The Four Stages of Life
Although the caste system separate those devoted to priestly duties from warriors, political leaders, merchants, and householders, Hinduism also seeks to integrate spiritual and metaphysical principles with the cycles of human life. It divides life into four distinct stages through which each Hindu male of the three upper castes passes. These are considered ideals, however, not necessarily followed by all or even most Hindus:
- brahmacharya (student). After initiation (upanayana), which takes place at age 8 for a brahman boy, 11 for a kshatriya, 12 for a vaisya, each is expected to spend a minimum of 12 years living in the home of his guru. His life during this time is austere and celibate, given to mastering yoga and other spiritual disciplines and reading and studying the Vedas. In modern India, the boy usually stays at home but takes instruction from the family’s pandit, or Vedic scholar.
- grihasthya (householder). The next phase of life includes marriage, raising a family, and earning a living. This is a time for the enjoyment of earthly pleasures and recognition for success while carrying out one’s responsibilities to the community. It ends traditionally with the birth of one’s first grandchild.
- vanaprasthya (hermit). After fulfilling social duties and insuring the continuation of the family name, the Hindu is free to retire to the forest to meditate and seek spiritual wisdom. Living in a small hermitage with or without his wife, who may join him, he devotes his time to gaining a fuller understanding of his spiritual nature while still performing basic Hindu rituals.
- sannyasin (wandering mendicant). In the final stage the seeker leaves behind his hermitage and all possessions except his staff and begging bowl, to pursue the final goal of life: mukti, or liberation from the endless round of rebirths.