On the most basic level, the vision for society articulated within Hinduism is that it should be dharmic, ordered. The most dominant way this order is created is through the caste system. Although in practice the caste system is often a means of oppression, it is in principle a vision of the perfectly ordered, perfectly symbiotic social body.
|Kshatriya||(traditionally warrior caste)|
|Vaishya||(traditionally caste of merchants and farmers)|
At the top of the hierarchy of castes are the Brahmins. They are, traditionally, the ritual priests of the Hindu world. They perform the sacrifices that keep the gods satisfied, which, in turn, maintains dharma in the human realm. The next highest caste is that of the Kshatriyas, the so-called warrior caste whose dharma it is to maintain social order; this social order is necessary for the Brahmins to properly perform the rituals. Next come the Vaishyas, traditionally the merchants and cultivators; they contribute to dharma by providing the material needs of society. Finally, the Shudras, the lowest of the four major castes, the manual laborers who, in doing the "dirty work" of society create the conditions for purity necessary to perform the rituals.
The first articulation of this vision of society is often thought to be contained in the Purusha Shukta of the Rig Veda, where society is created through the sacrifice of the cosmic man, Purusha. There society is envisioned as a body, literally, in which all of the parts are necessary for the functioning of the whole. In this very early vision, the social distinctions are not negatively hierarchical, since each part of the body is equally necessary for the whole to function properly. Society functions because each member is, at any one time, doing precisely what is prescribed for him or her at birth.
Although this vision of society holds that all castes are equally necessary, they are certainly not, in practice, socially equal. The Brahmins are obviously at the top. However, social order, dharma, is absolutely dependent on the presence of a strong king, and much of the Dharmashastra literature that deals with issues of social order is about kingship. The ideal king is said to rule dharmically, which means with the perfect balance of fairness, compassion, and force. The god Rama—himself an avatara of Vishnu, the great "maintainer" or dharma—is depicted as the model king in the great Hindu epic, The Ramayana. In the Dharmashastra literature, the king is at the top of the Hindu social world, and all those below him are integrally connected so that the entire society functions properly.
|THE FOUR ASHRAMAS|
|Ashrama (station in life)||Duties|
|Student||Learn duties of his caste|
|Householder||Raise a family|
|Forest dweller||Study sacred texts|
The ashrama system developed as a further (and related) means of ordering society, by articulating a vision in which each person passes through a series of stages (ashramas) during their life. At any one time, a person fulfills his or her duty by doing what is appropriate at that time in life. One of the goals of the ashrama system is to resolve this tension between ethical and moral duty and ultimate salvation; it allows one to both act ethically in the world and attend to one's own salvation. The ashrama system, essentially, makes an ethical and moral space for attention to one's personal salvation. What the ashrama system does is create a balance between these two potentially opposing needs. One must first attend to one's ethical and moral duties, passing through the student (brachmacarya) and householder (grihastha) stages. Then, and only then, one can embark on a course of religious study—the forest dweller (vanaprastha) stage—and, eventually, ascetic renunciation of the world (the sannyasa stage).