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Religion Library: Hinduism

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

An important part of Krishna's message to Arjuna is the concept of Ashrama (or Ashram). Krishna tells Arjuna that he must act according to his caste (varna) and his particular station in life (ashrama); this is related to the concept of varna-ashrama-dharma. One is born into a particular caste as a result of past karma, and one's caste determines what sort of life one will live, what sort of work one will do. As one progresses through life, one is also governed by the concept of ashrama. There are four ashramas: student, householder, forest dweller, and renouncer. At each stage, there are certain duties that one must attend to, certain obligations: a student should focus on learning the appropriate duties of his caste; a householder should raise a family; a forest dweller should focus on study of the sacred texts; and a renouncer should leave the trappings of the world behind to meditate.

What this system does is put everything in its proper place. It is a model of the overarching Hindu concept of dharma, of order. It provides a structure so that at each stage of one's life, one has certain duties and obligations, defined by that stage and one's caste. The Bhagavad Gita adds the concept of bhakti to this, thereby introducing the idea that no matter what one's caste is, from the highest Brahmin to the lowest Shudra, and no matter what one's age, if one performs the appropriate duties with the appropriate devotion, one is engaged in the highest religious acts.

Study Questions:
1.     How has the Hindu purpose of life changed throughout history?
2.     How do the three paths differ from one another? What are their similarities?
3.     What is bhakti, and why is it important?


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