The Ashramas (Stages of Life) by Swami Krishnananda

Baba Times Digest© | 19 June 2014 17:31 EST | New York Edition


The Ashramas (Stages of Life)


Divine Life Society Publication: The Laws and the Stages of Life in Hinduism by Swami Krishnananda


The grouping of life into the pursuit of the four Purusharthas is the basis of the ancient ethics of India. The ethical system in India is connected with the mode of life to be lived by one as a Brahmacharin, Grihastha, Vanaprastha or Sannyasin, which are the four orders (Asramas) or stages of life.


Brahmacharya is the first stage of life, which is lived in the observance of the vow of perfect continence and celibacy under the guidance of a preceptor and dedicated especially to the study of the Vedas and other scriptures. It is a life of probation and strict discipline. The Brahmacharin is an adherent to the principle of non-violence (Ahimsa), Truthfulness (Satya), self-restraint (Brahmacharya), non-covetousness (Asteya), non-acceptance of gifts (Aparigraha), purity and cleanliness (Saucha), contentment (Santosha) , austerity (Tapas), sacred study (Svadhyaya), and service of the preceptor (Guru Seva). These are the constituent factors in the life of a Brahmacharin. He shines with spiritual splendour (Brahmavarchas), which he earns by way of self-control, and on account of this glowing nature of his personality he is termed a fire-lad (Agni-Marmaka).


While the stage of the Brahmacharin is particularly devoted to the accumulation of Dharma, the life of the householder is for the preservation of Dharma, the earning of Artha and the fulfilment of Kama. He puts into practice the knowledge gained during the period of Brahmacharya. Artha and Kama should be directed by Dharma. This rule is a great scientific prescription for sublimation of desire, as different from its suppression, regression or substitution. The householder is regarded as the hub of the wheel of life, round whom the welfare of the society revolves. His is a life of a balance of forces – social duty, personal desire and spiritual aspiration. This is the general rule for a householder belonging to the Brahmana class in society.


The Kshatriya has the special duty of subscribing to the administration of the country by military service and the governmental system. The Vaisyas, or the trading community, and the Sudras, or the serving class, have their duties of providing for the economic harmony and needs of the country and the labour that is required for the sustenance of society. The classification of society into four castes is not to be taken in the sense of a rigid mechanical isolation of groups by virtue of birth and heredity alone, but a logically developed co-operative system of living instituted for the preservation and prosperity of the whole society through division of labour based on the quality of persons and the proportion of the contribution that people can make for its solidarity in accordance with their aptitude, knowledge and capacity. Svabhava (one's inherent nature) determines Svadharma (one's duty as an individual in society).


The third stage of life is of the Vanaprastha and is devoted to the duty of disentangling oneself from the attractions of the world. Artha and Kama do not any more interest the mind which seeks only the final blossoming of Dharma into the flower of Moksha through austerity (Tapas) and inward worship (Manasika-Upasana). The consummation of this discipline is in Sannyasa, or complete renunciation of worldly duty and desire, and living a life devoted to the highest meditations on the Absolute described in the Upanishads.


Though, originally, the order of Sannyasa as envisaged in Manu Smriti and the Mahabharata constituted a purely spiritual condition into which the Vanaprastha entered, and it had no linkage with any special tradition, the order of the monk gradually developed into a system (Sampradaya) by which the renunciates in different groups were related to one another by the allegiance they owed to their own particular orders, and thus formed a section of society devoted to a voluntary discharge of the obligation of the dissemination of knowledge, in addition to the individual duty of spiritual meditation.


In its true spirit, Sannyasa is a spiritual state, and not a social classification, in which established one learns the art of depending on the Supreme Being by withdrawal of interest from the particular sources of support in the world. This condition is, however, not suddenly reached, and four stages even in the order of Sannyasa are recognised. In the first three stages, called the Kutichaka, Bahudaka and Hamsa, the Sannyasin lives in fixed residences – but in an increasing degree of freedom from the need for comfort – and the stages are distinguished by the increasing intensity of restrictions, in an ascending order, which the Sannyasin imposes on himself. The fourth stage is of the Paramahamsa, who is absolutely free from all the wants of a personal life and lives mostly a life of absolute self-dependence devoted to pure meditation. There are said to be two other stages, called the Turiyatita and Avadhuta, wherein fixed one does not pay attention to creature comforts and is satisfied with anything that comes to him of its own accord and remains mostly in a state of consciousness lifted above the body and its surroundings.


Sannyasa is also said to originate from four causes. A Vairagya-Sannyasin is one who enters the order being prompted by the latent impressions (Samskaras) which direct him to take such a step. A Jnana-Sannyasin is one who takes to the order due to his grasp of the import of the scriptures, after a deep study of them, and being convinced thereby of the existence of the spiritual ideal. A Jnana-Vairagya-Sannyasin is one who resorts to Sannyasa after deep learning and also having seen the normal enjoyments of life. A Karma-Sannyasin is one who embraces the order having passed through the stages of the Brahmacharin, Grihastha and Vanaprastha, gradually. But he who takes to Sannyasa directly from the stage of Brahmacharya is called a Vairagya-Sannyasin. One who takes to it for acquiring spiritual knowledge is a Vividisha-Sannyasin. One who embraces Sannyasa being compelled by impending death is an Atura-Sannyasin. One who takes to Sannyasa with a feeling that there is nothing except the Absolute is an Animitta-Sartnyasin.


But Sannyasa is, in the end, as observed above, not one of the modes or orders of social life but a condition of consciousness in which it realises its spiritual absoluteness. Man becomes one with creation, being freed from the bondage of attachment, convention and anxiety. The soul fixes itself in the Infinite and knows nothing other than it. The duties of the Brahmacharin, Grihastha and Vanaprastha are progressive stages of self-sublimation and self-transcendence which reach their fulfilment in Sannyasa.


The plan of life arranged into the four stages is a systematic endeavour for the conservation and transformation of the vital, intellectual, moral and spiritual aspects of human nature towards the purpose of the attainment of Moksha, or liberation in the Absolute. It is the process of integration not only of the individual but of the family, community, nation and the world at large, through the expression of the great preservative force tending to universal solidarity – Dharma. The great hymn of the Veda, the Purusha-Sukta, makes the four aspects of the caste system limbs of the Supreme Being, thus teaching that the organic structure of society is knit into a single fabric with the threads of diversified personalities.


Here is the philosophical background of the ethics of co-operation by which the Universe is maintained. The four Varnas (castes) and the four Asramas (orders) are classifications based on the three properties (Gunas) of Prakriti – Sattva (equilibrium), Rajas (distraction), and Tamas (inertia) in their different permutations and combinations. The four Asramas are the stages of the progressive overcoming of matter by spirit, externality by universality.


Excerpts from:


The Ashramas (Stages of Life) - The Laws and the Stages of Life in Hinduism by Swami Krishnananda


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