Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Four Ashramas of Life

In the Vedic culture of ancient India life was divided into four stages known as ashramas. These stages were Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa and they corresponded to the student, the married man with family, retirement and gradual withdrawal from worldly affairs, and then complete detachment from material life and dedication to the spiritual path. In terms of age, the first stage was roughly until 25, the second until about 50, the third to about 70 and the fourth thereafter though potentially anyone could enter the fourth stage after being a student, life being perceived as fundamentally spiritual in purpose. That having been said, it was seen as important that a person should develop all aspects of his nature and to jump prematurely from one stage to another without having learnt the lessons of the intermediary stages was not always deemed advisable.

The idea of these stages was that a human being should follow a trajectory that brought him ultimately to liberation which was the spiritual goal. We may not think in quite those terms in the Christian West but I consider the basic idea and pattern to be an excellent one. We could certainly do with seeing life in those terms nowadays. 

We first must establish ourselves in the world. We learn about the world, we marry and raise a family and then we turn to God and seek to make ourselves fully aware of the reality of spiritual life in preparation for death. This doesn't mean we ignore God until the latter stages. The whole system presumes the reality of God so he is there the whole time and all the stages must be regarded in the light of his over-arching existence and the fact that we should at all times be moving towards him, becoming more like him. But our priorities differ at different stages of life. One of the many tragedies of the modern world is that old people refuse to adapt themselves to the reality of their situation and cling on to earlier phases of life. Even those in the familial phase often seek to evade their responsibilities and are reluctant to give up the student mentality. We are seeing this more and more as people either decline to have children or else, when they do, still behave self-indulgently in one way or another, divorce and separation not the least.

Traditionally, the Brahmacharya or student phase was rather different to our modern idea of the student. For a start, it required celibacy. Then the student was supposed to learn scripture and proper religious practice in addition to general education in the arts and sciences of the time. Control over himself was regarded as vital as was truth-telling for if you don't honour truth in yourself how can you ever know God who is truth? In this sense, all education was spiritual preparation, a far cry from our current idea of student life.

The Grihastha was the householder stage. From the point of view of society and its smooth running, this was the most important stage. Everything needful for creating wealth and stability, raising children and making sure the next generation was properly prepared so that society could maintain itself harmoniously was done by those in the Grihastha stage. This was a worldly stage and properly so but the worldly aspects were carried out in an overall religious context, in the context of dharma which means righteousness, order, virtue and truth, somewhat similar to the idea of Maat in ancient Egypt. Cosmic harmony and the order of the gods, you might say.

The next stage was retirement when a person, having raised a family, stepped back from his worldly duties and began to take a more active interest in the spiritual life. In a way, the Vanaprastha stage represented a bridge between worldly interest and responsibilities, with a focus on wealth, achievement and pleasure (once again, always within the greater context of religious piety), and turning inwards to seek God. Fulfilling the role of grandparent would be an excellent step towards taking on the more contemplative attitude expected. Literally the word Vanaprastha means forest dweller which gives the idea of someone who moves away from a busy urban environment to a more peaceful and natural one in which he (or she, this applied to both sexes) could live an uncluttered life without worldly distractions.

The final phase is that of Sannyasa in which all worldly attachments are cast off. The word itself implies renunciation and purification and refers to the stripping off of material desires and concerns in preparation for complete spiritual focus. Theoretically, this stage could be entered by anyone after Brahmacharya but it was the intended path for everyone though I presume this only applied to those known in Hinduism as twice born which comprises the three upper castes, namely Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors) and Vaisyas (merchants).  The caste system is much decried nowadays but a less prejudiced mindset should be able to see that human beings are indeed different and if you conceive of a person as made up of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual elements, these will be differently proportioned among individuals. Assuming a genetic element to the human being, a caste system makes sense even if it can be abused.

On a personal note, my life has followed this pattern to an extent. As those who have read my book may know, I did go from the Brahmacharya to the Sannyasa stage but then at the age of 45 went back to the Grihastha one. I feel I am nearing the end of that now and ready to move on to the next phase and will possibly embrace Sannyasa again at the end of my life. It seems a comfortable and natural progression  even though I have taken a slightly unorthodox route. As I mentioned earlier, this ancient Indian mode of being cannot be applied to the Christian West in literal terms but it does work in that context with a few tweaks and is certainly a far better template for life than what we have now.

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