Ethics and Community

B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956)When the ideal of renunciation arose in Hinduism with the Upanishads and their rejection of Vedic sacrifice, some within the Hindu world perceived a potential social crisis. The Upanishads advocate abandonment of social life in favor of a life outside of society, spent in mediation. This idea of the proper religious path threatened to undo the very structure of life in Hinduism. A kind of compromise was articulated in the early years of the common era: the Ashrama system. A Hindu (typically, although not exclusively, a male) in this system was to pass through four stages: student (Brahmacarin or Brahmacari), householder (Grihastha), forest dweller (Vanaprastha), and renouncer (Sannyasin or Sannyasi). This was, in part, a way of removing the social disruption of renunciation; one could renounce, but only at the proper time.

Ashrama (station in life) Duties
Student Learn duties of his caste
Householder Raise a family
Forest dweller Study sacred texts
Renouncer Meditate

Hindu communities are organized in part by caste (as well as class, which is more of an economic than a religious categorization) and in part by sectarian affiliation. There are Vaishnava Hindus (followers of Vishnu), Shaiva Hindus (followers of Shiva), Shakta Hindus (followers of the goddesses), Smarta Hindus (non-theistic or pantheistic followers of Vedanta). But these are only the major sectarian divisions. In reality, there are thousands of what might be called sub-sects, whose members follower particular, often highly localized forms of the various gods and goddesses. Furthermore, although a Hindu might identify him or herself as a member of a particular sect—as a Vaishnava, say—that does not prevent him or her from worshipping other gods and goddesses who are not strictly associated with that sect.

Study Questions:
1.     Why is it difficult to classify and categorize the Hindu world?
2.     How did the caste system develop? How are individuals placed within it?
3.     Is the caste system a divine creation? Why or why not?
4.     How does the Ashrama system differ from the caste system?

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