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

A crucial piece of the ashrama lifecycle is its focus on dharma, the Hindu concept of moral rightness. Dharma underlies many themes in Hindu life, and in the four ashramas, dharma is learned, practiced, taught and realized. 

History of Ashramas

This system of ashramas is believed to have been prevalent since the 5th century B.C.E. in Hindu society, and described in the classic Sanskrit texts called the Asrama Upanishad, the Vaikhanasa Dharmasutra, and the later Dharmashastra.

Historians report 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 the concept still stands as an important "pillar" of Hindu socio-religious tradition.

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. The student has two duties: to learn the skills of his life and to practice unwavering devotion to his teachers. During this period, he is called a Brahmachari as he prepares for his future profession, as well as for his family, and social and religious life ahead.

Grihastha: The Householder

This Second Ashrama begins at marriage when one must undertake the responsibility for earning a living and supporting a family. At this stage, Hindus first practice dharma, but also pursue wealth or material gratification (​artha) as a necessity, and indulge 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 turns gray, he should leave his home and 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 is one of gradual withdrawal. The 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 and leave his home for a forest hut where he can spend his time in prayers.

The hermit is allowed to take his spouse along with him but maintains little contact with the rest of the family. The role of the third ashrama is to be consulted as elders by the community at large, teaching dharma to those who visit. 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

Ashrama 4 is one of renunciation and the realization of dharma. 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.

Sources

Kakar, Sudhir. "The Human Life Cycle: The Traditional Hindu View and the Psychology of Erik Erikson." Philosophy East and West 18.3 (1968): 127-36. Print.

Miller, David. "Modernity in Hindu Monasticism: Swami Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna Movement." Ascetic Culture: Renunciation and Worldly Engagement. Ed. Ishwaran, K. London: Brill, 1999. 111-26. Print.

Oommen, T. K. "Religion and Development in Hindu Society." Social Compass 39.1 (1992): 67-75. Print.