The Four Stages of Life
A Hindus life in the ancient times was divided into four stages: Brahmacharya (celibacy), Grahasthya (householder-ship) Vanaprastha and Sanyas. This lifestyle, with the centuries of Muslim and British influence, has more or less died out and not practised any more. Short notes are given on each stage as they used to be practised in the ancient times.
Brahmacharya (Celibacy). This was the first stage (up to the age of 25) when the student, after the thread ceremony, left his home and joined the ‘gurukula’(school), normally a simple group of huts set inside a forest or a lonely place away from habitation. Here the teacher or guru lived with his family and students, who must, irrespective of social status, look after the guru like one’s father and perform all menial chores around the school. Here they were taught the Gayatri mantra, Yoga, the study of the scriptures, the arts and sciences, and a life of simplicity and spartan self-discipline. The students were exhorted to speak the truth, to work without forgetting Dharma, to serve the elders. to regard one’s parents, teacher and guest as divine beings.
Grahasthya or Householdership. After finishing his education the student returned home to marry and set up household. Marriage was not contractual and was a sacred step in one’s spiritual growth. The wife was ardhangini or the other half of her husband. No religious ritual could be performed by a man without his wife’s participation therein. The householder was to practice right conduct, earn material wealth, permit himself a life of love and passion with his lifes partner and attain salvation by following the rules of conduct. The second stage was considered the most important of the four. The householder was expected to earn a living with integrity and to give away one— tenth of what he earned to charity. He was expected to give happiness and joy to his wife by providing her with a good home. It was obligatory for him to look after his children, educate and marry them. Charity and hospitality were essential. Fulfilling social and spiritual obligations of life with its trials and tribulations and without deviation from Dharma enables a person to evolve into a superior human being.
Vanaprastha. The third stage comes when one’s children arc settled and can look after themselves. It is time for the middle-aged couple to become vanaprasthas, or those who retire. In modern parlance this means that the time has conic for one to detach oneself from worldly desires and attachments and retire to the sylvan peace of contemplation meditation and spiritual pursuits. They may live amongst their family but remain unattached from within, like a lotus which is in water yet out of it.
Sanyas. This used to be the fourth stage. One who takes to sanvas, used to give up all wants, have no needs, would not accept money and renounces the world. He used to live on alms and the fruits of the trees in the forest and spend his time in meditation. He was jivanmukta or one liberated from ordinary life.