THE STAGES OF LIFE SYSTEM IN HINDU
There are four stages of life viz. Brahmachari
(student), Grihasta (Householder) Vanaprasta (forest dweller or
Hermit in semi retirement) Sannyasi (the renounced one in full
retirement) and the Dharma of each is different. The four stages
may be said to represent periods of Preparation, Production,
Service and Retirement.
"People do not have to be taught to want to be
happy, to want to be secure or to want the respect and admiration
of their friends and associates - though often they need
instruction 'how' to secure these things.
Deeper Hindu thinking suggests, however, that there
is also a natural progression of these values so that one should
grow toward more fundamental interests.
This movement toward more enduring and satisfying
values has been institutionalized in the understanding of the
four stages of life known as 'Ashramas".
BRAHMACARYA means Student, usually between 12 and
24 years of age.The first stage is Brahmacharya. The duty of a
student is to study. On initiation into Brahmacharya by means of
the Upanayana rites, he becomes a 'Dvija' (a twice born).
'Upanayana' means 'bringing near'- the disciple
is brought near the Guru for receiving the initiation of
For the Brahmachari, celibacy is his forte,
discipline is his norm, devotion to his Guru is his duty and
concentration in studies is his vocation.
In "Gurukula Vasam"( or staying with the
preceptor) he learns the nuances and intricate renderings and
interpretations of Vedas, Upanishads and Sastras though by means
of rote so that when he comes of age the significance of what he
learnt would be realized by him in real life situations, which he
would be facing in his next Ashrama.
Thus, it is a period of probation, a period of
training, in a practical manner without prejudice to the
injunctions of Sastras he had so studiously learnt as a
Brahmachari. Only when someone consoles we feel relief; only the
'Guru Upadesa' can change our mental attitude. The first
lesson of the student is the performance of 'Sandhya
Vandanam' at morn, noon and evening, Ablutions, recitation of
Gayatri, breath control, sipping and sprinkling of water, pouring
libations of water to the Sun-God etc. were enjoined on the
twice-born and they could never be missed.
GRIHASTA means House-holder usually between 24 and
48 years of age. The next stage is of the householder. After the
'Gurukula Vasa' he graduates himself into the mundane
world, taking a wife to assist him in his performance of Dharmic
All Sastras proclaim the importance of the
Grihastasrama as the fulcrum of all other Ashramas. People in the
other three Ashramas heavily lean on the Grihasta for support and
sustenance required to carry out their respective duties. The
Grihasta earns his livelihood by whatever a vocation befitting
his being a member of his group, raising children, supporting his
own family, kith and kin besides the persons performing their
duties in the other three Ashramas.
The life of a Grihasta is therefore , considered a
'Jivayagna'- a lifelong saga of self sacrifice for the
benefit of others in society.
Marriage is not meant as a means to satisfy carnal
craving. It is regarded as a means to spiritual glory, a sin qua
non for the development of lineage - a necessary link between the
dead past and an unborn future that must come alive to be
undertaken as a part of spiritual duty with devotion (Shraddha)
to perpetuate the family tradition.
According to Bhagavata Purana, a Griha (house) is
not a person for one who has controlled his senses, delights in
spirit and is eager for knowledge.f
Partners who enter in wedlock are not 'paragons
of virtue' as they appear in the first flush of enthusiasm.
None is perfect and to seek for perfection in the partner is like
seeking a mirage in the desert.
Perfect relationship is created by conscious effort
and not discovered all of a sudden. The incompatibilities have to
be resolved by a continual mutual adjustment and reconciliation
by a willing attitude of 'give and take'.
Marriage is marriage and is not a mere love affair
which is but an infatuation. Love affair is a relationship just
for the pleasure of the person involved and it has no
consideration of the families of the persons. When the pleasure
wears out, the affair is gone.
But, marriage is a life commitment.If you make a
sacrifice, you are not sacrificing to that person. It is a
sacrifice to a permanent relationship.Love bears all, endures
all. If the relationship has pains, remember that life is a
mixture of joys and sorrows.
The practice in India that a husband and wife could
continue to remain as husband and wife till death and also
celebrate the Golden jubilee of their wedding at the 60th age of
the husband is still very common.
Those that end in divorce or separation are misfits
for the marriage life who have no understanding of the marriage
and its divinity. They fail in 'making it work' and
deserve the real pain, indeed the devastating trauma attaching
The duties of the Grihasta include the performance
of 'PANCHMAHAYAGNA' (five great sacrifices) laid down in
MANU DHARMA SASTRA.
DEVA YAGNA : (Deity worship) - The daily worship
and puja to Ganapathi,Kula devata and Ishta devata. Visiting kula
devata temple often or atleast once in a year.
BRAHMA YAGNA : (Seer worship) Each day the
householder expresses his debt to the the human kind by doing
some services to the society. Performing ones own
profession/vocation with the standards of ethics itself is a
service to the society. BRAHMA YAGNA also includes Guru worship
and studying, teaching, repeating and meditating upon the Vedic
scriptures.( Vedic rituals)
PITRU YAGNA : (Ancestor Worship) Respecting the
ancestors, parents of the self and spouse and getting their
blessings by making salutations to them by leaning towards their
foot. Parentless children should perform Annual Shraddas(Thithi)
and observe fasting during new moon days and beginning of months,
offer rice balls (pindas) to crows or in holy river.Those persons
who do not know the thithi of their parents death should perform
thithi on the new moon day of the month "Thai" which
usally comes between the second week of January and the second
week of February. The thithi given or the fasting observed on
thai amavasya constitute a remembrance of ancestors back to the
BHUTA YAGNA : Worship of living beings by
scattering grains, offering food at the threshold for animals,
birds, insects etc. Loving and watering plants also do constitute
NARA YAGNA OR PURUSHA YAGNA OR MANUSHYA YAGNA
(Guest worship)Obligation to love and honor ties of fellowship
with humanity by showing hospitality to fellow humans, friends,
relatives or even strangers and beggars.
It is to be noted here that a person performing his
PANCHMAHAYAGNA everyday without fail will not be disturbed by
Marriage is an integral part of a Grihasta for it
is said that no ritual is efficacious without the presence of the
wife, the Sahadharmini.
The wife always accompanies the husband in
discharging his duties. Marriage is no doubt, primarily for
begetting children but it was also required for the proper
performance of worship.
Marriage is not only a contract between individuals
but a contract between families.
The difference in the family values as between
those obtaining in India and in the West would reveal how
different are the expectations about marriage in these two
The first three nights after marriage, the couple
are expected to remain continent to impress that marriage is not
a license for sexual pleasures but a holy and irrevocable
contract not only between the man and wife but also casts the
burden of ensuring it to be so, till the very last, on the
community comprising of the families of both sides.
The husband is expected to first satisfy the
wife's soul and the wife satisfies the husband with her body
and gets his soul.
On Abortion, the Sastras are very clearly against
it. The foetus is considered to be a living person with
consciousness who is required to be protected and reared with
care and affection.
Rgveda even goes to the extent of pleading for
mercy on behalf of the foetus.
Atharva veda characterizes the killer of a foetus
as brunagni , one of the most heinous sins.
KAUSHITAKI UPANISHAD equates it to the killing of
GAUTHAMA DHARMA SASTRA advises such persons as
having lost their caste status- considered in those days as equal
to capital punishment.
SUSRUTHA SAMHITA the medical treatise, however,
permits abortion on purely medical grounds Mudhagarbha which
explains the steps to be taken to save both mother and child in
case of emergency and advises that if the foetus is alive, every
attempt should be made to remove it from the mother's womb
alive. If dead, it may be removed in the normal course. Surgical
removal (Caesarian) should not be resorted to if it is likely to
harm the mother and / or the child. In extreme cases, it permits
inducing miscarriage of the foetus if that were the only means to
prevent the loss of the mother.Children were loved to the point
of becoming spoilt darlings.
VANAPRASTA ASHRAMA ( THE ANCHORITE)
VANAPRASTA is the third stage of Elder Advisor
usually between 48 and 72 years of age. A stage comes when
business, family, secular life like the beauties and hopes of
youth have exhausted themselves and need to be left behind. The
person retires usually from worldly attachments to lead a life of
contemplation and meditation alone or with his wife.
What life holds beyond middle age depends in the
end not on fancy and imagination but on the realities of the
values of life we regard as inviolable. Vanaprasta may be termed
as the beginning of a person's real 'adult education'
to evaluate his performance thus for as Grihasta and reorder his
life in such a way as to discover who he is and what life is all
"The time had come for him to probe 'the
secret of 'I' with which he has been on such intimate
terms all these years yet which remains a stranger, full of
inexplicable quirks, baffling surds, irrational
It is curious to find that many do not wish to
venture into this but would like to remain in Grihastashrama even
by remarrying if the first spouse predeceases the man.
A playboy of 25 may impress but how could one pose
perpetually as the 'prince charming' at 50, 60 or 70
years of age? Look at those who try hard to do this. However hard
they might try, they not only fail to receive recognition but
also incur the derision of people whom they seek to impress.
SANNYASA ASHRAMA ( THE RENOUNCED)
SANNYASI is the fourth stage of an Ascetic -
Solitaire - usually beyond 72 years of age. This means
'Samyak Nyasa' - 'Total detachment' from worldly
pleasures including the bare necessities to subsist. This is the
last 'Ashrama'. He does not aspire to be recognized as
somebody who matters - The wish of the Sannyasi is just to be a
'persona non grata'- one who exists almost without giving
any thought to his being - with no desire for name or fame or
"He no more cares whether his body falls or
remains than does a cow what becomes a garland that someone has
hung around her neck - for the faculties of his mind are now at
rest in the holy power, the essence of bliss."
"Business, family, secular life, the beauties
and hopes of youth and the success of maturity have now been left
behind, Eternity alone remains. And, so it is to that - and, not
to the tasks and worries of their life, already gone which came
and passed like a dream - that the mind is turned."
"The Sannyasi has his spiritual eye on goods
that men can't give and cares little for anything that men
can take away. . Therefore, he is beyond the possibility of
either seduction or threat."
Sannyasa is of four kinds:
'Vidvat'- born out of real wisdom and is
spontaneous 'Vividisha'- springing from a yearning for
self-realization through study of the Scriptures and practicing
the rigors prescribed Aatura upon one's deathbed when there
is no hope in living further, and Markata - embracing Sannyasa as
an escape from great misery, disappointment or misfortune that
one is not able to face in worldly activities.
No one is encouraged to become a 'Sannyasi'
unless one has gone through one's natural impulses through
the three previous Ashramas. He who runs away from marriage
(Grihastashrama) is no better than a coward deserting the battle
The student's attention is directed inward,
preparing for life ahead. In Grihasta and Vanaprasta attention is
directed outward - Grihasta supporting the entire society,
Vanasprasta sharing his experiences for the good of others. The
Sannyasi is again inner directed. Having contributed to society
and having received from society what he needed, he prepares
himself for the final release.
Sannyasa means renunciation not of life alone but
of Kama, Artha and even worldly Dharmas. Sannyasa may be deemed a
second phase of Brahmacharya.
The first was a preparation for life; the second a
preparation for death. While Brahmacharya and Grihasta show the
'Pravritti Marga ( towards the world) , Vanaprasta and
Sannyasa indicate the 'Nivritti Marga' (away from the
world) through introspection and renunciation.
Thus, while 'Varna' is determined by past
'Karma', Ashrama is determined by the stage of maturity
displayed by individuals in viewing the goals of life.
"Varnas stress human nature ; Ashramas stress
And, Lord Krishna advises "One's own duty,
though done imperfectly is preferable to the duty of another even
if well performed. Even death in doing one's own duty is
blissful; doing another's duty is frightful".
So, everyone is advised to do his / her
'Dharma' according to one's Varna and Ashrama - and
not to venture doing those outside one's own.
Every person has his Svabhava (natural being)
fitting him for his Svadharma (natural function). We cannot
change either our natural being or our natural function because
nature cannot be forced into a change by our whims and
A Sadhu was rescuing a scorpion that had fallen
into a pond. Every time he lifted it out of water, it stung him
but he would not give up until it was saved. One of his disciples
asked why he was persistent in saving the scorpion that stung
him. The Sadhu replied: "The `Dharma' or nature of
scorpion is to sting; the nature or Dharma of a Sadhu is to
rescue a being from distress - and in this case sure death by
drowning. So long as the scorpion does not give up its Dharma why
should I give up mine and give up saving it?" The
`Dharma' of fire is to burn, of water is to be cool, of wind
is to blow. So, the Dharma of man is to be humane. This story
emphasizes how one should go on doing one's duty even if
obstacles, impediments and difficulties intervene in discharging
The Dharma of a student is to study. If the student
- neglects his studies he neglects his svadharma; if fire does
not burn, it is not fire; When heated by fire (by external
influence) water loses its nature (Svadharma) of being cool. When
Svadharma is not practiced, there ensues an imbalance in the
environment. This understanding and adherence to Svadharma is
what distinguishes human beings from other beings.