According to Vedic tradition, a human being spends a lifetime in four stages or ashrams. The word ashram in Sanskrit literally means “place of spiritual shelter.” The framework of the four stages allows for comfort and clarity as spirituality is developed throughout life. Let us examine the unfolding of each ashram.
The first quarter of life is spent in the Brahmachari ashram or student stage. It is characterized by education and study as the aspirant develops skills and essential self-discipline. It is the period to gather energy, while living a simple life free from sense pleasure and material allurement, in preparation for what lies ahead.
Success in the Brahmachari ashram allows for a smooth entry into the second quarter, the Grihasta ashram or householder stage. Duties surrounding marriage, children and gainful work create the opportunity to shoulder responsibility and impact family and society. Those in the householder stage will work to protect and nourish the family, enjoy worldly life, teach spiritual values and perform acts of charity. Grihasta is considered the most important ashram as the industry of the householder goes to support the other three ashrams.
As his or her children become self-reliant and householder responsibilities diminish, the aspirant enters the Vanaprashta ashram or forest dweller stage in the third quarter of life. This is a time to let go, retire from worldly activity and devote more time to spiritual practices. A simple living arrangement is sought, service work is undertaken and the role of counselor is adopted.
The final stage of renunciation, or the Sannaysa ashram, is available to only a few. In pursuit of selfrealization the aspirant fully detaches from the world and becomes dependent on God alone. The Vedic world view explains that mankind is unified with nature, that science and philosophy merge. These ashrams can be seen in nature as well, each one having a necessary and proper function in support of the life cycle and the spiritual path.