In the strictest sense of the term, Hinduism is not a religion but a way of living. There is one religious book and one founder similar to Islam or Christianity. When one looks at Hinduism, it is similar to a gigantic banyan tree, under which many other religions have grown and prospered. Many of these religions have declined due to their deficiencies. Hinduism is exhaustive, complex, and deep with multifaceted and grand dimensions and offers people of different faiths and notions. There are Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Bhagwad Gita, Yoga, Meditation, and Commentaries that satiate the urges of all the people by giving a social, moral, religious code of ethics that guides their way to deliverance (Comeau, 2020).
Hinduism cannot be interpreted in a restrictive sense, and hence it is a culture and faith. There is a firm belief in Hinduism that a person is expected to live one hundred years even though many people do not reach this age. This period of life is divided into different stages, called “ashrams,” and each comprising of twenty-five years of life. Ashrams mean “hermitages” in a literal sense, but here it implies life stages. This essay will discuss the ethics of the four stages of life in Hinduism. Each of these stages has its specific duties and fulfilments. Through these duties, the stages have their ethical requirements. However, these stages are available to the highest three classes of Hindu society. This essay will also discuss the ethics of exclusion of the lower classes from this system of stages of life.
Hinduism directs four stages or Ashrams in life. They are:
- Brahmacharya Ashram
- Grihastha Ashram
- Vanaprastha Ashram
- Sanyasa Ashram
These ashrams have their rules, directives, and ethics that are discussed in the following sections.
The term means acting as per the guidelines as set by Brahma – the creator of the universe. However, in technical terms, it means leading a celibate life. It is the first stage of life and spans twenty-five years. This stage develops the foundation for the next three stages of life. If the individual does not follow the ethics as guided for this ashram, then the next three stages of life become weak. It is the preparatory stage for the remaining life. In ancient times, children were sent to sages where they learned about scriptures, conduct, character, sex, family life, social behavior, earning, looking after one’s family, social setup, the practice of dharma, truthfulness, moral conduct, and the resignation of evil deeds. Even princes were sent to the sages where they learned how they would perform their duties as kings, warfare, archery, social welfare, and judiciary. Students were to be ardent disciples of their teachers (gurus).
The ashram was conducted outside of town, where the students lived with their teachers. They were taught to take care of themselves, prepare food, chop wood, and live in harmony with other students. Words from the teacher were commands from Brahma. They were to show complete conduct in discipline and learn what their guru taught. When the student reached the age of twenty-five, then he was thought to be equipped to proceed to the next ashrama. He was assumed to be mentally and physically mature to get into the next phase of his life (Klostermaier, 2014).
Brahma ashram also dictates the preservation of semen, which is considered to be a vital fluid of life that brings conception. Brahmacharya ashram says that if the semen is frittered in the initial stage, then it cannot be potent to generate life. While men engage in pornography, erotica, and other indulgences, such deficiencies are prohibited as per the Brahmacharya Ashram. Following the rules of the ashram bring determination, perseverance, and patience. There is a western idea that sex is a natural inclination and free expression is allowed to it. Without free expression, the urge will become suppressed and repressed, which will result in abnormalities. There is only partial truth to this idea from the Hinduism perspective. As per Hindu ethics, when suppression is forced as per the circumstances beyond one’s control by the outside environment, like social pressure of other taboos, it gives rise to inner abnormalities. Hence, when done with willingness and enthusiasm, it is a voluntary choice, and hence, the psychological situations do not arise. Thus, it becomes a positive process and not a negative or suppressive process. The main ethics is the gaining of knowledge and conservation of energy (Knott¸2016).
Brahmacharya ashram ethics say that the energy in a person is a part of the cosmic energy that is manifested in many aspects in an individual, and one of the important aspects is the biological or physical aspect, which is the sex energy. Higher than this aspect is the mental aspect, which is called Medhas. The psychic energy is called Kundalini, and overall these stand the Atma Shakti or the Atma Bal. Hence when one puts one’s will into volunteering to follow the rules of this ashram, then there will not be any problem faced by him.
Grihastha, in a literal sense, means “being in-home or family” or “house.” It is the second phase of the individual’s life among the four stages. After Brahmacharya ashram, one embodies a life of marriage, with duties of maintaining a home, children, taking care of family responsibilities while maintaining a “dharmic” social life. A man enters the household after marriage after completing his studies. In Hinduism, marriage is a sacrament where the ideals are God Ram and Sita. The household must earn by honest means and also spend it in a balanced manner. The ashrama rules dictate that one-tenth of the income must be given to charity. Sensual pleasures must be enjoyed within permitted moral laws. A householder is allowed to enjoy conjugal pleasures one night a month. The householders are also directed to perform the Pancha Yajna – Deva Yajna, Rishi Yajna, Priti Yajna, Bhuta Yajna, and Atithi Yajna.
Deva Yajna requires one to offer obligations to God while one recites Vedic chants and Matras. Rishi Yajna is the study of Vedas and teaching of these Vedas to others. It also involves giving charity to the Rishis. Priti Yajna means ablutions or Tarpana to the dead and performing annual religious rights for the departed souls. After this stage one comes to the Bhuta Yajna that requires the householder to distribute food to crows, cows, and animals overall. Finally, there is Atithi Yajna which requires the householders to give respect and food with proper hospitality to guests. In Grihastha Ashram, hospitality is one of the primary duties of the individual. It is only after giving proper hospitality that the householders husband and wife must eat (Klostermaier, 2014).
Grihastha period is considered to be the most important period in the life of the individual. The Hindu Manusmriti says that this ashram is pre-eminent among the other ashrams. The idea of the Grihastha ashram can be considered similar to the present-day concept of citizenship that involves twin constituencies of ethical and political norms. These ethical aspects register the social and psychological growth of a man.
The ethics dictate that it is the Grihastha that is responsible for establishing a society where there is harmony. A man in Grihastha is expected to serve and be responsible to all strata of society. He must also hold morality and treat all the creatures kindly. It is only after one performs all duties of Grihastha that he can proceed to the next ashram. Before going to the next ashram, the man is supposed to clear all duties of debt, finance, liberty society, and sacrifice. After this stage, the man gives his duties to his children before he goes to the Vanaprastha. Family is the place where the man inculcates good and moral habits onto his children. They obey their parents, who must act to be their role models. In Grihastha Ashram, it is not easy to maintain a balance between the education of children with the care of the elderly, but the man must make sure that neither of these two groups must feel neglected. Completion of all the duties frees the man to go to the next ashram.
Vanaprastha comes after Grihastha Ashram as Brahmacharya is the preparation for life as a householder, Vanaprastha is the preparation for the last stage of life that is the Sanyasa. It can also be considered as an extended stage of the Grihastha Ashram. It is not possible to fulfill all the duties, and some duties often remain to be discharged, so this period is used to complete the rest of the duties with a feeling of social detachment so that the process of one’s involvement with the worldly objects gets reduced. One scales down relationships does not involve worldly activities and distances himself from the penchant for accumulation of objects, money, and riches. It is also a mental preparation as just abandoning physical things will not be enough for the man (Klostermaier, 2014).
The best way suggested here is to do philanthropy and social work. One must engage oneself in the service of the poor and impart education o the ones who cannot read. Vanaprastha ethics also say to attend religious prayers, perform worship, and make a pilgrimage to holy places. One must also become a member of different educational, social, and religious institutes. This period is the stepping stone to the fourth ashram and must be used for introspection, self-analysis, and how one has fared through his life. Weighing oneself for the past actions will help one trace his shortcomings and mistakes. Thus, this knowledge will help him to reform himself. Some people also prefer to live separately from their families in the Vanaprastha ashrama to ease their transformation to the Sanyasa ashram by cultivating a sense of detachment.
After the completion of the previous three ashramas, the people are now ready to enter the final stage of the four ashramas. Sanyasa means abandonment, renunciation, relinquishment, or resignation. The individual now abandons the world and leads an austere life. Women in Hinduism are not allowed to take Sanyasa ashrams as they are considered to be deeply involved with their families. Hinduism also says that if both husband and wife become sanyasi, then the spiritual life will be a burden as there is a greater chance to fall into the path of deviation.
A person who has truly taken Sanyasa ashram is free of his volatile passions, desires, attachments, weaknesses, obsessions, and leanings. A true sanyasi thus remains calm at a peaceful place, like mountains, hills, riverbanks, or any other place without habitation, and develop their concentration towards the spirituality of God. One must retire to the jungle and try to keep the mind at peace. Hinduism also says that it is not necessary to go to a secluded place as much as it is essential to train one’s mind in self-control and peace (Klostermaier, 2014).
An individual in the Sanyasa ashrama is expected to have no attachments, be discharged from all his responsibilities, and do not get involved in any activities. Any physical suffering must not disturb the mental peace. The sanyasi has to lead an austere life with self-discipline and practice the highest form of simplicity. Desires are to be controlled, and so the mind. Hinduism recommends practicing Dhyana Yoga in order to control the mind and desires.
Varna, Ashram, and Ethics
Hinduism dictates four varnas in the society- Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The Brahmins are the scholars, teachers, and priests. The Kshatriyas are warriors, rulers, and administrators. The Vaishyas are merchants and agriculturalists. The Shudras are the service providers and laborers (Comeau, 2020). The Varna system was based on the division of work, and each member of the varna was expected to adhere to the duties assigned to him irrespective of favor or partisan. Thus “Varna Vyavastha” is the social order based on varna. When varna was combined with the ashram, the system came to be called “Varnashram,” a feature unique in Hinduism (Lamb, 2019). However, it is also to be noted that the four significant ashrams are only available to the three upper-class varnas in Hinduism – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas which brings to question if this system is truly ethical.
In my opinion, the Hindu Ashrama system being available to only the upper classes is unethical and immoral. It is mainly because of the treatment of the people in the Shudra group that happens goes against all the ethics and teachings as given in the four ashramas. For a major part, the Shudras are not allowed to take part in social or religious functions and are also not allowed to enter the temples. They are given work as domestic servants, sweepers, scavengers, laborers, and cleaners. Brahmins in ancient times refused to impart education to the group. This group has remained deprived and illiterate for a long time. Instances of abuse of young girls and women from this group have happened by the members of the upper class. Hence, when one treats another human being with such a lack of respect, then it is questionable if there is any logic that supports the exclusion of the community. In addition, it brings the whole ethics of the ashramas to question.
Comeau, Leah Elizabeth. “Hinduism.” Rituals and Practices in World Religions. Springer, Cham, 2020. 47-58.
Klostermaier, Klaus K. Hinduism: A short history. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
Knott, Kim. Hinduism: a very short introduction. Vol. 5. Oxford University Press, 2016.