November 24, 2015
Hinduism: The first two stages of life
The system of beliefs and ideas that exists in Hinduism, unlike many religions, is a very unique and diverse one. This is in part due to the multiplicity of ideas, beliefs, and practices that have through the years changed or evolved in order to fit the needs of different individuals. Within these, there exists the belief that the life of a person is comprised of four stages, of which only the first two will be further developed in this paper. These stages known as “ashramas” are brahmachari, grihastha, vanaprastha, and sannyasa. To fully understand these, however, one must know how the belief of these stages was developed, why the stages are important, who follows the belief, and what practices make up the different stages.
To start, it is essential to be familiar with some of the central concepts of Hinduism such as rebirth, karma, samsara, and moksha. Within the religion, it is believed that everyone upon death is reborn or reincarnated into either a “lower” form such as an “animal, insect, and possibly even a plant”, or a “higher” form such as “superhuman beings and demigods” (Molloy 84). The thing then that determines one’s upward or downward mobility when reborn is karma, the “moral law of cause and effect” (Molloy 84). In other words, if a person performs good actions then he or she will be reborn into a higher form. As a result of this concept, people are encouraged to do good deeds, yet sooner or later, the everyday world of change and suffering leading to rebirth gets tiring, and people want to escape it (Molloy 85). This cycle is what is known as samsara. Now, to escape samsara is to attain moksha or “liberation”, which is the ultimate goal. Through the teaching of the Upanishads, more and more people were driven to attain liberation. In response to the growing popularity of moksha, the Brahmin orthodoxy around sixth century BCE “forged a compromise” in which the goals of life such as dharma, artha, kama, and moksha were to be attained in four different stages as we know them today (Rodrigues 89).
Given that these goals are deemed to be worthy of pursuit, following the four stages of life provide a path of assistance to attain liberation. This is so because within them, there are in addition to “renouncing materialism and worldly pleasures”, aspects of marriage, social status, and material wealth, that are considered crucial in the path to attaining moksha (Fowler 25).Yet, in a modern India, fewer people actually go through all four, although it is expected. The primary reasons for this have to do with the concept of the caste system and gender. For example, because it is believed that each person has a role in society depending on their place in the caste system, “shudras” or unskilled workers do not have a role that allows them to go through the stages. In fact, a third of the Indian population is made up of the lower class that cannot afford a formal education. As such, it is usually the men who are born into a twice-born family that have both the support and financial means to participate in all four stages. In terms of gender, women are generally excluded from this religious practice while men are encouraged to engage in it. Additionally, men have the ability to choose whether or not they want to pursue any if not all of the stages. This element of choice then gives the followers of Hinduism an opportunity to choose the stage or stages that work for them and their religious and financial needs.
The first stage of life or the first asrama is called brahmacharin which translates to “progressing with Brahman” (Rodrigues 90). As such, this term “brahmacharin” references the period in which the student devotes himself entirely to gaining spiritual knowledge through studying Vedic teachings and learning discipline, which usually starts at the age of twelve and ends at fifteen or ideally twenty-five. During this time, the child is first exposed to “the properties of dharmic upbringing” through observing the acts of his family members, their moral sensibilities, and their performing of rituals (Rodrigues 89). In other words, the family is the spiritual teacher of the child until the moment of his upanayana, a traditional rite of passage called “samskara” that marks the child’s entrance into this first stage. This passage happens when the student is accepted by a guru who will start his formal Vedic education. At this point, a ceremony takes place in which the boy receives a “sacred thread” called “Yajñopaveetam’’ that symbolizes the start of his educational journey. Furthermore, this student stage also known as the sisya stage is how knowledge that can lead to liberation is transferred. Here, the student is required to leave home to live in seclusion with his guru. During this period, the student studies the Vedas and books like the Ramayana and the Mahabharta along with subjects such as science, philosophy, scriptures, and logic. The studying of all of these things in combination ensure that the student is well rounded and prepared to excel in not only his religious life but also in his social life and in maintaining and raising his future family. In addition to such studies, the sisya must follow celibacy, which is a stage of abstaining from sexual activity and marriage. However, within this abstinence, the student is supposed to not allow for the secretion of semen. The reason for this is that “the spilling of semen is regarded as ritually polluting, while the retention of semen is believed to build up a purifying inner heat and confer great spiritual potency” (Rodrigues 90). Furthermore, because semen is what allows for the creation of a new life, it is looked down upon to engage in sexual activity prior to the second stage, where it is essential for have children. Looking back at the goals, all that he has learned in addition to following celibacy will help him attain dharma, which is righteousness. As such, after completing this formal education, the student may choose to continue his studies or to marry, which is that start of the second stage.
The second asrama called “grihastha”, is the householder stage. Within this period of time, the male will end his celibacy state and move forward to marrying, raising, and supporting the newly created family, which occurs after the formal education has been completed. This, however, is the case for only the wealthier families who could afford this education to begin with. As for the families who could not afford to send their children to study, they often have them start working at a young age. Marriage for them, or entrance into this second stage then happens only when they are considered old enough and have found a partner that suits them. It is important to note that because “Hindus have always felt it important to raise a family…despite immense poverty, a couple will continue to have many children” (Fowler 26). This willingness to have children despite hardships only emphasizes that importance that family has within the Hindu religion. Yet, while there is a disparity here caused by monetary aspects, both castes besides a small percentage participate in arranged marriages, in which it is expected that life be created. Unlike in the previous stage where the men had to refrain from pleasures such as allowing for the secretion of semen, in this stage it is encouraged to do so, because the creation of life is a very goal essential for the continuation of lines of belief. Additionally, this stage is set up to meet one of the life goals called kama, which is sensory pleasure. To further understand kama, it is in short, “the experience of pleasure or the fulfillment of desires, and particularly deals with love and sexual gratification” (Rodrigues 91). The performance of fulfilling such desires is in many ways beneficial to the well-being of the marriage. For example, the wife and husband as a result create a bond and an attraction towards each other that allows for them to enjoy each other’s company. Moving forward within the second stage grihastha, it is expected that all men within this stage work at a “trade or profession” to support the family but also to attain wealth, which is in Hinduism, “a necessary goal in life at some stage” (Fowler 27). Yet, this stage does not solely revolve around intercourse and money. Here, the men are expected to perform “cyclical rituals” to make sure that their children are learning the ways of righteousness that like said before, lead to liberation. In other words, this stage “supports and upholds dharma” (Rodrigues 91). Because this stage fulfills two of the life goals, one of them being pleasure, it is considered to be the best of the four, yet this is of course dependent on the individual himself.
While it is nearly impossible to learn and understand the entire Hindu religion, due to its complexity, age, and growth, it is possible to understand the general idea of some of the major concepts such as the stages of life. Like already stated, these different stages of life serve as a pathway to achieve liberation as well as goals such as dharma and kama. As such, following the four stages is encouraged and an essential part of Hinduism.
Fowler, Jeaneane D. Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton: Sussex Academic, 1997. Print.
Molloy, Michael. Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2010. Print.
Rodrigues, Hillary. Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Print.