Category Archives: D. Hindu Social Organization and Values

The Bardic Tradition in Hinduism

Bards, in the English Oxford Dictionary, are defined as poets who recite epics and are tied to a certain tradition. India’s bards were not merely poets, rather, they had numerous duties which were much more intricate. Bards were genealogists, astrologers, praise poets, historians, court minstrels, and artisans (Balfour 341). They were responsible for reciting genealogies at weddings, keeping family history and lineage, and performing praise-poetry to deities and chiefs. They would also recite history and myths during festivals or rituals. In the past, they would announce and salute their kings in a social setting, and were regarded as sacred or Brahmin-like. Possessing a sacred status allowed bards to find employment guarding caravans or travellers, and to witness contracts and financial arrangements by threatening self-mutilation (traga) if one were to renege (Snodgrass 2004: 276). In 1885, it was reported that bards were found all over India, but were concentrated in Rajputana (modern day Rajasthan), and that every family of importance in Rajputana had at least one bard to announce their tittles and achievements (Balfour 342). As a result of British colonial rule and laws, many services that bards would have provide are now obsolete, such as announcing tittles for their kings, as India is no longer a monarchy. Rajasthan is one area that maintained bardic tradition and culture. As a result, many bards still reside and make a living there today (Snodgrass 276). Modern bards make a living as musicians, puppeteers, genealogists, religious teachers, agriculture farmers, and reciters of historical knowledge.

Bardic hierarchy was dependent on how close to centres of wealth and power they were, and the reputation of a king often depended on his bard. A king or warrior would desire a loyal, talented bard, to ensure “his name will survive his death” (Hardy 112). The relationship of bards and their patrons was one of gifts in exchange for services (Basu 85). Jeffery Snodgrass reports a myth told to him by Narayan Bhat, a Rajasthan bard, that illustrates the powerful influence bards possess due to their mastery of language (Snodgrass 2004: 270). In the myth, Man Sing, king of Jaipur, gifts his bard with an elephant for praising his son’s birth. The bard was upset that he had an elephant but not the equipment to ride it and the king noticed, asking him what more he would want. The bard explained and the king was enraged, to which the bard replied that the king should shove the elephant up his ass (Snodgrass 2004:271). Man Singh then had to travel to a wedding without his bard to accompany him, where all of the other guest bards were reciting praise poetry. This elevated all other guests above Man Singh. The bard had come secretly, and was then spotted by the king, distressing him. He feared the bard would insult him in front of everyone. To avoid this, the king motioned to the bard that he would receive 4 elephants if he raised his honour. The bard created a verse that compared Man Singh to Visnu, able to destroy Ravana’s fortress, a member of the solar system himself This won the competition and impressed all the other kings. The bard received his four elephants for his work. (Snodgrass, 2004: 272). The myth exemplifies the influence of bards on kingly reputation, the interdependence of kings and their clients. Bards used their influence over reputation in other ways, being masters of language and regarded as sacred, some bards were said to have “the power of the ‘word’, the corpus of sounds by which the moral order of society is maintained and altered” (Kamphorst 228). Certain bards were regarded as rsi-poets, able to curse, predict the future, or cure ailments. Others would simply jest and satire a person publicly for disgrace or mistreatment. In this way, bards would promote Dharmic behaviour through their mastery and clever use of language (Basu 220).

Modern Rajasthan, an Indian state that has maintained strong bardic identity, holds two main classes of bards: Bhats and Charans. These words are derived from Sanskrit roots. In the Dictionary of Spoken Sanskrit, Bhat comes from a Sanskrit translation meaning ‘scholar’ or ‘lord,’ while Charan is said to mean ‘god’s feet’ or ‘son or daughter of the goddess.’ These definitions introduce an important concept regarding the status of these two Bardic classes, that Charans are perceived as elite over the Bhats (Kamphorst 225). In Hindu mythology, there is a story of how Mahadeva (Siva) created a Bhat to attend to his lion and bull, but every day the bull was killed by the lion. Mahadeva, tired of creating a bull daily, created Charan, equally devout as the Bhat but of bolder spirit, to watch over the lion and the bull. From that date on the bull was never slain again (Balfour 341). This gives Charans a strong identity, that allegorically they are guardians of justice, in the from of the bull, against savage violence, as the lion (Kamphorst 225). This myth highlights differences in the tradition of the two classes, such as their claim of different ancestry, and subsequently their identity as separate Indian castes.

In Rajasthan today, Bhats are low caste bards who mainly make a living as entertainers. Most commonly they are puppeteers who make a profit by selling their puppets to tourists after a show. They claim descent from Brahmins who composed Sanskrit verses of praise on stone tablets in temples (Snodgrass 2004: 275). They currently serve an untouchable caste of leather workers called Bhambhis through jokes, dramas, stories, and music. If they share food with these patrons, they are moved into the lowest caste with them in the view of Brahmin and other orthodox adherents (Snodgrass 2004:273). The Bhats perceive themselves, however, as equal if not greater than Brahmins. This is a result of their culture of language and learning: they create myths that make the other castes of society seem dependent on their skill over words. In their view, remembering history is a process that keeps the past alive and is an act of reconstruction (Snodgrass 2004: 282). This also identifies them with the Brahmin, as the ideology behind Hindu ritual sacrifice is to reconstruct the dismemberment of Purusa.

Colonialism had a large impact on the livelihood of these bards. The need for bards as messengers and negotiators faded as Britain demilitarized regions of India. Their function as guardians of caravans and contracts dissipated as railways replaced caravan routes, and acts of self mutilation (traga) were outlawed. Replacing feudal landholding and the patron-client economy with commercialization deprived bards of their property, status, and income (Snodgrass 2004: 277). Modernization extinguished many bardic duties, though some have survived in new contexts. Genealogies are still recited at weddings; also, hotels, restaurants, nobles, and militants hire Bhats to present history and epics through puppeteering and storytelling. This allows them to make a living through an art of their past. They are also employed at folklore festivals, singing and poetry competitions, and maintain some of their power over reputation during elections. When the Babri Masjid Mosque was destroyed in 1992, the Baharatiya Janata Party hired Bhats to spread anti-Muslim sentiment and help them gain popularity to win the upcoming election (Snodgrass 2004: 279).

Charans are an elite bard caste in western India that identify with the Ksatriya, rather than the Brahmin varna. The root of the word Charan can be traced back to the Rajasthan words caranau (to graze or wander), uccaraṇ (the art of recitation, verbal expression), or chahaṛ (love, justice). Each of these relate to Charan lineage and identity as cattle and horse traders, linguistic masters, and agents of loving devotion (bhakti) to goddesses (devi) (Kamphorst 224). Charans fulfill the same roles as Bhats, while possessing a unique identity of their own as more courageous and fierce. The Mahadeva bull myth is likely the origin for this difference. Their courage is attributed to their role as royal bards who would ride into battle with their kings. Being on the battlefield allowed them to create ballads that would commemorate the deeds of their warriors. Charans have distinct literature on this; Vira kava, a genre of warrior and king hero praise, and panegyrics: praise of battle-field bravery, victory, royal generosity, and sacrifice (Basu 83). Charans experienced significant loss of their culture, as Bhats did, during colonization. When Europe colonized India there were no longer frequent battles over territory, the result of this was evident in Charan literature. They could no longer compose praise about the best warriors, so they began to glorify the best hunters. Eventually, modernization caused them to become praise poets of their own caste (Basu 90).  Praising themselves and their tradition allowed them to become unique. As bardic tradition came to an end throughout much of India during British rule, they maintained an active and strong culture. Ancient bardic tradition and practices still thrive daily in Kacch, and a festival dedicated to Charan lineage takes place there every year.

In Kacch, to applaud, glorify, adore, or eulogize the qualities of an exalted being is considered a vocal art. Charans have mastered this art and made it a part of their social identity (Basu 81). 35000 people in Kacch identify themselves as Charans, which entails: having the ability to compose poetry, recite in many different styles, remember history, love the play of words, and be inclined to asceticism. They have a uniform dress code and claim that Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge, language, and learning, gifted them with their nature. Charans are mainly praise-poets, who doubled as herders, agricultural workers, and artisans. In Kacch they played a larger role in ritual over Brahmin priests. During Navaratri, a 9 night goddess festival, a buffalo is sacrificed and a Charan women would be the first to drink its blood and become host to the goddess for the rest of the royal sacrifice, embodying her. Charan Matajali are human-goddesses, said to have the power to destroy enemies, spontaneously produce water, and uphold the moral status of kings by cursing or rewarding their actions. Some Charan women are deified after death, Ai Sri Sonal Mataji is one of these women who was born in 1920, and passed away in 1975. Sonal Mataji was born into a time of colonial rule in India and was a guide for her people during the changes brought with modernization (Basu 89). She emphasised a vegan diet, meditation, asceticism, anti-alcoholism, and rejected blood sacrifice. The Charan Caste Council created a festival that begins on her birthday, and last two days each year: the Sonal Mataji. The festival allows these bards to keep many of the traditions used by their ancestors in the past. It begins with ritual praise worship, and is followed by praise poetry of the goddess. Lectures are then given on the history of the Charan caste: their origin in the peaks of the Himalayas, their descent down from the mountains, the breeding of cattle, attaching themselves to patrons, their role as warriors, and lastly their establishment in Kacch. The Following Speeches relate these stories to present morals that are expected of these bards today: to be loyal, have dharmic action, and to sacrifice oneself for moral cause. Many performances of poetry, song, and recitals are performed over the two days, creating a sense of belonging that embodies loving devotion (bhakti) to the goddess (Basu 96). This is a modern example of bardic tradition that flourishes today.

An example of Bardic tradition in the past is a 19 night long story that was recorded by a scholar in 1965 (Beck 13). Olappalayam was a village in south India when Brenda Beck conducted her fieldwork. The story is called The Elderbrothers’ Legend, and was conducted by firelight in the evenings with costumes, body paint, drums, and poetic recitation. The story referenced places in past that still exist today, providing geographical information about specific areas and their history. The story also revealed the relationship of kings with their subjects, and illustrated the ethnic and moral code of the area. Beck reported that local ritual, praise, and mannerism, mirrored practices within the story, stressing how important bards are in transmitting Hindu ideology and behaviour. Beck also stated that the story encompassed the regions unique culture and history, revealing the devastating loss of culture from modernization which make it difficult for these stories to be told in the same way today. (Beck, 17)

Bardic tradition is an important aspect of Hindu culture that has experienced drastic change during the period of colonization and industrialization of the world. In the past, bards were considered a sacred order and thus could work as grantors. They were messengers, exclusive educators, court minstrels, could dictated a nobles’ popularity, and would ride into battle reciting warrior praise. In exchange for their service they would receive gifts, such as animals and land. In modern society, they make a living mostly as teachers and agricultural workers, while performing poetry and history on the side. Most bards are now found around Rajasthan, and view themselves as a third social body in the caste system. Genealogies and recitation of family history is part of Hindu weddings still today, and a few bards still make a living as story tellers through theatre (Snodgrass 2004: 278). Some areas of India have defended their bardic lineage and still practice it today, such as the Charans. Overall, bards continue to serve Hinduism by spreading mythology, composing praise, promoting dharmic behaviour, and keeping history alive across generations.


Balfour, Edward (1885) The cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia,             commercial, industrial, and scientific; products of the mineral, vegetable, and animal             kingdoms, useful arts and manufactures, volume 1. London: London B. Quaritch.

Basu, Helen (2005) “Practices of Praise and Social Constructions of Identity: The Bards of         North-West India” Archives de sciences sociales des religions, Vol. 50, No. 3: 81-105.

Beck, Brenda (2011) “Discovering a story.” In Studying Hinduism In Practice. New York:   Routledge. pp.10-23

Hardy, Friedhelm (1995) The Religious Culture of India: Power, Love and Wisdom. Cambridge:                 Cambridge University Press.

Kamphorst, Janet (2008) In praise of death: history and poetry in medieval Marwar (South Asia). Leiden: Leiden University Press.

Snodgrass, Jeffery (2006) Casting Kings: bards and Indian modernity. New York: Oxford            University Press.

Snodgrass, Jeffrey (2004) “The Centre Cannot Hold: Tales of Hierarchy and Poetic Composition               from Modern Rajasthan.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 10,     No. 2. pp. 261-285

Related Topics for Investigation

Cand Literature  

Vira Kavya Literature


Charani Deval


Bhil History

Websites Related to The Topic

Article is written by: Ashley Rewers (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Marathas (and their social mobility)

Hinduism is composed of a caste, jati, system and class, varna, system (Rodrigues 132). According to Hindu myth, the four main varnas, compromising the brahmin or “priestly” class, the ksatriya or “warrior” class, the vaisya or “commoners” class, and the sudra or “servant” class (Rodrigues 146), originated from the body parts of a mythical deity, Purusa (Macdonell 240). The Brahmins were and continue to be regarded as the purest class in Hindu society, originating from the head of Purusa. The Ksatriya class is said to originate from the torso and arms of Purusa as they are expected to protect people and bear arms. Thirdly, members belonging to Vaisya originated from his legs and lower body. They are responsible for tending to land or cattle and trading goods or money. The Sudra class originated from Purusa’s feet as they were the most impure members of society. Jati means “birth group” and provided Hindus with a more explicit rank or status in society (Macdonell 238). One’s jati refers to their occupation and dictates their dietary habits, ritual allowances, and interactions with members of other castes (Macdonell 231). Members or groups within a caste claim varna status and these claims are dependent upon their states of ritual purity (Rodrigues 83).

Upward mobility and social reform was extremely rare in Hinduism. The caste and class system was very rigid, and ritual purity in pre-colonial India was held in the highest regards. However, one group that achieved upward mobility in the varna system was the people of the Maratha jati. Originally, members of the commoners or servant classes, they were eligible to achieve Ksatriya or warrior status through their military efforts against the Mughal Empire in the late 17th centuries under the rule of the rebellion Shivaji (Deshpande 6).

The Maratha jati was a military caste situated in southern India. The majority of the group was mainly derived from kunbis origin; atribe” or caste that was and continues to be generally associated with the Sudra varna as “peasant cultivators” of the Western region in Maharashtra (Russell 199). The two other “tribes” that constituted the Maratha caste included the dhangar or “shepard” and the coala or “cow-herder” (Russell 201) both of which also claimed Sudra status.  

It is also likely that the Maratha caste is derived from a military origin from various castes throughout Marathashtra. Many of the chief families claim to have rajput origin, a warrior caste located in Northern India. Their name is derived from the word rajaputra meaning “son of gods” (Russell 199). Shivaji, a noble ruler of the Maratha caste in, also claimed rajputs origin as he was the ideal Hindu ruler (Gordon 1). Born somewhere between the years of 1627-1630 C.E. (Abbott 159), Shivaji, has become a glorified icon in Hinduism. He was a Hindu king who instituted the Maratha kingdom and revived the Hindu religion in India (Laine 302).  Shivaji has become popular through the stories and myths about his ability to lead a Maratha uprising and establish a Maratha kingdom in the midst of the era of the Mughal Empire. Thus, the Marathas were agents of the Mughal Empire’s ultimate defeat towards the end of the century.

The military engagement between the Mughal and Maratha Kingdoms began with a feud between the Maratha warrior Shiavji and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and ended with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 along with the fall of his empire (Pearson 221). Their feud was instigated long before the decline of the Mughal kingdom when Aurangzeb constantly invaded the northern Pune district in Marathashtra (Gordon 59). His father, Shahji, gave Shivaji his first position in his career as a jagirdar, owner or lord of a feudal land grant (Laine 302). Shahji was among the army at Bijapur, a region of Muslim power, and became a successful solider under the direction of many Muslim rulers, including Adil Shah (Laine 302). When Shahji died, he sent his son to Pune where he learned to become a central political and military figure, establishing control over much of Maharashtra (Laine 303).

The revival of Hinduism and the start of the social mobility for the Marathas began when Shivaji proclaimed himself as a member of the Ksatriya class. His Vedic coronation in 1674 (Laine 303) was protested by many Maharashtrian Brahmins as they questioned the legitimacy of his lineage in the Hindu culture (Deshpande 6). Despite his grandfather’s, father’s, and half-brother’s Muslim sponsorship, Shivaji became invested in identifying as a Hindu, and later became known for his role as a “defender of dharma” (Laine 306).

Once Shivaji grew older, he became the primary candidate for coordinating the Maratha-Mughal war. The Mughals had captured many of the Maratha forts during their crusade of Maharashtra and, after a period of peace, Shivaji launched several successful attacks in order to retrieve the lost forts (Gordon 79). The most renowned legend of the great Hindu ruler, however, was when he confronted Afzal Khan. Afzal Khan was a Bijapur general for the Muslims who was sent to defeat the Maratha uprising in which Shivaji was credited (Laine 306). They had negotiated a meeting but whilst on his journey to meet Shivaji, Afzal Khan harassed many communities along the way and destroyed idols and buildings, including the temple of the goddess Bhavani (Laine 306). Upon arrival, Afzal Khan attempted to murder Shivaji but was unsuccessful. Instead, Shivaji slew his opponent using a sword given to him by the allied goddess (Bendrey 1143). That sword, to this day, is in an unknown location. Other accounts of the story say that it was a prejudiced attack, stating that Shivaji had prepared for the murder of his opponent, arriving to their arranged meeting with weapons while Afzal Khan did not (Beveridge 184). In either case, it seems safe to say that neither challenger arrived without the idea of defeating the other.

Another great story of Shivaji is told through the Maratha defense against the Mughal invasion at the fort of Simhagad in 1670 (Laine 307). Here, the Marathas under Shivaji’s reign were able to gain control over the fort. In contrast with the Mughal captain Udebhan, who is often portrayed with demonic characteristics of cruelty and lust, Shivaji is portrayed as an “epic hero.” Some, even suggest he is an incarnation of Rama himself (Laine 307), though it does not seem to be widely accepted. He is more often equated with Arjuna or even Bhima (Laine 307), both characters in the Mahabharata epic.

Following Shivaji’s death in 1680 (Pearson 226), Sambhaji took over the Maratha’s military. During his reign, the Mughals were able to conquer the kingdom of Golconda in 1687, an overdue goal Aurangzeb had set for himself (Richards 241). A long battle ensued between the Mughal and Maratha empires at Hyderabad Karnatik, as the Marathas attacked the capital in Kancipuram (Richards 24). However, the Marathas were driven out of Karnatik two months later.  Up until 1690, both the Mughal and Maratha forces suffered military setbacks, and both were equally ineffective at striking against each other during this time. Shambhaji was captured and killed by the Mughals around 1689, leaving his brother, Rajaram, in control (Richards 244). However, the Mughal Empire regained full control over Hyderabad Karnatik, forcing the Marathas to rethink their strategy.

By 1692, Karnatik became the centre of military affairs between the two enemies (Richards 247). The siege of Jinji, a previously Maratha territory, took several years resulting in major losses for the Mughal army (Richards 2). During the intervals of Maratha raids, Aurangzeb’s generals collected whatever revenue they could find since the war was of his main concern (Richards 250). The Marathas, between the years of 1704 to 1707, were ruthless in their warfare against the Mughals as some of their greatest battles and victories occurred during this time (Richards 252). These crusades also concluded the twenty-one year struggle between the two empires. Aurangzeb, unable to defeat the Marathas armies with brawn instead resorted to bribery, paying his enemies in rupees and jagir (Richards 252-253), or land revenue (Pearson 221). The Mughal armies soon grew weak as the empire was unable to support their military due to loss of land and money. As a result of this financial deprivation, Mughal military performance continued to decline which lead to the fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of the Maratha kingdom in Maharashtra in 1707 (Pearson 221).

The Marathas caste, formerly situated under the Sudras varna, came to claim Ksatriya status due to a series of events encompassing Shivaji’s coronation and their military persistence against the Mughal Kingdom in the late 17th century. In present day, Maratha caste members live in deprivation, and some even in poverty, yet they continue to claim aristocratic status (Russell 205). Along with those who claim kunbis origin, the Marathas remain tied to the Ksatriya varna, (Deshpande 5), but they do not possess the resources or methods to conserve it easily. Some have trouble electing peace over warfare and instead produce a shallow and external façade of extravagance and glamour under their upper-class status (Russell 205-206). The Maratha caste prospered during their two to three centuries of constant warfare against Aurangzeb and the Mughal Empire (Russell 205-206). During this time they succeeded in becoming an extremely wealthy and powerful caste – a trademark of their name that Maratha members continue to identify with today.


References and Further Recommended Readings:

Abbott, Justin (1930) “The 300th Anniversary of the Birth of the Maratha King Shivaji.” Journal of the Oriental American Society, Vol. 50: 159-163.

Bendrey, V. S. (1938) “The Bhavani Sword of Shivaji the Great.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 86, No. 4482: 1142-1144.

Beveridge, H. (1917) Review of Shivajī the Marātha; His Life and Times by H. J. Rawlinson. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 183–185.

Deshpande, Prachi (2003) Caste as Maratha: Social Categories, Colonial Policy and Identity in Early Twentieth Century Maharashtra. Colorado: Colorado State University.

Gatson, Anne-Marie (2003) “Dance and Hinduism: A personal exploration.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 75-86.

Gordon, Stewart (1993) The New Cambridge History of India: The Marathas 1600-1818. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Laine, James (1999) “The dharma of Islam and the din of Hinduism: Hindus and Muslims in the age of Sivaji.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3: 299-318.

Macdonell, A.A. (1914) “The Early History of Caste.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 2: 230-244.

Pearson, M. N. (1976) “Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2: 221-235.

Richards, J. F. (1975) “The Hyderabad Karnatik, 1687-1707.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2: 241-260.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003) “Divine times: Goddess worship in Banaras.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 131-145.

Russell, Robert Vane (1916) The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces in India. London: Macmillan and Co.

Sax, William (2003) “A Himalayan exorcism.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 146-157.


Related Websites:


Related Topics:

Class/Caste System in India

Maharashtra during the late 17th Century







Mughal Empire

Maratha Empire

Afzal Khan

Hyderabad Karnatik






Article written by: Lauryn Zerr (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Celibacy (Brahmacarya)

In classical Hinduism, the origins of ascetic practices such as celibacy are highly debated. Chastity is defined as the abstinence of all sexual intercourse and celibacy was used to describe the single relationship status of an individual, but now more recent descriptions are approaching the definition of chastity (Olivelle 151). In Hinduism, the Sanskrit word Brahmacarya is used interchangeably to describe celibacy and chastity even though it is not the direct application of the use of the word. The word Brahmacarya more precisely refers to the first of four “religiously sanctioned modes of life” (Olivelle 158) called Asramas. These Asramas are prescribed phases of life originating from laws written in the first century CE. These were treatises written on the moral duty, and the nature of righteousness, called Dharma Sastras. Dharma is the proper actions, rituals, social and personal behaviors that are supported by the cosmic order (Rta), the natural rightness of things. One example would be The Laws of Manu containing several rules of proper social and personal conduct which include the four phases of life (Asramas). The Laws of Manu was written in the first century CE therefor “reflect the social norms of the time” and were “seldom followed strictly”. While in the Asrama known as the student stage, or Brahmacarya, it is the “student’s Dharma not to work for a living and to remain celibate” and in the second stage “a householder’s Dharma to be employed and lead a conjugal life with his partner” (Narayana 50).

The Laws of Manu go into great detail of many restricting rules and systems such as the caste and class system that are supported by even older highly regarded Vedic texts such as the Rg Vedas. The laws state, that only certain classes are permitted to commence the once highly regarded religious journey of studying the Vedas through the four Asramas. Studying the Vedas is a privilege only granted to the religious classes belonging in the greater classification group named the Twice-Born. The story of creation entitled ‘Hymn of the supreme person’ from the Rg Vedas can accommodate the origin of various elements of the universe such as the class system. It is the Purusa Sukta, Purusa is believed to be the original being of the universe from which the ultimate sacrifice was made to create man. The dismemberment of Purusa is the origin of the class system. “From his mouth came the priestly class, from his arms, the rulers. The producers came from his legs; from his feet came the servant class” (Narayanan 27). The Brahmin (priestly) class, Ksatriya (ruler) class, and Vaisya (producer) class make up the twice born, but do not include the Sudras (servant) class. The Twice Born have the privilege of following the prescribed Asramas to pursue the ultimate goal of complete liberation (Moksa) following a spiritual re-birth.

A ceremony must be performed to mark the second birth of a Twice-Born male into the studies of the Vedas. The sacred threat ritual (Upanayana) is the first ritual marking the rite of passage into the first Asrama (Brahmacarya). The Upanayana and marriage are examples of Samskara; a ritual that marks the rite of passage into the next Asrama. A different stage marks the pursuit of different goals and the attainment of a different set of knowledge or values. This can be better understood with the apprehension of Dharma. The first goal is to abide by the dharmic principles of sexual asceticism while studying the Vedas, but in the second Asrama (Grhastha), the focus shifts to the pursuit of sensory pleasure (Kama) and self-empowerment (Artha). In the third Asrama (Vanaprastha) one begins to practice various methods of gaining transformative insight, and in the last Asrama (Samnyasin) the goal is to attain the highest level of complete liberation.

If an individual were to attain moksha, through devoting one’s life to following the Asramas or other practices, the individual is then liberated from Samsara. In most Hindu philosophies (Darasanas) it is believed that every action has Karmic consequences, and after death in this world the Karmic seeds will bear fruit, and be the ultimate deciding factor of the realm of rebirth. Samsara is the cycle of endless rebirth in another realm unless the cycle can be broken by attaining Moksa (Olivelle 156). Liberation from endless cycles of Karmic rebirth is attained by dispelling illusion, and gaining transformative insight on the self (Atman) or knowledge about ultimate reality (Brahman) (Narayanan 52). Those that practice sexual asceticism tend to have as a goal the pursuit of liberation (Moksa). Since detaching from the sensual world is the first step toward renunciation, “the sexual impulse was viewed as the greatest source of attachment and the greatest impediment to progress on the spiritual path” (Olivelle 160). The biggest obstacle to ascetic detachment is the natural attraction towards the opposite sex, and the sexual nature of the body which is seen as impure (Olivelle 160). One of the five preliminary restraints (Yama) that need to be practiced is abstinence as highlighted in Yoga Sutra for the pursuit of liberation. Time and time again we see that sexual asceticism is clearly favored as one of the key practices in the bigger goal of attaining liberation, nonetheless during the householder (Grhastha) Asrama stage the practice of celibacy and chastity is disregarded.

It is the dharma of a married householder to raise children, therefor there are no negative karmic consequences. Offspring and marriage are undesirable to a renounced individual seeking liberation because they cannot help nor hinder the present Karmic state of the individual. Choosing not to practice celibacy, or believing in the institution of marriage and the action of procreation,  is closely tied to the rejection of ritual activity, and is seen as harmful to spiritual progress. This can explain why the acceptance of householder ideals such as procreation bears no fruit in the search for Moksa but one can also argue that it is indeed necessary for some Hindu religious practices. The Vedas talk about a great spiritual and physical debt that is owed to the gods since birth. Two of them are “offering sacrifices and procreating sons” (Olivelle 154). Vedic religion used sons for death rituals and thus, the birth of a son is “viewed as ensuring immortality of the father” (Olivelle 153). Some Vedic theology promotes the married householder way of life as being the ideal, while other Vedic theology also supports ascetic and celibate ideologies. These contrasting principles warrant different outcomes, but are supported and followed equally.

An unbalanced ratio of renouncers who neglect the benefits of the householder stage would be devastating for the continuity of the population and would require adjustments to the Asrama system over time to promote healthy proliferation. The four Asramas were originally meant for an individual wanting to pursue a sacred ascetic life; free of unnecessary ties with the artificial world. In the old Asrama system, after graduating from Vedic studies, the individual was able to choose between four modes of life to pursue permanently for this persons entire lifetime. There was the option to continue the Asrama of a student through adulthood and devote one’s life to the study of the Vedas while remaining celibate (Olivelle 159). Another Asrama was the forest-hermit, where the individual could roam the forest, and most texts mention the ability to have a wife or family while other texts order celibacy. And the last Asrama from the old system was the world renouncer, marked by celibacy and no familial ties (Olivelle 159). Years after the Common Era, the reformed version of the four Asramas were known to be temporary stages of life. Nonetheless, celibacy and chastity played a major role in all four Asramas. In the second Asrama, the Householder (Grhastha) stage, the pursuit of sensory pleasure (Kama) and self-empowerment (Artha) is permitted. The aims of each Asrama can be pursued in moderation and in the order prescribed (Narayanan 50). If one chooses, Brahmacarya is also practiced during the householder stage, as the term is adapted to justify the Dharmic duty to create offspring. Throughout time, The Laws of Manu closely guarded by the Brhamin class needed to change in order to more accurately parallel other popular Vedic beliefs. To further promote the highly reputed concept of Brahmacarya in the context of sexual asceticism, Brahmanical adaptations were made to integrate sexual asceticism in all Asramas including Grhastha. The householder equivalent to sexual asceticism is sexual intercourse with one’s wife at night if the sole purpose is procreation (Olivelle 162).  Domesticating the practice of Asceticism during the householder stage would be justified with Dharma. The Third Asrama is the Forest-Dweller (Vanaprastha) and the last is the renouncer (Samnyasin) Asrama, where death rituals are performed to shed the bonds of family, marriage, kids or sexual activities to facilitate the detachment from the world in the pursuit of Moksa (Olivelle 159).

Mental and Physical powers such as the ability to fly, the ability to see into the future and read minds are said to be related to the retention of semen, while the opposite effect of physical and mental impotence is related to sexual relations (Olson 165). “The celibate body is extremely fit, and as such evokes a divine and heroic mystique of epic proportion” (Alter 46). The internal, unnatural heat (Tapas) found in a celibate renouncer can lead to the acquisition of powers. Comparing the celibate renouncer to the sexually active householder, who generates a different kind of natural heat with no control over the excessive indulgence of sexual behavior, reveals a theme. The heating of the renouncer and cooling of the householder is the tension visible throughout the history of devotional Hinduism (Olson 167).

Brahmacarya is used to describe the model example of celibacy in Hinduism, referring to the stage of ascetic study of the Vedas, but not directly meaning chastity or celibacy (Olivelle 152). Brahmacarya comes prior to the accepted but unstable sensual release in the householder Asrama. This is followed by the necessary condition of sexual continence for the pursuit of liberation while renouncing the world. Celibacy, chastity, marriage, and procreation are all supported by the Hindu tradition, but at specific times throughout life and also within moderation.



Alter, Joseph (1994) “Sexuality and the Transformation of Gender Into Nationalism in North India.” The Journal of Asian studies 53:45-66.Accessed 07/01/2009.

Buswell. R, Lopez. D (2014) The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Narayanan, Vasudha (2002) “Chapter One: The Hindu Tradition.” In World Religions, Eastern Religions, edited by Willard G. Oxtoby, 12-125. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Olivelle, Patrick (2008) “Celibacy in Classical Hinduism.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 151-164. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Olson, Carl (2008) “Hindu Devotionalism, Tantra, and Celibacy.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 165-180. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Article written by: Uriel Karerwa (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Dalits and the Dalit Movement

Just as in any functioning society, Hindus in India are organized into groups, and the daily interactions that go on within the groups are facilitated by the social class to which one belongs. While outsiders studying the system may see it as extreme and difficult to understand, Hindu lives have functioned within the social system they know and participate in. The caste system in India dates back as far as around 1400 BC, when the Vedic Aryans migrated into Punjab, India and enslaved the groups already inhabiting the land, including the Dravidians. Before migrating to India, the Aryans already had a system of clan divisions, and when they conquered the people they met in India they segregated them from themselves by race, calling themselves the “Arya Varna” (meaning “master class”), and the slaves the “Dasa Varna” (meaning “slave cast”) (Raj 2-3). This simple distinction was the basis for the system that would grow and develop, eventually forming the modern caste system used by Hindus in India today. The social system, based on ethnic, economic, and religious segregation, divides the people into four main classes, or varna. In Sanskrit, varna means “colour”, and it was speculated that this emphasized the segregation of the coloured races, dating back to the Aryans and the conquered peoples. However, this has since been challenged, and it has been suggested that colour was simply used as a means to distinguish people, not relating to ethnicity at all, but more in the way that one could distinguish the color “pink” from “purple” or “white” from “black” (Varna 2016).

The class system is set up with a basis of four main classes (or varnas): the Brahmins, the Ksatriyas, the Vaisyas, and the Sudras. Each class functions according to the expectations they know to be true for their class; expectations which have both evolved and emerged as the history of Hinduism developed. The origins of the four specific varnas are unclear, and different myths and stories have arisen depicting their creation. In one hymn, the Purusasukta, the varnas are said to have developed from the parts and limbs of Purusa. In this depiction, the Brahmin are said to have come from the mouth, the Ksatriya from the arms, the Vaisya from the legs, and the Sudra from the feet (Davis 52). This imagery clearly demonstrates the places each class holds in society. The four classes are also mentioned in the Rg Veda (one of the most influential Hindu texts), but in the form of three classes called Brahma, Ksatra, and Visa (Ghurye 44). The Brahmin class is the uppermost class, consisting of the elite priests. The Brahmin are responsible for the upholding of dharma, as they themselves are held to a high standard of moral behavior. The Brahmins are distinguished from the Ksatriyas by their ritual knowledge. A Brahmin is able to perform rituals, and can offer up prayers for others, especially in the matter of protection of his king (Ghurye 47). The Ksatriyas form the militant class of India. They are able to carry weapons and it is expected that they would protect the rest of the people in this way. There are some stories of Ksatriyas acting as priests, and the tensions between the Brahmins and the Ksatriyas led to conflict every now and then as they each challenged the authority of the other class. Still, the two classes are known to work closely with each other in order to ensure the function and protection of daily society (Ghurye 50). The Vaisyas constitute the third class, known to be farmers and labourers. This class, best known as “the tenders of cattle”, are in a position of uncertainty. The two upper classes can easily be grouped together, as they both display their authority over Indian society, but the Vaisyas can be grouped either up or down, depending on the behaviour or the situation being analyzed (Ghurye 63). In some situations they are seen as an upper class, while in others they are grouped along with the lowest class, the servants. This makes the lines between the classes hard to distinguish at times, and certainly provides an insight into the complexity and difficulty that comes along with trying to understand the caste system. The fourth class is the Sudras, the lowest of the four. The Sudras are a class destined for tedious, unskilled labour, and service of the upper three classes (Davis 52). Participation and placement in the classes are determined by Jati, meaning one’s birth group, from the Sanskrit word “jata”, meaning “born” or “brought into existence” (Jati 2016). In this way, it is understood that birth determines one’s place in the caste system.

Not included in the four varnas are a fifth class, a class so low in the caste system that they are referred to as “Untouchables”, and therefore excluded from the four-varna system. This class, the Dalits, occupy the lowest of the low in Hindu Indian society, and are highly discriminated against in all aspects of life. They are segregated and given the label of poor status in the economy, politics, employment, and so much more (Kaminsky and Long 156-157). As an outsider analyzing the system, it is important to acknowledge the role that the Dalits play in the interactions among the groups, but from a Hindu point of view, the Dalits are totally unacknowledged (Sadangi 18). The people that occupy this class are viewed by the rest of the classes as polluting, and are therefore given the “polluting” tasks in daily life. Ritual purity is an extremely important concept in Hinduism, and tasks are typically assigned levels of purity or pollution. It is of utmost importance that the upper classes maintain their ritual purity, especially the Brahmins, as they need to be ritually pure in order to perform their rituals. The tasks that are too polluting for the four varnas to participate in are given to the Dalits, as they are already polluted in their fundamental status. Besides occupation, Dalits are excluded from all aspects of daily life of Hindus of the other classes, including social and sexual contact, and eating. Contact between the Dalits and the four varnas is controlled and regulated, and eating among the groups is completely and wholly separated (Shrawagi 2006).

While there are multiple terms used today to describe the “untouchables”, including Harijan, the term “Dalit” itself, although in existence for hundreds of years, was not always used to classify the excluded class, and was popularised fairly recently by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (Mohanty and Malik 114). Ambedkar effectively attacked the Indian caste system in his adult life, basing his entire campaign on the sole foundation of social equality (Jagannathan 2015). Born a Dalit himself, Ambedkar has successfully created a new definition for the term “Dalits” as a group of people who are “economically abused, politically neglected, educationally backward, and oppressed in religious and cultural ground because of caste discrimination in society” (Mohanty and Malik 114). The Dalit movement in India really began when India gained independence, but the Dalits were still denied any independence or equality in the new society (Sutradhar 91). This desire for equality urged members to begin pushing back against the upper classes. The upper classes traditionally starved the Dalits in social interaction, education, and the economy, believing that if they could maintain their powerless position in society and prevent them from furthering their education of equality and human rights that they could prevent any notions of dissent against the system, and continue to render the Dalits defenseless against the discrimination imposed on them (Sutradhar 94). However, the Dalits, after enduring centuries of abuse and oppression, began to feel angry about their position in society. They were working the land and serving the upper classes with no enjoyment of the fruits of their own labour. Thus, the Dalit movement was born, and fostered in the minds of those fighting for equality among the classes.

Jyotiba Phule was the first to emphasize the importance of the education of Dalits when it came to the Dalit’s movement, recognizing that with education would come the ability to reason and develop rationale, as well as the ability to carve out a place for oneself in politics and the socio-economic world (Sutradhar 96). This sentiment was carried even further by Dr. Ambedkar, who (along with another great thinker, Gandhi) fought for Dalits’ equality. While Ambedkar deeply desired equality among the classes, he recognized the importance of the caste system in daily social structure, and acknowledged the fact that a whole organization of society cannot change overnight without total chaos and disarray ensuing soon after. In this way, he recognized the need for separate-caste marriages, and pushed for smaller movements toward equality. By doing so, he hoped that eventually the Hindu caste system could gradually transition from one embedded in inequality to one with equality at the forefront, redefining daily interactions and social structures.

The Dalit movement is one that has been going on for years, heightening especially in the 1970’s, but is largely ignored in the grand scheme of things (Sutradhar 97). The feelings of exclusion and oppression felt by the Dalits in India continue to motivate them to keep quiet. The feelings of embarrassment and dedication to the caste system that is so deeply entrenched in Hindu thought and beliefs, and the acceptance of the way things are prove to be huge obstacles in the continuation and growth of the movement, not only in India, but on the world stage. Still, thinkers such as Phule, Ambedkar, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan fed the fire that drives the movement. Radhakrishnan had spoken out against the caste system directly, attacking its values. He emphasized the need to abolish the system (and the idea of untouchability) in order to achieve a modern nation with democracy and human rights for all (Minor 386). Today, in a world so focused on human rights, equality, and liberty of all people, the Dalits movement begs for people all over the world to recognize the needs of their friends in India. In order to see change there must be pressure put on the Indian government both nationally and internationally, and Dalits must come together with non-Dalits in order to achieve a global movement to push for human rights in India to transcend the caste system (Bishwakarma 2015). Until then, over one-sixth of the population of India will continue to live in oppression under the caste system, born into the fate of a Dalit life (Overview of Dalit Human Rights Situation nd).



Bishwakarma, Dil (2015) “ICDR President’s Opening Statement from First Global Conference.” International Commission for Dalit Rights. Accessed February 6, 2016.

Davis, Marvin (1983) Rank and Rivalry: The Politics of Inequality in Rural West Bengal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ghurye, Govind S. (1969) Caste and Race in India. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd.

Jagannathan, R. (2015) “Rescuing Ambedkar from Pure Dalitism: He Would’ve Been India’s Best Prime Minister.” Firstpost. Accessed February 28, 2016.

— “Jati.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Edited by Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 28, 2016.

Kaminsky, Arnold P., and Roger D. Long (2011) India Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic. California: ABC-CLIO.

Minor, Robert N. (1997) “Radhakrishnan as Advocate of the Class/Caste System as a Universal Religio-Social System.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 1.2. Springer. 386-400.

Mohanty, Panchanan, and Ramesh C. Malik (2011) Ethnographic Discourse of the Other: Conceptual an Methodological Issues. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. Accessed February 6, 2016.

 Raj, Ebenezer S (1985) “The Origins of the Caste System.” Transformation 2.2. London: Sage Publications Ltd. 10-14.

Sadangi, Himansu Charan (2008) Emancipation of Dalits and Freedom Struggle. Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.

Shrawagi, Rohit (2006) Purity vs. Pollution. Accessed February 28, 2016.

Sutradhar, Ruman (2014) “Dalit Movement in India: In the Light of Four Dalit Literatures.” IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences. 91-97.


Related Topics for Further Interest



Dharma Sastras



Havik Brahmins


Laws of Manu






Rg Veda



Websites Related to the Topic

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights


Article written by: Jennie Elder (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Dasanami Samnyasins

The development and the components of Hindu monasticism may appear complex. Sankara, the famous Indian philosopher, founded a Hindu monastic federation referred to as the Dasanami Order (Wade nd). Hindu monks, known as samnyasin, were divided into ten lineages which trace back to Sankara and compose the Dasanami Order. The ten different monk/renouncer groups were then divided up among the four monasteries founded by Sankara (Clark 2). The four monasteries (mathas) are located in the east, west, south, and north of India and they are respectively called Govardhan, Sarada, Srngeri, and Jyotir (Clark 115). This order is the most respected and influential in the Hindu tradition (Werner 148).

Historically, it has been viewed that the four monasteries are representative of Sankara’s travel and his spiritual authority. Sankara’s life is regarded as somewhat legendary. He lost his father at a young age and he was an admirer of the samnyasin life style. Sources claim that at the age of eight, Sankara was captured by a crocodile while he bathed in a river. Sankara told his mother that if he did not receive her blessing to become a samnyasin the crocodile would have taken his life (Pande 31). Historians believe that three factors contribute to why Sankara is held in the highest regard. It is said that Sankara was an incarnation of Siva (Pande 73). His strong connection to and the belief in his embodiment of Siva could be due to Sankara’s connections to miracles. Secondly, the implementation of authentic practices was to emphasize the social and spiritual claims of the reorganized monasteries. The final aspect which made Sankara legendary was the expansion of the Advaitic and non Advaitic schools (Pande 73). The rationales behind legends of his incarnation have been to fortify the Vedic faith and help spread the spiritual way of living across India (Pande 82).

Samnyasin (renouncing) is the final stage of one’s life. One may renounce after they have completed the householders’ stage grahastha (Miller 3). However, some Hindus enter renunciation earlier, once they have completed their education, though such young renouncers are less common. A renouncer is considered to be a wise holy man. He is expected to withdraw from society. From that point on, his life is dedicated to the attainment of moksa (Werner 147). A renouncer’s withdrawal from society is theoretical because, he may live in close proximity to society and interact with its members however, physical detachment is essential (Olivelle 272). One must leave their family and possessions in order to discover the meaning of life and gain inner peace (Burghart 635). Renouncers are placed outside of the caste system and are highly valued. A renouncer who receives offerings and praise from Hindus is not uncommon.

Once Hindu monks formally renounce, they are categorized in relation to the method of initiation and their way of life (Wade nd). Renouncers may fall into one of three distinct categories: the dandis, nagas, or paramahamsas. However, all Dasanami consider themselves as Siva (Clémentin 2). Many Dasanami renouncers decorate themselves with rudrāka beads and put three white horizontal stripes on their forehead to embody the symbolism of Siva and Visnu (Clémentin 3). Each type of renouncer group is affiliated with one of the four monasteries. To formally renounce, a monk must attain a new identity. He is given one of the ten surnames which made him a part of that particular spiritual lineage. The name one receives is linked to the monastery they are associated with and reflects their caste as well as their renouncing lifestyle. The monasteries from the south and west are mainly composed of dandi renouncers. The lineages commonly assigned to these monks, once they formally renounce include: Bharati (speech), Sarasvati (learning), Tirtha (sacred bathing), and Asrama (hermitage). Puri (town) and Giri (hill) are lineages linked to naga renouncers. Other names, sometimes received by all types of renouncers include: Vana (woods), Aranya (forest), Parrata (mountain), and Sagara (ocean) (Dazery na). Receiving a new name is significant because it symbolizes the relationship one has under a guru which acts as an investiture. An opportunity for the new renouncers to teach and ordain followers is given (Clémentin 16). Once a name is received, one is able to initiate another person into the samnyasin stage of life. All three branches of the Dasanami (dandi, nagas, and the paramahamsa) have networks of mathas (monasteries) spread across India.

The dandis traditionally come from a high caste background and hold knowledge of the Sanskrit language. They are the wanderers who usually carry a staff. The staff may be embellished with a saffron cloth with an axe head under it (Clark 28). Generally, dandi renouncers were previous householders, have short hair, and believe that they are the true samnyasin (Clark 41). Their initiation ceremony is completed by a guru and the name given depends on what matha one is affiliated to (Clark 41). One of the four brahmacari names is given at the ceremony either being Svarup, Prakasa, Ananda or Caitanya (Clark 42). The second ceremony a dandi partakes in is called the viraja home (Clark 89). A short sacred utterance that presumably encapsulates the essential wisdom of Vedanta from the monk’s monastic lineage is spoken (Wade nd).

Renouncers, who fall under the paramahasa grouping, discard all belongings including their staff, perform the most asceticism and obtain the highest amount of respect (Clark 102). They more frequently live in mathas and are affiliated to an akhara. However, paramahamsan monks are not deeply connected to the akharas life compared to the nagas (Clark 42).

Lower caste members form the naga renouncer group (Clark 39). Some scholars refer to them as “naked fighting monks” (Wade nd).  The naga have been known to travel nude and they cover their entire bodies (sometimes just their private areas) in ash, especially on festive holidays (Clark 35). The nagas are organized into seven akharas (Clark 48). To be initiated into the akhara as a naga, one must go through a third process referred to as the tang tode (Clark 98). This is a unique initiation among the three groups.

Typically, males are the ones who enter the stage of renunciation. However, women renouncers have recently been reported. About ten percent of female renouncers belong to the Dasanami (Clark 31). However, women may become brahmacarini, but they cannot enter the second stage of initiation in becoming “full” samnyasin (Clark 33). Women remove all jewelry as a symbol of their renunciation. The majority of women belong to the paramahamsa renouncer group. Two known monasteries exclusively admit women. The least number of women belong to the naga group (Clark 34).

A life apart from society cultivates detachment through a community which shares similar perspectives (Clémentin 2). Some renouncers may choose to join a monastic community (Tambiah 300). Monastic communities provide a shared living space between many samnyasin monks. It is where asceticism is ingrained through tradition (Clémentin 2). This concept of communal settlement was introduced by Sankara, and is referred to as the matha system (Miller 4). The purpose was to create a sense of solidarity through group support. The matha was a larger unit comprised of temples, a traditional Sanskrit school, a library, and a shelter for lay followers (Clémentin 4). The caste system was embedded into the institution. Individuals were born to specific gurus. Gurus raised money to support children’s education for their caste (Aya 58). Donations from patrons allow for monks to teach, provide medical care, and help feed the community (Miller 5). Service to the community was viewed as important and resembled Hindu cohesion. Monks may continue traveling, but if they remain in a community for an extended period of time they are less respected, except if it is the rainy season (Olivelle 271).  Clémentin addresses that, “the important point to stress is that they do not owe their allegiance to a monastery, but to a lineage of spiritual succession” (3). Sankara’s successor, a Sankaracarya (head of 1 of the 4 monasteries) essentially becomes “the teacher of the world” by representing the founder of his lineage (Clémentin 6). Sankaracaryas have substantial spiritual power and settle disputes within the matha by helping with court cases (Clark 79). For example, cases may include initiation and personal affairs, adultery, abuse, and caste pollution. Sankaracaryas help decide the punishment of a fine, a fine, forms of social exclusion, and sometimes even excommunication ceremonies (Clark 80).

The origins of the Dasanami Samnyasin illustrate the prominence of Sankara’s philosophical influence in creating the order. Spiritual lineages of the samnyasin monks are traced back to Sankara. The samnyasins aquire a new religious identity in which they abide by certain roles, codes, and practices (Clark 2). The different groupings of renouncers across the four cardinal directions are symbolic of Sankara’s spiritual journey and the prominence of Brahman (Wade nd). The caste system is significant to the Dasanami Order because it allows for different renouncer groups to exist. Subtle differences exist among the samnyasins such as, their appearance, initiation process, status, and their affiliation to a distinct lineage (Clark 39). The matha system was important for the development of education and philosophical ideas for the samnyasin and their lay followers (Clémentin 4). Life consisted of days of expressing bhakti in prayer, meditation, and lectures (Werner 147). Overall, evidence suggests that the Dasanami Order has been very influential and is a representation of Sankara’s philosophy. 


References and Further Recommended Readings

Burghart, R., (1983) “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia”. Man18(4), 635–653.

Clark, Matthew (2006) Dasanami Samnyasis. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Clémentin-Ojha, C. (2006) “Replacing the Abbot: Rituals of monastic ordination and investiture in modern Hinduism”. Asiatische Studien, Etudes Asiatiques, Vol.60, 535- 573.

Ikegame, A (2012) “The Governing Guru”. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London & New York, NY: Routledge 5, 46.

Miller, D. M., & Wertz, D. C (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

 Olivelle, P. (2001)”The Renouncer Tradition”. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism,  G. Flood (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing  271-287.

 Pande, G. C (1994) Life and thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

 Tambiah, S. J. (1982) “The renouncer: his individuality and his community”. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 15(1), 299-320.

Wade, D. (2012) “Dasanamis.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from < hinduism/dasanamis-BEHCOM_9000000043>

Werner, Karel (2013) Love Divine: Studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism, London & New York, NY: Routledge 147-152.


Topics for Further Investigation

The Ramanadi Order



The Four Monasteries




Noteworthy Websites


Article written by: Miranda Deringer (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Ksatriya Varna

Varna is the Hindu conceptual framework that views society as the sum of four classes; priests (brahmanas), soldiers (ksatriyas), merchants (vaisyas), and the labourers (sudra). However, this is a very simple generalization of the four classes, as each has differing levels of complexity. For example, the brahmanas may be viewed as priests, or intellectuals that contributes to Hindu literature (Sharma 363-371). The origin of this division of the four classes of Hindu society was established in the Purusa Sukta hymn of the Rg Veda. This hymn tells of a giant cosmic being (purusa) who was sacrificed by the gods. Out of this sacrifice the four classes emerged from the cosmic being’s body. From the head and mouth the Brahmin (brahmanas) emerge, from the arms the ruling class emerges [referred to in some cases as rajanya, but commonly as ksatriya], from the thighs the merchants (vaisyas), and from the feet the workers (sudra). The hymn creates a religious sanction for a hierarchy among the four classes in Hindu society, as well as providing the distinctions between them. The use of the cosmic being’s body in the hymn is important, because it physically defines the distinctions by placing the priests at the top of the body and the laborers at the bottom of it. The stratification of Hindu society is one of its defining features, and while the four classes are the basic understanding of these divisions, it is complicated further by the jatis (Rodrigues 57).

The jatis are more specific distinctions, that create smaller sub groups, but that is not the focus here. Historically though, the Varna system developed in a specific way. The social divisions that became characteristic of the system may have existed among the Harappans, as well as the Iranian Aryans. It would be during the Vedic period that the priests (brahmanas) and the rulers (ksatriya) began to consolidate their power. Within the relatively small population the distinctions became clearer between the upper classes, and the two producer classes, the vaisyas and the sudra (Avari 74). Varna itself as a term, initially meant “color,” which has led many to believe that the class distinctions were based more around one’s skin color. Going back to the distinctions between the three classes though, the upper three classes of the brahmanas, ksatriya, and vaisya were identified as being twice-born (dvija). As a result of this the three of them receive benefits that the fourth does not. It has been argued by the skin-complexion theorists that the lighter skinned dvija classes came to the subcontinent and subordinated the darker skinned sudras as their servant class. This preference for skin color is echoed in other aspects of Hindu society. The Laws of Manu promotes marriage within one’s own class and it represents a desire to prevent mixing of skin colors. To this day, there is still a cultural preference among many Hindus for lighter skin over darker skin (Rodrigues 58).

The four Varnas were increasingly distinguished and codified over time, as various laws would outline their social duties. Key to this are the Laws of Manu which lays out detailed descriptions for the various stages of life for each class. The brahmins are placed at the uppermost position of social structure, and their duties are described in relation to the other classes. The laws also outline the notion that it is better for one to inadequately follow the rules of their own Varna than to thoroughly live by the rules of another. The brahmins specifically are placed at the top of society because they are charged with the protection of dharma and are in turn supported by it (Rodrigues, 2006: 58). However, in some cases it was possible for one to change their social class. It was only during a period of mobility that an individual of a higher class could potentially act in a way to join the lower standing if they wanted to. Conversely, someone of a lower class could also act in a way to raise their standing. However, this would occur fairly rarely, and most would not drop in social standing (Avari 167).

So what then are the specific roles and duties of the ksatriya class? The ksatriya can be simply defined as belonging either to the warrior or royalty groups, and it is seen as being the second highest class in Hindu society (Buswell and Lopez). In some cases, this class is seen as having the right to bear arms in situations where they are defending members of the brahmins class. To expand on this further, including offering protection, they would also give gifts to the brahmins, study the Veda, and to avoid attachments to sensual indulgences.  The ksatriya then in a sense could be seen as a servant to the brahmin, or even a student. While they were both from the upper classes, the ksatriya provided service towards the brahmins, and the brahmins would teach them the scriptures. Compared to the other classes the ksatriya class was then positioned higher. The sudras specifically would act in a servant role for them, either as laborers or in producing handicrafts to be bought by the upper classes (Rodrigues 59).

What has been described so far, though, has been a very idealized form of the class hierarchy in Hindu society. Before continuing, it is important to note that this ideal form only existed at certain times, in certain communities, in certain regions, and on certain issues. Most regions only had few, if any, brahmins or ksatriyas. As a result, Hindu society does not always conform to the ideal version that is presented in the scriptures (Rodrigues 60). Another issue that arises in looking at the Vedic texts is that they were revised by the Brahmins, who were usually working closely with the ksatriya class. Thus, there is a risk apparent in this system as it could be a potential ideological construct made by the upper class members of Hindu society. An obvious reason for why this could have happened is the fact that, in securing one’s family within a social class, or their friends, they provide a certain sense of security and protection (Avari 74).

Going back to the relationships between the ksatriya class and the others, there have been some instances where the ksatriya class has challenged the position of the brahmins. In several circumstances the power of the brahmin class has been challenged. Some of these emerged from the critique that the brahmin class derived their position only due to their family lineage and nothing else. Some of the ksatriya kings felt that their power should not be kept in check by the brahmins. This tension is not exclusive to Hindu society, as the conflict between church and state has been echoed many times throughout history in other cultures (Rodrigues 60). In relation to authority, the Brahmins and the ksatriyas were allies typically, and while this alliance made the basis for authority in the kingdoms this did not hold well in the clan states. The powerful ksatriya families in some of these clan states did not earn the respect of the Brahmin priests. This has been given as a potential reason for the conflict between the two classes as already mentioned (Avari 89).

The hierarchy that existed in many Vedic texts, would also be presented as a way to establish an ideal city. A description offered by Kautilya’s Arthasastra, describes the Brahmin priests occupying the two middle blocks to the north of the king’s palace. And the ksatriya officers would be placed to the east of the palace (Avari 118). This geographical positioning goes back to the cosmic being hymn mentioned in the beginning. The brahmanas class is positioned at the most northern position, the top, and the ksatriya, are to the side, the position of the arms. To look at how the ksatriya was portrayed in other texts and hymns, it is clear that the hierarchy of Hindu society became increasingly based on the social climate in which they lived. For example, another hymn that has been told in the Mahabharata outlines the ksatriya in a different way. This story is an apocalyptic one, in which the social stratum is destroyed by the Brahmin priests and an alliance with other divine agencies. After this destruction has occurred the ksatriyas become a semi divine force to rule earth now. This story makes sense in the context that it was produced within, which was the beginning of the fourth century BCE, due to the social, cultural, and political events that were occurring in northern India (Mittal 57).

It is important to understand the specific duties of the ksatriya class through looking at how they are defined within the Laws of Manu. Their duties have been discussed already, but it is worth outlining them more comprehensively. It is said that the idea of the ksatriya is connected both to power and protection. Their subordination to the brahmins is made clearer within the text. For example, in regards to the hair clipping ceremony (Kesanta) the brahmins cut their hair when they reach the age of sixteen. Conversely the ksatriyas cut their hair at the age of twenty-two. The seniority within the ksatriya class is based around the notion of valour which is distinctive from the other classes (Bühler, Chapter 1). Again the idea of the ksatriya class being the warrior class is made quite clear here. The word itself implies the idea of power and protection, and the seniority is based around valor and bravery. The class is distinguished from the other ones, and each is specifically defined on their own contributions to society. The brahmin are valued for their spiritual intelligence, the vaiyas for their economic value, and the sudra for the labour they provide.

The designation of the ksatriya status was important for the kings. Outlined in the Laws of Manu it states that no one is to accept a gift from a king if they are not descended from the ksatriya race (Bühler, Chapter 4). One of the difficulties that is apparent when looking at the ksatriya class is that it is hard to discuss it without mention of the other four Varnas. Within this framework the importance of the hierarchy is solidified further and entrenched more in our understanding of the past. The ksatriya class is better understood then in regards to how it is higher in stature then the vaiyas and the sudra. And how in many texts it is always distinctly referred in conjuncture with the brahmin, but it is always made clear that the ksatriya are lower in society.

Another text that does greatly outline the specific duties of not only the ksatriya but the other Varnas comes from one of the Dharma Sastras, the Visnu Smrti. Specifically talking to the ksatriya class, its main duty being constant practice in arms, to protect the world, and in protecting the world receiving a reward. The reward in particular would take the form of specific tax exemptions. If a member from this class is insulted, the insulter must pay a fee for doing so. A large portion of the text is dedicated towards outlining land succession processes. Meaning how the land is to be divided up amongst the sons of a ksatriya, usually evenly when it is divided. This text too touches on the purification rituals, and usually the purification process is slightly more complicated then what the brahmin class had to do. The ksatriya class itself was only able to take three wives, as well the text also mentions that the seniority is founded upon valour (Jolly 27-150). Again much of the ideas held in this text echo what has already been outlined, but it helps to more specifically explain what the ksatriya class was.

As the arms of society, the ksatriya class sought to exercise their physical prowess and the force of their “arms” as a way to defend the people. Furthermore, they would defend the safety of the country from foreign threats and invasion.  As a social class they were seen as second to the brahmin, but also grouped together with the vaisyas and the brahmins above the sudras. The twice born groups (dvija) were placed as the upper group of society (Holdrege 218). This is how the ksatriya class was seen in relation to the to the other Varnas. Commonly becoming the leaders, officials, and warrior class of Hindu society. The positioning of these classes would rarely exist in the perfect nature that the hymns and texts would depict them in. Instead the realities were more complex. However, the basic patterns of this relationship were clear to see historically in Hindu society.



Avari, Burjor (2007) India: The Ancient Past, A history of the Indian sub-continent from c.7000 BC to AD 1200. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bühler, George (2009) The Laws of Manu. Charleston: Bibliolife Publishing.

Buswell, Robert E. and Jr. Lopez, Donald S. (2013) The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Holdrege, Barbara A. (2006) “Dharma.” In The Hindu World. edited by Raini Kothari and Rushikesh Maru. Abingdon: Routledge.

Jolly, Julius (1880) The Institutes of Vishnu. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Keith, A. Berriedale (1914) “The Brahmanic and Kshatriya Tradition.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, e Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (January): 118-126

Kothari, Rajni and Maru, Rushikesh (1965) “Caste and Secularism in India: Case Study of a Caste Federation.” Association for Asian Studies 25 #1 (November): 33-50

Mittal, Sushil and Thursby, Gene (2007) The Hindu World. Abingdon: Routledge.

Pocock, D.F. (1960) “Caste and ‘Varna’.” Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 60 (September): 140-141

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Sharma, Arvind (2002) Modern Hindu Thought: The Essential Texts. New York: Oxford University Press.


Related Research Topics

The Varna




The Caste system


Rg Veda

Purusa Sukta

Hindu Society

Social Hierarchies

Sisya and Guru relationship


Hindu Universe

Vedic Religion

Vedic Deities

Vedic Sacrifices

The Asvamedha




The “Untouchables”


Related Websites


Article written by: Derek De Coste (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.



Jati (Birth Group or Caste in Hinduism)

Jati, meaning “birth-group”, is a system in which Hindus are categorized. Caste is another name for the over two thousand Jati groups that exist. These groups are usually based upon occupation, although they can also be categorized in different ways, such as by clan, region, or language. Typically, a Hindu will not marry outside of the caste in which they are born. The exception would be women, who sometimes will marry into a higher caste, although this is frowned upon by some. Jati, is related to Varna as well (Mittal and Thursby 357). Varna, meaning “colour”, is first described in the Rg Veda, which is the first sacred book of the Hindus, composed around 1500-1400 BCE. Varna is a class system of four categories which are the Brahmin (priestly class), Kshatriyas (nobility class), Vaishyas (merchant class), and Shudras (servant class). Particular groups of Jati will sometimes claim to be a part of one of the Varna classes. Sometimes, these designations that Jati groups make to be a part of a Varna class are not supported by fellow Hindus (Rodrigues 103-104).  Jati, as well as Varna, is said to be subject to Karma. In addition to Varna, Karma was also first presented in the Rg Veda. Karma, meaning act or deed, is the concept that people’s actions in this life or past lives, will alter their next lives. Hence, a Hindus Karma will decide what Jati one is born into.  Since one cannot control their birth status, some lower caste Jatis believe they are being discriminated against (Mittal and Thursby 357). Creation, mobility, and modern ideas and practices are all important in understanding the Jati system.

The Jati system is somewhat based on the Varna model. Thus, to understand the history of the Jati system, we must start with the history of the Varna system. Because Varna means colour, some historians have drawn the conclusion that it is based on when the Aryans came to settle in the Ganges area. The Ganges River supported many tribes in the Indian subcontinent. Aryans, being lighter skinned, considered themselves to be superior to the non-Aryans, who were of darker complexion. Non-Aryans were the indigenous people that had lived in the Ganges area before the Aryans migration. However, this is based on the migration thesis, and although it is the more widely accepted theory, there are other theses on how the Aryans came to live in these areas. Aryans used the Varna system to differentiate themselves from the rest of the population. Despite the fact that the Varna system existed during the early phases of expansion of the Aryan civilization, it didn’t play a huge role in their society at the time of conception.  For example, Aryans were allowed to marry non-Aryans and higher ranked Varnas worked on the land, which is not their dharma (duty). Jati and Varna did come to play a large role in society, but it was through a slow progression. Throughout the Vedic age, the higher class began to assert more power over the lower classes. Aryans enslaved some non-Aryans and higher classes like the Brahmins and nobles were not subject to taxes, but others were. Exploitation of the lower classes became common.  The developments of the economic order eventually led to Jati groups. Localization from the seventh and twelfth centuries is when Jati groups began to emerge. Trade and commerce largely broke down at this time, as a result communities were more dependent on the Hindus in their regions. Therefore, Shudras and Vaishyas became even more exploited and were more directly controlled by the elite.  At this time, different Jati groups emerged through the diversification of occupations.  For instance, instead of artists having to also fulfill agricultural duties they had to be more focused on their work as artists.  The number of Jatis grew with increased captivation of tribal groups (Gupta 198-224).

Mobility of Jati groups is a greatly debated subject. Some scholars believe that there is no mobility between castes, the caste to which you are born is the one that you will remain in. However, others argue that it is possible for Hindus to move to a different caste through varying methods. Two types of mobility, group-level and individual mobility, are sometimes sought after.  Sanskritization refers to the means of lower castes trying to move to a higher rank in their society.  Castes try to accomplish this goal by imitating the caste in which they want to be a part of. Therefore, Jati groups will adopt specific practices that are used by the group in which they want to belong, for example they might become vegetarian.  Politics is a huge factor in mobilization as well. Some scholars believe that mobility through castes can only be accomplished with support from the government, as well as changing their practices (Vaid 5-6).  Occupation is primarily how Jatis are categorized.  Hindus will inherit a career held by their family. Thus, a way to be mobile throughout castes is through the ability to change occupations. Scholars believe that a breakdown of occupational inheritance will lead to further mobility in Jati groups. Therefore, if Hindus are able to change their occupation then they have mobility in the caste system. It is observed that higher castes are able to use their wealth and influence to change their occupations. By contrast, lower castes are not able to change their occupation as easily because of their lack of wealth and power. This demonstrates that although there is mobility in some situations, it is limited (Vaid 397).

Change has occurred with how people view castes. Jatis and their influence on society have also experienced changes. A study in a rural community shows how some changes have occurred with respects to the Jati structure. It was observed in the small community of Bilwa that although changes have occurred with respects with Jatis, they still play a crucial role in the community (Burger 59-60).  A way that change has occurred in this community is to do with occupation.  Unlike it was previously, where Hindus were unable to hold any career, now people are able to hold different jobs more easily. With help from the government Hindus are able to find more diverse jobs. Also, many Hindus in the village work outside of their community which offers new opportunities that weren’t originally available. The middle castes disagree with these new practices. These Jatis may feel threatened as they do not receive help from the government, therefore they protest these changes. Arguing that these occupations are rights reserved by those born into these Jatis. This is where discrimination based on birth is witnessed (Burger 68-69).

Marriage is an example of how traditions of Jatis have not had any drastic changes.  One is still expected to marry within close range to their Jati. These Hindu castes still follow tradition where marriages are arranged to members of the same Jati. Only a slight change has occurred, because now Hindus are able to marry sub-divisions of the same caste (Burger 72).  It is also important to notice that although some people want to change their Jati or where their Jati is in society, some want the caste structure to remain the same. These Hindus embrace the practices and community that a Jati provides. In Bilwa, traditional ideas of Jatis aren’t as prominent and castes in this society act more as social groups. Jatis are groups in which people are able to share common values, customs, and practices (Burger 75-78).  In another study, college students from North, South, and East India were asked a series of questions that concerned the caste system.  The results concluded that liberal ideas are replacing the traditional views of the caste system. When students were asked if they believed that Karma was what determined their Jati group, 69.7 percent said no.  Karma was previously thought to play an important role in what Jati or Varna someone was born into. This shows that people are becoming more liberal in their ideas of these systems. Another important question that was asked had to do with voting in Indian society.  Out of the college students, more than 80 percent said they would vote for a candidate in any caste group. As well, they were asked if the Jati system should remain the same, be altered, or abolished. 64.4 percent of students voted for the caste system to be eliminated.  In studies such as these, we can see that perspectives are changing regarding Jatis in Indian society (Anant 193-196).

The government in India has gotten involved in the twentieth century to help eliminate Jati discrimination. Reforms have been put in place to aid those in lower Jatis who have said to be discriminated against for their caste. The Government of India Act of 1935 has guaranteed legislative representation for these groups.  It should be noted that seats were also reserved for Christians, Muslims, Anglo-Indians and other minorities in India (Mittal and Thursby 380).  Furthermore, the Constitution ratified in 1950 opposes any discrimination by birth, and adds that words such as Jati be avoided. However, enforcing discrimination regulations proves to be challenging.  Additionally, the government implemented compensatory education and employment as a remedy for the affected Jatis. Another act by the government was to reclassify the Jati groups into four main categories, by roughly inverting the Varna’s ordering. Although these reforms have been in place for a while, that is not to say that discrimination against lower castes is not still a problem in modern India. Progression will continue with these modifications of Jatis as long term effects have yet to be completely observed (Mittal and Thursby 381).



Anant, Santokh (1978) “Caste Attitudes of College Students in India.” European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 8. 193-202.

Burger, Maya (1988) “Jatis: Mirror of Change.”  Revue européenne des sciences sociales, No. 81 p. 59-80. Genève: Librairie Droz.

Gupta, Dipankar (2000) Interrogating Caste: Understanding Hierarchy and Difference in Indian Society. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Mittal, Sushil and Gene Thursby (2004) The Hindu World. New York: Routledge.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism—The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics; Online Books, Ltd.

Vaid, Divya (2014) “Caste in Contemporary India: Flexibility and Persistence”. Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 40, p.391-410.  New Delhi: Annual Review.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Aryans and non-Aryans





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Chelsea Woods (March 2015), who is solely responsible for its content.


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The Laws of Manu

Also known as the Manu Samhita, Manu Smrti, or Manava Dharma Shastra, The Laws of Manu form the basis of what has been called “the most authoritative and influential text of ancient Indian laws” (Bhatia & Sharma 363). The Laws of Manu addresses social, moral, and legal questions, and has gradually gained precedence in Hinduism. Scholars disagree as to its exact age, most commonly placing its original publication date between 200BCE to 400CE. Hindu tradition states that it was dictated by a visionary named Manu to a group of seers, or rsi. This means that The Laws of Manu is not sruti literature, but smrti, or “remembered” literature.

The Laws of Manu is divided into sections dealing with different aspects of Hindu life. One of the most well-known sections deals with the roles of women in society. The Laws of Manu takes a firm stance in rejecting the independence of women and places them firmly in subjugation to their fathers, brothers, or husbands. “By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house,” states The Laws of Manu (Muller 1886:195). It describes how a woman should behave if she is a daughter, sister, wife, or widow, and urges chastity and self-sacrifice. Wives must be cheerful, clever, and clean; even the names of women must be pleasing and auspicious (Muller 1886:35). They must also respect their husband in the manner of a god-husband, or patideva, regardless of his actions. Because of the perceived patriarchal position of The Laws of Manu, it has attracted modern critics. Barbara Ramusack (2005) writes of the authorization of “patriarchal, patrilineal, patrilocal family structures,” while Lisa Lassell Hallstrom (1999) describes The Laws of Manu’s “need to control women.”

Ramusack (1999) also says that the Laws “represent the effort of brahmans [sic] to impose their ideals as the dominant practice in Hindu society.” This is certainly true; the Laws firmly establish the boundaries between the Hindu classes, or varnas. The four main varnas described in the text are the brahmins, ksatriyas, vaisyas, and sudras. The Laws of Manu goes even further than these four, describing the various categories of people that arise due to inter-class marriages. The first three varnas are the “twice-borns,” while the sudras (the lowest of the four varnas) are “once-borns.” Each varna has different duties and must follow a different dharma. The Laws of Manu goes into great detail regarding the correct dharmic action for each class. Brahmins, the priestly class, are commanded to teach, study, and sacrifice, while ksatriyas are ordered to bear arms as the warrior class (Muller 1886:419). Vaisyas should pursue trade or agriculture, and sudras should look for employment serving the upper varnas. A sudra can serve the brahmins, ksatriyas, or vaisyas, but only serving the brahmins will “bear him fruit”(Muller 1886:429). Even the personal names of Hindus should be influenced by their varna; brahmins should be given names that are auspicious and happy, ksatriyas should be given powerful names connected with protection, vaisyas should have names evoking wealth, and sudras should have names denoting service (Muller 1886:35).

In addition to providing a background of class duties, The Laws of Manu also provides a description of the stages of life. The studentship stage, or brahmacarya, can last anywhere from nine to thirty-six years, during which time the Vedas are studied. After this stage, the householder stage can then be entered. This is known as the grhastha stage. Marriage is an essential part of the householder stage, and criteria for a suitable wife are described at length in the Laws. A good candidate has male children in their family, neither too much body hair nor too little, no obvious health problems, and is not named after a constellation, tree, mountain, or bird (Muller 1886:76). Men should look to their own caste when finding a first wife, and then take their next wives from the lower classes. While we have seen that some of the views found in The Laws of Manu are patriarchal, in this section the text states that “women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law” (Muller 1886:85). After the householder stage is complete and a Hindu man has grandchildren (and possesses white hair and a wrinkled face), he may enter the next stage, vanaprastha, and become a forest-dweller. A forest-dweller lives a simple life in the wilderness privately reciting the Vedas (Muller 1886:199). After spending some time in this manner, a man is ready to enter the fourth stage of life and become a renouncer, “abandoning all attachment to worldly objects” (Muller 1886:205). This last stage is the samnyasin stage.

While The Laws of Manu provides a framework for society, it also deals with theological issues, such as the Creation. According to The Laws of Manu, before the Creation there was merely darkness. Out of the darkness arose “the divine self-existent,” or Svayambhuva, which compelled the universe with “irresistible” power (Muller 1886:3). According to Manu, this force is indiscernible and cannot be comprehended by human beings. This force wished to create beings from its own body, and so created water and planted its seed. This seed grew into a golden egg out of which sprung Brahman, a manifestation of Purusa. Brahman remained in the egg for a year, and then mentally divided the egg into the heavens and the earth (Muller 1886:6). He himself was divided, with the different varnas sprouting from his different body parts.

The concept of time is also discussed in The Laws of Manu. The text describes the different yugas, or ages, and tells how virtue steadily decreases in each age. Our current age, the Kali Yuga, is one of “liberality alone” (Muller 1886:24). Men live shorter lives and the end of the world will come relatively soon. The Laws of Manu states that the distinction between varnas is necessary to maintain the order of this fragile universe.

The Laws of Manu is a very important work, but it has not always been viewed as the most important dharmic text in Hinduism. According to Asma (2013), “traditional Indian culture has not recognized a one-size-fits-all universal moral code.” The Laws of Manu had competition in the form of other legal and moral codes, like those of King Asoka (304-232 BCE) (Bhatia & Sharma 363). The Laws of Manu contains ancient materials, and is generally regarded as a compendium of knowledge regarding contemporary moral codes, rather than an original work (Muller 2011:161). The section on time, for example, shares verses with the Mahabharata (Trautmann 189).

The question of authorship regarding The Laws of Manu is debated. According to the text itself, there are seven Manus, all sons of the aforementioned Svayambhuva (Trautmann, 188). Every age has its own Manu. The Manu of this age heard the moral code from Brahma, the Creator, and then taught it to the rsis. Among these rsis was Bhrigu, who is said to have transcribed them.

While we cannot know for certain how old The Laws of Manu is, or who its exact author was, it is safe to say that it is one document that has influenced many aspects of Hindu life today.






Asma, Stephen T. (2013) Against Fairness. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Bhatia, Vijay K. and Rajesh Sharma (2008) “Language and the Legal System.” In Language in South Asia. Braj B. Kachru, Yamuna Kachru, and S. N. Sridhar (eds.). New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 361-376.


Doniger, Wendy (1991) “Why Should a Priest Tell You Whom to Marry? A Deconstruction of the Laws of Manu.” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 44 (March): 18-31.


Doniger, Wendy (1992) “Rationalizing the Irrational Other: ‘Orientalism’ and the Laws of Manu.” New Literary History 23 (Winter): 25-43.


Doniger, Wendy (1999) “Eating Karma in Classical South Asian Texts.” Social Research 66 (Spring): 151-165.


Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell (1999) Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma (1896-1982). New York: Oxford University Press.


Muller, F. Max (2011) Theosophy or Psychological Religion: The Gifford Lectures Delivered before the University of London in 1892. New York: Cambridge University Press. Originally published in 1893.


Muller, F. Max (ed.) (1886) The Laws of Manu. Oxford University Press.


Ramusack, Barbara N. (1999) “Women in South Asia.” In Women in Asia: Restoring Women to History. Barbara N. Ramusack and Donna Marie Wulff (eds.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 15-76.


Ramusack, Barbara N. (2005) “Women and Gender in South and Southeast Asia.” In Women’s History: In Global Perspective. Bonnie G. Smith (ed.). American Historical Association. pp. 101-138.


Trautmann, Thomas R. (1995). “Indian Time, European Time.” In Time: Histories and Ethnologies. Diane Owen Hughes and Thomas R. Trautmann (eds.). Michigan:University of Michigan Press. pp. 167-200.



Related Topics for Further Investigation

Smrti Literature














Kali Yuga




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic



Article written by Kaylyn Cudrak (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.


















The Sacred Cow

The sacrality of the cow is an ancient, but common custom to most Hindus. The concept of zebu cattle (go) as an important part of society in India has been dated back to the times of the Harappan civilization. During post-Harappan times, the Aryans, who were pastoral cattle herders would also have known of the importance of the cow in a functioning agricultural society. This may be part of the reason why there are frequent references to cows associated with various deities in the Vedas (O’Toole 61). Despite the natural predator-prey relationship that would be expected to form between them, the Hindu people and cattle share a different type of bond. Archaeological evidence suggests that cattle, especially the bull, were elevated to a more prominent status than that of a mere food source. Through numerous representations of seals and figurines depicting domestic zebu cattle, collected over time, one can come to understand the level of significance the cow has played in the history and development of the Hindu religion.

Cow sitting amid the debris of temple flower offerings (Varanasi)

The principle of noninjury to living beings (ahisma), which began to develop near the end of the Vedic period, is heavily applied to cows and bulls in the Hindu religion. Sometimes, this attitude can be taken exceedingly seriously (Korom 188). For instance, an anti-cow-slaughter legislation has been proposed and protected by the constitution of India. The sentiment for cow protection was at a climax during the “Anti-Cow Killing” riot of 1893, where riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out over the public demonization of those who consumed beef (Yang 580). Many Hindus practice vegetarianism, which is encouraged in verses from The Laws of Manu (Buhler 100). Although consumption of beef is considered taboo in orthodox Hinduism, numerous other cow by-products are found useful in everyday life (Rodrigues 117). It is obvious that the issue of cattle treatment is very sensitive to the Hindu people, and if agitated it has the potential to become reason for violence.

Devotion to the cow is displayed in a great deal of the religious, domestic, and social customs of the Hindu people; the use of cow ghee is popular in religious and household practices and for Hindus, it is not unheard of to have a cow inside one’s house (Crooke 277). Vedic literature suggests that the economic aspects of the cow were portrayed as having vital roles in sacrifices (yajna), which were held to maintain the cosmic order (rta). Along with being victims of the sacrifice, the goods produced from cattle were used for oblation (havis) (Korom 187). Cow products, including ghee, milk, urine, and dung are commonly used in many Hindu practices and household rites (grhya). Often, a Hindu may apply a mark to their forehead (tilak) made from a mixture composed of several natural ingredients, including cow dung. Usually, this mark is indicative of sectarian affiliation, but can have different symbolisms as well (Hawley 252). It is clear that for many Hindus, cows can easily be an inherent part of everyday life.

Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India

Hindu scriptures have been interpreted to describe cow worship and reinforce the concept that cows are a sacred part of the Hindu tradition. Collectively, cattle are depicted more often than any other animals in Vedic literature (Korom 187). The Vedas have equated the cow with the mother of gods, Aditi, the earth (prthivi), cosmic waters, maternity, poetry, and speech (vac) (Jha 38). Vedic myths may also portray cows as the cosmic waters from which the cosmic order (rta) is established. A Rg Veda myth also equates the calf with the sun, as a pregnant cow may be responsible for such aspects of creation as water, heat, and light (Korom 190).  In the Atharva Veda X:10 the cow is praised and its body parts are depicted as giving rise to all aspects of life itself (Embree 40-41). The Rg Veda describes numerous hymns dedicated to the worship of cows, where they often appear as symbols of wealth and rivers (Srinivasan 161). Although expressive of the important role of the cow in Hindu society, Vedic literature possesses little evidence to suggest the concept of non-violence (ahisma) towards cattle was applicable at that time (Korom 187). In more recent literature, ahisma appears to have become more prominent. The term is mentioned several times in the Bhagavad Gita, and presents itself in the closely related religions of Jainism and Buddhism (Korom 188). Also, being a highly influential text, although not divinely perceived (smrti), The Laws of Manu have influenced the customs of many Hindu people by discouraging eating meat, drinking liquor, and carnal intercourse (Buhler 100). The cow has also appeared as a goddess (devi) in Hindu mythology. For example, Kamadhenu, a wish-granting bovine-goddess was believed to have emerged from the churning of the Milk Ocean (Rodrigues 308). Thought to have originated from a similar fashion as Kamadhenu, the Vedic goddess of glory, Sri, was thought to be linked with the fertility of the land and to have had an abode composed of cow dung (Rodrigues 317). The Hindu epics (itihasa), particularly the Mahabharata, and the puranas also serve to provide justification of the orthodoxy of cattle (Korom 189).

Evidently, the sacred cow practice is a vital element of Hindu culture. Since they give seemingly limitless useful products, but take nothing but grass and water, cattle as symbols of benevolence and generosity are frequently recognized and supported by many Hindu texts. The ideal of preserving life has resulted in a widely environmentally friendly approach by much of the Hindu population. The belief in reincarnation after death, and following of the Dharmic ideal has undoubtedly influenced the vegetarian diet practiced by many Hindus. Of course, not all Hindus take part in vegetarianism or cow-worship, but it is safe to assume that the higher status of the cow is accepted as a norm for much of the Hindu culture.


O’Toole, Therese (2003) Secularizing the sacred cow: the relationship between religious reform and Hindu nationalism. New Delhi : Oxford University Press

Korom, Frank J. (2000) Holy Cow! The apotheosis of Zebu, or why the cow is sacred in Hinduism. Asian Folklore Studies 59 (2): 181-203.

W. Crooke (1912) The Veneration of the Cow in India. Folklore 23 (3): 275-306.

Embree, Ainslie T. (1996) The Hindu Tradition: Reading in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House Inc.

Rodrigues (2006) Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Yang, Anand (1980) Sacred Symbol and Sacred Space in Rural India: Community Mobilization in the “Anti-Cow Killing” Riot of 1893. Comparative Studies in Society and History 22 (4): 576-596.

Hawley, John (2006) The Life of Hinduism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Srinivasan, Doris (1979) Concept of the Cow in the Rigveda. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.

Jha, D.N. (2002) The Myth of the Holy Cow. New Dehli: CB Publishers.

Buhler, George (2008) The Laws of Manu. Charleston, South Carolina: Forgotten Books.

Related Research Topics






Laws of Manu



Rig Veda

Related Websites

Holy Cow: The Holiness of Hindu Herds (reprise)

Article written by Janine Andreas (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Vegetarianism in Hinduism

A commonly recognized trait of the Hindu tradition is the notion of religious vegetarianism.  A major reason that the study of Hindu vegetarianism is of particular interest is that the practice emerged some time prior to the Common Era (Bryant 194).  The practice of vegetarianism is not universal among Hindus and the instance of practice varies amongst the various classes and the region of the country the sects originated.  The exact percentage of vegetarians among Hindus could not be found but it should be noted that based on the 2004 census about a quarter of India’s population are vegetarians placing them as the minority.  Early Hinduism was heavily involved in animal sacrifice, which still is common among some sects.  In order to get a full understanding for the practice of vegetarianism, many aspects of the religion must be looked into. These include prescriptions in the religious texts such as the Vedas and the epics, as well as religious aspects such as Dharma and reincarnation, and religious guides such as the Laws of Manu.

The reason to discuss the ritual of animal sacrifice in an article about vegetarianism is because it is important to see where the practice came from and how it came to be.  Animal sacrifice has long been a ritual carried out in the Hindu tradition.  The Vedas contain material specific to sacrifice, much of which are hymns used in the sacrificial ritual (Bryant 195).  One of the most notable sacrifices is the as vamedha or the horse sacrifice.  This ritual was undertaken by kings who wished to have a son.  This is considered one of the most powerful sacrifices and required many animals to perish in the ritual’s enactment.  This is considered a very powerful ritual and is also very expensive, but was done according to Vedic specifications to appease the gods in order to get what the king needed.  The animals used in the sacrifice first had to be ritually slaughtered for use in that sacrifice and the meat was later consumed by those in the Brahmin class (Bryant 195).  This is a stark contrast to the Brahmins of modern vegetarian sects, who are commonly the individuals who abstain from eating meat.  This is not to say that the symbolism of sacrifice is not still important to Hindus.  Offering the gods sacrifices to ensure that they are pleased by humans is still a big part of the religion.  However according to the Laws of Manu that a sacrifice composed of butter and flour is sufficient to please the gods (Bryant 198).

There are many aspects of the Hindu tradition that would lead to a vegetarian lifestyle.  In the Hindu tradition every being on the earth, including animals and insects, contain an atman and also has the ability to be reborn in the next life as one of any number of entities (Bryant 194).  If humans lead a life full of bad karma and an absence of dharma then they could be reborn into a lower class, e.g. as a sudra, or possibly even an animal.  With the idea of an atman also came the notion of ahimsa which translates roughly as non-violence.  Ahimsa in the Hindu tradition is extended to all beings with atman which is every animal.  Since it is believed that all beings have an atman then killing and eating any of these beings would not be dharmic.  The killing of animals for the purpose of a humans own enjoyment or for a human’s subsistence is believed to bring bad karma. For instance, scripture has stated that slaying a beast outside of the ritual context of a sacrifice to a god will cause the slayer to dwell in hell for as many days as there were hairs on the beast’s body (Bryant 197).  It is also stated that those who avoid meat altogether obtain all their desires and fruits equivalent to those obtained with the as vamedha, they can even become a sage even in the stage of householder (Bryant 197). So, for an individual that lives the vegetarian life style, it is much easier and cheaper to obtain all the advantages of a high profile sacrifice (Bryant 197).

In the Hindu tradition there is not a single god that is in the highest position, it depends on the worshipers and the god.  The notion of vegetarianism thus extends even to the gods. Those only engaging in vegetarianism maintain a form of purity higher than those that are offered animal sacrifices.  Those gods that are strictly vegetarian are considered superior “sanskritic” deities and are held above the meat eating deities. The sanskritic deities are also held to be of a purer nature and are more difficult to defile, and if they do become defiled they become pure more easily.  For instance in one temple located in the south of India there are two gods worshipped, Aiyanar and Karuppan.  Aiyanar is a vegetarian god and Karuppan is a meat eating god.  This is an interesting case study because these two gods are housed in the same temple.  When an animal sacrifice is made to Karuppan, a cloth is draped over Aiyanar so that he cannot see the slaughter (Fuller 90).  “These two deities exemplify the two fundamental categories of deities, pure vegetarian versus impure meat-eater, as well as the relationship between them is homologous with that between high-ranking vegetarian castes and low ranking non-vegetarian castes”(Fuller 90).  All deities are the objects of puja at which vegetarian offerings are made, but Karuppan is additionally offered animal sacrifice. In addition, no deities are ever offered only animal sacrifice because that would make them not a deity at all but a demonic spirit craving blood alone (Fuller 90).

The epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are ancient Sanskrit tales that depict ideal actions in different situations such as the actions of an ideal king.  These epics also have lessons on killing animals and defiling deities.  In the Ramayana there is a saying “whatever food a man eats the same is the food to be offered to his deity” (Fuller 103).  This means that those worshipping a vegetarian god should be vegetarians in order to maintain that god’s purity.  The Mahabharata contains some of the strongest statements against the harming or animals and the consumption of their flesh (Bryant 198).  The Mahabharata in fact has three entire chapters dedicated to the evils of eating meat.  In one story a sage was impaled on a pike by some thieves. When he asked the god Dharma why this had happened he was told that he had once pricked an insect with a blade of grass and he was now feeling the karmic consequences (Bryant 198).  Several other stories found in the text depict great spiritual sages either being punished for harming animals or even causing themselves harm in order to save animals.  Some of the most powerful words against the eating of flesh come from Bhisma, when he is talking to Yudhisthira, who in the epic is an extremely dharmic character.  Bhisma tells him that humans who indulge in a diet of meat are of the vilest of human beings.  He also tells him that the righteous in previous ages had gained entry into heaven by sacrificing their lives to protect the lives of other creatures (Bryant 198).  The goal in Hinduism is to become liberated and to move beyond the cycle of reincarnation. Because of this it is easy to see why Hindus take on the practice of vegetarianism in order to avoid harming other creatures.  These epics are deeply influential in the Hindu tradition and beings such as Bhisma and Yudhisthira are models to be followed examples.

The Laws of Manu is a text that is influential for prescribing laws of action in the Hindu tradition.  It is classified as a smirti (remembered texts), so it is not revealed by the gods.  It does not state that animal sacrifice is wrong in fact he states that he subscribes to the customs of the Vedic forefathers.  He also states that one who desires to increase his own flesh by the flesh of an animal is the greatest of sinners and that those who harm animals in order to please himself will never find happiness (Bryant 197).  This goes back to the notion that all living beings are regarded as having an atman and to extinguish this for your own pleasure is unforgivable.  “It is in Manu that we find the popular etymology of the term for meat: mam sah “me, he” (i.e., the animal whose flesh I eat in this life will devour me in the next world” (Bryant 197).  Even though it is acceptable to eat the meat of a sacrifice, vegetarian Hindus avoid the meat altogether in order to ensure that no harm is ever caused to animals by them.  The consequences of slaughtering an animal has implications on anyone who is involved in any step of the processing; this includes the butcher, the transporter, the merchant and finally the person consuming the meat.

Whether a Hindu is a vegetarian or not, usually has to do with the caste that they belong to and where they are located.  An example of this is in southern India where Brahmin culture tends to be strictly vegetarian.  The practice is sometimes shared by high ranking non-Brahmin castes and these individuals tend to claim a higher status because they are following the Brahmin’s superior dietary code (Fuller 93).  The Brahmins of the north are also usually vegetarians and it is held in high regard.  Fish and meat are more widely eaten in the northern region and individual Brahmins tend to have more “lapses” in their strict vegetarian diets; so vegetarianism is less of an index to Brahminhood then it is in the south (Fuller 93).  The warrior caste or Ksatriyas were traditionally a meat eating class.  This is so because as the warriors and defenders of the other castes they needed to eat meat in order to increase their material strength.  In fact meat eating by this class is held higher then vegetarianism even though it holds less prestige.  The merchant class or Vaisyas follow in the footsteps of the Brahmins and are usually vegetarians, sometime even more strictly then the Brahmin caste.

Bibliography & Related Readings

Bryant, Edwin (2006) Strategies of Vedic Subversion The Emergence of Vegetarianism in Post-Vedic India. Chichester, New York: Columbia University Press.

Fuller, C.J. (1992) The Camphor Flame Popular Hinduism and Society in India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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Article written by: Mike Stevenson (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.