Asramas
There are four Asramas or stages of life, viz., Brahmacharya, or the period of studentship, Grihastha or the stage of the householder, Vanaprastha or the stage of the forest-dweller or hermit, and Sannyasa or the life of renunciation or asceticism. Each stage has its own duties. 
These stages help the evolution of man. The four Asramas take man to perfection by successive stages. The practice of the four Asramas regulates the life from the beginning to the end. The first two Asramas pertain to Pravritti Marga or the path of work and the two later stages- the life of Vanaprastha and that of Sannayasa- are the stages of withdrawal from the world. They pertain to Nivritti Marga or the path of renunciation.

                  Towards Orderly Spiritual Evolution
Life is very systematically and orderly arranged in Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). There is opportunity for the development of the different sides of human activity. Due occupations and training are assigned to each period of life. Life is a great school in which the powers, capacities and faculties of man are to be evolved gradually.

Every man should pass through the different Asramas regularly. He should not enter any stage of life prematurely. He can enter the next stage, only when each has been completed. In nature, evolution is gradual. It is not revolutionary.

Lord Manu says in his Smriti:
"Having studied the Vedas or two Vedas or even one Veda in due order without breaking celibacy, let him dwell in the householder order. When the householder sees wrinkles in his skin and whiteness in his hair and the son of his son, then let him retire to the forest. Having passed the third portion of life in the forests, let him, having abandoned attachments, wander as an ascetic in the fourth portion of life".

In extraordinary cases, however, some of the stages may be omitted. Suka was a born Sannyasin. Sankara took Sannyasa without entering the stage of a householder. In rare and exceptional cases, a student is allowed to become a Sannyasin, his debts to the world having been fully paid in a previous birth. Nowadays, young Sannyasins without qualification are found in abundance. This is contrary to the ancient rules and causes much trouble.

              The Brahmachari or the Celibate Student
The first stage, Brahmacharya, is the period of study and discipline. The student should not indulge in any pleasures. He stays in the house of his preceptor (or dormitories for students) and studies the Vedas and the sciences. This is the period of probation. The teachers in ancient India usually lived in forest hermitages. These hermitages were the Gurukulas or forest universities. The student begged for his food. The children of the rich and the poor lived together. The student regarded his teacher as his spiritual father and served him with faith, devotion and reverence.

The life of a student begins with the Upanayana ceremony, his second birth (born again or twice born or Dwija). He must be hardy and simple in his habits. He rises early, bathes and does Sandhya and Gayatri Japa. He studies scriptures. He takes simple food in moderation and takes plenty of exercise. He sleeps on a hard mat and does not use soft beds and pillows. He is humble and obedient. He serves and respects elders. He attempts to be chaste in thought, word and deed.

He ever (always) engages himself in doing services to his preceptor. He refrains from wine, meat, perfumes, garlands, tasty and savoury dishes, acids, spices. He refrains from women, and from injury to sentient creatures. He refrains from lust, anger, greed, dancing, singing and playing on musical instruments; from dice-playing, gossip, slander and untruth. He sleeps alone.

After the end of his student career, he gives a present to his preceptor according to his ability and returns home to enter the household life. The preceptor gives the final instruction and sends the student home. The teacher delivers a convocation address to the students at the conclusion of their studentship:

"Speak the truth. Do your duty. Never swerve from the study of the Veda. Do not cut off the line of progeny. Give the preceptor the fees he desires. Never swerve away from truth. Never swerve from duty. Never neglect your welfare. Never neglect your prosperity. Never neglect the study and the teaching of the Vedas.
  • Never swerve from the duties to the gods and the forefathers. 
  • Regard your mother as a Goddess (Matri Devo Bhava). 
  • Regard your father as a god (Pitri Devo Bhava). 
  • Regard your teacher as a god (Acharya Devo Bhava). 
  • Regard your guest as a god (Atithi Devo Bhava).
  • Let only those actions that are free from blemishes be done and not others. 
  • Only those that are good acts to us should be performed by you and not others.
You should remove the fatigue of Brahmanas who are superior to you by serving them with seats (offering them seats) etc. Gift should be given with faith, in plenty, with modesty and sympathy. If there be any doubt regarding rites or conduct, then look up to the lives of great men and follow their examples. This is the injunction. This is the teaching. This is the secret of the Vedas. This is God’s word of command. This should be observed. Thus is this to be meditated upon."

                   The Grihastha or the Householder
The second stage is that of the Grihastha or householder. The household stage is entered at marriage, when the student has completed his studentship and is ready to take up the duties and responsibilities of household life. Of all the Asramas, this is the most important, because it supports all the others. As all creatures live supported by the air, so the other Orders exist supported by the householder. As all streams and rivers flow to rest in the ocean, so all the Asramas flow to rest in the householder. The Grihastha is the very heart of Aryan life. Everything depends on him.

Marriage is a sacrament for a Hindu. The wife is his partner in life. She is his Ardhangini (partner in life). He cannot do any religious ritual without her. She stands by his left side when he performs any religious performance. Husband and wife keep Rama and Sita as their ideal.

A householder should earn money by honest means and distribute it in the proper manner. He should spend one-tenth of his income in charity. He should enjoy sensual pleasures within the limits of the moral law. A householder is permitted to enjoy conjugal happiness on one night in a month.

                  Panch Maha Yajnas
The householder should perform the Pancha Maha Yajnas.

The five Yajnas are:
  1. Deva Yajna. Offering oblations unto Devas (gods); with recitation of Vedic Mantras.
  2. Rishi Yajna. Study the Vedas and the teaching of Vedas to students, and offering of oblations to Rishis.
  3. Pitri Yajna. Tarpana or ablutions to departed souls and Sraddha or annual religious rites performed for departed souls.
  4. Bhuta Yajna. Distribution of food to cows, crows and animals in general.
  5. Atithi Yajna. Giving food to guests and honouring them.
Hospitality is one of the householder’s chief duties. He must ever feed first his guests, Brahmanas and his relatives, and then he and his wife should eat.

When the householder sees that his sons are able to bear the burden of his duties, when his grandsons are around him, he should know that the time has come for him and his wife to retire from the world and spend their time in study (spiritual) and meditation.

                    The Vanaprastha or the Recluse
The next stage is that of the Vanaprastha. Brahmacharya is a preparation for the life of the householder.
Even so, Vanaprastha is a preparation for the final stage of Sannyasa. After discharging all the duties of a householder, he should retire to the forest or a solitary country place and begin to meditate in solitude on higher spiritual things. He is now free from social bonds and the responsibilities of life. He has ample time for study of scriptures. His wife may go with him or remain with her sons.

                   The Sannyasin or the Renunciate
The next stage is that of a Sannyasin. When a man becomes a Sannnyasin, he renounces all possessions, all distinctions of caste, all rites and ceremonies and all attachments to any particular country, nation, or religion. He lives alone and spends his time in meditation. He lives on alms. When he attains the sublime states of deep meditation he rejoices in his own Self. He is quite indifferent to sensual pleasures. He is free from likes and dislikes, desires, egoism, lust, anger, greed, and pride. He has equal vision and balanced mind. He loves all. He roams about happily and disseminates Brahma-Jnana or Knowledge of the Self. He is the same in honour and dishonour, praise and censure, success and failure. He is now Ativarnasrami, i,e., above Varna or Asrama. He is quite a free man. He is not bound by any social customs and conventions.

Such a Sannyasin is an ideal man. He has attained perfection and freedom. He is Brahman Himself. He is a Jivanmukta or a liberated sage. Glory to such exalted personages who are living Gods on earth!

                    Asrama Dharma Under Modern Conditions
At the present moment, the Asramas cannot be lived exactly according to the details of the ancient rules, as the conditions have undergone significant changes; but they may be revived in their spirit, to the great improvement of modern life. In these stages, no one should do the duty of another. The student or Brahmacharin should not do the duties of a householder, a recluse or a Sannyasin. The householder must not perform the duties of a Brahmacharin, Vanaprastha or a Sannyasin. A Sannyasin should not seek again the joys of the householder.

Peace and order will prevail in society, only if and when all people do their respective duties efficiently. The abolition of Varnas and Asramas will cut at the very root of social duties. How can the nation hope to live when Vranasrama Dharma is not rigidly practised?

The students of schools and colleges should lead a life of purity and simple living. The householder should lead the life of an ideal Grihastha. He should practise self-restraint, mercy, tolerance, non-injury, truthfulness and moderation in everything. Those who find it difficult to lead the life of the third and the fourth Asramas (Vanaprastha and Sannyasa) should, remaining in either of the other two Asramas, gradually withdraw themselves from worldly life and practise selfless service, study, and meditation.

                     Yuga Dharma
In Satya-Yuga or the golden age, there was a different set of Dharmas or laws; in Treta-Yuga they changed into another form; in Dvapara Yuga, the Dharmas were different from the Dharmas of other Yugas; and in Kali-Yuga, they assumed still another form. The Dharma changes according to the changes of the cycles. Man is undergoing change. His nature gets transformed through experiences. Hence, his external form of Dharmas also should change.

That which is achieved through contemplation in Satya Yuga, through sacrifices in Treta Yuga, and through the worship of Lord Hari in Dvapara Yuga, may be attained through Kirtana or loud chanting of Lord Vishnu’s Name in Kali Yuga or Iron age.

In the Satya Yuga, the mind of men was generally pure. They had no distraction of the mind. There were neither cinemas, nor hotels, nor dancing halls and similar other distractions. Hence, meditation was easy and natural for them. That is the reason why contemplation has been prescribed for men of Satya Yuga. In the Treta Yuga, materials for the performance of Yajnas or sacrifices were easily available. The people had active tendencies. Therefore it was easy for them to perform Agnihotra, Jyotistoma, Darsa-Paurnimas and other Yajnas.

That is the reason why Yajna has been described as the external form of Sanatana Dharma in that age. In the Dvapara Yuga, there was the manifestation of Avataras and men could easily have direct worship of God. Hence, worship was prescribed as the principal form of Sadhana in that age. In the Kali Yuga, there are many distractions for the mind. People lack in Brahmacharya (celibacy), strength of will and power of enquiry or rational investigation. It is very difficult to procure materials for the performance of sacrifices. Therefore, Hari Kirtana or loud chanting of the Divine Name and selfless service of humanity have been recommended as the principal forms of Sadhana (in the Kali Yuga).

                Conclusion
Follow your Dharma with zeal and enthusiasm. Discharge your duties faithfully. Develop all the virtues which constitute Dharma. Never deviate an inch from the path of righteousness. Stick to Dharma with all your heart, with your entire mind and with all your soul. Performance of one’s duties brings happiness, quick evolution and freedom. You will soon attain immortality, eternal bliss, supreme peace, perennial joy, absolute freedom and perfection. Glory to Dharma, the supreme light that leads you to the kingdom of eternal bliss and everlasting peace.
May the eternal Dharma of Hinduism be preserved forever.May the bond of true love consolidate all Hindus!
                  The Bhagavad Gita

The Blessed Lord said:

Whenever there is a decline in Dharma
(righteousness), O Arjuna, and rise of Adharma (unrighteousness), then I manifest Myself.
-Gita, Ch. 4, Verse 7:

(Yadaa Yadaa Hi Dharmasya, Glaanirbhavati Bhaarata
Abhyutthaanam Adharmasya Tadaatmaanam Srijaamyaham)

That which knows the path of work and renunciation, what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, fear and fearlessness, bondage and liberation- that intellect is Sattvic, O Arjuna.
-Gita, Ch 18, Verse 30.

That by which one incorrectly understands Dharma and Adharma, and also what ought to be done and what ought not to be done- that intellect, O Arjuna, is Rajasic.
-Gita, Ch.18, Verse 31.

That which, enveloped in darkness, views Adharma as Dharma and all things perverted- that intellect, O Arjuna, is called Tamasic.
-Gita Ch.18, Verse 32.

Better is one’s own duty (Swadharma) though destitute of merits, than the duty of another well performed. He who does the duty ordained by his own nature incurs no sin.
-Gita Ch.18, Verse 47.

One should not abandon, O Arjuna, the duty to which one is born, though faulty; for, all undertakings are enveloped by evil, as fire by smoke.
-Gita, Ch.18, Verse 48.

O Arjuna, bound by thy own Karma (action) born of thy own nature, that which from delusion thou wishest not to do, even that thou shalt do helplessly.
-Gita, Ch.18, Verse 60.
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