The Phases of Life (Third and fourth)

Benedict Wong
Dr. Gowler
Religion 100Q – 01J
24 November 2015

The Phases of Life (Third and fourth)

Hinduism has been shown to have a progressive tension between sacrificial religion to obtain a fortunate rebirth, and renunciation to secure liberation from rebirth. The ideals of renunciation to secure liberation from rebirth has been growing in popularity. This is a result of the Brahmin orthodoxy, which can be seen in the pursuit of the four goals of life.

The four goals of life that are deemed worthy of pursuit are (1) Dharma, (2) artha, (3) Kama, (4) moksha. The four stages of life, mainly for the men of the household are (1) sisya, or brahmacarya, (2) Grihastha, (3) vanaprastha, and (4) samnyasa. These categories complement each other, and link with the samskara system, giving a framework for the lives of an orthodox Hindu.

Very briefly, the first phase of life is the Brahmacharya, or the celibate student. This is the phase of formal education, and it lasts until a man’s mid-twenties. During this period, the student is supposed to prepare for his future profession, family, and other social and religious obligations. The second phase of life is the Grihastha, or the married family man. This phase is when the man is supposed to get married and earn a living supporting his family. At this stage of life, Hinduism supports the pursuit of wealth (artha), and the indulgence in sexual pleasures (kama). The second phase of life is supposed to last until the male is about fifty years old, or, according to the Laws of Manu, when a ma’s skin wrinkles and his hair turns gray. At that point, the man should move to the third phase of life. However, many men have trouble moving on past the second phase as they do not want to change their lifestyle to one of asceticism.

Vanaprastha is the third phase of life and is known as the retired life phase, or as the forest hermit phase. This phase of life occurs around the retirement age of 48 to 72 years old. Another way to determine when the householder has entered the third phase of life is when his children have children of their own, as tradition recommends the man to enter into his period of retirement. The man is “expected to retire from family and social life, give up his work, wealth and possessions, and retreat to the forest as a forest hermit to live a more spiritual life.

This phase of life is also known as the forest hermit because vanaprastha splits into residence (prastha) in the forest (vana). It is at this point of the man’s life that he is encouraged to relinquish his possessions and wealth to his wife and children. He has to bequeath his possessions to them because they have greater material needs as they are going through their first and second phases of life. The man is entering the third phase of life then moves out and proceeds to live in a hut in the forest. In the forest, the man is supposed to read scriptural texts and learn from sagely renouncers.

Granted the man’s wife may follow the husband into the third phase of life and follow him into his hermit life. The life of the hermit is supposed to be a celibate one. However, the wife could engage in some social and conjugal relationships with her husband. The physical relationship with the wife would only be transitional as the male in the hermit phase is supposed to “down one’s preoccupations with kama and artha, in the ultimate pursuit of moksha. The third phase is a transitional phase in the householder’s life – the transition from materialistic pursuits to spiritual liberation. If the man’s wife were to follow him into his hermit life, she would ultimately be limited to menial daily tasks such as preparing meals. Also, though the man is supposed to be completely cut off from this family, he can still seek advice from family members if it is necessary.

It is not common for the modern Hindu to enter this stage of life. Most elderly Hindus will continue to live in their family homes with their children. There are, however, quite a few who retire to the hermitage (asrama) of a well-regarded religious teacher, or to relocate to a town with some religious renown. Banaras, a place once known as the Forest of Bliss, is still a popular retirement site, although it is mostly urban now. Further, the modern retired Hindu men and women may go on occasional pilgrimages to different religious sites. They may visit these different religious sites, taking up abode in asramas in places such as Tiruvannamalai, or Pondicheri, or Haridvar or Rishikesh, for weeks at a time.

The fourth phase of life is Sannyasin. This phase is also known as the wandering ascetic or renouncer phase. This phase is traditionally seen as the last part of a man or woman’s life. However, to the modern practicing Hindus, a young person can choose to skip the householder and retirement stage to renounce straight away worldly and materialistic desires. That young person can then dedicate the rest of their lives to spiritual pursuits, particularly moksha. The fourth phase of life is not one that is regularly practiced anymore.

Traditionally, the Samnyasins are expected to leave their family and loved ones and perform their death rites. They are supposed to burn their sacred threads, abandon the household fire, and wander the world in search for the final and highest goal: Liberation or moksha. A renouncer must ignore his consciousness and impulses of “I” and “my,” and must cut himself loose from the limitations of individuality.

The man that just renounced all of his possessions is expect to wear rag robes, “traditionally dyed in a saffron hue to conceal stains.” There are no formal requirements for the lifestyle or spiritual discipline on the methods of the renouncer. The lack of requirement has led to a wide variety of practices for those that do go through the last stage of life. However, there are some common themes. The only possessions that the renouncer is allowed to carry is a staff for support of their old age, and a bowl into which they have different householders donate food and give offerings. Also, renouncers are expected to be constantly on the move. They are nomadic ascetics because they need to avoid remaining too long in one site so as to not develop any attachments to particular places or to take the generosity or companionship of particular persons. For some, the path of renunciation is a form of severe asceticism

The behavioral state of a person attempting the fourth phase of life can be found in the Bhagavad Gita. For example, in hymn 5.3, “One who neither hates nor desires the fruits of his activities is known to be always renounced. Such a person, free from all dualities, easily overcomes material bondage and is completely liberated, O mighty-armed Arjuna.” The hymn is discussing the ultimate goal of liberation

Other characteristics of the person renouncing include non-violence, disarmament, chastity, non-desirous behaviors, poverty, self-restraint, truthfulness, kindness to all living beings, non-stealing, non-acceptance of gifts, non-possessiveness, and purity of speech and mind. These characteristics, however, are not exclusive to the fourth phase of life. They should be sought after throughout an individual’s entire lifetime.

The ultimate goal of the renouncer is to attain moksha or liberation. The definition of liberation, however, differs from traditions. For Yoga traditions, for example, liberation is experiencing the highest Samadhi, or deep awareness in this life. Being a renouncer is ultimately a means to decrease and ending ties of all kind. Granted some people see renouncers as people who abandon society and live a reclusive life. However, renouncers are rejecting the ritual mores of the social world and one’s attachment to materialistic desires. If the renouncer succeeds, the end is a liberated, free, and blissful existence.

Transitioning from the second phase of life to the third is an extremely challenging task. It is difficult to renounce all of one’s possessions and simply become a recluse, especially for the modern Hindus, after spending half a lifetime building one’s wealth. Further, leaving a family behind to pursue religious ambitions can be close to impossible if one is not fully committed to the religion. However, if one can successfully transition into the third phase of life, the transition into the fourth and final phase of life would be must smoother.

Further, transitioning from the third phase of life to the fourth is even more difficult. However, if the recluse is successful in that he can separate himself from all worldly possessions, he may find it easier coping with life as an ascetic. Also, if the renouncer can attain moksha or liberation, the benefits greatly outweigh the costs of living an ascetic life. After all, the final goal of having a liberated, free, and blissful existence is the reason people follow the religion in the first place.


Works cited:


  • Molloy, Michael. Experiencing the World’s Religions. 6th ed. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
  • Fowler, Jeaneane D. Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton: Sussex Academic, 1997. Print.
  • Stevenson, Sinclair. The Rites of the Twice-born. New Delhi: Oriental Reprint; Exclusively Distributed by Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1971. Print.
  • Rodrigues, Hillary. Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Print.
  • Morgan, Kenneth W. The Religion of the Hindus. New York: Ronald, 1953. Print.
  • “Bhagavad Gita 5.3.” The Bhagavad Gita with Commentaries of Ramanuja Madhva Shankara and Others Bhagavad Gita 53 Comments. N.p., 13 Sept. 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.


One thought on “The Phases of Life (Third and fourth)”

  1. Things to remember: Retiree: stage that comes often after grandchildren. May retire/separate (various levels are options) to focus on religious matters. Renunciant (sannyasin): An option for people after retirement. Orange robe denoting celibacy. Pilgrim.

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