The Four Virtues of Varnashrama Dharma

The Four Virtues of Dharma

by Jayaram V

Once upon a time, the idea of Varnashrama Dharma served an important purpose in the Vedic world. People used it as a framework to plan for their lives and work for their long term goals namely dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. In today’s world the idea is rather redundant. Most Hindus do not follow the traditional model of Varnashrama Dharma, although they may respect its idealism. Most educated Hindus might have read about it and appreciate its value in balancing the material and spiritual aspirations of human beings, but do not take the idea literally.

In the present day world, it is difficult to follow the orthodox model of Varnashrama Dharma as the world has undergone a lot of change since Vedic times. The education system itself has undergone numerous changes, besides changes in marriage customs and social norms. However, you can still use the outline of Varnashrama Dharma without the particularities, and use it in today's world to plan for the major phases of your life. You can still view your life on traditional lines as four phases and plan for each of them namely, childhood, adulthood, retirement age, and old age.

For example, you can use the Dharma framework to fix your major professional, and personal goals. You can also use the phases to cultivate knowledge, virtue, social responsibility, and spirituality according to the specific demands of each phase. More specifically, you can incorporate them in your planning to cultivate certain behavior, attitudes, values and qualities in different phases of human life. Some qualities are useful when you are a child or a student, some when you are an adult, and some when you are old and retired from active duties.

In the following discussion, we will present four qualities or virtues of Dharma that can make a big difference to you at different stages in your life. They are important to lead a balanced life, build character and integrity, and achieve success, peace, and happiness. Although they can serve you well in all phases of life, they have a particular importance at specific stages in your growth and development and become increasingly relevant to your needs as you progress in life. The four qualities or virtues are as stated below.

  1. Humility (Vinaya)
  2. Patience and tolerance (Sahanasilatha)
  3. Discernment (Buddhi)
  4. Indifference (Aniccha or Nirapeksha)


This quality should be cultivated early in life, when you are still a student. Without humility nothing can be learned. Humility means showing respect and being humble. It is paying respectful attention rather than acting as if you are entitled to it. In the ancient days, teachers taught only if the students approached them with humility and requested for knowledge. Even mighty kings and heirs to great empires used to stand before them with their hands folded.

In Sanskrit language the word sikhsha (study) is synonymous with humility (vinaya). In Buddhism it refers to that body of sacred knowledge which deals with monastic discipline and righteous conduct. When you have humility, you will have an open mind. You will be receptive to knowledge, and you will learn from many people.

Elders and teachers alike like to teach those who have humility. With humility you open many doors of opportunity to learn and fill your mind with both worldly knowledge (avidya) and spiritual knowledge (vidya).

Patience and tolerance

These two qualities go together. Hence, I decided to put them together. If you lack them, when you are young, you will be forgiven by your parents and elders, since patience is the last quality one can expect from a child. However, in adult life you cannot get on well with the world if you lack them. Besides, it will make your life stressful.

Of the two, patience is more important because tolerance arises from the virtue of patience only. Patience has a great significance in your adult life when you are a householder, and when you have many family obligations and social responsibilities. A householder or an adult has to put up with a lot of annoying and disturbing situations and show great courage, restraint and control in his relationships, thinking, and performance of duties.

Life does not always happen as expected. There will be ups and downs, failures, and numerous situations that challenge your courage and faith. In such situations you need patience to remain committed, resolved, and strong. Thus, patience can save you from a lot of trouble both in personal life and public life.


Discernment is the ability to know right from wrong, and the good from the wicked. It comes from intelligence (buddhi), and the right use of reason and knowledge. You need to choose right goals, make right decisions, build right relationships, and avoid making mistakes. You need it from an early age, but it becomes increasingly important as you progress in life.

By the time you reach the late middle age, you would have enough experience and worldly knowledge to put your intelligence for right use to see things clearly and make right decisions about your future and what you want to do with the wealth you gained and the knowledge you learned. Even more important than them is how you want to make use of your remaining life to prepare for your liberation or next life.

Many people continue to live worldly life until the end. It may be the right choice for them, but it is better if it comes out of their discernment rather than habitual thinking. Right discernment leads to right knowledge, right action and right awareness. It also sets you free from the impurities of the mind, unhealthy attachments and relationships, vices, and negative behavior.


Indifference does not mean you will not pay attention, or you will neglect the world around you. It simply means you will maintain a healthy, mental and emotional distance from the world around you, keeping your emotions under control and your involvement limited to the need for survival. It is especially useful in old age, when you have to deal with the problem of loneliness and the indifference of the world.

Old age is painful. It is when the world around you begins to collapse. Most of your friends might have moved away or have their own problems and relationships to deal with. As you lose power and position, people begin to desert you just as they would jump any sinking ship. When you meet people, they may either neglect you or treat you patronizingly or indifferently, as if you are a pitiful person who needs care and love. You will notice that you and the world are falling apart and a chasm is developing between your knowledge and understanding of the world and the reality of it.

It is also the phase during which you have to adapt and adjust to old age, curbing your emotions, urges, habitual thoughts and responses. In those situations, indifference will be your shield to protect your sanity and health from any possible neglect and isolation you may experience in your relationship with the world.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page