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Hinduism - The Four Ashramas

( Originally Published 1916 )

THE Ashrama life is the very root of the spiritual culture of the Hindu. Whatever of Idealism he has developed in his country has been very largely due to this age-long system, in which from the very early days of his civilisation he has realised all the possibilities of building up an ideal for the individual. It is by this system of individual character-training that the Hindu has been able to root deep in his land the ideal of spiritual culture. That the necessary divisions of caste may not breed pride of position or conceit of personality, the individual must go through severe training and disciplines to develop a spirit of self-detachment in the four stages of life or the four Ashramas.

The children of the three higher castes, the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, and the Vaisyas, when they have finished their eighth year go through a ceremonial known as the Upanayan (sacred thread) ceremony; after which the boy enters the house of his Guru, who takes charge of him, not for the sake of money, but for the sake of imparting knowledge and wisdom.

This first stage of life is called the Brahma-chary a, or discipleship. In this Ashram a, the vow of "poverty, chastity and obedience is taken. The house of the Guru, as are all homes of holiness in India, is very plain and simple. He probably lives with his wife and children, and there receives his young disciple who comes to be made fit for the different positions he will occupy in life. The first and foremost knowledge the children of the Hindus learn at the feet of their masters is the knowledge of God. The Guru wants to build up his disciple's ideals and character through training and discipline which will give him a stamp, as it were, in after life, by the strength of which he will be able to meet the disciplines of life itself.

In the Ashrama house of his Guru there is observed no caste. All the children live together with the children of the Guru himself on absolute equality, whatever the rank or caste of their parents. In the Forest-university of India, the home of hundreds and thousands of Gurus, the disciples learned one thing: the knowledge of God; and though varied by modern conditions, the ideal of the Ashrama life is today the same. The chelas, or disciples, study grammar and rhetoric, history and philosophy, law and literature, but the one fundamental note that the Guru tries to impart is the note of harmony in all functions of life.

There, in the house of his Guru, the disciple gets his training for the next stage of life. He learns to love his other caste-fellows, to mingle his joy and sorrow with theirs, and thus prepares himself for that great communistic life for which India has been so famous all over the world. If the parents of the disciples can send any money, well and good; if not, the Gurus are supported by the people, and especially by the local rajahs. Although this system of support, based on the Hindu idea of the sacredness of learning, has been somewhat modernized by Western civilisation, still in the Indian states and principalities it is very prevalent. It is only the lure of material civilisation that is gradually drawing India out of her own settled ideals. But in spite of all this influence, the Hindu's Ashrama life still contributes very largely to the moulding of Hindu character.

The disciple, after going through a period of initiation until he is twenty-five or thirty, comes back home to marry and settle as a householder. This is the second stage of his life, in which he is called the Grihastha, or householder. Here he comes in contact for the first time in a wide sense with his village and with his clan. But he enters into this stage of life with all the benefits of the previous training of his mind. He now uses them to help in realising his ideals. He performs his household duties, not for himself, but for others. He goes to the daily business of his life, but he knows that his business and every function of his life is for the glorification of God. He knows that he is a part of Prakriti. He tries to tune himself with Prakriti, or Nature, from which he gets the Inner Law of his Being. All individual relations are to a Hindu his sacrament. He adores father and mother as Deity incarnate in human flesh. He loves his brother and sister, and in realising this love from his childhood, he goes through various symbolic processes and annual ceremonies. He has not only learned to love his own brother and sister, but the mantram that he utters every day, solemnly, helps him to visualise the universe as his brother and sister. His alms and charity, the way it is distributed, develops in him a heart and soul, not an organised machine. But whether little or much, he does all for the ideal which ultimately helps him to enter into the next stage of Banaprastha, or meditation.

All ideals are the result of introspection. Hindu culture is the result of his meditation. This culture has been uniquely presented to the world through the process of the Ashrama life. He begins his life when he enters into the house of his teacher, in meditation, and in meditation, stage after stage, he comes to the highest stage of life. His life's ideal may have been disturbed by the outward rust of life. But that is only temporary. He knows his ideal. If he has forgotten, it is only for the moment. He will rise up to it more fully. You can only see Humanity as it is, through meditation. Meditation is practically both telescope and microscope. Creation is meditation. Through meditation the Hindu realises his God and Humanity, in relations and inter-relations. The sense of eternity and eternal relations with the universe grows deeper and deeper. He is thus prepared to enter into the last stage of life, the stage of Sanyas, which means renunciation.

This fourth stage of life is the highest a Hindu can conceive of. This is his highest ideal. The three former stages are only preliminaries. In this stage he renounces the world, but enters into an order of diviner service. He lives no longer specially for his own family and home. He exists for the larger group of race and mankind. He is beyond caste. Past all limitations. He begins to realise himself as part and parcel of Humanity. The world is his kin.

The great note that the Hindu Sanyasi has given to the world is the note of Humanity. Whenever he crosses the doorstep of a house-holder, he says, " Narayana, Narayana," meaning thereby that he is one with Humanity. He has been able to kill his lower self. Only his higher self exists. He has no race, no nation. He is a part of the universe. His religion has developed into God-vision. He communes with Him day and night. He serves the sick, consoles the bereaved. He weeps with those who weep, rejoices with those who rejoice. In the service of others he rejoices himself, and becomes the master of his country and the maker of his destiny. He is more than Brahmin.

It is not only the three caste people who can take to this life. Any one is entitled to this stage, provided he has qualified himself in the previous stages. There are Mohammedan Sanyasis who are equally respected and honoured by the Hindus. There have been white Sanyasis beloved by the men and women of our country. It is the spirit which touches spirit. The moment you go to India with the ideal of renunciation you touch the Indian heart.

Aggressiveness is not a part and parcel of the Hindu's religion. He does not like that the aggressive spirit should grow in his own land. The Ashrama life for all these ages has evolved in every Hindu household an ideal of toleration. His religion is tolerant, his social structure tolerant, his political ideals tolerant. From the federation of individuals comes the federation of races and nations the federation of Humanity. It is in the Sanyasi that the ultimate conception of the Hindu ideal finds its embodiment.

A Hindu Sanyasi is a being apart, yet in closest personal relation. He must do service to others, especially spiritual service, without money and without price. He can only live on what is absolutely necessary. He cannot stop at one place for a long time. He must move from pilgrimage to pilgrimage, inspiring people, and, above all, holding the vision of God as the direct means of spirituality. Thus the four stages of Ashrama life lead, as a man ascends by a ladder, from the lowest step to the highest. From discipleship in the house of his Guru, he gradually ascends to the highest pinnacle and ultimately loses himself in God.

To a Sanyasi God is everything. By thus losing, he finds his real self. He becomes a great individualistic force. But this individualism of the Hindu is directly opposed to the individualism of Europe. In Europe there is conceit of individualism. This was not the Individualism of Christ. By losing Himself, Jesus became the greatest Individual. But the modern spirit of the West is the accentuation of personality. In the West people say they are free, but they are far from freedom. Their individual liberty is actuated by selfish motives. True freedom is the liberation of the soul. The Sanyasi is free because he is above all the limitations of his own personality. He has no interests of his own. His chief object is to carry his ideal, the ideal of Renunciation. This ideal the Hindu has developed through these 5000 years by the Ashrama system of life, culminating in the Sanyasi, who is one with God and one with Humanity.

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