himself and for others and supports all other activities of the society; and at the end he retires from these activities and in the two stages becomes an intense seeker of truth and spends his time in self-reflection. All these stages or âśramas were important but in a certain context the householder was declared superior to all for he supported and protected the rest. This ordering involved no iniquity for each man was also all others at different times.                                                                        

All this thinking and ordering derives from what these sages thought of man. They found that each man is a multiple being: he is physical, mental and spiritual and that all these parts should find fulfillment. From this also came the celebrated four aims (purushârthas) of Hindu conception we have already mentioned. Man should work for his physical and economic well-being; he should hand down the torch of life from one generation to another; he should also earn and create wealth; he


*Late Ram Swarup was an eminent scholar and thinker.

+Courtesy: Ram Swarup, On Hinduism: Reviews and Reflections; (New Delhi: Voice of India, 2000.


must also search and follow values and discover the meaning of life. Man was both spirit and body, though he was more of the one at one stage than of the other. The sages followed this natural law and made their recommendations accordingly. The four âśramas and the four orders were conceived to fulfil the fourfold nature of man and the four aims of life.

     The society had the same needs as its individuals: physical, mental and spiritual. Similarly, its members were endowed with different talents and the results were best when their work, talents and training went together. The varna-âśrama dharma was meant to serve this end as best as it could. The society needed creators of wealth and in the Indian scheme they also owned the best part of it; it also needed its warriors, defenders and protectors and also its thinkers, teachers and priests. For what is a society without them? an easy prey and a bountiful reward for various aggressive forces around. [It is also the class which accustomed invaders and practised imperialists most hate and would like to destroy and discredit they only care for hewers of wood and drawers of water who are leaderless and whose resistance has been broken.]                                                                                                      

In all this ordering of the society, there was no iniquity. Dharma set limit and informed all relations. Its inherent justice can be seen from the fact when we remember that Hindu social order neither knew slavery nor serfdom as a system. It did not live on Imperialist and feudal occupation of other peoples’ lands, nor on forced tributes, or the “holy fifth,” or jazia. The society produced its wealth by its own members living in self-governing communities. Only that wealth was praise-worthy which was honestly earned and shared (śuddha-sudhana).

       Now the âśrama system hardly exists, and only its memory remains. Varnas were never castes which followed their own laws. But even castes too have lost their old vocational and cultural relevance; they exist, and sometimes even too insistently, mainly politically and they have grown their own vested interests. They are a hot subject and need more mention.


Caste and Communities   


    No society is a mass; it has always a social configuration. Any developed human society follows the law of differentiation. So did the Hindu society. For better self-articulation, it divided itself in many segments; but in all its diverse expressions, it remained one in spirit. In its caste and community organizations, we see pluralist Hinduism in action. Various people had various talents, various aptitudes and were variously endowed and they all served social needs which were also various. They had also special vocations and special rules and usages (niyam), but they all shared deeper truths taught by Hindu dharma. Rules of ethical conduct (śila) like harmlessness (ahimsâ), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), hospitality (âtithya), and inner disciplines of the spirit like śaucha (internal and external purity), yama and indriya-nigrah (self-control) were shared truths of all. So were yoga and various other modes of worship. They had shared deities and shared incarnations, and even when they went to different temples, the Gods on the altar were the same. They all remembered their ancestors and performed śrâddha-karma. They all offered tarpana for Bhishma, the adopted great-great ancestor of all. They all reverenced and worshipped the mother Earth, the rivers, the Sun and the sky. All this constitutes oneness and unity at a deep, psychic level. But deep things are difficult to see and show and we have learnt to be satisfied with the externals. As a result caste has now become Hinduism’s badge and flag, its defining mark. It owes to the fact that during its lean years Hinduism lost its right to self-definition. That right passed on to our rulers and they have been defining it for us. There was a time when Hinduism was described in terms of its spiritual wisdom, its Yogas, its philosophy and practices of self-transcendence and self-exceeding, its law of karma and dharma, its mighty and manifold creations; but now it is presented as a system of idolatry, polytheism and castes. For example, once Hinduism was known for its brahma-vâda, now its detractors present it as a doctrine of brâhmana-vâda and we have lapped up such definitions.

      To an external eye, different castes in their more outer circumstances might have looked different, but in their inner attitude and approach, they shared a common life, a common spirit shaped by Hindu spirituality and ethical system. High or low, they all followed as best as they could different attributes of Hindu dharma often ten have been named by law-givers. Thus in the midst of a great variety of conditions, one could easily see deeper Hindu shaping influences at work. These influences were so deep that they left an impress behind even on those who were converted; they remained closer to their older brothers than to the those whose fold they had to join.

     The contribution of Hindu thought in the social field was great indeed. It taught us how to create a society of more or less self-governing communities; it gave us “communitarian democracy,” the foundation of a true democracy. In this society, no one was rootless, no body belonged to an anonymous mass; everyone had a niche, a place where he was not a stranger; as a member of a great community, no one could be pushed around and he had the protection of the community. And yet no community was a law unto itself. Each followed the guidance of dharma. Never was there a society so free from coercive state apparatus. Every one belonged, everyone had security, dignity, a vocation. The world needs this system or something like it and much advanced thinking is veering round to this view in order to overcome the rootlessness and the atomization that is becoming man’s lot under new forces at work.

       Hindu dharma taught respect for all classes. It cherished its tapasvins and intelligentia, it cherished its soldiers and administrators, it cherished its producers, traders and artisans and workers. A Vedic verse prays for lustre and light (rucha) to reside “in our Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.” Everyone was honoured. In the old system, caste represented the principle of security and continuity one was employed as soon as one was born; it represented the principle of vocation, of training, of excellence, of pride, of dedication; it represented the principle of co-operation, conciliation, culture, and dignity; it was also a great centre of national power and national expression. It is very much later that caste acquired negative characteristics. It is only a recent phenomenon when under a different ideological conditioning one caste is maligned in the name of another, and caste is being used by powerful vested interests for the fragmentation of the society. Old India had castes but no casteists; new India has casteists but no worthwhile castes. In old India, all people and castes united in defending their society, in defending temples, Brahmins and cows still worthy objects of protection by a great and compassionate people and civilization.

      The caste in India was different from the class or estate in the West. Caste was not economic in concept or organization; it was social and cultural. Different castes produced poets, saints and God-men highly honoured by all. Castes were not also as a rule economically or politically disadvantaged. They had often their own rich; they had their Rajas and chiefs and some of them produced at different times great rulers for the whole country. Traditionally the Brahmins were the poorest (and as a class they remain so even at present) for their philosophy was self-abnegation anyone who lived a mental life, whether a student, a scholar or a sannyasin, was expected to live in voluntary poverty.

     There was a time when the caste system was not static and castes often rose and fell in social status. It was also the time when no caste was “depressed” though there were social differences. Castes became static and depressed during the period of a protracted foreign rule. The old Hindu social system raised the lowest and treated even the Sudras like the Brahmins; the foreign rulers lowered the highest and treated even the Brahmins like the Shudras. Under foreign domination the status of every community became depressed and those on the margin or those who offered persistent resistance became even more depressed. Under these pressures, entirely new classes arose. The sweeper class with its present function is phenomenon of this period. Among them and the tribals, one finds many Rajput gotras.  

     Thus the caste that old India knew was different from what is said about it. The caste of modern persuasion and understanding is a Western-Christian construct of the last few centuries. It was conceived as an aid to foreign rule. But the old stereotype continues to dominate and we have even made it our own. It continues to serve old interests while it has created quite some new ones of its own. Old Imperialist forces trying to stage a comeback are doing their best to keep political casteism alive.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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