The Vishnu Purana (abridged)

27,616 words

The Vishnu Purana (Viṣṇu Purāṇa) is a religious Hindu text and one of the (most important) eighteen Mahapuranas. It is also known as Puranaratna ("gem of Puranas"). Presented as a dialogue between Parashara and his disciple Maitreya, the major topics discussed include creation, stories of battles fought between asuras and devas, the Avat...

The Four Classes and the Four Stages

The most important way of following Vishnu is to follow the law of the four classes (varna) and the law of the four stages (ashrama) as laid down in the shastras (sacred texts)

The four classes are brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. It is the duty of the brahmana to give alms, worship the gods through sacrifices and study the Vedas. They should treat all living beings well and not harm anyone. The most important wealth a brahmana can have is the friendship of others. A kshatriya should donate to brahmanas, study and perform sacrifices to Vishnu. But his most important duty is to bear arms to protect the earth. The king’s duties are to punish the evil and protect the good. The vaishyas are to do animal husbandry, trade and agriculture. In addition, they should study, donate alms and perform sacrifices. The shudra’s duty is to serve the other classes. If it is impossible to make a living through this, the shudra may make a living through trade or handicrafts.

Common duties of all four classes are kindliness, cleanliness, hard work, truthfulness, friendship and the capacity to bear hardship. If for some reason a brahmana cannot make a living through the methods that have been laid down, he can take up arms and perform the duties of kshatriya. Or he can take up agriculture, animal husbandry or trade. A kshatriya can also take up agriculture, animal husbandry or trade. But a brahmana or a kshatriya should never take up the duties of a shudra. This is permitted only in times of great danger or if there is absolutely no other way out. Everyone should ensure that the duties of the four classes do not get mixed up.

The first of the ashramas is brahmacharya (celibate studenthood). After he has been invested with his sacred thread, a son should be sent to his teacher’s house to learn the Vedas. There he will lead a clean life and pay attention to the rituals. He will serve his guru and study the Vedas. In the morning and the evening he will pray to the sun and the fire and bow to his teacher after the prayers are over. The disciple (shishya) will sit only after the guru sits, he will walk only after the guru walks. He will never oppose his guru. When the guru asks him to, he will sit down and study the Vedas. Every morning, the shishya will bring water and flowers for his guru. Eventually, the shishya will have learnt the Vedas and attained knowledge. He will then pay the guru the price of the knowledge (dakshina), take the guru’s permission and prepare to step into the next ashrama, that of garhasthya (householder stage).

This is the time to get married and choose a proper living. Such a person has to serve gods through sacrifices, guests through food, rishis through reading the Vedas, Brahma through having children and the entire world through truthfulness. In many ways, a garhasthya ashrama is superior to the others. The brahmanas and those who follow brahmacharya may have to through alms. It is the person in garhasthya ashrama who provides them this. When guests arrive, the householder will offer whatever he can in the nature of food, seats and beds. If a guest goes away dissatisfied, he takes away the householder’s punya (store of merits) and leaves his sins with the householder. A guest is never to be refused.

After a person has lived a full life as a householder, he may proceed to the forest-dweller stage, vanaprastha. He can take his wife with him or leave her in the care of his son. He will live in the forest on fruits and roots and leaves, he will sleep on the ground and he will not cut his hair or shave his beard. He will worship the gods, tend to guests and give alms to those who need them. His main duty is meditation.

The final ashrama is that of sannyasa. A person is ready to enter this when he can give up his sons, wife and all material possessions. To him all living beings will be friends and he will not harm any living being. He will live alone and perform yoga (excerises that unite man with God). He will never stay in a village more than one night at the time and in a city for more than five nights at a time. A sannyasi or hermit will beg for his food. But he will come to a house for alms only after he is sure that everyone in the house has eaten.

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