Hindu Dharma which is known to be the oldest of all religions in the world, is more a way of life than a religion. The Hindu way of life involves dividing an individual’s life into 4 stages as: Bramhacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. These 4 stages of life have always been misunderstood in the past few decades by equating them with modern monotheistic definitions giving rise to confusions and misinterpretations. Let us look into what Hindu Dharma says about these 4 stages of life in detail.
Brahmachari is a term usually used to describe the unmarried individual. The Brahmacharya stage is used to represent the life of an individual before his marriage. This can be further classified into two phases as Shishya (Student) and Snataka (Graduate). The student phase involves a vrata called Brahmacharya Vratha where a student maintains a disciplined way of life in which his concentration lies only on gaining knowledge. The student is hence prevented from thinking about, speaking about, playing with, looking at, personally talking with other gender as these things might distract his concentration from acquiring knowledge which is now-a-days a common thing among young teenagers.
The student after his completion of studies enters into the graduate phase of life after the Samavarthana (Graduation Ceremony). This ceremony is associated with the end of formal education of the student in Gurukul and the Brahamcharya Vratha. This ceremony is used to signify that an individual is ready to enter the Grihastha phase of life and is introduced to things associated with wordly life like wealth and other necessities of household.
Recently, when a case regarding the entry of women aged between 10 and 50 years at the Sabarimala Dharma Sastha Temple, came for hearing at the Supreme Court, many modern intellectuals and liberals where questioning the Vratha followed by the Lord there and equating him with Hanuman who is also known to be a Brahamachari. But those speaking about this have to understand that Hanuman and Bhishma were leading their life in Snataka phase where they completed their education by performing the Samavarthana and were simply unmarried. The Dharma Sastha at Sabarimala is still in his student phase of life and hence he is following the Brahmacharya Vratha wherein he is forbidden from looking at or speaking with women.
Unfortunately, the liberals and intellectuals who are not aware of the differences between the student and graduate phases of life in Hindu Dharma have not only degraded this tradition of that ancient temple but have also called the Lord himself as a misogynist by equating these practices with the modern monotheistic ideas.
Grihastha stage refers to the married phase of life of an individual wherein he maintains the household, raises his family, educates his children and leads a family centered life. This stage is considered as the most important of all stages in sociological context, as an individual in this stage not only pursues a virtuous life but also produces food and wealth that sustained people in other stages of life, as well as the offspring that continued mankind.
Vanaprastha stage refers to the retirement stage, where an individual, hands over the household responsibilities to the next generation, takes an advisory role, and gradually withdraws from the world. Here a person withdraws his wish of collecting wealth for himself and his family and spends whatever he gets for the welfare of mankind. This stage is often confused with Sanyasa in modern days. Rishis in ancient days were in vanaprastha stage of life and not in the Sanyasa stage. So they used the wealth they got as donation or by their own activities for performing various yagnas for the welfare of the mankind. Modern people who question the ethics of Yogis who indulge in business and other activities of obtaining wealth have to understand that these people don’t have to lead a puritanical life and hence they are not prohibited from such activities.
Sanyasa stage refers to the ascetic phase of life. Here an individual renounces his material desires and prejudices, by a state of disinterest and detachment from material life, generally without any meaningful property or home, and is focused on Moksha, peace and simple spiritual life.
Thus the modern idea of equating the practices and traditions of Hindu Dharma with the western monotheistic practices has led to complete misunderstanding of Indic traditions. As a result we witness unjust degrading of the traditional practices of the oldest religion of the world which despite many such cultural and physical attacks has successfully been able to survive unlike many other old religions of the world.
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