In ancient India, a person's activities were harmoniously regulated according to his or her stage of life. Each stage had its own dharma, or duties, to be undertaken. These stages, called Ashramas, were four in number---Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, and Sannyasa---and were to be strictly followed. The ashrama system was fundamental to maintaining discipline, peace, and harmony in the family and society. In family as well as social and public arenas, virtuous living, guided by noble character, high values, and a sense of duty, was the norm, resulting in all round happiness, peace, and harmony. The whole system is based on vision of our life (Oneness), the guidelines for an ideal arya-jivana, or life of an Arya.
The Brahmacharya Ashrama was meant for the all-round development of the child, including formal, informal, and secular education. One was to receive training in various areas to enable one to stand on one's own feet in later life. Ethics and values were imbibed in each and every area of learning. Manu set forth the many basic traits which were to be developed from student days. For example, the following two shlokas from Manu Samhita illustrate the most important virtues to dev eloped in young age:
Indriyanam vicaratam visayesvapaharisu;
Samyame yatnam-atisthed-vidvan-yanteva vajinam.
The wise person (brahmacharin) should strive to restrain his senses which run wild among alluring sense objects, just as a charioteer controls his horses (2.88).
Vase krtvendriyagramam samyamya ca manastatha;
Having subdued the (ten) organs and controlled the mind, one (brahmacharin) should achieve all one's aims without weakening the body through yoga (excessive austerity) (2.100).
In the Grihastha Ashrama, the householder was to discharge all his duties and debts according to dharma. Artha, wealth, was to be obtained for satisfying kama, desire, but only in a righteous manner, according to dharma. Enjoying worldly life, earning money, having children, taking care of the family and its welfare, and performing various duties required by family and society: these belong to this stage of life. Manu called the Grihastha Ashrama the key to the other three:
Yatha vayum samasritya vartante sarvajantavah;
Tatha grhastham-asritya vartante sarva asramah.
As all creatures depend on air for life, in the same way (the members of) all ashramas subsist on the support of the grihastha (3.77). It is important to note here that if a grihastha does not live in the prescribed way, the other three ashramas are affected. Manu continues:
Yaman-seveta satatam na nityam niyaman-kevalan-bhajan.
A wise man should constantly discharge the paramount duties (called yama), but not always the minor ones (called niyama); for he who does not discharge the former, while he obeys the latter alone (surely) falls (4.204). In other words, first the yamas, then the niyamas. What are they? These shlokas explain:
Anrsamisyain ksama satyam-ahimsa damam-asprha;
Dhayanam prasado madhuryam-arjavam cayama dasa.
Mercy, forgiveness, truth, non-violence, control over the senses, non-attachment, concentration, joyousness, sweetness, and straightforwardness are the ten yamas.
Vratopavasau maunam ca snanam ca niyama dasa.
Purity, sacrifice, austerity, charity, study, chastity, pious observances, fasting, control of speech are then niyasmas.
The Vanaprastha Ashrama was to be entered household duties completed, and one's settled. One was to hand the household over to one's successor, leave the worldly life and all its luxuries and enjoyments and go to the vana, the forest, to lead a sattvic, godward life in solitude. The Manu Samhita says:
Grhasthastu yada pasyed vali palitam atmanah;
Apatyasyaiva capatyam tadaranyam samasrayet.
When a householder gets to see wrinkles on his body, white hair on his head, and his grandchildren, he should resort to the forest (6.2)
Svadhyaye nityayuktah syad danto maitrah samahitah;
Datta nityam-anadata sarvabhutanukampakah.
He should be engaged in regular study, control his senses, keep friendly behavior with everyone, and have a tranquil mind. He must always give in charity, not accept gifts from others, and have mercy on all living beings (6.8).
The Sannyasa Ashrama was the final stage of life, in which one was to give up everything and strive solely for liberation through intense sadhana. The aim was to reach the final goal of human life, moksha or liberation from samsara-or God-realization.
Vanesu tu vihrtyaivam trtiyam bhagam-ayusah;
Caturtham-ayuso bjagam tyaktva sangan-parivrajet.
After spending the third portion of one's life in the forest, the fourth portion of life should be spent as a sannyasin, renouncing all attachment (for the world) (6.33).
Adhyatma-ratir-asino nirapekso nir-amisah;
Atmanaiva sahayena sukharthi vicared-iha.
Delighting in meditation on the Supreme, independence of others, giving up all desires, with only the Self as companion, seeking supreme bliss, shall (the sanyasin) live (6.49).
The main theme of my life is to take the message of Sanatana Dharma to every home and pave the way for launching, in a big way, the man-making programme preached and envisaged by great seers like Swami Vivekananda. - Mananeeya Eknathji
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