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Varnas: The Four Pillars of Dharma

Article of the Month - May 2012 by Nitin Kumar

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All of mans activity is directed towards attaining that what is pleasant to him and preventing that
which makes him suffer. Pleasure and pain vary from person to person and time to time. No one
can say for sure who receives these when from someone; because, this cannot be decided by our
limited human faculties. Not even the most intelligent person can, based on an individual
circumstance, give an exact sequence for attainment of pleasure or prevention of suffering, nor
can he or she predict when exactly any effort towards these ends will bear fruit. This is because
the cause is not merely the present effort directed towards these ends, but also our Karma from
previous births and fate. Hence, their exact cause cannot be determined by any direct means of
perception. In fact, an individual does not even have the capacity to know what is best for him.
Therefore, the path to both material and spiritual progress is to be known only through the
eternal Vedas. It is only the Vedas which give us clear dos and donts leading to positive and
negative fruits in the future.
There are two parts of the Vedas. The first, dealing with the nature of the soul (Atman), does so
using both experience and logic, because in the end, the Atman is but to be experienced only.
Surprisingly however, this is not so in the Karma-Kanda part of the Vedas, dealing with the
above dos and donts. Here logic does not come into play at all, and an action becomes doable
only because it is said so in the Vedas.
Karma in the Vedas is delineated according to ones Varna. Hence, first the four Varnas
(Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras) are described.
The Creation of the Varnas

1). In the beginning of creation, there was only the Brahmin Varna in the form of Agni (fire).
However, being alone, he was incapable of performing any Vedic Karma, because there was no
one to protect him. Therefore the Kshatriyas, or warrior class, was created. (Brhadaranyaka
Upanishad 1.4.11).
Even then the Vedic Karma could not be performed because there was none to generate the
required wealth for it. To fill this gap, the Vaishyas, or business community, came into being.
Even then the Vedic Karma could not be performed. Why? Because there was none to sustain
and nourish it. Thus was created the Shudra. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.13).
However, even the creation of the four well-thought out Varnas did not lead to the successful
performance of Vedic Karma. This was because the Kshatriyas, the warrior class, were of an
aggressive nature. Therefore, to regulate the Varnas, God created Dharma. This was to ensure

that none of the four Varnas transgressed their permissible limits, due to their inherent faults (like
a Vaishya may become uncharitable etc). This was the reason for the creation of Dharma.
((Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.14).

This is also the reason why there is nothing greater than Dharma. Everybody remains under its
regulation. In all times, in all places, even the weakest of persons believes himself capable of
winning over the fiercest opponent through the power of Dharma, even though his opponent may
be the king himself. Dharma is defined in the scriptures as that which is true (Satya); and vice
versa - Satya is Dharma. What this suggests is that the meaning found in the scriptures is the
truth, Dharma is merely carrying it out. Therefore, this acting according to knowledge is what
keeps everyone together. This is how and why Dharma was created, the four Varnas being in a
sense its four pillars.

Varna-Dharma

The All-Knowing God resides in everybodys heart. It is He who gives us birth


according to our previous Samskaras in one of the four Varnas. The structure of the society
stands on this system of Varnas. It is instructive to note here that the Sanskrit word for society is
Samaj, which is made up of sam meaning same, and aj meaning God. Therefore, the Vedic
ideal of society is nothing but an expression of God in equal measure. Hence, no Varna is higher
or lower. All are brothers only. According to the Rig Veda: No one is higher, no one smaller, all
are but brothers only (5.60.5). As per our qualities according to birth, God explains Dharma to
us through the Vedas. As long as one lives according to it, Dharma continues to protect us.
However, when due to greed etc we fall from Dharma, then there is turmoil in the world. (Shri
Shankaracharyas Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita 3.35)

A Brahmins Dharma:

According to Shri Shankaracharya (Gita 18.42), a man is born as a Brahmin to


inculcate the following qualities:
1). Control of the Mind (Shama)
2). Subjugation of the Senses (Dama)
3). Practicing Austerities (Tapas)

4). Inner and Outer Purity (Shaucha)


5). Forgiveness (Kshama)
6). Straightforwardness (Saralta)
7). Faith in the Scriptures (Shastra Shraddha)
8). Knowledge of the Scriptures (Shastra Jnana), and finally
9). Realization of the Soul (Atman-Anubhava).
One who does not inculcate these virtues is at best termed as a mere relative of the Brahmins
(Brahma-bandhu), and not a Brahmin. Mind it, this is a derogatory form of reference.
(Chandogya Upanishad 6.1.1)
The duties of a Brahmin include chanting the Vedas, teaching the Vedas, right to perform Yajnas
for ones own self, performing Yajna on behalf of others, plus he also has the right to both accept
and give charity. The Kshatriyas and Vaishyas too have a duty to daily chant and memorize the
Vedas, perform Yajnas, and give charity. However, and this is most important, Kshatriyas and
Vaishyas do not have a right to teach the Vedas, nor can they perform a Yajna on behalf of
somebody else, and also they cannot take charity.
Here it must be understood that the chanting of the Vedas is a not a mere right of the three
Varnas. Instead, it is their sacred duty to do so everyday, it forming an integral part of their Nitya
Karma (deeds to be performed daily), missing which is said to be an error requiring
Prayashchitta. This is why women traditionally do not chant the Vedas, since they would
inevitably have to give it a miss during the monthly cycle.
The scriptures actually are too strict on the Brahmins. Consider the amount of virtues expected of
a Brahmin performing sacrifices for others, such a person, known as a Purohit, is supposed to
possess the following qualities: He must speak sweetly, have affection for all, have equanimity,
should be away from self-praise, always speak the truth, live simply, should not lend money on
interest, be tolerant and non-aggressive etc. However, such a Purohit is lauded in lavish terms in
the Vedas (Krishna Yajurveda, Taittriya Samhita, 1.4.10), where it is said that they would, while
remaining immersed in their own Vedic Dharma, be always vigilant in inspiring others to remain
steadfast towards their own.
The Kshatriyas Dharma:

For one born in a family of Kshatriyas, the following qualities have been decreed:
1). Valor (Shaurya)
2). Perseverance (Dridata)

3). Maintaining Mental Poise in Difficult Situations (Dhairya)


4). Fulfilling any responsibility which comes upon suddenly without attachment (Nirmoha)
5). Never Running away from the Battleground
6). Giving Charity
7). Keeping Dominance over the Public
8). Displaying Power and Prosperity to the Public
The king, who, even though he takes taxes from his people, remains oblivious to their protection,
is considered a great sinner. The king has a heavy duty because he is the protector of the VarnaAshrama Dharma which is the structure on which entire Vedic belief system stands. The most
special trait of the king is to give preference to the protection of his people, more than he gives to
his own family.
The Vaishyas Dharma:

A Vaishya does agriculture, protects the cows, and engages in commerce. We have to remember
here that Lord Krishna, in his role as the lover and protector of cows, lived in Vrindavana as a
Vaishya (Srimad Bhagavatam 10.24.21). The Vaishyas duty towards Vedic Karma has already
been delineated above.
The Shudras Dharma:

The Shudra is born to sustain and nourish the society. His occupation is to create objects
necessary for the society and himself. According to the scriptures commenting on the duties of a
king, it is necessary for a king to have at least three or four Shudras in his council. A mention
must here be made of Vidura, one of the most venerated personalities in both the Mahabharata
and the Bhagavatam.

The Shudra has not been asked to chant the Vedas. This is not at all a hindrance in his spiritual
progress. The result of chanting the Vedas is only that it purifies the mind (chitta-shuddhi),
making it a fit vessel for receiving the Ultimate Truth (Brahma-Jnana). However, the same
chitta-shuddhi that the other three Varnas receive through the chanting of the Vedas, the same
result is gained by the Shudra just by following his Dharma. In fact it is much easier for him. The
three Varnas have to first put on the sacred thread in an elaborate ceremony, and then get up
every morning before dawn to learn to recite the Vedas through a lengthy and continuous
process. And what is the result they get? Purification of the mind. This is easily gained by the
fourth Varna by merely following his Dharma as laid down in the Shastras. He is fully entitled to
the knowledge of Vedanta. In the final analysis, the Ultimate Truth, which we have to understand
through Vedanta, admits of no Varna. Therefore, the scriptures are full of examples of the fourth

Varna who have been Brahma-Jnanis (e.g. Dharma-Vyadha in the Mahabharata, the Alwars,
Nayanars, etc.)
Doubt: If what you say is true, i.e. in the state of Ultimate Truth, which is the
eventual goal of all Vedic activity (Dharma), there is no distinction of Varna
and birth, then, what motivation is there for us to follow the system of Varnas?
Reply: The answer to this query lies in the following verse of the Gita:
One cannot reach the state beyond Karma, without first performing Karma.
(Bhagavad Gita 3.4)
This is because Karmas like Vedic sacrifices etc. destroy the negative residue of sins
accumulated by us over our many births, consequently leading to a purification of the mind
(chitta-shuddhi). It is only after our sins have been destroyed that True Knowledge (Jnana)
reveals itself to us.
However, regarding the actual experience of the Ultimate Truth the Karmas have no direct role.
But they do have an inevitable role in granting us the necessary eligibility for receiving this
Truth.
Conclusion: There is no Nishkama Karma higher than working according to the Varna given to
us by God, which is one way of always living under His patronage. It is what Shankaracharya Ji
calls working like a servant under God. (Commentary on Bhagavad Gita 3.30)

This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand
Bharati Ji. However, any errors are entirely the author's own.

References & Further Reading:

Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Vedanta Prabodh, Bangalore, 2008.

Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Translation of Shankaracharya's Commentary on the


Eleven Upanishads (Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2006.

Goyandka, Shri Harikrishnadas. Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (Translation of


Shankaracharya's Commentary into Hindi): Gorakhpur, 2006

Gupta Som Raj. Upanisads with the Commentary of Sankaracarya, Five Volumes, Delhi.

Warrier, Dr. A.G. Krishna (tr.). Bhagavad Gita Bhasya of Sri Sankaracarya,Chennai,
2008.

We hope you have enjoyed reading the article. Any comments or feedback that you may have will be greatly
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Article Reviews

Guidance are not restrictions.Vedas are supreme knowledge.One needs the supreme blessings to have the knowledge no matter who you are. "Krisna" is the perfect example.Thank you.

- raj
4th Jun 2012

This article is very misleading. Who says women and Shudras cannot read Vedas and Kshatriyas and Vaishyas cannot teach them. Can you show appropriate reference from VEDAS themselves? I
don't want a reference from Upanishads or later scriptures, for they have been manipulated through years of decay. I suggest you visit www.agniveer.com to get an idea of what TRUE varnashram is according to
Vedas.

- Harsh
18th May 2012

This was an amazing article about the four pillars of dharma. I will share with everyone at my mandir.

- Padmadevi
17th May 2012

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