Dharma & the Individual
The Varnasrama-Dharma System


Duties Associated with Caste
The nature of the four varnas of Hindu society and their social duties were progressively defined and codified through subsequent centuries and especially through the Dharma Sastra literature. The Laws of Manu, for instance, lays down detailed prescriptions for the appropriate behavior for each of the varnas at various stages of their lives. It places Brahmins at the uppermost position of the social structure and defines the duties of the other classes in relationship to the Brahmins. It even states that it is better to follow one’s own dharma (svadharma) inadequately, than to do the dharma of another varna thoroughly, for this immediately estranges persons from their own varnas(IH, 73)

Duties Associated with the Stages of Life
The upanayana (investiture with the sacred thread) is said to grant the person a second birth. The Brahmin preceptor is said to embody the Veda itself, and serves as the womb within which the initiate is said to be carried like an embryo, until he is born again as the offspring of the Veda. In contrast to birth from his mother’s womb, this second birth is an initiation into the world of the sacred knowledge (veda) of sacrifice. It is initiation into the knowledge of deathless Self (Brahman), who through sacrifice became the mortal embodied self (the initiate). In turn, the embodied self, through participation in sacrificial action, may ultimately acquire the liberating knowledge to reintegrate its mortal self with the immortal Self. Thus upanayana leads the initiate through the threshold that separates those that “do not know” from those that do. Only those who have crossed this threshold will have access to the study of the Veda. ... Tradition prescribes that the upanayana be performed on Brahmin boys at the age of eight, eleven for ksatriyas, and twelve for vaisyas, keeping in mind that age is counted from the time of conception. (IH, 93-4)
The sisya [a.k.a. brahmacarya] stage required the boy to take up residence with his instructor in a hermitage (asrama), and lead an austere life of formal study of at least one Veda for a certain period of time, traditionally listed as between 9 to 36 years. ... Nowadays, there are just a few groups of Hindus who follow modified versions of the ancient Vedic system of schooling. They may send their sons to guru-kulas, modeled on the traditional system for a few years, Others may visit and reside at asramas for spiritual instruction for a few days, weeks, or months at any point in their lives. Public schooling is the norm for both boys and girls in India, and it begins well before the prescribed age for the upanayana rite. Nevertheless, sexual chastity during one’s education is still a highly regarded value, and premarital sex is frowned upon by traditional Hindu families. (IH, 105-6)

II. Grhastha
The second prescribed stage in life, which is that of the grhastha or householder, begins with marriage or the vivaha samskara. ... Unlike the renouncer and the celibate student, whose lives are characterized by austerity and the generation of potent inner heat (tapas), the householder is expected to pursue the legitimate goal of kama or sensory pleasure. Kama entails the experience of pleasure or the fulfillment of desires, and particularly deals with love and sexual gratification. Orthodox Hinduism encourages the pursuit of this goal during the householder stage in life. After marriage both partners are linked to each other’s families, and thus it is important to nurture the qualities of love that extend beyond the simple confines of one’s immediate family. Sexual and other shared sensory pleasures enhance life and relationships, and bind husband and wife to each other, providing the family unit with cohesion. Kama Sastra literature exalts the nature of these pursuits, which still form the substance of many popular songs, films, and contemporary literature. Kama is a crucial interest of human beings and is sanctified within the Hindu tradition. So is the other goal, artha, which is skill, attainment, power, or wealth. While the brahmacarin and renouncer have no need for wealth and the knowledge that enables them to prosper in society, it is the householder who needs to pursue these goals. Thus both kama and artha are primarily the concerns of the householder. The unrestrained pursuit of kama and artha can lead to excess, and thus dharma is viewed as the regulator of these two goals. (IH, 106-7)
The Life of Hinduism
Munni had heard older girls whispering about mahina, something that happened to a woman every month. She had an idea what it was, but still she was not prepared for its happening to her. One day she found a spot on her clothes. She knew it was something embarrassing and tried to hide it, but her cousin’s wife noticed it and took her aside. Bhabhi explained to Munni what mahina was and told her how to deal with it. ... Bhabhi also told Munni never to touch a man or even a woman during her period. She should sit apart from others and not go to religious or social events, because a menstruating woman is considered “dirty” until she takes a full bath five days after the start of her period. After her bath, she can again enter the kitchen, draw water, and resume normal interaction with others. (LOH, 63)

Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure elsewhere, or devoid of good qualities, a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife. (WR, 107)

By a girl, by a young woman or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house. In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead, to her sons; a woman must never be independent. (WR, 107)

Women in Hinduism
When born, a baby girl may be greeted with less than joy by parents who would have preferred a son. Prior to her first menstruation, a young girl, known as a little princess (kumari), may be treated with love and affection and even periodically venerated as a goddess. However, once her menstrual periods begin, and she is capable of bearing children, she may be viewed as a burden. Her strong, unpredictable, teenage emotions present grave uncertainties to orthodox Hindu parents, particularly concerning her sexuality. When of marriageable age, she will be wedded to a man she hardly knows, appropriately selected according to caste eligibility and related factors, and will have to leave her home to live with her husband and his family. There, she might live under the less than favorable scrutiny of her husband’s mother, who must yield some of her son’s attention to his new wife. Pregnancy and the birth of a child, particularly a son, elevate the wife’s status considerably. She then becomes both wife and mother, nurturer of the male lineage-holder. (IH, 111)

Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards. Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers. The houses on which female relations, not being duly honoured, pronounce a curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic. (WR, 108-9)

Unknown to Munni, her parents had already begun making inquiries about her marriage several years before she reached puberty, and they had hoped to have the wedding before the girl “began bathing.” A generation ago, parents who had an unmarried pubescent girl in the house would have been severely criticized, but today villagers are more tolerant of marriages after puberty. Still, the average age of marriage for village girls in the Bhopal area is about eleven, and brides of seven or eight are not unknown in Central India. In 1995 the government of India enacted a law providing legal penalties for those responsible for the marriage of a girl younger than fifteen or a boy younger than eighteen, but this law is widely ignored. Most villagers are ignorant of its existence, and since village marriages are not registered with any government authority, “child marriage” occurs with great regularity throughout the northern half of India. (LOH, 64)
An unarranged “love marriage” is considered by most Indians to be a daring and perhaps ill-fated alternative to an ordinary arranged marriage. Many urban youths who have studied and dated abroad return home to wed mates selected for them by their parents. ... Intercaste marriages (seldom arranged) occur now with increasing frequency, particularly in cities, but they are still disapproved by the vast majority of Indians. Only in the most Westernized circles, among less than 1 percent of the population, do young couples date and freely choose their own mates. (LOH, 66)
During past centuries, very high castes prohibited widow remarriage, and a widow was sometimes expected to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. This practice, known as sati, occurred in only a very small percentage of families and was legally abolished over a century ago. ... Today, reports of satis appear in North Indian newspapers once or twice a year. (LOH, 71)

The common blessing for a woman, ‘May your husband live long’ is self explanatory. Although the strict code of conduct prescribed for widows is no longer operative in its most restrictive and oppressive aspects, there are certain disabilities associated with widowhood. She is debarred from active participation in auspicious occasions. Besides the items of decoration associated with the married state, she is expected to discard colourful clothes, glass bangles, wearing of flowers, and attractive jewelery. Plain white colour is associated with widowhood, and by implication is forbidden traditionally for Sumangali, i.e., one whose husband is alive.
The widows of Bengal, who abstain from fish, the Kammas and Reddy widows of Andhra Pradesh who give up meat are not yet extinct. Among the Brahmin and also among such non-Brahmin communities who do not have the custom of widow remarriage, there are a number of ways for restricting the life of a widow so that she gets little pleasure out of life and her natural desires are suppressed. (World Religions: Eastern Traditions [WR], 111)
Munni spent three more years in the bosom of her family, happily taking part in household and agricultural work and enjoying the frequent festivals observed in the village. ... Munni knew that her idyll among her natal kin would not last much longer. Many of her friends had already been sent to their husbands’ homes, and Munni too would soon go. Her gauna (consummation ceremony) was set for March. The night before her gauna, Munni’s bhabhi took her aside and told her about sex and what to expect from her husband. ... Her departure from her parents, grandmother, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins was heartrending. Cling to each in turn, she sobbed piteously and pleaded not to be sent away. They, too, cried as they put her in a small, covered palanquin and saw her borne away by her in-laws. ... Modesty required that she try to fend him off and succumb only after great protestation (even an experienced girl must feign modesty), but Munni was sixteen at her gauna ceremony, and her introduction to her husband was not traumatic. Some younger girls have been genuinely terrified of their husbands, and their gauna nights have involved virtual rape. (LOH, 71-3)

III. Vanaprastha
The Forest Dweller

When the householder’s children have children of their own, and, as some texts indicate, there are grey hairs appearing in his beard, tradition recommends entering a period of retirement. This is the vanaprastha stage in life, so called because it proposes that one take up residence (prastha) in the forest (vana). The elderly male twice-born (dvija) is encouraged to pass along most of his wealth to his wife and children, who have greater material needs, and to live in a hut in the forest, perhaps reading scriptural texts and learning from sagely renouncers. He may be accompanied by his wife, and does not need to abandon the household fire. Thus they may prepare meals, enjoy social and conjugal relationships, and even engage in moderate sacrificial rituals, but the general tenor of the stage is transitional, winding down one’s preoccupations with kama and artha, as one begins to turn to the pursuit of moksa. It is not common for Hindus to enter this stage by actually retreating to the forest, and most elderly Hindus simply continue to live in their family homes with their children. However, there are a number who retire to the hermitage (asrama) of a well-regarded religious teacher, or move to a town with some religious renown. Banaras, once known as the Forest of Bliss, although it is now mostly urban, is still a favorite retirement site for the pious. Retired Hindu men and women may go on frequent pilgrimages to various religious sites, taking up abode in asramas in places such as Haridvar or Rishikesh, Tiruvannamalai, or Pondicheri, for weeks or months at a time. (IH, 108-9)
IV. Samnyasin
The renouncer
It is even rarer for Hindus to enter the final recommended stage of life — namely, samnyasa. The samnyasin, or renouncer, is generally respected for the courage required to embark on this stage. Samnyasins are expected to bid their spouses and others goodbye, perform their own death rites, burn their sacred threads, abandon the household fire, and wander the world in pursuit of the final and highest goal — namely, liberation or moksa. Having renounced virtually all their material possessions, renouncers are expected to don rag robes, traditionally dyed in a saffron hue to conceal stains, take up a staff for support in their old age, and carry a bowl into which householders may place food and other offerings. Unconcerned with social norms and even with formal religious proprieties, renouncers are expected to avoid remaining too long in one site so that they do not develop attachments to particular places or to the companionship and generosity of particular persons. For some, the path of renunciation takes the form of sever asceticism. ... Many renouncers join particular communities, following the norms and practices of their groups. Thus there still exist various types of Saiva renouncers, who worship Siva as the supreme form of divinity and understand moksa to be unitive identification with him. Similarly, there are Vaisnava renouncers who hold Visnu as the supreme divinity. Such groups appear to have emerged along with the earliest worship of these deities. (IH, 109)

Visvananda was standing at the temple entrance. “Follow me now,” he said. He walked swiftly toward the cremation ground, and I followed him. The pyres are about five yards from the road, though it is visible from the river. We ascended the platform. There were three burning pyres: one of them almost extinct, two burning violently with a bright flame and vehement crackling sounds. This is the stage at which even the dahasaris (the Dom-caste “burners,”who officiate) no longer distinguish whether the fires are produced by the firewood or the bones of the corpse. Two bodies were being made ready for the cremation, one that of a young woman with her stillborn child tied to her under the same red cloth, the other that of a middle-aged man. The heat was intense, but I was only mentally aware of it — it did not seem to cause perspiration. The stench was powerful, but somehow my mind grouped it with the other external paraphernalia of the consecration. ...
A mandala had been drawn near the center of the platform in red and white and of the prescribed form. I sat down, and now I noticed that I was sitting in the geometrical center of an almost equilateral triangle formed by the three pyres. Swami Visvananda sat in front of me and did acamana (a ritual act of sipping water) with his left hand: the left hand rules over rituals connected with sannyasa, whereas the right hand functions on all other occasions. He lit another fire from sandalwood, placing it between himself and the mandala wherein I was sitting. He handed me two handfuls of sesamum sees and kept about the same amount. The chant began: tilanjuhomi sarasam sapistan gandhara mama citte ramantu svaha ... (I offer this oblation of sesamum, with its juice, with its ground particles, the well-scented ones. May they delight my mind, svaha. The bulls, wealth, gold, food and drink — to the Goddess of Wealth may they go. May these sesamum seeds, the black ones and the white ones, liberate me from all blemishes. May I be free from debts to the gods, manes, parents, the world. ... May the five winds in me be purified, so I be light, free from blemish, having renounced. ... I am now beyond life and death, hunger and grief, satisfaction and dissatisfaction.) With twenty-three svahas, the sesamum and the rest of the oblational ingredients were thrown into the viraja-homa, the fire of final renunciation. Lastly the acarya cut off the sikha (topknot) from my head — the well-trained, well-oiled stately sikha — and threw it into the fire as the last gift.
       The Swami asked me to stand up. I followed him to another, much smaller platform that I had not seen before. Here was a small pyre of wood, not yet alight. I was asked to lie on it. The Swami approached with a firebrand and some live charcoal. He touched my body in seven places. Symbolically, the pyre was set on fire. Symbolically, I was not being cremated. As I stood up, I made my own obsequial rite, with the mantras that are chanted by the living for the dead. I was now dead, though the body lived. It signifies: when the sannyasi says “I,” he does not mean his body, not his senses, not his mind, not his intellect. “I” means the cosmic spirit, the Brahman, and it is with This that he henceforth identifies himself. This is the only important difference between the monk and the layman. The layman too is Brahman, and so is all that lives. The monk is Brahman too, but the monk is aware of it, the sannyasi is aware of nothing else. Or at least, he should be aware of nothing else. I now threw off my white novice’s robe and all the other items of the neophyte wardrobe — they are not many — and walked down the few steps into the Ganges, with the four directions as my garments. 
(LOH, 83-5)