THE STAGES OF LIFE SYSTEM IN HINDU SOCIETY
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 mantras.
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 duties.
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 thereto.
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 7th generation.
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 bhuta yagna.
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 kali purusha.
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 cultures.
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 one’s parents.
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 about.
“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 impulses.”
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 recognition.
“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 field.
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 human nurture”
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 fancies.
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 it.
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.