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Sanatana Dharma, Part Two: General Hindu Religious Customs and Rites

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Mantras: Purification and Power

Certain general principles pervade all religious ceremonies, and these principles must be clearly grasped, otherwise these ceremonies will be unintelligible, and the mind will sooner or later revolt against them. These principles are:

  1. Man is a composite being, a jivatman enclosed in various sheaths, each sheath being related to one of the visible or invisible worlds, and therefore also to its inhabitants. He is thus in touch with these worlds, and in continual relations with them.
  2. The jivatman and prakriti are in a state of unceasing vibration; these vibrations vary in rapidity, regularity and complexity.
  3. The vibrations of the jivatman are rapid and regular, becoming more and more complicated as he unfolds his powers.
  4. The vibrations of the matter of the sheaths are continuously affected by those of the jivatman, and non-continuously by the various vibrations which reach each from the world to which its materials belong. In addition, each vibrates continuously according to the fundamental vibration of its world.
  5. The jivatman endeavors to impose his own vibrations on his sheaths, so that they may respond to him, and work harmoniously with him.
  6. He is constantly frustrated in these attempts by the vibrations that reach his sheaths from outside and set up vibrations in them that are independent of him.
  7. He may be very much assisted in his labor by the setting up of vibrations which are in harmony with his own efforts.

These principles must be studied carefully and thoroughly understood.

Then we come to certain special facts, a knowledge of which is also necessary.

A mantra is a sequence of sounds, and these sounds are vibrations, so that the chanting, loud, low, or silent, of a mantra sets up a certain series of vibrations. Now a sound gives rise to a definite form, and a series of forms is made by successive repetitions; these may be rendered visible, if suitable scientific means are taken to preserve a record of the vibrations set up by the sounds. Thus the forms created by a mantra depend on the sequential sounds of the mantra being chanted, since the mantra, as it is chanted, gives rise to a series of forms in subtle matter. The nature of the vibrations–that is their general character, whether constructive or destructive, whether stimulating love, energy, or other emotions–depends on these sequential sounds of the mantra. The force with which the mantra can affect outside objects in the visible or invisible worlds depends on the purity, devotion, knowledge and will-power of the utterer. Such vibrations are included among the “various vibrations” mentioned under Principle 4 as affecting the sheaths, and are also referred to under Principle 7.

The repeated recitation of a mantra, that is, the repeated setting up of certain vibrations, gradually dominates the vibrations going on in the sheaths, and reduces them all to a regular rhythm, corresponding to its own. Hence the feeling of peace and calm which follows on the recitation of a mantra.

The name of a deva or other being mentioned in a mantra sets up vibrations similar to those present in the deva and his sheaths, and as the mantra is repeated many times, with cumulative effects, the sheaths of the utterer–or of any hearer–gradually respond and, mirror-like, repeat/reflect these vibrations with ever-increasing force.

“Whatever the deva concerned with a mantra, he is the form of it. The mantra of the devaya is therefore said to be the devata” (Yoga-yajnavalkya, quoted in the Ahnika Sutravali, p. 13).

Pingala, the writer on Vedic mantras, divides the metres according to the seven fundamental vibrations, and gives the name of the devata corresponding to each vibration.

As the matter of the sheaths thus vibrates, it becomes easily penetrable by the influence of the deva, and very impervious to other influences. Hence the deva’s influence reaches the jivatman, and other influences are shut out.

If the sheaths contain much coarse matter and some pure, the coarse matter will be shaken out as the sheaths vibrate in response to the mantra, and pure matter will be drawn in to replace that which is shaken out.

The magnetic properties of objects are also important in this matter of vibrations. All objects are always vibrating, and thus affect the sheaths of other objects near them. To affect the sheaths in any particular way, it is necessary to choose objects which have the desired vibrations.

All rites and ceremonies ordained by seers and sages are based on these principles and facts, which govern the mantras and the objects used with them. They are all intended to aid the jivatman in reducing his sheaths to obedience, in purifying them, and in making them strong against evil; or else to shape external conditions to man’s benefit, protection and support.

If these principles and facts are understood, the student will see clearly in the prescribed observances, such as the rituals known as Samskaras, an ordered system intended to help the jivatman to unfold his powers more rapidly and to overcome the obstacles in his way.

[The following extract from the article Japa by M. P. Pandit will complete this section.

“Once students of sacred knowledge asked Yajnavalkya: ‘Can we gain life eternal by japa?’ Yajnavalkya said: ‘By the immortal Names one becomes immortal’” (Jabala Upanishad 3).

The tradition of japa in India dates back to the ancient times of the Rishis of the Veda. “Knowing, speak His Name,” enjoins Dirghatamas (Rig Veda 1.156.3). “Of all the Yajnas (Sacrifices) I am the Japa Yajna,” declares Lord Sri Krishna to Arjuna (Bhagavad Gita 10:25). “Japa yields the fruit of all other Yajnas,” states the Tantrasara.

What is Japa? What is its rationale? What is its process? Japa is the repetition of a mantra, a potent syllable or syllables, a word or a combination of words, done with the object of realizing the truth embodied in the mantra. The object may be mundane like the achievement of certain states of affluence, health, power; or it may be spiritual, say, the attainment of God in any or many of His aspects. In either case the mantra which is chosen for Japa has the necessary power within it and by constant repetition under proper conditions the power can be evoked into operation to effectuate the purpose. The vibrations set up each time the mantra is repeated go to create, in the subtler atmosphere, the conditions that induce the fulfillment of the object in view. The Divine Name, for instance, has the potency to stamp and mould the consciousness which repeats it into the nature of the Divinity for which the Name stands and prepare it for the reception of the gathering Revelation of the Godhead.

At the basis of the Science of Japa is the ancient perception of sages all over the world that Creation proceeds from Sound [Shabda]. The universe has issued out of Nada Brahman, Brahman [God] as Sound. Each sound has a form, a subtle form which may not be visible to the physical eye. Equally each form in the creation has its own sound-equivalent, the sound which preceded its formation on the subtler planes of existence. When this particular sound is reproduced–even in its transcription on the human level in terms of our speech, vaikhari as it is called–it sets in current the very vibrations which brought and therefore can bring that entity into being. This in brief is the principle underlying Mantra (Japa) Yoga.

That sound has form is a truth which is being confirmed today by Science starting from the opposite end. Swami Sivananda, in his book on Japa Yoga, gives interesting information on the subject. He writes:

“Hindu books on music tell us that the various musical tunes, Ragas and Raginis, have each a particular shape, which these books graphically describe. For instance, the Magha Ragha is said to be a majestic figure seated on an elephant. The Vasanta Raga is described as a beautiful youth decked with flowers. All this means that a particular Raga or Ragini, when accurately sung, produces serial etheric vibrations which create the particular shape said to be characteristic of it. This view has recently corroborations from the experiments carried on by Mrs. Watts Hughes, the gifted author of ‘Voice Figures’…(She) sings into a simple instrument, The Eidophone, which consists of a tube, a receiver and a flexible membrane, and she finds that each note assumes a definite and constant shape, as revealed through a sensitive and mobile medium. At the outset…she placed tiny seeds upon the flexible membrane and the air vibrations set up by the notes she sounded danced them into definite geometric patterns. Afterwards she used dusts of various kinds, copodium dust being found particularly suitable. A reporter describing the shape of the notes, speaks of them as remarkable revelations of geometry, perspective and shading; ‘Stars, spirals, snakes, and imaginations rioting in a wealth of captivating methodical design.’ Such were what were first shown. Once when Mrs. Hughes was singing a note, a daisy appeared and disappeared.…She knows the precise inflections of the particular note that is a daisy, and it is made constant and definite by a strange method of coaxing an alteration of crescendo and diminuendo. After the audience had gazed enraptured at a series of daisies, some with succeeding rows of petals, delicately viewed, they were shown other notes and these were daisies of great beauty…exquisite form succeeded exquisite forms on the screen. The flowers were followed by sea-monsters, serpentine forms of swelling rotundity, full of light and shade and details, feeding in miles of perspective.…

“While in France, Mme. Finlang’s singing of a hymn to Virgin Mary ‘O Eve Marium’ brought out the form of Mary with child Jesus on Her lap, and again the singing of a hymn to Bhairava (a form of Lord Shiva) by a Bengali student of Banaras gave rise to the formation of the figure of Bhairava with his vehicle, the dog.”

Now this perception of the inherent power of sound, shabda, was applied with remarkable success by Indian adepts in Yoga who have reduced their knowledge and experience to an exact Science. The tradition continues to this day and is kept alive by its votaries.

Editor’s note: For much more on the subject of mantra and Mantra Yoga see Soham Yoga: The Yoga of the Self.]



The rules for purifying the body are based on scientific facts as to the annamaya and pranamaya koshas.

The annamaya kosha is composed of solids, liquids and gases, and infinitesimal particles of these are constantly passing off from the body. [Proof of this is the ability of dogs to track the steps of a human being by smell. Editor.] Apart altogether from the obvious daily losses sustained by the body in the excrements and sweat, there is this ceaseless emission of minute particles, alike in night and day, whether the body is waking or sleeping. The body is like a fountain, throwing off a constant spray. Every physical object is in this condition, stones, trees, animals, men; all are ceaselessly throwing off these tiny particles, invisible because of their extreme minuteness, and are, as ceaselessly, receiving the rain of particles from others which fill the air in which they live, and which they breathe in with every breath. A continual interchange is thus going on between all physical bodies; no one can approach another without being sprinkled by the other, and sprinkling him in turn, with particles from their respective bodies. Everything a man goes near receives some particles from his body; every object he touches retains a minute portion of his body on its surface; his clothes, his house, his furniture, all receive from him this rain of particles, and rain particles from themselves on him in turn.

The pranamaya kosha, composed of the physical ethers and animated by the life-energies, affects all around it, and is affected by all around it, not by emitting or receiving particles, but by sending out, and being played upon by, vibrations which cause waves, currents, in the etheric matter. The life-waves, magnetism-waves, go out from each man as ceaselessly as the fine rain of particles from his annamaya kosha. And similar waves from others play upon him, as ceaselessly as the fine rain of particles from others falls on him.

Thus every man is being affected by others, and is affecting them, in the physical world in these two ways: by a rain of particles given off from the annamaya kosha, and by waves given off from the pranamaya kosha.

The object of the rules of shaucha is to make this inevitable influence of one person on another a source of health instead of a source of disease, and also to preserve and strengthen the bodily and mental health of the performer. The annamaya kosha is to be kept scrupulously clean, so that it may send off a rain of health on everyone and everything that is near it; and the pranamaya kosha is to be reached by the mantra-produced vibrations in the etheric matter which permeates the things used in the ceremonies–as etheric matter permeates everything–so that these vibrations may act beneficially on it, and may cleanse and purify it.

The rules affecting bodily cleanliness are definite and strict. On rising, the calls of nature are first to be attended to (Manu Smirti 4.45-52, 56-152), plenty of water being used for cleansing purposes, and then the mouth and teeth are to be washed, and a bath taken.

A man must wash, in some cases bathe the whole body, before taking part in any religious ceremony, and sip water with appropriate mantras. “Being purified by sipping water, he shall always daily worship in the two sandhyas (dawn and sunset) with a collected mind, in a pure place, performing japa according to rule” (Manu Smriti 2.222).

He must wash before and after meals. “Having washed, the twice-born should eat food always with a collected mind; having eaten, let him wash well with water, sprinkling the sense-organs” (Manu Smriti 2.53).

If a man has touched anything impure, a person or an object, “by bathing he is purified” (Manu Smriti 5.85).

“Wisdom, tapasya, fire, mind, water, rites, the sun and time are the purifiers of human beings” (Manu Smriti 5.105).

But no body can be truly pure unless the mind and heart be pure: “The body is purified by water, the mind by truth, the soul by knowledge and tapasya, the intellect by wisdom” (Manu Smriti 5.109).

Further details may be studied in the Smritis, and may be applied by the student to his own life, and having regard to the changed conditions of life. Infectious diseases of all kinds run riot where the rules of individual purity are disregarded, and where houses, clothes and articles in daily use are not scrupulously cleaned. Modern science is re-establishing with infinite labor and pains the facts on which these ancient rules were based, and a clear understanding of the reason for their imposition will render obedience to them willing and cheerful.



We have already seen that the work of the devas was recognized and duly honored among the aryans, and that the duty of sacrificing for their support was regularly performed. But the truly religious man’s relation with the invisible powers are not confined to these regular and formal sacrifices. Ishwara Himself, the Supreme Lord, will attract the heart of the thoughtful and pious man who sees beyond these many ministers the King Himself, the ruling power of His universe, the life and support of devas and men alike. It is towards Him that love and devotion naturally rise–the human spirit, who is His offspring, a fragment of Himself, seeking to rise and unite himself to his Parent. These feelings cannot find satisfaction in sacrifices offered to devas, connected as they are with the outer worlds, with the Not-Self; they seek after the inner, the deepest, the very Self, and remain craving and unsatisfied until they rest in Him.

Worship is the expression of this craving of the part for the whole, of the separate for the One, and is not only due from man to the source of his life, but is a necessary stage in the evolution of all those higher qualities in the jivatman which make possible his liberation and his union with the Supreme. An object of worship is therefore necessary to man.

That object will always be, to the worshipper, the Supreme Being. He will know intellectually that the object of his worship is a form of manifestation of the Supreme, but emotionally that form is the Supreme–as in truth it is, although the Supreme includes and transcends all forms.

Now a form is necessary for worship. The Nirguna Brahman, the Absolute, the All, cannot be an object of worship. It is not an object, but is beyond all subject and object, including all, inseparate. But from That “words return with the mind, not having reached It” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2.4.1). Words fall into silence, mind disappears; It is all in all.

The Saguna Brahman may be the object of worship for those whose minds are of a metaphysical nature, and who find rest and peace in the contemplation of Brahman in His own nature as Sat-Chit-Ananda, the Universal Self, the One, the Supreme. Such contemplation is worship of a lofty kind, and is peculiarly congenial to philosophic minds, who find in it the sense of peace, rest and unity which they cannot feel in any more limited conception. But to most it is easier to rise to Him through His manifestation as the Lord and Life of His worlds, or through one of the manifestations, as Mahadeva, Narayana, or–more concrete yet–avatars such as Sri Rama or Sri Krishna, or other embodiments. These arouse in them the bhakti, the love and devotion, which the other conceptions fail to stir, and all the tendrils of the human heart wind themselves round such an image and lift the heart into ananda, into bliss unspeakable.

Whether one of these two ways is the better is an oft-disputed question, and the answerers on either side are apt to be impatient with those on the other, intolerant of the uncongenial way. But the answer has been given with perfect wisdom and all-embracing comprehension by Sri Krishna Himself. Arjuna was troubled by the question five thousand years ago, and asked his divine teacher:

“The constantly steadfast who worship you with devotion, and those who worship the eternal Unmanifest–which of them has the better understanding of yoga?

“The Holy Lord said: Those who are ever steadfast, who worship me, fixing their minds on me, endowed with supreme faith, I consider them to be the best versed in yoga. But those who worship the Imperishable, the Undefinable, the Unmanifested, the Omnipresent (All-pervading), Inconceivable, Unchanging, Unmoving, the Constant–controlling all the senses, even-minded everywhere, happy in the welfare of all beings–they attain to me also.

“Greater is the effort of those whose minds are set on the Unmanifest, for the Unmanifest as a goal is truly difficult for the embodied ones to reach. But those who, renouncing all actions in me, intent on me as the highest [goal] worship me, meditating on me with single-minded Yoga. Of those whose consciousness has entered into me, I am soon the deliverer from the ocean of mortal samsara” (Bhagavad Gita 12:1-7).

This is the final answer; both achieve, both gain mukti, but the worship of Ishwara in a form is easier than the worship of Him without a form, and escape from the cycle of rebirth is easier for those who thus worship.

The simplest form of worship is that generally spoken of as puja, in which an image representing some divine form is used as the object, and the being thus represented is adored. Flowers are used as beautiful symbols of the heart-flowers of love and reverence; water is sanctified with a mantra, poured on the image and sprinkled over the worshipper; a mantra, in which the name of the object of worship occurs, is repeated inaudibly a certain number of times, and the invisible bodies are thus rendered receptive of the divine influence, as before explained in the previous section on Mantra. Then the worshipper passes on according to his nature into spontaneous praise or prayer, aspiration and meditation, and becoming oblivious of the external object, rising to the One imaged in that object, and often feeling His presence, becomes suffused with peace and bliss. Such worship steadies the mind, purifies and ennobles the emotions, and stimulates the unfolding of the germinal spiritual faculties.

The use of an image in such worship is often found most helpful, and is well-nigh universal. It gives an object to which the mind can at first be directed and thus steadiness is obtained. If it be well chosen, it will attract the emotions, and the symbols, always present in such an image, will direct the mind to the characteristic properties of the object of worship.

Thus the Shiva Linga is the symbol of the great Pillar of Fire, which is the most characteristic manifestation of Mahadeva, the destroying element which consumes all dross but only purifies the gold. The four-armed Vishnu represents the protecting support of the deity, whose arms uphold and protect the four quarters, and the objects held in the hands are symbols of His creative, ruling, destroying forces, and of the universe He governs. The Shalagrama is used in the household as the symbol of Vishnu.

When the worshipper passes from the external worship to the internal, the image is reproduced mentally and carries him on into the invisible world, where it may change into a living form animated by the One it represents. Further, a properly prepared image–sanctified by mantras and by the daily renewed forces of the worshipper’s devotion–becomes a strong magnetic center from which issue powerful vibrations, which regularize and steady the invisible bodies of the worshipper, and thus assist him in gaining the quiet and peaceful conditions necessary for effective prayer and meditation.

Apart from these definite uses, the bhakta feels a pleasure in contemplating such an image, similar in kind to, but greater in degree than, any one finds in having with him the picture of a beloved but absent friend.

For all these reasons, no one should object to the use of images in religious worship by those who find them helpful; nor should any one try to force their use on those who are not helped by them. Tolerance in these matters is the mark of the truly religious man.

Another kind of upasana (worship) is meditation. By this a man rises to knowledge; by this he loses himself in the Divine Being he worships; by this he disengages himself from the bonds of action. Without meditation no truly spiritual life is possible. 

Manu has declared, after describing the life of the sannyasi: “All this that has here been declared depends on meditation; for no one who does not know the Supreme Self can fully enjoy the fruit of rites.”

It is therefore a thing to be looked forward to and prepared for, and every student who desires the higher life should begin his preparation by practicing Yama and Niyama.


The Four Ashramas

The student will have noticed the extremely systematic and orderly arrangement of life which characterizes the Sanatana Dharma. It is in full keeping with this that the whole life should be arranged on a definite system, designed to give opportunity for the development of the different sides of human activity and assigning to each period of life its due occupations and training. Life was regarded as a school in which the powers of the jivatman were to be evolved, and it was well or ill spent according as this object was well or ill achieved.

The life was divided into four stages, or ashramas: that of the Brahmachari, the student, bound to celibacy; that of the Grihastha, the householder; that of the Vanaprastha, the forest-dweller; and that of the Sannyasi, the ascetic, called also the Yati, the controlled, or the endeavorer. 

“The Student, the Householder, the Forest-dweller, the Ascetic–these, the four separate orders, spring from the Householder” (Manu Smriti 6.87).

“Having studied the Vedas, or two Vedas, or even one Veda, in due order, without breaking celibacy, let him dwell in the householder order” (Manu Smriti 3.2).

“When the householder sees wrinkles (in his skin) and whiteness (in his hair) and the son of his son, then let him retire to the forest” (Manu Smriti 6.2).

“Having passed the third portion of life in the forests, let him, having abandoned attachments, wander (as an ascetic in) the fourth portion of life” (Manu Smriti 6.33).

This succession is regarded as so important for the due development of the jivatman and the proper ordering of society that Manu says: “A twice-born man who seeks moksha without having studied the Vedas, without having produced offspring, and without having offered sacrifices, goes downwards.”

The offering of sacrifices, we shall see, is the chief duty of the forest-dweller, and therefore indicates the Vanaprastha state.

In rare and exceptional cases a student was allowed to became a Sannyasi, his debts to the world having been fully paid in a previous birth; but these rare cases left the regular order unshaken. Strictly speaking, indeed, even he was not called a Sannyasi, and did not receive the initiations of Sannyasa proper; but was called a Bala-Brahmachari or Naishthika Brahmachari. The great multiplication of young Sannyasis found in modern days is directly contrary to the ancient rules, and causes much vice and trouble and impoverishment of the country.

We will now consider the ashramas in order.

Brahmachari (student) ashrama

The student life began with the Upanayana (investing with the sacred thread–yajnopavita–and initiation into the Gayatri mantra) ceremony, the boy being then committed to the care of his teacher, with whom he lived while his pupilage continued. His life thereafter was simple and hardy, intended to make him strong and healthy, independent of all soft and luxurious living, abstemious and devoid of ostentation. He was to rise before sunrise and bathe and then perform Sandhya during the morning twilight till the sun rose. (If it rose while he was still sleeping, he had to fast during the day, performing japa.) Then he went out to beg for food which was placed at his teacher’s disposal, and was to take the portion assigned to him cheerfully: “Let him ever honor (his) food, and eat it without contempt; having seen it, let him be glad and pleased, and in every way welcome it. Food which is honored ever gives strength and nerve-vigor; eaten unhonored, it destroys both these” (Manu Smriti 2.54-55).

The day was to be spent in study and in the service of his teacher: “Directed or not directed by his teacher, let him ever engage in study, and in doing benefits to his preceptor” (Manu Smriti 2.191).

At sunset he was again to worship–perform Sandhya–till the stars appeared. Then the second meal was taken. Between these two meals he was generally not to eat, and he was enjoined to be temperate as to his food. ‘‘Over-eating is against health, long life, (the attainment of) heaven and merit, and is disapproved by the world; therefore let him avoid it” (Manu Smriti 2.57).

The rules laid down as to his general conduct show how frugality, simplicity and hardiness were enforced, so that the youth might grow into a strong and vigorous man; it was the training of a nation of energetic, powerful, nobly-mannered and dignified men.

“Let him refrain from wine, meat, and from injury to sentient creatures; from lust, anger and greed, gambling, gossip, slander and untruth, and from striking others.

“Let him always sleep alone, and let him not waste his semen; he who from lust wastes his semen, destroys his vow (and its valuable fruits).”

The student will see that all the injunctions of Manu above quoted apply perfectly to the present day.

The great stress laid upon chastity and purity during youth is due to the fact that the vigor and strength of manhood, freedom from disease, healthy children, and long life, depend more on this one virtue of complete continence than on any other one thing, unchastity being the most fertile breeder of disease and premature decay. The old legislators and teachers therefore made a vow of celibacy part of the obligation of the student, and the very name of the student, the brahmachari, has become synonymous with one who is under a vow of celibacy. The purpose of the injunctions quoted above was to keep the lad out of the company and the amusements that might lead him into forgetfulness of his vow, and into temptations for its breach. The simple food, the hard work, the frugal living, all build up a robust body, and inure it to hardships.

Over and over again Manu speaks on this: “Let the wise man exercise assiduity in the restraint of the senses, wandering among alluring objects, as the driver (restrains) the horses” (Manu Smriti 2:88). “Having brought into subjection all his senses, and also regulated his mind, he may accomplish all his objects by yoga, without emaciating his body” (Manu Smriti 2:100).

The Chandogya Upanishad (8.4.3 and 5.1-4) declares that yajna, worship of an ishta-devata, the feeding of the poor, the dwelling in forests, are all summed up in brahmacharya, and that the third heaven of Brahma is only thus obtained.

The practice of self-control and complete continence was rendered much more easy than it would otherwise have been, by the care bestowed on the physical development and training of youth by physical exercises and games of all kinds. In the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, we read of the way in which the youths were practiced in the use of weapons, in riding and driving, in sports and feats of skill. These physical exercises formed a definite part of their education, and contributed to the building up of a vigorous and healthy frame.

Grihastha ashrama

Having thus fulfilled the student period in study and strict chastity, the youth was to present his teacher with a gift, according to his ability,  and return home to enter the household life. Then, and then only, was he to take a wife, and the responsibilities of man’s estate. After marriage, great temperance in sexual relations was enjoined, marital connexion being only permissible on any one of ten nights in a month (see Manu Smriti 3.45-49).

Women were to be honored and loved, else no welfare could attend the home: “They must be honored and adorned by fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law, desiring welfare. Where women are honored, there verily the devas rejoice; where they are not honored, there indeed all rites are fruitless. Where the female relatives grieve, there the family quickly perishes; where they do not grieve, that family always prospers.” (Manu Smriti 3.55-57). “In the family in which the husband is contented with his wife, and the wife, with the husband, there happiness is ever sure” (Manu Smriti 3.60).

The Grihastha is the very heart of aryan life; every thing depends on him. “As all creatures live supported by air, so the other orders exist supported by the householder” (Manu Smriti 3.77). “Of all these, by the precepts of the Veda-Shruti, the householder is called the best; he verily supports the other three. As all streams and rivers flow to rest in the ocean, so all the ashramas flow to rest in the householder” (Manu Smriti 3.89-90). Hence the householder is the best of the orders. He has the duty of accumulating wealth–in this the Vaishya is the typical householder–and of distributing it rightly.

Hospitality is one of his chief duties, and in this he must never fail. “The kind word is never lacking in the houses of the good” (Manu Smriti 3.101). “He must ever feed first his guests, Brahmanas, his relatives and his servants, and then he and his wife should eat, but even before these he should serve brides, infants, the sick, and pregnant women” (Manu Smriti 3.114-116).

The householder must daily offer the Five Great Sacrifices. They are offerings for the five orders of sentient beings: 1) worship of devas (gods); 2) offerings for the welfare of departed human souls; 3) human beings–especially the poor, travelers and uninvited guests; 4) non-domesticated, free-roaming animals (this can include insects such as ants); 5) meditation practice–as worship-offering to the Self of the grihastha (also considered as worship of Ishwara). And by Brahmana householders the duty of the monthly shraddhas (rituals for the welfare of departed souls) should be observed (Manu Smiriti 4.17).

“The Brahmana should maintain his studies, and not follow occupations which prevent study, but earn his living in some business that does not injure others” (Manu Smriti 4.2). Careful rules are laid down for conduct, which will be dealt with in Part III, as they belong to the general conduct of life, the householder being the typical human being. His special virtues are hospitality, industry, truth, honesty, liberality, charity, purity of food and life. He may enjoy wealth and luxury, provided he gives alms.

Vanaprastha ashrama

The householder may quit the household life and become a vanaprastha (forest dweller), going to the forest when, as before said, he is growing old and has grandchildren. His wife may go with him, or remain with her sons, and he goes forth, taking with him the sacred fire and sacrificial instruments. His duty to the world is now to help it by prayer and sacrifice, and he is accordingly to continue to offer the five daily sacrifices, together with the agnihotra, the new and full moon sacrifices and others. The rule of his life is to be sacrifice, study, austerity, and kindness to all: “Let him ever be engaged in Veda study, controlled, friendly, collected; ever a giver, not a receiver, compassionate to all beings” (Manu Smriti 6.8).

Sannyas ashrama

This simple ascetic life leads him on to the last stage, that of the Sannyasi, the man who has renounced all. He no longer offers sacrifices, having given all his property away; he lives alone, with trees for shelter, his life given to meditation. “Let him be without fire, without dwelling, let him go to a village for food, indifferent, firm of purpose, a muni of collected mind” (Manu Smriti 6.43).

Then follows a beautiful description of the true Sannyasi: “Let him not wish for death, let him not wish for life, let him wait for the time, as a servant for the order of his master. Let him set feet purified (guided) by sight, let him drink water purified by (being strained through a) cloth, let him speak words purified by truth, let him do acts purified (governed) by reason. Let him endure harsh language, and let him not insult anyone; nor, relying on this (perishable) body, let him make an enemy of anyone. Let him not return anger to the angry, let him bless when cursed; let him not utter lying speech, scattered at the seven gates (i.e. speech showing desire for the fleeting and false objects of the five outer senses and manas and buddhi). Rejoicing in the Supreme Self, sitting indifferent, refraining from sensual delights, with himself for his only friend, let him wander here (on the earth), aiming at liberation” (Manu Smriti 6.45-49).

He is to meditate constantly on transmigration and suffering, on the Supreme Self and Its presence in high and low alike, to trace the jivatman through its many births, and to rest in Brahman alone. Thus doing, he reaches Brahman.

In sum

Such were the four Ashramas of Sanatana Dharma, designed for the training of man to the highest ends. In modern days they cannot be completely revived in their letter, but they might be revived in their spirit, to the great improvement of modern life.

The student period must now be passed in school and college, for the most part, instead of in the ashrama of the guru; but the same principles of frugal, hardy, simple living might be carried out, and brahmacharya might be universally observed.

The grihastha ideal, commenced at marriage, might be very largely followed in its sense of duty and responsibility, in its discharge of religious obligations, in its balanced ordering of life, in its recognition of all claims, of all debts.

The third ashrama could not be lived in the forest by many; but the idea of the gradual withdrawal from worldly life, of the surrender of the conduct of business into the hands of the younger generation, of the making of meditation, study and worship the main duties of life–all this could be carried out. And the presence of such aged and saintly men and women would sanctify the whole community, and would serve as a constant reminder of the dignity and reality of the religious life, setting up a noble ideal, and raising, by their example, the level of the whole society.

[Editor’s Note. I have seen the vanaprastha ashrama lived in these very times in two places.

The first was in the sacred city of Naimisharanya in the Naradananda Ashram which was comprised of four hundred acres divided into a Brahmacharya Ashram, a Grihastha Ashram, a Vanaprastha Ashram and a Sannyas Ashram. People (including children) were living there, moving from one ashrama to the next. One entire place for the Vanaprastha and Sannyas Ashrams was thickly planted with a kind of giant grass that was about ten feet high, blocking out everything but the sky. In the Vanaprastha Ashram there were cleared areas allotted to each couple. And between them were narrow paths leading to the other vanaprasthas’ areas. The vanaprasthas I met were from a prosperous and highly educated background. So I was amazed to see that they were living in clearings about twenty-five or thirty feet square, in the middle of which was a platform about two feet high. On this platform was a thatched hut made of woven mats–all four sides and the slightly pitched roof. There was a “door” made from the same kind of mats. On the platform, at one end of the hut, was a manual water pump. No electricity. That was it. The vanaprasthas I met were cordial, happy and peaceful people, intent on their sadhana. (The sannyasis had only a round clearing twelve or fifteen feet in diameter with a round mat hut about six feet in diameter.)

The second was in Kankhal, just across the Ganga canal between Hardwar and Kankhal. It was actually a moderately large “apartment” complex with a satsang hall on the second floor of one building. One couple living there were old friends of mine from my very first visit to India. When I first met them they were living in Delhi. The husband was a motion picture engineer, a member of the richest family in the state. He and his wife were disciples of a great yogi, Swami Ramananda of Almora. All of Ramananda’s disciples were strong yogi-tapaswins, and some years after his mahasamadhi they had bought some land and built the complex named Swami Ramananda Sadhan Dham. (Sadhan Dham means Abode/Home of Sadhana.) My friends lived in a tiny two-room apartment. One room was a kind of living-room kitchen and the other a bedroom. On the living-room kitchen wall there were only two things: a photograph of Swami Ramananda and a framed motto: I Remember Ram and I Live. I Forget Ram and I Die. I met other vanaprasthas there–all peaceful and happy like their Naimisharanya counterparts.

So it can be done right now if someone really wants to.]

A way of life leading to immortality

A life which is well-ordered from beginning to end–that is what is implied in the phrase “the four ashramas.” Two of them–namely that of the student and that of the householder–may be said to represent in the life of an individual that outward-going energy which carries the jiva into the pravritti marga. The two later stages–the life of the vanaprastha and that of the sannyasi–are the stages of withdrawal from the world, and may be said to represent the nivritti marga in the life of the individual.

But before that: “He who performs such action as his duty, independently of the fruit of action, he is a sannyasi and yogi also, not he that is without fire and rites” (Bhagavad Gita 6:1). Such a man lives in the midst of objects of attachment and is yet without attachment, regarding nothing as his own though possessed of wealth. He then becomes the ideal householder, whom the grihastha reflects, and verifies in its fullest sense the dictum of Manu that the householder order is the highest of all because it is the support of all. And the household life is truly lived only where a man sets before himself that high ideal of administrator rather than owner, servant rather than master of all.

So wisely did the ancient ones mark out the road along which a man should tread, that any man who takes this plan of life, divided into four stages, will find his outgoing and indrawing energies rightly balanced. First the student stage, properly lived and worthily carried out; then the householder stage, with all its busy activity in every direction of worldly business; then the gradual withdrawal from activity, the turning inward, the life of comparative seclusion, of prayer and of meditation, of the giving of wise counsel to the younger generation engaged in worldly activities; and then the life of complete renunciation.

In the life of Sannyasa the jivatman lives out his inner detachment and indifference to the prior modes of earthly life, but this detachment and separation are natural and spontaneous, arising from his spiritual vision in which he sees the inner and outer lives as part of the Infinite Life that is Brahman. Thus he is really at one with all life. This is the ultimate stage in life and evolution.

It must not be forgotten that the passing through these ashramas and the reaching of liberation has for its object–as we may see from the stories of muktas in the Puranas and Itihasas–the helping-on of the worlds, and the co-operating with Ishwara in His benevolent administration and His guidance of evolution.


The Four Castes

Just as the four ashramas serve as a school for the unfolding of the jivatman during a single life, so do the four castes serve as a similar school for its unfolding during a part of the whole period of its transmigrations.

The basis of caste

It is necessary to see the great principles underlying the caste system in order to estimate its advantages at their proper value; and also in order to distinguish rightly between these fundamental principles and the numerous non-essential, and in many cases mischievous, accretions which have grown up around it, and have become inter-woven with it, in the course of ages.

The first thing to understand is that the evolution of the jivatman is divided into four great stages, and that this is true of every jivatman and is in no sense peculiar to those who, in their outer coverings, are aryans and Hindus. Jivatmans pass into and out of the Hindu religion, but every jivatman is in one or other of the four great stages. These belong to no age and to no civilization, to no race and to no nation. They are universal, of all times and of all races.

The first stage is that which embraces the infancy, childhood and youth of the jivatman, during which he is in a state of pupilage, fit only for service and study, and has scarcely any responsibilities.

The second stage is the first half of his manhood, during which he carries on the ordinary business of the world, bears the burden of household responsibilities, so to say, the accumulation, enjoyment and proper disposal of wealth, together with the heavy duties of organizing, training and educating his youngers in all the duties of life.

The third stage occupies the second half of his manhood, during which he bears the burden of national responsibilities, the duty of protecting, guiding and ruling others, and utterly subordinating his individual interests to the common good, even to the willing sacrifice of his own life for the lives around him.

The fourth stage is the old age of the jivatman, when his accumulated experiences have taught him to see clearly the valuelessness of all earth’s treasures, and have made him rich in wisdom and compassion, the selfless friend of all, the teacher and counsellor of all his youngers.

These stages are, as said above, universal. The peculiarity of the Sanatana Dharma is that these four universal stages have been made the foundation of a social polity and have been represented by four definite external castes, or classes, the characteristics laid down as belonging to each caste being those which characterize the stage of the universal evolution to which the caste corresponds.

Shudra caste

The first stage is represented by the Shudra caste, in which, as we shall see, the rules are few and the responsibilities light. Its one great duty is that of service; its virtues are those which should be evolved in the period of youth and pupilage–obedience, fidelity, reverence, industry and the like.

Vaishya caste

The second stage is represented by the Vaishya, the typical householder, on whom the social life of the nation depends. He comes under strict rules, designed to foster unselfishness and the sense of responsibility, to nourish detachment in the midst of possession, and to make him feel the nation as his household. His virtues are diligence, caution, prudence, discretion, charity and the like.

Kshatriya caste

The third stage is represented by the Kshatriya, the ruler and warrior, on whom depends the national order and safety. He also lives under strict rules, intended to draw out all the energy and strength of his character and to turn them to unselfish ends, and to make him feel that everything he possesses, even life itself, must be thrown away at the call of duty. His virtues are generosity, vigor, courage, strength, power to rule, self-control and the like.

Brahmana (Brahmin) caste

The fourth stage is represented by the Brahmana, the teacher and priest, who lives under the strictest of all rules directed to make him a center of purifying influence, physically as well as morally and spiritually. He is to have outgrown the love of wealth and power, to be devoted to study, learned and wise. He is to be the refuge of all creatures, their sure help in time of need. His virtues are gentleness, patience, purity, self-sacrifice and the like.

How anyone can determine his caste

The jivatman who, in any nation, at any time, exhibits outwardly these types of virtues, belongs to the stage of which his type is characteristic and, if born in India as a Hindu, should be born into the corresponding caste. In this age one can only say “should be,” as the castes are now confused and the types are but rarely found. These characteristic virtues form the “dharma” of each caste, but these dharmas are now, unhappily, disregarded.

It is easy to see that the broad dividing lines of classes everywhere follow these lines of caste.

The manual labor class, the proletariat–to use the Western term–should consist of jivatmans in the Shudra stage.

The organizers of industry, the merchants, bankers, financiers, large agriculturists, traders, should be jivatmans in the Vaishya stage.

The legislators, warriors, the judicial and administrative services, the statesmen and rulers, should be jivatmans who are in the Kshatriya stage.

And the teachers, savants, clergy, the spiritual leaders, should be jivatmans in the Brahmana stage.

There are jivatmans of the four types everywhere, and there are social offices of the four kinds everywhere; but now the four types of jivatmans and the four departments of national life–the ashramas–are mixed up in inextricable confusion, so that every nation presents a whirl of contending individuals, instead of an organized community moving in harmony in all its parts.

Caste duty/dharma

Another fundamental principle of caste was that as the jivatman advanced, his external liberty, as seen above, became more and more circumscribed and his responsibilities heavier and heavier.

The life of the Shudra was easy and irresponsible, with few restrictions as to food, amusement, place of residence or form of livelihood. He could go anywhere and do anything.

The Vaishya had to bear the heavy responsibilities of mercantile life, to support needful public institutions with unstinted charity, to devote himself to business with the utmost diligence; and he was required to study, to make sacrifices, to be pure in his diet, and disciplined in his life.

The Kshatriya, while wielding power, was worked to the fullest extent, and his laborious life, when he was a monarch, would alarm even a diligent king of the present day. The property, the lives of all, were guarded by the warrior caste, and any man’s grievance unredressed was held to dishonor the realm.

Heaviest burden of all was laid on the Brahmana, whose physical life was austere and rigidly simple, who was bound by the most minute rules to preserve his physical and magnetic purity, and whose time was spent in study and worship.

Thus the responsibility increased with the superiority of the caste, and the individual was expected to subordinate himself more and more to the community. The rigid purity of the Brahmana was far less for his own sake than for that of the nation. He was the source of physical health by his scrupulous cleanliness, continually purifying all the particles of matter that entered his body, and sending forth a pure stream to build the bodies of others, for health and gladness are contagious and infectious, for the same reasons as disease and sorrow. The rules which bound him were not intended to subserve pride and exclusiveness, but to preserve him as a purifying force, physical as well as moral and mental.

The whole purpose of the caste system is misconceived when it is regarded as setting up barriers which intensify personal pride, instead of imposing rules on the higher classes, designed to forward the good of the whole community. As Manu said: “Let the Brahmana flee from homage as from venom: let him ever desire indignity as nectar” (Manu Smriti 2.162).

Scriptural prescriptions

Let us now study some of the statements made on this subject in the Shruti and Smriti.

The general principle laid down above as to the universality of the four great stages and as to their being founded on natural divisions is enunciated by Sri Krishna: “The four castes were emanated by me, by the different distribution of the energies (attributes) and actions; know me to be the author of them” (Bhagavad Gita 4:13).

It is this distribution which marks out the castes, and it is not, of course, confined to India. But in the land in which settled the first family of the aryan stock, the Manu established a model polity or social order, showing in miniature the course of evolution, and into this were born jivatmans belonging to the different stages, who exhibited outwardly the characteristics of the several castes, and thus formed a truly model state. This was “the golden age” of India, and the traditions of this still linger, the splendid background of her history.

When humanity is symbolized as a vast man or when the Ishwara is spoken of as emanating men, then we have the following graphic picture of the four castes: “The Brahmana was His mouth; the Rajanya (Kshatriya) was made His two arms; His two thighs the Vaishya; the Shudra was born from His two feet” (Rig Veda 10.90.12). The teacher is the mouth, and the ruling power the arms; the merchants are the pillars of the nation, as the thighs of the body, while all rest on the manual worker. As we see the facts and necessities of social organization, we cannot but recognize the inevitableness of the division, whether it be represented or not by a system of four castes.

The virtues that constitute the four castes are thus described by Sri Krishna: “Of the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas, as also the Shudras, the duties (karmas) are distributed according to the qualities of their swabhava. Tranquility, self-restraint, tapasya, purity (cleanliness), patience, uprightness (honesty; sincerity), knowledge, realization (vijnana), belief in God–these are the duties of Brahmins, born of their swabhava. Valor, splendor (majesty), steadfastness (courage), skill (virtuosity), not fleeing in battle, generosity and lordliness of spirit are the duties of Kshatriyas, born of their swabhava. Agriculture, cow-herding and trade are the duties of the Vaishyas, born of their swabhava, and the Shudras’ duty is doing service, born of their swabhava” (Bhagavad Gita 18:41-44). Thus clearly are outlined the dharmas of the four castes, the qualities which should be developed in each of the four great stages of the pilgrimage of the jivatman through samsara.

Manu explains the occupations of each caste very clearly: “He, the Resplendent, for the sake of protecting all this creation, assigned separate karmas to those born of His mouth, arms, thighs and feet. Teaching and studying the Veda, sacrificing and also guiding others in offering sacrifices, gifts and receiving of gifts, these He assigned to the Brahmanas. The protection of the people, gifts, sacrificing, and study of the Vedas, non-attachment amid the objects of the senses, these He prescribed to the Kshatriyas. The protection of cattle, gifts, sacrificing, and study of the Vedas, commerce, banking, and agriculture, to the Vaishyas. The Lord commanded one karma only to the Shudras, to serve ungrudgingly these castes” (Manu Smriti 1.87-91). Thus the Brahmanas alone might teach the Vedas, but the duty of studying them belonged equally to the three twice-born castes.

A man who did not outwardly follow the dharma of his caste was not regarded as belonging to it, according to the teachers of the ancient days. We have already seen that ignorant Brahmanas were mere ashes, unfit for the discharge of their duties. 

And even more strongly Manu says: “As a wooden elephant, as a leathern deer, such is an unlearned Brahmana; the three bear only names” (Manu Smriti 2.157). “The Brahmana who, not having studied the Vedas, labors elsewhere, becomes a Shudra in that very life together with his descendants” (Manu Smriti 2.168). And again: “The Shudra becomes a Brahmana and a Brahmana a Shudra (by conduct). Know this same (rule to apply) to him who is born of the Kshatriya or of the Vaishya” (Manu Smriti 10.65).

So also Yudhishthira taught the fundamental distinctions, without the existence of which caste becomes a mere name: “Truth, gift, forgiveness, good conduct, gentleness, austerity, and mercy, where these are seen, he is called a Brahmana. If these marks exist in a Shudra and are not in a twice-born, the Shudra is not a Shudra, nor the Brahmana a Brahmana. Where this conduct is exhibited, he is called a Brahmana; where this is not, he should be regarded as a Shudra” (Mahabharata, Vana-parvan, 180.21, 25-26).

In the Vishnu Bhagavata we read: “What is said as to the marks of conduct indicative of a man’s caste, if those marks are found in another, designate him by the caste of his marks [and not of his birth]” (Vishnu Bhagavata 7.11.35). Commenting on this Shridhara Swami says: “Brahmanas and others are to be chiefly recognized by Shama and other qualities, and not by their birth alone.… By birth every one is a Shudra. By Samskara he becomes twice-born.”

Further it must be remembered: “The Vedas do not purify him who is devoid of good conduct.” (Vashishtha Smriti 6.3).

So also we find that the preceptor Haridrumata of the Gotama gotra, approached by Satyakama, desirous of becoming his pupil, asked him his gotra; the boy answered that his mother did not know his gotra, for he was born when she was engaged in waiting on guests [so she did not know who was his father], and he could only go by her name; he was therefore merely Satyakama, the son of Jabala. Haridrumata declared that an answer so truthful was the answer of a Brahmana, and he would therefore initiate him. (Chandogya Upanishad 4.4)

Change of caste

Much question has arisen as to the possibility of a man passing from one caste to another during a single life. It is, of course, universally granted that a man raises himself from one caste to another by good conduct, but it is generally considered that the conduct bears fruit by birth into a higher caste in the succeeding life. The texts quoted in support of passage from one caste to another will mostly bear this interpretation, just as by degradation from one caste to another rebirth in a lower caste was generally meant.

But there are cases on record of such passage during a single life. The history of Vishwamitra, a Kshatriya, becoming a Brahmana is familiar to every one (see Ramayana, Bala-kanda, 57-65), but equally familiar are the tremendous efforts he made ere he attained his object–a proof of the extreme difficulty of the change. Gargya, the son of Shini, and Trayyaruni, Kavi and Pushkararuni, the sons of Duritakshaya, all Kshatriyas, became Brahmanas, as did Mudgala, son of Bharmyashva, also a Kshatriya, Vitahavya, a Kshatriya, was made a Brahmana by Bhrigu, in whose ashrama he had taken refuge (Mahabharata, Anushasana-parvan, 30).

The truth probably is that changes of caste were made in the ancient days, but that they were rare, and that good conduct for the most part took effect in rebirth into a higher caste. Even the famous sloka: “Not birth, nor Samskaras, nor study of the Vedas, nor ancestry, are causes of Brahmanahood. Conduct alone is verily the cause thereof” (Mahabharata, Vana-parvan, 313.108) may apply as well to rebirth into a higher caste as to transference into it. In ancient days the immediate present was not as important as it is now, the continuing life of the jivatman being far more vividly kept in mind, and the workings of karmic law more readily acquiesced in. Nor were the divisions of castes then felt to be an injustice, as they now are when the dharmas of the castes are neglected, and high caste is accompanied by a feeling of pride instead of by one of responsibility and service.

The present day

Innumerable subdivisions have arisen within the great castes, which have no foundation in nature and therefore no stability nor justification. By these much social friction is caused, and petty walls of division arc set up, jealousies and rivalries taking the place of the ancient co-operation for the general good. The circles of inter-marriage become too restricted, and local and unimportant customs become fossilized into religious obligations, making social life run in narrow grooves and cramping limitations, tending to provoke rebellion and exasperate feelings of irritation. Moreover, many of the customs regarded as most binding are purely local, customs being vital in the South which are unknown in the North, and vice versa.

Hence Hindus are split up into innumerable little bodies, each hedged in by a wall of its own, regarded as all-important. It is difficult, if not impossible, to create a national spirit from such inharmonious materials, and to induce those who are accustomed to such narrow horizons to take a broader view of life. While a man of one of the four castes, in the old days, felt himself to be an integral part of a nation, a man of a small sub-caste has no sense of organic life, and tends to be a sectarian rather than a patriot.

At the present time a man of any caste takes up any occupation, and makes no effort to cultivate the characteristic virtues of his caste. Hence the inner and the outer no longer accord, and there is jangle instead of harmony. No caste offers to incoming jivatmans physical bodies and physical environments fitted for one caste more than for another, and the castes consequently no longer serve as stages for the evolving jivatmans. Hence the great value of the Hindu system as a graduated school, into which jivatmans could pass for definite training in each stage, has well-nigh ceased, and the evolution of the human race is thereby delayed.

Final conclusions

The caste system is one on which the student, when he goes out into the world, will find great difference of opinion among pious and highly educated men, and he will have to make up his own mind upon it, after careful study and deliberation. It is the system which Manu considered best for the fifth, or, aryan, race, the Pancha-janas, and in its early days ensured order, progress and general happiness, as no other system has done. It has fallen into decay under those most disintegrating forces in human society–pride, exclusiveness, selfishness, the evil brood of ahamkara wedded to the personal self instead of to the Supreme Self.

Unless the abuses which are interwoven with it can be eliminated, its doom is certain; but equally certain is it, that if those abuses could be destroyed and the system itself maintained, Hinduism would solve some of the social problems which threaten to undermine Western civilization, and would set an example to the world of an ideal social state.


The Four Purusharthas

The question may well be asked: What is the good of all these institutions of ashramas and varnas, stages of life and caste-classes; of worship, sacrifices, Samskaras; indeed, what is the good of all these visible and invisible worlds, births and rebirths, karma and its consequences; in short, why is there any universe, why is there any life, why do we live, what is the purpose, end, aim, object of life, what is the good of it all?

This question is, no doubt, the question of questions. It is the final question to which all other questions lead up–in which they are all summed up. The answer to it, therefore, is the answer of all answers. The proper understanding of that answer makes it possible to answer all questions that may arise in connection with the human being’s life-work. The scriptures therefore duly deal with the question and supply the answer.

We have seen in Section One that behind and beyond everything as the root, source, basis of everything, we have to believe in “the One Existence,” One Supreme Being. Each religion calls It by many names. Different religions and different languages give it different names. In fact, “That Infinite One bears all names whatsoever; It wears all forms that there are in the universe, minutest to vastest; It does all acts, makes all movements, everywhere, in all time” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.6.1-3). Whatever names, forms or acts there are–all belong to It.

The nearest manifestation of It, and the conclusive proof to us of It, is our own consciousness, which appears as self-consciousness: “I Am.” It is not possible to doubt the existence of my Self. In fact, no one ever can, or ever does, doubt It. If any one doubts It, then he, the doubter, is himself It; It exists as the doubter and as the doubt. Behind, beyond, higher, deeper, further than this Ultimate Fact, it is not possible to go. It is the Ultimate Mystery; It is also the immediately clear sun: our Self.

Now this Final Principle of all Life and Consciousness, as if for play, amusement, pastime, lila, krida, makes and unmakes, creates and destroys, countless bodies, countless worlds. It, so to say, puts on and puts off appearances just as a human being may put on and put off clothes; or as he may imagine himself now a king and again a beggar, now waking and working, and again sleeping and resting.

This Life-Principle, this Spirit, appears first to descend into matter, and then to re-ascend out of it; to be “born” into a body, to put on a body, to make it grow, then to make it decay, then to cast it off, and, as is said, “die.” This process is repeated endlessly, on all scales of time and space, in minutest atoms and vastest star-systems. Details are sketched, in broad outlines, in the Puranas. This process constitutes what we call chakras, cycles, of involution, evolution, dissolution, re-involution, etc. This has been briefly indicated in Part One of this book. There are many names for the two parts of this cyclical movement.

The human stage of development

After having passed through very many other living forms referred to before in Part One, Chapter One, the spirit comes to the stage of man. Then it becomes, or rather makes itself, subject to the laws of conscious karma and its consequences.

Now, when the spirit or soul has advanced to a fairly high stage in evolution as man, after many births, it becomes able to ask, and asks itself consciously: What am I? What is all this? Why is all this? What is the meaning and purpose of life?

Slowly it discovers answers, as above, with the help of the teachings embodied in the scriptures by the elders of the race. The “meaning” of life is, as just said, first: play, pastime, lila, krida, then kaivalya, resting quietly in solitude, alone, all-one; first “waking,” then “sleeping,” first “activity,” then “rest.”

The “purpose” of life always is the achievement of happiness, pleasure, joy, bliss. That is clearly the object of “play” as well as “rest.” But, broadly, two kinds of happiness may be distinguished. One is that which arises from contact with the objects of the senses, either in direct or in indirect connection with them. The other is that which arises from complete rest and repose within one’s self, in deep, sound slumber, after tiring of, and retiring from, all sense-objects.

“The rules of conduct, laid down in Vaidika-dharma, are intended to secure both Abhyudaya, worldly joy, and Nihshreyasa, the supreme happiness” (Manu Smriti 12.88). It would be convenient if we called the former by the name of pleasure; and the latter, of happiness; or sense-enjoyment and spiritual bliss respectively.

Because sense-pleasure is not possible without the contrasting background of sense-pain, as light is not possible without darkness, therefore we have pain also in life. “The Supreme Being imposed on all His progeny countless pairs of opposites, beginning with pleasure and pain. All creatures during the period of creative activity are infatuated, crazed, overcome, by the glamor and confusion” (Manu Smriti 1.26). “By desire and aversion rising up through duality’s (dwandwa’s) delusion (moha), at birth all beings fall into delusion” (Bhagavad Gita 7:27).

Twofold purpose of life

In accordance with the meaning and nature of life, the purpose of life becomes twofold; (a) first the securing of pleasure or sense-enjoyment, abhyudaya, prosperity in this world; then (b) the achievement of happiness or spiritual bliss, nihsreyasa, the greatest good. Because the life of the human being is not lived as solitary, but in society, therefore, it is not possible for anyone to achieve either pleasure or happiness without a proper organization of society, and a proper planning out of the individual life. Hence we have the scheme of varnas and ashramas. By the due observance of the rules of this scheme, it becomes possible for every human being to secure a reasonable amount of sense-enjoyment in the first two ashramas, and then gradually to achieve spiritual bliss in the next two.

The Tri-varga

Because refined cultured sense-enjoyment such as befits human beings living in Society is not possible without a reasonable amount of property; and the secure possession and use of such property is not possible without mutual understanding and self-restraint; therefore the purpose of sense-enjoyment, abhyudaya, becomes subdivided into three.

  1. Kama, the pleasure of the senses, and the fine arts, to be rationally enjoyed in the family-life, and as subserved and refined by:
  2. Artha, riches, useful and artistic possessions, property acquired, maintained and used in accordance with:
  3. (3) Dharma, law and religion, which lay down rights and duties.

The order in which the three are usually mentioned is (1) Dharma, (2) Artha, (3) Kama, in order to emphasize the supreme importance of dharma; and then, in the next degree, that of artha, for the preservation and the well-being of society. The next and final purpose, called nihshreyasa, “greatest good, than which there is no greater good,” summum bonum, paramam shreyah, is usually not subdivided. Thus we have the three purusarthas, ends or purposes of life: “what the human being desires.”

The triad of Dharma-Artha-Kama is known as the Tri-varga.

The Triad of Moksha

Moksha has its own triad, that of Sattwa-Rajas-Tamas; i.e., the transcendence of these three, rising superior to these three, knowing them to be the qualities of the Changeful Many, Prakriti, and not of the Changeless Supreme Being, the One Existence, Paramatman, the Supreme Self. Another way of explaining this triad of Moksha is that the Tamas aspect of it is bhakti, universal love; the Rajas aspect, yogaiswarya (mastery of yoga), yoga siddhis (yogic powers), used for the service of living beings; and the Sattwa-aspect, jnana or prajna, and virakti (vairagya) or mukti proper, extinction of all selfishness, freedom from all selfish desire, and the constant awareness that all life is One Life, though manifesting in conflicting and mutually balancing and neutralizing opposites.

The means of accomplishment

In the light of these four ends of life we can now understand the “good,” the “use,” of all the details of the Varnasrama Dharma, Vaidika Dharma, Sanatana Dharma, or Manava Dharma, as it is variously called. They all help us to achieve these ends duly.

Sanatana Dharma is so called, because it is the Dharma, the Scheme of Laws, of mutual rights and duties, human and divine, which arises out of the nature of the one and only Sanatana, Everlasting–namely the Paramatman. “This primeval [Self] is eternal, all-pervading, and immovable” (Bhagavad Gita 2:24).

It is called 1) Vaidika-dharma, because it is religion based upon Veda, “spiritual and scientific knowledge;” 2) Varnasrama-dharma, the dharma of varnas, vocational class-castes, and of ashramas, stages of life; 3) Manava-dharma, the Religion of Humanity, ordained by Manu, and for all humanity, the race of Manavas, “men.”

The main features of this great and comprehensive dharma may be summed up in a Unity, and a few duads, triads, and quartettes thus:

a) Paramatman or Brahman, “the One without a Second”;
b) Purusha and Prakriti, the One and the Many, the One including countless Seconds;
c) Ishwara-Jiva-Jagat, a personal god, souls, and a solar system;
d) Pravritti and nivritti, evolution and involution, integration and dissolution;
e) Dwandwas, countless pairs of opposites;
f) Three gunas, three attributes of matter and three functions of mind;
g) Three states of consciousness–jagrat, swapna, sushupti, waking-dreaming-slumbering;
h) Three bodies of man;
i) Three worlds;
j) The laws of karma and punarjanma [reincarnation];
k) Punya [merit] and papa [sin], right and wrong, virtue and vice;
l) Three rinas, congenital debts:

1) to the rishis (study of the Vedas);
2) to the gods/devas (sacrifices and worship);
3) to the ancestors (to have children);

m) Four ashramas;
n) Four castes;
o) Four Purusharthas, ends of life, which make life intelligible and purposeful to us.

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Chapters in Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Religion

About Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Religion

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