The Four Ashrams

 

Ashram means "a place of spiritual shelter." Each stage of life is not only a natural part of the journey from cradle to grave, but a time at which spirituality can be developed. The four varnas, accept ashrams as depicted in the table below:

 

Brahmacari

Grihasta

Vanaprastha

Sannyasi

Shudra

no formal education

yes

no formal retirement

no formal sannyasa

Vaishya

yes

yes

no formal retirement

no formal sannyasa

Kshatriya

yes

yes

yes

no formal sannyasa

Brahmin

yes

yes

yes

yes

Today, only a few Hindus strictly follow all these four ashrams. Nonetheless, the idea of enjoying the world in a religious and regulated manner, followed by gradual retirement remains a powerful ideal.

Each of the four ashrams has its specific duties.The main ones are listed below.

Brahmachari (Student Life)

The brahmacari-ashram, often away from the home (somewhat like a boarding school), was primarily intended for fostering spiritual values. Memorisation and skill development were subsidiary to character formation and self-realisation. Even sons of the royal family were expected to undergo this austere and rigorous training.

Grihasta (Household Life)

Traditionally some men remained lifelong celibates, either remaining as brahmacharis or immediately becoming sannyasis. Others were required to marry, extending their responsibilities to include wife, children, relatives, and society in general. This ashram is the only one permitting sexual gratification.

Vanaprashta (Retired Life)

After the children have left home and settled, a man may gradually retire from family responsibilities and, with his wife, begin to focus his mind on spiritual matters. Often he goes on pilgrimage. His wife may accompany him, but all sexual relationships are forbidden. Vanaprashta literally means "forest-dweller."

Sannyasa (Renounced Llife)

This position is traditionally available only to men who exhibit the qualities of a brahmana. The man would leave home and family and was prohibited from seeing his wife again. Considered civilly dead, he was free to wander, living a life dependent on God alone. The sannyasis are conspicuous in their saffron dress. They are often called sadhus (holy people) – although today not all are genuine!

Meaning and Purpose

What does the system of four ashrams say about the purpose of life, according to Hindu thought?

Personal Reflection

Related Values and Issues

For more information

Varnashrama Dharma, Family Life, Children, and Simple Living, High Thinking