The Four Ashrams

Ashram means “a place of spiritual shelter.” Each stage of life is not only a natural part of the journey from cradle to grave, but a time at which spirituality can be developed. The four varnas, accept ashrams as depicted in the table below:

Shudrano formal educationyesno formal retirementno formal sannyasa
Vaishya yes yesno formal retirementno formal sannyasa
Kshatriya yes yes yesno formal sannyasa
Brahmin yes yes yes yes

Today, only a few Hindus strictly follow all these four ashrams. Nonetheless, the idea of enjoying the world in a religious and regulated manner, followed by gradual retirement remains a powerful ideal.

Each of the four ashrams has its specific duties.The main ones are listed below.

Brahmachari (Student Life)

The brahmacari-ashram, often away from the home (somewhat like a boarding school), was primarily intended for fostering spiritual values. Memorisation and skill development were subsidiary to character formation and self-realisation. Even sons of the royal family were expected to undergo this austere and rigorous training.

To be celibate and live a simple life, free from sense pleasure and material allurement.
To serve the guru (spiritual teacher) and collect alms for him.
To hear, study and assimilate the Vedas.
To develop all the appropriate qualities: humility, discipline, simplicity, purity of thought, cleanliness, soft-heartedness, and so on.

Grihasta (Household Life)

Traditionally some men remained lifelong celibates, either remaining as brahmacharis or immediately becoming sannyasis. Others were required to marry, extending their responsibilities to include wife, children, relatives, and society in general. This ashram is the only one permitting sexual gratification.

  • To make money and to enjoy sensual pleasure according to ethical principles.
  • To perform sacrifice and observe religious rituals.
  • To protect and nourish family members (wife, children, and elders).
  • To teach children spiritual values.
  • To give in charity, and especially to feed holy people, the poor, and animals.

Vanaprashta (Retired Life)

After the children have left home and settled, a man may gradually retire from family responsibilities and, with his wife, begin to focus his mind on spiritual matters. Often he goes on pilgrimage. His wife may accompany him, but all sexual relationships are forbidden. Vanaprashta literally means “forest-dweller.”

  • To generally devote more time to spiritual matters.
  • To engage in austerity and penance.
  • To go on pilgrimage.

Sannyasa (Renounced Life)

This position is traditionally available only to men who exhibit the qualities of a brahmana. The man would leave home and family and was prohibited from seeing his wife again. Considered civilly dead, he was free to wander, living a life dependent on God alone. The sannyasis are conspicuous in their saffron dress. They are often called sadhus (holy people) – although today not all are genuine!

  • To fully control the mind and senses, and to fix the mind on the Supreme.
  • To become detached and fearless, fully dependent on God as the only protector.
  • To teach and preach the importance of self-realisation and God-consciousness, especially to the householders, who often become distracted from their spiritual duties.

Meaning and Purpose

  • What does the system of four ashrams say about the purpose of life, according to Hindu thought?

Personal Reflection

  • Do these stages resemble what happens in other societies? If so, what are the similarities What are the differences?
  • Are there any values which stand out for us, or with which we strongly agree or disagree? Why?
  • How is our evaluation of these practices coloured by our own world view and our own culture and upbringing?

Related Values and Issues

  • Family values / renunciation
  • The purpose of education
  • Ageism