Shakespeare divided life into "seven ages". In Hinduism, human life is believed to comprise four stages. These are called "ashramas" and every man should ideally go through each of these stages:
- The First Ashrama - "Brahmacharya" or the Student Stage
- The Second Ashrama - "Grihastha" or the Householder Stage
- The Third Ashrama - "Vanaprastha" or the Hermit Stage
- The Fourth Ashrama - "Sannyasa" or the Wandering Ascetic Stage
Brahmacharya - The Celibate Student:
This is a period of formal education. It lasts until the age of 25, during which, the young male leaves home to stay with a guru and attain both spiritual and practical knowledge. During this period, he is called a brahmachari, and is prepared for his future profession, as well as for his family, and social and religious life ahead.
Grihastha - The Married Family Man:
This period begins when a man gets married, and undertakes the responsibility for earning a living and supporting his family. At this stage, Hinduism supports the pursuit of wealth (artha) as a necessity, and indulgence in sexual pleasure (kama), under certain defined social and cosmic norms. This ashrama lasts until around the age of 50. According to the Laws of Manu, when a person's skin wrinkles and his hair greys, he should go out into the forest. However, in real life, most Hindus are so much in love with this second ashrama that the Grihastha stage lasts a lifetime!
Vanaprastha - The Hermit in Retreat:
This stage of a man begins when his duty as a householder comes to an end: He has become a grandfather, his children are grown up, and have established lives of their own. At this age, he should renounce all physical, material and sexual pleasures, retire from his social and professional life, leave his home, and go to live in a forest hut, spending his time in prayers. He is allowed to take his wife along, but is supposed to maintain little contact with the family. This kind of life is indeed very harsh and cruel for an aged person. No wonder, this third ashrama is now nearly obsolete.
Sannyasa - The Wandering Recluse:
At this stage, a man is supposed to be totally devoted to God. He is a sannyasi, he has no home, no other attachment; he has renounced all desires, fears and hopes, duties and responsibilities. He is virtually merged with God, all his worldly ties are broken, and his sole concern becomes attaining moksha, or release from the circle of birth and death. (Suffice it to say, very few Hindu men can go up to this stage of becoming a complete ascetic.) When he dies, the funeral ceremonies (Pretakarma) are performed by his son and heir.
What About Women?:
Although these ashramas are predominantly designed for the male, females too have a vital role to play in each one of them. So women are not actually excluded because they are always supposed to have an active social and religious life at home. However, a woman's role is of a dependent nature since, traditionally, they need the protection of a responsible male at every stage of life.
History of Ashramas:
This system of ashramas is believed to be prevalent since the 5th century BCE in Hindu society. However, historians say that these stages of life were always viewed more as 'ideals' than as common practice. According to one scholar, even in its very beginnings, after the first ashrama, a young adult could choose which of the other ashramas he would wish to pursue for the rest of his life. Today, it is not expected that a Hindu male should go through the four stages, but it still stands as an important "pillar" of Hindu socio-religious tradition.