These are: Brahmacharya, for studying; Grihastha as a married man and householder; Vanaprastha, for performing penance in a forest; and Sanyasa, for renouncing worldly attachments.
According to the Manusmriti, the span of a human life is 100 years. Every Hindu man was to spend a part of his life in each of the four ashrams to fulfill his obligations: to the sages by studying, to his ancestors by raising male progeny, to the gods by performing penance and sacrifices, and for the salvation of his soul (see Moksha) by renouncing the world. This was assuming, of course that he lived his full life span.
In the Brahmacharya ashram, the adolescent is a celibate, religious student, called a brahmachari. After his Upanayanam, a boy should live with and be devoted to his guru, and study the Vedas. He should live simply and humbly, follow the requisite customs, fast, and worship the gods. A student should study, practice penance, and tend the sacrificial fire (Yagya). This stage lasts for 12 years after the Upanayanam. However, if a student wishes to attain higher knowledge, he can continue in this stage until he is 31 years old. After completing his studies, the student gives guru dakshina and enters the next stage: the Grihastha ashram.
Grihastha means "householder". This stage begins with marriage (see Vivaha). The duties of a man in this phase of life include raising children, caring for the family, performing the five daily sacrifices (Panchamahayagya) and being a responsible member of society. He remains a Grihastha until his son's son is born, his hair has turned gray, or when he is about 50 years of age. Thereafter he enters the Vanaprastha ashram.
Vanaprastha means "forest dweller". This stage indicates the beginning of old age. Living away from society in the forest, he should live simply, perform sacrifices, and prepare to renounce all worldly associations. These austerities are treated as penance for the sins committed, knowingly and unknowingly, as a householder. A man may take his wife to live with him in the Vanaprastha ashram, in which he stays until he is 70 years of age. He then returns from the forest and a purification ceremony initiates him into the Sanyasa ashram.
In this last phase, a man renounces wealth and worldly pleasures, and is called a sanyasi. He is completely detached from the rest of the world giving up even those family ties allowed in Vanaprastha. Instead, he seeks alms from householders and spends his time meditating, in an effort to achieve salvation (see Moksha).
This division of a man's life into different phases followed a practical rationale. In the earlier part of his life, a man is more open to ideas and instruction, since his thoughts have not yet taken a definite shape. His energies and capabilities are unused and can be best channeled into learning, as in the Brahmacharya ashram. The next 25 years are spent in the Grihastha ashram, where a man uses the knowledge he gained as a student to live a complete life and enjoys worldly pleasures without a sense of guilt. After 50 years, the physical senses become weaker but inner strength increases. Satiated with the world, a man turns to the spiritual aspects of life in the Vanaprastha ashram. He goes on pilgrimages and slowly detaches himself from worldly affairs. After a point, he realizes that all attachments, even to his wife, are no longer necessary, and he has the ability to completely isolate himself mentally from the world. This marks the Sanyasa ashram, which is the last stage in a man's life.
There is controversy over which castes were supposed to follow the ashrams. According to some texts, the system was only for the Brahmins, while other sources say that any caste except the Shudras could practice it. Women, of any caste, were not permitted to follow this system. From childhood, they were taught how to keep a good home. The only ashram they observed was the Grihastha ashram.
There are three schools of thought about the observance of ashrams: Sammucchya or orderly co-ordination; Vikalpa or option; and Badha, annulment or contradiction.
Sammucchya prescribes that a man should follow the four ashrams in order. Manu is the chief supporter of this view. The Vikalpa school preaches that a man can become a sanyasi immediately after the Brahmacharya ashram or after the Grihastha ashram. But one can only become a sanyasi after studenthood if one has mastered control over one's senses and desires. The Vikalpa school does not consider Vanaprastha ashram a separate stage. This view is expounded in the Jabala Upanishad. The Badha school is held by the Gautama Dharmasutra and Baudhayana Dharmasutra (see Sutra). Followers of this school believe that there is just one ashram: the Grihastha ashram. They hold that the Brahmacharya ashram is only preparatory to the Grihastha ashram. Since each school is supported by Vedic text, all three are equally valid.
In the present day, few people find it practical to follow this system of life. Most people subscribe to the Badha school of thought, albeit unknowingly. First, they study, which prepares them for an occupation, and then marry. This stage, with slight variations according to different individuals, continues for the rest of their life.
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