What is Varna Dharma?
(HinduDharma: Part 2, The Vedic Religion: Introductory (5 chapters))

In the old days the kitchen fireplace was fuelled with dried wood, cow dung and so on. On rainy days it was difficult to light it. But if only a few sparks were produced they could be fanned into a flame so as to set the wood or cow dung on fire. Our sanatana dharma has not entirely perished. A few sparks of it are present in the life of a small number of great men still living in our midst. It is my ardent wish to keep blowing on them with a view to propagating our ancient religion in its true character.

Our reformers want to do away with varna dharma so as to make Hinduism no different from other faiths.

In this context, I must ask you: What is religion? Religion is like a therapeutic system meant to cure the ills contracted by the self. The physician alone knows about the disease afflicting the patient and how it is to be treated. Our sanatana dharma is the medicine prescribed by our sages and creators of the dharmasastras who never sought anything for themselves and who, in their utter selflessness, were concerned only about the good of mankind.

In other countries other physicians have prescribed medicines in the form of their own religious systems. Would your doctor like to be told that he should treat you in the same way as another doctor treats his patient? There are several systems of medicine. In one there is a strict diet regimen, in another there is not much strictness about the patient's food. In one system the medicines administered taste sweet; in another they taste bitter. To be restored to health we have to follow strictly any one method of treatment, not insist on a combination of the various therapies.

Other religions lay down only such duties as are common to all their followers. In the Vedic religion there are two types of dharma, the one being common to all and the other to individual varnas. The duties common to all Hindus, the universal code of conduct, have the name of "samanya dharma". Non-violence, truthfulness, cleanliness, control of the senses, non-acquisitiveness (one must not possess material goods in excess of what is needed for one's bare requirements, not even a straw must one own in excess), devotion to Isvara, trust in one's parents, love for all creatures - these form part of the samanya dharma. Then each varna has its own special code of conduct or "visesa dharma" determined by its hereditary vocation.

If the special duties (visesa dharma) of the various varnas were made common to all (that is made part of the samanya dharma) a situation would arise in which no one would observe any dharma. To illustrate, I shall give you an example. Abstaining from meat was laid down as a common dharma in Buddhism. But what do we see today in countries where that religion has a wide following? There almost all buddhists eat meat. In contrast to this is what obtains in our religion. Our seers and authors of the dharmasastras had a profound understanding of human nature. They made abstention from meat applicable to a limited number of people. But others follow the example of these few, on days of fasting, on special occasions like the death anniversaries of their parents, on days sacred to the gods.

The religions that flourished once upon a time in other countries- religions that had one common code of conduct for all its adherents - have become extinct. In Europe the Hellenic religion is gone. So too in West Asia the prehistoric Hebrew faiths no longer exist. And in the East only a residue remains of Confucianism, Shintoism, etc. Religions like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam too have but one code of conduct for all their adherents. Their followers in various countries now find less and less inner satisfaction. The number of people who have lost faith in their religion is on the increase in all these lands. They become either atheists or turn to the yoga, bhakti or jnana schools of Hinduism.

It is difficult to say how long people will continue to owe allegiance to the religions that arose in various countries during historical times. I say this not because I happen to be a representative of Hindus nor is it my wish to speak in demeaning terms about other religions. My wish is indeed that people following different religions ought to remain in their respective folds and find spiritual fulfilment in them. I do not invite others to embrace my faith. In fact I believe that to do so is contrary to the basic tenets of my religion. Nothing occurs in this world as an accident. People with different levels of maturity are born in different religions: so it is ordained by the Lord. I believe that a man grows inwardly by practising the tenets of the religion of his birth.

I speak about what I feel to be the worthy features of Hinduism- features that are not found in other religions - it is neither to speak ill of the latter nor to invite their followers to our side. Non-Hindus attack these unique aspects of our religion without taking the trouble of understanding them and some Hindus themselves are influenced by their views. That is why I am constrained to speak about the distinctive doctrines of our religion. Acceptance of concepts like karma, the Lord's incarnations, etc. will in no way weaken their [of non-Hindus] attachment to the basic beliefs of their own religions. What is the fundamental concept of any religion, its living principle? It is faith in the Lord and devotion to him. For others to view these special concepts of Hinduism sympathetically does not mean that their faith in God or devotion to him will be affected in any way.

I say all this not because I think that other religions are in any trouble nor because I have reason to be happy if indeed they are. I echoed the views of distinguished students of religion like Toynbee, Paul Brunton and Kostler. I merely repeated their view that lack of faith in religion - indeed atheism - is growing day by day everywhere and that all religions are struggling for their survival.

This trend is seen to be on the rise in our own country. But foreigners who have made a study of religious beliefs all over the world are unanimous in their view that in comparison with other countries things are better here. "The religious urge has not yet reached a lamentable state in your country, " They tell us, Sadhakas, seekers, keep coming to India in large numbers. A little thought should show without a shadow of doubt that if religious feeling is on the decline and atheism on the rise in India it is due to the fact that we have become increasingly lax in observing varna dharma and have come to believe that all Hindus should be made into one without any distinction of caste.

When a religion divides its followers in many ways, we think that there will be no unity or integrity among them. It also seems to us that such a religion will fall apart as a result of internal squabbles. Since the time of Alexander, India has been invaded by wave after wave of foreigners belonging to other faiths. Considering the divisions in our religion and the series of foreign invasions, Hinduism should have ended up in smoke. But what we actually see is different. Religions which have no distinctions of caste and which prescribed the same duties and rites for all their followers have disappeared in the flow of time. Similar systems still surviving today are faced with danger, as is attested to by the intellectuals amongst their own followers. But Hinduism with its many divisions is still breathing. We must try to understand the secret of its survival without being carried away by emotions.

We have practised varna dharma for millennia and it has continued to be a living force. What is its secret? Or think of this. It is the special duty of Brahmins to preserve the mantras. But have they ever been in a majority? No. Have they enjoyed the power of arms? No. Have they had at least money power, the advantage gained from wealth? The answer again is "No". (Brahmins acquiring the habit of accumulating money is a recent phenomenon. It is of course quite undesirable). How or why did other castes accept the divisions laid down in the sastras created by the Brahmins who did not have the strength derived either from money or from numbers?

A great man like the Buddha or the Jina arose to proclaim: "We do not need the Vedas, nor do we need the sacrifices prescribed by them. Let us have one uniform dharma for all people. We do not need Sanskrit either. Let us write our new sastras in Pali or some other Prakrt, in a language understood by the common people. "It is true that some people were persuaded to embrace these new religions, Buddhism and Jainism, but the attraction of these faiths was momentary and the two gradually declined. The old Vedic religion emerged again with new vigour.

A great man has sung thus: "It is needed a wonder that life remains in this body with its nine apertures (nava-dvara or nine gates). If it departs it is no matter to be wondered at. " Likewise, it would not have been a matter for surprise if Hinduism had perished with all its constant exposure to attack from outside. It is indeed a miracle that it is not dead.

If some faiths in India itself and outside have declined and if our religion alone has survived for ten thousand years, does it not mean that it has something that is lacking in others? This something is the varna system. Our present-day reformers argue that the varna division is responsible for the disintegration of our society. The fact is it is precisely this division, varna dharma, that has sustained it and kept it intact. It follows that this dharma has features that are superior in character to concepts like equality, features that are vital to the very well-being of people. Our society is divided on the basis of it, but it must be noted that this division has helped our religion to preserve itself successfully against all onslaughts.

"Hindu Dharma" is a book which contains English translation of certain invaluable and engrossing speeches of Sri Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi MahaSwamiji (at various times during the years 1907 to 1994).
For a general background, please see here