jñānena tu tad ajñānam yeṣāṃ nāśitam ātmanaḥ | teṣām ādityavaj jñānaṃ prakāśayati tat param
“As the sun dispels darkness and illuminates everything, so divine knowledge destroys ignorance and reveals the transcendental Absolute Truth.” — Bhagavad-Gītā 5.16    


The Vedic social system

The following text is an excerpt from Mahabharata – Jewel of the Poets, PART II, Chapter 2 and describes in broad outline the Vedic social system called Varnashrama-Dharma. It is the introduction to the chapter, which contains many quotations from the Mahabharata regarding Varnashrama-Dharma.

A good social system is characterised by the fact that the material needs of people are satisfied and at the same time everyone can progress in spiritual knowledge and perfection according to his nature and personal effort. This is ideally given in the Vedic social order called Varṇāśrama-dharma. The Varṇāśrama-dharma does not arise from the limited minds of fallible living entities, but was created by the perfect Supreme Lord, Viṣṇu, Himself. It is also not possible to understand the Mahābhārata properly unless one has understood this dharma (religion, divine law).

Apart from the Mahābhārata, there are records of this knowledge in the Purānas and other Vedic scriptures. This system is treated most extensively in the scriptures called the dharma-śāstra, of which the Manu-saṃhitā – also called the Manu-smṛti – is the best known. The Manu-saṃhitā was written in ancient times by Manu (Avatāra Viṣṇus and father of mankind) as a law book for mankind.

In Varṇāśrama-dharma, society is divided into four social classes (varṇas) according to people's occupation and four states of life (āśramas) according to people's spiritual maturity. Simply by performing the duties of his respective varṇa and āśrama, a person makes progress towards human perfection. These duties are prescribed for him by the Vedas, which are recognised in Vedic culture as the Supreme Truth and Supreme Authority, as explained in the previous chapter.

The four varṇas are Brāhmaṇa, Kṣatriya, Vaiśya and Śūdra, and the four āśramas are called brahmacarya, gṛhastha, vānaprastha and sannyāsa. The Brāhmaṇas1 are considered the head of the society because they give the direction of the society through their intelligence and knowledge. The Kṣatriyas are the arms of the society because they protect the society from internal and external disturbance. The Vaiśyas are considered the belly of society because they are responsible for providing food and necessities. And the Śūdras are the legs of society because they carry society through their work and services. Each of these classes has certain duties that must be fulfilled as well as possible by the members of each varṇa in order for society to function properly.

To which varṇa someone belongs is determined by his qualities. For example, someone who does not possess the qualities of a Brāhmaṇa may not perform the activities of a Brāhmaṇa. The qualities with which people are born and the qualities they develop in the course of their lives depend on the three modes of material nature (triguṇa) by which man is influenced or allows himself to be influenced.2

A man of the three higher classes (Vaiśya, Kṣatriya and Brāhmaṇa) spends some years of his childhood and youth as a disciple in the house of a spiritual teacher (guru3), serves him devotedly, lives in celibacy (Brahmacarya vow) and receives from him the knowledge of the Vedas. This is the Brahmacarya-āśrama.4 Then he may marry and beget children. This is called Gṛhastha-āśrama. When the children are grown up, the man gives up his home and goes alone or with his wife into the forest (vāna) to a holy place, taking renunciations and hardships to purify himself of sins and gain detachment from material attachment. Now he is a Vānaprastha. When a Brāhmaṇa is spiritually advanced enough through his penances and asceticism, he may adopt sannyāsa, i.e. enter the state of renunciation. The Sannyāsin has no fixed abode. He wanders the earth in perfect trust in God, makes pilgrimages to holy places and attends spiritual gatherings, preaches spiritual knowledge and is completely unattached to worldly things.

Just like the varṇas, certain duties are also assigned to the āśramas. What these duties of the varṇas and āśramas are in detail, and what the characteristics of the Brāhmaṇas, Kṣatriyas, Vaiśyas and Śūdras are, is evident from the following quotations in this chapter, most of which are taken from the last conversation between Bhīṣma and Yudhiṣṭira Mahārāja on the sacred field of Kuru (Kurukṣetra) after the great battle. Since Yudhiṣṭira had become the ruler of the earth, all knowledge of Kṣatriya duties was naturally of paramount importance to him and therefore – and also for other reasons that emerge from the quotations themselves – the quotations about this varṇa have also been given the largest space in this chapter.

What is the position of women in Vedic society? – A woman should be protected by her father in childhood, then by her husband and in old age by her sons. There is no higher duty for a woman in the varṇāśrama-dharma than to serve her husband faithfully. Through such faithful service she receives half of his religious merits.

Varṇāśrama-dharma means that everyone is employed according to his nature; there is no discrimination. The goal is Viṣṇu and his kingdom, and everyone is given the opportunity to approach this goal when he as a part of the whole serves the whole according to his nature, his karma.

After Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Lord, left the planet about 5,000 years ago and returned to his eternal realm, the Varṇāśrama system gradually crumbled over the centuries and millennia. Remnants of it are found today almost only in India, and often in perverted form as a caste system. There are still many Brahmanas in India and also in other countries, but there is not a single Ksatriya king on earth who protects the Brahmanas and all other living beings in his kingdom, who rules justly according to divine principles, who ensures just punishment for wrongdoers and so on.


1 Brāhmaṇa means „one who knows brahman (spiritual energy, reality)“, i.e. one who possesses spiritual knowledge and realisation.

2 See: Triguna – sattva, rajas, tamas

3 The Sanskrit word guru means „heavy“ . However, it also refers to someone who is „heavy“ with knowledge, who is respectable and important, i.e. a teacher or spiritual master.

4 In der Manu-smṛti wird die Einweihung und das Leben eines brahmacārin im āśrama seines Lehrers anschaulich geschildert bis hin zur Beschreibung der Kleidung, der Haartracht etc.