Hinduism does not approve of cessation of work at any juncture of life. It rather urges man to always remain engaged in activities appropriate to his age. The life span of a human being has traditionally been divided into four parts (ashramas, also spelled as asaramas) namely (i) brahmacharya ashram (the stage of studentship), (ii) grihasth ashram (the stage of householder), (iii) vanaprasth (the stage of a forest dweller) ; and (iv) sannyasa (the stage of renunciation). Each succeeding ashrama represents a progressive step in the long journey of life towards realisation of the final aim of moksha (liberation of the soul). The above division of life into four different functional periods, made in the ancient religious scriptures, has often been viewed as an ‘ideal’ and not a common practice.
The word ‘ashrama’ used here should not be confused with the hermitages set up by various monks for the pursuit of their religious and spiritual aims. The ashrama in this article refers only to the stages of human life.
Brahmacharya refers to the initial phase of life i. e. the period of formal education. The life of a student is marked by learning, discipline, obedience and celibacy. Practice of chastity and self-restraint helps the pupil in conserving his energies and remaining focused on his immediate goal of acquiring relevant knowledge and necessary skills. The worldly wisdom, practical skills, righteous attitude and ethical behaviour learnt in the formative years of life remains as the yardstick of all of one’s actions whichever stage of life he may be in. In other words, everything needed in the later period of life is learnt during the period of studentship.
After successful completion of his education, one automatically enters the next phase i.e. grihasth ashram. During this phase of life, one is strong enough physically and mature enough mentally to become a productive member of the society. He is expected to earn a living for himself, marry, start a family, sustain one’s dependents ; and fulfil other religious and social responsibilities. During this phase of life, one is supposed to pursue wealth (artha) and indulge in sensual pleasures (kama), but within the parameters of righteousness (dharma). In other words, one has to work in every possible way, but without violating the established societal and celestial norms. In the Hindu scriptures, grihasth ashrama is regarded as the best of all ashramas because it supports the other three ashramas. The role of a house-holder is more challenging as he has to strive for the betterment of himself, his family and the society at large ; without succumbing to the worldly temptations.
Vanaprastha is the period of gradual withdrawal from worldly obligations. When, on the one hand, one’s body begins to weaken and, on the other, the younger generation is ready to share the familial and the societal responsibilities ; one should prepare himself for an honourable shift from grihasth ashrama to the next stage of vanaprasth ashrama. Though vanaprastha literally means forest-dweller which refers to retirement to the forests, in practical terms it suggests slow pull-back from hectic work schedules. In this phase of life, one may devote more of his time in activities like studying of scriptures, going on pilgrimages and doing selfless service etc. It must be remembered that vanaprastha is not an escape from worldly responsibilities, but preparation for a higher cause.
The last phase of life, sannyasa, is the period in which one must renounce all his material possessions ; and devote himself fully to the realisation of the self. Having seen it all, one should free himself from all desires, hopes, fears, duties etc. ; and pursue exclusively the goal of moksha. He should be concerned only about union with the Absolute Truth.
It must be stated here that during the last two phases of life, it is not necessary to live in the hermitages. One can easily remain aloof from the glitters of the material world, even while living happily in the family.
Though never strictly followed, the epitome of the ashram system still stands tall as a strong pillar of the Hindu socio-religious structure. The purpose of the blueprint of ashramas is not to divide the human life into four exclusive compartments, but to set out broad guidelines for defining one’s role during different phases of life. Sometimes specific ages are correlated with different ashramas. For example, brahmacharya ashram is supposed to last till the age of twenty five. Theoretically speaking, this neat division seems to be quite attractive. But in practical terms, there can be considerable variations of age limits associated with different stages of life. This is more so in the modern times when there are huge differences in economic conditions, educational standards and societal expectations of different people. Whatever be one’s assigned role in a particular phase of life, what is more important is that that role is played well and in accordance with the established principles of dharma.
To conclude, the ashram system, when perceived without the elements of orthodoxy, presents a road map for leading a meaningful and purposeful life. It lays down broad principles for different phases of life, by following which one can fulfil his desires, meet his aspirations and achieve his goals ; by discharging his obligatory duties without compromising with the moral values and his spiritual ideals.