The objective of Varnashramvyavastha (System of Classes and Stages of life) was to bring about progress in personal life through Ashramvyavastha (Stages of life) and to unite and bring about the progress of the society through Varnavyavastha (System of Classes). It is because of this system that for thousands of years, life in Bharatiya society remained stable.
Due to reduction in the proportion of sattvikta (Purity) in the later Yugs, various Ashrams were established in Dwaparyug, to emphasize the importance of the basic Dharma-related varna and to introduce various action-oriented rules related to it. In this manner, Ashrams came into existence in the Dwaparyug.
1. Types of Ashram
‘Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha (Final Liberation) are the four Purusharthas of human life according to Bharatiya (Indian) culture. The principal means of attaining them has been explained in the Vedic Dharma in the form of Ashramvyavastha.
When explaining the duties in the various stages of life, the lifespan of man has been considered as 100 years, and has been divided into four parts. Each part is known as an Ashram. The four stages are – Brahmacharya, Gruhastha, Vanaprastha and Sanyas. In Brahmacharya, one has to live in the Guru’s hermitage, study the scriptures and undertake vrats (Vowed religious observances). In Gruhastha, through procreation, performing Yadnyas and study of scriptures, one repays the three debts towards the society, ancestors and God respectively. Later, as one ages, one has to retire to the forest to complete the third stage of Vanaprastha; and towards the end of life, one should take Sanyas and attain Moksha, and thus accomplish the very purpose of life according to this philosophy. This is beneficial in gradually detaching oneself from desire and attachment to wealth. Restricting the natural and unrestricted tendency of man and guiding it onto the right path by defining limits is necessary to accomplish any of the four Purusharthas of human life. Realising that this objective would be fulfilled only if human life was regulated by the four stages of life, Sages made the Ashramvyavastha.’
‘The absolute means to accomplish the ultimate objective of human life, that is, Moksha, is Sanyasashram; and to accomplish the sadhana (Spiritual practice) of this stage, the first three stages are essential. Thus, the four stages are inter-related. In short, the Ashramvyavastha teaches a pravruttimargi (Active in worldly life) what sadhana he should perform to gradually become a nivruttimargi as his age advances.’
– H.H. Kane Maharaj, Narayangaon, District Pune, Maharashtra
2. Importance and special characteristics
A. Decrease attachment to Maya
Ashram life is absolutely essential to decrease attachment to Maya (Great Illusion), to reduce body-awareness, to consider others as part of one’s own family and to reduce ego.
B. Sequence of Ashramvayastha
Brahmacharyashram is the basis of Gruhasthashram. The energy that has to be stored in Brahmacharya, is not to become an Ascetic, but to be able to endure the pleasures and pain in Gruhasthashram in the best possible way. When we endure them, we understand its futility. After Gruhasthashram, the sequence that follows is Vanaprasthashram and Sanyasashram.
C. Interdependence of the Ashrams
In Brahmacharyashram, the students had to take worldly and spiritual education by staying in Guru’s hermitage. Even though the Gruhastha (Householder) is an extrovert, he has to visit a Sanyasi for spiritual discourses. Also, the Vanaprasthi has to become a disciple of some Sage to understand various philosophies. Similarly, even though a renunciant is introvert, he has to depend on the Gruhastha for his basic needs. From this, we understand how all the Ashrams are interdependent.
A. Reduction of ego in Brahmacharyashram due to sadhana of Shudra varna
In Brahmacharyashram, the impression of ‘listening to the elders, learning from them and performing actions accordingly’ is created on the mind of the jiva. This itself is known as sadhana through the medium of Shudra varna. This will help in reducing the ego of the jiva.
B. In Gruhasthashram, due to sadhana of
Vaishya varna, the give and take account reduces
In Gruhasthashram, ‘to maintain unity in the family, all duties are to be performed to keep others happy’ – such an impression of performing duty or abiding by Dharma is created on the mind of the jiva. This itself is known as sadhana through the medium of Vaishya varna. This will help in reducing the give and take account to a great extent and the jiva develops the habit of living as per the Principle ‘Whatever you see is your duty’.
C. In Vanaprasthashram, due to sadhana of
Kshatriya varna, one remains engrossed in remembering God
When a jiva enters Vanaprasthashram, it develops the habit of remaining detached from Maya, and remaining engrossed in remembering God. To remain detached from Maya, the jiva has to perform Kshatradharma sadhana, meaning, sadhana of the Kshatriya varna.
D. Sanyasashram is the sadhana of Brahman varna of providing knowledge
Sanyasashram means progressing from sacrifice towards detachment and providing other jivas with practical education on moral values, which is the sadhana of Brahman varna.
E. Due to yearning for the nirgun (Non-materialised)
form of God, one progresses towards the Hansa varna
When a jiva from Sanyasashram develops yearning for the nirgun, then it starts progressing towards the Hansa varna.