Ashramas are the stages of life which provide training and environment for realising the ideal of our life. There are four ashramas in all: Brahmacharya (student life), Garhasthya (family life), Vanaprastha (retired life), and Sannyasa (life of renunciation). The first two provide the training and environment for the Pravrtti Marg and the last two for the Nivrtti Marg of development.
Each stage has its own specific duties (Vishesha Dharmas). We will discuss the duties of a garhasthi (householder), a student (Brahmacharin), a retired person, and a renunciated person separately. Just as ashramas refer to specific duties in life, varnas refer to duties related to the four professional roles in life: the profession of scholarship, of defence and administration, of production and distribution, and of unskilled labour. Thus, along with ashramas, we will analyse the varnas too.
- Brahmacharya Ashram
It is a specific period of education for all young persons before they can grow independent to work for life. At home, a child gets education in how to eat, walk, talk, dress, meet other people, and behave in their presence. In some castes and communities, a child also learns how to plough land, make shoes, do pottery work, ironsmith’s work, goldsmith’s work, carpentry work, and so on. But he does not get education in reading and writing or skilled and professional training.
He gets this education from teachers (gurus). During this period of education, he has to follow some ideals and live in a specific environment. In the ancient past, schools were boarding schools where a child was admitted at the age of 8-12 years, after following certain ceremonies and imparted knowledge, skills and crafts, general and physical education, and training in logic.
What was important was ‘comradeship’ between the teacher and the taught, skills, knowledge and dedication of the teacher, and commitment of students to certain values and ideals. The students were taught discipline of life during this stage and were asked to take four vows of sexual purity (to check sex indulgence), simplicity in food and dress (to generate a sense of equality, fraternity and independence), respect for and obedience to the teacher (to create discipline) and enjoying selfexertion in acquiring knowledge and offering prayer (reciting hymns and meditation) for the cooperation of the divine powers. Thus, chastity, simplicity, hard work, devotion to knowledge, and spiritual reality were the ideals of student life.
- Garhasthya Ashram
This period of life covers an active period of effective membership of society and covers 25 years of life after the first 25 years of education. This is householder’s life, a married life. The ideal marriage was considered one which was performed for moksha or final liberation and intellectual companionship through the performance of household duties, including upbringing of children and offering reverence (shradha) to ancestors.
Thus, by developing virtues of purity of heart, fidelity, chastity and mutual love, marriage is raised from being merely a biological association. Indian culture considers marriage not merely as an association but as absolute oneness. The marriage ceremony binds a man and a woman into a single complete being of which one half is the man and the other half is the woman.
The oneness is not to last for a lifetime but it is to be continuous birth after birth. Thus, since marriage is for spiritual ends of oneness (as different from union motivated by biological and social ends), it is regarded as a sacrament and not as a contract.
- Vanaprastha Ashram
After the responsibilities to children are over, the parents are expected to take to social welfare work, so that they do not remain entrapped in moha (attachment). The idea is not to retire to forests and live in a place away from human habitation but to live in villages, away from thickly populated cities. Thus, the idea of third stage is to develop a new level of interest and action and not merely a retirement into a particular place.
The idea also is that people in far off places (villages) will get an opportunity to consult for their problems those who have spent their best years in that field. Even kings and rulers visited retired people for similar purposes. Thus, vanaprastha people were superior guides on social problems. The retirement of the old people (after 50 years of age, which is not a fixed age but is an average age which permits variations) also gives an opportunity to the youth to make experiments and contribute to the variety and richness of life.
Very late retirement of the ‘old’ denies the opportunity to the young of initiation into new fields of activity. Vanaprastha stage does not expect husband and wife to break up their relationship. It is left to the option of the couple. But they are expected to lead an austere and ascetic life. The cultural importance of this third stage is that after enjoying physical pleasures when the body ages, a person experiences a sense of frustration and a sense of degeneracy. One wishes to return to bodily pleasures by artificial stimulation. By retiring, one is saved from frustrations. The decline in biological urges (sex, self-assertion, etc.) is compensated by interest in human welfare.
- Sanyasa Ashram
Sanyasa is the final stage in life’s growth. It differs from the vanaprastha stage in two respects in the development of interests and in the development of motivation. While the dominant interest in grahasthya stage is the family, in vanaprastha stage it is human society as a whole, in sanyasa stage, the interest is the Universe with its universal consciousness. Interest in the universal consciousness is identification with total existence in its deepest being.
As regards motivation in grahasthya stage, the individual is motivated to seek the interest of members of family, while in the vanaprastha stage, he is motivated to work for the interest of a particular group or community or human society. In both cases, if interests are achieved, the grahasthi and the vanaprastha feel happy and experience pleasure; if not, they feel unhappy and experience pain. When motivation is related to an end, success or failure in them leads to pleasure or pain respectively.
Such actions are called interested actions, i.e., actions inspired by fruit of action. Contrary to these, action in sanyasa is disinterested action. Let us take the example of speaking truth. A person may speak truth when it pays him, another person may do so even if he has to lose by it. One does it (speaks truth) viewing it as a duty or a command that comes from conscience without the calculation of gains or losses, or even at the cost of his life.
Only a sanyasi will be motivated to perform a disinterested action which is not desirous of any fruits here or hereafter. The simple dress of a sanyasi symbolises the ideal of life for which he stands and lives. A sanyasi surrenders home and possessions because he perceives the whole Universe as his home. He is above fears, passions and hatred. Thus, sanyasa is not a life of inaction but a life of action risen to the highest level of motivation and widest interest.
It may, however, be noted that these stages of life are meant for average persons. These are not necessary for a genius or for an extraordinarily gifted person. Persons like Tagore, (and Charles Dickens) never went to school. Persons like Shelley and Wordsworth did not have much college education and yet they were master poets. A genius can bypass any stage(s) and reach the highest stage.
Varnas: Four-fold Order of Society
Varna order is different from the caste system. While the latter is believed to be the greatest blot on Indian culture, since it has divided the society into conflicting camps, perpetrated harsh sufferings on a large section of the Indian people, and has made social justice difficult, or has proved socially monstrous, politically suicidal, morally obnoxious and economically disastrous, the former is the division of people into groups on the basis of aptitudes and abilities and vocations.
The Aptitudes and Abilities are Classified as Those:
(a) For scholarship
(b) For administration and defence
(c) For production and distribution
(d) For unskilled la- hour
The first group of people came to be called brahmins who were engaged in priestly function, teaching, medicine etc.; the second group Kshatriyas, who were engaged in fighting, ruling and administration; the third group vaishyas who were engaged in agriculture, trade and commerce; and the last group sudras who were engaged in unskilled work under the direction of the members of other three groups.
The Brahmins have the qualities of self restraint, austerity, purity, serenity, forgiveness, simplicity, wisdom and philosophic insight into truth and reality. The Kshatriyas have the qualities of courage, strength, firmness, skillfulness, charitableness, and administrative ability. The Vaishyas have the qualities of hard work, intelligence, and quick decision making. The Sudras lack abilities and aptitudes; hence they have to work under others’ direction and accept their authority and dominance.
The duties (dharmas) of Brahmins are: offering prayers, performing ceremonies and sacrifices, and teaching. The duties of Kshatriyas are: protecting people from external aggression and internal disturbances as well as governing them, punishing the wicked and contributing liberally for nation building institutions. The duties of Vaishyas are: engaging in agriculture, procuring commodities from others and selling them, rearing cattle and rendering help to the poor and the needy. The duties of Sudras are to do those things which others want them to do. Sudras are not permitted to read Vedas or observe Vedic rites or recite mantras (incantations).
Since a person or a group was entitled to a varna membership by satisfying the qualifications, any individual or a group could find a place in any of the varnas, if he/it satisfied the qualifications. Thus, membership of a varna was not determined by birth but by qualifications. A Sudra became a Brahmin in his life by sheer merit; a Brahmin became a Sudra if he did not study the Vedas; and so also a Kshatriya or a Vaishya. The Bhagwad Gita also states that the four varnas are constituted on the principle of guna, i.e., natural and acquired qualities and character, and karma, i.e., calling and profession.
Some scholars have, however, maintained that varna system was as rigid as caste system today. A few examples of upgrading of individuals mentioned in some early religious books (say, of Vasistha who was born of a prostitute, Vyasa of a fisher woman, Parasara of a low born girl) were exceptions rather than a rule.