“O best among the twice-born, it is therefore concluded that the highest perfection one can achieve, by discharging his prescribed duties [dharma] according to caste divisions and order of life, is to please Lord Hari.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.2.13)
Varnashrama dharma is the prescribed system for the proper functioning of society, as enjoined in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India. Varnashrama refers to the four varnas (societal divisions based on quality and work) and the four ashramas (progressive stages in one’s life).
The four varnas are brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra. Brahmanas are considered the highest class because they live in the mode of goodness, dedicating their time to reading Vedic texts, performing great sacrifices, and teaching others the science of self-realization. Vaishyas are the third class, for they are involved in making money. The modern day concept of the capitalist best describes a vaishya. They are also in charge of protecting cows. Shudras are the laborers; they serve the other three classes. Shudras are not trained in any religious system, so they are not qualified to perform any of the functions of the higher classes.
The kshatriyas are the second class of men, functioning as the protectors of society. The police and the military make up the kshatriya class. The inherent qualities we see reflected in today’s society don’t exactly lineup one hundred percent to the divisions laid out in varnashrama dharma. The key difference is in the fact that dharma is missing today. All four of the prescribed societal divisions are based quality, work, and religion or occupational duty. Each group has their specific religious duties to perform. The kshatriyas are to serve as the administrators, running the government and providing protection to all the citizens. The governments of the past were never secular. Kshatriya kings would always consult learned brahmanas on all matters of policy. We see that even the vaishyas had specific religious duties to perform, in that they were required to make sure that cows were never harmed in any way. Taking these facts into consideration, today’s society doesn’t really match up to the varnashrama dharma system.
The four ashramas are brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha, and sannyasa. Brahmacharis are celibate students who take instruction on the Vedas from a guru, or spiritual master. Grihasthis are householders, living with a wife and children, involved in karmic activity, and earning money for their living. Vanaprasthis are retired from family life; they travel around usually with their wife, but they don’t have a set home where they stay. Sannyasis are completely renounced. They depend on Krishna, or God, for everything. These four stages are recommended as a way for one to make gradual advancement in spiritual consciousness. The aim of human life is to perfect the yoga process, whereby one has complete union of the soul with God by the time they die. As Lord Krishna declares in the Bhagavad-gita, one who practices yoga perfectly never has to return to this material world. They at once attain God’s nature:
"Anyone who quits his body, at the end of life, remembering Me, attains immediately to My nature; and there is no doubt of this." (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)
God’s nature is that off eternal bliss and knowledge. As spirit souls, we are also meant to be blissful all the time, but due to contact with material nature, we are forced to suffer the miseries of life while being embodied in a material dress. If we continue down the path of karma, or fruitive activity, we are forced to keep coming back to this world after we die. The only way out of the cycle of birth and death is to become Krishna conscious. This varnashrama dharma system was introduced to help man to do precisely that.
“You can retire to the forest after having ruled over the kingdom for a thousand years. At that time, You can hand over reins of the kingdom to Your sons. Indeed, this tradition was set by the saintly kings of the past who would only retire to the forest after giving charge of the kingdom to their sons, who would then care for the people as their own children.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 23.25-26)
God personally comes to earth from time to time to enact lilas, or pastimes, and to provide protection to His devotees. As Lord Rama, God came as a pious warrior prince, the eldest son of the king of Ayodhya. In line to succeed His father, Rama was instead ordered to spend fourteen years in the forest, living as an exile. Rama’s younger brother, Lakshmana, was quite offended at this treatment directed towards his eldest and most favorite brother. Lakshmana gave a heartfelt speech to Rama, trying to persuade Him to remain in the kingdom and take over the reins of government by force. The above referenced statement was part of Lakshmana’s plea. By telling Rama to first serve His period as king and then retire to the forest, Lakshmana is giving a lesson on the proper duties of a kshatriya king.
In the modern day style of government, presidents and congressmen are elected by the people through free and fair elections. While this system seems nice, it has certain drawbacks. Leaders have a very hard time giving up their posts. In the U.S., Senators serve six year terms, and they can be reelected an unlimited number of times. It is quite common to see Senators serve for thirty plus years, with some even dying while they are still in office. Presidents have an even harder time giving up their post. For this reason, Congress passed the twenty-second amendment to the Constitution, which limits a president to serving a maximum of two terms. In New York City, there was a law on the books which limited the number of terms a mayor could serve. Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t want to give up his post, so he persuaded the legislature to change the law.
One may ask the question, “What’s wrong with staying in office for that long? If they’re doing a good job, what’s the harm?” The problem is that regardless if one is a president of a country or a president of a company, one shouldn’t be overly attached to fruitive activity. The secret to life is to be able to act with detachment, performing one’s prescribed duties as enjoined in the shastras, or scriptures.
“You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.47)
As mentioned before, perfecting yoga is the real aim of life. If one is attached to material power, they are forced to repeatedly accept new bodies after death. Just imagine having to take birth again, forgetting everything from our current life, and having to attend school all over again. No one would want to do that, yet that’s what exactly what happens if we remain attached to the material world.
From Lakshmana’s statement, we can see that the Vedas recommend a king to step down after ruling for a set period. By taking to the vanaprastha mode of life, one gradually becomes detached from the things that bind them to the laws of karma. This was the tradition adhered to by all the great kings of the pat, for even Dasharatha (Rama’s father) was ready to step down and hand control over to Rama.
Lord Rama was God Himself, so He transcended all of these rules.
“There is no work that affects Me; nor do I aspire for the fruits of action. One who understands this truth about Me also does not become entangled in the fruitive reactions of work.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.14)
Rama had more important business to attend to, such as protecting the sages the living in the forest and defeating the Rakshasa demon Ravana in battle. For these reasons, it was required for Him to take to the vanaprastha mode of life earlier than normal. His wife, Sita Devi, and Lakshmana would accompany the Lord in the forest. Later on, Rama would indeed rule the kingdom for a long period of time, eventually handing it down to His sons Lava and Kusha. What we can take away from Lakshmana’s statement is that varnashrama dharma is still a legitimate system worth following. Any activity we can perform that brings us closer to God will benefit us in the end.