Varnashrama Dharma: A Logical View

Article of the Month - April 2015
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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 individual’s 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 individual’s characteristic guna.

If one asks what is the need for deciding the individual’s 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 individual’s samskaras acquired in his past lives, and karma is what is prescribed for the present life.

Ashrama Dharma

Sannyasa Darshan: A Treatise on Traditional and Contemporary Sannyasa

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 one’s 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.


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