Gurukul - Vedic System of Education
Ashrama dharma is fundamental to the Hindu society. It divides man's life into four stages and specifies what one should do in each of the stages. Historically, it was only few Brahmanas who were found to make it through all the four ashramas. Kshatriyas of yore, used to make it to vanaprastha. Vanaprastha was even more a rare case in Vaisyas.

In this stage, one does academic learning. He should go to a guru and learn what is prescribed for him. After some basic education he would move to some specialization based on his interest and performance. This is a stage of learning and celibacy (Rules in Manusmriti 2.173-249). Upanayana or initiation should happen at 5-16 years of age (Manu 2.36-40). Upon completion of study, one should take up grhastha ashrama (Manu 3.1-4).

Grhastha ashrama is the center stage; it is the phase where a person contributes most to the society. For this reason, the Kalpa Sutras devote an entire book Grihya Sutras, for the householder. He sustains the society, financially and otherwise (Manu 6.89-90). Unless in exceptional cases, one is not permitted to bypass this ashrama.

One is supposed to base his pursuits on Dharma, and fulfill his desires. This is a stage of fulfillment. Both purusharthas, Artha and Kama, are to be served here, based on Dharma, the first purushartha. This ensures the fourth, which is Moksha.

Grhastha should perform five sacrifices every day (panca maha yajnas), to please gods, rishis, departed fathers, fellow men, and other living creatures. One is said to be indebted to all these. One's debts towards his departed fathers are cleared at the end of this ashrama. One is also prescribed eight activities a day, which can be classified into worshipping and pursuing profession/occupation (Manusmriti chapters 3-5).
Having lived half his life, one should take up vanaprastha ashrama (Manu 5.169).
At this stage one gives his property to his heirs or donates it, goes into seclusion, and does penance. One becomes inward looking. He still contributes with his experience, through advising and teaching. Having fulfilled his desires in the previous ashrama, one is expected to win over senses and sensuous pleasures. Thus his work is also more dispassionate and detached, as he does not seek any specific result from the work. It will be for the benefit of society alone. Though one is supposed to celibate, he is not required to renounce or live alone. One can take his wife or live with any other person. One is also permitted to earn his livelihood though not to save/accumulate. But unless there is a specific need, he does not enter the city - usually people needing a vanaprasthi's advice go to him instead of him visiting people.

One still has debts towards rishis and gods at this stage, and does teaching as well as performs sacrifices to propitiate the devatas. His primary debt towards pitris is cleared as he obtains progeny and raises them in grhastha ashrama, though he continues giving oblations to pitris during vanaprastha (Manu 6.1-32).

In this stage one renounces the world and detaches from his social and family relations. One should not earn in this stage, or have any material possession of his own. Whatever few attachments he has with his relations or social ambitions are also given up. Man does all work purely for moksha at this stage. Technically, a sanyasi has no debts, and lives only as long as his karmaphala remains.
In general, Brahmacarya and Grhastha ashramas are seen as Pravritti dharma. Vanaprastha and Sanyasa are nivritti dharma for man (Manu 6.33 - 86).

A person who has taken sanyasa is considered to be outside of the four varnas.

By: +Prof: Koti Madhav Balu Chowdary

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