The Caste System and
the Stages of Life in Hinduism

The pattern of social classes in Hinduism is called the "caste system." The chart shows the major divisions and contents of the system. Basic caste is called varn.a, , or "color." Subcaste, or jâti, , "birth, life, rank," is a traditional subdivision of varn.a. Sometimes "caste" is avoided as a word for varn.a. Whether or not that is done, it is common for "caste" to be used for the subcastes. Combined with the four "stages of life," the âshramas, , the system becomes the varn.âshramadharma, , the "dharma of classes and orders." One's duty, or dharma, , in life depends on the variables of caste, sex, and stage of life.


The Bhagavad Gita says this about the varn.as:

[41] The works of Brahmins, Ks.atriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras are different, in harmony with the three powers of their born nature.

[42] The works of a Brahmin () are peace; self-harmony, austerity, and purity; loving-forgiveness and righteousness; vision and wisdom and faith.

[43] These are the works of a Ks.atriya ():  a heroic mind, inner fire, constancy, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and noble leadership.

[44] Trade, agriculture and the rearing of cattle is the work of a Vaishya (). And the work of the Shudra () is service.

[chapter 18, Juan Mascaró translation, Penguin Books, 1962]

There are literally thousands of subcastes in India, often with particular geographical ranges, occupational specializations, and an administrative or corporate structure. When Mahâtmâ Gandhi wanted to go to England to study law, he had to ask his subcaste, the Modh Bania, for permission to leave India. ("Bania", means "merchant," and "Gandhi" means "greengrocer" -- from gandha, "smell, fragrance," in Sanskrit -- and that should be enough for a good guess that Gandhi was a Vaishya.) Sometimes it is denied that the varn.as are "castes" because, while "true" castes, the jâtis, are based on birth, the varn.as are based on the theory of the gun.as (the "three powers" mentioned in the Gita). This is no more than a rationalization:  the varn.as came first, and they are based on birth. The gun.as came later, and provide a poor explanation anyway, since the gun.a tamas is associated with both twice born and once born, caste and outcaste, overlapping the most important religious and social divisions in the system. Nevertheless, the varn.as are now divisions at a theoretical level, while the jâtis are the way in which caste is embodied for most practical purposes. Jâtis themselves can be ranked in relation to each other, and occasionally a question may even be raised about the proper varn.a to which a particular jâti belongs. As jâti members change occupations and they rise in prestige, a jâti may rarely even be elevated in the varn.a to which it is regarded as belonging.

The urge to deny that varn.as are "castes" is part of a larger apologetic that we can understand as a project to reform the more disturbing characteristics of traditional Hinduism. Given the eternity of the Vedas, it should be, strictly speaking, perplexing why and impossible that they need to be "reformed." If it can be denied, however, the morally objectionable practices were ever proper parts of Vedic religion, then we get both reform and eternal truths at the same time. Thus, the theory of varn.as was descriptive of individual talents and vocations, not of social station by birth. And, since, indeed, things like Untouchability are not even mentioned in sacred texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, their illegitimacy is self-evident. Satî ("suttee") was not a traditional sanctified practice of burning widows, but a desperate measure by women to avoid rape by British soldiers (although, unfortunately, it was observed among the Hindus of Java by the Chinese in 1407). "Thugee" was not a plague of murder and terror by devotees of Kâlî but a fiction invented by the British to discredit Hinduism. All of this may not seem entirely honest as history; but as a strategy for reform, its point may be sympathetically well taken. The habit of such creative interpretation, however, elicites less sympathy when it merely serves a nationalistic mythology, as discussed elsewhere.

Associated with each varn.a there is a traditional color. These sound suspiciously like skin colors; and, indeed, there is an expectation in India that higher caste people will have lighter skin -- although there are plenty of exceptions (especially in the South of India). This all probably goes back to the original invasion of the Arya, who came from Central Asia and so were undoubtedly light skinned. The people already in India were quite dark, even as today many people in India seem positively black. Apart from skin color, Indians otherwise have "Caucasian" features -- narrow noses, thin lips, etc. -- and recent genetic mapping studies seem to show that Indians are more closely related to the people of the Middle East and Europe than to anyone else. Because Untouchables are not a varn.a, they do not have a traditional color. I have supplied blue, since this is otherwise not found, and it is traditionally used for the skin color of Vis.n.u and his incarnations. Chief among those is Kr.s.n.a (Krishna), whose name actually means "black" or "dark," but he is always shown blue rather than with some natural skin color.

The first three varn.as are called the twice born -- dvija, . This has nothing to do with reincarnation. Being "twice born" means that you come of age religiously, making you a member of the Vedic religion, eligible to learn Sanskrit, study the Vedas, and perform Vedic rituals. The "second birth" is thus like Confirmation or a Bar Mitzvah. This understanding may be interestingly compared with the assertion of the Shatapatha Brâhman.a that:

Unborn, indeed, is a man so long as he does not sacrifice. It is through the sacrifice that he is born, just as an egg first burst. [Patrick Olivelle, The Âs´rama System, Oxford, 1993, p.39]

But sacrifice is performed by a householder, not by a student. The Brâhman.a posits three births, first from the womb (which is compared to a fire and even to an altar in its own right), then from sacrifice (on the household fire altar), and finally in the cremation fire. But if we compare this to the four stages of life, there is a curious parallel. The student is born again but actually labors in preparation to become a householder, who is characterized by sacrifice (which cannot be done without marriage). This parallels the stage of the wandering ascetic, who ritually dies at the moment of renunciation but then labors in preparation for actual death and cremation. So, if cremation is a form of rebirth, then renunciation is the rehearsal for this as studenthood is for sacrifice. I am not aware, however, that much is ever really made of this comparison.

According to the Laws of Manu (whose requirements may not always be observed in modern life), boys are "born again" at specific ages:  8 for Brahmins; 11 for Ks.atriyas; and 12 for Vaishyas. A thread is bestowed at the coming of age to be worn around the waist as the symbol of being twice born. The equivalent of coming of age for girls is marriage -- although women are not always considered part of the âshrama system at all. Nevertheless, the bestowal of the thread is part of the wedding ceremony. That part of the wedding ritual is even preserved in Jainism. Ancient Iran also had a coming of age ceremony that involved a thread. That and other evidence leads to the speculation that the three classes of the twice born are from the original Indo-European social system -- the theory of George Dumézil. Even the distant Celts believed in three social classes. The three classes of Plato's Republic thus may not have been entirely his idea. Although there must have been a great deal of early intermarriage in India, nowhere did such an Indo-European social system become as rigid a system of birth as there. The rigidity may well be due to the influence of the idea of karma, that poor birth is morally deserved.

According to the Laws of Manu, when the twice born come of age, they enter into the four âshramas, , or "stages of life." I notice that dictionaries I have, both of Sanskirt and Hindi, say that these apply to Brahmins. But there is no doubt, from the Laws of Manu and from the history, that all they apply to all the twice born. Nevertheless, various anomalous constructions of the system occur.

Thus the Vâmana Purân.a confines the stage of wandering ascetic to Brahmins, denies studenthood to Vaishyas, and allows householdership to Shudras. Denying studenthood to Vaishyas and allowing any âshrama to Shudras contradicts almost every authority on dharma, including other parts of the Vâmana Purân.a itself. These provisions apparently result from the kind of systematizing beloved of the tradition, i.e. that Brahmins live four stages, Ks.atriyas three, Vaishyas two, and Shudras one. An element of that may reflect the actual debate that, since marriage defines householdership, and since Shudras do legitimately marry, then they legitimately become householders. Nevertheless, the âshramas were only rarely allowed to include the once born, and at times Shudras were sanctioned with death for ascetic practices. More orthodox but still anomalous is the version in the Vaikhânasa Dharmasûtra, which allows all four âshramas for Brahmins, the first three for Ks.atriyas, and the first two for Vaishyas. This excludes Shudras and provides studenthood for Vaishyas, but it limits or abolishes the ascetic stages outside the Brahmin varn.a.

Less systematized was how long the stages should each last, and various versions can be found. The Nâradaparivrâjaka Upanis.ad specified 12 years for a student and 25 years for both householder and forest dweller. Adding the 8 years of childhood for a Brahmin, this adds up to 70 years -- coincidentally the Biblical "three score and ten." The ideal Indian lifespan, however, was more like between 100 and 116 years, which leaves a very long time for the Brahmin to be a wandering acetic. I suspect that it would have been unusual, however, for a Ks.atriya or Vaishya to have lived with a teacher even as much as the share of the first 20 years allowed by their later coming-of-age.

  1. The first is the brahmacarya, , or the stage of the student (brahmacârî ). For boys, the student is supposed to go live with a teacher (guru, ), who is a Brahmin, to learn about Sanskrit, the Vedas, rituals, etc. The dharma, , of a student includes being obedient, respectful, celibate, and non-violent. "The teacher is God." The student is supposed to be respectful of the teacher even behind his back. A comparable status of the teacher, without quite the same religious dimension or obligation, can be found in China. For girls, the stage of studenthood coincides with that of the householder, and the husband stands in the place of the teacher. Since the boys are supposed to be celibate while students, Gandhi used the term brahmacâri to mean the celibate practitioner that he thought made the best Satyagrahi, the best non-violent activist. There may be an echo in this of the provision in the Laws of Manu that a student, a Brahmin in particular, may remain with his teacher's family for his entire life. This is one of the points in the tradition that conflicts with another proposition in Manu, that "if a twice-born seeks renunciation without studying the Vedas, without fathering sons, and without offering sacrifices [i.e. discharged the "three debts"], he will proceed downward [The Law Code of Manu, translated by Patrick Olivelle, Oxford, 2004, 6:37, p.101]. In completing his time with a teacher, the student takes a ritual bath, and thus becomes a , snâtaka, a "bath-graduate." This may be regarded as the equivalent of becoming a householder, but it is distinct both from the ritual return to the parents, the samâvartana, and from the marriage that genuinely establishes a householder. These ritual separations are also consistent with the practice of disfavored alternatives, such as continuing as a student for life or renouncing ordinary life as a forest dweller or wandering ascetic. Because of this possibility, one dharma authority called the pre-graduate student a vidyârtha, , "desirous of knowledge," and only the post-graduate student a true brahmacârî. This distinction, however, did not catch on.

  2. The second stage is the gârhasthya, , or the stage of the householder, which is taken far more seriously in Hinduism than in Jainism or Buddhism and is usually regarded as mandatory, like studenthood, although debate continued over the centuries whether or not this stage could be skipped in favor of a later one (especially with Brahmins). Being a householder is the stage where the principal dharma of the person is performed, whether as priest, warrior, etc., or for women mainly as wife and mother. Arjuna's duty to fight the battle in the Bhagavad Gita comes from his status as a householder. Besides specific duties, there are general duties that pay off the three R.n.a, , "Debts":

    1. a debt to the ancestors, the Manes in the comparable and probably related Roman practice, that is discharged by marrying and having sons. One may not be regarded as a true householder until married;
    2. a debt to the gods that is discharged by the household rituals and sacrifices, which in general cannot be performed except by man and wife together; and
    3. a debt to the teacher and the seers that is discharged by becoming a student and then appropriately teaching one's wife, children, and, for Brahmins, other students.

    The three debts are sometimes associated with the three Gods of the Trimûrti -- the ancestor debt with Brahmâ, the gods debt with Vis.n.u, and the teacher debt with Shiva. One way the debts were discharged is through the five daily Mahâyajña, , or "Great Sacrifices":

    1. the pitr.yajña, offerings of food and water to the ancestors, without which the Manes were originally believed to suffer in the afterlife, a reference to which still occurs at Bhagavad Gita 1:42;
    2. the devayajña, sacrificial offerings to the gods, as a fire oblation, requiring that a sacred fire be kept in the house (like the Persian fire altar), a ritual act that, again, can only be performed by husband and wife together;
    3. the brahmayajña, Vedic recitation or study as devotion;
    4. the bhûtayajña, offerings to all beings, the bali, , offering, which may be food thrown into the air and largely consumed by birds; and
    5. the manushyayajña, human (manushyâ) offerings, through charity or hospitality.

    What we do not see in these specific practices it anything that would discharge the debt to the teacher, unless it is the brahmayajña. Nevertheless, while the number the debts is all but universally given as three, there are texts that add a debt of hospitality as a fourth. Thus, there is a curious connection between the three debts and the five sacrifices, which is reminiscent of that between the three gun.as and the five elements, seen elsewhere. The original three elements clearly match up with the gun.as, but later expand, while the sacrifices may easily be seen as discharging particular debts -- hence the temptation to posit a debt of hospitality. The two systems, however, have resisted complete systematization and identification.

    The burden of the debts and the sacrifices addresses the first and socially most important of the four aims or values of life, the purus.ârtha, . While it has become common to link the purus.ârtha to the âshramas, this is a recent occupation that is based on no classic texts. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to wonder how the aims and the stages of life do relate to each other.

    1. dharma, , the manner of one's duties, determined by caste, sex, and stage of life. Dharma applies in being a student, a householder, and, in attenuated form, a forest dweller. The wandering ascetic is beyond dharma and beyond caste but, however, is restricted to men.
    2. artha, , is material success in life, and the word can mean business, work, profit, utility, wealth, money, and also political experience and knowledge. It can involve practical wisdom at both the personal and public level. As such, it is a concern only for householders, and not in the least for students, forest dwellers, or wandering ascetics. The householder, indeed, surrenders his possessions to his sons on becoming a forest dweller. However, the wisdom of the forest dweller or even the wandering ascetic sometimes may have application in public affairs.
    3. kâma, , is pleasure, which is a concern that also may be confined to the householder, but it can also exist in attenuated form, or as a matter of yogic practice, in the forest dweller.
    4. moks.a, , is liberation or salvation, which in Hinduism (as in Jainism and Buddhism) will mean leaving leaving the cycle of rebirth. This is the primary concern and occupation of the forest dweller and the sole concern of the wandering ascetic. The doctrine of karmayoga, , expounded in the Bhagavad Gita, means that liberation can be obtained by the householder in the course of practicing his dharma. Also, we would expect that the life long student, who never becomes a householder, would also have this as an exclusive focus, even while fulfilling his duties to his teacher. Karmayoga, however, has not been a popular practice in modern religion, and is sometimes not even regarded as a means to salvation.

  3. The third stage is the vânaprasthya, , the stage of the forest dweller, or vaikhânasa, , the anchorite. This may be entered into optionally, according to Manu, if (ideally) one's hair has become gray, one's skin wrinkled, and a grandson exists to carry on the family. Husbands and wives may leave their affairs and possessions with their children and retire together to the forest as hermits. A hermit cannot step on plowed land. This does not involve the complete renunciation of the world, for husbands and wives can still build a shelter, have sex (once a month), and a sacred fire still should be kept and minimal rituals performed. This stage is thus not entirely free of dharma. The Forest Treatises were supposed to have been written by or for forest dwellers, who have mostly renounced the world and have begun to consider liberation. I am not aware that forest dwelling is still practiced in the traditional way. The modern alternatives seem to consist of the more stark opposition between householding and becoming a wandering ascetic. Forest dwelling is an institution that doesn't really develop as such in Jainism and Buddhism, although we do have the Buddha repairing to a forest outside the traveling season -- a practice that will develop into Buddhist monasticism. Hinduism, which might be said to now lack true monasticism -- i.e. there are no monasteries or convents -- nevertheless has mendicants and hermits, where the hermits include these forest dwelling married couples. The idea that husbands and wives would engage in ascetic practices together, without celibacy, would appear extraordinary. In those terms, it is an unfortunate loss if the institution does not continue in modern Hinduism. We see a good deal of forest dwelling in the Mahâbhârata, where Pan.d.u, who himself is on a kind of retreat with his wives in the forest, hoping to overcome his strange reluctance to consummate his marriages, accidentially kills an adept and his wife, who have assumed the form of animals, in the very act of their copulation -- and so is cursed. Pan.d.u and his wives had previously accepted (non-sexual) instruction from this very couple. Such an episode not only illustrates various uses for forest dwelling, but it reveals that specifically sexual practices can be among them. It is ironic that forest dwelling should have become obsolete, when the term âshrama, , originally meant a "heritmage," and when it continues in modern usage, as Hindi âshram, to mean a spiritual retreat, not unlike the original forest dwelling. The modern Ashram, however, is not seen as part of traditional life and is often associated with non-standard or even disreputable teachings and practices from popular and sometimes heterodox gurus.

  4. The fourth stage is the sannyâsa (sãnyâsa), , or the stage of the wandering ascetic, the sannyâsî (sãnyâsî), , sâdhu, , or biks.u, . If a man desires, he may continue on to this stage, but his wife will need to return home; traditionally she cannot stay alone as a forest dweller or wander the highways as a mendicant ascetic, begging for food. The sannyâsî has renounced the world completely, is regarded as dead by his family (the funeral is held), and is (usually) beyond all dharma and caste. He (usually) surrenders the sacred thread he received when he came of age, and all the sacrifices and rituals of daily life are abandoned. Not just ritually but legally the sannyâsî is released from debts and contracts, cannot enter into legal transactions or be a witness in court, and is supposed to be immune from fines, tolls, and taxes. Indeed, with no possessions, it is not clear how an ascetic could be responsible for the latter. When a sannyâsî enters a Hindu temple, he is not a worshiper but one of the subjects of worship. Not even the gods are sannyâsîs (they are householders), and so this is where in Hinduism, as in Jainism and Buddhism, it is possible for human beings to be spiritually superior to the gods. It has long been a matter of dispute in Hinduism whether one need really fulfill the requirements of the Laws of Manu (gray hair, etc.) to renounce the world. The Mahâbhârata says that Brahmins may go directly to Renunciation, but it also says that the three debts must be paid -- and the debt to the ancestors could only be paid with husbands and wives living together either as householders or, if renunciates, as forest dwellers (indeed, the Pân.d.avas are all born in that way). There are definitely no such requirements in Jainism or Buddhism. The Buddha left his family right after his wife had a baby, to the distress of his father, which would put him in the middle of his dharma as a householder (today there would be lawsuits). Buddhism and Jainism thus developed monastic institutions, with monks and nuns. For a while, it looked like something similar might develop in Hinduism. By the 8th century AD, a Brahmin might enter a monastery, a mat.ha, ; but such institutions seem to have died out, and the dharma authorities never recognized a renunicatory way of life apart from mendicancy. Today, while wandering ascetics are rather like mendicant monks, we lack monasteries and nuns, and the Hindu ascetics are, ideally, supposed to have already lived something like a normal, lay life. Of course, there is no certification or enforcement of this, as historically it has been often disputed. Chapter Three of the Bhagavad Gita embodies a debate of just such an issue. What if someone renounces the world and changes their mind? Having abandoned caste and dharma, he does not get them back. The authorities regarded an ascetic "apostate" as an Outcaste; and if he marries, his children will also be Outcastes.

The four stages of life may, somewhat improbably, be associated with the four parts of the Vedas: the sam.hitâs with the stage of the student, who is particularly obligated to learn them; the brâhman.as with the stage of the householder, who is able to regulate his ritual behavior according to them; the âran.yakas with the stage of the forest dweller, who regulates his ritual behavior according to them and who begins to contemplate liberation; and finally the upanis.ads with the stage of the wandering ascetic, who is entirely concerned with meditation on the absolute, Brahman.

The twice born may account for as much as 48% of Hindus, though I have now seen the number put at more like 18% -- quite a difference but more believable. The Shudras (58% of Hindus) may represent the institutional provision that the Arya made for the people they already found in India. The Shudras thus remain once born, and traditionally were not allowed to learn Sanskrit or study the Vedas -- on pain of death. Their dharma is to work for the twice born. But even below the Shudras are the Untouchables (24% of Hindus), who are literally "outcastes," (jâtibhras.t.a), without a varn.a, and were regarded as "untouchable" because they are ritually polluting for caste Hindus. Some Untouchable subcastes are regarded as so polluted that members are supposed to keep out of sight and do their work at night:  They are called "Unseeables."

In India, the term "Untouchable" is now regarded as insulting or politically incorrect (like Eta in Japan for the traditional tanners and pariahs). Gandhi's Harijans ("children of God") or Dalits, ("downtrodden"), are prefered, though to Americans "Untouchables" would sound more like the gangster-busting federal agent Elliot Ness from the 1920's. Why there are so many Untouchables is unclear, although caste Hindus can be ejected from their jâtis and become outcastes and various tribal or formerly tribal people in India may never have been properly integrated into the social system. When Mahâtmâ Gandhi's subcaste refused him permission to go to England, as noted above, he went anyway and was ejected from the caste. After he returned, his family got him back in, but while in England he was technically an outcaste. Existing tribal people as well as Untouchables are also called the "scheduled castes" or "scheduled tribes," since the British drew up a "schedule" listing the castes that they regarded as backwards, underprivileged, or oppressed.

The Untouchables, nevertheless, have their own traditional professions and their own subcastes. Those professions (unless they can be evaded in the greater social mobility of modern, urban, anonymous life) involve too much pollution to be performed by caste Hindus:  (1) dealing with the bodies of dead animals (like the sacred cattle that wander Indian villages) or unclaimed dead humans -- and the caste charged with conducting cremations on the ghats (ghât., ) at Benares (Hindi Banâras, , or Sanskrit Vârân.asî, , which oddly has become the standard politically correct name for the place, despite a perfectly good name in Hindi), the most sacred place for a funeral in India, nevertheless is itself of Untouchables -- castes dealing with corpses may specifically be called cân.d.âla (cãd.âla), , castes; (2) tanning leather, from such dead animals, and manufacturing leather goods; and (3) cleaning up the human and animal waste for which in traditional villages there is no sewer system. Mahâtmâ Gandhi referred to the latter euphemistically as "scavenging" but saw in it the most horrible thing imposed on the Untouchables by the caste system. Latrines might be cleaned out by hand, or with no instrument more modern than a piece of cardboard. Gandhi's requirement on his farms in South Africa that everyone share in such tasks comes up in an early scene in the movie Gandhi. Since Gandhi equated suffering with holiness, he saw the Untouchables as hallowed by their miserable treatment and so called them "Harijans" (Hari=Vis.n.u). Later Gandhi went on fasts in the hope of improving the condition of the Untouchables, or at least to avoid their being politically classified as non-Hindus. That Untouchables have over time had recourse by conversion to other religions, most recently Buddhism or the Baha'i Faith, but historically mostly to Islâm, has added an element of caste prejudice to Hindu-Muslim relations.

Today the status of the Shudras, Untouchables, and other "scheduled castes," and the preferential policies that the Indian government has designed for their advancement ever since Independence, are sources of serious conflict, including suicides, murders, and riots, in Indian society. Meanwhile, however, especially since economic liberalization began in 1991, the social mobility of a modern economy and urban life has begun to disrupt traditional professions, and oppressions, even of Untouchables. Village life and economic stasis were the greatest allies of the caste system, but both are slowly retreating before modernity in an India that finally gave up the Soviet paradigm of economic planning. However, in such a large country, with much of the population still in rural areas, and with some jurisdictions, such as Bengal, still celebrating Communist ideology and economics, Indian society still has a long way to go.

The most complete treatment of the âshramas that I know of is in The Âs´rama System, The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution, by Patrick Olivelle [Oxford, 1993]. Much of the information here is now from this source, even when it is not specifically referenced. Earlier sources include The Philosophical Traditions of India, by P. T. Raju [University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971], which I had in a course while obtaining my Masters degree in Philosophy at the University of Hawai'i, 1972-1974.

The images of representatives of the four varn.as above are taken The Horizon History of the British Empire, edited by Stephen W. Sears [American Heritage Publishing/BBC/Time-Life Books/McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973]. Occasionally I receive inquiries about the source of the images or requests for permission to reuse them. Without holding the copyright, I cannot give permission for their commercial use; and I don't think that the quality of the reproductions here warrants their inclusion in more polished productions. They are featured on this page under the rubrick of the "fair use" of copyrighted material, since they represent very little of the original work, are not used here for sale or profit, and their inclusion can involve no financial loss or harm to the original publisher and copyright holder. Since the original work was published more than 40 years ago, the original copyright should have lapsed, except that they keep extending the duration of copyright, and I have not kept up with the new numbers. The provenance of the images themselves is not given in the original work, in line with the more casual attitude of the time; and if they are actually reproductions from some traditional Indian source (as they look, or are made to look), then they have always been in the public domain and their inclusion in The Horizon History constitutes no claim on them.

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