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Ashramas : Four Stages in Human Life

(Note: We should relate these topics with the current values we have and the problems associated with them at every stage in life.)

Just as we differ in aptitudes, so do we differ in age. There are different seasons in human life as in nature. What grows in the spring will not grow in the autumn. The action that is appropriate in the spring is out of place in the fall.

In this way the normal human life was regarded as eighty-four years, consisting of four sections of twenty-one years each.

Brahmacharya: The first twenty-one years is called the "Brahmacharya ashram", the stage of youth or learning, which requires a certain discipline, guidance and purity for its full flowering.

Grihastha: The second twenty-one years, from ages twenty-one to forty-two, is called the "Grihastha ashram" or householder phase. This is the main time for having children and raising a family, as well as for working and fulfilling our duties to society. This second stage of life begins with marriage. One enters the householder stage and starts a family. One earns a righteous living. One looks after all family members including the elderly, guests and children. One is supposed to work for the good of the society as a whole (dharma). This stage allows one to acquire wealth (artha) and fulfill legitimate desires (kama). This stage in life is the key stage, as it acts as the financial support for the other three stages of life. It has relevance today in teaching values of righteous living, carrying out one's duties, not just looking after one's own family but also doing good work for society as a whole.

Vanaprastha: The third section of twenty-one years, from ages forty-two to sixty-three is the "Vanaprastha" or the hermitage phase. This is a time for return to contemplation and for guiding society in the distance. The scriptures say 'when the skin becomes wrinkled' one begins this stage. It literally means - 'the stage of the forest dweller.' It encourages withdrawal from family duties. It is a stage of retirement. One acts as the advisor in the family and passes on the duties of running the household to the younger members of the family. One withdraws from worldly desires in order to attend to one's spiritual needs. Normally one continues to live with the family but spends time in contemplation and meditation.

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Sanyasa: The fourth and last section from sixty-three to eighty-four is the "Sanyasa" or renunciation phase. The person, now an elder, full of wisdom, inwardly aims to renounce all the outer goals of life. He also becomes a teacher of the spiritual knowledge and no longer partakes in social or political concerns.

This order reflects the general rule. More advanced souls may go directly to the renunciation phase. Less advanced souls may not even qualify for the first phase. They may never develop the purity, innocence and humility of the Brahmacharya phase.

In this we see that only twenty-one years are allotted for the outer duties of life. Three-quarters of life is to be devoted primarily to spiritual study.

A true society provides the appropriate experiences for each of these four stages of life. Our present American society is based mainly on adolescent values. Even the elderly are expected to act like the young, pursuing sex, sports and money. Such a culture is one-sided and unbalanced. The potentials of the soul in old age are denied. The natural movement of the soul in its later years towards detachment and meditation is suppressed. As the elderly naturally begin to lose interest in the outer goals of life we tell them that they are sick and encourage them to do things to remain in the mainstream of worldly seeking. The elderly are not able to grow in wisdom and become our true elders and teachers. We make them into mockeries of the young. We do not respect them and they feel we have abandoned them. As we live longer and the average age of individuals in our cultures increases this problem becomes more acute.

Any society which does not recognize the stages of life cannot flourish for long, just as a farmer cannot be successful if he only knows the plants that flourish in one season. Nor can any individual be happy if they are following the needs of a stage of life, which is no longer appropriate for them. Hence this ancient Vedic understanding of the stages of life must be brought back again.

Society is not a two dimensional drawing. It has the invisible dimension of spiritual growth. Without recognizing this we have a warped perspective on our existence. Vedic values aid us in restoring this inner dimension to society as well as to our individual existence. It is that power of aspiration that gives true meaning to human life and allows us to appreciate the different levels and stages of our existence.

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