Advancing through Life’s Four Stages
Applying the wisdom of ashrama dharma lends dignity and increasing purpose to every decade of life, but requires some new thinking
B Y S A T G U R U B O D H I N A T H A V E Y L A N S W A M I
RAJIV’S LONDON CLASSMATES are a raucous bunch of teenagers, flush with vigor, carefree and oblivious to future responsibilities. They see him as a stodgy fellow—smart, handsome, likeable—but missing out on the fun. “You’re only young once!” Jeremy chides, “Why not party with us?” Rajiv lives in a different world, having learned from his parents that life is measured in four stages, and that we reincarnate again and again—so we are young many, many times! He saves his energies for the important stuff, building his knowledge and character in preparation for the family stage, which he will enter in his twenties. Disinterested in fooling around, he hopes to win the hand of a cultured girl with whom to share this lifetime and bring children into the world. Rajiv even looks forward to his elder years when, having fulfilled his duties, he will withdraw into his soul nature, the eternal Rajiv, seeking God Realization as he lives out this earthly tenure. Rajiv is convinced that each phase of life has a natural purpose, and that each is more rewarding than the last. For now, he chooses to study as hard as he can, and play a little in between.
Rajiv’s plan is founded on Hindu tradition which divides an individual’s lifespan into four stages, or ashramas. This division, called ashrama dharma, is the natural expression and maturing of the body, mind and emotions through four progressive stages. It was developed millennia ago and detailed in scriptures known as the Dharma Shastras, highlighting the fact that our duties differ greatly as we progress from youth, to adulthood, senior years and old age. The Maitri Upanishad states: “Pursuit of the duties of the stage of life to which each one belongs—that, verily, is the rule! Others are like branches of a stem. With this, one tends upwards; otherwise, downwards.”
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, in The Hindu View of Life, summarizes: “The four stages—of brahmacharya, or the period of training, grihastha, or the period of work for the world as a householder, vanaprastha, or the period of retreat for the loosening of the social bonds, and sannyasa, or the period of renunciation and expectant awaiting of freedom—indicate that life is a pilgrimage to the eternal life through different stages.”
This paradigm is as important and precious now as it was a thousand years ago, shared by all Hindus, regardless of caste or gender. However, the ancient descriptions may not translate perfectly to our modern life. Society has changed too much from how it was in Vedic times in India. For example, it would not work for all 50-year-olds to take up the life of a forest hermit, begging for their food. That would not be accepted by 21st century society. In some countries forest hermits would end up in jail as homeless vagrants or trespassers, hungry ones at that. A certain amount of reinterpretation is needed to allow contemporary Hindus to utilize the wisdom of this natural evolution of life. As a starting point, let’s review the traditional descriptions.
The first stage, or ashrama, is brahmacharya—student life—and those in this ashrama are called brahmacharins, “those of divine comportment.” It was usually a period of twelve years, from age seven or eight to age 19 or 20. The student lived in his guru’s home and learned scriptures, philosophy, science and logic. He was also taught how to conduct the Vedic fire ceremony. The brahmacharin was expected to follow a strict code of conduct, including celibacy, speaking the truth, gentleness in speech, physical austerities such as cold-water baths and eating sparingly at night. Serving the teacher and participating in the household duties were as much a part of his life as formal learning.
The second stage is householder life, grihastha dharma, and those in this ashrama are called grihasthins. After returning to his family home, the student was expected to marry and raise a family, earning well by righteous means to provide for his wife and children, support his parents and give generously to charity. His religious duties included scriptural study and performing a daily Vedic fire ceremony in the home.
The third stage is vanaprastha—hermit life—and those in this ashrama are called vanaprasthins, “forest dwellers.” Generally around the age of 50 or 55, after the birth of grandchildren, the Shastras explain, the householder is expected to hand over the responsibilities of the family to his children and retire to the forest. He may take his wife if she is willing to share his life of austerities or leave her with his sons. He is to continue the daily fire ceremony, observe continence and devote himself to contemplation on God, all to prepare himself for life’s final phase.
The fourth stage defined in scripture is sannyasa—renunciate life—and those in this ashrama are called sannyasins. When the forest recluse felt enough inner strength to totally renounce all possessions and lead the life of an itinerant monk, he would embrace sannyasa, after entrusting his wife to the care of the children. In this stage he was to move about constantly from place to place, begging his food and devoting himself to japa, meditation, worship of his Deity and contemplation of scriptures.
Looking next at how these ancient descriptions of the ashramas can be updated to better apply in contemporary society, my guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, considered that in modern times each ashrama is a 24-year period, applying equally to men and women: brahmacharya being the first 24 years of life; grihastha extending from age 24 to 48; vanaprastha from age 48 to 72; and sannyasa from age 72 onward.
The goals of brahmacharya remain the same today, but some of the details may no longer apply, such as living in the home of one’s teacher. Intense learning is still the main focus. Ideally, one acquires training in the profession he or she will follow in adult life. On the religious side, the basics of Hinduism are to be learned, along with memorizing mantras and conducting a puja in the home shrine, a practice that has largely replaced the Vedic fire ceremony in modern times. Students should be taught self-discipline, celibacy and other positive character qualities.
The descriptions of the grihastha ashrama also stand the test of time. The main focus is on marriage, bearing and raising children, serving society through one’s career, earning income, taking care of elders and being charitable. Daily puja is conducted in the home, which ideally the entire family attends. Today the grihasthin is the primary teacher of Hinduism to his or her children, a duty the guru fulfilled in ancient times. This ashrama is a busy time of engagement in the world while advancing one’s family and profession.
It is in defining the vanaprastha stage that need arises to rethink the old definitions. Becoming a forest dweller at age 48 is not an option for most people. Instead, my guru described this as a natural time to help and guide the younger generations as an advisor and elder. Brahmacharins and grihasthins can actively seek out the advice of vanaprasthins and draw on and benefit from their years of experience. For example, many Hindus in this age group mentor youth through community programs, teach Hinduism to children, serve on the boards of trustees or committees of temples, or fulfill leadership roles in secular nonprofit organizations. This is a time of giving back to the community what one has learned, while slowly retiring from professional and public life.
The parameters of the sannyasa ashrama have also widened. A small percentage of modern Hindus follow the model of taking up sannyasa after retirement, renouncing the world and wandering among the thousands of sadhus and sannyasins of India, many of whom took up the mendicant path in their 20s and 30s. This pattern of elders taking up sannyasa is okay for single people, widows and widowers, and it still works in parts of India where society honors and cares for such holy men and women. But in most areas of the world, it is neither accepted nor understood.
A number of Hindus turning age 72 have asked me what they should do differently in the years ahead. My advice is to simply intensify whatever religious practices they are already observing. If you perform a daily puja for 30 minutes, increase it to an hour. If you meditate daily for half an hour, increase it to an hour. If you go on pilgrimage for two weeks once a year, increase it to a month. Once these changes have become a firm habit, one would naturally be inclined to devote even more time to religious practices. After age 72, as the physical forces wane, is the time to turn within and withdraw from worldly involvement.
My guru gave this helpful description of the third and fourth ashramas for modern times: “It is during the latter stages of life that family devotees have the opportunity to intensify their sadhana and give back to society of their experience, their knowledge and their wisdom gained through the first two ashramas. The vanaprastha ashrama, age 48 to 72, is a very important stage of life, because that is the time when you can inspire excellence in the brahmacharya students and in the families, to see that their life goes along as it should. Later, the sannyasa ashrama, beginning at 72, is the time to enjoy and deepen whatever realizations you have had along the way.”
FROM THE AGAMAS
How Do We Know What We Know?
True knowledge comes only from the power of pure consciousness
The following is a lucid translation of passages from the Paushkara Agama, chapter 9, verses 3 to 18, entitled “On the Means of Valid and True Knowledge.” Responding to a question from the sages, Lord Siva addresses the philosophical issue of the means of bona fide knowledge, a topic of discussion in all schools of Hindu thought.
SAGES: O LORD, WE NOW DESIRE TO LISTEN TO YOUR INSTRUCtions and expositions on the means of valid knowledge, without which our knowledge of things would be uncertain. Therefore, O Lord Ishana, kindly be favorably disposed to speak on pramanas, the means of acquiring valid knowledge.
Lord Siva: Twice-born sages, there are four common means of valid knowledge: perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumana), verbal testimony (shabda) and presumption (arthapatti). But the power of consciousness itself (chit-shakti), free from doubt and other defects, is said to be the impeccable means of valid knowledge.
The cognition that is unable to distinguish between two similar things, for lack of sufficient differentiating information, is known as doubt (for example, a thin curved object could be perceived as a snake or a rope, with closer inspection required to decide). Error is the “otherwise-than-what-it-is cognition” (anyatha jnana), based on the perception of a nature or quality that does not actually belong to the form cognized. In this Agama, memory (smriti) is said to be the cognition of objects that have been experienced previously (and which may cloud one’s present judgment because of differing circumstances).
Chit-shakti, free from these three defects, is the infallible means of pramana (valid knowledge). Chit-shakti is nothing but the power of consciousness directed to objects. The knower, i.e. the Atman or Self, is of the nature of pure consciousness, not of the nature of being directed toward objects. The power of consciousness acquires valid knowledge when it is directed toward other objects, e.g., a pot.
To be infallible, this definition of valid knowledge, should be free from three defects: 1) under-pervasion (nuna vyapti, meaning a definition which is only partially accurate) does not occur because the definition, beyond doubt, pervades the means of knowledge, such as perception and others; 2) over-pervasion (ati vyapti, meaning a definition which is insufficiently specific) does not apply to different entities, like the objects of knowledge; 3) otherwise under-pervasion (anyatha avyapti, meaning a definition which is obviously impossible) also does not occur. The definition of the means of valid knowledge has, therefore, been well established.
Some say the means of valid knowledge is the instrument of knowledge (such as the senses or the intellect). Why cannot such a view be accepted? The instrument of knowledge cannot be the means of valid knowledge, because the state of being a means or a medium of valid knowledge would apply even to the intellect (buddhi), a lamp, sense of sight and others. This is not acceptable, because that which is a means of valid knowledge cannot also be a knowable thing. It has already been proven that something that is knowable cannot be the means of acquiring valid knowledge. That which is a knowable cannot be a means of knowing, because a means is that by which a knowable is known.
There is a common usage in the world, “I see through my eyes.” This is due to the help rendered by the eyes (to chit-shakti). But the knowledge gained is only acquired through the power of consciousness using the eyes. The eyes themselves do not convey the knowledge to the Self.
The sense of sight is not the means of the hearing of sound. The sense of hearing is not the means of the cognition of color or form. Consciousness is always the cognizer everywhere. Therefore, that alone is considered to be the means of knowledge. By the manifestation of chit-shakti, there is the cognition of all this. By the non-manifestation of chit-shakti, nothing is known.
But why cannot intellect (buddhi tattva), which is the ultimate cause of all cognition, be accepted as a means of knowledge? Buddhi cannot be so. Buddhi cannot be a means of knowledge, because, being not different from the products of prakriti (tattva), it is insentient, like the sense of sight and others. Moreover, buddhi is characterized by various states, such as happiness and sorrow. Therefore, the state of invariably being a means of knowledge is not accorded to buddhi.
DR. S. P. SABHARATHNAM SIVACHARYAR, of the Adi Saiva priest lineage, is an expert in ancient Tamil and Sanskrit, specializing in the Vedas, Agamas and Shilpa Shastras.
P H I L O S O P H Y
Vivekananda’s Quantum Leap
His understanding of matter and energy anticipated the discovery of the quantum—key to the inevitable merger of modern science with spirituality
B Y J A Y L A K H A N I
SINCE CHILDHOOD, THE ASPECT OF RELIGION that attracted me most was its experiential side. Its narratives or liturgy had limited attraction for me. The religious personalities that captured my attention were those whose lives were guided by first-hand spiritual experiences, such as Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna.
At the age of 17 I joined Imperial College in London to study physics. At the same time I came across the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. In the mornings I was exposed to the teachings of the most physical of physical sciences, and in the evenings I immersed myself in the spiritual stream that flows from the lectures of Vivekananda. During that period, many a day and night were filled with intense spiritual experiences. By the grace of my mentor, spiritual truths were no longer a matter of belief or intellectual acceptance; they became a reality for me. It was a real struggle to keep attending lectures focused on material science, but I persevered, and even went on to do a masters degree in quantum physics.
One of the greatest divides we face in this century is that between science and spirituality. On one side sits not one, but a multitude of religious world views; on the other side sits a more unified, science-oriented, rationally-founded worldview. A reconciliation is crucial, else the marvelous discoveries at the heart of all religions are in danger of being snuffed out by the far more popular human enterprise—science.
For a rationalist, the first issue is: “How can all religions be right?” They talk of different Gods or sometimes of no God. Either one religion is right, and the rest are in error, or quite likely the whole lot are in error! Vivekananda reconciled this disjoint in his address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He suggested that at the experiential level all prophets encountered the same spirit, but a variation takes place when they try to give expression to their spiritual experiences. This variation is inevitable because it reflects a variation in the mindsets of different cultures in different historic periods. Over time, each expression ossifies into a religion or a different sect within the same religion. It is not that one is right and the rest are wrong—they are various attempts to infuse spirituality in greater society. This insight is popularly called religious pluralism. Religious pluralism recognizes variation in spiritual expressions and challenges exclusivist claims made by any religion.
Since the time of Vivekananda’s famous speech, religious pluralism has entered the social vocabulary. Recent surveys show that a large percentage of even evangelical Christians are comfortable with the concept of pluralism—and one of the main Shia Muslim groups in London recently published my article on pluralism on the front page of its publication! Without much drum beating or fanfare, pluralism has gently entered public consciousness.
The majority of youngsters I interact with at schools and colleges do not like to be called religious; they see themselves as being spiritual. When asked to explain what they mean by spiritual, they struggle, because it is difficult to intellectualize something that they feel is essentially intuitive. Most of them like humanism, but not necessarily the materialistic humanism promoted by the likes of Richard Dawkins. Without realizing, what they are actually attracted to is the spiritual humanism that Vivekananda promoted so strongly. Materialistic humanists see humanity as the extension of the material kingdom, while spiritual humanists see themselves as spiritual beings on a material journey.
I am making a robust attempt to reconcile the cutting-edge discoveries of modern science with the esoteric concepts at the heart of Hinduism. In the process I am challenging the paradigm of materialism. I offer well-received talks on this theme at various universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. I make no secret that the relevant and engaging material I bring out in my talks comes straight out of the Complete Works.
Let me just touch on one such notion that exhibits a clear link between science and spirituality and challenges materialism. At the heart of physics sits a marvelous discovery called the quantum. When it comes to understanding the fabric of reality, physics cannot do without the quantum. This discovery is far more relevant than all the other discoveries of science rolled together. It offers rigorous mathematical articulation of everything, from the workings of the computer chip to the structure of DNA. And yet, conceptually the same phenomenon remains a mystery. The reason why it so intriguing is because it insists that the underpinning to the world of matter scientists are so fixated on is essentially nonmaterial.
To get a conceptual grasp of the quantum we have to refer to one of the talks by Vivekananda on raja yoga. In this talk he said that the whole creation can be explained in terms of just two entities! The first is all penetrating existence (akash) and the second entity is a shudder in existence (prana). He gave this talk in 1895 when quantum was unheard of. Quantum physics insists that the world we see and experience as the empirical universe is not an objective reality but a multitude of wiggles in existence. I tell the physicists that the only way they can appreciate quantum is by giving up their fixation on matter and their attempt to explain the world in material terms. Science has entered a new phase, where matter has been severely demoted—in fact, it is valued as a mere appearance. Adi Shankara and Vivekananda must be smiling! A major paradigm shift is in the making—a shift that will merge science into spirituality.
(JAY LAKHANI is Director of the Vivekananda Centre, London, and Education Director of the Hindu Council UK.)
Om Tat Sat
(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji, Hinduism Today for the collection)
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