The Seasons of Life

The Four Ashrams or periods of Vedic Life

 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven

– Ecclesiastes

Not all time is the same; not all seasons should be used for similar purposes.

There is 'a time for every purpose under heaven'

and the ancient culture of India recognized this principle and spelled it out.

 

The Vedic culture of India divided life into four ashrams; each a distinct season 

and each a different purpose of life.

They lasted approximately 25 years each and they were as follows:

 

Brahmacharya

 

This is the season of youth, celibacy and learning.

 

During this time, a young person is exposed to the world and learns about it.

He studies; memorizing the scriptures.

At this stage, it is not the 'comprehension' of what he is learning that is important;

rather it is the hearing and memorization of what is heard. 

It is thought, if a young person does not hear the ‘Truth’,

he or she will not be able to recognize it as they grow older. 

It is said in India that 'there are two wings to the bird of wisdom.'

One'wing' is experience;

the other is the 'wing' of story or understanding.

It is 'story' that one firsts learns.

Then, as he or she mature, this 'storied' wisdom

complements the other wing of the bird . . .

the 'wing' of experience.

Both wings are necessary.

Otherwise, a bird with only one wing,

goes round and round in circles on the ground. 

The
Brahmacharya period is a special time for education 

and it occurs at the beginning of life.

Traditionally, the young person would go to the home of the teacher and live there,

serving the teacher and learning from him all that he could.

Grihastya

 

Grihastya, means literally, ‘holding onto the house.’

 

This is the stage of life we call the ‘householder.’

After the young person leaves the house of his teacher,

he marries and enjoys all the pleasures of sexuality and family.

He fulfills the obligations of having children and pursues business and wealth.

This is necessary, as it is the householder who supports all the other stages of life

Brahmacharya, Vanaprastya and Sannyas.

The householder is the foundation of society.

Vanaprastya

 

Around 50-60 years of age, there is a lessening of desire for the goals of the householder.

One's children are grown, wealth has been obtained,

and the person becomes more attracted to Dharma,

the meaning and goal of spiritual life becomes attractive,

and there spontaneously arises the desire to devote one's life to 'spirituality.'

Vanaprastya means literally, 'going to the vana or forest'. 

Householders turn over the running of the family to their children and go on pilgrimage,

devoting their time to religious practice.

Sometimes, the aging parents simply retire to another part of the house or compound

where they focus more on spiritual practice.

 

Even a King would give up their kingdom to the yuvaraj or prince and retire

with their queen or queens, retiring to a forest hermitage

where they would practice spiritual life.

We see this at the beginning of the Ramayana, where King Dasaratha has chosen Rama as the yuvaraj or next king-to-be. 
and

again at the end of the Mahabharata where king Dhitarashtra,

after years of ruling a kingdom, 

and experiencing many joys and sorrows,

loses interest in his daily obligations

and retires to the forest with his wives to undertake spiritual practice.

 

Sannyas

 

This stage represents the complete renunciation of all worldly involvement and purposes.

It can be literal, in the taking of the vow of sannyas

as when a person becomes a renunciant monk or sadhu.

It is important to note, however, that sannyas can also be understood as a state of being: 

a spontaneous shaking off of all attachment as a result of spiritual realization, somtimes described in the analogy of a ripe apple falling naturally off a tree.

Therefore, this last stage of life can be taken up or occur at any stage. 

 

In Sannyas, a person literally dies to this world.

In the initiation into the order of Sannyas, he literally performs a funeral for himself.

Along with this sacrifice of self, he becomes completely focused in God or spiritual practice.

It is for this reason that Sannyas is considered to be the best preparation

for our inevitable death.

Swami Vivekananda as a wandering sannyasin

All of these stages represent a season of life. Each has its time and each has its purpose.

My teacher, Adida Samraj once said that 'the best preparation for death

is nothing different from what you should be doing every day of your life.'

Even so, while every day of a person's life should be devoted

to a common and spiritual purpose,

every day and every season is not the same.

 

In the West, we find older people still pursuing the pleasures of youth

as if sensual gratification was the purpose of life till you die.

Hugh Hefner comes to mind as a dramatic example of that path.

Or, look at Warren Buffett, still devoted to making money every day, doing business

as if there was nothing else more valuable to give his attention to. 

 

I came to India at the age of 59 years old.

I was no longer interested in pursuing work as a cabinetmaker or a woodworker.

For many years, I kept trying to ‘make 'it' happen,’ 

as I lived in a society where that was what a person did:

One worked, had a relationship, perhaps had children,

made money, paid bills, went to the movies, dined out, went on vacation, 

finally retired to a life of relative leisure

and eventually died. 

 

In spite of many efforts to continue to traverse this path,

I no longer felt the support of nature in my attempts to do so.

I struggled to make enough money.

It was very difficult to live in 21st century America

unless one had a very good income or an inheritance.

It took a tremendous amount of my time to just pay the bills

and there was so much else I wanted to give my attention to.

How could I live differently?

What about the other things I wanted to do with my life?

Paying rent and enjoying the pleasures of a Western, First-World country,

did not encompass all that I was born to do. 

Then, the financial collapse of the late 20th century came and I lost my income;

and that is what eventually brought me to India. 

 

I think about the people who worked all their lives, saved their money,

‘played by the rules’ and lost everything in the financial meltdown.

Now, they need to go back to work at underpaid jobs like Walmart, K-Mart or MacDonald's,

or work as a greeter or bagger at a supermarket.

I am saddened by the thought of this.

Not just because people lost all their savings or their house,

but because there is no other option in America today other than continuing to work.

Things cost too much, medical care costs too much, gas costs too much,

food costs too much and rent or mortgage cost too much

relative to what most people make.

But, even more than any of this, we have no other vision of life;

no other vision of what season of life we are in or what we should do.

 

Not only is there is very little work for the elderly;

there is nothing more than work;

there are few living traditions of spiritual life in the West for people to aspire to

or participate in. We do not understand what would be a 'spiritual life.'

This rasa or taste has disappeared in our modern day.

 

We have not only lost our connection to anything more than work,

we have lost our relationship to the seasons of life and to nature; 

we have lost the purpose of life; we have lost what used to be called - God.

 

We are living in a world where the tallest buildings in our cities are financial towers.

These buildings stand for what the masses worship – money, business, success. 

These are the churches where our attention goes to pray and

that is the reason they are the tallest buildings in town.

  

But the things these temples stand for, money, finance and business,

cannot feed our deeper being.

They do not represent love or compassion

and we all know that money cannot buy happiness.

If you have any doubt of that, just read the newspapers

about the lives of the rich and the extremely rich.

Most of us have no higher purpose than business, success, money and pleasure

and  those who can purchase all that money can buy, are not any happier.

We are driven like sheep to fulfill the economic and technological dream

of 21st century America and

I believe this dream is turning into a nightmare.

Not only in America, but all over the world.

We live in a culture that worships youth and the physical enjoyments of youth.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with either of these.

But, there is much more to life and living than being young and wealthy.

The elderly have  wisdom, understanding and purpose

such are a few that are not possible to a young person.

If life is only about money, food and sex, then growing older is a horror.

 

Anti-aging wonder foods are touted by many in the West.

I would ask, for what purpose?

We don't want, 'anti-aging,'

we want health. purpose and contentment.

These offer a much more constant star to guide by.

 

There is a well-known curse in the Jewish tradition:

"I wish you a long life in a huge house with hundreds of rooms

and may you wander through each of those rooms every night,

full of sickness and anxiety and unable to sleep."

Modern culture, medical technology and business are

increasingly capable of giving exactly that to us.

 

We must recognize old age and death in our lives.

I say ‘must’ because it is not a choice, but,

because old age and death will happen to every one of us,

whether we want it or not.

We need to ask ourselves,

What goal of our life includes old age and death?

 

Each and every person that is born, will die.

We must take old age and death into consideration

when we try to figure out what we should do in life.

The vision of retiring to play golf for the rest of our life is a very sad state of affairs.

Not that there is anything wrong with golf or a life of leisure,

only that they will not bring what we need nor will they last forever.

To make such things the purpose of our living

is like planning our lives around ice cream at Disneyland.

Once again, there is certainly nothing wrong with ice cream or Disneyland;

it is just we need more.

Indian poster showing the cycle of birth, youth, middle age, old age and death 

under the overview of Krishna or the Divine

We are terribly short-sighted in the West.

Even our marriages are established on the basis of ‘falling in love’.

Because this romantic emotion is temporary and fleeting for everybody,

it does not provide sufficient ground or purpose to maintain a life together

with another person.

Is it any wonder that so many marriages in the West,

end in divorce in the first few years?

 

The ancient Vedic culture laid out stages of life in a context that recognized something

beyond the fulfillment of worldly desires and 

they clearly defined the purpose of different stages of life

and the conduct of each distinct season;

this knowledge was transmitted so that

the harvest of our life is fruitful.

After all, we do not plant seeds in the winter nor harvest in the spring.

 

There is a time for every season under heaven.

There is a time for youth and family and there is a time for rest from those purposes. 

 

The only moment we even come close to seeing rest in America is on Christmas 

when business and shopping are finally done.

Mostly every store is closed and nearly everybody is with their families. 

Of course, this happens less and less in the west as we enter into the 21st century.

 

I remember when I drove through France,

 passing through a small town in the Alps on Sunday

and every store I passed was closed.

There was literally not a single business open.

I had never seen that before in America.

 

Every person needs rest from the worldly striving of his life.

In the Vedic tradition, this ‘rest’ was allotted to the stage of Vanaprastya,

when a man or woman at the height of their powers retires.

Why?

Because there are other things to do in life.

Henry David Thoreau expressed this sentiment in Walden when he wrote,

“I left the woods for the same reason I went there.

For I had many lives to live and this was but one of them.”

 

To every thing there is a time and a season and there are many purposes under heaven.

When we lay down our burden, the world will carry on without us.

We need not worry, because we have seen that everything was, is and has been

in the hands of a higher power, or God. 

We live in the midst of the infinite field of space and time.

It boggles the mind and does not make sense,

We cannot grasp it and certainly do not need to believe in it.

If this greater 'context' from which these seasons of life arose is true,

let us recognize what time and place is appropriate to us

and let us perform our duties as best we can. 

The 'seasons of life' are intended to bring clarity:

God-realization, Truth, Reality.

Even if we do not share a name for that vision,

these ideas still offer us a star whereby we can steer our life

and gain the support of nature.

Whether we believe it or not:

 

"To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven."