Our sages have divided the life span of 100 yrs in to 4 stages. This division is called the “Aashrams of life”. The 4 stages are: Brahamacharya, or celibacy, Grihastha, or family life, Vaanpristha, or social life, and, sanyaasa, or the stage of total detachment. The word Aashram denotes “hard work for self-benevolence”. Swami Dayanand Saraswati defines Aashram as a system in which one works as hard as possible and acquires the highest level of qualities. (aaryodesh ratnamala).
The sole aim of human existence is to get rid of all forms of negativity and acquire lasting peace and happiness. To achieve such, a well-organized daily routine and hard work are essential. Our sages have given the doctrine of four forms of hard work in the form of Dharma, Artha, Kaama and Moksha. Dharma constitutes performing our duties in life while following the path of honesty and justice. Artha is to attain prosperity by following this path which leads to attainment of Kaama, the fulfillment of desires, ultimately leading to everlasting peace and salvation, Mokhsa.
These goals can be fulfilled only through the 4 stages of life.
Brahmacharyaashram: The goal of this aashram is to live with proper discipline, acquire all forms of knowledge, and achieve physical, mental and spiritual strength, all the while remaining distanced from materialistic desires so often expressed in our thoughts, speech and action. The first 25 years of life have been traditionally designated for this aashram. Brahamacharya is made up of two words, brahama and charya. Brahama denotes Veda, knowledge, God etc. and charya is to achieve, obey, follow and utilize all that is given in life. In present context Brahamacharya, therefore, is to achieve knowledge of both materialism and spiritualism. The ancient Gurukul education curriculum consisted of exactly this lifestyle in which students were known as Brahamachaari. During this first aashram of life, Brahamachaaris also remained unwed. The word Brahamachaari, therefore, became synonymous with one not having entered marriage, though even in Vedic times if a student in Gurukul was not married, he or she would still be referred to as a Brahamachaari. Even in present day, by practicing simplicity, hard work, acting perseverant and disciplined, this proper code of conduct can be followed alongside the modern education system to bring about the best of both worlds to produce confident and independent students to make the world a better place to live.
Grihasthaashram: In Vedic times, the right to enter in the family life was given only after finishing the education and going through the Brahmacharyaashram properly as outlined above. Usually the age of this part of life was considered appropriate from 25 to 50 yrs. To marry a person who would confirm to his/her personality, habits and expectations was considered most important. Even today, some of these elements are considered important in finding a life partner. What used to be equally important is that after getting married, the couple would follow the path of 5 Yagya and 8 part yoga in their life, have progeny, and do their absolute best to inculcate the same values in their children by example rather than preaching. The householders were also the main work force and used to take care of all other segments of society and everyone who is in the other 3 aashrams. Therefore, this aashram is considered the most important and the best part of life. However, our sages made it very clear that this part of life was not a mere source of luxury and sensuous pleasures, but this opportunity was to be utilized for the upliftment of the society and be used as a step stone for self-realization and eventual salvation. The householders, who did not do sandhya and havan on a regular basis, did not take care of parents and other elders and of those who could not care for all other beings and the environment were not looked upon with respect. If this ideology and code of conduct is followed in our lives today, the result will be lasting happiness and peace in the personal and family lives and will result in a better community, nation and the world.
Vaanprasthaashram: Historically, the ideal way to fulfill the requirements of this aashram was to literally leave the house when one would be over 50 yrs. of age and became a grandparent and spend rest of the life serving the society while still taking care of your own needs physically and financially. It appears that the society in those times provided such a strong support and the personal needs were so minimal that this change of life did not pose any problem to anyone. However, today, our life styles have changed so much that such a drastic change is neither possible nor practical or beneficial to anyone. On the contrary, this can only put more burdens on the householder. Actually it appears that the whole emphasis in the part of life seems to be on asking this individual and couple, who now has grown up children, some finances and knowledge about life and connections, to be able to provide service to the society in form of physical service, providing guidance, making donations etc. much more than they could ever provide while fulfilling the responsibilities as a householder. It is often seen that after retirement, most people spend their time purposelessly, eventually feels useless, get depressed, become ill and do not live long. If this golden period of life is spent with a purpose of self upliftement while being of service to the community at large, life will seem useful, there will be hope. This will certainly result is a better health and longevity.
Sanyasaashram: The word sanyas literally means God realization and live life of Dharma and the Sanyaasee is the one who lives life with high code of conduct. This is the last stage of life, traditionally from 75 to the end of life. Most people reach this stage of life after passing through the previously mentioned 3 stages (aashrams). However there are rare souls who can go directly from Brahamacharya to Sanyaasa. This requires a total control on senses, all forms of vices and intense disciple and is very difficult to follow in real life. A true sanyaasee has of follow the Yama and Neeyama, have a routine of regular sandhya, havan, praanaayama and other higher stages of meditation. In this stage a person can truly influence the society by example of their lives more than by simply preaching.