In HInduism, human life is divided into 4 stages or Ashrams. These form the bases of the “Varna-Ashram” system of Sanatan Dharma. Traditionally, each person ideally went through each of these stages. These stages provide structure and guidance for daily life. These stages are Brahmacharge, Grhsta, Vanprastha and Sannyas, starting from birth to the end of one’s life. In today’s day and age very few Hindus actually follow these stages. However, they provide a framework to gradually progress in life towards the ultimate aim of self-realisation.
In all these stages, the underlying principle of “Dharma” is present. Through these stages of life, one moves through following and realising the path of Dharma. Let us look at all these stages further in detail.
- Brahmachari – This is the first stage of student life of a person, lasting till the age of 25 years when one attains formal education.Traditionally a student would stay in a Gurukul, under the guidance of a Guru. One remains a celebate as one gains spiritual and practical wisdom about life, which would later come to be very useful. It is a very disciplined phase of life in which one learns to be devoted to one’s teachers. Formation of a strong character was more important than memorisation or skill development. One would develop qualities of humility and simplicity with a purity of thought.
- Grihastha – This is the householder stage wherein one marries and takes up the responsibility of earning a livelihood inorder to support the family. Artha (pursuit of wealth) and Kama (pursuits of pleasure) are a part of this stage based on Dharma. This stage lasts till the age of 50. This stage is considered very important as it also supports all other stages. One is encouraged to give in charity a portion of what one earns.
- Vanprastha – This is the stage of gradual withdrawal from world duties and obligations. One renounces gratifications of sex life and other material pleasures. Traditionally one would leave the home into a forest for meditation and prayer. One may take the spouse along and become a hermit. There is very little contact with the rest of the world and relations. One also goes on pilgrimages leading a very austere life.
- Sannyas – This is the final stage of life when one is totally renounced and concentrated on self-realisation. One is free of all desires, fears, hopes and duties. The sole purpose for a person in Sannyas is to attain Moksha, or enlightenment, and be released from the circle of life and death. However very few people actually tread this path and become true ascetics.