Varna, Ashram, Purusharth and Sanskar Vyavastha

Sociology for RAS Mains GS Paper 1

The Hindu social system is structured by the  underlying code of religion. This code is reflected through the basic principle of Varna- Ashrama-Dharma. While Varna deals with the division of society, Ashrama deals with the nature of training and living in four stages of life. Together they propound a system referred to as varna ashrama – vyavastha.

Theory of Purusharth

Purushartha is a Sanskrit word meaning the “object of human pursuit” or “goals of man. It refers to the four proper goals or aims of a human life. Purushartha comprises the concepts of dharma, artha, kama and moksha.

  • Dharma is honest and upright conduct or righteous action.
  • Artha means a righteous and honest pursuit of economic activities.
  • Kama is the fulfillment of one’s normal desires.
  • Moksha is liberation, that is absorption of the self into eternal bliss.

Depending upon one’s deeds (karma) one is able to reach the stage of moksha or liberation. The stage of moksha or liberation is a term for describing the end of the cycle of birth and rebirth. The cycle of birth and rebirth is known as samsara. Moksha is considered to be the ultimate goal for any human. After this, Dharma takes priority over Artha or Kama.

These four goals can be seen in the context of the four stages of life (Ashrama), with each one relating to a different stage and the goals associated with it.


The ‘ashrama’ are regarded as resting places (stages) during one’s journey on the way to final liberation, which is the ultimate aim of life . The ashramas are four in number:

(1) Brahmacharya

  • Concerns stage of student
  • In the ancient ages the pupil had to live with his teacher and through dialogue got to the tenets of teachings and this stage of learning was known Brahmacharyasrama.
  • In this phase, one acquires the knowledge of Dharma (the first purushartha).

(2) Garhastha

  • Stage of married man, the house- holder
  • During this Ashrama, one pursues Artha (wealth, the second purushartha) and Kama (legitimate desires, the third purushartha).

(3) Vanaprastha

  • Stage that of a retired life in the forest after abandoning the home, preparatory to complete renouncement of worldly relations.
  • The individual now gives up his fields of artha and kama by leaving his near and dear ones, his family (kula), his village (grama) and by abandoning his belongings and possession.
  • This is the time to pre-occupy oneself with the fourth purushartha, Moksha.

( 4) Sanyasa

  • Complete renunciation of worldly relations and attachments.
  • In the last stage, the individual free from all obligation , has to help himself in the search of the true knowledge and being of the self.
  • An Individual brings himself face to face with the final aim of all existence, namely moksha in the last stage.

Varna Theory

Varna is the four divisions of society on the basis of labour and inheritance. There are several passages in the Rig Veda dealing with the origin of the varnas, generally meaning socio-religious classes and effectively signifying economic and political status also . The Purusasukta in the Rig Veda (x, 90, 12) says that:

  • the Brahman varna represented the mouth of Purusa (Universal man),
  • the Rajana (Kshatriya) his arms,
  • the Vaishya his thighs,
  • the Shudra his feet.

During the Vedic period, the institution of Varna was a system of division of labor and was not herediary (like caste system). There were no restrictions as regards particular occupations for persons belonging to a particular varna . Thus a person born as a Brahmana could take the occupation of a physician without thereby anyway degrading his social status. Example: A Brahmana Rishi says: ” I am a poet, my father is a physician, my mother a grinder of corn. With our different views, seeking after gain, we ran after cattle.  Food and drink was also usual & common to all the varnas.

In the post-Vedic period, the varna division is described in the Dharmashastra literature, the Mahabharata and in the Puranas.  During this time, caste percolates into varna system and varna system acquires features of caste. Inter-dining and inter-marriages between different castes were precluded, the division of labor becomes hereditary. The first three varnas are described in the Dharmasastras as “twice born” and they are allowed to study the Vedas. Such a restriction of who can study Vedas is not found in the Vedic era literature.

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