Dharma (Part 2): Varnashrama-dharma

According to Hindu texts, Varnashrama-dharma is not a man-made system but refers to natural classifications that appear to various degrees in all human societies. Individuals have different innate tendencies for work and exhibit a variety of personal qualities. There are also natural phases in life, when it is easier and more rewarding to perform certain activities. Hinduism teaches that individuals best realise their potential by taking into account such natural arrangements, and that society should be structured and organised accordingly.

Each varna and ashram has its own specified dharma. What may be desirable for one section of society may be degrading for another. For example, absolute non-violence, which includes refraining from animal sacrifice, is essential for the priestly class but considered wholly unworthy of a kshatriya (warrior). Generating wealth and producing children are essential for householders, but intimate contact with money and women is spiritually suicidal for the renunciate. Underlying all these apparent differences is the common goal of advancing in spiritual life based on sanatana-dharma. Without the spiritual equality and sense of service inherent in sanatana­dharma, varnashrama-dharma tends to degrade into the rigid and exploitative caste system.

Key Points

  • Varnashrama-dharma – duties performed according to the system of four varnas (social divisions) and four ashrams (stages in life).
  • Focus is on responsibilities (which naturally fulfil the rights of others).
  • Four varnasbrahmanas (priests, teachers, and intellectuals), kshatriyas (police, army, and administration), vaishyas (farmers, merchants, and business people), shudras (artisans and workers).
  • Four ashrams – student life, household life, retirement, and renunciation.

Useful Analogy

The social body

The social body and its components are likened to the human form.

  • Society is compared to a body with the brahmanas as the head, kshatriyas as the arms, vaishyas as the belly (or thighs) and the shudras as the legs
  • Social functions are determined according to this analogy. For example, the brahmanas are the eyes and mouth of society. They provide a spiritual vision for society and teach people accordingly. Just as the arms are raised to defend the body, the kshatriya’s main duty is to protect society. The vaishya’s main duty is material nourishment, and the shudra supports all other sections of society.
  • The  are sometimes related to the same metaphor, with the successive stages of student life, household life, retirement and renunciation represented by the legs, belly, arms and head respectively.

Related Stories

Gautama’s Disciple.
How varna is truly determined. (see Varnashrama and Caste)

The Brahmana and the Cobbler (STO-113)
How character is more important than status.

Related Practices

All practices relating to the execution of one’s familial and social duties according to varna and ashram. These include many of the rites of passage.

The caste system and its practice, and the issue of untouchability, as addressed by Mahatma Gandhi and other reformers (see Reform Movements).

Related Values/Issues

  • The notion of a classless society.
  • Rights and responsibilities.
  • All types of inequality.
  • Varnashrama as a basis for categorising diversity in human society.

Personal Reflection

  • Is it desirable to divide society according to each person’s natural tendency for a particular type of work, and form educational, political, trade, or labour associations for co-operative and mutual support?
  • Do teachers need personal and professional qualifications, or should anyone be able to take the job?
  • Is a person qualified as a teacher simply because his father and mother were both teachers? Does he generally have a better chance?
  • Do natural classifications exist and can they be useful? Are they all merely man-made and exploitative?
  • How does your school apply varnashrama-dharma principles? Are there various year groups, for example? And within each year, are all students required to study the same subjects?

Common Misunderstandings

Caste and varnashrama are synonymous

Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous opponent of caste abuse, actually believed in the original principles of varnashrama-dharma. The system of four varnas (with subdivisions) was based on mutual support and service, allowing for upward and downward mobility. The caste system, as it has now become, is rigid and hereditary, often motivated by exploitation and a desire to maintain the status-quo. (see Reform Movements for more information on Gandhi; also Social Issues)

Scriptural Passages

“According to the three gunas and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society are created by Me.”

Lord Krishna, in Bhagavad-gita 4.13

Meaning and Purpose

  • Is the universe naturally hierarchical?
  • What are my duties as a human being?


“The distinction between varna and caste is well known to anthropologists … even if it is ignored by some authors … (who) use the word caste when what they mean is clearly varna.”

Dr. D. Killingley

For More Information

See Dharma section starting here as well as Social Issues, Varnashrama, Caste, Bhakti Saints, and Reform Movements