Hinduism suggests a balanced life style to be lived. It requires every individual to pass through four stages called ‘Ashrams’. Each stage consists of twenty five years. The division of stages is natural and visible.
During first stage, body and mind develop with inquisitiveness, strength and enthusiasm. It is followed by second stage, when awareness of gender consciousness and development of reproductive organs is conspicuous to signal time for marriage partnership. Thereafter, during third stage, the individual desires to share his experiences with younger generation. The maturity in age shows up through grey hair, and patience in behavior. Finally the last stage is reached with wrinkles, gradual loss of senses, stamina and enthusiasm and signal proximity to death in waiting. It is then time for voluntary renunciation.
This division of four stages is universal all the world over. Humans fear death if they did not enjoy life, but those who discharged their obligations remain composed till last. The state of Moksha is always experienced before death and not afterwards.
The four Ashramas in life
Sages of Hinduism have thus divided life span in four Ashramas (phases) as Brahmacharya, Grahastha, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa Ashramas.
Learning Stage (Brahmacharya Ashram)
The first 25 years are earmarked for celibacy during student hood. This stage begins with awareness and observation of environment around, and responding to stories from parents. Formally this stage begins with entry to school at an early age and continues till education is completed. The goal is to acquire knowledge, build character and learn to shoulder responsibilities. This is the stage of learning skills, forming right habits, and developing sound mind in healthy body. As success of future life depends upon the foundation laid during first phase of life, strict discipline is desired through self-control. Character building and adoption of value based rational personality are the essential features of this stage in which individuals are expected to:-
- Live a simple life close to nature, in respect of diet, clothes and luxuries.
- Develop an inquisitive attitude; gain knowledge and perfection in as many fields as possible.
- Mold personality by adopting strong value based habits in dealings.
- Adopt healthy physical habits to have sound mind in healthy body.
- Abstain from indulging in intoxicants and all kinds of sensual pleasures.
- Abstaining form negative, vulgar and unethical thoughts and activities.
- Develop respectful attitude towards teachers, elders, and compassion for fellow beings.
- Attain proficiency in the knowledge and skill for adopting profession for livelihood.
House Holder Stage (Grahastha Ashram)
Next 25 years mark the second stage of Grahastha Ashram. Individuals are suggested to get married and live the life of house holders. Hinduism does not regard the birth of a person as a result of any ‘sin’ or ‘disobedience to the command of God’, but birth in human form is regarded as a reward for having done good deeds in the previous life. Hindus are not obsessed with the feeling of guilt, or sin having been committed by their parents. On the contrary, an issue less person is considered as having lived an incomplete and unnatural life.
It is only the house holders like Rama and Krishna, who are remembered and worshiped. Individuals are expected to make to the system of reproduction continuing by having as many children they are capable to produce, feed, educate and bring up. Further, it is the duty of every individual to strive for acquisition, and multiplication of material wealth to cater the just needs of self, family and society; within the framework of Dharma.
The foundation of Hindu society has been laid on Grahastha Ashram and all other Ashrams remain supported by it. Hinduism calls upon house holders to share the fruits of their activities with society, and environment, rather living a self-centered secluded life. While rest of the world has recently started dedicating one day in a year to symbolically discharge these obligations, Hindu house-holders are required to perform five Yagnas daily, towards the well-being of environment and society. The five yagnas are as follows:-
- For Environment (Deva-Yagnas) – This obligation implies protection and preservation of environment for the benefit of all living beings. In contrast to watering plants once a year on International Environment day, house holders are expected to replace and restore whatever is used from the environment on day to day basis, such as planting more trees, if any were cut for some purpose.
- For Ancestors (Pitri -Yagnas) – This obligation is towards elder generation. Whatever exists today is due to the efforts of previous generations. It is a sort of daily ‘thanks giving’ to the elders. Respecting age has been a fundamental part of Hindu culture.
- For Institutes of Learning (Brahma-Yagnas) – Offering respect to teachers is also the foundation of Hindu culture. In ancient India, expertise and experience were not sold by the teachers, but deserving students were provided training free of cost. In return students used to offer expertise gratitude gift (Guru Dakshina) voluntarily to the teacher and their institute of learning. Thus it is the duty of every house holder to contribute resources towards propagation of knowledge and skills for the generations to come. This was not regarded as charity but an obligation. Unfortunately when practice of Guru Dakshina waned out, deformed version came up in the form of ‘under hand donation fee’ to educational institutions at the time of admission.
- For Society (Nri-Yagnas) – It implies obligation towards fellow beings, society, community, the country, and entire humanity. It is like observing ‘Social Service Day’ on daily basis. It inspires the feelings of patriotism in every householder to remain concerned about the country, community, family and lastly for self. Contrary to this spirit now a days people have left the fate of society and country in the hands of few corrupt politicians and the adverse consequences of indifference are visible everywhere.
- For Birds and Animals (Bhuta-Yagna) – It implied protection and preservation of ecology by feeding animals, and non-interference with their natural habitat. It included taking care of sick birds and animals also. It is similar to Wild life Day. While people in India still can be seen feeding ants and birds, in most of the developed countries, wild life is being destroyed recklessly.
Retirement Stage (Vanaprastha Ashram)
The next 25 years of life is the third stage. It is generally called a retired life. One entered this ashram after discharging responsibilities of Grahastha ashram. This is known as Vanaprastha stage of life. One begins devoting more time to study of scriptures, contemplation and meditation. This is the occasion when elder generation delegates authority to younger generation at home as well as in the society. The older thereafter indulged in introspection and meditation. This institution is the most important link between past, present and future generation of mankind, during which Individuals are expected to:-
- Share the experiences of life with younger generation by giving counseling and help when asked.
- Help to bring up grand children through infusing right thoughts (sanskars), and healthy habits.
- Control personal ego and tempers against provocations.
- Gradual reduction of personal needs, physical comforts and luxuries.
- Aim for total control over passions of sex, anger, greed, attachment, and ego.
- Supplementing house holders in the performance of their daily five Yagnas by volunteering physical service and guidance.
Renunciation Stage (Sanyas Ashram)
This last stage used to be the acme of life. This is the final stage in which an individual mentally renounced all worldly ties, spent time in meditation to ponder over the mysteries of life. In ancient times one would part company with family and lived as hermit. They obliterated past identities, ego, achievements, and social attachments by adopting a new name. They were to shed their titles, degrees and all worldly possessions. To deflate their ego, they were advised to abstain from gazing their own image through the mirror. However today the least individuals are expected to:
- Attain freedom from social obligations towards others as well as any expectations in return.
- Live at least mentally away from relations to overcome attachments.
- Possess no personal property or at least desires for more.
- Live a kind of natural life with least of man-made gadgetry.
It does not however prescribe that everyone need to acquire a settlement in forests, hill resorts, or on pavements. One can attain a mental state of Sanyas while living with the family also. Detachment is a state of mind and not a physical condition.
Flexibility in the System
Every rule has an exception. The ascent from Brahmacharya to Sannyas need not always be gradual. The scriptures allowed double or even triple skipping to qualified aspirants. One could embrace Grahastha, Vanaprashtha or Sanyas from any stage. At the same time these stages can overlap due to the peculiar circumstances of individuals, geographical conditions, or when the situation is beyond control. But to live a balanced life one must pass all stages. Under exceptional circumstances individuals may slide back from their stages.
Hinduism has not made any water-tight compartments in social life of the individual and sufficient flexibility is provided in the system. The catchword is that while passing through one stage of life, individual should aim at preparing and moving to the next higher stage and not reverting to previous stage.
This kind of division in life is suitable for every society all over the world to bridge gap in transfer of value system, authority and responsibilities. Social problems and individual anxieties are multiplying in today because of non-adherence to Ashrama System.
Chand K Sharma
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