varnashrama dharma or varna-ashrama dharma is the Vedic system of the Goals of life, Social divisions and Stages of life and one is encouraged to strive for a balance and harmony of all the four goals and not to neglect one in favor of the others. This is the basis for the ideal varna-ashrama dharma system of life in which the society is divided into four social groups (varna) according to one’s natural talents & propensities. The intelligentsia (brahmana) , the administrators (kshatriya), the entrepreneurs (vaishya) and the proletariat (sudra). The ideal life span of the individual is divided into four stages; student (brahmacarin), householder (grihasta), retiree (vanaprastha) and a renunciate (sannyasi).
The Brahmins are expected to pass through all four stages. Kshatriyas pass through the first three, Vaishyas have the first two and the Sudras have only one stage - that of marriage. These are the general recommendations but in practice there are many exceptions.
During the stage of studentship one learns the principles of Dharma - spiritual wisdom, religious duties as well as secular knowledge. During the stage of the householder this sacred and secular knowledge is put into practice. One then indulges in sensual pleasures & procreation (kama) and accumulates wealth (artha) in accordance with religious principles (dharma) to support one’s family and distributes the surplus in philanthropic acts. In the stage of retirement a process of preparing for eventual renunciation is begun and one gradually abandons one’s profession and sense-enjoyment, and concentrates on dharma with a view to achieving Liberation (Moksha) from the cycle of birth and death. When one finally renounces (sannyasa) then one’s complete focus is on obtaining Liberation (Moksha) to the exclusion of all else.
Varna-ashrama System Today
Varna-ashrama is an “ideal” system but has become redundant in the world in which we live - a democratic, multicultural, global society with the values of equality and equal opportunities for all, the right to education, liberty, the dignity of the individual and participation in governance etc. There are many who would like to see the varna-ashrama system reinstated - but this is like wishing for Rama-rajya - a nice idea but actually a fantasy. In order to compete in the political, intellectual and spiritual millieu of today it would be best for Srivaishnavas to relegate the system to the glass cases of cultural museums or to use it merely as a framework for teaching ideals.
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