Varnasrama ethics and morality

By editor - 27.6 2015

Varnasrama deals with ethics and morality, which do not constitute spiritual life proper. Thus engaging in varnasrama is not the goal of life. When we are concerned with ascertaining the ultimate goal, many things will be rejected, even though they may have some utility in realizing the goal. The utility of varnasrama is that it invites the influence of sattva. When we understands our psychosomatic reality, we are better equipped to lead a well balanced life and pursue the spiritual ideal. To this extent varnasrama, or better, the spirit and essence of this system, has value in relation to the goal of life.

In the terminology of the Gita, a psychologically well-adjusted person is one who is aware of the particular influence that the gunas exert on his psyche and acts in consideration of these influences. Regardless of which gunas one is predominantly influenced by, this basic awareness is itself the influence of sattva, which subtly governs the Gita‘s varnasrama social system. In the Gita‘s vision, the essential first step of goodness is to be situated in one’s prescribed duty, a duty that corresponds with one’s psychology. By being properly placed, one finds a sense of harmony with one’s materially conditioned self, which makes the cultivation of other aspects of goodness possible.

Those whose actions are not determined in consideration of their psychology will be out of balance and more easily fall prey to the influences of passion and ignorance. At the same time. sattva itself must also be transcended because it keeps us from ultimate freedom in loving union with God. Under its influence one often remains a prisoner to religious tradition, rather than realizing the tradition’s essential message.

Those whose psyche is predominated by sattva can, to a corresponding extent, directly and naturally pursue transcendental life, whereas those dominated by rajas and tamas will find this course more difficult. For such people, although they may progress in an absolute sense, relative problems such as psychological dysfunctions may arise and create some impediments.

This notion of the gunas and their relation to spiritual culture and psychological wellbeing fits well with transpersonal psychology. In this model, the necessity of developing into a psychologically well-adjusted person is considered a prerequisite to, or a parallel discipline intended to complement, spiritual culture proper.

In the interest of “establishing varnasrama” we should take into consideration the extent to which modern society is gravitating towards a kind of social integration rather than the social segregation involved in varnasrama. We should take an essential look at this modern tendency, find the value in it, and go with that, advocating something that does not go radically against the current of our times yet fulfills the essence of varnasrama.

Humanity seems to be gravitating towards the common ground of our species as humans, rather than perceived differences of race, sex, creed, etc. This has value, yet equality and fulfillment, properly understood, are not attainable within the realm of morals. Humanism and morality can never fulfill the soul. Nor can morality realize its own ideal of a perfect human society and remain vital, because morality itself is dependent upon having a society in need of morals. A perfect society is not in need of morality. Spiritual life transcends varnasrama.

Equality of opportunity and representation, the heart of democracy, belong to the realm of the soul. The common spiritual practice for all to realize this equality is chanting the names of God. In order to do so peacefully and progressively, it will be helpful to develop in terms of being well-adjusted individuals (sattva-guna). Although this may happen through the direct culture of spiritual life (ceto darpana marjanam), practically we find that many people after years of chanting have not developed this clean heart, which is representative of the influence of sattva.

Thus the need is for daiva-varnasrama, varnasrama for devotees. The very heart of varnasrama is about facilitating the development of this well-adjusted, integrated human being, which develops from being aware of one’s psychosomatic reality. This in turn facilitates spiritual culture.

In other words, the principle of varnasrama, based as it is on consideration of the gunas, is universal. It need not be limited to a literal expression of this universality relative to times gone by. After all, it is material. It concerns the realm of relativity—morality and ethics. Its value ultimately lies in its advocacy of an absolute reality that transcends it. Moksa renders it altogether meaningless, whereas prema, in doing the same, superficially employs it in lila.

If it is not understood in this light, there is little hope of realizing our equality or “establishing varnasrama” today—even in the society of devotees, much less in human society.

More on this story: 
Varnasrama articles
Place of Shudras in Vedas