Aashrams - Four Stages for Mankind

Ashramas – The Four Modes of life

Main texts from the Mahabharata

Vanaprastha (1) (From The Mahabharata)

Vanaprastha (2)  (From The Mahabharata)

Brahmacharya (1)  (From The Mahabharata)

Brahmachari (2)  (From The Mahabharata)
The conduct of a Brahmachari

Do acts and avoid acts (From The Mahabharata)

Grahasthya (1)
(From The Mahabharata)

Grahasthya (Householder) (2)  (From The Mahabharata)

Ashramas-Four Stages of Life
An outline in brief by Swami Nikhilananda

Ashramas – The Four Modes of life

From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, Section LXII
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Addressing king Yudhishthira

Bhishma said: The four modes of life, O puissant one, have been laid down for the Brahmana (Brahmin). The other three orders do not adopt them, O best of the Bharatas!

From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, Section LXIII
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

For a Sudra who is desirous of hearing (such scriptures as are not forbidden in his case), who has accomplished his duties, who has begotten a son, between whom and the superior orders there is not much difference in consequence of the purity of his conduct, all the modes of life have been laid down excepting the observance of universal peacefulness and self-restraint (which are not necessary for him). For a Sudra practising all these duties as also for a Vaisya, O king, and a Kshatriya, the Bhikshu mode of life has been laid down.

Having discharged the duties of his order, and having also served the king, a Vaisya of venerable years, with the king’s permission, may betake himself to another mode of life.

Having studied the Vedas duly and the treatises on the duties of King, …. a Kshatriya, for leading the life of a Rishi, O king, may adopt the Bhikshu mode of life; but he should never do so for the sake of enjoying the pleasures of the world. Having left the domestic mode of life, he may adopt the life of mendicancy by begging what would barely support his life. A life of mendicancy is not obligatory upon the three orders (viz., Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras), O giver of profuse presents! Inasmuch, however, as they can adopt it if they choose this mode of life, therefore, is open to the four orders.

Ashramas – The Four Modes of life
From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, section LXI
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Addressing king Yudhishthira

Bhishma said: O mighty armed one, listen now to me, O thou of prowess incapable of being baffled, as I mention the names of the four modes of life and the duties in respect of each. The four modes are Vanaprastha, Bhaikshya, Garhasthya of great merit, and Brahmacharya which is adopted by Brahmana.

Vanaprastha (1)
Undergoing the purificatory rite in respect of bearing matted locks, after having gone through the rite of regeneration and performed for some time the rites in respect of the sacred fire and studied the Vedas, one should with cleansed soul and senses under restraint, having first carefully performed all the duties of the mode called Garhasthya, proceed, with or without his wife, to the woods for adoption of the mode called Vanaprastha. Having studies the scriptures called Aranyakas, having drawn up his vital fluid and having retired from all worldly affairs, the virtuous recluse may then attain to absorption with the eternal Soul knowing no decay.

These are the indications of Munis that have drawn up their vital fluid. A learned Brahmana, O king, should first practise and perform them. The Brahmana, O king, that is desirous of emancipation, it is well known, is competent to adopt the Bhaikshya mode after having gone through the mode called Brahmacharya. Sleeping at that place (in the course of the wanderings) where evening overtakes him, without desire of bettering his situation, without a home, subsisting on whatever food is obtained (in charity), given to contemplation, practising self-restraint, with the senses under control, without desire, regarding all creatures equally, without enjoyments, without dislike to anything, the Brahmana possessed of learning, by adopting this mode of life, attains to absorption with the eternal Soul that knows no decay.

Grahasthya (1)
The person leading the Grahasthya mode of life should, after studying the Vedas, accomplish all the religious acts laid down for him. He should beget children and enjoy pleasures and comforts. With careful attention he should accomplish all the duties of this mode of life that is applauded by ascetics and that is extremely difficult to go through (without transgressions). He should be satisfied with his own wedded wife and should never approach her except her season. He should observe the ordinances of the scriptures, should not be cunning and deceitful. He should be abstemious in diet, devoted to the gods, grateful, mild, destitute of cruelty, and forgiving. He should be of a tranquil heart, tractable and attentive in making offerings to the gods and the Pitris. He should always be hospitable to the Brahmanas. He should be without pride, and his charity should not be confined to any one sect. He should also be always devoted to the performance of the Vedic rites. In this connection, the illustrious and great Rishis cite a verse sung by Narayana himself, of grave import and endued with high ascetic merit.

Listen to me as I repeat it: By truth, simplicity, worship of guests, acquisition of morality and profit, and enjoyment of one’s own wedded wives, one should enjoy diverse kinds of happiness both here and hereafter.

The great Rishis have said that support of sons and wives, and study of the Vedas, form the duties of those that lead this high mode of life. That Brahmana who, always engaged in the performance of sacrifices, duly goes through this mode of life and properly discharges all its duties, obtains blessed rewards in heaven. Upon his death, the rewards desired by him became deathless. Indeed, these wait upon him for eternity like menials ever on the alert to execute the commands of their master [Literally ‘with eyes, head, and face on all sides’].

Brahmacharya (1)
Always attending to the Vedas, silently reciting the Mantras obtained from his preceptor, worshipping all the deities, O Yudhishthira, dutifully waiting upon and serving his preceptor with his own body, smeared with clay and filth, the person leading the Brahmacharya mode of life should always observe rigid vows and, with senses under control, should always pay attention to the instructions he has received. Reflecting on the Vedas and discharging all the duties (in respect of contemplation and overt acts), he should live, dutifully waiting upon his preceptor and always bowing unto him. Unengaged in the six kinds of work (such as officiating in the sacrifices of others), and never engaged with attachment to any kind of acts, never showing favour or disfavour to any one, doing good even unto his enemies, these, O sire, are the duties laid down for a Brahmacharin!

From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, Section LXII
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Yudhishthira said: Tell us those duties in respect of persons like ourselves which are auspicious, productive of happiness in the future, benevolent, approved by all, pleasant and agreeable.

Bhishma said: The four modes of life, O puissant one, have been laid down for the Brahmana. The other three orders do not adopt them, O best of the Bharatas! Many acts, O king, leading to heaven and especially fit for the kingly order, have already been declared. Those, however, cannot be referred to in reply to thy present query, for all of them have been duly laid down for such Kshatriyas as are not disinclined to pitilessness. The Brahmana who is addicted to the practices of Kshatriyas and Vaisyas and Sudras, incur censure in this world as a person of wicked soul and goes to hell in the next world. Those names, which are applied among men to slaves and dogs and wolves and other beasts, are applied, O son of Pandu, to the Brahmana who is engaged in pursuits that are improper for him.

That Brahmana who, in all the four modes of life, is duly engaged in the six-fold acts 9of regulating the breath, contemplation, etc.), who performs all his duties, who is not restless, who has his passions under control, whose heart is pure and who is ever engaged in penances, who has no desire of bettering his prospects, and who is charitable, has inexhaustible regions of bliss in the other world. Everyone derives his own nature from the nature of his acts in respect of their circumstances, place, and means and motives. Thou shouldst, therefore, O king, regard the study of the Vedas, which is fraught with such high merit, to be equal with the exertion of kingly power, or the pursuits of agriculture, trade, and hunting. The world is set ageing by Time. Its operations are settled by the course of Time. Man does all his acts, good, bad, and indifferent, entirely influenced by Time.

[Note: The sense seems to be that influenced by past acts everyone acts in subsequent lives. If he is a hunter in this life, it is because the influence of many cruel acts of a past life pursues him even in this.]

Those amongst the good acts of man’s past life that exert the greatest influence on the next, are liable to be exhausted. Men, however, are always engaged in those acts to which their propensities lead. Those propensities, again, lead a living being to every direction.

[Note: men, therefore, have not always balances of good acts to their credit. They are, however, free agents; the new acts they do determine the character of their next lives.]

From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, Section LXIII
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Bhishma said: drawing the bow string, destruction of foes, agriculture, trade, tending cattle, and serving others for wealth, these are improper for a Brahmana. An intelligent Brahmana, leading a domestic mode of life, should duly perform the six Vedic acts. The retirement of a Brahmana into the woods, after having duly discharged all the duties of the domestic mode of life, is applauded. A brahmana should avoid service of the king, wealth obtained by agriculture, sustenance derived from trade, all kinds of crooked behaviour, companionship with any but his wedded wives, and usury. That wretched Brahmana who falls away from his duties and whose behaviour becomes wicked, becomes, O king, a Sudra.

The Brahmana who weds a Sudra woman, who becomes vile in conduct or a dancer or a village servant or does other improper acts, becomes a Sudra. Whether he recites the Vedas or not, O king, if he does such improper acts, he becomes equal to a Sudra and on occasions of feeding he should be assigned a place amongst Sudras. Such Brahmanas become equal to Sudras, O king, and should be discarded on occasions of worshipping the gods (i.e., their services as priests should not be taken). Whatever presents of food dedicated to the gods and the Pitris are made unto Brahmanas that have transgressed all restraints or become impure in behaviour or addicted to wicked pursuits and cruel acts or fallen away from their legitimate duties, confer no merit (on the giver). For this reason, O king, self-restraint and purity and simplicity have been laid down as the duties of a Brahmana. Besides these, O monarch, all the four modes of life were laid down by Brahma (the Creator) for him.

He that is self-restrained, has drunk the Soma in sacrifices, is of good behaviour, has compassion for all creatures and patience to bear everything, has no desire of bettering his position of wealth, is frank and simple, mild, free from cruelty, and forgiving, is truly a Brahmana and not he that is sinful in acts. Men desirous of acquiring virtue, seek the assistance, O king, of Sudras and Vaisyas and Kshatriyas. If, therefore, the members of these (three) orders do not adopt peaceful duties (so as to be able to assist others in the acquisition of virtue), Vishnu, O son of Pandu, never extends his grace to them. If Vishnu be not pleased, the happiness of all men in heaven, the merit arising from the duties laid down for the four orders, the declarations of the Vedas, all kinds of sacrifices, and all other religious acts of men, and all the duties in respect of the several modes of life, become lost.

Listen now, O son of Pandu, to those duties that should be observed in the four modes of life. These should be known by the Kshatriyas who desire the members of the three (other) orders (in his kingdom) to strictly adhere to the respective duties of those modes. For a Sudra who is desirous of hearing (such scriptures as are not forbidden in his case), who has accomplished his duties, who has begotten a son, between whom and the superior orders there is not much difference in consequence of the purity of his conduct, all the modes of life have been laid down excepting the observance of universal peacefulness and self-restraint (which are not necessary for him). For a Sudra practising all these duties as also for a Vaisya, O king, and a Kshatriya, the Bhikshu mode of life has been laid down.

Having discharged the duties of his order, and having also served the king, a Vaisya of venerable years, with the king’s permission, may betake himself to another mode of life. Having studied the Vedas duly and the treatises on the duties of King, O sinless one, having begotten children and performed other acts of a like nature, having quaffed the Soma and ruled over and protected all his subjects, righteously, O foremost of speakers, having performed the Rajasuya, the horse sacrifice, and other great sacrifices, having invited learned Brahmanas for reciting the scriptures and made presents unto them according to their desires, having obtained victories small or great in battle, having placed on his throne the son of his loins or some Kshatriya of good birth for the protection of subjects, having worshipped the Pitris by performing with due rites the sacrifices laid down for honouring them, having attentively worshipped the gods by performing sacrifices and the Rishis by studying the Vedas, the Kshatriya, who in old age desires another mode of life, may, O king, adopt it by leaving that one which immediately precedes it, and by that means he is sure to obtain (ascetic) success. A Kshatriya, for leading the life of a Rishi, O king, may adopt the Bhikshu mode of life; but he should never do so for the sake of enjoying the pleasures of the world. Having left the domestic mode of life, he may adopt the life of mendicancy by begging what would barely support his life. A life of mendicancy is not obligatory upon the three orders (viz., Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras), O giver of profuse presents! Inasmuch, however, as they can adopt it if they choose this mode of life, therefore, is open to the four orders.

Amongst men, the highest duties are those which are practised by Kshatriyas. The whole world is subject to the might of their arms. All the duties, principal and subordinate, of the three other orders, are dependent (for their observance) upon the duties of the Kshatriya. The Vedas have declared this. Know that as the foot-print of all other animals are engulfed in those of the elephant, even so all the duties of the other orders, under every circumstance, are engulfed, in those of the Kshatriya. Men conversant with the scriptures say that the duties of the other three orders afford small relief or protection and produce small rewards. The learned have said that the duties of the Kshatriya afford great relief and produce great rewards. All duties have kingly duties for their foremost. All the orders are protected by them. Every kind of renunciation occurs in kingly duties, O monarch, and renunciation has been said to be an eternal virtue and the foremost of all.

[Note: the king is entitled to a sixth of the merits acquired by his subjects. The total merit, therefore, of the king, arising from renunciation, is very great. Besides, the merit of every kind of renunciation belongs to him in that way.]

If the science of chastisement disappears, the Vedas will disappear. All those scriptures also that inculcate the duties of men become lost. Indeed, if these ancient duties belonging to the Kshatriyas be abandoned, all the duties in respect of all the modes of life, become lost. All kinds of renunciation are seen in kingly duties; all kinds of initiation occur in them; all kinds of learning are connected with them; and all kinds of worldly behaviour enter into them. As animals, if slaughtered by the vulgar, become the means of destroying the virtue and the religious acts of the slaughterers, even so all other duties, if deprived of the protection given by kingly duties, become liable to attack and destruction and men, full of anxiety, disregard the practices laid down for them.

Do acts and avoid acts

From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, Section CCXLII
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Preamble (From The Mahabharata)

Suka said: I have now understood that there are two kinds of creation, viz., one commencing with Kshara (which is universal), and which is from the (universal) Soul. The other, consisting of the senses with their objects, is traceable to the puissance of the knowledge. This last transcends the other and is regarded to be the foremost.

[Note: Two kinds of creation are here referred to as those of which Vyasa has spoken. The first is Kshara Prabhriti Yah Sargah, meaning that creation that consists of the four and twenty entities commencing with Kshara or Prakriti. The other creation, consisting of the senses with their objects, represents Buddhaiswarya or the puissance of the Buddhi (intellect), these being all Buddhikalpitah. The second creation is also Atisargah which means, according to the commentator, Utkrishtah and which is also Pradhanah or foremost, the reason being Bandhakatwam or its power to bind all individuals. I take Atisargah to mean ‘derivative creation,’ the second kind of creation being derived from or based upon the other, or (as I have put it in the text) transcends or overlies the other.]

I desire, however, to once more hear of that course of righteousness that runs in the world, regulated by the virtue of Time and according to which all good men frame their conduct.

[Note: It is explained in a previous section how the course of righteousness is regulated by the character of the particular Yuga that sets in.]

In the Vedas there are both kinds of declarations, viz., do acts and avoid acts. How shall I succeed in ascertaining the propriety of this or that? It behoveth thee to expound this clearly.

[Note: Vyasa has already explained the character of the two apparently hostile declarations. The meaning of Suka’s question, therefore, is that if two declarations are only apparently hostile, – if as explained in the Bhagavad Gita, they are identical – how is that identity to be clearly ascertained? The fact is, Suka wishes his sire to explain the topic more clearly.]

Having obtained, through thy instructions, a thorough knowledge of the course of conduct of human beings, having purified myself by the practice of only righteousness, and having cleansed my understanding, I shall, after casting off my body, behold the indestructible Soul.

[Note: ‘The course of conduct of human beings,’ i.e., the distinctions between right and wrong. Vimuktatma is taken by the commentator to imply Tyaktadehah. The second line may also mean ‘having cast off (by Yoga) the consciousness of body, I shall behold my own Soul.’]

The Four Ashramas

Vyasa said: The course of conduct that was first established by Brahma himself was duly observed by the wise and pious persons of old, viz., the great Rishis of ancient times. The great Rishis conquer all the worlds, by the practice of Brahmacharya (celibacy). Seeking all things that are good for himself by fixing the mind on the knowledge, practising severe austerities by residing in the forest and subsisting on fruits and roots, by treading on sacred spots, by practising universal benevolence, and by going on his rounds of mendicancy at the proper time to the huts of forest recluses when these become smokeless and the sound of the husking rod is hushed, a person succeeds in attaining to Brahman.

[Note: ‘When the huts become smokeless,’ i.e., when the cooking and the eating of the inmates are over. ‘When the sound of the husking rod is hushed,’ i.e., when the pestle for cleaning rice no longer works, and consequently when the inmates are not likely to be able to give much to the mendicant.]

Abstaining from flattery and from bowing thy heads to others, and avoiding both good and evil, live thou in the forest by thyself, appeasing hunger by any means that comes thy way.

Suka said: The declarations of the Vedas (already referred to in respect of acts) are, in the opinion of the vulgar, contradictory. Whether this is authoritative or that is so, when there is this conflict, how can they be said to be scriptural? I desire to hear this; how can both be regarded as authoritative? How, indeed, can Emancipation be obtained without violating the ordinance about the obligatory character of acts?

[Note: There is an apparent conflict between the two declarations. If both are authoritative, they cannot be regarded as scriptural declarations in consequence of their conflict. If one is so and the other not so, the scriptural character of the latter at least is lost. The scriptures cannot but be certain and free from fault. How then (the question proceeds) is the scriptural character of both to be maintained?]

Bhishma continued: Thus addressed, the son of Gandhavati, viz., the Rishi, applauding these words of his son possessed of immeasurable energy. Replied unto him, saying the following.

Vyasa said: One that is Brahmachari, one that leads a life of domesticity, one that is a forest recluse, and one that leads a life of (religious) mendicancy, all reach the same high end by duly observing the duties of their respective modes of life. Or, if one and the same person, freed from desire and aversion, practises (one after another) all these four modes of life according to the ordinances that have been laid down, he is certainly fitted (by such conduct) to understand Brahman (Supreme Reality). The four modes of life constitute a ladder of flight of steps. That flight is attached to Brahman. By ascending that flight one succeeds in reaching the region of Brahman.

Brahmachari (2) first 25 years of life

The conduct of a Brahmachari

For the (first) fourth part of his life, the Brahmachari, conversant with the distinctions of duty and freed from malice, should live with his preceptor or his preceptor’s son. While residing in the preceptor’s house, he should go to bed after the preceptor has gone to his and rise therefrom before the preceptor rises from his.

All such acts again as should be done by the disciple, as also those, which should be done by a menial servant, should be accomplished by him. Finishing these he should humbly take his stand by the side of the preceptor. Skilled in every kind of work, he should conduct himself like a menial servant, doing every act for his preceptor. Having accomplished all acts (without leaving any portion undone), he should study, sitting at the feet of his preceptor, with eager desire to learn. He should always behave with simplicity, avoid evil speech, and take lessons only when his preceptor invites him for it.

[Note: The disciple should not disturb his preceptor by clamouring for lessons. He should go to his preceptor for taking lessons only when his preceptor summons him for it.]

Become pure in body and mind, and acquiring cleverness and other virtues, he should now and then speak what is agreeable. Subduing his senses, he should look at his preceptor, without eyes of longing curiosity.

[Note: Meaning, he should cast submissive or humble glances instead of staring boldly or rudely.]

He should never eat before his preceptor has eaten; never drink before his preceptor has drunk; never sit down before his preceptor has sat down; and never go to bed before his preceptor has gone to bed. He should gently touch his preceptor’s feet with upturned palms, the right foot with the right and the left with the left. Reverentially saluting the preceptor, he should say unto him, ‘O illustrious one, teach me. I shall accomplish this (work), O illustrious one! This (other work) I have already accomplished. O regenerate one, I am ready to accomplish whatever thy reverend self may be pleased to command.’

Having said all this and having duly offered himself unto him (thus), he should accomplish, whatever acts of his preceptor wait for accomplishment, and having completed them inform the preceptor once more of their completion. Whatever scents or tastes the Brahmachari may abstain from while actually leading a life of Brahmacharya (celibate student) may be used by him after his return from the preceptor’s abode. This is consistent with the ordinance. Whatever observances have been elaborately laid down for Brahmacharis (in the scriptures) should all be regularly practised by him. He should, again, be always near his preceptor (ready within call). Having contributed to his preceptor’s gratification in this way to the best of his powers, the disciple should, from that mode of life, pass into the others, one after the other

(Grihastha or householder, Vanprastha or forest recluse, Sannyasa or renunciate) and practise the duties of each. Having (thus) passed a fourth part of his life in the study of the Vedas, and observance of vows and fasts, and having given the preceptor the (final) dakshina (fee), the disciple should, according to the ordinance, take his leave and return home (for entering into a life of domesticity).

[Note: Learning was never sold in India in ancient times. The final fee is not a return for the services of the preceptor but a token of gratitude from the pupil. Its value depended upon the ability of the disciple, though there are stories in the scriptures of disciples coming to grief on account of their persistent forwardness in pressing the acceptance of this fee. (Vide the story of Galava in the Udyoga Parva.)]

Then, having taken spouses, obtaining them in the ways indicated in the ordinances, and having carefully established the domestic fire, he should, observant all the while of vows and fasts, become a householder and pass the second period of life (25years to 50 years).

Grahasthya (Householder) (2)

From the Mahabharata
Santi Parva, Section CCXLIII
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Vyasa said: Observant of meritorious vows, the householder, for the second period of life (25 to 50 years), should dwell in his house, having taken spouses according to the ways indicated in the ordinance and having established a fire (of his own). As regards the domestic mode of life, four kinds of conduct have been laid down by the learned. The first consists of keeping a store of grain sufficient to last for three years. The second consists of keeping a store to last for one year. The third consists of providing for the day without thinking of the morrow. The fourth consists of collecting grain after the manner of the pigeon.

[Note: the fourth kind of conduct, called Kapoti is also called Unchha. It consists of collecting such seeds of grain as have fallen down from the ears and as have been abandoned by the reapers.]

Of these, each succeeding one is superior in point of merit to that which precedes it, according to what has been laid down in the scriptures.

[Note: Thus the second is more meritorious than the first, the third than the second, and the fourth than the third. The fourth or last, therefore, is the first in point of merit.]

A householder observing the first kind of conduct may practise all the six well-known duties (viz., sacrifice on his own account, sacrifice on that of others, teaching, learning, making gifts, and accepting gifts). He who observes the second kind of conduct should practise three only, of these duties (viz., learning, giving and accepting). He who observes the third kind of conduct should practise only two of the duties of domesticity (viz., learning and giving). The householder practising the fourth kind of domesticity should observe only one duty (viz., learning the scriptures).

The duties of the householder are all said to be exceedingly meritorious. The householder should never cook any food for only his own use; nor should he slaughter animals (for food) except in sacrifices.

[Note: It is said that the householder who cooks must give a share of the cooked food to a Brahmachari or Yati or anyone who comes as a guest. If he does not do it but eats the whole of what has been cooked, he is regarded as eating what belongs to a Brahmana (Brahmin). This, of course, is a high sin.]

If it be an animal which the householder desires to kill (for food), or if it be a tree which he wishes to cut down (for fuel), he should do either act according to the ritual laid down in the Yajuses for that much is due to both animate and inanimate existences.

The householder should never sleep during the day, or during the first part of the night, or during the last part thereof. He should never eat twice between morning and evening and should never summon his wife to bed except in her season. In his house, no Brahmana should be suffered to remain unfed or unworshipped. He should always worship such guests as are presenters of sacrificial offerings, as are cleansed by Vedic lore and observance of excellent vows, as are high-born and conversant with the scriptures, as are observers of the duties of their own order, as are self-restrained, mindful of all religious acts, and devoted to penances. The scriptures ordain that what is offered to the deities and the Pitris in sacrifices and religious rites is meant for the service of guests like these. In this mode of life the scriptures ordain that a share of the food (that is cooked) should be given unto every creatures (irrespective of his birth or character), unto one, that is, who for the sake of show keeps his nails and beard, unto one who from pride displays what his own (religious) practices are, unto one who has improperly abandoned his sacred fire, and even unto one who has injured his preceptor.

One leading a domestic mode of life should give (food) unto Brahmacharis (celibate students) and Sannyasins (Renunciates or monks). The householder should every day become an eater of Vighasa, and should every day eat Amrita. Mixed with ghee (clarified butter), the remains of the food that is offered in sacrifices constitute Amrita. That householder who eats after having fed (all relatives and servants) is said to eat Vighasa. The food that remains after the servants have been fed is called Vighasa, and that which is left after the presentation of sacrificial offerings is called Amrita.

One leading a domestic mode of life should be content with his own wedded wife. He should be self-restrained. He should avoid malice and subdue his senses. He should never quarrel with his Ritwik, Purohita, and preceptor, with his maternal uncle, guests and dependents, with the aged and the young in years, with those that are afflicted with diseases, with those that practise as physicians, with kinsmen, relatives, and friends, with his parents, with women that belong to his paternal family, with his brother and son and wife, with his daughter, and with his servants. By avoiding disputes with these, the householder becomes cleansed of all sins. By conquering such disputes, he succeeds in conquering all the regions of felicity (in the world hereafter). There is no doubt in this.

[Note: The commentator supposes that these relatives and kinsmen are named because of the great likelihood there is of disputes arising with them on account of shares of inheritance.]

The preceptor (if duly reverenced) is able to lead one to the regions of Brahman (supreme Reality). The father (if reverenced) can lead to the regions of Prajapati. The guest is puissant enough to lead to the region of Indra. The Ritwij has power in respect of the regions of the deities. Female relatives of the paternal line have lordship in respect of the regions of the Apsaras, and kinsmen (by blood), in respect of the region of the Viswedevas. Relatives by marriage and collateral kinsmen have power in respect of the several quarters of the horizon (viz., north etc.), and the mother and the maternal uncle have power over the earth. The old, the young, the afflicted and the wasted have power over the sky.

[Note: The sense is this: these various persons, if duly reverenced by the householder, are able to send the latter to the places indicated or make him comfortable in those places.]

The eldest brother is like unto the sire himself (to all his younger brothers). The wife and the son are one’s own body. One’s menial servants are one’s own shadow. The daughter is an object of great affection. For these reasons, a householder endued with learning, observant of duties, and possessed of endurance, should bear, without warmth or anxiety of heart every kind of annoyance and even ensure from the last-named relatives.

No righteous household should do any act, urged by considerations of wealth. There are three courses of duty in respect of a life of domesticity. Of these, that which comes next (in the order of enumeration) is more meritorious than the preceding one.

[Note: Vide verses 2 and 3 of this section. Of the four courses, the first or Kusaladhanya, is left out here. The three others, of course, are the Kumbhadhanya, the Aswastana (otherwise called Unchhasila), and the Kapoti.]

As regards the four (principal) modes of life also, the same rule of merit applies, viz., the one that comes after is superior to the one preceding it. Accordingly, domesticity is superior to Brahmacharya (celibate student), Vanprastha (forest life) is superior to domesticity, and a life of mendicancy (Sannyasa) or complete renunciation is superior to a forest life.

One desirous of prosperity should accomplish all those duties and rites that have been ordained in the scriptures in respect of those modes. That kingdom grows in prosperity where these highly deserving persons live, viz., those that lead a life of domesticity according to the Kumbhadhanya method, they that lead it according to the Unchha method, and they that lead it according to the Kapoti method. That man who cheerfully leads a life of domesticity in the observance of those duties, succeeds in sanctifying ten generations of his ancestors above and ten generations of descendants below.

A householder, duly observing the duties of domesticity, obtains an end that yields felicity equal to what occurs in the regions attained by great kings and emperors. Even this is the end that has been ordained for those who have subdued their senses. For all high-souled householders heaven has been ordained. That heaven is equipped with delightful cars for each (moving at the will of the rider). Even that is the delightful heaven indicated in the Vedas. For all householders of restrained souls, the regions of heaven constitute the high reward. The Self-born Brahman ordained that the domestic mode of life should be the productive cause of heaven. And since it has been ordained, a person, by gradually attaining to the second mode of life, obtains happiness and respect in heaven. After this comes that high and superior mode of life, called the third, for those desirous of casting off their bodies. Superior to that of householder, that is the life of forest recluses; of those, that is, who waste their bodies (by diverse kinds of austerities) into skeletons overlaid with dried skins.

Vanaprastha (2)
From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, Section CCXLIV
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Bhishma said: Thou hast been told what the duties of domesticity are as ordained by the wise. Listen now, O Yudhishthira, to what those duties are that have been next spoken of. Gradually abandoning the domestic mode, one should enter the third mode, which is excellent. It is the mode in which wives afflict themselves by means of austerities. It is the mode practised by those that live as forest recluses. Blessed be thou, O son, listen to the duties observed by those that lead this mode of life in which occur the practices of all men and all modes of life. Listen, indeed, to the duties of those that are denizens of sacred spots and that have resorted to this mode after proper deliberation!

Vyasa said: When the householder beholds wrinkles on his body and grey hair on his head, and children of his children, he should then retire into the forest. The third part of his life (from 50 to 75 years) he should pass in the observance of the Vanaprastha mode. He should attend to those fires to which he had attended as a householder. Desirous of sacrificing, he should adore the deities (according to the rituals ordained). Observant of vows and abstemious in diet, he should eat only once, the time thereof being the sixth part of the day. He should be always heedful. Attending to his fires (homa or sacred fires), he should keep some kine (cows), waiting upon them dutifully.

[Note: The cow is a sacred animal and there is merit in feeding and properly tending a cow. Forest recluses kept cows for merit as also for homa or sacrifice with the ghee (clarified butter) obtained from them. ]

He should attend to all the rituals of a sacrifice. He should live upon rice growing indigenously, upon wheat growing under similar circumstances, upon grain of other kinds, growing wildly (and belonging to none). He should eat what remains after feeding guests. In this the third mode of life, he should present offerings of ghee in the five well-known sacrifices.

[Note: The five are Agnihotra, Darsapurnamasi, Chaturmasya, Pasu sacrifice and Soma sacrifice.]

Four kinds of courses of conduct have been laid down for observance in the Vanaprastha mode of life. Some collect only what is needed for the day. Some collect stores to last for a month. Some store grain and other necessaries sufficient to last for twelve years. Forest recluses may act in these ways for worshipping guests and performing sacrifices. They should during the season of the rains, expose themselves to water during the autumn. During the summer they should sit in the midst of four fires with the sun burning overhead. Throughout the year, however, they should be abstemious in diet. They sit and sleep on the bare earth. They stand on only their toes. They contend themselves with the bare earth and with small mats of grass (owning no other furniture for seat or bed). They perform their ablutions morning, noon, and evening (preparatory to sacrifices). Some amongst them use only teeth for cleaning grain. Others use only stones for that purpose.

[Note: i.e., they do not use a regular husking or cleaning apparatus for cleaning the grain they use as food.]

Some amongst them drink, only during the lighted fortnight, the gruel of wheat (or other grain) boiled very lightly. [Note: So that very small portion of the grain comes out for drink or mixes with the water]. There are many who drink similar gruel only during the dark fortnight. Some eat only what comes by the way (without seeking to obtain it). Some adopting rigid vows live upon only roots, some upon only fruits, some upon only flowers, duly observing the method followed by the Vaikhanasas. These and other diverse observances are adopted by those men of wisdom and piety. The fourth is (the mode called Renunciation) based upon the Upanishads. The duties laid down for it may be observed in all the modes of life equally. This mode differing from the others comes after domesticity and forest life. In this very Yuga, O son, many learned Brahmanas (Brahmins) conversant with the truths of all things, have been known to observe this mode. Agastya, the seven Rishis (viz., Atri, Angiras, Pulastya, Pulaha, Vasishtha, Narada, and Kratu), Madhucchandas, Aghamarshana, Sankriti Sudivatandi who lived whithersoever he pleased and was content to take what came (without ever seeking for anything).

[Note: i.e., who had no fixed residence and who never sought with any effort for the necessaries of life.]

Ahovirya Kavya, Tandya, the learned Medhatithi, Karmanirvaka of mighty energy, and Sunyapala who had exerted himself greatly (for acquiring ascetic puissance) were the authors of his course of duties, and themselves observing them have all proceeded to heaven. Many great Rishis, O son, who had the puissance to behold immediately the fruits of their ascetic merit (i.e., whose wishes were immediately crowned with success in respect of both blessings and curses, etc,), those numerous ascetics who are known by the name of Yayavaras, many Rishis of very austere penances and possessed of accurate knowledge in respect of distinctions of duty, and many other Brahmanas too numerous to mention, adopted the forest mode of life. The Vaikhanasas, the Valikhilyas, the Saikitas, all of whom were devoted to austere penances, who were steadfast in virtue, who had subdued their senses, and who used to behold the fruits of their penances immediately, adopted this mode of life and finally ascended to heaven. Freed from fear and not counted among the stars and planets, these have become visible in the firmament as luminous bodies.

When the fourth or last part of life is reached, and when one is weakened by decrepitude and afflicted by disease, one should abandon the forest mode of life (for the fourth mode called Sannyasa or Renunciation). Performing a sacrifice that is capable of being completed in a single day and in which the Dakshina should be everything of which he may be possessed, he should himself perform his own Sraddha. Withdrawn from every other object, he should devote himself to his own self, taking pleasure in himself, and resting also on his own self.

[Note: Atmayaji is explained as one who performs his own Sraddha or obsequial rites. The Sandhi in the next word is Arsha; Atmakrida is one who does not take pleasure in wife or children but whose source of pleasure is his own self: similarly, Atmasraya is one who without depending upon kings or others takes refuge in himself.]

He should establish all his sacrificial fires (thenceforth) upon his own self and give up all kinds of ties and attachments. (In case he fails to attain to complete Renunciation) he should always perform such sacrifices and rites as are completed in a single day.

[Note: Such sacrifice, for example, as are called Brahma-yajna, etc.]

When, however, from performance of the (ordinary) sacrifices of sacrifices, the sacrifice in Self proceeds, then (may he discontinue all ordinary sacrifices, and) unto the three fires duly sacrifice in his own Self for the sake of his Emancipation.

[Note: Yajinam yajna is the sacrifice of ordinary sacrifices, i.e., the usual sacrifices consisting of tangible offerings unto the deities and performed with the aid of Vedic mantras. The ablative implies cause. Atmani ijya is sacrifice in Self, i.e., Yoga. The meaning of the first line, therefore, is when through performance of ordinary sacrifices and rites, the mind becomes pure and the sacrificer is enabled to practise Yoga. Unto the three fires he should duly sacrifice on his own self, means, of course, that without any longer adoring his fires by visible rites and actual recitation of Mantras, he should, for the sake of emancipation, worship in his own self or seek the extinction of mind and knowledge in Yoga.]

Without finding fault with his food he should eat five or six mouthfuls, offering them duly unto five vital airs uttering (every time the well-known) Mantra of the Yajurveda.

[Note: To this day every orthodox Brahmin or Kshatriya or Vaisya never eats without offering at the outset five small mouthfuls unto the five vital breaths, viz., Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana, and Vyana. (For explanations about these vital airs, read Page ‘Prana-Vyana-Samana’)]

Engaged in the observance of austerities while leading the life of a forest recluse, one should shave off one’s hair and bristles and pare off one’s nails, and having cleansed oneself by acts, pass into the fourth mode of life that is fraught with great holiness.

[Note: Vapya or Vapayitwa means causing or obtaining a shave. The Sannyasa mode of life, as well known, can never be entered without a previous shave.]

That regenerate person who enters the fourth mode of life, giving pledges of assurance unto all creatures, succeeds in earning many regions of blazing effulgence hereafter and ultimately attains to the infinite.

[Note: It is difficult to render the word Abhaya into English. ‘To give abhaya to all creatures’ is to pledge oneself to a life of total harmlessness, or to practise universal compassion or benevolence. Abstention from every kind of injury is the great duty of the fourth mode of life.]

Of excellent disposition and conduct, with sins all washed off, the person who is conversant with his own self never desires to do any act for either this or the other world. Freed from wrath and from error, without anxiety and without friendship, such a person lives in this world like one totally uninterested in its concerns. One (in the observance of Sannyasa) should not feel reluctant in discharging the duties included in Yama and those also that walk behind them (and are included in Niyama). Such a one should with energy live in accordance with the ordinances in respect of his own mode and throw away Vedic study and the sacred thread that is indicative of the order of his birth. Devoted to righteousness and with his senses under complete control, such a one, possessed of knowledge of self, attains undoubtedly to the end for which he strives.

[Note: The duties included in Yama (as explained by the commentator) are universal benevolence, truthfulness, faith, Brahmacharya (celibacy), and freedom from attachment. Those that are included in Niyama are purity (of body and mind), contentment, study of the Vedas, meditation on the Supreme, etc. Swasastra sutra means the sutras of his own sastras – i.e., the duties laid down in respect of that Sannyasa which he has adopted; the chief of which is enquiry after the Soul or Self: Bhutimanta implies Vedic recitation and the sacred thread. He who has taken to Sannyasa (Renunciation) should display energy in these, i.e., persistently enquire after the Soul and throw away all caste-marks, and other indications. ‘The desirable end’ is of course, gradual Emancipation of that obtained at once.]

After the third is the fourth mode of life. It is very superior, and fraught with numerous high virtues. It transcends in point of merit the three other modes of life. It is said to occupy the highest place.

Ashramas-Four Stages of Life
Explanations drawn from the teachings of
Swami Nikhilananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math

A person’s duties, in the Hindu tradition, are determined by the stage of life (Ashrama) to which he belongs. Life, which is regarded by Hinduism as a journey to the shrine of truth, is marked by four stages (Ashramas) each of which has its responsibilities and obligations. These four stages of life are:

  1. Brahmacharya Ashram (first 25 years)Student life -observing celibacy
  2. Grihastha Ashrama (25 to 50 years)Householder (married life)
  3. Vanprastha Ashrama (50 to 75 years),Scriptural studies and meditation on God
  4. Sanyasa Ashrama (75 to100 years)Cultivation of God-consciousness- Monastic way of life

Brahmacharya Ashram (first 25 years)

The first stage of life covers the period of study, when a student cultivates his mind and prepares himself for future service to society. He lives with his teacher and regards his teacher as his spiritual father. He leads an austere life and conserves his energy, spurning the defilement of the body and mind through evil words, thoughts and deeds. He shows respect to his elders and teachers and becomes acquainted with the cultural achievements of the race. Students, rich and poor, live under the same roof and receive the same attention from the teacher and his wife. When the studies are completed, the teacher gives the pupil the following instructions, as described in the Taittiriya Upanishad:

Speak the truth. Practice Dharma. Do not neglect the study (of the Vedas). Having brought to the teacher the gift desired by him; enter the householder’s life and see that the line of progeny is not cut off. Do not swerve from the truth. Do not swerve from Dharma (path of Virtue). Do not neglect personal welfare. Do not neglect prosperity. Do not neglect the study and teaching of the Vedas. Do not neglect your duties to the Gods and the Manes. Treat (revere) your mother as Goddess. Treat your father as God. Treat your teacher as God. Treat your guest as God.

Whatever deeds are faultless, these are to be performed – not others. Whatever good works have been performed by us, those should be performed by you- not others. …

Grihastha Ashrama (25 to 50 years)

With marriage, a person enters the second stage of life. A normal person requires a mate; his biological and emotional urges in this respect are legitimate. Debarred from marriage are those who have a dangerous ailment that may be transmitted to children, or those rare souls who, as students, forsake the world at the call of the spirit.

Children endow marriage with social responsibilities.
Hinduism does not regard romance as the whole of the married life. Husband and wife are co-partners in their spiritual progress, and the family provides a training ground for the practice of unselfishness. A healthy householder is the foundation of a good society, discharging his duties (maybe )as a teacher, a soldier, a statesman, a merchant, a scientist, or a manual worker. He should be ambitious to acquire wealth and enjoy pleasures, but not by deviating from the path of righteousness(dharma)

The following are the five great duties of a householder:

  1. The study and teaching of the Vedas
  2. Daily worship of the gods through appropriate rituals
  3. Gratification of the departed ancestors by offering theirspirits food and drink according to the scriptural injunctions
  4. Kindness to domestic animals
  5. Hospitality to guests, the homeless and the destitute.

[ For more information on the Five Great Duties, visit our page ‘Mantras – Sacred Fire’- topic ‘Sacrifice’ ]

Vanprastha Ashrama(50 to 75 years)

When the skin wrinkles, the hairs turn grey, or a grandchild is born, one is ready for the third stage of life (by retiring from the householder’s responsibilities). At this stage, the pleasures and excitements of youth appear stale and physical needs are reduced to a minimum. The third period of life is devoted to scriptural study and meditation on God.

Sanyasa Ashrama(75 to100 years)

During the fourth stage, a man renounces the world and embraces the monastic way of life. He is no longer bound by social laws. The call of the Infinite becomes irresistible to him; even charity and social service appear inadequate. He rises above worldly attachments, finite obligations, and restricted loyalties; he is a friend of his fellow human beings, of the gods, and of the animals. No longer tempted by riches, honour or power, a monk preserves equanimity of spirit under all conditions. He turns away from the vanities of the world, devoting himself to the cultivation of God-consciousness.

Through the disciplines of the four stages of life, a Hindu learns progressive non-attachment to the transitory world. The movement of life has been aptly compared to that of the sun. At dawn the sun rises from below the horizon, and as the morning progresses it goes on radiating heat and light till it reaches the zenith at midday. During the afternoon it goes down, gradually withdrawing its heat and light, and at dusk it sinks below the horizon, a mass of radiance, to illumine other regions.

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