Emergence of Varnashrama Dharma in the History of Ancient India

 By Shristi Banerjee, WBNUJS

Editor’s Note: Varnashrama Dharma is a Sanskrit name given to the divisional structure of the Indian society. When this order of society is intertwined with the four orders of life or the ashramas, i.e. Brahmacharya or the student life, Grihastha or the householder’s life, Vanaprastha or the retired life and Sanyasa or the devotional life, it gives rise to the Varnashrama dharma. This project has been taken up to explore such various possible interpretations for the emergence of Varnashrama Dharma. This paper will also delve into the deeper questions of the origin of this dharma in the Indian subcontinent.


Human society is inherently divided into four orders. The first order is the intelligent class, second is the martial class, third is the productive class and the fourth is the labour class. The emergence of these divisions has been touched upon by many scholars and different reasoning have been put up for the same. This project has been taken up to explore such various possible interpretations for the emergence of Varnashrama Dharma.

Varnashrama Dharma is a Sanskrit name given to the divisional structure of the Indian society. When this order of society is intertwined with the four orders of life or the ashramas, i.e. Brahmacharya or the student life, Grihastha or the householder’s life, Vanaprastha or the retired life and Sanyasa or the devotional life, it gives rise to the Varnashrama dharma. It can also be put as the presence of varna in different ashramas of life. This term paper will delve into the deeper questions of the origin of this dharma in the Indian subcontinent. The description of the emergence of this dharma supported by texts from ancient epics will support the theory of origin. Subsequently different interpretations or theories of emergence would be deliberated upon. Often Varnashrama dharma is also thought to be synonymous with the caste system which is very much endemic to India. The term paper will clarify the difference between the two concepts.


In order to bring out the meaning of the word- Varnashrama dharma, delving deeper to bring out the meaning of the fragments in required. According to Manu, Dharma is that which is practised by those who know the Vedas and the Shastras and are people without any bad quality like jealousy and passion. It includes practices recognised by the mind as correct. Varna is the organised division of the human society into four blocks depending upon the occupation which one pursues and Ashramas are the four stages in a person’s life i.e. celibacy, family life, semi saintly life and life after renunciation. The Varna system mingled with the four Ashramas of one’s life on the path of dharma becomes the Varnashrama Dharma.

In Hindu society this dharma was divided into four different groups of people who pursued four different dharmas in their life to attain the ultimate goal of their life, i.e. realisation of god. The first of such kind was the Brahmana Dharma. According to Manu, learning Vedas, teaching of Vedas, conducting yagnas and conducting yagnas for others, giving alms and taking alms for others are the six important duties in a Brahman’s life. The greatest Tapas a Brahman can do is to chant Vedas again and again. The next group of people were the Kshatriyas. They were those people who belonged to the clan of the kings and soldiers and used to look after the safety of their territory and the people. Looking after people, collecting weapons to punish those who did wrong, engaging in dharmic wars, winning over enemies’ army and ruling the world were the essential duties of a kshatriya. The third varna was the Vaishya Dharma. Manu says that the vaishyas should give charity, perform yajnas, should get knowledge, carry out trade in cereals, gems, gold, silver and other articles, should give money on loan and cultivate the land. The fourth Varna, i.e. the Shudra dharma encompassed service to people of other dharmas. He has also talked about Varna Sadharana Dharma which included those dharmas which would have been common to the people of all the four varnas.

The first reference to the Varnashrama system is made in Purush Sukta  verses of the Rig Veda (book 10, hymn 90) where the different sections of the society are regarded as the limbs of the great self. When objectively viewed, these Varnas were sophisticated organisation of the society that intelligently divided the population into different groups that would help the society function smoothly. Another property of the varna system was that what may be desirable for one section of the society could be degrading for another. For example: absolute non violence which includes refraining from animal sacrifice is considered unworthy of a Kshatriya. Underlying all these differences is the one common goal of advancing in spiritual life based on Sanatana dharma.


The complicacies of this fourfold division of the society lead us to think about the main question on which this paper is based, i.e. the origin of this dharma. This organisation of the society has been there in Indian society since time immemorial but there are different theories regarding the emergence of this dharma. Firstly, it should be accepted that in any kind of society, different fragments of people perform different services and based on such services a division is formed. Such division among the intelligentsia and the working class existed in all civilisations. It has been deduced that such division was healthy. For instance, the clergy, the nobility, the burghers and the serf and proletariat into which European society was divided was similar to the four varnas. Even Iran was divided into four fold divisions namely Atharva (priest),Rathestha (warrior), Vastrya Fsuvant (head of the family) and Huiti (manual worker) which corresponds to the four fold division in our society.

The origin of the Varnashrama dharma is traced by two theories. One is the Brahmanical view and the other is the western view. The western view mainly focuses on the existence of this organisation in the Aryan society. It is believed that the Aryans brought this sophistication into Indian land which was subsequently adopted by other tribes of that time. At that time, the dasyus were the original inhabitants of India who are said to be the ancestors of the Sudras. When the Aryans conquered India, they suppressed and enslaved the dasyus who were dark in colour. Varna also means colour. So it was also proposed that the division was also based on the colour of one’s skin but then division existed even among the fairer group. History suggests that there was always a rift between the Aryans and the dasyus (and between their religious observances) and that might be the reason for the exclusion of the Sudras from the religious rites of a vedic type.

The Rig Vedic society was mostly composed of pastoral lands and cattle were considered to be the wealth. War was a means of livelihood. The chief income of the king used to come from the spoils of war. The priest also used to take a substantial share from it. In the later vedic period, the society got fragmented from a tribal set up to a kind of occupational segregation in which the intellectual class started asserting its power over the serving class subsequently.

The other theory is the Brahmanical view which supports the divine sanction. The Purusha Sukta in Rig veda mentions the purusha who is the world spirit who has produced the Brahmana from his mouth, the Kshatriya from his arms and the Vaishya  from his thighs. The Shudra is said to have sprung from his feet. Manu states the reason of such creation of different groups as “for the sake of preserving the universe the being (Brahma, the creator) devoted separate duties to those who sprang respectively from his mouth, his arms, his thighs and his feet”. But it has always been meant to be guna karma, i.e. quality work rather than body based restricted scope of work to each of the four groups, i.e. varna karma. Backing the divine origin theory, Geeta says that the order is created on the basis of quality work- Chaturvarnayam  mayasrushtam  gunakarma  vibhagasaka. This fourfold division was not meant to be a rigid compartment of fixed occupations and it is quite clear when Geeta says – tasya kartaramapi mam vidyakartaramavyayam.  According to the divine origin theory, the organisation of this fourfold division was to serve the society but with the coming of Kali yuga, this division which was flexible before became rigid due to the formation of many sub castes and with one sect at loggerheads with the other. Sticking to one’s own caste became the norm. The Marxist theory gives another interpretation to this division and bases the varna system on class division.

The Varnashrama dharma is often confused to be the same as the caste system imbibed in the Indian society. The Varnashrama is a natural organised division of the society which would lead to a content society that would be interdependent on each other. The purpose of the Varnashrama social system is to provide a structure allowing people to work according to their natural tendencies and to organize society so that everyone, regardless of their position, makes spiritual advancement. This philosophy says that people can only work together with a co operative spirit if there is a central point of focus. It is different from the caste system in a way that it has not got a hint of racial prejudice.


With the passage of time, Varnashrama got rigidly compartmentalised and rituals and traditions started to be followed very strictly. With the coming of the Muslim empire, the Hindus got aware of their identity and the constant ‘identity tussle’ made them exhibit their religion as superior to that of the others. Mingling with other factors, this led to the transformation of the Varnashrama dharma to a compulsory form of segregation that accepted the form of caste system in India. The orthodoxy that fell on the defence at the very approach of Islam thought it wise to respond to the new challenges by imposing restrictions on marriage and other ceremonies. Anuloma or Exogamy was no more practised and the group within which one could marry shrinked smaller and smaller. No varna remained a single unit and groups among them based on diet, religious practices etc were formed. The all embracing idea that people from all caste are children of the god was now practised only on spiritual sphere. There was no equality on the social sphere because of the accretion of parrabdha and sancit karma. The decline in harmony in the society was reemphasised by the inferior position of women and people from the lower castes. This led to the advent of social evils like sati, child marriage, child widows etc.

Lord Metson quoted in “The Untouchables of India” that caste moderates personal ambition and checks the bitterness of competition. It gives a man, whatever his station in life, a society in which he can be at home even when he is among strangers. For the poor man, it serves as a club, as a trade union and a mutual benevolent society, all rolled into one. It ensures continuing and a certain inherited skill in the arts and crafts. And in the moral sphere it means that every man lives in content with that place which destiny has allotted him, and uncomparingly does his best.” But practically none of the plight of those who were the victim of the system was beyond addressable. But with the coming of the European and the spread of English culture in some parts of India, the Indian scholars who took up to  rational thinking found the system too suffocating to live in. And from there started the string of reforms. A pioneer of such reform movements was Raja Ram Mohun Roy who raised his voice against social evils.

With the advent of twentieth century and the coming of many modern means of communication, the hiatus between different caste and religious groups got plugged in. Some famous reformers introduced various societies to cover up the social evil of untouchability. The Brahmo Samaj founded by Raja Ram Mohun Roy was one of the societies that aimed at removed social evils like sati, untouchability, etc. He was a great social thinker to suggest inter-caste marriage as the only remedy for breaking down barriers of caste system. The leading social reformer Mahadev Govind Ranade founded the Prarthna Samaj under the inspiration of Keshab Chandra Sen. It also aimed at forming a heterogeneous society where no social impediments would exist nurturing a healthy environment for budding India. The Arya Samaj which was inspired by the Brahmo Samaj was founded by Dayanand Saraswati, made Veda as the centre of purifying all the evils gulping the rational behaviour of human beings at that time. The efforts of Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekanand could not be left behind while counting the number of steps that we have moved ahead of the unfortunate days. The Theosophical society founded by Madame H.P. Blavatsky and Colonel H.S. Olcott has also contributed its part. The contribution of all these enlightened men has brought us to a phase which is vastly different from the landscape of ancient India. The evil of casteism is not totally obliterated from the social picture but the condition has substantially improved giving rise to a harmonious heterogeneous existence.


Tracing the path of origination of the varna system, this project acquaints us to the Brahmanical and the western theory of interpretation of the emergence of the varna system. Taking in excerpts from the Geeta and emphasising on the words of Manu, it can be concluded that the varna system has reshaped itself over time. Four major varnas were formed due to societal segregation for various reasons but it has eventually taken a rigid form. The contribution from various scholars in transformation of this system has led to a different picture that exists in today’s time. The division of society has existed in all times and will keep on existing in some other form if not in this form.

Edited by Hariharan Kumar

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