Hinduism not only tells us the aims of life but also shows the practical ways to achieve them. There are four Ashramas or the stages in human life;
1) Brahmacharya- stage of studentship,
2) Grihastha- stage of living as a householder,
3) Vanaprastha- stage of living in the forest, &
4) Sannyasa-stage of complete renunciation.
Each stage has its own responsibilities and duties. First, two Ashramas- Brahmacharya & Grihastha are the Pravritti Marga (path of work) and the later two- Vanaprastha & Sannyasa are the Nivritti Marga (path of renunciation).
Brahmacharya or celibacy is the stage of pursuing education and discipline. The student is not allowed to involve himself in any pleasures. One is supposed to stay at the house of his preceptor and acquire knowledge of the Vedas and the sciences from his teacher. This is the period of many trials. In ancient times, the teachers usually lived in forest hermitages- the Gurukul or forest universities. The student regarded his teacher as his spiritual father and served him with faith, devotion, and reverence.
After the Upanayana Ceremony, the life of student begins for a child. His day begins with the bath. He rises early, bathes and does Sandhya and Gayatri Japa. He studies scriptures. Wine, meat, perfumes, garlands, tasty and savoury dishes, women, acids, spices and injury to sentient creatures are strictly forbidden. Lust, anger, greed; dancing, singing and playing on musical instruments; dice-playing, gossip, slander and untruth are also strictly prohibited. The bhramachari has to sleep alone.
Notably, this stage is only for boys and not for girls and the student needs to stay with his teacher or guru until he finishes his studies. This stage ends at the age of 20 to 25 or less depending upon the situation. The lessons one learns during this stage are: speak the truth, do your duty, never swerve from the study and teaching of the Vedas, never swerve from duty, never neglect your welfare, never neglect your prosperity, and never swerve from the duties to the gods and the forefathers.
Matridevo Bhava-Regard your mother as a god.
Pitridevo Bhava– Regard your father as a god.
Acharyadevo Bhava– Regard your teacher as a god.
Atithidevo Bhava -Regard your guest as god.
Grihastha ashrama is the stage of the householder. At this stage, one enters marriage and is ready to take up the responsibilities and duties towards his wife, children, father, and mother. After the Brahmacharya Ashrama ends starts the Grihastha-Ashrama. Among the four Ashrama, this stage is the most important stage and tends to last longer than other stages. In this stage, he has to earn his livelihood by using his skills he learnt from the teacher during Brahmacharya Ashrama. This stage is the heart of every other stage. During this stage, he is authorized to enjoy kama (sex) as well as he has to work hard to secure Artha (wealth). This stage is expected to end at 50 years of age.
The householder should perform the Pancha Maha Yajnas. The five Yajnas are:
DEVA-YAJNA—offering oblations to the Devas, with the recitation of the Vedic Mantras.
RISHI-YAJNA—study of Vedas and teaching of Vedas to students, and offering of oblations to the Rishis.
PITRI-YAJNA—Tarpana or ablutions to departed souls and Sraaddha or annual religious rites performed for the departed souls.
BHUTA-YAJNA—distribution of food to cows, crows, and animals in general.
ATITHI-YAJNA—giving food to guests and honoring them.
When one feels that, his sons are able to bear the burden of his duties, then he is ready for the next stage that is meditation.
Vanaprastha which means “going to the forest”, is the third stage of life. Brahmacharya is the preparation for the life of a householder, likewise, Vanaprastha is the preparation for the last stage of Sannyasa. At this stage, one is retired, gives up sexual life, gives up all the duties and responsibilities to his children and enter the forest to meditate in solitude on higher spiritual things. He is now free from social bonds and the responsibilities of life. He could leave his wife to the care of his sons or allow her to accompany him.
Notably, a person cannot enter Vanaprastha-Ashrama unless and until his daughter are married and his sons are able to earn their own livelihood which ensures that the person completes all his duties towards his families. This stage is of 50 to 75 years old.
Sannyasa or complete renunciation is the last stage of life and may start at age 75 with no restriction of age. After one becomes a Sannyasin, he renounces all possessions, all distinctions of caste, all rites and ceremonies and all attachments to everything and becomes spiritual. Being free from likes, dislikes, desires, lust, anger, greed and pride, one lives alone, lives on fruits and roots found in the jungle, spends time in meditation. He is to practice austerities and thus be prepared for salvation. If he follows this stage properly, he would be released from the cycle of birth and rebirth and would attain Moksha (salvation). Such a Sannyasin is an ideal man.