The four aims of life according to the Vedic worldview are artha (wealth), kaama (desire), dharma (virtue) and moksha (liberation). The literature regarding dharma are the Dharma Shaastrams which deals with the laws and regulations governing the social and ethical life of the individual in the society. There are four ways to determine right and wrong - the shruti (Vedas), smriti (Gita, the dharma shaastrams etc), good conduct and conscience. The moral code is not considered as static - it is to be learned in each generation from what wise men who are good and free from hatred and attachment, declare.
The Dharma Shaastrams believes in the four fold order of the society (the chatur varnaa system popularly known as the "caste system") which divides the society into four main groups where the hierarchy flows as - the priest (Brahmin), the warrior (kshatriya), the merchant (vaishya) and the laborer (shudra). Though a person's varna is based on his birth, still if he does not abide and live by the laws for his particular varna as set by the Dharma Shaastrams, he could lose his varna and go down the hierarchy. So ultimately the kind of life one leads dictates to a considerable extent the individual's position in the society.
Since moksha is the highest ideal of the society (that's the reason for a Brahmin being of a higher varna than even a king), the dharma shaastrams tries to steer the whole society towards that goal. The male members of the top three varnas are called the Aryas (those who are noble). They are also the dvijas or the twice born who are eligible to wear the sacred thread (upavita) and study the Vedas, which would lead to knowledge and moksha. Women and shudras are excluded from this and enjoined to lead a moral life as befits their position in the society, by which they could be born as dvijas in their next birth and could then aspire for moksha.
The dharma shaastrams advocate the aashramaa system or the four stages of life for a dvija - the student (brahmachaarin), the householder (grhasta), the forest dweller (vaanaprasthaa) and the wandering mendicant (samnyaasin). The purpose of the aashrama system is to enable the dvijas to perform their secular duties in the society and also lead a life conducive to the attainment of moksha.
In recent times the chatur varna system has been condemned in certain quarters, as framing a code of life for the society, which is partial and beneficial to the Brahmin and disadvantageous to other castes. As is indicative of popular opinion, an American 'expert' on ancient India, in her translation of the Maanava dharma shaastram popularly known as the Manusmriti, finds in Krishna's advice to Arjuna (in the Gita) to live and abide by his own dharma as a kshatriya than adopt the dharma of a brahmin, an attempt to eternally subjugate and render all castes as inferior to the superior caste of the Brahmin. All this if not blatant misinterpretation only reveals an ignorance not only of the related texts but also the spiritual ideal underlying the dharma shaastrams. Even a basic knowledge of the dharma shaastram will enable one to understand that though the dharma shaastrams declare the Brahmin to be the highest caste, this supremacy is dependent on the Brahmin living the life as set forth for him in the dharma shaastrams - a life of voluntary poverty and hardship, with the sole purpose of preserving and teaching the dharma to the society. Our selection below from the spiritual portions of a dharma shaastram will make this point clear. Coming back to the opinion of the American 'expert', the question is open to her whether a prince who lives in the lap of luxury would be willing to give up his comforts and power, and embrace poverty and hardship just for the label of a "higher caste Brahmin".
Though the authors of this site protest against gross misinterpretations of the chatur varna system, we would also like to make it clear that we are against certain discriminatory rules particularly against non-dvijas and women in the dharma shaastras - as the basis of the dharma shaastras is spirituality, it is our view that such spiritual knowledge should be open to the deserving irrespective of gender or caste.
There exist many dharma shaastrams of which those by Manu, Gautama and Yaagnavalkya are the most authoritative. Our selection below is from the Manu Smriti and the translation is free and not exact. Since the content of this site is spiritual in nature, our selection from the text is also partial to those sections, which concerns matters spiritual. The verses given below are presented from a historical context and the worldview expressed by them do not necessarily find approval from the authors of this site.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS VERSES REGARDING THE MEANS OF GAINING THE GREATEST GOOD
With whatever disposition of mind a man performs an act, he reaps the result in a future body endowed with the same quality.
Action of mind, speech and body produce either good or evil results. It is by these actions that are caused the conditions of man - high, middle and low.
Coveting that which belongs to others, thinking undesirable things and adhering to false doctrines constitute the sins of the mind.
Abusing others, speaking lies, mocking the merits of other men and idle talk constitute the sins of speech.
Taking what is not given, injuring creatures without the sanction of the Vedic law and adultery are the sins of the body.
The result of committing sins of the mind is to be reborn as low caste in the next birth. The result of committing sins of speech is to be reborn as a bird or a beast. To commit sins of the body will result in being reborn as something inanimate.
The man who controls mind, speech and body and also subdues desire and anger, will achieve complete success.
All those traditions and the despicable systems of philosophy not based on the Vedas are founded in darkness and will produce no reward after death.
Without harming any creature, let him accumulate spiritual merit for acquiring a companion in the next world.
For in the next world, neither father nor mother nor wife nor sons will be his companions. Only spiritual merit remains with him.
Alone is a man born. Alone he dies. Alone he enjoys the fruits of his virtue or suffers the punishments of his sin.
Let him always delight in truthfulness, obedience to the sacred law, conduct worthy of an Arya and purity.
The threefold course of transmigration is as follows : those endowed with Goodness reach the state of the Gods; those endowed with activity the state of men and those endowed with darkness ever sink to the condition of beasts.
GENERAL PATTERN OF THE SOCIAL ORDER
The student, the householder, the forest dweller and the wandering mendicant constitute the four separate orders.
By twice born men belonging to any of the four orders the tenfold law must be observed.
Contentment, forgiveness, self-control, refraining from wrongly appropriating anything, obeying the laws which lead to purity, control of the senses, wisdom, knowledge of the Supreme Reality, truthfulness and controlling anger form the tenfold law.
Let the twice born discharging their prescribed duties, study the Veda. But among them the Brahmin alone shall teach it and not the other two.
The Brahmin must know the means of subsistence prescribed by law for all and instruct others and himself live according to the law.
All those tribes in this world, which do not belong to the four varnas, are called the Dasyus - irrespective of whether they speak the language of the mlecchas (foreign barbarians) or that of the Aryas.
In all castes those children only which are born in the direct order on wedded wives, equal in varna and married as virgins, are to be considered as belonging to the same varna as their fathers. (The dharma shaastrams contain elaborate instructions on the treatment of many combinations of varnas, assigning names and occupations to all such mixed varnas).
THE STUDENT (brahmachaarin)
An Arya must study the whole of the Veda along with the Upanishads and also perform at the same time the austerities and vows prescribed by the Veda.
Upanayanaa or the initiation ceremony, where one is given the sacred thread, should be performed at the age of eight for a Brahmin, eleven for a kshatriya and twelve for a vaishya.
After initiatiation the teacher must instruct the disciple on the rules of personal purification, of conduct, of the fire worship and the morning and evening devotions.
Let an Arya who has been initiated offer fuel in the sacred fire, beg food, sleep on bare ground and do what is beneficial to his teacher till he is ready to return home.
The initiated student must be instructed in the performance of vows and must learn the Veda gradually, observing the prescribed rules.
The student must observe the following restrictions, duly controlling his organs to increase spiritual merit.
Everyday, after bathing, he must offer libations to the Gods, sages and manes, worship the Gods and place fuel on the sacred fire.
Let him abstain from honey, meat, perfumes, garlands, spices, women, all substances which turn acid and from doing harm to living creatures.
Let him abstain from anointing his body, applying collyrium to his eyes, using shoes or umbrella, from desire, anger, covetousness, dancing, singing and playing musical instruments.
Let him abstain from gambling, idle disputes, backbiting, lying, from looking at and touching women and from hurting others.
Let him always sleep alone.
Let him constantly subsist on alms, but should not beg food from one person only. Begging food is equal in merit to fasting.
Let him fetch water, flowers, cowdung, earth and kusha grass, as much as may be required by his teacher.
The teacher of the Veda is more venerable than one's own father. While the birth for the sake of the Veda ensures eternal rewards both in this life and after, the birth the teacher of the Veda procures for him is real and exempt from birth and death.
The vow of studying the three Vedas under a teacher must be kept for thirty six years or sixteen years or eight years or until the student has mastered them.
THE HOUSEHOLDER (grhasta)
Even as all creatures subsist by receiving support from air, even so do members of all orders subsist by receiving support from the householder.
In accordance with the precepts of the Vedas and of the traditional texts, the householder is declared to be superior to all the other three orders - for he supports the other three.
A brahmachaarin who has studied even one Veda without breaking the rules of studentship, shall enter into the order of the householders.
Having bathed, with the teacher's permission and after performing the rite on returning home, the student shall marry a wife of equal caste who is endowed with auspicious bodily marks.
Let the grhasta daily apply himself to the private recitation of the Vedas and also to the performance of the offering to Gods.
The following rules are particularly for a Brahmin grhasta :
After spending the first quarter of his life as a teacher, a Brahmin during the second quarter of his life shall live in his own house after he has wedded a wife.
A Brahmin must seek a means of subsistence which causes little or no harm to living creatures and live by that, except in times of distress.
For the purpose of gaining bare subsistence let a Brahmin accumulate property by following those irreproachable occupations prescribed for his varna, without unduly tiring his body.
For the sake of subsistence, let a Brahmin never follow the ways of the world; let him live the pure, straightforward and honest life of a Brahmin.
He who desires happiness must control himself and strive for a perfectly contented disposition. For happiness has contentment for its root.
Whether he be rich or in distress, let him not seek wealth through pursuits to which men cleave, nor by forbidden occupations, nor accept presents.
Let him not out of desire attach himself to any sensual pleasures. By reflecting on their worthlessness in his heart, let him develop detachment.
Let him avoid all means of acquiring wealth which impede the study of the Veda. Let him maintain himself anyhow, but study the Veda, as it is the devotion to such study which will secure his aims.
Let him walk on earth, bringing his dress, speech and thoughts in conformity with his age, his occupation, his wealth, his sacred learning and his race.
Let him daily pore over those branches of learning which give rise to wisdom, those which teach the acquisition of wealth, those which are beneficial and likewise over the commentaries which explain the Veda.
If he is capable of performing them, let him never neglect the sacrifices to the sages and to gods and to elementary forces and to the manes.
Living according to the rules he must never neglect the five great sacrifices and with a wife he must dwell in his house during the second period of his life.
THE FOREST DWELLER (vaanaprastha)
A dvija who has lived according to the law as a student as well as a householder, make take a firm resolution and controlling his organs, live in the forest duly observing the rules given below.
When a householder sees that his skin has wrinkled, his hair grayed and the sons of his sons, he may retire to the forest.
Abandoning all his belongings and rejecting food raised by cultivation, he may depart for the forest, either taking his wife with him or leaving her with his sons.
Taking the sacred fire and the implements required for domestic sacrifices, he may retire into the forest keeping his senses under control.
According to the law let him offer the five great sacrifices with various kinds of food fit for ascetics, or with herbs, roots and fruit.
Let his always privately recite the Vedas. Let him be patient in hardship, friendly towards all, of collected mind, compassionate towards all living creatures and never receive gifts.
Let him never desire things that give pleasure. Let him be chaste, sleep on the bare ground, not care for any shelter, dwelling at the roots of trees.
Let him receive alms barely sufficient to support life, from other dvija ascetics who live in the forest.
Or let him beg for food in a village receiving it either in a hollow dish of leaves or in his hand or in a broken earthen dish - and only eat eight mouthfuls.
The vaanaprastha must diligently practice all the above practices. For union with the Supreme Self let him study the Upanishads and all the sacred texts as studied by the rishis and other Brahmin householders.
Or let him walk, fully determined and going straight on, in a north easterly direction, subsisting only on water and air, until his body sinks to rest.
A dvija who has got rid of his body by one of those modes practiced by the great rishis is free from sorrow and fear and exalted in the world of Brahman.
THE WANDERING MENDICANT (samnyaasin)
After having thus passed the third part of a man's life in the forest, he may abandon all attachment to worldly objects and live as a wandering mendicant.
Having studied the Vedas and siring sons according to the sacred law, having offered sacrifices according to his ability, he may direct his mind towards final liberation.
A dvija who seeks final liberation, without studying the Vedas, without siring sons, without having offered sacrifices, sinks downwards.
Having performed the Ishti to Lord Prajaapati, where he gives all his property as the sacrificial fee, having reposited the sacred fires in himself, a Brahmin may depart from his house as a samnyaasin.
Let him wander about absolutely silent and caring nothing for the enjoyments that may be offered to him.
In order to attain final liberation let his always wander alone without any companion, fully understanding that the solitary man who neither forsakes nor is forsaken, gains his end.
He shall posses neither a fire nor a dwelling. He may go to a village for food. He shall be indifferent to everything, firm of purpose, meditating and concentrating his mind fully on Brahman.
Let him desire neither life nor death, but wait for his appointed time as a servant waits for his wages.
Delighting in all matter concerning the Supreme Self, practicing yoga, abstaining from sensual enjoyments, alone he shall live in this world desiring the bliss of moksha.
By deep meditation let him recognize the subtle nature of Brahman and its presence in all organisms.
He who possesses true insight into the nature of things is not bound by his deeds. Those without insight are drawn into the cycle of rebirths.
By practicing ahimsa, by controlling the senses, by the rites prescribed in the Veda, by rigorously practicing austerities, men gain liberation even in this world.
When his heart becomes indifferent to all objects, he gains happiness in both this world and after death.
He who has in this manner given up all attachments and is free from all the pairs of opposites, reposes in Brahman alone.
A samnyaasin who has successfully performed the above mentioned acts, shakes off his sin here below and reaches the highest Brahman.
It is better to discharge one's own duty incompletely than performing completely the duty of another. One who lives according to the law of another varna is instantly excluded from his own varna.
Six acts are prescribed for a Brahmin : teaching, studying, sacrificing for himself, sacrificing for others, making gifts and receiving gifts. Of the six, the first three are his means of subsistence.
Teaching, sacrificing for others and accepting gifts are forbidden for both the ksatriya and the vaishya.
Among several occupations the most commendable for the dvijas are teaching the Veda for a Brahmin, protecting the people for a kshatriya and trade for a vaishya.
If a Brahmin is unable to subsist by the occupations declared for him, he may adopt a kshatriya's or vaishya's mode of life. Likewise so can a kshatriya adopt a vaishya's mode of life.
But one should never arrogantly adopt the mode of life prescribed for his betters (i.e, a vaishya should not adopt a kshatriya's or brahmin's way of life nor a kshatriya a brahmin's way of life).
If a brahmin or a kshatriya adopt the vaishya's mode of life, let them carefully avoid the pursuit of agriculture as it causes injury to many beings and depends on others.
GAINING SUPREME BLISS
If a man knows the true meaning of the Vedas, in whatever order he might be in, he comes fit for union with Brahman.
The following are the best means to attain supreme bliss : studying the Vedas, practicing austerities, acquiring true knowledge, controlling the organs, abstaining from doing injury to creatures and serving the teacher.
But of these knowledge of the Self is the most excellent. It is the first of all sciences and immortality is gained through that.
He who sacrifices to the Self, equally recognizing the Self in all created beings and all created beings in the Self, becomes independent and self luminous.
He who has recognized the Self through the Self in all created beings, becomes equal minded towards all and attains the highest state of Brahman.
A dvija who recites these institutes revealed by Manu will always be virtuous in conduct and will reach whatever state he desires.