Varnashrama Dharma in Modern Context

Question: I would like to ask you about particular question about Varnashrama Dharma. I found myself this topic is struggling in some parts, so please Babaji give me some light on this.

As far as I know, civilized humans have four primarily natures, and they are attributed by certain qualities each one has. Also they must cooperate with each other (shudras with vaishyas and kshatriyas with brahmins). Is that correct?:)

Answer: Yes, this is correct. These four natures spring from the three gunas that constitute prakriti. The three gunas exist in every material object including the human mind. The nature of a person depends upon which guna is predominant in that person’s psycho-somatic makeup and which one complements it. Since sattva and tamas are opposing to each other, they cannot be mutually complementary. Therefore the combination of sattva, rajas and tamas results in four primary natures.

Question: What are the duties of each varna? A brief description is given by Krsna in Gita 18.42-44. For example can a shudra/vaishya person work in IT industry as web developer or he is more oriented to work more “grounded” works?

Answer: At present the varnas are mixed up. It is difficult to judge the varna of a person on the basis of the job he/she does. One needs to study the character of the person. The basic qualities of the four varnas are found in the above referred verses of the Gita. A brahmana is dedicated to education, a ksatriya has passion to give shelter and protection, a vaishya is a supplier of basic needs, and shudra feels happy by doing service to others. The sense of this is that a true brahmana is one who can sacrifice everything for knowledge. His or her heart blooms with knowledge and not with power, money, possession or doing social welfare. Similarly, for a ksatriya money does not have much value. He can sacrifice his life happily for the sake of giving protection. A vaishya dedicates his life for making wealth. Wealth is what makes him happy. A real shudra exists for serving others. He has no interest in acquiring philosophical knowledge or amassing wealth. He can live without these, but not without doing doing service.

Truly speaking, a Vaishnava is a shudra, because his or her life is dedicated to do service for the pleasure of guru, the Vaishnavas, and Krishna. That is why the word dasa or dasi is added after the name of a male and female devotee, respectively. According to Manu Smriti a brahmana has the surname “Sharma,” a ksatriya “Varma,” a vaishya “Gupta” and a shudra “Dasa”. But at present, to call someone a shudra is considered abusive. In a way, Mahatma Gandhi was right when he renamed the shudras as Harijana (lit., a person belonging to Krishna). However, now in India the word Harijana is also understood to be derogatory. What is considered at present as the lowest in society is really the highest, spiritually. The qualification to be a devotee, the highest evolution of a human being, is to be a servant. A shudra is supposed to have this qualification naturally.

Previously people did not take salaries because the primary goal of society was not economic development. Now economy is the most important preoccupation of human beings. It takes precedence over dharma. So people of one varna may do a job that does not suit their nature because they need money, and therefore there is a mixture of duties. A person of one nature is doing the duty suitable for another. Moreover, the duties are also not as simple as they used to be in Vedic society. Since now society is organized on the basis of economic development and not dharma or bhakti, it is very difficult apply the principles of Varnashrama in the present context. One can probably practice them in one’s private life, but at the social level it is a very complex situation because modern society does not support it.

Question: And are these qualities attainable or it’s fixed from your birth and you cannot attain a higher varna in one lifetime?

Answer: One gets one’s nature by birth but it can be improved by sadhana, although this is not an easy thing to do. The reason is that one is dependent on one’s own mind and ego to change them. It is like asking a person to put his own house on fire. Therefore the role of guru is very important because without surrendering to an authority who is helping to work with one’s own mind and ego, one will mostly be tricked by one’s mind and ego, thinking that one is changing or has changed.

Question: How do you determine which varna you belong to? Is jyotish the right tool for that?

Answer: Jyotish can help but one needs a lot of experience for that. One can also determine it oneself and take help from others who know the subject. Try to find out what is your passion, that one thing you love to do, without which you feel incomplete. This needs a lot of introspection. Steven Rudolph has developed a test on Multiple Nature to find out one’s nature. See the link on

Question: Who could take sannyas in varnashrama? Was it open to all members of society?

Answer: Sannyasa in Varnasrama was strictly for brahmanas. Ksatriyas could take vanaprastha. There are various examples of kings retiring to the forest for vanaprastha. The Pandavas also left for the Himalayas after they got the news of Krsna’s departure. That was vanaprastha and not sannyas. Therefore Draupadi also followed them. In vanaprastha the wife can accompany the husband. Gandhari followed Dhritarashtra, and Arci followed Prithu. I see no example of a non-brahmana taking sannyasa in the scriptures.

Question: When you say that sannyāsa is only for brāhmaṇas, is this a tradition, or is it śāstric? Can woman take sannyas?

Answer: For brahmana to take sannyas is shastric and was also the tradition. That was the varnashrama system, but now things have changed. Now anyone can take sannyasa, including women. Everything is fine. Everyone has equal rights, because India, the source of sannyasa ashram, is a democratic country.

One has to clearly understand that varnasrama was based on the psycho-physical makeup of a human being in order to structure the society for peaceful functioning, so that people could advance materially as well as spiritually. Then one will be able to appreciate the role of women in traditional Indian society. Now the society even in India is much different and thus the roles of different categories of human beings including the different genders have changed. Now even the genders are very fluid. In fact, in some societies there is an effort being made not to refer to boys and girls by their genders. They argue that nothing should be imposed on the children. Let them decide for themselves to which gender they belong or would like to belong. Under such circumstances it is a complex issue to map the Vedic paradigm onto modern society. Thus the divisions and roles that worked in the past do not work anymore at present because the definition of man and woman itself has changed, what to speak of the varnas.

Seeing from the traditional point of view, it was not that women were inferior or superior. Woman was woman and had her role to play. But the human mind naturally makes judgements. Power naturally tends to exploit the weak. Power was attained by different people in different ways. It could be in the form of knowledge (attained by a brahmana), physical (by a ksatriya), or wealth (by a vaishya). These were kept separate to minimize exploitation and corruption. Nobody was supposed to compete and have rivalry with another group. This is also Krsna’s instruction – para-dharmo bhayavahah (Gita 3.35). But over time a system always gets corrupted. Those in power will interpret the rules for their benefit.

Now it is our responsibility to apply the principles of shastra in the context of modern society. Shastra has two parts to it – one part contains the description of Reality, or eternal principles, such as the distinction between the atma and the physical body, the characteristics of atma, the law of karma, etc. The other part contains the application of these principles in our lives to become free from material bondage and attain the ultimate goal of life, which is prema. This part of shastra was called the smriti, such as Manu Smriti. In the past there were many smritis, given by different sages, which were applicable in different parts of India. They were like the modern constitution of a state. Just as the constitution of a country is amended from time to time according to the need and state of society, there is a need to amend the old smriti or even compose a new one since society has changed so much.

Question: My understanding from the early cantos of the Bhāgavatam (3.12.41-43) was that each āśrama has four degrees, and each of the four varnas takes to it to the corresponding degree. So, as I understand the Bhāgavatam, it’s saying that even a śūdra would take sanyāsa, but only as a bahudaka sannyāsa, while a brahmana can progress all the way – paramahaṁsa sannyāsa (no kuṭir at all). Verse 41 says:

vidyā dānaṁ tapaḥ satyaṁ
 dharmasyeti padāni ca
āśramāṁś ca yathā-saṅkhyam
 asṛjat saha vṛttibhiḥ

So this seems to show that the four āśrama correspond to the four dharma-padas and the four vrttis (varṇas). This, to me, is why 42 and 43 specify four gradations of intensity for each of the four āśrama. Each varṇa will take to each āśrama according to their propensity/capacity.

For sannyāsa, then, it seems that śūdras can take to kuṭicaka; the vaiśya can go further, to bahvoda; the kṣatriya can go still further – to haṁsa; and the brāhmaṇa can go all the way to niskriya.

Answer: I do not have this understanding, nor do I see it in the commentaries. However, as I have said above, the varna categories do not exist anymore as they were defined in scripture, such as the Gita. There may be some exceptions here and there, but the majority of society is not following the varna system now. Thus, there is a need to understand the shastras in the modern context. There is no point in saying that a shudra can or cannot take sannyas unless you define who a shudra is in modern society.

Sri Caitanya
Sri Caitanya

In essence, the simple point is that a person who is arguing for a shudra or a women to take sannyasa or becoming a guru is most probably not very interested in bhakti. Mahaprabhu said:

nāhaṁ vipro na ca nara-patir nāpi vaiśyo na śūdro

   nāhaṁ varṇī na ca gṛha-patir no vanastho yatir vā

kintu prodyan-nikhila-paramānanda-pūrnāmṛtābdher

   gopī-bhartuḥ pada-kamalayor dāsa-dāsānudāsaḥ 

Therefore the purpose of spiritual life is to become a servant (shudra) and not to become a sannyasi or guru. When this goal is forgotten, then these other issues become important.

Thus such people deviate from the original aim for which they took to spiritual life. I do not think that anyone comes to spiritual life with the intention to become a guru or to take sannyasa. Then why not remember the original purpose for which one took to a spiritual practice? If someone argues that there may be some people who come to spiritual life with the intention of becoming guru or any such post, then my answer is that such people have not yet come to spiritual life.

Question: Why do devotees sometimes forget their original desire why they came to bhakti?

Answer: This is because bhakti was not their original desire. They just got influenced by preaching or they were facing some material problem in their life and saw a solution in spirituality. If they really came for bhakti, they would not forget it. Thus, when their material problem is solved, they revert back to their previous desires and try to satisfy them in a new environment.








8 thoughts on “Varnashrama Dharma in Modern Context”

  1. Pranam

    Thank you for openly discussing about this topic. We see many old and new articles about this floating in internet. Truly appreciate for posting this article.

    I see some comments are in the form of breaking the stereotypes or infact following western ideologies(changing bible to suite modern society).

    I truly understand this is a most picked up topic by anti-india forces and indologists.Therefore I would like to begin by asking if these are actual teaching of the goswamis or amended with a good will for modern society.

    I hope I am not mistake in my approach. It is not about my personal choices towards the answer. It is more about if these represent the original traditional teachings of goswamis. Only by knowing this I can seek/request further explanations by basing it on specific commentaries of acharyas.

    In simple words I am interested in “academic” aspect/knowledge about this topic.


    1. Ay the time of the Gosvamis there was no need to explain the varnashrama system, because it was still active and known to people. Although the Indian society was under Muslim influence, the Muslim rulers had not uprooted the Indian educational system. The drastic change happened in the mid 19th century, when Lord Macaulay imposed the British education on India. Then gradually the old gurukula system disintegrated. By that time, since India had gained independence and became a secular state, there was no more support for the old educational system of India. India adopted the Westen education system in its schools, colleges and universities and thus were was no education to the new generation on varnashrama. Therefore we don’t find talk about varnashrama in the writings of the Gosvamis. They primarily wrote to educate us about bhakti in their contemporary society.

      The only reference that we can find is in a book called Sat Kriya Sara Dipika, attributed to Gopala Bhatta Gosvami (although there is doubt about its authorship).

  2. In this postmodern society, is it possible that beings with disguised āsurī-sampat can occupy strategic seats within the varṇāśrama’s vestiges or even in the emerging devotional community (whatever its organizational structure)?

  3. Is there sastric or historical support for the statement “Previously people did not take salaries because the primary goal of society was not economic development.”?

    1. When Dronacarya, the guru of the Pandavas, was approached by Yudhisthira on the battlefield of Kurukshetra before the war began, he said in a very despondent mood, “Man is a servant of money, and money is nobody’s servant. O King, this it truth. I am bound by the wealth of the Kauravas.
      (Mahabharata, Bhisma Parva chapter. 43, verse 56)

      Besides this, the same statement was made by Kripacarya and Bhisma (verses 42 and 71). Bhisma said that “the sons of Dhritarashtra have supported me, therefore I am fighting on their side.”

      These and similar verses indicate the repentance of taking support from Duryudhana. They give this a reason for fighting on the side of the Kauravas although they knew that the Kauravas are wrong.

      Moroever, while delineating the characteristics of four varnas in Bhagavad Gita, in verses 18.42-44 it is only stated that the shudras do service to others. There is no mention that brahmanas, ksatriyas or vaishyas offer service to others.

  4. Nowadays, it is advised to setup and maintain businesses in order to maintain a rich and independent life. Of course, that comes mainly from business people and is primarily an economical function. How far can somebody, you may say brahmin in this context, sacrifice and experiment with his life style, time, and resources in order to pay his/her bills and getting grounded in his/her future? That is not a question of the goals, they may be focused in both cases on one goal, you may say an ideal one, but has more to do with the body of thought, shaping the mind, and time resources. Thank you for any comment on this.

    1. What matters in this context is the nature of a person. This nature manifests in action. First one has to recognize one’s nature, and then try to act in according to that nature. But because at present varnashrama system has collapsed in India, and certainly does not exist outside of India, therefore one has to support oneself financially to survive. And are survival is not the goal of life, so one has to keep this in mind and see how one can follow one’s brahminical nature in a society which is not designed to support Brahmanas. This is an individual task.

Comments are closed.