The Hindu Sastra- Karas advocated that man’s life and conduct is set in accordance to the attainment of the ultimate goal of life, that is, “moksha” and is influenced by four factors such as ‘desa’, ‘Kala’, ‘srama’ and ‘guna’. The Hindu sages were univocal on the presumption that any scheme of social organization which aims at the best functioning, must, in the first instance, take account of human beings from two aspects. First, the scheme must consider him as a social being with reference to his training and development in the ultimate goal of his existence; and secondly, tho has to be co- ordinated with another scheme which visualizes man with reference to his natural disposition and attitudes. The first of these is undertaken under the scheme of “ashrama“.
The word “Ashrama” comes from a Sanskrit word “srama” meaning “to exert oneself”. The word ashrama literally means a resting or halting place. According to the Hindu Vedas, there are four ashramas, that are regarded as resting places during one’s journey on the way to final liberation. Each ‘ashrama’ is a step in the long journey towards the ultimate goal. Therefore, Vedavyasa has described in the Mahabharata that ‘ashramas’ are the four rungs of ladder which takes man in the direction of Brahma. The four ashramas are:
- The Brahmacharyashrama
- The Grihasthashrama
- The Vanaprasthashrama
- The Sanyasashrama
The first stage of life of an individual is the Brahmacharyashrama. This is marked by the initiation rotes or upanayan ceremony. Brahmacharya literally means the leading of life according to Brahma. In this stage, a person acquires knowledge, achieves discipline and moulds his character. He acquires knowledge of the Vedas, shastras (weapons), tatva (theoretical knowledge) and vyavahar (practical knowledge). The student stays at the teacher’s house, ‘Gurukula’, which marked the beginning of schooling in the Vedic texts. The student not only performs his study, but also performs the tasks assigned to hin by his teacher. When the teacher is convinced that the student had evinced a real desire for study, he unfolds the Vedas to him. The student follows some strict rules and learns to restrict and have control over his senses. The individual has to surrender his life of sense, mind and intellectual to the handling and moulding by the teacher.
After the completion of prescribed education in Brahmacharyashrama, in the first twenty five years of life, the youth enters the Grihasthashrama, that is the time when he is fit to marry with certain aims. In enters this stage with aims of ‘Dhrama’ meaning religiousity, ‘Praja’ meaning procreation and ‘Rati’ meaning satisfaction of sexual urges. The major aim of Hindu marriage is ‘dharma’. To fulfil his ‘dharma’ the married man performs five mahayajnas or the five great sacrifices along with his wife or ‘ardhangini’ or ‘dharmapatni’. These great sacrifices were offered to Gods (Daiva Yajna), Saints or Brahmans (Rishi Yajna), Parents (Pitri Yajna), Ancestors (Bhuta Yajna) and the men (Atithi Yajna). The Grihasthashrama is given a high place of honour. It is also the responsibility of the householder to take care of all those who are in the other three ashramas.
After the completion of the householder’s duty and at fifty years of age, man entered into the third stage of life, the Vanaprasthashrama. At this stage the individual lives as a recluse and resides in the forest. He must satisfy his hunger by eating roots or fruits available in the forest. The hermit must maintain celibacy, sleep on the floor, residing under a tree without any attachment to where he happens to reside.The qualities and virtues he needed to cultivate as a hermit were self restraint, friendliness, charity and compassionate attitude towards all creates. The presence of wife along with him was optional. It is a life devoted to meditation and contemplation, a life of enquiry and searching.
In the last stage, after twenty five years of conditioning in the Vanaprasthashrama, the man enters the Sanyasashrama, that is, life of an ascetic, casting off all attachment with the world. At the time of entering this ashrama, a person takes the vow that ” I have completely, from tho day, bidden farewell to AL the desires and anxieties regarding son, wealth and the world.” As regards the practice he should beg once in a day without any desired to get large quantity of alms. By restraint of his senses, destruction of love and hatred and by abstention from injuring creatures, he becomes fit for immortality. By passing through this stage, all the sins of man are washed away and destroyed. The man at this stage was mainly concerned with his own realization of spirituality.
It can be concluded that the ashramas are, as a school of life at various phases of human existence, devised and organized, towards the attainment of “moksha” in accordance with the theory of the ultimate nature of human beings.