“Student life is meant for acquiring the best education; household family life is meant for gratifying the senses, provided it is performed with a charitable disposition of mind, retirement from household life is meant for penance, for advancement in spiritual life, and renounced life is meant for preaching the Absolute Truth to the people in general. The combined actions of all members of society make the whole situation favorable for the upliftment of the mission of human life.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.12.41 Purport)
Dharma is the Sanskrit equivalent for the term “religion.” It is not an exact match, as the unexplainable is not merely left to a matter of faith. Dharma speaks to a real truth, something which always exists. It is the essence of something, and in the most inclusive scope it is the essence of life. Dharma is also the system that one follows to either reignite that essence or maintain it. Dharma is described in many different ways in the Vedas, and the reference to four legs is often found. Sometimes this refers to how adherence to dharma loses its standing within society as further time from the beginning of the creation elapses. The four legs can also refer to the pillars of pious behavior: austerity, cleanliness, compassion and truthfulness. In other areas the four legs refer to education, charity, penance and truth.
These last four sustain religiosity. Without religious life, or attention to the spirit soul within all of us, there is really no intelligence to guide activity. The animals lack religious life, and so they have no problem eating one another. They don’t mind having as much sex life as possible, for what higher taste is there? The human being has the same vital force within but also a higher potential for intelligence. Only through religiosity is that potential reached.
The first leg is education. This should make sense, for how can you practice something unless you know what it is? The institution that corresponds with education is brahmacharya. As a Sanskrit word, this means following the principles of Brahman. Brahman is spirit. Since spirit is the life of an existence, Brahman is found everywhere. In practice, brahmacharya specifically refers to celibate student life. Without the distractions of the opposite sex, the young student learns what Brahman is. They stay in a simple life, serve their teachers, and become educated along the way. There is always some kind of education, but with brahmacharya the focus is specifically on seeing the presence of Brahman everywhere, which ultimately means seeing all living beings as equivalent spiritual entities.
“The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste] .” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.18)
The second leg of dharma is charity. This has significance to the first leg. If the students humbly serve their guru, how are they going to maintain a living? They don’t have money themselves. Obviously they must accept some kind of charity. Thus the corresponding institution for the second leg is grihastha. This is married life. Consider it the equivalent of living in a home today and earning a salary. You have your spouse and children with you, who generally soak up a lot of your income. The rest should be spent in charity. This purifies the worker, allowing them to realize that though they work for something, ultimately the reward does not belong to them. Everything comes from a higher being, and so charity is a great way to release the tension associated with false proprietorship.
The third leg is penance. You need penance to atone for any mistakes you’ve made and also to purify yourself of any misgivings you’ve gathered along the journey through life. Vanaprastha corresponds with penance. This comes after grihastha life. The Sanskrit word means “living in the forest,” and the connotation is that after living at home for so long, one retires into the woods. Perhaps their family continues to provide them nominal support through provisions and the like, but the entire life is a kind of penance. Who wants to spend retirement on a never-ending camping trip? And yet this is what vanaprastha is like. Through penance one again breaks free of the false notion that everything is theirs.
The fourth leg is truth, and more specifically living it. In brahmacharya you learn what the Truth is, but in the ashrama of sannyasa you actually live that truth. You are immersed in it fulltime. To wherever you go and to whomever you meet, you speak about the Truth. In this way, under the order of the great knower of the Truth, Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, you become a guru, or spiritual master. Sannyasa is full renunciation; no family, no job, and no home even. In the classic system, one would beg for food from a home that they didn’t know very well. They would never take more than a day’s worth of food; no stocking up for tomorrow. And no visiting the same home everyday; begging was not to be like going to the local restaurant and getting a lifetime free pass.
Living the Truth means always being in the association of Parabrahman, the source of the spiritual energy. If one lives with Parabrahman in thought, word and deed, they are automatically a sannyasi, though they may not officially be in that stage of life. Thus we see that the legs of dharma are mechanisms for reaching an end. Since Parabrahman is the complete spiritual potency, it can never be restricted to anyone based on what stage of life they are in. Whether one is single or married, a man or a woman, educated or dumb, they can still find Parabrahman.
“O son of Pritha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth – women, vaishyas [merchants], as well as shudras [workers] – can approach the supreme destination.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.32)
The way Parabrahman can be found even if the four legs of dharma are absent is through bhakti-yoga, which is devotional service. This is also a kind of dharma, known as bhagavata. The ultimate goal is bhakti, but it is very difficult to reach. To practice it is easy, just chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” But who wants to chant all the time? Who will even believe with certainty that this mantra represents something great? Who is willing to change their direction in life from accumulating as much wealth as possible to practicing as much devotion as possible?
And so we see why dharma and its four legs are vital. Those who are not interested in devotion to Parabrahman can at least make some progress in consciousness through the support of the four legs of dharma. These legs work together to help uplift the entire society into the divine consciousness, which is the ultimate goal for all spirit souls.
Knowledge of spirit you need,
Also society’s members to feed.
Penance after leaving the home,
In sannyasa immersed in truth alone.
Thus come legs of dharma four,
To give rise to bhakti, devotion more.
Life dedicated to God is found rare,
So to four legs give attention and care.