Ashrama System in Hinduism is four age-based life stages discussed in Indian texts of the ancient and medieval eras. The four ashramas are Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (forest walker/forest dweller), and Sannyasa (renunciate).
The Ashrama system is one of the aspects of the Dharma concept in Hinduism. It is also a part of the ethical theories in Indian philosophy, where it is linked with four proper goals of human life (Purusartha), fulfillment, happiness, and spiritual liberation.
Under the Ashram system, the human lifespan was divided into four periods. The goal of each period was the fulfillment and development of the individual.
The classical system, in the Ashrama Upanishad, the Vaikhanasa Dharmasutra, and the later Dharmashastra, presents these as sequential stages of human life and suggests ages for entry to each stage.
But in the original system introduced in the early Dharmasutras, the Ashramas were four alternative available ways of life, neither shown as sequential nor with age recommendations.
Brahmacharya (Student Life)
Age: Till 25 years
Brahmacharya represented the bachelor student stage of life. This stage focuses on education and included the practice of celibacy.
The student went to a Gurukul (house of the guru) and typically would live with a Guru (mentor). At that place, they acquire knowledge of science, philosophy, scriptures, and logic, practicing self-discipline, working to earn Dakshina to be paid for the guru, learning to live a life of Dharma (virtue, morals, duties).
Grihastha (Household Life)
Age: From 25 years to 48 years
This stage referred to the individual’s married life, with the duties of maintaining a household, raising a family, educating one’s children, and leading a family-centered and a dharmic social life.
Grihastha’s stage was recognized as the most important of all stages in a sociological context. Because in this stage human beings not only pursued a virtuous life, they produced food and wealth that sustained people in other stages of life, as well as the offsprings that continued mankind.
The stage also includes the most intense physical, sexual, emotional, occupational, social, and material attachments that exist in a human being’s life.
Vanaprastha (Retired Life)
Age: From 48 years to 72 years
In this stage, a person hand over household duties to the next generation took an advisory role and slowly withdrew from the world.
Vanaprastha stage was a transition phase from a householder’s life with its greater emphasis on Artha and Kama (wealth, security, pleasure, and desires) to one with greater emphasis on Moksha (spiritual liberation).
Sannyasa (Renounced Life)
Age: 72+ (or anytime)
This stage was marked by the renunciation of material desires and dislikes described by a state of disinterest and detachment from material life, usually without any significant property or home (Ascetic), and focussed on Moksha, peace, and simple spiritual life. Anyone could enter this stage after completing the Brahmacharya stage of life.
Ashrama and Purushartha
The Ashramas system is one aspect of the complicated Dharma concept in Hinduism. It is combined with the concept of Purushartha, or four proper aims of life in Hindu philosophy, namely, Dharma (piety, morality, duties), Artha (wealth, health, means of life), Kama (love, relationships, emotions), and Moksha (liberation, freedom, self-realization).
Each of the four Ashramas of life is a form of individual and social environment, each stage with moral guidelines, duties, and responsibilities, for the individual and for the society.
Each Ashrama stage places different levels of importance on the four proper goals of life, with different stages viewed as steps to the attainment of the ideal in Hindu philosophy, namely Moksha.
Neither ancient nor medieval texts of India state that any of the first three Ashramas must devote themselves solely to a specific goal of life (Purushartha). The fourth stage of Sannyasa is different, and the remarkable consent in ancient and medieval texts is that the Sannyasa stage of life must entirely be devoted to Moksha aided by Dharma.
Dharma is held primarily for all stages. Moksha is the ultimate noble goal, recommended for everyone, to be sought at any stage of life. On the other two, the texts are unclear. With the exception of Kamasutra, most texts make no recommendation on the relative preference on Artha or Kama, that an individual must emphasize in what stage of life. The Kamasutra states,
The life span of a man is one hundred years. Dividing that time, he should attend to three aims of life in such a way that they support, rather than hinder each other. In his youth he should attend to profitable aims (artha) such as learning, in his prime to pleasure (kama), and in his old age to dharma and moksha.Kamasutra 1.2.1 – 1.2.4, Translated by Patrick Olivelle
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