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THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. V - THE VOICE OF TRUTH > Part II- Section X : Social Ideas > Fourfold division of Society and four stages of life
71. Fourfold division of Society and four stages of life
Everyone will admit that Hinduism is nothing without the law of Varna1 and Ashrama2. It would be impossible to find any Smriti3 work of which a large part was not devoted to Varnashrama Dharma. This law of Varna and Ashrama is to be traced to our most ancient scriptures-the Vedas, and so no one who calls himself a Hindu may ignore it. It is his duty to study it in all its bearings, and to reject it if it is an excrescence, and to foster it and restore it to its pristine purity, if represents a universal law.
So far as the law of Ashrama is concerned it is extinct, alike in profession and observance. Hinduism lays down four Ashramas or stages-the life of a Brahmachari (continent student), the life of Grihastha (house holder), the life of a Vanaprastha (who is retired) and the life of a sannyasi (renunciator)- through which every Hindu has to pass to fulfill his purpose in life. But the first and the third are practically non-existent today, the fourth may be said to be observed in name to a small extent. The second is professed to be observed by all today, but it is observed in name, not in spirit. Grihasthas or householders of a kind we are all, inasmuch as we eat and drink and propagate our kind, like all created beings. But in doing so, we fulfill the law of the flesh and not of the spirit. Only those married couples who fulfill the law of the spirit can be said to observe the law of Grihathashrama. Those who live the mere animal life do not observe the law. The life of householders of today is one of indulgence. And as the four stages represent a ladder of growth and are interdependent, one cannot leap to the stage of a Vanaprastha or a Sannyasi, unless he or she fulfilled the law of the first two Ashramas-Brahmacharya and Grihastha. The law of the Ashrama, therefore, is a dead letter today. It can be revived only if the law of Varna, with which it is intimately interlinked is revived.
That brings us to a consideration of the law of Varna. Varna is intimately, if not indissolubly connected with the birth, and the observance of the law of Varna means the following on the part of us all of the hereditary and traditional calling of our forefathers in a spirit of duty. Those who thus fulfill the law of their Varna can be counted on oneís fingersí ends. This performance of oneís hereditary function is done as a matter of duty, though it naturally carries with it the earning of oneís livelihood. Thus, the function of a Brahmana is to study and to teach the science of Brahman (or spiritual truth). He performs the function as he cannot do otherwise, as it is the law of his being. That secures him his livelihood, but he will take it as a gift from God. A Kshatriya will perform the function of protecting the people in the same spirit, accepting for his livelihood whatever the people can afford to give him. A Vaishya will pursue wealth-producing occupations for the welfare of the community, keeping for himself enough for his own maintenance and rendering the balance to the community it one shape or other. A Shudra will perform physical is labour in the same spirit of service.
Varna is determined by birth, but can be retained only by observing its obligation. One born of Brahaman parents will be called a Brahamana, but if his life fails to reveal the attributes of a Brahamana when he comes of age, he cannot be called a Brahmana. He will have fallen from Brahmanahood. On the other hand, one who is born not a Brahmana but reveals in his conduct the attributes of a Brahamana will be regarded as a Brahamana, though he will himself disclaim the label.
Varna thus conceived is no man-made institution but the law of life universally governing the human family. Fulfillment of the law would make life livable, would spread peace and content, end all clashes and conflicts, put an end to starvation and pauperization, solve the problem of population and even end disease and suffering.
But if Varna reveals the law of oneís being and thus the duty of one has to perform, it confers no right, and the idea of superiority or inferiority is wholly repugnant to it. All Varnas are equal, for the community depends no less on one than on another. Today Varna means gradations of high and low. It is a hideous travesty of the original. The law of Varna was discovered by our ancestors by stern austerities. They sought to live up to the law to the best of their capacity. We have distorted it today and have made ourselves the laughing stock of the world. No wonder that we have today amongst the Hindus a section which is bending its energies to a destruction of the institution which in their opinion spells the ruin of the Hindus. And certainly one need have no mercy for the hideous distortion, which means nothing but destruction of Hinduism.
Harijan, 28-9-34, pp. 260-61

Varnashram Dharma defines manís mission on this earth. He is not born day after day to explore avenues for amassing riches and to explore different means of livelihood; on the contrary man is born in order that he may utilize every atom of his energy for the purpose of knowing his Maker. It restricts him, therefore, for the purpose of holding body and soul together, to the occupation of holding body and soul together, to the occupation of his forefathers. That and nothing more or nothing less is Varnashrama Dharma
Young India, 27-10-27, p. 357

Though the law of Varna is a special discovery of some Hindu seer, it has universal application. Every religion has some distinguishing characteristic, but if it expresses a principle or law, it ought to have universal application. That is how I look at the law of Varna. The world may ignore it today but it will have to accept it in the time to come.
The four Varnas have been compared in the Vedas to the four members of the body, and no simile could be happier. If they are members of one body, how can one be superior or inferior to another? If the members of the body had the power of expression and each of them were to say that it was higher and better than the rest, the body would go to pieces. Even so, our body politic, the body of humanity, would go to pieces, if it were to perpetuate the canker of superiority or inferiority. It is this canker that is at the root of the various ills of our time, especially class-wars and civil strife. It should not be difficult for even the meanest understanding to see that these wars and strifes could not be ended except by the observance of the law of Varna. For it ordains that everyone shall fulfil the law of oneís being by doing in a spirit of duty and service that to which one is born.
Harijan, 28-9-34, pp. 261-262

Varnashrama, as I interpret it, satisfies the religious social and economic needs of a community. It satisfies the religious needs, because a whole community accepting the law is free to devote ample time to spiritual perfection. Observance of the law obviates social evils and entirely prevents the killing economic competition. And if it is regarded as a law laying down, not the rights or the privileges of the community governed by it, but their duties, it ensures the fairest possible distribution of wealth, though it may not be an ideal, i.e., strictly equal, distribution. Therefore, when people in disregard of the law mistake duties for privileges and try to pick and choose occupations for self-advancement, it leads to confusion of Varna and ultimate disruption of society. In this law, there is no question of compelling any person to follow the parental occupation against his or her aptitude that is to say, there can be no compulsion from without as there was none for, perhaps, several thousand years, during which the law of Varnashrama worked without interruption. By training, the people had recognized the duty and the justice of the law, and they voluntarily lived under it. Today, nations are living in ignorance and breach of that law and they are suffering for it. The so-called civilized nations have by no means reached a state which they can at all regard with equanimity and satisfaction.
Harijan, 4-3-33, p. 5

Varna has nothing to do with caste. Down with the monster of caste that masquerades in the guise of Varna. It is that masquerades in the guise of Varna. It is this travesty of Varna that has degraded Hinduism and India. Our failure to follow the law of Varna is largely responsible both for our economic and spiritual ruin. It is one cause of unemployment and impoverishment, and it is responsible for untouchability and defections from our faith.
Young India, 24-11-27, p. 390

Man being a social being has to devise some method of social organization. We in India have evolved caste: they in Europe have organized class. Neither has the solidarity and naturalness of a family which perhaps is a God-ordained institution. If caste had produced certain evils, class has not been productive of anything less.
If class helps to conserve certain social virtues, caste does the same in equal, if not greater, degree. The beauty of the caste system is that it does not base itself upon distinctions of wealth possessions. Money, as history has proved, is the greatest disruptive force in the world. Even the sacredness of family ties is not safe against the pollution of wealth, says Shankaracharya. Caste is but an extension of the principle of the family. Both are governed by blood and heredity. Western scientists are busy trying to prove that heredity is an illusion and that milieu is everything. The solid experience of many lands goes against the conclusion of this scientist; but even accepting their doctrine of milieu, it is easy to prove that milieu can be conserved and developed more through caste than through class.
Young India, 29-12-20, p. 2

1. Colour; one of the four divisions of Hindu society (i.e., Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra) based on hereditary occupations.
2. Stage of life; abode of spiritual teacher; place for disciplined community living.
3. The codes, based on recollection of the Shastras.