by Jayaram V
1. There are four orders, viz. the order of householders,
the order of students, the order of ascetics, and the order
of hermits in the woods.
2. If he lives in all these four according to
the rules (of the law), without allowing himself to be disturbed
(by anything), he will obtain salvation.[ 1]
Asrama or ashrama literally means a hermitage, a shelter,
hut or a dwelling place for the ascetics. It also means a refuge
or a resting ground. In the Vedic tradition asrama means a stage
in the life of a human being.
Hindu tradition recognizes four stages or asramas in human life,
namely brahmacarya, grihasta, vanaprastha and sanysa.
Of these people had the option to enter into all the four or
the first three. Not all people entered into the fourth stage. And
among those who entered into it, a few resorted to it directly from
the stage of brahmacarya without the intervening two stages.
If life is a learning and evolving experience for the beings
upon earth, the four stages become the four stages of a being's
learning and advancing process. From rebirth perspective, human
life is the most precious because in a human body the beings are
endowed with intelligence
which enables them to discern truth and make wise decisions which
may eventually lead to their liberation. Among all the species in
the universe, only human beings have the ability to attain Brahman
and enter into His immortal world. The asramas provide a great opportunity
to prepare them in stages to reach that exalted status.
In terms of duties and responsibilities, the four stages are not
equal. If life is a sacrifice, the four stages are the four parts
of a great sacrifice. If the lifespan of a human being is compared
to a day, the first three stages constitute the day and the last
one the night. The first three constitute the morning, the mid-day
and evening sacrifices in which the worshippers make offerings to
the sun and the fourth the night when one withdraws from all activity
and prepares for rest. The symbolism and significance of the four asramas
in human life, based
upon my study and understanding, is illustrated
||Aspects of Brahman
||Type of Sacrifice
||Parts of Vedas
||Type of Chanting
||Brahma and Sarasvathi
||Mind and senses
||Vishnu and Lakshmi
||Wealth and progeny
||Artha and Kama
||Siva and Parvathi
A person is expected to perform different types of duties (shramas)
during the four stages in order to attain moksha, the fourth and
the highest aim of human life. Assuming that the life of an individual
upon earth is about 100 years for each birth, each ashrama
covers roughly a span of 20-30 years. In terms of time spent the
four stages are neither equal nor the same for all individuals.
The time spent in learning their respective professions varied from
caste to caste and also in meeting their obligations as householders.
Some castes were not required to enter into all the four stages.
According to some even the Kshatriyas had the option to enter into
only the first three.
The Asrama dharma was not applicable to certain castes and women.
According to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, when Yajnavalkya decided
to renounce worldly life, he entrusted the family matters to his
two wives and went to the forests alone. Women undertook some responsibilities
in the households and assisted their husbands in performing their
duties, but they were not expected to enter into all the four stages
as the men did.
The period falls approximately from the initiation ceremony (Upanayana)
until the end of the studentship. In olden days, it usually began with the departure
of the student to the house of his teacher following the upanayanam
ceremony, which marked his birth as dwija or twice born. During
this period young children were expected to enter a gurukula, live
there under the care of a guru or learned master and become educated
in the Vedas and other scriptures. The students had a responsibility
not to abandon their education under any circumstances. Only death
should separate them from their masters. They were not to stay anywhere
else other than in the house of their teachers whom they had to
obey all the time except in certain cases like actions (of the teachers)
that led to the loss of their caste. They were also expected to observe
austerities like not taking bath with hot water, not using perfumes
or ornaments, in addition to practicing complete celibacy or
This was also the time during which a student became conversant
with the academic aspects of dharma, the first aim (purushartha)
of human life according to Hinduism. Some of these rules prescribed
for the students in the gurukulas varied depending upon to which
caste they belonged. If the teacher was a Ksatriya, the
Brahmana students under him had some liberties. They were not
expected to serve their master directly as the other students,
such as fetching him drinking water or arranging for his bath,
or perform menial services in his household.