Ashrama Dharma in Hinduism

Ashramadharma

by Jayaram V

An Ashrama is a hermitage or the resting place of a seer or a monk in the middle of a deep forest, where he would practice austerities, either alone or in the company of fellow seers and his own disciples, to achieve self-realization and also help others achieve the same. In ancient India, ashramas dotted the forests all over and characterized the lives of people who retired from active life, practicing severe penances and austerities including self-mortification.

They belonged to several ascetic traditions within and outside the vedic fold and served not only as centers of spiritual enlightenment but also as schools for young aspirants, who were willing to let go of every thing and pursue their education and spiritual ideals with single minded devotion. They also served as temporary resting places for the ascetics who abandoned everything including a dwelling place and roamed in the forests without a care or concern.

The ashrama dharma of vedic idealism envisages resting places in the forest of human life for people to achieve their liberation from the cycle of births, by adhering to a code of conduct and a map of life. Its principal aim is to inculcate divine centered living and encourage people to uphold vedic dharma, as they pursue the chief aims of human life, namely dharma (religion), artha (wealth), kama (pleasures) and moksha (salvation), in the course of their journey upon earth, without neglecting their obligatory duties and without sacrificing their spiritual ideals and human values.

The ashrama dharma, in its current form, recognizes four ashramas or stages in the life of a human being. They are brahmacharya (stage of studentship), grihasta (the stage of a householder), vanaprastha (stage of a forest dweller) and sanyasa (stage of renunciation). From a theological point of view, the ashramas offer an incredible opportunity to people to live in accordance with the highest ideals of human life, irrespective of their age and the occupation and work for their salvation. Manu believed that nothing in the world was ever done by a man without desires and that the best way to fulfill them was by practicing dharma and discharging one's obligatory duties. He declared that he who persisted in discharging his prescribed duties would not only attain immortality but also the fulfillment of all his desires even in his present life (Manusmriti 2.5). It chief weakness is its adherence to caste based duties, obsession with the superiority of the priestly class and the exclusion of a large section of people who do not belong to the upper three castes because of their birth.

The concept of four ashramas as successive stages in the life of an individual was a later development in vedic society. The vedic dharma originally upheld the concept of ekashramam or one ashrama for the rest of one's life based on one's most dominant goal or aspirations. Of the four, the life of a householder was considered to be the most appropriate and auspicious. However as time went by, the Dharmashastras (Hindu law books) found favor with the idea of four ashramas as the successive stages in the lives of twice born castes whereby one could live life in accordance with one's goals and aspirations and also preserve the institutions of family, caste and society. It was probably an attempt to preserve vedic society by discouraging people from abandoning their homes and family responsibilities at a very young age in their lives and becoming ascetics.

Brahmacharya

Brahmacharya is the first stage in the life of a person on the path of the Vedic dharma. It usually begins with his initiation (Upanayana) ceremony, that marks his new birth as a twice born. Brahmacharya means activity concerning Brahman. Technically speaking any one who is in pursuit of Brahman or on the path of Brahma is a brahmacharin. However, in ancient India it was used to denote a student who was receiving specialized knowledge and vocational training from a teacher about his caste based occupation and practiced celibacy and self-restraint during the course of his education, in order to conserve his energies and remain focused on his immediate goal of mastering his subjects. The students practiced celibacy and self-restraint as a part of their obligatory learning, following the example of Brahma, the creator god, who was associated with the qualities of celibacy and chastity. Secondly, they lived in the company of a teacher who was regarded as Brahman in human form. Since in either case they followed the ideals of Brahma or Brahman, they were referred to as brahmacharins, followers of Brahma or Brahman.

The life of a brahmacharin followed a pattern as prescribed in the law books and represented the highest virtues one could cultivate at a very young age. After the initiation ceremony, the students stayed with their teachers for several years, acquiring knowledge in various branches of education, under his close supervision. During this period they were kept fully segregated from their families and were not allowed to maintain contact or visit their homes. With the initiation ceremony, the teacher assumed the role of a parent and filled their absence. He was both God and a parent figure, whose word was final and whose authority was unquestionable. The students were at his mercy. He would give them knowledge, if he was impressed with their conduct and behavior and grasping ability. Else, they would spend years, doing menial work in his household, hardly receiving his attention. Manusmriti prescribed a maximum period of 9 to 36 years for the stage of Brahmacharya or until a student perfected his studies. During this long periond, the students were called upon to lead very austere and disciplined lives, as a part of their learning process, since what they received was considered to be a secret knowledge which entailed a great responsibility on their part in using it for the welfare of all. Following is a summary of the code of conduct prescribed by the Hindu law books for a brahmacharin. With some exceptions here and there, these rules were followed by students belonging to all the three upper castes.

  • A teacher is the image of Brahman. So a student should show complete reverence and obedience to his teacher all the time. In the presence of his teacher, he should never show any sign of disrespect or carelessness. He should respect not only his teacher but his entire family irrespective of whether they are younger or older than him and whether they are male or female. A student should usually select a learned brahmana as his teacher, but in times of distress he may learn from a teacher who is not a brahmana.
  • Everyday he should take a bath and purify himself and offer libations of water to gods, sages, ancestors and spirits and pour fuel into the sacred fire. He should study the holy scriptures and recite the verses till he gains complete mastery over them.
  • A student is not allowed to cook his own food. It is his duty to go out everyday and beg for food, only from the people of merit, who are knowledgeable in the Vedas, who are morally righteous, who are not related to him through his mother or father and those who have not committed mortal sins.
  • He should be very strict in practicing self-restraint. He should abstain from honey, meat, perfumes, garlands, spices, women and foods that are acidic. He should never anoint his body, apply collyrium to his eyes, use sandals or an umbrella. He should also refrain from singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. He should stay away from the female members of the teacher's household and keep as much distance as possible from them.
  • He should cultivate virtues by controlling his sensual desires, anger and greed. He should practice humility and restraint in speech, behaving like an idiot even if he is wise. He should avoid causing injury to living creatures and should not participate in vices such as gambling, idle disputes, backbiting, lying, looking at and touching women and hurting others.
  • He should always sleep alone and never waste his manhood. Manu declared that he who voluntarily wasted his manhood, broke his vow.

The stage of brahmacharya was spent almost entirely in the gurukulas. Its purpose was mastery of the Vedas and other scriptures and acquiring the knowledge of Brahman, through cultivation of virtues, practice of restraint of the mind and the body. The curriculum varied from caste to caste, but the emphasis on the code of conduct and the relationship between the students and their teachers were guided by the same principles. Practice of celibacy was central to the life of a student, because it was the most difficult thing to do and success in that area denoted complete mastery in self-control. Besides, sublimation of sexual energy was considered essential to develop the faculties of the mind in a student such as memory and comprehension and make him worthy of higher learning. After successful completion of their education, by mastering either all the Vedas or at least one of them, the students were permitted by their teachers to leave them and return to their homes. The student's return to home was usually marked with a ceremony in which he presented his master with a gift such as a field, gold, a cow, a horse, a parasol and shoes, a seat, grain, (even) vegetables, or whatever was pleasing to the teacher.

Grihastha or Garhasthya

The stage of grihasta begins when a student returns home after successful completion of his education, without breaking rules, and takes a ritual bath. The ritual bath marks the beginning of his life as a snataka, which marks the period of transition from a student to a responsible young adult, ready to assume full responsibilities as a householder. In ancient times the snataka brahmanas, who just completed their education but were not yet married or initiated into household duties, enjoyed good reputation. They were respected for their knowledge and purity and enjoyed free passage from one place to place and even between territories that belonged to different rulers who were mutually hostile. Hence the spies and kings often went in the guise of a snataka brahmana to gather sensitive information or escape from close scrutiny. The snataka phase lasted till marriage, after which one took up the responsibilities of a householder and spent his energies in performing obligatory duties. The Hindu law books regard the life of a householder as the best of all the ashramas as it supports those in the other three ashramas. It is also considered important to the continuation of the vedic dharma, varnasharma dharma and caste based occupations. The following duties are prescribed for a householder.

  • He should perform various daily, monthly and annual sacrifices as prescribed in the law books with utmost sincerity. The daily sacrifices are five in number, brahmayajna, devayajna, pitruyajna, bhutayajna and manushyayajna. Brahmayajna is sacrifice to Brahman. Also known as ahuta, it consists of teaching and study of the Vedas, recitation of the Vedas and contemplation and worship of Brahman. Devayajna is sacrifice to gods. Also known as huta, it consists of offering burnt oblations to gods. Pitruyajna is sacrifice to ancestors. Also known as prasita, it consists of offering food and water called tarpana to the departed souls. Bhutayajna is a sacrifice to the animals. Also known as prahuta, it consists of offering bali or sacrificial food to the animals and insects. Manusyayajna is a sacrifice to the human beings. Also known as brahmya-huta, it hospitable treatment of the guests and making an offering in the digestive fire of a brahmana.
  • In addition to the five sacrifices, he should also make offerings of food everyday to various gods and goddesses; ghosts and goblins, dogs, and to poor people as prescribed in the dharmashastras. He should give alms to ascetics and students, who cannot cook food for themselves due to the obligations of their religious duties. He should also make sacrificial offerings to fire at the beginning and end of the day and in the night. He should eat whatever that remains after making all the offerings and honoring all the gods and ancestors.
  • He should make monthly offerings to his ancestors during which he should also honor the invited guests by offering them food. In addition he should also perform sacrifices at certain times during a year. The sacrifices are part of one's religious obligation. Under no circumstances should they be performed to cultivate friendships or enhance one's social standing.
  • In order to discharge his obligatory duties as a householder, he should accumulate property by engaging himself in occupations that are prescribed for his caste, with as little pain as possible to others. He should live honestly and virtuously. He should stay away from forbidden occupations, restrain his senses and detach himself from sensual pleasures. He should not acquire wealth that would interfere with the study of the Vedas. His dress, speech, and thoughts should be in conformity with his age, his occupation, his wealth, his sacred learning, and his race.
  • He should keep his hair, nails, and beard clipped, wear white garments and keep himself pure. He should always be engaged in studying the Veda and similar acts that are conducive to his welfare. He should show respect towards the teacher who initiated him, or who explained the Veda, his father and mother, or any other Guru, cows, brahmanas and men performing austerities.
  • He should avoid vices, atheism, questioning the Vedas, contempt of the gods, hatred, want of modesty, pride, anger, and harshness. He should not act violently towards others, threaten the virtuous or the righteous. He should not eat the food that is explicitly forbidden in the law books or recite the Vedas in forbidden places.
  • During the performance of these duties, he should look after his wife and keep her happy and she in turn should support him in the discharge of his obligatory duties, remaining patient, self-controlled, and chaste, and never doing anything that might displease him, whether he was alive or dead.

The life of a householder places enormous responsibility on people, making them work for their temporal and spiritual goals, without sacrificing their higher aims and without succumbing to the temptations of materialistic life, living in a society that regards personal possession as a mark of one's success and achievement. It is like walking on a perilous path, where the chances of faltering are higher and the consequences of karmic sin greater. The Bhagavadgita therefore rightly advises people to perform their obligatory duties with a sense of sacrifice and as an offering to God, accepting Him as the Real Doer and without seeking the fruit of their actions.

Vanaprastha

Vanaprastha is the life as a forest dweller. It is also called Vaikhasana. According to Manu, when a householder sees his wrinkled skin, white hair, and grandsons, it is time for him to retire into a forest, to begin a life of detachment and gradual withdrawal from the distractions and attractions of the external world, either by entrusting his children to his wife, after making provision for their sustenance, or accompanied by her, leaving behind all his possessions. Technically this is the stage of retirement. What distinguishes him from a sanyasin or a renouncer is his use of sacrificial fire, which he carries along with him into the forest, and his performance of the five daily sacrifices. During this phase, he is advised to practice austerities and remain celibate. The life of a forest dweller is difficult and challenging because it makes a great demand on the part of an individual, who is accustomed to a certain way of life and comforts, to make necessary adjustments in order to fit himself into a life of hardship and suffering. The following rules are prescribed for a forest dweller. *

  • He may live in a dwelling place of a hermitage and should continue to make the five daily sacrifices as in the householder's stage, using various kinds of pure food fit for ascetics, or with herbs, roots, and fruit.
  • He should wear a skin or a tattered garment; bathe in the evening or in the morning; and always wear his hair in braids. The hair on his body, his beard, and his nails should remain unclipped.
  • He should give alms, according to his ability, and honor those who come to his hermitage by offering them water, roots, and fruit.
  • He should be alert while privately reciting the Vedas, patient in the face of hardships, friendly towards all, stable in his mind, generous in giving gifts without ever accepting them, and show compassion towards all living creatures.
  • He should eat vegetables that grow on dry land or in water, flowers, roots, and fruits produced by trees and oils extracted from forest-fruits. He should avoid honey, flesh, and mushrooms growing on the ground or elsewhere and certain fruit and vegetables. He should also avoid food produced by cultivation or grown in a village, however hungry he may be. He may eat anything that is cooked or ripened by time. After collecting his food, he may eat it either in the day only or in the night only, but not more than once. After eating food, he should promptly clean the vessel in which he collected or prepared the food. He may store food sufficient up to six months.
  • He is also expected to train himself physically and mentally by various exercises and making his austerities harsher and harsher day by day. He may either roll about on the ground, or stand during the day on tiptoe or alternately stand and sit down. In summer he should expose himself to the heat, during the rainy season live under the open sky, and in winter be dressed in wet clothes.
  • In addition to the austerities, he must study the various sacred texts contained in the Upanishads.

As the time passes by, a person who is leading the life of a forest dweller should gradually turn himself into a complete ascetic so that he begin his fourth and final phase as a sanyasin or renouncer.

Sanyasa

The last and final ashrama is known as sanyasa or bhaikshya, in which one is advised to live like a mendicant or an ascetic, renouncing everything, including the sacrificial fire and the five daily sacrifices. It is difficult to say when exactly the vanaprastha ends and the sanyasa begins because a person is advised to transform himself gradually from a forest dweller into a full fledged ascetic by increasing his austerities and making them harsher and harsher to the point where he becomes indifferent to the vicissitudes of life. However what distinguishes the two phases is the use of fire. A person who enters the phase of sanyasa is advised to perform a special ceremony and withdraw the sacrificial fire into himself so that he himself becomes an embodiment of fire that manifests itself as a radiant spiritual energy (tapas). During this phase a sanyasi is advised to become completely detached from all worldly activities and possession and become a wanderer, subsisting on alms, controlling himself and not hurting any animal. He should beg only once in a day, in a place where no kitchen smoke is seen, and subsist on meager food, just to keep himself alive. By eating little, and by standing and sitting in solitude, he is advised to restrain his senses from the sense objects. By the restraining his senses, by the destruction of love and hatred, and by abstaining from injuring the creatures, he should make himself fit for immortality. He should contemplate upon death, transmigration of men, conditions of after life, possibilities of future lives and so on. By deep meditation, he has to recognize the subtle nature of the supreme Soul and its presence in all beings, both the highest and the lowest. He should conduct himself in such a way that no harm is done to other beings, either intentionally or unintentionally. According to Manusmriti, "By not injuring any creatures, by detaching the senses from objects of enjoyment, by the rites prescribed in the Veda, and by rigorously practicing austerities," he has to overcome the dualities of life, such as pain and pleasure, love and hatred, joy and sorrow and attain freedom from the circle of births and deaths.

The Hindu law books do suggest increasing the austerities and progressively reducing food intake during this phase, but do not directly refer to the practice of self-mortification practiced by the Jain ascetics. It is important to note that neither the life as a forest dweller nor the life as a renouncer or ascetic are compulsory. A person could as well spend these two phases in the house of his sons, performing otherwise the obligatory duties prescribed for each of these phases.

Symbolism of the Ashrama Dharma

These four stages symbolically represent the divinity in the following manner:

Brahma

Brahmacharya

Vishnu

Householder

Siva

Vanaprastha

Iswara (Saguna Brahman)

Sanyasa

The four parts of the Vedas also can be compared to these four stages as shown below:

Samhitas

Brahmacharya

Brahmanas

Householder

Aranyakas

Vanaprastha

Upanishads (Vedanta )

Sanyasa

The Four stages of human life is also meant to deal with the imbalance of the qualities of nature, namely sattva, rajas and tamas, which is responsible for the delusion of the soul. In each stage of life, a particular quality of nature becomes predominant thereby giving us an opportunity to deal with it appropriately.

Develop sattva

Brahmacharya

Control rajas

Householder

Control tamas

Vanaprastha

Overcome the effect of qualities.

Sanyasa

The four stages of human life also correspond with the four aims (purushasrthas) of human life. In other words what it means is that in each stage a particular aim becomes the predominant goal of human life. The chief pursuit of each phase of life is shown below.

Dharma

Brahmacharya

Artha

Householder

Kama

Vanaprastha

Moksha

Sanyasa

Ashrama Dharma in the Modern World

The following table describe how a person can observe these four stages in the present day world.

Brahmacharya (As Student) Study and acquire some degree, skill or expertise in some field that is in harmony with your inner disposition.
Grihasthsharama (As a householder)Marry, rear children, perform your responsibilities towards your parents, wife, children, relations, friends, organization, society and world in general. Treat all life as sacred and be philanthropic.
Vanaprastha (As a retiree)Evaluate and review what you have done so far. Have you completed your obligatory duties towards you family and relations? Are you in a position to slowdown, to withdraw and spend more time in mentally satisfying and spiritually uplifting tasks? Remember Vanaprastha is not an escape but a kind of obligatory retirement for a higher cause.
Sanyasa (The last phase)This is the phase of complete withdrawal. You have seen it all. You have enjoyed your life. It is time you sit and relax, you reminisce, and look at life as if in a film and draw into yourself your attention and your thoughts. It is time to wake up the God in you.

Conclusion

It is also difficult to say how strictly the model of life represented by the four ashramas was followed in vedic society. We have literary evidence to suggest that in most cases the first two phases of life were followed in letter and spirit, namely that of a student and householder, while we are not certain of the remaining two. Mentioned below are some additional points about the ashrama dharma which are not discussed above.

Firstly, the ashrama dharma was primarily meant for the practice of men only. Women had no independent role other than as partners of their husbands. Thus a young girl, married at the age of six or seven to an old man of 30, was supposed to partner with her husband in the performance of his obligatory duties as a householder, although she was a child and the male children of her age were in the gurukulas, going through the stage of brahmacharya. By the time she was ready to take up family responsibilities as an adult, her husband might already be old enough to qualify for the life of a forest dweller.

Secondly, the ashrama dharma was meant for the three upper castes only. Since their obligatory duties varied, except in respect of the study of the Vedas, some of the rules and practices concerning each ashrama, especially brahmacharya and grihastha varied from caste to caste. The lower castes and those who remained outside the vedic fold were completely exempt from it. Thus the ashrama meant very little for a large population of ancient India.

Thirdly, the practice of ashrama dharma might not have been exclusive to Vedic tradition. Some religious groups in ancient India such as the Jinas, the Ajivikas and the followers of early schools of Saivism followed the tradition of preparing the young aspirants in the gurukulas. They also encouraged their followers to retire into forests and practice severe austerities, after fulfilling their obligations as lay followers.

Finally, the ashrama dharma was an ideal vision based on certain vedic ideals and philosophical notions. If we set aside the caste based prejudices and elements of orthodoxy referred in the law books and look afresh at the overall concept and the broader framework of life it envisages from a spiritual, moral and social point of view, we find the four stages of human life to be a perfect fit for any life style and in any age. It can be as useful today as it was thousands of years ago. In western societies, it is common for old people to work well into their 70s in order to support their life styles. Governments are forced to spend huge amounts of money on social security and in providing health care for the old and the retired. In the eastern societies young people, caught up in the wheels of economic development, are accused of falling moral standards and ignoring their parents. Part of the problem stems from the fact that people want to extend their lives as householders and do not want to withdraw from life or reduce their necessities or control their desires. They cannot overcome their attachment with the attractions of life or the comforts it seems to offer. Since the resources are limited and the population is constantly increasing, any system can only support so many people it is designed to. If people refuse to retire and new people keep adding up, it would put severe strain upon our resources and bring our systems to a grinding halt. The present crisis in the US healthcare system is one good example. If people withdraw from active life after a certain age and prepare themselves for their afterlives by practicing austerities, reducing their wants and desires and contemplating upon God and higher spiritual ideals, it would do a great deal of good to society in the long run.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Image courtesy: The Himalayan Academy. Original has been altered.

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