Varna and ashrama

In addition to the four main aims for Hindu living (dharma, kama, artha and moksha), another important dharma is varnashrama dharma. This duty is based on an individual’s personal circumstances. It means the duties a Hindu should follow depending on their stage in life and their varna, or caste.

Traditionally, the caste a Hindu was born into decided which duties they performed in society and what jobs they could have. However, in modern Hindu societies, many people believe the system is unfair and disagree with the inequalities that result from it.

The four castes were an ancient Hindu idea. Each caste was thought to originate from a part of Brahma’s body - Brahmins from his head, Kshatriyas from his arms, Vaishyas from his thighs and Shudras from his feet:

Infographic showing the caste system categories of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras and Dalits.
BrahminsTeachers and priestsInterpret the scriptures and teach others about Hindu dharma
KshatriyasWarriors and leadersFight to defend people, and keep control and order in society
VaishyasMerchants, traders and farmersOwn land and businesses, trade and farm (this caste includes many trades)
ShudrasManual workers and labourersWork for others (this group includes labourers of all kinds)

There is a fifth group, who were traditionally outside the caste system and therefore known by the negative terms ‘outcastes’ and ‘Untouchables’. They were restricted in what jobs they could do, and were often treated badly. In modern India, people who in the past would have been labelled ‘outcastes’ refer to themselves as Dalits.

In India, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste, but some discrimination does still happen. Hindu reformers continue to work to improve civil rights for Dalits.

Ashramas - the four stages of life

Hinduism recognises four stages of life, called ashramas. A Hindu goes through all of these in their lifetime. The duties of life (or dharma) don’t just depend on the community (or caste) a Hindu is born into. They also depend on a person’s stage of life, or ashrama. Hindus recognise four stages of life:

  • The first stage is learning, being a pupil or student.
  • The second stage is being a householder and parent.
  • The third stage is retirement from work, which gives opportunities for other pursuits, including spiritual life.
  • The fourth stage is where some people give up all the things of this world for spiritual purposes. This stage is not for everyone – a person living in the fourth ashrama is called a sannyasin.
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