by Swami Krishnananda
We have been discussing varieties of things in terms of the three gunas – what is sattvic, what is rajasic and what is tamasic. Nothing on earth or in heaven can be said to be free from the operation of the three gunas. Not even the gods are free from the action of gunas on them.
Brahmana-kshatriya-visam sudranam cha parantapa, karmani pravibhaktani svabhava-prabhavair gunaih (18.41).
Samo damas tapah saucham kshantir arjavam eva cha, jnanam vijnanam astikyam brahma-karma svabhava-jam (18.42).
Sauryam tejo dhrtir dakshyam yuddhe chapy apalayanam, danam isvara-bhavas cha kshatram karma svabhava-jam (18.43).
Krishi-gaurakshya-vanijyam vaisya-karma svabhava-jam, paricharyatmakam karma sudrasyapi svabhava-jam (18.44).
Here we have an indication of the manner in which society is to be organised, vertically as well as horizontally. The horizontal discipline and stabilising of life is called varna dharma. The vertical process of ascent of the individual is in the ashrama dharma. Actually, the whole of ethics, the entire code of conduct and behaviour, is summed up in three things: 1) the concept of dharma, artha, kama and moksha; 2) varna dharma; 3) ashrama dharma. Nothing in the world can tell us about ethics more than these three things. How we have to conduct ourselves in regard to the ultimate aim of life, how we have to conduct ourselves in relation to people outside, how we have to conduct ourselves in regard to our own self – these three enunciations sum up the whole of reality. That which we are, that which is outside, and that which is above are the threefold definitions of reality.
The ultimate goal, in its complete structure, is delineated in the principles of dharma, artha, kama, moksha. Perhaps you all know what it means, as we have touched upon this subject elsewhere in the course of earlier discourses. The concept of this fourfold aim known as the purusharthas is a highly compassionate, integrating and well thought-out discipline of life. Our requirements are classified into four principles: material needs, emotional needs, and ethical needs, all leading to spiritual needs. The ethical need is dharma, the material need is artha, the emotional need is kama, and the spiritual need is moksha. The concept of moksha, or liberation of the soul, determines the other principles of dharma, artha and kama. This fourfold valuation of the whole of life is to be put into practice in our personal and social life, and is not there only to be philosophically contemplated as principles in textbooks. We have to live in this world in such a manner that we shall move upward gradually in the direction of the liberation of the inner spirit; and such a liberation is not possible unless we disentangle ourselves from our involvements which cause bondage.
The bondage is also of three kinds. Total ignorance of the ultimate aim of life is the greatest bondage, inability to get on with people outside is another bondage, and not knowing what is happening to one’s own self is a third bondage. One should not be ignorant in this matter. It has to be very clear to us as to what kind of person we are. We should not underestimate or overestimate ourselves. We must also know how we have to conduct ourselves in human society, where there are other people like us living with a common interest. Then, we have to be very clear about what it is that we are aiming at in the end, from the cosmic point of view. The cosmical aspiration is, therefore, summed up in this fourfold principle of dharma, artha, kama, moksha. But this concept of moksha has to be implemented in our daily life – in society and in our personality.
The terms used here – brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya, sudra – refer to intelligence, power, wealth and labour. These are the footstools, as it were, of human society. No person can be entirely intelligent, no person can be entirely powerful, no one can be entirely wealthy, and no one can be entirely fit for hard labour. There is a classification of the ability and endowments of people according to a variety of reasons. A person is born into some condition and circumstance. Some people are intelligent right from the beginning, some are royally construed right from the beginning, some have trading and economic tendencies right from the beginning, and some are traders, workmen, industrialists, technologists, etc., by their predilection and inclination. It does not mean that people can be classified only into four sections. There can be hundreds of differences among people, but this is broadly the category corresponding to our inner psychic faculty. We have buddhi or intellect inside us, there is will or volition in us, there is emotion or feeling in us, and there is the impulse to action or work also inside us. The fourfold classification of human society into brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra, representing the ruling class, the guiding class, the wealthy class and the labour class, has relevance to the inner psychic preponderance of intellectual capacity, administrative capacity, economic capacity and working capacity. When these four are blended together in a proper form, society is supposed to be stable.
Though society is stable, somehow or other, by an administrative system that is introduced in this manner by bringing about some harmonious adjustment of capacities and intelligences, there is also a need for working out a system of inner development. It is not enough if we are merely stable socially. We also have to be perfect inwardly in our own individuality. Varna dharma, which is actually what is meant by this social group mentioned, is concerned only with external society, and ashrama dharma is concerned with ourselves. Brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra are external, social, outward, whereas brahmachari, grihastha, vanaprastha and sannyasa refer to the inward, graduated ascent of the spirit to higher and higher dimensions of comprehension.
These two have to go together. Socially we are involved in a particular location, and we have to work and contribute our mite for the welfare of society in accordance with our placement, location or situation in which we find ourselves or for which we are fitted in society. Together with that, we also have to work for our development. The four stages of inner development, known as ashrama dharma, are brahmacharya, grahasthya, vanaprastha and sannyasa.
In the early stages, for about twenty-five years at least, a person lives a life of utter self-restraint and study, under a teacher. The parents do not, according to the ancient system at least, allow their sons to remain at home when they come of age for education and study. When a person comes of age for education he is sent out to a teacher, and he is supposed to be there for at least twelve years – if not more, as the case may be. This brahmacharya stage of self-restraint and service to the Guru and study of the Vedas particularly is supposed to be a foundation that is being laid to one’s personal life. What we have been in our early years will tell upon us in our later years. What were we doing for the first twenty or twenty-five years? What kind of life did we live? That will have a direct impact upon our life after fifty or sixty years of age. The energetic, disciplined, hard life that we lived early on will bear fruit which we can reap towards the end of our life. But if in our early years we have lived a dissipated, carefree life spent in abandon, without any kind of discipline whatsoever – eat, drink and be merry – it will have a very deleterious effect when we grow old. That is why it has been always prescribed that early years should be of complete control, complete discipline – biological, psychological and physical – apart from the social involvement already mentioned as varna dharma.
After this stage of Brahmacharya, one usually enters into household life, because that is supposed to be a stage where one learns the ways of life. The world is made up so many complicated involvements. The isolated life of a brahmacharin is good for conserving energy and making one strong enough to face life, but one must know what life is. One gains knowledge of life by living a socially construed family life, into which one is generally introduced after the brahmacharya stage is over. But when one comes to maturity of experience – where the hair turns gray, as it were – there is a necessity to withdraw oneself from too much concern over family affairs or even social affairs, and a desire should arise inwardly to look to the need for a higher kind of living, what may be called spiritual living. Then one lives a secluded life. This stage is called vanaprasthashram. It is not actually total renunciation like a sannyasin, but it is isolated, secluded living, away from the family atmosphere. One may live in a temple or in an ashrama for some time, and then go back to the family, and then again go for retreat, thus habituating oneself to a life of non-involvement in family life. That continues for some time.
Usually, the expectation is that one should live a life of brahmacharya for twenty-five years, a life of grihastha for another twenty-five years, vanaprastha for the third twenty-five years, and sannyasa for the last twenty-five years. But considering the age limit of people these days and there being no standard hope of everybody living one hundred years, we have to limit the duration of the stages mentioned according to the circumstances. Nevertheless, the stages are valid even today, and in connection with this kind of internal and external discipline, the Bhagavadgita goes into these brief statements of brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra.
The duties of a brahmana, or kshatriya, or a vaisya, or a sudra are determined by the gunas of prakriti – svabhava-prabhavair gunaih. One is not born a genius, one is not born wealthy, one is not born an administrator, nor is one a labourer right from birth. The conditions of living accrue or grow around oneself due to various circumstances occasioned by past karmas as well as one’s present abilities.
Internal restraint of the sense organs, external control over the active senses, purity of motive inwardly and outwardly, forgiveness, straightforwardness, knowledge and wisdom, spiritual experience, and belief in God are considered to be the main characteristics of a Brahmana. The characteristics of a Kshatriya are valour, heroism, spiritedness, determination to achieve a goal, power which does not diminish, never retreating in war, charitableness, and a feeling of responsibility as the ruler, for the welfare of other people. These are considered as kshatra dharma, the Kshatriya’s dharmas, warrior’s, ruler’s, administrator’s dharma: sauryam tejo dhrtir dakshyam yuddhe chapy apalayanam, danam isvara-bhavas cha kshatram karma svabhava-jam.
The economic group is called Vaisya: krishi-gaurakshya-vanijyam vaisya-karma svabhava-jam. Tilling and taking care of land, producing grains, trading, wealth, protecting cattle, carrying on business – all these come under the Vaisya’s duties. Actual hard work – industrially, technologically, or in any way whatsoever – that which requires hard labour, is the prerogative of the fourth class, known as Sudra.
Sve sve karmany abhiratah samsiddhim labhate narah (18.45): Each one is to perform one’s duty according to the station in society in which one is placed. Then it is possible for one to progress further. Svakarma-niratah siddhim yatha vindati tac chrunu: “I shall now tell you how, by performing one’s own duty, one reaches the highest.”
Yatah pravrttir bhutanam yena sarvam idam tatam, svakarmana tam abhyarchya siddhim vindati manavah (18.46): One attains perfection by adoring the Almighty Being by one’s own knowledge and capacity, and performing one’s duty in accordance with that knowledge and capacity. God does not expect us to do anything beyond ourselves, beyond our capacity, and no one can expect from us what we cannot do. Our svadharma is that which we can do and, therefore, we must do. With that, the Supreme Being Himself will be satisfied. Our worship of God should be through the work that we do according to our ability and our concept of duty, performed totally in an unselfish manner: svakarmana tam abhyarchya siddhim vindati manavah.