Ashrama Dharma (आश्रमधर्मः)

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Ashrama Dharma (Samskrit: आश्रमधर्मः) refers to the duties specified for the four stages in life. The four Ashramas are,

  1. Brahmacharyashrama or the period of studentship
  2. Grhasthashrama or the stage of the householder
  3. Vanaprasthashrama or the stage of the forest-dweller or hermit
  4. Sannyasashrama or the life of renunciation or asceticism.

These stages help in the evolution of a person. They take one to perfection in successive stages. In fact, the practice of the four Ashramas regulates the life from the beginning to the end. Among them, the first two Ashramas pertain to Pravrtti Marga or the path of work. While, the two later stages ie. the life of Vanaprastha and that of Sannyasa, pertain to Nivrtti Marga or the path of renunciation.[1]

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

The individual is the real foundation of a sound society. The general moral standard and quality of a human society or nation are directly proportional to the number of individuals who are well educated and bear good character. The aim of "Dharma" was to mould the character and personality of individuals to produce more number of such individuals.[2]

Every individual is expected discharge four pious obligations.They are Devaruna (देवऋणम् । towards God), Pitruruna (पितृऋणम् । towards parents), Rishiruna (ऋषिऋणम् । towards teachers) and Manavaruna (मानवऋणम् । towards humanity).[3] These four pious obligations were required to be discharged by an individual throughout his life time. However, all the obligations could not be fully discharged or be given the same importance at all points of time in the life of an individual. Therefore, the life span of an individual was divided into four parts or stages (Ashramas).[2]

Individual Purpose in Each Ashrama

Explaining the object and purpose of Ashrama Dharma and its applicability to all, Pujya Sri. Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swami ji, the Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, said thus:

Ashrama Dharma deals with the conduct of an individual during different stages of his life. In the first stage, as a brahmacarin, he devotes himself to studies in a gurukula. In the second stage, as a youth, he takes a wife, settles down in life and begets children. In the third, as he ages, further, he becomes a forest recluse and, without much attachment to worldly life, engages himself in Vedic Karma. In the fourth stage, he forsakes even Vedic works, renounces the world utterly to become a sannyasin and turns his mind towards the Paramatman. These four stages of life or ashramas are called Brahmacharya, Garhasthya, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa.

Briefly stated, the period of life of an individual and the purpose pertaining to each of the Ashrama were:

  1. ब्रह्मचर्याश्रमः (Brahmacharyashrama) : Importance to acquisition of knowledge and securing physical and moral fitness ie., strengthening of body, mind and intellect.
  2. गृहस्थाश्रमः (Grhasthashrama) : Importance to honest and purposeful married life and family life, earning legitimate income and through it to serve the family and the society.
  3. वानप्रस्थाश्रमः (Vanaprasthashrama) : Importance to withdrawing from earning activities and devoting oneself more to the service of society.
  4. सन्न्यासाश्रमः (Sannyasashrama) : Importance to worship of God by renunciation of worldly desires.

Thus, during each one of these ashramas, greater importance was required to be given to one particular obligation while discharging other obligations as well.[2]

In this regard, the Bhagavata Purana (Skandha 7, Adhyaya 15) further elaborates that,

गृहस्थस्य क्रियात्यागो व्रतत्यागो वटोरपि | तपस्विनो ग्रामसेवा भिक्षोरिन्द्रियलोलता ||३८||

आश्रमापसदा ह्येते खल्वाश्रमविडम्बनाः | देवमायाविमूढांस्तानुपेक्षेतानुकम्पया ||३९||[4]

gr̥hasthasya kriyātyāgō vratatyāgō vaṭōrapi | tapasvinō grāmasēvā bhikṣōrindriyalōlatā ||38||

āśramāpasadā hyētē khalvāśramaviḍambanāḥ | dēvamāyāvimūḍhāṁstānupēkṣētānukampayā ||39||

Meaning: Avoidance of rites and duties in the case of grhasthas, non-observance of the vow of celibacy, studies etc. in the case of a brahmacharins, residence in an inhabited locality in the case of ascetics performing penance (vanaprasthas) and lack of self-control in the case of recluses (sannyasins) are all detestable in their respective ashramas as they certainly reduce their ashramas to mockery. Such Pretenders who are decluded by the illusive power (Maya) of the Almighty, should either be neglected or taking compassion upon them, one should teach them, if possible, to resume their original position.[5][6] Also, it is said that, everyone should pass through the different Ashramas in order. One should not enter any stage of life prematurely. One should enter the next stage, only when the previous has been completed; essentially, because evolution is gradual in nature. Hence, the Manusmrti says,

“Having studied the Vedas or two Vedas or even one Veda in due order without breaking celibacy, let him dwell in the householder order. When the householder sees wrinkles in his skin and whiteness in his hair and the son of his son, then let him retire to the forest. Having passed the third portion of life in the forests, let him, having abandoned attachments, wander as an ascetic in the fourth portion of life.”

However, in extraordinary cases, some of the stages may be omitted. For example,

  • Shuka was a born Sannyasin.
  • Shankara took Sannyasa without entering the stage of a householder.

In rare and exceptional cases, a student also, is allowed to become a Sannyasin, his debts to the world having been fully paid in a previous birth.[1]

According to Dr Radhakrishnan, these four ashramas or stages of life ie. Brahmacharya (the period of training), Grhastha (the period of work for the world as a householder), Vanaprasthya (the period of retreat for the loosening of the social bonds) and Sannyasa (the period of renunciation and expectant awaiting of freedom), indicate that life is a pilgrimage to the eternal life through different stages[7].

विषयविस्तारः ॥ Subject Matter

ब्रह्मचर्याश्रमः ॥ Brahmacharyashrama

After the completion of childhood (around eight or nine years), an individual was required to take to higher education and to maintain celibacy to conserve physical, moral and mental energy and to devote himself to the studies for a period of about twelve to fifteen years. During this period the main obligation of an individual was to acquire knowledge and to increase his knowledge by research. This ashrama was not only intended to earn knowledge to earn for a comfortable life, but also to enable the discharge of one of the pious obligations, 'Rishiruna' ( debt due to teachers) namely acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. An individual was also required to cultivate moral character and discipline which would enable him to develop his personality so that he would not only be useful to himself but also to the members of the family and to society as well.[2]

Dr. Radhakrishnan said the following[7]:

"The first period is that of training and discipline of body and mind. Plastic youth is molded to a life of duty. The student is required to live for a fixed period in the house of his teacher, where he is taught the arts and sciences which would be useful to him in after life. Women were also entitled to brahmacarya".

गृहस्थाश्रमः ॥ Grhasthashrama

In this second stage of life after the acquisition of knowledge or completing education, an individual had to get married and commence family life. During this stage, it was the joint responsibility of husband and wife to lead a pure and simple family life, to maintain sexual morality and to discharge the 'Pitruruna' by begetting children, educating them and making them good citizens. To do this effectively, they had to adjust to each other and live together. Further it was necessary for an individual to earn his livelihood by legitimate methods and to spend whatever he had earned not only for his benefit but also for the benefit of the other members of the family, and also to utilize his income/resources and energy for the benefit of society having due regard to his capacity and aptitude and thereby discharge the fourth pious obligation namely 'Manavaruna'. Also it was the duty of every individual to serve the society, of which he was part and parcel. It was the special responsibility of those undertaking the teaching profession or literary pursuits to enrich and disseminate knowledge to the younger generation as part of the discharge of Rishiruna - the debt due to teachers.[2]

वानप्रस्थाश्रमः ॥ Vanaprasthashrama 

The next stage was the Vanaprasthashrama, (retirement to forest) which meant the life after retirement (around the age of sixty) from profession and avocation. During this period, an individual was required to entrust the family responsibility to his grown up sons/ daughters as the case may be, and to devote himself mainly to the service of the society. During this period an individual was required to discharge his obligation to society, i.e., 'Manavaruna' to a greater extent by rendering various types of social services.[2]

Dr. Radhakrishnan says[7]:

"The third stage arises when the responsibilities of home are given up. The wife accompanies the husband to the forest, if she shares his spiritual aims. According to Manu, one must enter the third stage when one becomes a grandfather, or one’s skin begins to show wrinkles or one’s hair turns grey. When one’s bodily powers wane, it is time to depart to the forest and prepare oneself for the true life of the spirit. The main objective of this stage is to escape from the bustle of life into the solitude of the forest to meditate on the higher problems.

The stature of man is not to be reduced to the requirements of the society. Man is much more than the custodian of its culture or protector of his country or producer of its wealth. His social efficiency is not the measure of his spiritual manhood. The soul which is our spiritual life contains our infinity within it. What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul? A Sanskrit verse reads: ‘For the family sacrifice the individual; for the community the family; for the country the community, and for the soul the whole world.’ Family and country, nation and the world cannot satisfy the soul in man. Each individual is called upon at a certain stage of his life to give up his wife and children and his caste and work".

सन्न्यासाश्रमः ॥ Sannyasashrama 

The last one was Sanyasashrama, life of a recluse. During this period, the evening of his life an individual was expected to renounce the world completely and turn his mind towards God or Paramatma (परमात्मा). During this period the individual was required to engage himself mainly in the worship of God in whatever manner he pleased and discharge the pious obligation of 'Devaruna'.[2]

Dr. Radhakrishnan says[7]:

"The last part of life’s road has to be walked in single file. The aim of the samnyāsin is not to free himself from the cares of outward life, but to attain a state of spiritual freedom when he is not tempted by riches or honour, and is not elated by success or depressed by failure. He develops a spirit of equanimity and so ‘bears patiently improper words and does not insult anyone; he does not hate anyone for the sake of his physical body’. These free men are solitary souls who have not any personal attachments or private ambitions, but embody in their own spirit the freedom of the world. They take on the wideness of the whole earth, dwell in love and walk in righteousness".

Dr Radhakrishnan further says[7]:

"Renunciation is the surrendering of the notions of I and mine, and not the giving up of the work enjoined by the scriptures. The same idea comes out in the sublime verse of the Bhāgavata: ‘I desire not the supreme state (of bliss) with its eight perfections, nor the cessation of rebirth. May I take up the sorrow of all creatures who suffer and enter into them so that they may be made free from grief.’ Māhadeva the prince of ascetics drank poison for the sake of the world. Freedom on the highest level of existence expresses itself on the lower as courage to suffer, sacrifice, and die".

Ashrama Dharma - For Human Excellence

The four Ashramas were by and large intended to secure human excellence by requiring an individual to discharge the four pious obligations in an effective manner, and by leading a purposeful life. This arrangement was intended not only to ensure that an individual would not go astray but also that he would follow the path of righteousness throughout his life. These ideals were placed before individuals because even if followed by a few it would be of great benefit to society and would result in the development of the personality of individuals. Even in the present state of the world, the guidance available in the form of the four pious obligations and the four Ashramas helps the development of the personality of individuals and through it, the development of human resources, on which alone the welfare and prosperity of a nation depends.[2]

Dr. Radhakrishnan says[7]:

"While some forms of Christianity and Buddhism judge the life of the world to be inferior to the life of the monk, and would have loved to place the whole of mankind at one swoop in the cloister, Hinduism while appreciating the life of the samnyāsin refrained from condemning the state of the householder. Every state is necessary, and in so far as it is necessary it is good. The blossom does not deny the leaf and the leaf does not deny the stalk nor the stalk the root. The general rule is that we should pass from stage to stage gradually".

Benefits of the Ashrama Dharma

  1. It cannot be denied that the observance of celibacy and devoting of substantial time and energy to the acquisition of knowledge and keeping away from bad habits during the period of studentship, is highly conducive to the acquisition of knowledge and excellence in education and the development of moral character as there is every possibility of an individual going astray resulting in both moral and material abandonment during this important formative period of life. If such things happen, then an individual instead of becoming an asset to human society, might become a liability. Therefore, Brahmacharyashrama was an excellent method evolved for human resources development, so that youth become a real asset of society.
  2. Family life is important. During this period, an individual undoubtedly has to carry on an avocation, profession, trade, business etc., to earn money necessary to lead a happy family life. But at the same time, it is the duty of every individual to continue his profession or avocation conforming to ethics so that he will be useful not only to himself but also to society. Further, leading a moral life during this period, and observing sexual morality is also essential to ensure proper guidance, education and inspiration to the children. Unless husband and wife lead a harmonious family life with mutual affection, and do not get separated, they will not be able to give proper education, environment and guidance to their children. Therefore, 'Grhasthashrama' was the period during which an individual had to discharge the pious obligations of 'Pitruruna , and 'Manavaruna' at the same time devoting some time to worshipping God, which helps to lead a proper and happy life. Further, the housewife looks after all their needs such as food, health, and the upkeep of the house providing a proper environment. But both together are responsible to educate their children not only from inception but also after school hours, to watch their conduct and behavior all the time and give proper guidance and ingrain good qualities and to prevent them from becoming victims of bad habits. Discharging such obligations alone can help the children to become good individuals and an asset to the family and the nation.
  3. During the Vanaprasthashrama or life after retiring from earning activity, devoting time and energy to any activity useful for the society is essential. It is by this process that a sufficient number of people become available for service in various service organisations.This was regarded essential even for kings and they were required to renounce power and serve the society. There are innumerable examples of kings renouncing power. The desire should be to see that during his life time youngsters take over charge and manage the affairs of the state successfully. In this regard we have the inspiring example of Chanakya who renounced the Prime Ministership of the most powerful Maghada Empire after securing the service of Amatya Rakshasa for that high office and gave Nation his invaluable, Arthashastra.[2]

The Bhagavata Purana mentions that one should look upon Sri Vishnu as if having entered into the fire, the preceptor, himself and the elements (eg. the earth, the fire) together with all creatures sheltered in Him; for He is their inner controller, even though the Supreme being (having already pervaded these from within and without) does not actually enter.[8]

अग्नौ गुरावात्मनि च सर्वभूतेष्वधोक्षजम् । भूतैः स्वधामभिः पश्येदप्रविष्टं प्रविष्टवत् ॥ १५॥

एवं विधो ब्रह्मचारी वानप्रस्थो यतिर्गृही । चरन् विदितविज्ञानः परं ब्रह्माधिगच्छति ॥ १६॥[9]

agnau gurāvātmani ca sarvabhūteṣvadhokṣajam । bhūtaiḥ svadhāmabhiḥ paśyedapraviṣṭaṁ praviṣṭavat ॥ 15॥

evaṁ vidho brahmacārī vānaprastho yatirgr̥hī । caran viditavijñānaḥ paraṁ brahmādhigacchati ॥ 16॥

Ashrama Dharma Today

Peace and order will prevail in society, only if and when all people do their respective duties efficiently.

  • The students of schools, and colleges should lead a life of purity and simple living.
  • The householder should lead the life of an ideal Grhastha. He should practise self-restraint, mercy, tolerance, noninjury, truthfulness and moderation in everything.
  • And those who find it difficult to lead the life of the third and the fourth Ashramas should, remaining in either of the other two Ashramas, gradually withdraw themselves from worldly life and practise selfless service, study and meditation.[1]

The Grhasthashrama Dharma which means value based family structure which also strengthens the bond between husband and wife and also between individual members of the family and which provides education to children, moulds their character, and also provides social security to non-earning members of the family which reduces the economic burden on the state enormously and which forms the foundation and strength of a nation, should be resurrected with due modifications necessary in the present context. In fact, the observance of all the four Ashramas, with the modifications demanded by the present state of the world, giving importance to the following ideals, is essential to the welfare of humanity.

  1. Education including physical fitness and moral education during the first period - (Studentship)
  2. A harmonious and honest married life, conforming to professional/ vocational ethics, and maintaining persons in the other three Ashramas during the second period - (Family Life).
  3. Social service during the third period by giving up earning activity to the extent possible. (Social Work)
  4. In meditation and worship of God in the evening of life and giving advice and the benefit of one's experience to the younger generation (Devotion to divinity and humanity).

With the necessary modifications suited to the present state of the World, this could therefore, form the blue print for human resources development programmes for all nations.[2]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Swami Sivananda (1999), All About Hinduism, Uttar Pradesh: The Divine Life Society.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 Justice M.Rama Jois, Dharma - The Global Ethic (Chapter 1.5.5)
  3. Justice M.Rama Jois, Dharma - The Global Ethic (Chapter 1.5)
  4. Bhagavata Purana, Skandha 7, Adhyaya 15.
  5. Ganesh Vasudeo Tagare, The Bhagavata Purana (Part III), Ancient Indian Tradition & Mythology (Volume 9), Edited by J.L.Shastri, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, P.no.985-996.
  6. A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimad Bhagavatam (Seventh Canto), Part 3-Chapters 10-15, 1976: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Radhakrishnan, S. (1926). Hindu view of life. George Allen And Unwin Ltd, London.
  8. Ganesh Vasudeo Tagare, The Bhagavata Purana (Part III), Ancient Indian Tradition & Mythology (Volume 9), Edited by J.L.Shastri, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, P.no.970-971.
  9. Bhagavata Purana, Skandha 7, Adhyaya 12.