As the very name suggests, this minor Upaniṣad belonging to the Atharvaveda, deals with the āśramas or stages of life. The treatment however is very brief.
There are four recognized āśramas: brahmacarya, gārhasthya, vānaprastha and saṁnyāsa. Those following the ways of life of these four āśramas are respectively called brahmacārins (Vedic students), gṛhasthas (householders), vānaprasthins (forest recluses) and saṁnyāsins (mendicants or monks).
The brahmacārins are of four types: gāyatra, brāhmaṇa, prājāpatya and bṛhan.
The ‘gāyatra’ is the novice who has had his upanayana ceremony and has been taught the Gāyatrīmantra. He is expected to subsist for three days after the upa-nayana, on food bereft of jaggery and salt. A ‘brāhmaṇa’ is one who lives in his preceptor’s house for 48 years to learn all the four Vedas, the study of each Veda needing about twelve years. A ‘prājāpatya’ is one who is faithful to his wife. Alter-natively, those who spend 24 years and 48 years with their preceptors to learn the Vedas are called ‘brāhmaṇas’ and ‘prājāpatyas’ respectively. The ‘bṛhan’ is one who lives with his preceptor throughout his life. He is also called ‘naiṣṭhika’.
The gṛhasthas are also of four kinds: vārtākavṛtti, śālīnavṛtti, yāyāvara and ghora-saṁnyāsika.
Among these, the first group lives by agriculture, dairy-farming, trade and commerce, the vocations considered blameless. They live their full span of life, working and praying to the Supreme Self. The second group of gṛhasthas perform the Vedic rituals, study the Vedas and give gifts to others. However, they do not undertake to perform Vedic sacrifices for others, nor teach the Vedas to others, nor accept gifts. The third group of gṛhasthas do both: performing sacrifices for themselves and for others; studying and teaching the Vedas; giving and accepting gifts. Both the second and the third groups continue to maintain the Vedic fires and pray to the Supreme Self. The last group, the most austere, is particular in using water brought from wells and purified by straining as also live upon grain picked up from the fields (This is called ‘uñchavṛtti’.) daily. These gṛhasthas too perform the prescribed Vedic rites throughout life and pray to the Supreme Self.
The vānaprasthins too are of four varieties: vaikhānasa, udumbara, bāla-khilya (or vālakhilya), and phenapa.
The vaikhānasas maintain the sacred fires with the help of dried wood grown wildly, perform the five daily sacrifices and pray to the Supreme Self. The udumbaras too do the same thing except that they maintain the sacred fires by the wood of the fig or jujube trees found in the direction in which they wake up in the morning. The bālakhilyas wear long hair and coarse dress made of cotton, skin or bark, give up flowers and fruits on certain specified days, follow the earlier professions for maintenance, perform the five daily sacrifices and pray to the Supreme Self. The last group, phenapas, behave like insane persons, live by eating cast off leaves and fruits, maintain the Vedic fires wherever they are, perform the five daily sacrifices and pray to the Supreme Self.
The saṁnyāsins also are of four categories: kuṭīcara, bahūdaka, haṁsa and paramahaṁsa.
The first beg their food from the houses of their own sons. The second wear all the insignias of the saṁnyāsins like wooden sandals, loin cloth, ochre robes and so on, and beg their food from the house of brāhmaṇas of good conduct. They keep the tuft of hair and the sacred thread also. The third, keep these insignias but give up the tuft of hair. They carry a staff and a waterpot. They roam about not halting in any place for more than one to three days and perform severe austerities. The last, the paramahaṁsas, are the highest in this series. They do not carry any of the usual insignias of the saṁnyāsins, live in deserted and lonely places like abandoned buildings or temples, have transcended all social rules, customs and manners, accept alms from all without distinction and practise supreme equanimity. All these four cate-gories too pray to the Supreme Self.
See also ĀŚRAMAS.