The system of Varnashrama is a systematic procedure to adjust ourselves and adapt ourselves to the circumstances of life, horizontally in society, and vertically in our own personality. The horizontal adjustment is the Varna and the vertical adjustment is the Ashrama. We have to be complete in society, in our relationships with people, and we have to be complete in our own selves by a suitable harmonious alignment of the various layers of our personality. Such an adjustment is very effectively brought about by following the great canons of the Varna and the Ashrama.
People generally think that Varna means caste, but it is not that. It means a class. The principle of the classification of society is called the Varna-Dharma. It is a classification, not a ‘castification’. No man is complete in himself, and therefore, no man can be satisfied merely in his own self without the cooperation of other persons. Man is, among other things, intellect, will, emotion and energy. Everyone is not possessed of these characteristics in the same measure. Inasmuch as everyone’s intention is the welfare of all human beings, the solidarity of mankind in general, it is necessary that we share among ourselves the commodities that we have. The commodities are not necessarily physical ones; they can be psychological ones also. If one has great intellectual capacity and spiritual acumen, which are necessary for the welfare of society, but not other facilities, he will share the knowledge and wisdom and the directing intelligence that he has with others, for the facilities which he does not have. The mutual cooperative activity of society—spiritually, administratively, economically and manually—forms the essence of the Varna system. The classification into Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras is not a categorization of people into superior and inferior types, into bosses and subordinates, but it is a classification of the functions of individuals according to their knowledge and capacities, for the purpose of a complete cooperative organization of humankind, with a noble intention and purpose. The desires of ours are classified in this manner, and they are given an opportunity of permissible satisfaction, by a mutual cooperation horizontally in this manner.
There is the other side, namely, the vertical side, which is the subject of the Ashrama-Dharma, or duties pertaining to the different Ashramas, or stages of life. Just as we have totally misunderstood the meaning of the Varna system, we have also misunderstood the meaning of the Ashrama system. Just as we condemn the classification of Varna as caste distinction, we convert the classification of the stages of one’s life by way of Ashrama, into a kind of dead routine of religion. Neither Varna nor Ashrama is a routine. Varnashrama is a vital participation in the processes of life, externally as well as internally. Externally it goes by the name of Varna, and internally it goes by the name of Ashrama. So, outwardly as well as inwardly, these systems of organization known as Varna and Ashrama, are procedures enjoined upon every person, for untying the various knots of entanglement in life, engendered by one’s needs which are social, physical, vital, emotional, intellectual and so on.
Such a vast involvement is associated with this little thing called Brahmacharya, by the practice of which we do not merely put on a conduct personally and socially but establish ourselves in a status of strength, where we are so tuned to things that our energies do not move at all in any direction, but are held up in such a way that there is no urge within ourselves to transfer our energies to outside things for the fulfilment of our desires.
The intention behind the practice of the canons of Varna and Ashrama in a graduated manner is not the indulgence of desires, but their graduated, scientific, systematized and cautious fulfilment in a measure that is permissible and required under the circumstances for the purpose of freeing oneself from them finally. So, we do not eat because we want to eat, but because it is necessary to reach a stage where we need not eat at all. There is, therefore, a deep background behind the psychology of the canons known as the Yamas and a clear understanding of this background will help us to practice these canons better.
By Swami Krishnananda