The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 18, 2002

The significance of the ashrama system
J.V. Gupta

Moksha is the central point of self-realisation
Moksha is the central point of self-realisation

ACCORDING to the Hindu view of life, the entire life span can be divided into four ashramas: Brahmacharya, grihasthya, vanaprastha and sanyasa. During each stage, one is enjoined upon to achieve a goal specific to that stage and at the same time one has to prepare for the next stage and the goal related to it. Thereafter, one enters the state of sanyasa and devotes one’s time solely to self-realisation.

Hindu scriptures talk of four prime endeavours of life — dharma, artha, kama and moksha—that constitute the basic driving force for fulfillment of the fundamental needs of human beings. Dharma is the source of origin for the evolution of human values. Affluence (artha) and desires (kama) provides the basic support for worldly enjoyment. Moksha, on the other hand, is the central point for self-realisation, after getting rid of physical and mental bondage.

According to Brahmacharya, the first ashrama, a man has been ordained to devote the first 25 years of his life to studies, to ascertain, assess and assimilate values (which sustain society) of dharma. The next 25 years have been set apart for the grihasthya ashrama, during which a man has been enjoined to preserve, enhance and observe mundane values rooted in wealth and desires towards the maintenance of the family. Vanaprastha and sanyasa and are both renunciation-oriented ashramas. Both eventually lead a man towards the path of salvation. In the vanaprastha ashrama, the individual, after giving up family attachment in all respects, becomes active outside the pale of family.


During vanaprastha, one is required to prepare for the ultimate goal of salvation through acts of service to society. The last 25 years of sanyasa constitute the final step on the ladder to the life of a complete man. A man surrenders his particular identity and leads the life of a wanderer, plunging his own self into the eternal unity of the universe. The objective is to discharge all the three debts (i.e. debt of God, to parents and to sages) so that the life of every Hindu may become meaningful.

Today, all these arrangements have broken down, with the result an average individual is dogged with fears and frustration. Society has lost all sense of direction. Accordingly, there is a visible dearth of dedicated individuals willing to come forth to work for social and national causes. A householder remains engrossed in domesticity till the very end of his life. This gives rise to conflicts in the family. There is hardly any time left for a man to repay the sacred debt which he owes his community and his nation.

Each ashrama has its limitations. There is need to change one’s thinking in accordance with the requirements of every ashrama. Otherwise, in the prevailing conditions and circumstances, confrontation is inevitable. Every ashrama is like a railway junction, where for every train to arrive at the right track and platform, a change of points is needed before hand.

A balancing of the grihasthya ashrama is needed

By the time one attains the age of 60 the grihasthya ashrama is over. In India, the average life expectancy is about 70-75 years. The intervening time is to be devoted to any sphere of social service of one’s liking. There is a sense of joy in rendering any social service. A man, at this stage, has time, energy, and the rich experience of life. The society must reap the benefit of his mature wisdom. This, in essence, is the perception of vanaprastha ashrama in modern life. There is no need to renounce family ties and leave for forests to lead an ascetic’s life. On the contrary, what is needed is to lead a society-oriented life, for which one must prepare oneself financially, physically and mentally during the days of one’s grihasthya ashrama itself.

One should be self-dependent and to ensure this, one must make proper arrangements and take adequate care of one’s health. One should mentally prepare oneself and one’s family for this eventuality, so that when the time comes, your decision should not look like an abrupt one, but should appear to have been arrived at after due consideration and preparation. During the mental preparation, it is necessary that an elder should display magnanimity and wisdom in behaviour, approach and action. This is the first step towards preparation for Vanaprastha. We should have faith in the coming generation and leave behind for posterity an aura of hope and confidence. This has been an unbroken tradition from the earliest times. We should accept this as a fact of life without the least regret.

Life is like a journey. A time comes in life when one starts treating the wider society as his own family. The Lord should give us the necessary strength to end our last years on a happy note by embracing vanaprastha ashrama.

However, today’s reality is altogether different. A person, after acquiring education, somehow manages to secure employment and enters into the grihasthya ashrama. Thereafter, he becomes so engrossed in the affairs of his life that he has no idea of the swift passage of time. After a gap of 30 to 35 years, he awakens to the harsh reality of his retirement from service and finds himself divested of all the privileges and entitlements and facilities which he enjoyed before. He becomes depressed at the very thought of a vacuum in his life. One begins to consider himself unsupported and out of place. His wide experience begins to fade away. In such an unhappy state, he is obliged to live with the tension of inaction.

On the other extreme is another person, who is so engrossed in the affairs of his independent work or business that even after being past the age of 60, he makes little effort to disengage himself. This is a tragedy of another kind. Neither do these ways conform to the injunctions of the shastras nor are they scientific or productive.

The scriptures say (Manu Samriti):

Grihasthastu yada pashyed abali-palitatmanah

Apatyasya chapatyam tada vanaprastham samacharet.

‘When a householder finds that his skin has turned loose, his hair has grown grey and his son too has been blessed with a son, then he should, invariably, take to vanaprastha (literally, leave for the forests)’

Vanaprastha is a life of giving

The word vanaprastha has been defined as exactly the opposite of grihasthya ashrama (householder’s life). Leaving for the forests is simply its literal meaning. What it signifies is that in this ashrama, a person gradually withdraws himself from his family matters to discharge his debt towards sages of yore. He also takes the sacred vow to utilise all his accumulated wisdom experience in the cause of the society. For a person who has either retired or is going to retire in the near future, vanaprastha ashram will have a salutary effect on his physical and mental well-being. It will also add to his enthusiasm and boost his morale; the depression born out of loneliness will go. Those who are in the age group of 45-50 years will have to make the necessary plan and mental preparation for joining this constructive work quite early so that there is no vacuum in their life after retirement.

While opting for vanaprastha, we should be financially self-reliant, physically fit and mentally alert. On reaching this stage, we should change our outlook, abjure our love for dominance and desist from interfering into the daily life of our family members. Kalidasa has described a vanaprasthin as a muni, one who observes silence. Talk less, hear more, and render service with a sense of duty and a smile.

Moksha (salvation) is the ultimate goal of life. Moksha is a state of desirelessness and has been defined in different ways. According to Tulsidas, where there is God, there are no desires, and where there are desires, there is no God. Therefore, a life devoid of worldly desires opens up the way to salvation.

This indeed is the meaning of the ashrama system in today’s context. Experience it, and chant the following universal prayer day and night; you will feel inwardly happy:

Sarve bhavantu sukhinah sarve santu niramayah

Sarve bhadrani pashyantu ma kashchit duhkha-bhak bhavet.

‘May all be happy and lead a life free from disease and devoid of worries; may fortune always smile on all, and none come to any harm or suffer from any sorrow or misfortune.’

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