Four Paths to Practice Dharma in Hinduism

The Practice of Dharma

Hindu Society, Paintings by A. MANIVELU

by Jayaram V

Hinduism is not an organized religion. There are no specific institutions which govern the lives and conduct of its followers. In such circumstances, how best a Hindu can practice his faith and uphold his Dharma? In Hinduism, families provide the best guidance. You learn about your faith primarily from your parents and elders in the family. It is from them or by observing them, you learn about your family traditions, family deities and methods of worship. Some you may learn on your own by studying the scriptures or observing others. You may also learn by visiting temples and interacting with priests, elders and others in the community.

In Hinduism we place a lot of emphasis upon self-study (svadhyaya) or self-effort. Many people become acquainted with their faith through self-study. Nowadays, a lot of information is available on the Internet, which can be an important source for your self-study. In Hinduism, we also recognize the importance of karma or desire-ridden actions and the cumulative affect they have upon our past and future lives. We believe that just as karma shapes your life, it also determines the essential nature of your faith and the methods and paths you choose to worship your gods or pursue your liberation.

When you are young, you may not pay much attention to religious matters, but as you grow up, at some point you may become drawn to your faith due to past life impressions (samskaras) or predominant inclinations. Some incidents in your life, chance meetings with spiritual people, adversity, problems and difficulties may also push you towards your faith. Sometimes people emerge through grave situations, accidents, severe illnesses and near-death experiences, which may teach them the value of life and the importance of leading a spiritual life. Some people may also turn to Hinduism when they become deeply dissatisfied with materialism or their current faith.

An important lesson from Hindu caste system

Although, Hinduism is not an organized religion, it is wrong to think that there are no institutions or guidelines or specific procedures to worship gods or practice the faith. Some of them are built into the very framework of Hinduism. For example, Hindu caste system, Varnashrama dharma, the Purusharthas, the sacrificial model, temple traditions, these are institutions only, which give us an idea of how to practice our faith. We also have benign and traditional methods of worship known as right-hand practices, and extreme and unconventional methods known as left-hand practices, which devotees choose according to the paths they follow.

For example, you can learn a lot about the essential practice of Hindu dharma from the Hindu caste system. No doubt, in its present form, it has many flaws, and is even despised by many for the problems it creates. However, its original intentions were seemingly good. In the early Vedic period, the caste system was not rigid. It was probably conceived in the beginning to facilitate the practice of Dharma by different groups of people according to their faith and essential nature. It is unfortunate that the system eventually deteriorated and led to many unintended consequences, including divisions and inequality within society, which negated the very purpose for which it was created.

The Hindu caste system offers four definitive ways or paths to practice Dharma. The basis of the each caste is the essential nature (svabhava) of each person, which in turn is determined by the triple gunas namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Sattva manifests as illumination, purity, clarity, virtue, brilliance, gentleness, harmony, etc. Rajas manifests as passion, activity, dynamism, power, change, movement, etc. Tamas manifests as lethargy, heaviness, despair, ignorance, chaos, confusion, apathy, etc.

Together the gunas determine the nature of our actions, intentions, behavior, choices and essential nature. The Hindu caste system originally consisted of only three caste groups, each having the predominance of one of the triple gunas. The fourth group emerged subsequently as the Vedic society grew in strength and complexity and as new people were admitted into it.

The relationship between the castes and the predominance of gunas is subtly discussed in the 17th chapter of the Bhagavadgita, wherein it is stated that a person’s faith arises from his or her essential nature. As one’s nature, so is one’s faith and resolve. Each person is made up of faith only, which arises from the presence of the triple gunas. Thus, the faith of a person can be sattvic, rajasic or tamasic or a combination of all these. When you mix these triple gunas in different permutations and combinations, you can imagine in how many ways the essential nature and thereby faith and resolve can manifest in people.

The triple gunas determine not only the nature of our faith but also which gods or methods or paths we choose to practice it. They also determine which material and spiritual goals we may pursue. The four approaches or paths to Dharma are listed below. It is important to remember that they do not arise from your birth but from your essential nature or natural disposition.

One does not become a Brahmana or Kshatriya or Vaishya or Sudra by birth, but by nature and purity. This is emphasized in the Vedas itself. The Puranas also contain many illustrations. For example, Parasurama was born in a pious Brahmana family, but he was a Kshatriya by nature. Even Manusmriti supports the idea which affirms that a Brahmana earns respect and recognition by conduct, knowledge and virtue, not by birth. Let us examine the four paths which are available to householders to practice Dharma in Hinduism. (These paths do not apply to spiritual people who renounce worldly life. For them, there is only one path, the path or liberation or renunciation. Even there, the essential nature of each sadhaka or practitioner plays an important role. Our discussion here is confined to householders only.)

  1. The path of priests, philosophers and scholars: On this path one becomes acquainted with scriptural knowledge through study or self-study, and uses that knowledge to promote, preserve and propagate the Dharma. He also leads an exemplary life on the path of righteousness and serves as a role model to others, practicing devotion, virtue and righteous conduct, teaching knowledge and performing sacrifices. He invokes the power of gods through ritual and spiritual practices to pursue the four chief aims of human life. This is essentially the path of knowledge and intelligence.
  2. The path of the warriors and defenders of faith: On this path also, one becomes acquainted with the scriptural knowledge through study and self-study, and uses that knowledge mainly to defend and protect the Dharma, bestow gifts, and help the poor and needy. He too sets an example and serves as a role model by leading an exemplary life on the path of righteousness, abstaining from and detaching himself from sensual pleasures. He invokes the power of righteousness, strength and valor to protect others, defend the faith and pursue the four chief aims of human life. This is essentially the path of power, strength and valor.
  3. The path of the merchants, traders and businessmen: On this path also, one becomes acquainted with the scriptural knowledge through study and self-study. On the path of righteousness, he too sets an example by leading an exemplary life in the pursuit of material wealth, engaging in cattle rearing, farming, trading, money lending, etc. He invokes the power of material wealth to practice and uphold Dharma and helps others through charitable works, philanthropy, and hosting and supporting sacrificial rituals and devotional programs. This is essentially the path of charity.
  4. The path of the workers and mundane people: On this path one may not necessarily possess scriptural knowledge or the knowledge of the rites and rituals or other matters of faith. However, one still leads an exemplary life on the path of righteousness, as a householder and a servant of God (Bhagavata or Pasupata), pursuing the four chief aims of human life through devotion and voluntary service. He invokes the power of strength, loyalty, discipline and humility to serve selflessly gods in the temples and sacred places, humans and others, with the belief that serving them is serving God. This is essentially the path of service.

In today’s world you do not have to choose your path of Dharma according to your birth or caste. You may choose any path which you believe is natural to you or in harmony with your essential nature. One becomes a Brahmana or Kshatriya or Vaishya or Sudra by one’s nature and inclination, and by the paths and profession one chooses. Alternatively, just as many saints, seers and incarnations did in the past, one may also combine them and perform multiple roles in upholding the faith.

When the caste system was extremely rigid, the duties of each caste were also rigidly set, leaving a large section of people with little or no freedom to practice their faith according to their choice or inherent nature. Those who did not like it or could not fit into it, left it and joined other faiths which did not impose such restrictions. Today, you do not have to do it. You have the freedom to be what you want to be and how you want to live your life. Many of the restrictions associated with the caste system have disappeared. Hence, it is easier to choose your path and practice your faith according to your convictions or essential nature.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Image Attribution: The art work in this article is created using the images taken from the art galleries at for limited use in the service of Dharma.

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