Ashrama literally means “a place of spiritual shelter”. According to ancient Indian tradition, one used to spend life in four stages known as ‘four ashrams of life’; a different lifestyle and yoga was practiced in each of these stages. These four ashrams are named as – ‘Brahamacharyashram’, ‘Grihasthashram’, ‘Vanprashthashram’ and ‘Sanyasashram’; there are specific duties expected to be performed by a person depending upon the ashrama he or she belongs to at that time.
Purpose for this four ashrama system was to live a complete life means a life in which a person though lives in a materialistic way in the beginning and enjoys all the bhogs (luxuries) of life, takes part in sensual practices(ethical ways only permitted) and produce progenies, attach to people and lives a social life, but the ultimate goal of life is to attain enlightenment and free oneself from all the attachments. Photo from Flickr.
Life span of a human being was standardized as 84 years and divided in four phases,every phase spanning 21 years; later the systems was revised and standard life was accepted as 100 years and divided in 25 years phases. Purpose for this four ashrama system was to live a complete life means a life in which a person though lives in a materialistic way in the beginning and enjoys all the bhogs (luxuries) of life, takes part in sensual practices(ethical ways only permitted) and produce progenies, attach to people and lives a social life, but the ultimate goal of life is to attain enlightenment and free oneself from all the attachments, so after grahasthashram they are supposed to go to Van(though literally means jungle but it could be any peaceful place or ashram away from city) and in the end becomes a ‘Sanyasi’.
Though a standard was set and so every stage of life was planned according to age but it was not followed strictly by everyone in the same way. A spiritual guru(an enlightened person with knowledge and experience) used to decide if a person is ready for a particular ashram of life or not. There are people who do not indulge in worldly pleasures and become ‘Sanyasi’ when they are quite young (some leave home in their early twenties only or even younger) . It is believed that it is their past life sanskaras for some souls, and because of this they skip some ashrams or spend very little time in those ashramas and opt for sanyansa very quickly in life. These souls probably traversed through a particular ashram many times in their past lives, so they do not get interested in those ashrams in current birth; a guru realizes it and directs them to the appropriate ashram.
BrahamCharya(Student Life): The brahmacharyashram is the first stage and the foundation of life. The phase when a young person studies and gains knowledge , this is the learning time of life; focus during this stage goes on healthy, positive competition, understanding the value of discipline, learning about various subjects, spiritual, community, and family life.
Grahasta (Married Life): The grahasthashram phase of life is when one gets married and start living with spouse and children, fulfilling worldly interests, desires and duties.It is a phase to indulge in sensual pleasures and giving birth to child. It is a time of contribution,sharing,learning,earning, acquiring wealth,enjoy luxuries and living in family and community. Religious or spiritual practices are done in the context of worldly life and service and support to family, relatives, friends, community, country. It is the religious beliefs followed in this phase and rituals are performed to thank and please deities for their favors.
Vanaprastha: Vanprasthashram is a phase of life in which we are supposed to shift our focus more towards spiritual practices of meditation, yoga, contemplation, and prayer. Children are grown up at this stage and relationship with them and community is more in the role of a matured and experienced mentor and adviser . Lifestyle at this stage should be simple, luxuries should be avoided and the couple(husband and wife) should move to a quieter and peaceful place (ashrama, yogsthans).
Sanyasa/Renunciate: At this stage the person who is old now retreats from active involvement in all worldly matters, seeking only spiritual goals in this final phase of life. No longer they should have any political, professional, or social engagements, there is a further upliftment towards being an experienced teacher of spiritual knowledge. This position is though traditionally available only to men who exhibit the qualities of a ‘Brahmana’; there are examples of women also who became sanyasini. Brahmna here does not mean a person of Brahman caste but the one who understands brahm(the supreme power).The person would leave home and family and would be prohibited from seeing spouse again. Considered free from all the social relations and responsibilities, a sanyasi is free to wander, living a life dependent on God alone. The ‘sanyasis’ wear saffron colored dress. They are often called sadhu or sadhwi(holy man or holy women) though you can not trust all these sanyasis as some are frauds who pretend to be a sanyasi,fool people and earn money.A sanyasi’s duties are to fully control the mind and senses and concentrate only on the supreme. To become detached and fearless, depending on God only as the only supreme entity.To teach and preach the significance of self-realization and God-consciousness, especially to the grihasths(householders), who often become distracted from their spiritual duties and indulge in worldly pleasures only.
Though we live in a world that has myriad cultures, religions, beliefs, lifestyle, philosophies, and attitudes; this simple framework of life planning still has great value for all of us. Regardless of how we lived our lives in past , being aware of, and committed to the current and later stages of life can bring great knowledge, peace and clarity as we progress on the path of enlightenment and self-realization.