The Stages of Life (Hinduism)

Reference: Hinduism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

The unwise life is one long struggle with death the intruder—an uneven contest in which age is obsessively delayed through artifice and the denial of time’s erosions.

People are different. Few observations could be more banal, yet serious attention to it is one of Hinduism’s distinctive features. The preceding sections traced its insistence that differences in human nature call for a variety of paths toward life’s fulfillment. We have now to note the same insistence pressed from another quarter. Not only do individuals differ from one another; each individual moves through different stages, each of which calls for its own appropriate conduct. As each day passes from morning through noon and afternoon into evening, so every life likewise passes through four phases, each possessing distinct aptitudes that dictate distinct modes of response. If we ask, therefore, how should we live? Hinduism answers, that depends not only on what kind of person you are but also on the stage of life you are in.

How we should live depends not only on what kind of person we are but also on the stage of life we are in.

The first stage India marked off as that of the student. Traditionally, this stage began after the rite of initiation, between the ages of eight and twelve. It lasted for twelve years, during which the student typically lived in the home of the teacher, rendering service for instruction received. Life’s prime responsibility at this stage was to learn, to offer a receptive mind to all that the teacher, standing, as it were, on the pinnacle of the past, could transmit. Soon enough responsibilities would announce themselves copiously; for this gloriously suspended moment the student’s only obligation was to store up against the time when much would be demanded. What was to be learned included factual information, but more; for India—dreamy, impractical India—has had little interest in knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The successful student was not to emerge a walking encyclopedia, a reference library wired for sound. Habits were to be cultivated, character acquired. The entire training was more like an apprenticeship in which information became incarnated in skill. The liberally educated student was to emerge as equipped to turn out a good and effective life as a potter’s apprentice to turn out a well-wrought urn. 

The first stage of life is that of the student. The entire training is more like an apprenticeship in which information becomes incarnated in skill.

The second stage, beginning with marriage, was that of the householder. Here during life’s noonday, with physical powers at their zenith, interests and energies naturally turn outward. There are three fronts on which they can play with satisfaction: family, vocation, and the community to which one belongs. Normally, attention will be divided between the three. This is the time for satisfying the first three human wants: pleasure, through marriage and family primarily; success, through vocation; and duty, through civic participation.

The second stage of life is that of the householder. This is the time for satisfying the first three human wants: pleasure, through marriage and family primarily; success, through vocation; and duty, through civic participation.

Hinduism smiles on the happy fulfillment of these wants but does not try to prime them when they begin to ebb. That attachment to them should eventually decline is altogether appropriate, for it would be unnatural for life to end while action and desire are at their zenith. It is not ordained that it do so. If we follow the seasons as they come, we shall notice a time when sex and the delights of the senses (pleasure) as well as achievement in the game of life (success) no longer yield novel and surprising turns; when even the responsible discharge of a human vocation (duty) begins to pall, having grown repetitious and stale. When this season arrives it is time for the individual to move on to the third stage in life’s sequence.

Hinduism smiles on the happy fulfillment of these wants but does not try to prime them when they begin to ebb. 

Some never do. Their spectacle is not a pretty one, for pursuits appropriate in their day become grotesque when unduly prolonged. A playboy of twenty-five may have considerable appeal, but spare us the playboys of fifty. How hard they work at their pose, how little they receive in return. It is similar with people who cannot bring themselves to relinquish key positions when a younger generation with more energy and new ideas should be stepping into them. 

Still, such people cannot be censured; for seeing no other frontier to life, they have no option but to hang on to what they know. The question they pose is, bluntly, “Is old age worthwhile?” With medical science increasing life expectancy dramatically, more and more people are having to face that question. Poets have always given their nod to autumn leaves and the sunset years, but their phrases sound suspect. If we rest our case with poetry, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be” carries not half the conviction of “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…. Tomorrow we’ll be dying.” 

Whether life has a future beyond middle age depends in the end not on poetry but on fact, on what the values of life really are. If they are supremely those of body and sense, we may as well resign ourselves to the fact that life after youth must be downhill. If worldly achievement and the exercise of power is best, middle age, the stage of the householder, will be life’s apex. But if vision and self-understanding carry rewards equal to or surpassing these others, old age has its own opportunities, and we can come to happiness at the time when the rivers of our lives flow gently. 

Old age has its own opportunities of vision and self-understanding, and we can come to happiness at the time when the rivers of our lives flow gently. 

Whether or not the later years do hold such rewards depends on the scene that is disclosed when the curtain of ignorance lifts. If reality is a monotonous and depressing wasteland and self no more than subtle cybernetics, the rewards of vision and self-knowledge cannot possibly rival the ecstasies of sense or the satisfactions of social achievement. We have seen, however, that in Hinduism they are held to be more. “Leave all and follow Him! Enjoy his inexpressible riches,” say the Upanishads. No joy can approximate the beatific vision, and the Self to be discovered is great beyond all report. It follows that succeeding the stages of student and householder, Hinduism will mark with confidence a third stage into which life should move. 

It follows that succeeding the stages of student and householder, Hinduism marks with confidence a third stage into which life should move.

This is the stage of retirement. Any time after the arrival of a first grandchild, the individual may take advantage of the license of age and withdraw from the social obligations that were thus far shouldered with a will. For twenty to thirty years society has exacted its dues; now relief is in order, lest life conclude before it has been understood. Thus far society has required the individual to specialize; there has been little time to read, to think, to ponder life’s meaning without interruption. This is not resented; the game has carried its own satisfactions. But must the human spirit be indentured to society forever? The time has come to begin one’s true adult education, to discover who one is and what life is about. What is the secret of the “I” with which one has been on such intimate terms all these years, yet which remains a stranger, full of inexplicable quirks, baffling surds, and irrational impulses? Why are we born to work and struggle, each with a portion of happiness and sorrow, only to die too soon? Generation after generation swells briefly like a wave, then breaks on the shore, subsiding into the anonymous fellowship of death. To find meaning in the mystery of existence is life’s final and fascinating challenge. 

The third stage of life is that of retirement from social obligations. The time has come to begin one’s true adult education, to discover who one is and what life is about. 

Traditionally, those who responded fully to this lure of spiritual adventure were known as forest dwellers, for—husband and wife together if she wished to go, husband alone if she did not—they would take their leave of family, the comforts and constraints of home, and plunge into the forest solitudes to launch their program of self-discovery. At last their responsibilities were to themselves alone. “Business, family, secular life, like the beauties and hopes of youth and the successes of maturity, have now been left behind; eternity alone remains. And so it is to that—not to the tasks and worries of this life, already gone, which came and passed like a dream—that the mind is turned.” Retirement looks beyond the stars, not to the village streets. It is the time for working out a philosophy, and then working that philosophy into a way of life; a time for transcending the senses to find, and dwell with, the reality that underlies this natural world.

It is the time for working out a philosophy, and then working that philosophy into a way of life; a time for transcending the senses to find, and dwell with, the reality that underlies this natural world.

Beyond retirement, the final stage wherein the goal is actually reached is the state of the sannyasin, defined by the Bhagavad-Gita as “one who neither hates nor loves anything.” 

The pilgrim is now free to return to the world for, the intent of the forest discipline achieved, time and place have lost their hold. Where in all the world can one be totally free if not everywhere? The Hindus liken the sannyasin to a wild goose or swan, “which has no fixed home but wanders, migrating with the rain-clouds north to the Himalayas and back south again, at home on every lake or sheet of water, as also in the infinite, unbounded reaches of the sky.” The marketplace has now become as hospitable as the forests. But though the sannyasin is back, he is back as a different person. Having discovered that complete release from every limitation is synonymous with absolute anonymity, the sannyasin has learned the art of keeping the finite self dispersed lest it eclipse the infinite. 

The final stage of life is that of sannyasin defined as “one who neither hates nor loves anything.” A sannyasin has no fixed home but wanders freely.

Far from wanting to “be somebody,” the sannyasin’s wish is the opposite: to remain a complete nonentity on the surface in order to be joined to all at root. How could one possibly wish to make oneself up again as an individual, restore the posturings and costumes of a limiting self-identity, the persona that conceals the purity and radiance of the intrinsic self? The outward life that fits this total freedom best is that of a homeless mendicant. Others will seek to be economically independent in their old age; the sannyasin proposes to cut free of economics altogether. With no fixed place on earth, no obligations, no goal, no belongings, the expectations of body are nothing. Social pretensions likewise have no soil from which to sprout and interfere. No pride remains in someone who, begging bowl in hand, finds himself at the back door of someone who was once his servant and would not have it otherwise. 

The sannyasin lives a life with no fixed place on earth, no obligations, no goal, no belongings, no social pretensions, and no pride. The expectations of body are nothing.

The sannyasin saints of Jainism, an offshoot of Hinduism, went about “clothed in space,” stark naked. Buddhism, another offshoot, dressed its counterparts in ochre, the color worn by criminals ejected from society and condemned to death. Good to have all status whisked away at a stroke, for all social identities prevent identification with the imperishable totality of existence. “Taking no thought of the future and looking with indifference upon the present,” read the Hindu texts, the sannyasin “lives identified with the eternal Self and beholds nothing else.” “He no more cares whether his body falls or remains, than does a cow what becomes of the garland that someone has hung around her neck; for the faculties of his mind are now at rest in the Holy Power, the essence of bliss.”

Taking no thought of the future and looking with indifference upon the present, the sannyasin lives identified with the eternal Self and beholds nothing else.

The unwise life is one long struggle with death the intruder—an uneven contest in which age is obsessively delayed through artifice and the denial of time’s erosions. When the fever of desire slackens, the unwise seek to refuel it with more potent aphrodisiacs. When they are forced to let go, it is grudgingly and with self-pity, for they cannot see the inevitable as natural, and good as well. They have no comprehension of Tagore’s insight that truth comes as conqueror only to those who have lost the art of receiving it as friend.

The unwise life is one long struggle with death the intruder—an uneven contest in which age is obsessively delayed through artifice and the denial of time’s erosions.

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