The Vedas touched every aspect of Hindu life. Sacrifice rituals formed an important part of Vedic life, so a Hindu became adept at performing many fire ceremonies (havan yajna). Yajna is essentially a ritual of self-purification. The ritual is accompanied by Sanskrit chants and prayers as ghee (clarified butter), and other offerings such as grains, flowers, and incense are offered into holy fire. Symbolically it represents surrender of self (ego) to God.
During the Vedic period, society was divided into four classes. The highest was the Brahmin class, who claimed to have been born from the mouth of God. Brahmin is considered one who follows the path of the Divine Brahma. Brahmins were well versed in the Vedas, so they were given the responsibility of performing the many rituals on different occasions. They also guided the lay people toward a worthy religious life. The Kshatriya, or warrior class, came next. They were in charge of defending and upholding the rule of law. After this came the Vaishya, who were the merchant and agriculture class. The fourth class was the Shudras the servant class, who would manually serve the upper three classes.
It is believed that originally this division was based on the merit and aptitude of individuals, as mentioned in the Rig Veda. The categorical recognition of the hereditary caste system in the official Manu Shastra, however, tilts credence toward the contrary. Even so, castes were not rigid and pernicious. There were even free marriages among persons from different groups, as well as interchanging from one caste to another. As time passed, however, the system took a rather vicious turn and caused much antagonism and hostility among the classes.
The role of Brahmins has occupied the Hindu mind vigorously throughout history. On one hand, they have most admirably carried on the mantle of preserving the vast heritage of Vedic scriptures in the face of many impediments and obstructions, but on the other hand, they maintained an unholy dominance and authority throughout millennia and caused the sharp divisions in the society.
In the Vedic society, a man’s life was divided into four stages, or ashrams:
Up until age twenty-five, a man was in the brahmachary ashrama. He obtained a good education and training in all walks of life under the supervision of a skilled and able teacher. This teacher/student relationship (the guru/shishya relationship) is unique in Hinduism. During this period, a man abstained from any sexual activity. It is believed that by conscious spiritual sadhana (practice), the sexual energy would be sublimated into life-giving forces that lend vigor and strength to the body. During this period, man was especially coached to revere and obey his parents and the elders in his family. This stage laid the foundation for a good spiritual conduct in life afterward.
In the second stage, grahastha ashrama, the man married and raised his family. Hindus believe that getting married and raising children is a religious duty, and they virtually exhaust all their resources and efforts toward this divine task. Even as he is urged to take proper care of his wife and children, however, a man’s duties toward his parents, brothers, sisters, community, and country always remain at the forefront. He would also enjoy all the legitimate pleasures of life and acquire property—but only by righteous means. A man and woman, as husband and wife together, take the responsibility of conducting this ashrama. The man is the head of the family in Hindu society. When the family atmosphere becomes polluted and unstable, it is his duty to perform spiritual meditations (sadhana), as well as other corporeal duties to correct the anomalies and misapprehensions. He must, however, fulfill his responsibility with love and subtle guidance. He must never hurt his wife, verbally or physically, whatever the provocation. Says Manu, “Prosperity shuns the home, where the woman is dishonored.” It is the duty of the man to provide for the family and to procure a good house, which the woman makes into a home. He may provide not only for the necessary articles but also for fine things and jewelry. The woman, on her part, is always ready to welcome him when he returns from work and to provide a secure and joyful atmosphere to relieve him from his work stress. The woman also has the primary duty of caring for the children in the most appropriate manner, guiding and leading them to fulfill their assignments with sincerity and virtue. In the home, mother is likened to the deity Shakti. She wields spiritual power (siddhi), which she extends to her husband so that he is successful in all his manly endeavors, and withdraws the same automatically when she is hurt, depressed, or disappointed, compromising his success in the outside world. The man and woman are assigned their respective Vedic codes—purusha dharma and stri dharma, respectively. It is pertinent to note that the great lawmaker Manu laid special importance to this ashrama of human life. It is only during this period of his life that a man earns and sustains not only himself but also for his family and all members in the other three stages. The condemnation of mundane and temporal activities is not advocated. In fact, it is precisely these activities, performed in the rightful manner as spiritual duties that lead to the divine fulfillment. Also, it is important to realize that those who forsake their worldly duties prematurely, before taking care of their family and children, in search of spiritual advancement are, in fact, transgressing this Vedic law.
The third stage is the vanaprastha ashrama. Vana in Sanskrit means forest. When the man has fulfilled his family obligations, he takes retirement from his business or work. He bestows all family responsibilities on his son and then spends more time in spiritual practices and social service. He gets more involved with charitable work. The forest symbolically represents solitude and peaceful surroundings. An individual is encouraged to help and serve family and society by sharing his experiences and imparting moral teachings to youth and children.
The last stage is the sanyasa ashrama. Man renounces all material belongings. He lives a very austere life and spends almost all his time seeking spiritual salvation (moksha). A Hindu is instructed to walk the last phase of his stay in single file; he might look within, meditate, and search for the Divine. It is only in the solitude of aloneness (sanya) that an individual might experience Brahman, the immanent, transcendental God.
In every stage of life, a Hindu is prompted to follow virtuous spiritual path according to one’s aptitude and position. Pravrutti marga (householder’s path) advises individual to perform one’s allotted duties in accordance with the discipline of dharma. Neglecting one’s householder’s duties and paying more attention instead to spiritual meditations or rituals may be regarded as contravention. Nivrutti marga (renunciant’s path) on the other hand prescribes attainment of spiritual divine knowledge and performance of devotion or bhakti, without the householder’s responsibilities. Nivrutti marga is meant only for the Sanyasins, who have relinquished the worldly life; for others the Pravrutti marga is prescribed.
In the words of Swami Vivekananda, “Everyone who has tasted the fruits of this world must give up in the later part of life.” This is the basic principle of Hindu philosophy and is quite opposite of the Western point of view. Sanyasa ashram, however, is not for everyone. According to the original Vedic thought, only those who have perfected themselves spiritually in the first three stages may enter the highest state of sanyasa; otherwise, it may become superfluous and meaningless. It was in the time of Jainism and Buddhism that monastic institutes of sanyasins were introduced, allowing persons with the highest spiritual aspiration to become the sanyasin, bypassing all the household duties. Afterward, Hinduism also accepted this new order of sanyasins. Even so the sanyasa became a valid option only for the most evolved souls.
There was thus a division of vocation in relation to the age of the person. According to the Vedic philosophy, all stages of life impart their own unique experiences, which are essential for soul growth. Interestingly, there has been some research in the modern medical science of psychiatry regarding the different stages of a person’s life. Dr. Carl Jung stated in his book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, that human life may be divided in three parts. Jung especially dwelled on the third part as the period of spiritual pursuit. The similarity of this concept with the Vedic philosophy cannot be merely a coincidence. When a man does not act according to his station of life, he often invites misery and shame on himself. The Hindu concept of ashramas is thus vindicated.
Another interesting point is that Hindu sages planned out human life based on a hundred years or more, with four divisions of twenty five years each. It seems rather strange that so early in the history of mankind, such longevity was experienced.
Along with the four stages of a man’s life, Vedic teachings also discuss four goals (purushartha) in life: kama, artha, dharma, and moksha. Man must put his best efforts toward attaining these goals:
Kama refers to the satisfaction of sensual desires. This activity is seen in the entire animal world, but as human beings, this activity needs to be disciplined by a set of rules and regulations.
Artha refers to acquiring material possessions. This activity is of a higher nature and is seen only in human beings. Human beings need food, clothing, and shelter; at the same time a code of conduct was created to keep vigil on human beings. Athar Veda states, “One may amass wealth with hundreds of hands, but distribute it with thousands of hands.” Charity is the watchword in Hindu philosophy. “To live is to give, and give as long as you live.” The rhetorical condemnation of material possessions does not conform to Vedic teachings. Indulgence in sensual activities as well as having worldly possessions is considered legitimate, even necessary, as long as the spiritual laws of dharma are used for regulation. “Riches in Vedic India were always despised if they were hoarded or unavailable for charitable purposes. Ungenerous men of great wealth were assigned a low rank in society.”27
Dharma has been used to imply religion in Hindu code. The literary meaning of this word is duty and righteousness. Dharma, simply put, is a spiritual behavior of treating all with respect, love, and compassion. Self-defense and fighting for the just cause forms an important part of the righteous duty, but revenge is not sanctioned in Hindu religion.
Moksha refers to seeking salvation. Man, by performing his duties very well and conducting his life with principles of righteousness, would ascend on the ladder of virtues and finally attain freedom from repeated birth/death cycles.
Vedic society was built around these codes of conduct. Rig Veda states, “Where there is a clash between a greater good and smaller one, the interest of the greater good prevails. In the interest of the family, one individual may be given up. In the interest of the village, one family may be disregarded. In the interest of the nation, one village’s interest may be sacrificed.” Giving (dana), rather than grabbing, became the Hindu ideal; the highest gift is considered the giving of spiritual knowledge.
To maintain a vigil on his performance, man is reminded of five debts: deva rina, rishi rina, pitri rina, nri rina, and bhuta rina:
Deva-rina: the debt toward God, the creator and protector. Alo ‘Nature’ gods, such as the sun (Suraya), moon (Chandra), wind (Vaayu), rain (Indra), and earth (Dharti), were worshipped, and special care was taken toward their protection.
Rishi-rina: the debt toward the sages—“May he abide by their teachings.”
Pitri-rina: the debt toward his parents—“May he always respect and care for them.” Vedic scriptures advise the householders to care for their parents and close relatives all through life. The elderly, especially, must be comforted, honored at auspicious times, and never left alone for extended periods.
Nri-rina: the debt toward all mankind—“May he serve all humanity.”
Bhuta-rina: the debt toward the subhuman creatures, the animals—“May he never be cruel to animals.”
One of the most impressive aphorisms of Hindu society in the Vedic period was “No one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave; but that, enjoying freedom themselves, they shall respect the equal right to it that all men possess.”28(Original source: Arrian). The dictum became the foundation of charity and philanthropy in the Hindu society. This ancient law highlights the ‘lack od slavery’ in Hindu society, at complete variance with most cultures of the world in that period. Another important feature of the Vedic society was that wars were fought by only the Kshatriya or warior class. The agriculture producer was specially protected as prestigious ‘public benefactor’, thus making India, the rich harvest land.
Hindus had several codes and instructions outlined for them to adhere to the righteous path of truth, duty, and morality. Life was divided in four phases, with each phase comprising of its own set of duties. Class division was planned according to one’s capacity and aptitude. Although there are several references that this class division was not meant to be hereditary in character, it did take the ugly turn, being betrayed by human weakness and vulnerability. Despite several attempts made in different periods of history to amend these faults, the caste system prevailed for millennia, and has not yet been fully eradicated. The present Indian constitution encompasses adequate provisions in order to safeguard the weaker sections; it even offers benefits to compensate for the past injustices. Transformation of human mind indeed takes a protracted time!