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.
|THE FOUR ASHRAMAS|
|Ashrama (station in life)||Duties|
|Student||Learn duties of his caste|
|Householder||Raise a family|
|Forest dweller||Study sacred texts|
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.
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?