|Varna and Ashrama|
Varna: Social Organization
The individual stands in relationship not only to Brahman but also to the society in which he or she lives. Two Hindu concepts—varna and ashrama—address this social dimension of human existence.
Every society distinguishes among occupations on the basis of power, wealth, education, or other factors. Hindu thought has long recognized four major occupational groupings. In the first group are priests, teachers, scholars, and others who represent knowledge and spirituality. People in this group are called Brahmanas, Brahmans. Those in the second group, called Kshatriyas, are represented by kings, warriors, government bureaucrats, and others who represent power. Those in the third group, called Vaishyas, are represented by farmers, traders, merchants, and other skilled workers. Those in the fourth group, called Shudras, are represented by unskilled workers. 'The “untouchables” came to constitute a fifth group in this scheme.
Hindu thinkers visualized these groups as constituting the four limbs of society conceived as a body. This hierarchical system, with Brahmins as the first category and Shudras as the last, is known as the varna system. The system also indicates the different roles and responsibilities of each group within society and the relationship of the groups within a harmonious whole. The varna system was not originally intended as a permanent assignment of hereditary roles, and it once possessed considerable flexibility even though people tended to inherit the family profession, as in many other traditional societies.
The process of establishing the varna system was completed by the 4th century bc. By that time Hindu social organization accommodated thousands of sub-groups called jatis, which were based upon marriage and other associations as well as on occupational specialization in crafts. Hindu law books from the 4th century bc onwards bear witness to the blending of the varna and jati systems. In this process each jati became loosely linked with a varna. Yet the standing of jatis altered with changes in wealth, education, and political power. Over time, the groupings hardened into what became known as the caste system. The British census in the late 19th century helped formalize this system by mapping each jati to a specific varna.
Ashrama: Stages of Life
Much as the varna system provides the organizing principle of Hindu society, the ashrama system provides the organizing principle of an individual’s life. According to the ashrama system, human life is divided into four stages, each succeeding the other. Ashrama provides a road map for the journey through these stages and provides a clear sense of purpose for each stage, including old age. Hindus consider the last stage of life highly meaningful. Ashrama also addresses the four goals that constitute a fulfilling life: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha.
The first stage is the life of a celibate student, a time when an individual acquires the values of dharma—that is, preparation and training for leading a proper life. It is followed by that of the householder, during which the individual seeks artha and kama by marrying, working, and raising a family as an active member of society. During this second stage, Hindu householders are expected to carry out their responsibilities in accordance with dharma and free themselves of debts owed to the gods, the sages, and their ancestors.
After the years of enjoyment and responsibility, the third stage of life begins. Around age 50, when the children are grown, the individual gradually begins to give up acquisitions and worldly ties and to take up spiritual contemplation in preparation for the next stage. The fourth and final stage involves renunciation of the world to seek liberation in sublime isolation. Renunciation allows the individual to be free of external responsibilities and to concentrate on an inner search. The life of the sannyasi (renunciant) focuses on achieving realization of the innermost self (atman) and union with the divine (moksha).
The ashrama system recognizes the division between active participation in life (pravrtti) and ascetic withdrawal from life (nivrtti). Although this division has applied to all Hindus, regardless of gender or caste, men of the three higher varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas) have been more likely to enact it through the ashrama system. Some Hindus choose to devote their entire lives to the quest for moksha. They become renunciants and are free from the obligations of varna and ashrama. Such people are called sannyasis. A sannyasi who joins a monastic order takes the title “swami”.
In addition to the duties belonging to each stage of life, Hinduism also emphasizes duties belonging to all human beings, especially cultivation of truth and non-violence. Many Hindus choose not to eat meat because of their cultivation of non-violence.