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:
|Brahmins||Teachers and priests||Interpret the scriptures and teach others about Hindu dharma|
|Kshatriyas||Warriors and leaders||Fight to defend people, and keep control and order in society|
|Vaishyas||Merchants, traders and farmers||Own land and businesses, trade and farm (this caste includes many trades)|
|Shudras||Manual workers and labourers||Work 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.
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: