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Just as Brahmacharya is a preparation for the life of the Grhastha, similarly, Vanaprastha is a preparation for the final stage of Sannyasa. It is said that, after discharging all the duties of a householder, one should retire to the forest or a solitary country place and begin to meditate in solitude on higher spiritual things. At this stage, one is free from social bonds and the responsibilities of life and has ample time for study of scriptures.
The Bhagavata Purana, Skanda 7, Chapter 12, explains the code of conduct prescribed for Vanaprasthas. They are as follows:
- A Vanaprastha should not eat the product of cultivation (eg. rice, wheat) or anything (like fruits, roots etc.), which though not a product of tillage, ripened before time. He should not partake of food cooked on fire. He should subsist on what is ripe or cooked by rays of the Sun.
न कृष्टपच्यमश्नीयादकृष्टं चाप्यकालतः । अग्निपक्वमथामं वा अर्कपक्वमुताहरेत् ॥ १८॥
na kr̥ṣṭapacyamaśnīyādakr̥ṣṭaṁ cāpyakālataḥ । agnipakvamathāmaṁ vā arkapakvamutāharet ॥ 18॥
- He should prepare charu (an oblation of rice, barley and pulse boiled for offering to deities and pitrs) and Purodasha (boiled rice rounded into a cake for offering to different deities) of corn, wild growth (Nivara) and of a permanent nature. And when he procures new and fresh eatables, he should reject the old ones (stored by him).
वन्यैश्चरुपुरोडाशान् निर्वपेत्कालचोदितान् । लब्धे नवे नवेऽन्नाद्ये पुराणं तु परित्यजेत् ॥ १९॥
vanyaiścarupuroḍāśān nirvapetkālacoditān । labdhe nave nave'nnādye purāṇaṁ tu parityajet ॥ 19॥
- It is just for the preservation of the sacred fire that he should take shelter in a house or cottage or a cave in mountains. He himself should bear exposure to snow, wind, fire, rain and heat of the Sun.
अग्न्यर्थमेव शरणमुटजं वाद्रिकन्दराम् । श्रयेत हिमवाय्वग्निवर्षार्कातपषाट् स्वयम् ॥ २०॥
agnyarthameva śaraṇamuṭajaṁ vādrikandarām । śrayeta himavāyvagnivarṣārkātapaṣāṭ svayam ॥ 20॥
- The Vanaprastha with matted hair (on the head) should wear (without shaving) the hair on his body, moustaches, beard and nails and dirt (not properly washed). He should take with him kamandalu (a pot of water), deer-skin, staff, bark-garments and utensils of fire worship. The sage should thus wander in the forest for twelve, eight, four, two or one year ie. to that length of time which the mind does not get troubled through the (severity of) austerities.
केशरोमनखश्मश्रुमलानि जटिलो दधत् । कमण्डल्वजिने दण्डवल्कलाग्निपरिच्छदान् ॥ २१॥
चरेद्वने द्वादशाब्दानष्टौ वा चतुरो मुनिः । द्वावेकं वा यथा बुद्धिर्न विपद्येत कृच्छ्रतः ॥ २२॥
keśaromanakhaśmaśrumalāni jaṭilo dadhat । kamaṇḍalvajine daṇḍavalkalāgniparicchadān ॥ 21॥caredvane dvādaśābdānaṣṭau vā caturo muniḥ । dvāvekaṁ vā yathā buddhirna vipadyeta kr̥cchrataḥ ॥ 22॥
- If (after the period of stay in the forest) he finds that, owing to ill health (diseases) or old age, he is incapable of pursuing his courses of duties (as a Vanaprastha) or prosecuting his studies in philosophy, he should adopt the vow of fasting, etc. (If he is capable, he should become a Sannyasi - a recluse).
यदाकल्पः स्वक्रियायां व्याधिभिर्जरयाथवा । आन्वीक्षिक्यां वा विद्यायां कुर्यादनशनादिकम् ॥ २३॥
yadākalpaḥ svakriyāyāṁ vyādhibhirjarayāthavā । ānvīkṣikyāṁ vā vidyāyāṁ kuryādanaśanādikam ॥ 23॥
- (Before beginning the fast) he should withdraw and deposit the sacred fires (eg. ahavaniya and others) within his Self. He should renounce the notions of 'I' and 'Mine', and should merge the constituents of his body in their own causes (viz. the sky, air and other three elements).
आत्मन्यग्नीन् समारोप्य सन्न्यस्याहंममात्मताम् । कारणेषु न्यसेत्सम्यक् सङ्घातं तु यथार्हतः ॥ २४॥
ātmanyagnīn samāropya sannyasyāhaṁmamātmatām । kāraṇeṣu nyasetsamyak saṅghātaṁ tu yathārhataḥ ॥ 24॥
- A self-controlled man should merge the cavities in his bodies (eg. eyes, ears, nostrils) into the sky (the element-the mahabhuta called akasha), his exhalations (vital-breaths) into the air, the temperature of his body into the fire, (fluids like) blood, phlegm and pus into the water and the rest (hard substances like bones, muscles etc.) into the earth - thus assigning them each to its respective origin. (Thus he should merge his gross body).
खे खानि वायौ निश्वासांस्तेजस्यूष्माणमात्मवान् । अप्स्वसृक्श्लेष्मपूयानि क्षितौ शेषं यथोद्भवम् ॥ २५॥
khe khāni vāyau niśvāsāṁstejasyūṣmāṇamātmavān । apsvasr̥kśleṣmapūyāni kṣitau śeṣaṁ yathodbhavam ॥ 25॥
- He should consign his speech along with the organ of speech to the Fire, even his hands and handicraft to Indra, his feet along with (the power of) locomotion to Vishnu, the organ of pleasure (along with the power of procreation) to Prajapati (deity presiding over procreation).
वाचमग्नौ सवक्तव्यामिन्द्रे शिल्पं करावपि । पदानि गत्या वयसि रत्योपस्थं प्रजापतौ ॥ २६॥
vācamagnau savaktavyāmindre śilpaṁ karāvapi । padāni gatyā vayasi ratyopasthaṁ prajāpatau ॥ 26॥
- (He should merge) the organ of defecation and act of excretion in mrtyu (the deity of death) directing these organs to their proper places (viz. the deities presiding over those particular organs); his auditory sense along with (its object), sound into (deities presiding over) cardinal points; and his tactual organ along with its tactility to the atman or wind deity.
मृत्यौ पायुं विसर्गं च यथास्थानं विनिर्दिशेत् । दिक्षु श्रोत्रं सनादेन स्पर्शमध्यात्मनि त्वचम् ॥ २७॥
mr̥tyau pāyuṁ visargaṁ ca yathāsthānaṁ vinirdiśet । dikṣu śrotraṁ sanādena sparśamadhyātmani tvacam ॥ 27॥
- Oh Raja, he should deposit his eyes (eye-sight) and the colours and forms (the objects of the eye) with the Sun deity, the tongue or its objects of taste such as sweet, bitter etc in water (or deity Varuna), and the olfactory sense along with objects ie. various smells, with the Earth.
रूपाणि चक्षुषा राजन् ज्योतिष्यभिनिवेशयेत् । अप्सु प्रचेतसा जिह्वां घ्रेयैर्घ्राणं क्षितौ न्यसेत् ॥ २८॥
rūpāṇi cakṣuṣā rājan jyotiṣyabhiniveśayet । apsu pracetasā jihvāṁ ghreyairghrāṇaṁ kṣitau nyaset ॥ 28॥
- He should merge his mind along with its desires and objects in the Moon-deity, the intelligence and the objects to be grasped by it in the highest deity Brahma. He should consign actions with self-consciousness to deity Rudra through whose instrumentality the activities actuated by the notions of 'I-ness' and 'Mine-ness' proceed. He should merge his chitta (reason, heart) along with sattva in kshetrajna (hiranyagarbha) and vaikarika ahamkara along with gunas in the Supreme brahman.
मनो मनोरथैश्चन्द्रे बुद्धिं बोध्यैः कवौ परे । कर्माण्यध्यात्मना रुद्रे यदहंममताक्रिया । सत्त्वेन चित्तं क्षेत्रज्ञे गुणैर्वैकारिकं परे ॥ २९॥
mano manorathaiścandre buddhiṁ bodhyaiḥ kavau pare । karmāṇyadhyātmanā rudre yadahaṁmamatākriyā । sattvena cittaṁ kṣetrajñe guṇairvaikārikaṁ pare ॥ 29॥
- He should then dissolve the earth into water, absorb water into fire, fire into the air and the air into the ether. The ether or akasha is to be merged intot the principle called ego (aham), that into Mahat (the principle of cosmic intelligence), and that into te unmanifested Prakrti and that unmanifest Pradhana into Paramatman (the Supreme being).
अप्सु क्षितिमपो ज्योतिष्यदो वायौ नभस्यमुम् । कूटस्थे तच्च महति तदव्यक्तेऽक्षरे च तत् ॥ ३०॥
apsu kṣitimapo jyotiṣyado vāyau nabhasyamum । kūṭasthe tacca mahati tadavyakte'kṣare ca tat ॥ 30॥
- Having thus realised the atman as identical with Paramatman, and nothing but indestructible consciousness and becoming free from the notion of duality (with the faith that there is no independent absolute thing other than Hari), he should cease to function ike fire that has consumed its own source (fuel).
इत्यक्षरतयाऽऽत्मानं चिन्मात्रमवशेषितम् । ज्ञात्वाद्वयोऽथ विरमेद्दग्धयोनिरिवानलः ॥ ३१॥
ityakṣaratayā''tmānaṁ cinmātramavaśeṣitam । jñātvādvayo'tha virameddagdhayonirivānalaḥ ॥ 31॥