When speaking about the stages of life, most of us stick with the concept of puberty, adulthood, or middle age. However, if we lived in a predominantly Hindu culture, human life is believed to constitute four life stages : the primary stage (the Student), the development stage (the Householder), the blossoming stage (the Hermit), and the culminating stage (the Sannyasin).
The adequate satisfaction of the latter three stages completely depends upon the attainment of the first stage. These stages are termed as “ashramas” in Sanskrit and every man should entirely go through each stage: The four asramas are:
- Brahmacharya (the student)
- Grihastha (the householder)
- Vanaprastha (the retired)
- Sannyasa (the renunciation)
Ashram system – Stages of Life
The Ashramas system is specifically integrated with definite goals of human life for attaining the fulfillment, happiness and spiritual liberation in life.
Age (years): Till 25
Brahmacharya represents the preliminary student stage of life. Man in this stage focuses on education along with the practice of chastity. The student attends Gurukul and typically would lead a life along with the Guru, acquiring knowledge of philosophy, science, scriptures, attaining self-discipline, earning Dakshina using the skills obtained and leading a life of Dharma. During this period, the man is referred as Brahmachari and is educated with all the knowledge for pursuing his future career, as well as continuing his family, religious and social life ahead.
Rituals of transition: Upanayana at entry and Samavartana at the exit.
Age (years): 25–50
This stage refers to the married life of the individual, with the duties including developing a household, expanding the family, guiding children, and leading a family-centered dharmic social life. Grihastha stage is considered as the prominent one of all stages, as human beings in this stage pursue a righteous life, and earn food and wealth to sustain in other stages and represent the continuation of mankind. The stage also depicts most intense emotional, occupational, material, physical, sexual, social attachments in life. During this stage, Hinduism braces the pursuit of wealth (Artha), and sexual desire (Kama), under distinct social norms.
However, in real life, majority Hindus are much attached with this ashrama that they pursue this stage for a lifetime!
Rituals of transition: Hindu wedding at entry.
Vanaprastha (retired life)
Age (years): 50–75
During this stage, the person retires from the household chores, and hands over his family responsibilities to his future generation, and gradually withdraw from the world. This stage is a transition phase from a household life to one with greater prominence on attaining Moksha. During ancient times, people in this stage go into forests and obtain spirituality where they lead their life, eating fruits and making a shelter under woods.
This process of life remains as a severe and cruel experience on the site of elders. No wonder, this ashrama is now completely obsolete.
Sannyasa (renounced life)
Age (years): 75+ (or anytime)
The stage is attained by giving up all the pleasures and desires, and detach from aspirations, longings from property and material attachments, and put heart into obtaining Moksha, peace and spiritual life. Anyone could wish to enter this stage after finishing the Brahmacharya stage.
When the person in this stage dies, his funeral ceremonies are conducted by his son or another heir.
Significance of Ashramas and their Stages of Life:
Each of the four Ashramas deal with ethical duties, guidelines and responsibilities, towards another individual and towards the society. This concept of ashramas is believed to exist in Hindu society since the 5th century BCE. Despite these ashramas predominantly focus on male, females too play a vital role in each of the stages. So women are not really excluded, but they possess an active religious and social life at home.
Many current generation individuals precisely view these life stages as ‘ideals’ rather than following them as the regular practice. Even in its very beginning, after pursuing the first ashrama, an individual could prefer to move to whichever Ashramas he wish, for the remaining life. In today’s life, even though it is inevitable that a Hindu male doesn’t adapt these four stages, but the concept still proves to be a significant practice of Hindu socio-religious custom and tradition.