In addition to the general obligations everyone has their own duties (svadharma), depending on who they are. A famous instantiation of this is varnashrama dharma. The varnas are the four great classes of brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (warriors or rulers), vaishyas (merchants and farmers), and shudras (servants) whose creation from the dismemberment of Primal Man is related in the Rig Veda (10.90.11-12). This ancient hierarchical model accords the priests a privileged position as performers of Vedic sacrifices and custodians of Vedic knowledge. A distinction is made between the three higher classes, designated ‘twice-born’ on the basis of their eligibility for initiation into Vedic learning and investiture with the sacred thread, and the fourth class who are excluded from these. There were other considered to be outside the varna system. How this theoretical scheme of the four varnas relates to the thousands of jatis (‘castes’) is disputed (see Caste, class, varna and jati). Many contemporary Hindus suggest that the varnas should not be interpreted as classes to which one belongs by birth, but in terms of diverse aptitudes and abilities, and that careful reading of the ancient texts reveals that the idea of fixed categories only developed later.

The ashramas are the four lifestyles of celibate student, householder, hermit and renouncer. These can be seen as alternatives (as probably they were originally) so that a man could choose to be a renouncer for life rather than getting married and forming a household, or as later developed, seen as four stages in the same life. This system only applies to men in the three highest varnas eligible for initiation into Vedic knowledge. It excludes not only men from the lowest varna (shudras) and from groups outside of the varna system, but also all women whose traditional place in this scheme is only secondary, though significant, as the wives of householders who shared their husbands’ ritual and familial responsibilities. Women’s duty or stridharma centres on being a wife and is associated with the pativrata (‘husband-vowed’) ideal of a wife who is devoted to her husband and who consecrates her life to his service, which is exemplified by heroines such as Sita, the wife of Rama (see Gender and the role and status of women).

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Hindu Worldview Traditions


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