An important idea that developed in classical Hinduism is that dharma refers especially to a person’s responsibility regarding class (varna) and stage of life (ashrama). This is called varnashrama-dharma. In Hindu history the highest class, the Brahmins, adhered to this doctrine. The class system is a model or ideal of social order that first occurs in the oldest Hindu text, the Rig Veda and the present-day caste (jati) system may be rooted in this. The four classes are:
Brahmans or Brahmins – the intellectuals and the priestly class who perform religious rituals
Kshatriya (nobles or warriors) – who traditionally had power
Vaishyas (commoners or merchants) – ordinary people who produce, farm, trade and earn a living
Shudras (workers) – who traditionally served the higher classes, including labourers, artists, musicians, and clerks
People in the top three classes are known as ‘twice born’ because they have been born from the womb and secondly through initiation in which boys receive a sacred thread as a symbol of their high status. Although usually considered an initiation for males it must be noted that there are examples of exceptions to this rule, where females receive this initiation.
The twice born traditionally could go through four stages of life or ashramas. The ashrama system is as follows:
Correct action in accordance with dharma is also understood as service to humanity and to God. The idea of what has become known as sanatana dharma can be traced back to the puranas. Those who adhere to this idea, addressing one’s eternal dharma or constitution, claim that it transcends other mundane dharmas – that it is the para dharma, the ultimate dharma. It is often associated with bhakti movements, who propose that we are all eternal servants of a personal Deity, thus advocating each act, word, and deed to be acts of devotion. In the 19th Century the concept of sanatana dharma was used by some groups to advocate a unified view of Hinduism.