Ashrama Dharma is one of the pillars of Hindu socio-religious tradition. More than a strict common practice, it is an ideal pattern for a fulfilled life. It divides life in four phases. The phases do not only give guidance to a person who wants to attain various goals in life, but it is also a practical way to sustain society. The experience of one phase is important to grow into the next phase.
Through the four ashramas, or phases of life, a person also seeks to fulfill the four essential goals of Dharma (natural law or moral conduct), Artha (worldly gain), Kama (sensual pleasures), and Moksha (liberation from rebirth). These goals show different perspectives on life; through Dharma, one focuses on doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong in relation to the people and the world around us; while the Artha perspective focuses on doing what is profitable and avoiding loss; the Kama perspective allows us to do what is pleasurable to our nature and to avoid pain; and Moksha emphasizes the importance of our spiritual development.1)
Varnashrama dharma is the Vedic system of the goals of life, whereby and one is encouraged to strive for a balance and harmony of all the four goals and not to neglect one in favor of the others. This is the basis for the ideal varnashrama dharma system of life in which the society is divided into four social groups (Varna) according to one’s natural talents and propensities.
The ideal life span of the individual is divided into four stages
The Brahmins are expected to pass through all four stages. Kshatriyas pass through the first three; Vaishyas have the first two and the Sudras have only one stage – that of marriage.
These are the general recommendations, but in practice there are many exceptions. During the stage of studentship, one learns the principles of Dharma – spiritual wisdom, religious duties as well as secular knowledge. During the stage of the householder, this sacred and secular knowledge is put into practice. One then indulges in sensual pleasures and procreation (kama) and accumulates wealth (artha) in accordance with religious principles (dharma) to support one’s family and distributes the surplus in philanthropic acts. In the stage of retirement, a process of preparing for eventual renunciation is begun. During this stage, one gradually abandons one’s profession and sense-enjoyment, and concentrates on dharma with a view to achieving liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death. When one finally renounces (sanyasa) then one’s complete focus is on obtaining liberation (moksha) to the exclusion of all else.
Each stage having its own duties, contributes in the development of man. The four ashramas take man to excellence by succeeding stages. The practice of the four ashramas controls the life from the start to the end. The first two ashramas relate to Pravritti Marga or the path of work and the two later stages – the life of Vanaprastha and that of Sanyasa – are the stages of departure from the world. They relate to Nivritti Marga or the path of abandonment.
The first stage, that being of Brahmacharya, is the age of study and restraint. In this stage, the student should not indulge in any enjoyment, stay in the house of his guru and indulge in the study of Vedas and the other sciences. The teachers in ancient India usually lived in hermitages situated in forest. These hermitages were the gurukulas where the children of the rich and the poor lived together. The students used to honour their teacher as spiritual father and served him with faith, devotion and admiration.
Our holy scriptures ordain that the life of a student begins with the Upanayana ceremony, his second birth. He must be enduring and undemanding in his habits, rise early in the morning, bathe and indulge in the recitation of Gayatri Japa. The life of a student should revolve round studying of scriptures, eating simple food, doing plenty of exercise, and sleeping on a hard mat. The student should be modest and obedient, revere his elders and be pure in his thoughts, words and deeds. The student is also expected to abstain from wine, meat, perfumes, garlands, tasty and savory dishes, acids, spices, women, injury to any living creature, lust, anger, greed, dancing, singing and playing on musical instruments; from dice playing, gossip, slander and untruth.
After his life as a student is over, he should offer present to his teacher according to his ability and return home to enter the household life. The teacher, at this moment, gives the final teaching and sends the student home. Delivering the convocation address to the students at the conclusion of their studentship, the teacher says as following:
The second stage is that of the grihastha or householder. This household stage is entered at marriage, after the student has completed his education and is prepared to take up the responsibilities of household life. Of all the ashramas, this is the most significant, since it supports all the others.
Marriage is a sacrament for a Hindu, and the wife is his partner in life. She is his ardhangini (partner in life). He cannot accomplish any religious ritual without her. She stands by his left side when he performs any religious routine. A householder should make money by truthful means and allocate it in the proper manner. He should spend one-tenth of his income in charity. He should enjoy sensual pleasures within the limits of the moral law, and is allowed to enjoy marital happiness on one night in a month.
The householder should execute the Pancha Maha Yajnas which are as folowing
When the householder finds that his sons are proficient to bear the burden of his duties, when his grandsons are around him, he should identify that the time has come for him and his wife to retire from the world and spend their time in spirituality and meditation.
The next stage is that of the vanaprastha. As brahmacharya is a preparation for the life of the householder, vanaprastha is a preparation for the final stage of sanyasa. After performing all the duties of a householder, he should retreat to the forest and begin to meditate in isolation on higher spiritual affairs. He is now free from social bonds and the responsibilities of life. He has plenty of time for study of scriptures. His wife may go with him or stay with her sons.
The next stage is that of a sanyasin. When a man becomes a sanyasin, he surrenders all possessions and all attachments of any kind. He lives a secluded life and spends his time in meditation. He lives on alms. When he attains the transcendent state of deep meditation, he rejoices in his own self. He is rather unresponsive to sensual pleasures, free from likes and dislikes, desires, egoism, lust, anger, greed, and arrogance, having equal vision and balanced mind. He loves all, roaming about happily and propagating Brahma-Jnana or Knowledge of the Self. He is alike in honour and dishonour, praise and condemnation, success and failure. He is now ativarnasrami, i.e., above varna or ashrama. He is quite a free man, not bound by any social customs and principles.
Life is very methodically and logically arranged and due occupations and training are assigned to each period of life. Life is a great school in which the powers, aptitudes and faculties of man are to be evolved steadily. Every man should pass through the different ashramas, and not enter any stage of life prematurely. He can enter the next stage, only when the earlier stage has been completed. It should be remembered that in nature, the evolution is gradual, and never revolutionary. Manu says in his Smriti:
“Having studied the Vedas or two Vedas or even one Veda in due order without breaking celibacy, let him dwell in the householder order. When the householder sees wrinkles in his skin and whiteness in his hair and the son of his son, then let him retire to the forest. Having passed the third portion of life in the forests, let him, having abandoned attachments, wander as an ascetic in the fourth portion of life.”
In unusual cases, however, some of the stages may be omitted. Suka was a born sanyasin. Sankara took sanyasa without entering the stage of a householder. In exceptional cases, a student may be allowed to become a sanyasin; his worldly debts having been fully paid in an earlier birth. These days, young sanyasins without talent are found in profusion which is opposing to the ancient rules.
According to Hindu texts, Varnashrama dharma is not a man-made system, but refers to natural classifications that appear to various degrees in all human societies. Individuals have different innate tendencies for work and exhibit a variety of personal qualities. There are also natural phases in life, when it is easier and more rewarding to perform certain activities. Hinduism teaches that people best realize their potential by taking into account such natural arrangements and that the society should be structured and organized accordingly.
What may be desirable for one section of society may be degrading for another. For example, absolute non-violence, which includes refraining from animal sacrifice, is essential for the priestly class, but considered wholly unworthy of a kshatriya (warrior). Generating wealth and producing children are essential for householders, but intimate contact with money and women is spiritually suicidal for the renunciate. Underlying all these apparent differences is the common goal of advancing in spiritual life based on sanatana dharma. Without the spiritual equality and sense of service inherent in sanatana¬ dharma, varnashrama dharma tends to degrade into the rigid and exploitative caste system.2)
At the present moment, the ashramas cannot be lived exactly according to what has been enshrined in our holy scriptures, for the simple reason that the conditions have undergone important changes; but they may be revived in their spirit. In these stages, no one should do the duty of another. The student or brahmachari should not do the duties of a householder, a recluse or a sanyasin. The householder must not perform the duties of a brahmachari, vanaprastha or a sanyasin. A sanyasin should not indulge in the joys of the householder. Peace and order will exist in society, only if all the people engage in their respective duties competently.
The students are expected to lead a life of purity and simplicity. The householder should lead the life of an ideal grihastha, practicing self-restraint, compassion, forbearance, non-injury, truthfulness and restraint in every affair of life. Those finding it hard to lead the life of the third and the fourth ashramas (vanaprastha and sanyasa) should, remaining in either of the other two ashramas, steadily depart themselves from worldly life and become rooted in selfless service, study, and meditation.
Adv. Sunil Sharma is a writer for about 25 years and has authored more than 40 books on Law.