14.) Do All Varṇas Have the Right to All the Āśramas in Hinduism?

It has often been argued that, in Hinduism, all the four varṇas do not have equal access to all the four āśramas. It is often stated that only the three higher varṇas are supposed to possess the right to the four āśramas, and that too is restricted to the male members of the three higher varṇas. In this note, however, we shall only focus on the question of whether all varṇas have the right to all the āśramas, leaving aside the issue of women in this context.

The point is obviously important. But it is even more important than might be obvious for another reason. Hindu law books deal with two categories of dharmas among others – those of varṇas and those of āśramas. Such a discussion often includes not only an elaboration of the different duties or obligations of various varṇas but also of the duties common to all the varṇas and āśramas. Thus Manu spells out the different duties of all the varṇas in detail, but it also lists their common duties as follows (X. 63): “Abstention from insuring (creatures), veracity, abstention from unlawfully appropriating (the goods of others), purity, and control of organs, Manu has declared to be the summary of the law of the four castes”.[1] Similarly, after the different duties of the various āśramas have been elaborated, Manu also lists their common duties as follows (VI. 92): “Contentment, forgiveness, self-control, abstraction from unrighteously appropriating anything, (obedience to the rules of purification, coercion of the organs, wisdom, knowledge (of the supreme soul), Truthfulness, and abstention from anger, (form) the tenfold law”.[2]

Now, if all the āśramas are not incumbent on all the varṇas, then it could imply an exception from the duties common to all āśramas on the part of those varṇas which do not go through them all. The operation of sāmānya dharma is thus compromised and becomes asymmetrical.

This in itself could be urged as one reason why no varṇa should be excluded from any āśrama, but it seems that Hindu social thought ideally visualizes their integrated operation. A clue in this matter is offered by the description of the state of affairs in the golden age as found in the Rāmāyaṇa. It runs as follows:

Brāhmans, Kshattriyas, Vaiśyas, and Śūdras possessed the characteristics of the Krita. In that age were born creatures devoted to their duties. They were alike in the object of their trust, in observances and in their knowledge. At that period the castes, alike in their functions, fulfilled their duties, were unceasingly devoted to one deity, and used one formula (mantra), one rule, and one rite. Though they had separate duties, they had but one Veda, and practiced one duty. By works connected with the four orders, and dependent on conjunctures of time, but unaffected by desire, (hope of) reward, they attained to supreme felicity. This complete and eternal righteousness of the four castes during the Krita was marked by the character of that age and sought after union with the supreme soul.[3]

Two points are worth noting specifically here: (1) That the varṇas performed all their specific duties: tadā hi samakarmāṇo varṇā dharmān avāpnuvan[4] and (2) they also performed their common duties: pṛthakdharmāś tu eka-vedā dharmam ekam anuvratāḥ. cāturāśramyayuktena karmaṇā kālayoginā.[5] This last line leaves little room for doubt that all varṇas followed all the āśramas, each pursuing their own duty (svakarmaniratāḥ)[6] as well as the common ones.

[1] G. Bühler, tr., The Laws of Manu (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1967) p. 416.

[2] Ibid., p. 215.

[3] J. Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts (Delhi: Oriental Publishers, 1972) part 1, p. 145

[4] Ibid., p. 143, diacritics updated.

[5] Ibid., diacritics revised.

[6] Ibid., diacritics revised.


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