The 4 Stages of Life in Hinduism

Brahmin priest and assistant in prayer
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In Hinduism, human life is believed to comprise four stages. These are called "ashramas" and every person should ideally go through each of these stages:

  • The First Ashrama - "Brahmacharya" or the Student Stage
  • The Second Ashrama - "Grihastha" or the Householder Stage
  • The Third Ashrama - "Vanaprastha" or the Hermit Stage
  • The Fourth Ashrama - "Sannyasa" or the Wandering Ascetic Stage

Brahmacharya - The Celibate Student

Brahmacharya is a period of formal education lasting until around age 25, during which, the student leaves home to stay with a guru and attain both spiritual and practical knowledge. During this period, he is called a Brahmachari and is prepared for his future profession, as well as for his family, and social and religious life ahead.

Grihastha - The Householder

This period begins at marriage when one must undertake the responsibility for earning a living and supporting a family. At this stage, Hinduism supports the pursuit of wealth (​artha) as a necessity, and indulgence in sexual pleasure (kama), under certain defined social and cosmic norms. This ashrama lasts until around the age of 50. According to the Laws of Manu, when a person's skin wrinkles and his hair grays, he should go out into the forest. However,  most Hindus are so much in love with this second ashrama that the Grihastha stage lasts a lifetime!

Vanaprastha - The Hermit in Retreat

The Vanaprastha stage begins when a person's duty as a householder comes to an end: He has become a grandfather, his children are grown up, and have established lives of their own. At this age, he should renounce all physical, material and sexual pleasures, retire from his social and professional life, leave his home for a forest hut, where he can spend his time in prayers. He is allowed to take his spouse along but maintains little contact with the rest of the family. This kind of life is indeed very harsh and cruel for an aged person. No wonder, this third ashrama is now nearly obsolete.

Sannyasa - The Wandering Recluse

At this stage, a person is supposed to be totally devoted to God. He is a sannyasi, he has no home, no other attachment; he has renounced all desires, fears, hopes, duties, and responsibilities. He is virtually merged with God, all his worldly ties are broken, and his sole concern becomes attaining moksha or release from the circle of birth and death. (Suffice it to say, very few Hindus can go up to this stage of becoming a complete ascetic.) When he dies, the funeral ceremonies (Pretakarma) are performed by his heir.

History of Ashramas

This system of ashramas is believed to be prevalent since the 5th century B.C.E. in Hindu society. However, historians say that these stages of life were always viewed more as 'ideals' than as a common practice. According to one scholar, even in its very beginnings, after the first ashrama, a young adult could choose which of the other ashramas he would wish to pursue for the rest of his life. Today, it is not expected that a Hindu should go through the four stages, but it still stands as an important "pillar" of Hindu socio-religious tradition.