Brahmacharya Ashram (celibacy)
Grihasth Ashram (family life)
Vanprasth Ashram (Forestration)
What is the Ashram System?
The life of a person can be sub-divided into two categories, namely, personal and social.
In the personal category, a person is essentially an individual: one thinks for oneself; one’s actions are mainly directed towards one’s personal welfare; and one seeks to advance one’s personal wellbeing. It is natural to be self-seeking but life still remains unfulfilled.
In the second category a person is compelled by social urges to make life more meaningful and complete. The individual finds one’s fulfillment by being a part of society.
The Vedic Scriptures have recognized the importance of the individual and social aspects of life. The Vedic Religion has classified a system for the advancement of these two essential requirements of life. To serve the social needs of a person to the greatest possible extent, classification of society into four groups or varnas came into being. In a similar way our Rishi’s (seers) have formulated the four stages of life (Ashram) for the full development of the individual. The Vedic Scriptures have thus provided for a way of life where the progress of the individual and the society is inter-linked.
The life-span of the individual has been graded into four stages. The meaning of ashram is “a resting place.” An Ashram could be regarded as a place where a traveller stops for rest on a long journey before one reaches one’s destination. In a similar way the Vedic Scriptures have created four stages in one’s life-journey. After the first stage the next one is undertaken, until all the stages are completed and the destiny of life is achieved.
The Vedic ideal of a life-span of a hundred years is envisaged in the four ashrams. The Veda mantra, Jivem sharadah shatam, is a prayer for a life of a hundred years. It is for this reason that each of the four stages of life is expected to cover about twenty five years. The four stages (ashrams) are Brahmacharya - celibacy, Grihasth - family life, Vanprasth - forestration and Sannyas - renunciation.
Four Ashrams and their duties
1. Brahmacharya Ashram (celibacy)
The early years of one’s life are meant to be a preparation for adulthood. Just as when a person has some ambition for the future, one has to take calculated steps for the accomplishment of it. After a child is born, the first twenty-five years are taken as the stage of Brahmacharya (celibacy - conservation of sexual energy) when a gradual but complete education of the individual is ensured by the parents and the preceptor. A brick that is unbaked has no lasting value. Likewise a young person without the necessary education or training will not be able to undertake the responsibilities of the life of an adult. Just as a young plant that is flexible could be easily made to change its course, a growing child should be educated effectively in the early years of the child’s life to develop his/her inborn and dormant ability and talent. The emphasis during the first stage of life is on sound education.
The first twenty five years of life devoted mainly to educational pursuits is the stage known as the Brahmacharya Ashram (celibacy). Brahm means knowledge and God as well. Brahmacharya is interpreted as going forward on the path of knowledge and seeking to realise God. A student is expected to acquire all forms of knowledge for the purpose of material progress, but one’s education will be incomplete unless one attains a sufficient knowledge of the Creator of the Universe as well. A religious life must be imparted from the time of childhood.
In the ancient days the pupil went to the Guru (teacher) to acquire education. The teacher kept the pupil in his ashram (school) where the pupil remained in the care of one’s Guru. One received one’s education and grew up also. This ashram was known as Gurukul (a family of the Guru). These Gurukuls were away from the towns and residential areas. Therefore the pupil was away from the worldly material atmosphere and spent a life of restriction, and lived as a Brahmachari or a celibate.
Brahmacharya also means practicing self control. The student observes celibacy and abstains from all pleasures. One’s life must be completely disciplined for the purpose of deriving the maximum benefit as a student. Bricks that are used in the construction of solid buildings are baked in kilns. Similarly a Brahmachari has to undergo a period of complete self discipline and restraint. All the senses are disciplined by the means of self-control. The student must be able to endure hardship and a rigorous life. The purpose of such an imposition is to enable the student to become strong mentally and physically. Until maturity is reached, the life of the student is governed by the rules of strict discipline. The social mixing of boys and girls must be subject to a code of discipline.
2. Grihasth Ashram (family life)
At the end of the Brahmacharya ashram, the youth is prepared to enter the next stage in the forward journey of the life that is the Grihasth ashram. One then becomes the householder after undergoing a religious marriage ceremony. A Vedic mantra (Atharvaved 11.3.18) states that after a life of Brahmacharya, the female youth seeks the companionship of a worthy male partner and vice versa. The husband and wife establish a home. This is the beginning of a family. When the children are born the parents have to cope with the growing responsibilities of a householder. In this way one generation follows another in the Grihasth ashram to provide the needs of the family in particular and society in general. It becomes important for there to be love, harmony and trust between the husband and the wife. According to our Scriptures the husband and wife must not look upon any other woman or man respectively with a lustful eye. The honour and respect of the family must be preserved.
The householder must have a means of livelihood as the upkeep of the family becomes his responsibility. He must provide for the needs of the children, including their education. The care of elderly parents also becomes his duty. When the children reach adulthood, they in turn take on family responsibilities just as their parents had done. In addition there is the need for love, understanding and affection towards all the members of the family for a cordial relationship.
The Family Life is based on the foundation of mutual love, trust and affection between husband and wife. There is the feeling of tenderness towards children. All members of the family are treated with respect and regard. Neighbours and friends are also important. When an attitude of friendship prevails in a society, it ensures the well being, harmony and happiness of all.
The responsibilities of the householder are not restricted to the family, for they encompass certain needs of the society as well. Among the four ashrams it is only the householder that is privileged to participate in the economic life of a country. All servants, students, saints, sages, and even domesticated animals depend on the householder for their livelihood and other needs. By means of taxation the government of the country obtains finance for essential expenditure. Voluntary contributions are also made by the householders for the purpose of education, welfare and religion. The Manusmriti states, just as the waters of the tributaries and rivers ultimately come to rest in the ocean, the three other ashrams depend for their support on the Family life. (Manusmroti Chapter 6, shlok 90)
Responsibilities of Women
In the family life the role of women is equal to that of men. Just as a carriage has an axle with two wheels of equal importance on either end and two horses that work in unison, both the husband and wife are expected to live on a basis of equality in order that they may contribute to the greatest good of the family and society. In the Vedic Philosophy the wife is called ardhangni, that is, one- half of the whole - the whole comprising the husband and the wife. After marriage each spouse serves a complementary role and both together make life complete. In the Vedic age the status of women was equal to that of men. By means of learning and religious discipline a woman reaches the highest order which is that of a Rishi. Among those who attained this state were Maitreyi, Gargi and Lopamudra. The Manusmriti says: Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra devata. (Ch. 3, shlok 36). This means that happiness and prosperity prevail in that society where women are respected.
Women have the freedom of choice to engage in as many fields of activity as possible. However the physiology of the female is different from that of a male. It is in the law of nature that a woman has to be a mother. The care of the child is also the duty of motherhood. The child depends on the mother for nourishment, protection and guidance. It rests in the hands of the mother to inculcate good habits of character building in the growing child. It is in her inborn nature to do this with love and affection. A great responsibility is then placed on the mother in the building-up of a noble society by giving the right kind of guidance for an all-round development of the child.
According to the shastras the father is ten times more important than a teacher and the role of the mother is ten times greater than that of the father. It thus becomes the privilege of the mother to take charge of the household duties and the young as well. But as an individual a woman has the right to choose any sphere of activity that she desires.
3. Vanprasth Ashram (Forestration)
Vanprasth is the third stage in life when a person takes leave of family responsibilities to live in the forest or in quietitude where one could practice a religious discipline. The time for this stage arrives when the sons are in the position to live independently. Vanprasth is a life of retirement. The giving up of family duties, the severing of worldly attachments and a self-imposed discipline of harshness and meditation are the requirements of the Vanprasth ashram. Today it is not practicable to retire to the forest. It can be practiced at home.
According to Manu the duties of a person in the Vanprasth ashram include a study of the shastras (religious scriptures) and the practice of intensive meditation. Prayer and devotion are combined with religious rigour. One is expected to develop an attitude of universal friendship and goodwill.
An important purpose in life of the Vanprasth is to be of service to mankind. He renounces all worldly attachments and has no personal means of livelihood. His or her motives are unselfish and are free of all reward. In ancient days Vanprasthis were engaged on a voluntary basis as teachers in Gurukuls (boarding schools). Thus it was possible for education to be offered without any charge being made. The Vanprasthi depended for his/her provisions on the institutions (centres of learning) served by him/her, or on the provisions made by his son who has taken over the responsibilities of the family. Today it is possible for Vanprasthi to live on a retirement or an old-age pension if other sources of income are not available. As the life of a Vanprasthi is based on harshness, his/her financial needs are also restricted.
4. Sannyas Ashram
The Vanprasth ashram culminates in the Sannyas ashram. Sannyas means complete renunciation of all worldly attachments. A person is governed in life by three main desires. They are for children, wealth and fame. A Sannyasi becomes free from these desires when he/she renounces all worldly attachments. He/she is then withdrawn from the sources of pleasure and sorrow. The mind is then saturated with holiness and spiritual knowledge. The Sannyasi wears a saffron-coloured robe. He/she keeps no money with him/her. As a rule he/she does not reside at any particular place for more then three days. He/she depends for his/her sustenance on assistance that is offered to him/her. Those who are in the family circle regard it as a blessing to be given the opportunity of providing some form of assistance and comfort to a visiting Sannyasi. To the householder this is a religious duty and a privilege.
Although a Sannyasi is generally preoccupied with meditation and yoga, he/she is also keenly aware of his/her duty to be of service to human beings. He/she has no bond of relationship with any person. For him/her all human beings are his/her family. He/she is not moved by love or hate. He/she leads human beings in the path of truth and morality without fear or favour. His/her purpose is to contribute to the peace and happiness of human beings by dispelling ignorance and enabling the individual to awaken the divinity that lies within him/her.
By adhering to the four ashrams an individual goes forward in life as prescribed by the Vedas (the word of God). It is only after a period of preparation in the Brahmacharya Ashram does one undertake the greater responsibilities of life. It is natural for a person to be preoccupied with worldly matters in the Grihasth Ashram (family life) but in the next stage of Vanprasth Ashram attachment to the material things ought to be reduced so that one’s interest and actions become more spiritual in character. This finally leads to a total renunciation of worldly attachments in Sannyas Ashram for the purpose of attaining Mukti (salvation) when the Atma (soul) is fully liberated and the true nature of God is realized.
It is by following this Ashram system that full development of an individual is achieved.
Adapted from ‘Dharmic Shiksha (Vedic Religious Knowledge) – Form Four’, Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Fiji, 1999.
Copyright: Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Fiji