Vedic teachings offer a model for a lifetime of spiritually conscious, purposeful living by suggesting that we view our lives with four significant stages or ashramas. These four stages of life are related to age and the physical, psychological, and spiritual developmental tasks required of us to mature, express our innate potential, and fulfill our divine destiny.
The Four Stages of Life and their Purpose
The core focus of this life plan is to provide a supportive structure and encourage us to arrange conditions to experience Self-realization, or enlightenment, in this lifetime. We view life through the lens of spiritual purpose. We focus on that goal while doing what is ours to do and what we are required to do at different times.
Swami Ranganathananda offered this inspiration from Sri Ramakrishna about spiritually conscious living.
A householder asked Sri Ramakrishna, "Can we realize God?" "Why not? Sri Ramakrishna replied. "God is your own self, the Self of your self…[The] Only necessary changes you must adopt [are] in your life. Then it will be possible."
This way, spiritual growth will become the key words of human development hereafter. Along with physical and intellectual growth, there must be a focus on spiritual growth. "Have I grown spiritually?" Everyone must ask this question.
The four stages of life are: student (brahmacharya), householder (grihastha), forrest-dweller/hermitage (vanaprastha), and renunciate (sannyasin).
Stage One: Student or Brahmacharya
The first stage of life is the stage of the student or brahmacharya. Brahmacharya indicates celibacy (which is appropriate in this early stage of life), but also, in its expanded definition, it means "to walk with God." This time relates to life as a child and young adult. It is the first twenty or twenty-five years of life when one is primarily engaged in study—learning the skills, ethical values, and spiritual philosophy that will support a lifetime of conscious living. In this stage, the primary task is to mature and learn self-discipline with particular emphasis on physical, mental, and moral disciplines. We are learning about life, family, community, vocation, and how to live effectively.
Stage Two: Householder or Grihastha
The second stage of life is the householder or grihastha—generally from twenty-five to fifty or sixty years of age. This stage is the primary time of family, civic, and spiritual responsibility. The task at this stage is learning selfless service and generous giving to purify the ego and positively contribute to society. Our spiritual practice is a thread that runs through all of our activities, infusing them with higher purpose so that we do not lose sight of the ultimate goal of life.
Householders have a place of particular significance in this four-stage pattern. At this juncture, they are principally the ones engaged in supporting others. Their work, energy, and finances support family, societal needs, and the well-being of their spiritual communities. They are the "pillars" of community and family life. The challenge at this stage is to remain spiritually centered, not get lost in one's family life or vocation, but to understand that this is a passing stage in life.
The householder stage is one that people may desperately cling to if they do not see the greater spiritual plan for their lives. When children are grown and it's time to retire, some feel "life" is over without the perspective of the other stages in life. They become depressed or engage in behaviors that reveal they are trying to cling to a stage of life that has passed. Understanding the beauty and higher purpose of the natural stages of life helps us let go gracefully from each stage and progress to the next.
Stage Three: Forest-dweller, Hermitage, or Vanaprastha
The third stage of life is called the forest-dweller, hermitage, or vanaprastha period. The forest-dweller name refers to this stage's central task, which is to simplify our lifestyle and seek surroundings that are quiet and conducive to contemplation and meditation. It is a time when our focus becomes more interiorized, with more time available for meditation and spiritual study.
For those in the West, this time roughly coincides with retirement, with the age period ranging from fifty or sixty to seventy-five or eighty. With family and community, one now occupies the wise elder or mentor role. Escaping to a forest was more viable in ancient times; that outer move is not essential for modern-day vanaprasthis. It remains, however, a profound metaphor. It is not time to buy a bigger house. It's time to simplify.
Stage Four: Renunciate or Sannyasin
The fourth stage of life is the renunciate or sannyasin, generally the time period ranging from seventy-five or eighty to one hundred years. In this period, one renounces all worldly goals and is focused solely on spiritual realization. One in this stage has let go of professional and community roles and is free to engage as a spiritual teacher, assisting others by sharing spiritual realization through knowledge and transmission of awakened consciousness. It is not necessary, of course, to have a vocation as a spiritual teacher. It is a natural occurrence. It may be the role of a revered elder in a spiritual community or a beloved and wise grandparent passing on the highest way of life to the next generation.
The task of this stage is to be supremely free. The great sage Ramana Maharshi is quoted as saying: "Retirement means abidance in the Self. Nothing more. It is not leaving one set of surroundings and getting entangled in another set, nor even leaving the concrete world and becoming involved in a mental world." Abidance in the Self is the abode of supreme freedom.
When we become aware of this four-stage divine pattern for truly fulfilled living, it can help us at any stage. Whatever age we are, we can reflect on our responsibilities and obligations and commit ourselves to fulfill life's highest duty—to be Self- and God-realized—able to live a spiritually awakened life in the world while positively contributing to others.
AN INTERVIEW WITH YOGACHARYA ON THE FOUR STAGES OF LIFE