According to the value-system propounded by Hinduism, mokṣa or spiritual emancipation is the ultimate goal of life. However, emotional infirmities like attachment and aversion or lust, greed and anger always raise their ugly heads to thwart man’s spiritual progress. With an uncanny insight into human psychology the ancient sages of India have prescribed a way of life which affords scope and opportunity for the fulfilment of all the legitimate desires, while keeping them under a healthy check. The concept of the four puruṣārthas (See PURUṢĀRTHAS.), when looked at from this angle, is a unique contribution. The philosophy behind this concept aims at the gradual sublimation of the human instincts by first allowing them to find a healthy expression. The method of achieving this is the āśrama-system.
According to this system, the life of the individual is divided into four āśramas or stages of life: brahmacarya (student-hood), gārhasthya (married state), vāna-prastha (the state of the forest recluse) and saṁnyāsa (monkhood).
Brahmacarya was the first stage of life. It was the period (usually of twelve years’ duration from the seventh or eighth to the nineteenth or twentieth year) devoted to study and discipline. The student was required to stay in the house of his teacher and learn the sciences and arts.
The preceptors in ancient India usually lived in hermitages not far from towns. The children under their care lived under the same roof without any distinction of wealth and status, all leading a hard, austere life. Serving the teacher and participating in the household duties were as much part of their life as learning the Vedas and secular sciences. Begging the food, eschewing the pleasures of life (in which brahmacarya or continence was the most important), abstaining from the affairs of the world were important aspects of their training.
After returning home, the student, now a young man, was usually expected to marry and raise a family. Since marriage was considered a sacrament and the wife as a life-mate in righteous living, it was not considered as an obstacle to self-evolution. The gṛhastha or the householder was expected to earn well by righteous means and live a happy and decent life, which had to be socially useful. Among his principal duties were the five daily sacrifices, known as pañcayajñas: sacrifice to gods like Indra, study and teaching of the Vedas, obsequial offerings to the departed manes, feeding guests and domestic animals.
At the approach of old age, the householder was to hand over the responsi-bilities of the family to his children and retire to the forest along with his wife, if she was willing. In this stage known as ‘vānaprastha’ (vana = forest, prasthāna = going) he was to lead a contemplative life, in spiritual pursuits. It was actually a life preparatory to the final stage, saṁnyāsa.
When the forest recluse felt enough inner strength to totally renounce all possessions and lead the life of an itinerant monk, he would embrace saṁnyāsa or the monastic life after sending his wife to be taken care of by the children. In this stage he had to move about constantly, begging his food and spending his entire time in contemplation on the Self or God. He was to practise self-control, freedom from desires, ambitions and attachments, and, universal love.
Though these four āśramas were intended to be adopted successively, excep-tions were allowed in special cases, so that persons could take to saṁnyāsa even from the first or the second stage.
Again, it was the dvijas or the ‘twice-born’ classes (brāhmaṇas, kṣattriyas and vaiśyas) that were considered eligible for this fourfold āśrama system. Some scriptures allowed saṁnyāsa only to the brāhmaṇas.
The word ‘āśrama’, in a non-technical sense means a place of resting, a hermi-tage of sages. Such āśramas were generally built in places of natural beauty and quietness, like a forest, banks of rivers, foot or top of a hill and so on. They were earmarked for ‘simple living and high thinking’, for austerities, contemplation and spiritual studies.
See also SAṀNYĀSA.