How does the system of stages of life help in attaining four pursuits?


1. Origin and meaning of ashrams

The word ‘ashram (आश्रम)’ has been derived from the root ‘shram (श्रम्‌)’ which means to make efforts. The meaning of the derived word ‘ashram’ is ‘a state in which one makes efforts on one’s own’

2. Objectives and type

‘Righteousness (Dharma), wealth (artha), desire (kama) and the Final Liberation (Moksha) [धर्मार्थकाममोक्ष] are the four pursuits (purusharthas) of human life according to Bharatiya (Indian) culture. The system of stages of life (ashrams) explained in the Vedic religion is the principal means of attaining them.

     When explaining the duties to be performed in the various stages of life, the lifespan of man has been considered as 100 years and has been divided into four parts. Each part is called a stage (ashram). The four stages are the stage of a celibate (brahmacharya), that of a householder (gruhastha), that of a retired householder (vanaprastha) and that of a renunciant (sannyas). In the stage of celibacy one has to live in the Guru’s hermitage, study the scriptures and undertake vowed religious observances (vrat). In the stage of a householder through procreation, performing fire sacrifices and study of scriptures one repays the three debts towards society, ancestors and God respectively. Later as one ages one has to retire to the forest to complete the third stage and towards the end of life renouncing the world one should attain the Final Liberation (Moksha) through Self-realisation and thus accomplish the very purpose of life according to this philosophy. This is beneficial in gradually detaching oneself from desire and attachment for wealth. Restricting the natural and unrestricted tendency of man and guiding it onto the right path by defining limits is necessary to accomplish any of the four pursuits (purusharthas) of human life. Realising that this objective would be fulfilled only if human life was regulated by the four stages of life, sages laid down the system of stages of life.’ (1) The absolute means to accomplish the ultimate objective of human life, that is the Final Liberation or eternal benefaction is the stage of the renunciant and to accomplish the spiritual practice of that stage the first three stages are essential. Thus the four stages are inter-related. In short the system of stages of life teaches a materialist what spiritual practice he should undertake to gradually adopt the path of Spirituality (nivruttimarg) as his age advances.

3. Importance

The stages of life are absolutely essential to decrease attachment for the Great Illusion (Maya), to reduce awareness of the body (dehabuddhi), to consider others as part of one’s own family and to assuage the ego.

4. Stage of the celibate (brahmacharyashram)

4.1 Duties and spiritual practice

‘छात्राणां अध्‍ययनं तप: ।’ means study is the duty or spiritual practice (penance) of a student. This includes the study of observing the code of Righteousness (Dharma)

4.2 Livelihood

A celibate (a student studying the Vedas) and a yati (ascetic) are supposed to sustain themselves by begging for alms (bhiksha). This assists in reducing the ego.

4.3 The celibate and the desirous one

कामचारी तु कामेन य इन्‍द्रियसुखे रत: ।
ब्रह्मचारी सदैवैष य इन्‍द्रियजये रत: ।। – महाभारत १४.२६.१५

Meaning: The one who remains engrossed in happiness involving the five senses with the hope of getting sensuous pleasure is the desirous one. On the other hand the one who finds happiness in constant suppression of the senses is the celibate (brahmachari). – Mahabharat 14.26.15

4.4 The other stages

After undertaking spiritual practice by living with the Guru for twelve years rarely would one accept the path of Spirituality directly and become a renunciant (sannyasi). Most people would accept the path of materialism and become householders as their spiritual practice remained incomplete. They would compensate for this shortcoming by serving those following the path of Spirituality.

4.5 The stage of the celibate and the class (varna)

This stage of life was meant for those belonging to the Brahman and Kshatriya classes.

5. Stage of the householder (gruhasthashram)

5.1 Importance

The general tendency of people is to behave well with those who make them happy. An average person tends to call a person good when the latter behaves well with the former. Keeping exactly this secret of the attitude of an average person in mind, the code of conduct of the married householder has been framed. Moreover this secret itself lays the foundation of the code of conduct of the married householder’s life. The supreme worldly happiness is sexual orgasm. Hence in the Ayurveda intercourse is called the seat of Bliss (Anandsthan) and it is fulfilled in this stage of the householder.

Another benefit of this stage is procreation of a son through a wife.

  • A. ‘नापुत्रस्‍य लोकोऽस्‍ति’ means one without a son does not attain heaven.

  • B. ‘तस्‍मादुत्तरवयसे पुत्रान्‌ पितोपजीवति’ means a son shall look after his father in his old age.

Though in the Satyayug carrying forward the lineage was the motive behind intercourse, gradually with the successive yugs (eras) it began to decline and the objective that intercourse should concomittantly result in progeny came into being. Mentally one has to go from the Kaliyug to the Satyayug, that is one has to make spiritual progress. Hence one should remember that the purpose of life is to acquire control over sensuous pleasure and not for enjoying material objects. This is the very basis of our culture. This can be achieved in the stage of a householder in the following ways.

  • 1. Sexual desire for many before marriage gets diverted to only one after marriage.

  • 2. Since the rule ‘धर्मेण काम:’ meaning desires should be fulfilled through righteous conduct holds good in this stage, one has to gratify desires observing the restrictions of Righteousness. As a result an individual learns to refrain from sexual desire on the days when such acts are prohibited.

For one who is unable to love platonically, sexual intercourse is a means of uniting with the mind, by gradually developing physical attachment. Man acquires intense worldly happiness from the woman he marries so also, the woman. Thus the implied meaning of marriage is that the couple should love each other deeply. The quality of love is that, as one starts loving someone and along with it follows Righteousness (Dharma) and remains in the holy company of renunciants, gradually it acquires a dimension of love without expectations. Love slowly shifts from the body to the mind. This itself is called widening of the horizons of love.

The holy text Navanath Bhaktisar gives an apologue of King Bhartruharinath. To see how much Queen Pingala loved him, the king falsely informed her that he was dead. Upon hearing this, she became a sati (entered the pyre). When Bhartruharinath came to know of it he was about to jump into the pyre when the others stopped him. Then for twelve years he remained in the crematorium waiting for Queen Pingala. The noteworthy point is that inspite of having twelve hundred queens, his love for her had shifted from the body to the mind. Pingala too became a sati as her love had shifted onto the psychological plane. The twelve hundred queens were only physically attached and hence they did not become satis. Since the king was fed up of physical love he did not want their bodies but wanted Pingala. Later Gorakhnath released the king from the Great Illusion (Maya).

One gets sattvik (sattva predominant) Bliss of company only when attachment for the physical body is reduced. Hence for the one who is unable to renounce material objects all of a sudden, the method of reducing it stepwise, is marriage. As the physical attachment of the couple starts decreasing they are able to love their children proportionately more and more. That is, they wish for the well-being of their children. Benefaction refers to the fulfillment of human birth ! From this one will realise how wrong is the belief that by following Righteousness man becomes detached and more and more inactive day by day. Holy texts of great sages who have realised God will themselves illustrate how vastly expansive Their love for others is, that is how much They love the world.

The importance of the householder stage is explained in the holy texts, the Mahabharat and the Ramayan as given below.

  • 1. गृहस्‍थस्‍त्‍वेष धर्माणां सर्वेषां मूलमुच्‍यते ।। – महाभारत १२.२३४.६

        Meaning: The householder is the basic support of all types of Righteousness. – Mahabharat 12.234.

  • 2. यथा नदीनदा: सर्वे सागरे यान्‍ति संस्‍थितिम्‌ ।
        एवमाश्रमिण: सर्वे गृहस्‍थे यान्‍ति संस्‍थितिम् ।। – महाभारत १२.२९५.३९

        Meaning: Just as all small rivulets and big rivers finally culminate into the sea so also the householder is the support of individuals undergoing all other stages of life. – Mahabharat 12.295.3

  • 3. यथा मातरमाश्रित्‍य सर्वे जीवन्‍ति जन्‍तव: ।
        एवं गार्हस्‍थ्‍यमाश्रित्‍य वर्तन्‍त इतराश्रमा: ।। – महाभारत १२.२६९.६

        Meaning: Just as all living creatures survive with the support of the mother so also people in all other stages of life depend on the stage of the householder. – Mahabharat 12.269.6

  • 4. आश्रमांस्‍तुलया सर्वान्‍धृतानाहुर्मनीषिण: ।
        एकतश्च त्रयो राजन्‌ गृहस्‍थाश्रम एकत: ।। – महाभारत १२.१२.१२

        Meaning: Wise men say that the stage of the householder alone is equivalent to the other three stages put together. – Mahabharat 12.12.12

  • 5. चतुर्णामाश्रमाणां हि गार्हस्‍थ्‍यं श्रेष्‍ठमुत्तमम्‌ ।। – रामायण २.१०६.२२

        Meaning: Of all the four stages the householder’s stage is the best. – Ramayan 2.106.22

  • 6. अधर्मो धर्मतां याति स्‍वामी चेद्धार्मिको भवेत्‌ ।
        स्‍वामिनो गुणदोषाभ्‍यां भृत्‍या: स्‍युर्नात्र संशय: ।। – महाभारत ११.८.३३

        Meaning: Even the unrighteous servitor of a righteous master (householder) becomes righteous. Undoubtedly the qualities and defects in the master are reflected in his servant. – Mahabharat 11.8.33

5.2 Duties and spiritual practice

A. Taking responsibility for those following the path of Spirituality (nivruttimargi): Householders who follow the materialistic path of Righteousnes shoulder the responsibility of caring for the needs of those observing the path of Spirituality through renunciation.

B. Reception given to a guest

  • Origin and meaning: The Amarkosh defines an atithi (अतिथि) as ‘अतिथिर्ना गृहागते’ meaning a visitor to a home may be called a guest (atithi). ‘अत्ति सततं गच्‍छति इति’ means one who perpetually walks. ‘अध्‍वनीनोऽतिथिर्ज्ञेय:’ means a traveller is referred to as a guest. ‘नास्‍ति तिथिर्यस्‍य स:’ means one who visits unexpectedly at any time may be called a guest. A guest is called atithi because he does not stay with someone for the full day (tithi). Parashar (1.82) has defined a guest as the Brahman who stays with someone only for a night. The one who visits frequently from the beginning (atha) [अथ] to the end (iti) [इति] of the stage of the householder is a guest (atithi) [अतिथि]. Another definition of a guest is, the one in whose company one does not even realise how time (tithi) passes.

  • Importance:

    1. The Atharvaveda says that serving a guest is a sacrificial fire by itself. The custom of considering a guest as God and serving him is prevalent since the Vedic times. Parashar says

        प्रियो वा यदि वा व्‍देष्‍यो मूर्ख: पण्‍डित एव वा ।
        वैश्वदेवे तु सम्‍प्राप्‍त: सोऽतिथि: स्‍वर्गसङ्‌गक्रम: ।। – पराशरस्‍मृति १.४०

        Meaning: Irrespective of whether a guest is a friend or a foe, a foolish or a learned one, he who arrives at the time of the ritual of Vaishvadev (a ritual of offering oblation to Agni, the deity of fire, performed daily before having a meal) bestows heavenly merits upon the host. – Parasharsmruti 1.40’ (2)

    2. As per Dharmashastra, If one does not offer a meal to a deserving guest despite having the capacity to do so then one incurs sin; this is not so if the guest is undeserving. However if he too is offered a meal then one acquires merits.

    3. Ascetics (yogis) and evolved beings (siddhas) roam around on the earth in the form of Brahmans. A host has to undertake penitence if he eats a meal without serving celibates (brahmachari) and ascetics (yati). The old Harit says, ‘When an ascetic dines at one’s home it is actually Shrihari who is doing so. If he spends a night with a householder then the host is cleansed of all his sins.’ On the contrary the host who dines before serving a guest loses both his wealth and his merits.

  • Objectives: ‘Serving a guest is the chief code of Righteousness (Dharma) of a householder. In the olden days there were no amenities like roads and vehicles. People would embark on pilgrimages or journeys on foot. They were compelled to halt at someone’s house for lunch and to retire for the night. The scriptures on Righteousness have laid the responsibility of providing food and shelter to such travellers upon householders, thus making their journey pleasurable.’ (3)

  • Practice: One should wait for the arrival of a guest in the courtyard of the house after the ritual of Vaishvadev for a period of one-eighth of a muhurt, referred to as the period of godohan (the time required to milk a cow) [Markandey Puran 29.24, 25]. One should perform the following acts in honour of a guest – welcome him, offer water to wash his feet, offer him a seat, keep a lit lamp in front of him, serve him a meal, give him a place to stay and a mattress to sleep on, etc. and attend to him personally. Depending on one’s capacity if one offers food or even water or a mattress to a guest then the duty of serving a guest is fulfilled. Manu clearly states –

        तृणानि भूमिरुदकं वाक्‍चतुर्थी च सूनृता ।
        एतान्‍यपि सतां गेहे नोच्‍छिद्यन्‍ते कदाचन ।। – मनुस्‍मृति ३.१०१

        Meaning: If one cannot afford to serve a meal to a guest then he should at least be offered a grass seat. If even that is not available then he should be asked to sit on plain ground and if even that is not feasible then one should inquire about his well-being. At least this should be followed in the homes of righteous people. – Manusmruti 3.101

           ‘There are varied opinions about how a guest should be bid farewell (Apastamba Dharmasutra One should accompany the guest upto the place where his vehicle is parked or till the lake, temple, river or border of the village and then circumambulating him should say “I bid you farewell until we meet again” (Dharmasutra by Shankha)

        If the guests belong to different classes then they should be treated according to their class or potential (Vasishtha Dharmasutra 11.6). The Mahabharat (12.146.5) preaches that even an enemy who comes as a guest should be treated with honour.’ (5)

  • Regulations for guest

    1. यदर्थो हि नरो राजंस्‍तदर्थोऽस्‍यातिथि: स्‍मृत: ।। – महाभारत १५.२६.३७

        Meaning: (Dhrutarashtra tells Yudhishthir) O king, it is a rule that a guest should behave in accordance with the status of his host (according to the situation) irrespective of his own status.- Mahabharat 15.26.37

    2. A guest who eats a meal before his host dishonours him.

  • What should be done if no guest arrives?: One should serve a Brahman or if even that is not possible then a cow should be fed till it is content.

C. The five great fire sacrifices (panchamahayadnya): ‘These are the five great fire sacrifices or the five great vowed observances (vrats) to be performed everyday. The Taittiriya Aranyak (2.10) states that these five great fire sacrifices viz. devyadnya (sacrificial fire for the deities), brahmayadnya (sacrificial fire for Brahman), bhutyadnya (sacrificial fire for living beings), pitruyadnya (sacrificial fire for the ancestors) and manushyayadnya (sacrificial fire for humans) are performed extensively. A devyadnya is completed even if one stick of sacrificial firewood (samidha) is offered in the fire (havan). A brahmayadnya is said to be complete if a study of the Vedas is done, be it recitation of a rucha (Vedic verse) or chanting of a yajurmantra or a sama. A bhutyadnya is completed by offering a sacrifice of food to living beings. A pitruyadnya is said to be performed if a (shraddha) or even water is offered to ancestors. A manushyayadnya is said to be accomplished if food is offered to Brahmans. The Apastamba ( states that the adjective “maha” is attached to the above rituals to glorify them and the term “yadnya (sacrificial fire)” for an ornamental purpose. The motive behind these five rituals is fulfillment of one’s duties in relation to the Creator, the ancient sages, ancestors and millions of other living beings.

During the following period other motives also seem to be attached to this arrangement of five daily sacrificial fires. Manu and others (Manusmruti 3.68-71, Vishnu Dharmasutra 59.19, 20, etc.) say that everyday every householder destroys or hurts living beings in five instances that is when cooking, milling with a milling stone, sweeping with a broom, separating food grain in a sifting pan, using a mortar and pestle and in a vessel storing water. Great sages have described these five day-to-day fire sacrifices (daily rituals) to cleanse one of demerits arising out of such violence or harm.

  • Devyadnya: Manu (3.70) has called a fire sacrifice (hom) a devyadnya. The Smruti holy texts which were written later differentiate between a fire sacrifice or a devyadnya and ritualistic worship of God. In the Middle Ages the authors of holy texts began to consider the rite of Vaishvadev as devyadnya. However a fire sacrifice performed for deities is distinct from the rite of Vaishvadev is what some authors opine. During the Middle Ages and the recent times the concept of a fire sacrifice was forgotten and instead elaborate ritualistic worship of idols in homes began to be performed.

  • Brahmayadnya: Brahmayadnya is the study of the Vedas (svadhyay).

  • Bhutyadnya (taking away a sacrifice): One part of the food offered to Vaishvadev [ritual of offering food daily before a meal to Agni (deity of fire)] is sacrificed for the deities. In a bhutyadnya a sacrifice is placed on the ground instead of offering it in the fire.

    यत्र विश्वे देवा इज्‍यन्‍ते तव्‍दैश्वदेविकं कर्म । – पराशर माघवीय भाग १ पाद ३८९

    Meaning: Vaishvadevik actions (karma) are those in which Vishvedev (a group of deities to whom the fire sacrifice is offered) are ritualistically worshipped. – Parashar Maghaviya part 1 pad (chapter) 389

  • Pitruyadnya: This can be performed in three ways the first being making an offering of water to the deities, sages and ancestors during daily ritualistic actions (tarpan) [Manusmruti 3.70], the second by offering the food remaining after offering a bhutyadnya to ancestors (Manusmruti 3.91) and the third by inviting and serving a meal to at least one Brahman everyday and performing the rite of shraddha (for departed souls) [Manusmruti 3.82, 83]. In these shraddhas which are performed daily balls of boiled rice (pindas) are not offered

  • Nruyadnya or manushyayadnya: Manu (3.70) has said that honouring a guest is itself a nruyadnya or a manushyayadnya. Offering a meal to a Brahman is also a manushyayadnya.’ (6)

D. Offering: This constitutes an important aspect of Righteousness (Dharma). Offering constitutes an important aspect of any religious rite. ‘दानं तप: गृहस्‍थानां ।’ means that making offerings is the spiritual practice of those in the stage of the householder, that is of worldly people. The scriptures enlist construction of temples, growing gardens, digging lakes, offering water to people, etc. as religious acts performed with expectation.

5.3 Day-to-day conduct

Day-to-day ritualistic actions and conduct: ‘Day-to-day actions [ahnik (आह्निक)] and conduct refer to duties and rituals to be performed everyday and at regular intervals. This is a very important subject from the scriptures.

Ahaha (अह:) means a day, that is the period from one sunrise to the next (bright and dark part of the day). The bright part is divided into morning, noon and evening. Some divide it into five parts viz. morning, mid-morning, noon, afternoon and evening. Each part is equivalent to three muhurts. (One muhurt is equivalent to two ghatikas, that is 48 minutes). 30 muhurts comprise one day of 24 hours duration. The Smrutis however generally state a day to be comprised of eight parts.

    धर्मं पूर्वे धनं मध्‍ये जघन्‍ये काममाचरेत्‌ ।
    अहन्‍यनुचरेदेवमेष शास्‍त्रकृतो विधि: ।। – महाभारत ३.३३.४०

Meaning: One should undertake spiritual practice in the first part of the day, do business to earn money in the middle part of the day and enjoy object pleasure in the final part of the day. It is prescribed by the scriptures to always behave ritualistically in this manner. – Mahabharat 3.33.40

Some of the main day-to-day chores are chronologically as follows – waking up, meditating upon God, ablutions, washing hands and feet, gargling, brushing of teeth, bathing, performing the ritual of sandhya, making an offering of water to the deities, sages and ancestors during daily ritualistic actions (tarpan), changing clothes, performing the five great sacrificial fires (panchmahayadnya), worship of the deity of fire, dining (at noon), earning a living, study and teaching of the scriptures, the ritual of sandhya in the evening, making offerings, sleeping and performing the fire sacrifices which have to be performed at a specific time.

From the worldly point of view four nadis (one nadi or ghatika is equivalent to 24 minutes) before sunrise and four which are functional after sunset constitute one day. If one bathes one ghatika before sunrise then it is considered to be a part of the day beginning after sunrise (Ahniktattva pad 327).

The period of one prahar, preceding sunrise, consists of two muhurts. The first muhurt is called the Brahmamuhurt. At this time the intellect and energy of man to write holy texts is at its optimum; hence that muhurt is called the Brahmamuhurt (an excerpt from a commentary on the Manusmruti 4.92 by Kulluk).’(7)

Detailed information on daily chores as well as rules and prohibitions is given in ‘Science of Spirituality: Vol. 2 – Practice of Spirituality and the Seeker’

5.4 Earning a livelihood

‘धर्मेण अर्थ:’ means earning wealth righteously.

5.5 Importance of a housewife

A. भार्याहीनं गृहस्‍थस्‍य शून्‍यमेव गृहं भवेत्‌ ।। – महाभारत १२.१४४.५

    Meaning: The house of a householder appears empty without a wife. – Mahabharat 12.144.5

B. न गृहं गृहमित्‍याहुर्गृहिणी गृहमुच्‍यते ।
    गृहं तु गृहिणीहीनमरण्‍यसदृशं मतम्‌ ।। – महाभारत १२.१४४.६

    Meaning: A house without a housewife is not a real home, in fact it is equivalent to a forest. It is the wife who makes the house a home. – Mahabharat 12.144.6

C. वृक्षमूलेऽपि दयिता यस्‍य तिष्‍ठति तद्‌गृहम्‌ ।
     प्रासादोऽपि तया हीन: कान्‍तार इति निश्चितम्‌ ।। – महाभारत १२.१४४.१२

Meaning: Even the shelter of a tree becomes home to a man if his wife is with him and without her even a palace is doubtlessly akin to a forest. – Mahabharat 12.144.12

D. A wife is considered as the other half of a man (ardhangi). No religious rite is performed without a couple. If not performed thus then ritualistically it is incorrect. It becomes lop-sided. That is why the Great Illusion (Prakruti) and the Absolute Being (Purush), that is, woman and man should be harmoniously blended together.


Varnashramvyavastha (System of classes and stages of life)’, published by Sanatan Sanstha.

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First edition : Vol. 3 to 10,   Second edition: Vol. 1 and 2
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3. Vol. 1, Pg. 114

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Dharmashastracha Itihas (first and second halves). Second edition: 1980, Publisher: Secretary, Maharashtra State Literary and Cultural Society, Secretariat, Mumbai 400 0034.
5. Pg. 279-280           6. Pg. 266-278
7. Pg. 252-253