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
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; distinct seasons and purposes of life.
They lasted approximately 25 years each. They were as follows:
This is the season of youth, celibacy and learning.
A young person is exposed to the world and learns about it. He studies; memorizing the scriptures.
At this stage, it is not primarily the 'comprehension' of what he is learning that is important;
rather it is the hearing and simple memory of it.
It is thought if a young person does not hear the ‘Truth’,
he will not be able to recognize it as he or she grows older.
They say in India that there are two wings to the bird of wisdom.
One is the wing of story or understanding.
It is this 'story' that a young man or woman would first learn.
Then, as he lives out his life and matures, this storied wisdom
would then complement the other wing of the bird – experience.
Both wings are necessary.
Otherwise, the bird goes round and round on circles on the ground.
The Brahmacharya period is the special time for education. It happens at the begnning of life.
Traditionally, a young person would go to the home of a teacher and live there,
serving his teacher and learning from him all that he could.
Grihastya, means literally, ‘holding onto the house.’
This is the stage of life we call the ‘householder’. After a young person leaves the house of his teacher,
he marries and enjoys all the pleasures of sexuality and family.
He then fulfils the obligations of having children and pursues wealth and business.
These are necessary as it is the householder who supports all the other stages of life f
rom the Brahmacharya to the Vanaprastya and Sannyas.
The householder is the foundation of society.
Around 50-60 years of age, there is a lessening of desire for the goals of the householder.
One's children are grown and one becomes more attracted to Dharma,
the meaning or spiritual aspect of life.
Vanaprastya means literally, 'going to the vana or forest'.
Even a King would give up their kingdom to the yuvaraj or prince and retire
with their queen or queens to a forest hermitage to practice spiritual life.
We see this exact moment at the beginning of the Ramayana,
where King Dasaratha has chosen Rama as the next king-to-be.
Householders give 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.
We see this at the end of the Mahabharata where king Dhitarashtra, after years of ruling a kingdom,
loses interest in his daily obligations
and retires to the forest with his wife to undertake spiritual practice.
This stage represents the complete renunciation of all worldly involvement and purposes.
This can be literally, in the taking of sannyas as when a person becomes a monk or sadhu.
It is important to note, however, that sannyas is also a state of being:
the spontaneous throwing off of all attachment as a result of spiritual realization.
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, he becomes completely focused in God or spiritual practice.
It is for this reason Sannyas is considered to be the best preparation for inevitable death.
Swami Vivekananda as a wandering sannyasin
All of these stages represent a season of life. Each has its time. 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.'
However, 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.
Spontaneously, 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:
You worked, made money, paid bills, went to the movies, dined out, went on vacation
and then finally retired to a life of relative leisure
and then died.
In spite of many efforts to continue to travel on 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 time to just pay the bills and there was so much else I wanted to give my attention to.
How could I live any differently? What about the other things tI wanted to do with my life?
Paying rent and enjoying the pleasures of a Western, First World country,
did not capture all that I was born to do.
Then, the financial collapse came and I lost my income.
That was what eventually brought me to India.
I think about the people who worked all their lives, saved their money, ‘played by the rules’ a
nd then 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 a 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 continue 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, more than any of this, we have no other vision of life.
No other vision of what we should do.
Not only is there is very little work; 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.
They have mainly dissappeared.
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 are living in a world where the tallest buildings in our cities are financial towers.
They represent what the mass of us worship – money.
These are the churches of our attention. That is the reason why they are the biggest buildings in town.
But the things these temples stand for, money and finance, 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 about the lives of the rich and the extremely rich in the newspapers.
Most of us have no higher purpose than business and pleasure
and most of 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.
I believe this dream is turning into a nightmare.
Not only in America, but all over the world.
There are other purposes and world-views than those that abroad in 21st century America.
We live in a culture that worships youth and the physical enjoyments of youth.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with that.
But, there is much more to life and living than being young and wealthy.
The elderly have wisdom, understanding and purpose that are not possible to a young person. I
f 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?
Is not what we really want not first and foremost 'anti-aging,
'but health. purpose and contentment.
It is 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 medical technology is 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 each of us,
whether we want it or not.
We need ask ourselves,
What is a goal of life that includes old age and death?
Each and every person that is born, must 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 seems a very sad state of affairs.
Not that there is anything wrong with golf or a life of leisure,
only that they will not last forever.
To make these 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,
it is just we need a larger picture.
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 nearly everybody,
it often 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 fulfilment of worldly desires.
In that context, they clearly defined the purpose of a different stages of life
and how to conduct ourselves in each distinct season
so that the harvest of our whole life is fruitful.
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.
Business and shopping are finally done.
Mostly every business is closed and nearly everybody is with their families.
I remember being in France, in a small town in the Alps on Sunday.
Every store I went to in town was closed.
There was literally not a single one open.
I have never seen that before in America.
Every man 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 at the height of his powers retires.
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.
We can lay down our burden and let the world carry on without us.
We need not worry, because we have seen that everything is and has been in the hands of God.
We live in the midst of the infinite field of space and time.
It boggles the mind. It does not make sense,
We cannot grasp it. We certainly need not believe in it.
If this greater 'context' from which these seasons of life arose is true,
we need to recognize what time and place is appropriate to us and all the things,
we need to do and perform our duties as best we can.
The seasons of life can bring clarity in a context of the Vedic ideal:
God-realization or the Realization of Truth.
Even if we do not share that vision of life,
they still can 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."