Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part IV

Varnashram and Purushartha

Continued from Part III

Few people know that the Hinduism is not based merely on one holy book supposed to be instructions of God conveyed through special messenger(s) to his subjects as is the case with the major religions in the world today. Instead, it is a synthesis of numerous Hindu scriptures and texts viz. Vedas, Upanishads, Dharmashastras, Dharmasutras, Puranas and Epics that run into hundreds and many of them, particularly Vedas and Upanishads, are a treasure of scientific knowledge, wisdom and truth comprehensively addressing all aspects of human life. For illustration, 4 Vedas and approximately 200 Upanishads (at least 10 main from Vedic era) together constitute most of the Vedic and ancient literature which has no parallel in any of the ancient and current civilizations and religions in the world. The text of these scriptures is usually in the Sanskrit verse form constituting comprehensive commentaries and treaties on diverse subjects of society, economics, religion and miscellaneous subjects.

In Hinduism, the broader aspects of life include duties, responsibilities and ethics of individual human beings towards self, family and society (those days there was no concept of nation or nationalism), treaties, protocols and discussion on Varna (social classes), Ashrama (stages of life), Purushartha (goals of life), human ethics and universal values, personal virtues and duties such as ahimsa (non-violence) and truth against all living beings, rules of war, honesty, loyalty, fairness, determination, cooperativeness, courage, caring and self-control, and so on so forth. Neither any other culture or religion has imbibed so rich knowledge and wisdom for its subjects nor it encourages independent application of mind to accept what stands to merit through discussion, debate and other tests of logic and rationale.

Most of the virtues that Hindu scriptures profess or prescribe, are self-validated and do not require much of the explanation or illustration or tests. In this essay, the author intends to address two crucial aspects of life to whom Hinduism attached so much importance viz. Ashrama and Purushartha covering various stages in human life and goals of life, respectively.

Ashrama System

Among Hindu scriptures, the Atharva Veda is considered as the original text comprehensively explaining the procedures for everyday human life which is further explained and elaborated in other scriptures such as Ashrama Upanishad, the Vaikhanasa Dharmasutra and certain Shashtras (law books) as sequential stages of human life. Under the Varnashrama or Ashrama system, assuming an ideal life span of hundred years, the human life was divided into four stages to act and fulfil the goals of life.

The Varnashrama has four stages or orders: namely, Brahmacharya – the order of students; Grihastha – the order of householders; Vanaprashtha – the order of ascetics in woods or household; and Sanyasa – the order of hermits in the woods. According to ancient scriptures, those who live all the four orders faithfully and truthfully according to the rules of social law, achieve salvation (moksha). While the literal meaning of the Ashrama is a shelter, hut or hermitage for the living of the ascetics, in the Vedic and ancient Hindu traditions Ashrama conveyed the meaning of a stage of life of the human being. Many people may end their life without entering into the third or fourth stage, similarly some may skip second and third stage and directly enter into the fourth stage i.e. Sanyasa.

Philosophically, the four orders of life are symbolized each with a certain aspect of Brahman and knowledge/wisdom level: Brahmacharya is akin to the childhood with lower knowledge and identified with the aspect of Brahman as God Brahma and Goddess Saraswati; Grihastha is akin to young age with worldly knowledge and Brahman aspect of God Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi; Vanaprastha represents middle/mature age with higher Knowledge and Brahman aspect of God Shiva and Parvati; and Sanyasa is akin to old age with realization of self-knowledge and Brahman aspect of liberation i.e. achievement of Moksha.

With the assumption that a human being shall have a life of about hundred years during which he shall perform karma according to and commensurate with the prescribed ethics of the stage of life, each Ashrama has been assigned a span of about 20-30 years (average 25). However, there is no hard and fast rule for entering into an order or stage due to various reasons. Broadly, the Brahmacharya or student life should extend till about the age of 24-25 years, one could remain a Grihastha till the age of 50-60 years and the remaining time shall be spent for the spiritual attainment as a Vanprashtha and/or Sanyasi in woods or by remaining completely detached in the household.


According to Vedic dharma, the first stage in the life of a person is Brahmacharya which lasts till about the age of twenty-five. As per the old Hindu custom, it usually begins with the Upanayana (initiation) ceremony of the child and philosophically with this the journey of the person in pursuit of Brahman also begins. However, in physical terms the Brahmacharya denotes a student in pursuit of specialized education and vocational training from an earmarked teacher or teachers in an institution (Gurukul). Usually this learning was related to his Varna based occupation and he was expected to practice utmost celibacy and self-restraint during the course of his education. Though there is no concrete proof of the gender selection but it appears that such education and training was primarily expected and meant for men, though there are many illustrations of women who attained high order and reputation in society due to their superior knowledge and wisdom. The idea behind the celibacy and restraints towards worldly pleasures by the student was aimed at remaining focused on the immediate goal of mastering the education and training and conserving energies for the next stage of life.

As the students had to follow the ideals of Brahma during these formative years, they were known as brahmachari (celibate) i.e. followers of Brahma or Brahman. The life of a Brahmacharins used to be on a uniform pattern irrespective of their parents’ status or background as per the contemporary laws aimed at inculcating highest virtues of life. Usually after the Upanayan ceremony, they had to remain under the guidance of the earmarked teacher(s) for several years for obtaining knowledge in various disciplines and during this period they would usually not be allowed to maintain regular contact with their families or visit homes. In essence, after Upanayan the teacher would assume the role of parents, teacher and spiritual guide. During this period, pupils were expected to live a very austere and disciplined life as part of their learning process and, with some exceptions off and on, the students belonging to three Varnas i.e. Brahmana, Kshatriya and Vaishya had to follow the same rigorous schedule.

The stage of Brahmacharya was spent almost entirely in the gurukulas. Students were expected to show complete reverence and obedience to his teacher and his family. He would take bath every day to purify himself; study holy scriptures and earmarked vocational training; instead of self-cooking, he would go out everyday to seek food from Grihastha people of high merit; he would be strict in self-restraint avoiding meat, spices, perfume, garlands, women etc.; he would control his sensual desires, anger, hatred and greed; stay away from worldly vices like gambling, backbiting, lying, inappropriately looking at or touching woman and harming others. In essence, the Brahmacharya represented the bachelor student life focused on education, virtues and practice of celibacy.

During the course evolution of society and individuals since ancient times, these institutions have changed and many of these practices too have changed yet purpose of the student life by and large remains the same i.e. acquiring of education and vocational training, learn and exercise virtues of life through austere measures and practice of celibacy. The merits and nobilities of Brahmacharya cannot be questioned or disputed even today.


In Vedic dharma, the Grihastha ashrama began with a ritual bath with the home return of the student after successful completion of his education and vocational training in the Gurukul. The ritual bath was symbolic to his readiness as a grown up adult for assuming the responsibilities and duties of a Grihastha. His parents and other elders would now arrange his matrimony as per prevailing practice in the society and both arranged and love marriages with the consent of parents were permissible. He would thus undertake the responsibilities of a householder and channelize his energies now in performing such obligatory duties of a Grihastha. In Vedic and ancient times, the Grihastha asharam was considered as the best being the most energetic, fulfilling and pleasurable at material level and spiritually too because it was the Grihastha who supported people in the other three ashramas too.

In order to effectively discharge his duties as a householder, he would earn and accumulate money and other assets by engaging himself in occupations commensurate with his Varna. While doing so, he was expected to conduct himself honestly and virtuously besides staying away from forbidden occupations, restraining his senses to avoid lustful sensual pleasures and avoiding accumulation of wealth through illicit and unlawful means. He was expected to maintain attire commensurate with his age, occupation and learning by maintaining proper dress, speech and thoughts. He was expected to maintain humility and respect to his teachers, parents, elders, cows and other austere men while staying away from vices like atheism, contempt of God, criticising scriptures and other unvirtuous qualities.

Every Grihastha was expected to perform five sacrifices namely brahmayajna, devayajna, pitruyajna, bhutayajna and manushyayajna. Brahmayajna, also called ahuta, was comprised of study and spread of the knowledge of Vedas, recitation of the holy verses and worship of Brahman. Devayajna, also known as huta, consisted of worship and offering to gods. Pitruyajna or prasita was related to tarpana to the departed souls of elders and forefathers by offering food and water. Bhutayajna or prahuta consisted of offering sacrificial food to the animals and insects. In addition to the five sacrifices, he was also expected to make regular offerings of bhog (food) to various gods and goddesses, ghosts and goblins, poor people and pets besides alms to ascetics and students unable to cook their food due to the religious obligations.

While performing aforesaid spiritual duties, every Grihastha was expected to properly look after his wife, children and other dependents. It was also a bounden duty of his wife to support him in discharge of his obligatory duties by remaining self-controlled, chaste and patient. In a materialistic sense, the Grihastha stage was undoubtedly the most important of all stages in the society. The stage was commonly identified as the married life with the responsibilities of maintaining a household, raising and sustaining a family, producing and raising children and thus living a family-centric life. This period was also considered to be the most intense period of temporal life with utmost emotional, sexual, occupational, social and material involvement of the individual. As for the Grihastha ashrama is considered, by and large it remains largely unchanged and compliant even in the contemporary times for any typical Hindu family.


Vanaprastha is the third stage of life following the Grihastha asharam after fully enjoying the temporal life including successful discharge of five sacrificial duties as prescribed. According to ancient scriptures, when a Grihastha acquires wrinkles on the body and face, greying of hair and arrival of grandsons etc, he must realize that it is now ripe time for the detachment from worldly pleasures and comforts, gradual withdrawal from the attractions and distractions of the temporal world and ultimate departure to woods leaving behind all possessions and provisions for the children’s sustenance. He could transfer his responsibilities to the wife for his children and possessions or both could leave together rescinding all worldly possessions. During this phase, it was desirable to remain austere and celibate while still continuing his sacrificial duties. He could live the life of Vanaprastha by actually leaving for the woods or staying in households but pursuing a completely detached, austere and celibate life.

While in Vanaprastha stage, the person was expected to live in a hermitage, eat food prescribed for the ascetics and continue to make five sacrifices as prescribed for the Grihastha. He would take regular bathe, wear ordinary and worn out garments and keep his hair in braids and unclipped. He would continue to offer alms as per his ability and honour guests and visitors to the best extent possible hithertofore while remaining friendly, warm and compassionate towards all living beings. He would strictly avoid all tamasic foods like flesh, mushrooms, spices, honey and stay away from all luxuries of life. Then he was also expected to regularly recite holy texts from Vedas and Upanishads and keep himself fit both physically and mentally so as to sustain gradual self-imposed austerities in life. In a way, the Vanaprashtha was a transitional stage where a Grihastha was expected to gradually renounce wealth, social security, pleasure and sexual pursuits and be ready to become a total ascetic (sanyasi) renouncing the world in the pursuit of spiritual liberation (Moksha). The person could pursue the latter two stages i.e. Vanaprastha and Sanyasa alone or accompanied by his spouse if she was willing to come along.


This was the last and ultimate stage of life when the person was expected to renounce all worldly possessions and live like an ascetic or mendicant (vagabond). He was not required to do even sacrificial fire and five routine sacrifices. The ideal length of the human life being hundred years but the fact that an overwhelming majority do not reach this age, hence it was difficult to define the exact watershed in terms of the age between the Vanaprastha and Sanyasa and the person was advised to transform from a wood dweller into a full-fledged ascetic gradually by increasing austerities and harsher conditions of life. However to make a distinction, the person entering into Sanyasa stage was to perform a special ceremony of withdrawal of the sacrificial fire into himself. By doing this, he was supposed to become an embodiment of fire himself radiating the spiritual energy (tapas).

The chief characteristic features of the Sanyasi were that the person would be completely detached from all worldly possessions and rituals, become a vagabond mostly subsisting self on alms, taking only meagre food suffice to sustain life, in a total restrain of his sense he would mostly sit or stand in solitude, equally devoid of hatred and attachment, he would try to contemplate upon the mortality, conditions after life, transmigration of soul and salvation. By resorting to deep and prolonged meditation, he would attempt to realize the subtle nature of the supreme Soul and its universal presence. The Vedic scriptures and Manu Smriti provides that a person would overcome the dualities of life such as pleasure and pain, love and hatred, joy and sorrow…and attain the liberty from the cycle of births and deaths by not harming to any living being, complete detachment from worldly possessions and pleasures, following the Vedas and practicing austerities with rigour.

Experiencing Ashramas in Modern Era

The Hindu Dharmashastras (law books) suggest the austerities in increasing order and progressive reduction of food intake in the path of salvation through various stages of life. But as it appears the Hinduism neither makes it compulsory to become a complete wood dweller nor to renounce world to become a vagabond. A person could attain the stages of the Vanaprastha and Sanyasa in the household after transferring all worldly possessions to his children and devoutly pursuing the obligatory duties prescribed for the latter two stages of life. What is important is that he should stop asserting on worldly possessions, renounce all material desires and prejudices, live a completely detached life and focus on simple spiritual life.

It is indeed possible to exercise Ashrama dharma even today. At the first stage of Brahmacharya, while staying with parents or elsewhere the student could study and acquire skill and expertise in an area in harmony with his (or her) inner disposition and attitude while simultaneously being austere and restraining harmful diversions for own good. As hithertofore, Grihastha ashrama even now involves an occupation or job to earn money, marriage, setting up of a household, rearing of children, enjoyment of sexual bliss with the spouse, discharge of duties and responsibilities towards the spouse, children, parents and other dependents besides obligations in the society towards relatives, friends, organizations, state and world at large. Vanaprastha is essentially the retirement from the worldly duties and possessions to focus on spiritual growth. One doesn’t require to actually leave for the forest but he should transfer possessions and switch over to only an advisory role in the family. He should withdraw and spend more time on mentally more satisfying things as necessary for the spiritual growth. While leading this life, a time naturally comes when the children raise their own family and independently discharge their worldly duties. This is the right time for a person taking Sanyasa by completely withdrawing even from the advisory role and drawing complete attention towards own spiritual growth, peace and salvation.

Despite Ashrama System being in place, it is difficult to say whether the model code of Ashramas was rigidly followed in Vedic and ancient times. We find so many examples from the puranas, epics and other narratives of people from higher Varnas going for Vanaprashtha and Sanyasa after living full life of a Brahmachari and Grihastha. It seems that the first two stages of life i.e. Brahmacharya and Grihastha were followed by the majority of people in the letter and spirit but the position regarding the latter two stages is not very clear. The other point is that the Vedic and ancient society was male dominated and Varnashrama dharma was primarily meant for men although there are several instances of known women from the same era exercising similar rituals and opting for the Vanaprashtha and Sanyasa for attaining higher goals in life.


Purusartha is a composite Sanskrit term which literally means the ‘purpose of human being’ or the ‘Object of human pursuit’. Purusha ordinarily means a male person but here it relates to a ‘human being’ implying both to the man and woman. In Hinduism, purushartha talks about four proper objects or goals of the human existence and they are Dharma i.e. righteousness or moral values; Artha i.e. prosperity or economic values; Kama i.e. pleasure, love or inherent psychological values; and Moksha i.e. liberation or spiritual values. While all the four objects of human life are considered important but where there is conflict of interests, Dharma is given precedence over Artha and Kama; Moksha doesn’t come in way being the ultimate goal of the human life.

Hinduism permits pursuit of Artha and Kama to every Grihastha under the constraints of Dharma during the life but also insists renunciation of both i.e. wealth and pleasure to attain the spiritual liberation (Moksha). The concept of Purushartha also defines values according to which human action and behaviour is performed and measured. In a way, the Purushartha defines the course of human life and lays down ethics and universal values to regulate it. Because as per Hindu philosophy the ultimate goal of any human life is to attain liberation of soul, all karmic goals are so designed as not to impede with this goal. In essence, the concept of Purushartha is to create a synergy between the temporal life and spiritual life, and it finds its true expression and implementation through the Ashrama System.

Dharma (Righteousness):

The origin of the term Dharma is from the Sanskrit root ‘dhri’ which means to preserve or hold together. It includes social laws, duties, rights, virtues, conduct and correct way of living as necessary for a stable society taking into account all religious duties, temporal duties and moral rights of every human being. In fact, Dhrama is all encompassing and a divine force that protects entire mankind from all kinds of temporal dangers. According to some Hindu texts, Dharma is an obligatory and pious duty of every individual mandated by the Vedas with the prescribed rules according to the Varna that every individual belongs to.

Incidentally, there is no corresponding English or Latin term that can truly explain or encompass the complete meaning of dharma. In a wider perspective, dharma is the binding force that regulates and upholds the entire creation. At material level, it defines human roles and responsibilities, social and moral order, purpose and goals of life including the rewards and punishments commensurate with our actions. Dharma is like the law of God which is sacred, inviolable, all pervasive and at the same time responsible for order, regularity, harmony, control, predictability and accountability in the society. According to one definition “ Dharma exists in all planes, in all aspects and at all levels of creation. In the context of human life, Dharma consists of all that an individual undertakes in harmony with divine injunctions and his own sense of morality and justice.”

In Vedas, Dharmashastras and Bhagavad Gita, a lot of emphasis has been accorded to Dharma in guiding the people to determine what is righteous in their pursuit of temporal and spiritual duties. In essence, it provides a code of conduct for the people in their day-to-day life and a harmony between worldly accomplishments and spiritual liberation.

Artha (Economic Values):

In Hinduism, Artha relates to material and economic pursuits of the human life considered necessary to sustain the family and own material needs in life. It’s a powerful term that cover the whole gamut of tangible assets that can be earned and possessed in terms of money and material, made use of to bring enjoyment in daily life for sustenance of self, upkeep of the household, maintenance of the family and discharge of religious and pious duties as prescribed in scriptures. Hinduism recognizes the importance of material wealth for every Grihastha for achieving overall well-being and satisfaction in life. In short, though Hinduism favours austerity, simplicity and detachment for spiritual bliss yet it doesn’t support or glorify deprivation and impoverishment.

A Grihastha requires money and material for his daily necessities, sustenance of his family and performance of mandatory religious duties as prescribed. Besides, while Dharma and Moksha are specifically meant for the individual himself, the pursuit of Artha and Kama is necessary for the sake of others too including wife and children. A person should not seek wealth merely for accumulation but to meet the needs of his family, society and religious duties and in pursuit of the said objectives, Hinduism accords Artha as the second most important goal in human life. God Vishnu is often quoted as a role model in this context who lived a blissful life patronising the goddess of wealth and at the same time being extremely righteous, responsive, dutiful and helpful yet detached in his role as preserver or adherent.

As per scriptures, wealth as such is not an impediment in pursuing spiritual freedom, instead greed or attachment to wealth certainly is. It is for this reason that Hinduism encourages detachment and renouncing of worldly possessions at Vanaprastha stage simply by transferring it to his wife or else children, if she opts to join him in his spiritual pursuit. Many Vedic hymns are invocations to gods and goddesses by desiring wealth and prosperity with right intentions of general well-being of self and family but the accumulation of wealth for greed through dubious means is considered sin.

Kama (desire):

In Hindu texts, Kama referred to the desires in man for the enjoyment and satisfaction of the senses through various means including sex. However, in common parlance many people tend to interpret it in a narrow sense of sexual activity. Hence Kama could be taken as the basic instinct of the man to participate in the sexual activity as also in a much broader sense of extending it to all motivations which are socially acquired and fulfilled by a man. In fact, Artha and Kama in a balanced combination with Dharma show true path of temporal bliss and spiritual salvation. Hindu way of life takes Kama as a natural means of happiness and liberation in the overall progressive events of life but at the same time it could be a hindrance too and cause suffering through over-indulgence by going against Dharma. Ultimately, one has to overcome it to pursue salvation and for that reason Hinduism advises restraint and self-imposed celibacy in later two stages of Vanaprashtha and Sanyasa.

The sexual desire is the most dominant among various desires to control and unless it is restrained, a man is likely to commit sin impeding spiritual pursuit even at later stages. Hence Hinduism prescribed two different ways to control and channelize sexual desire; one is the Vedanta way of suppression of the sexual desire and the other is Tantra through expression wherein the sexual energy is sublimated and transformed into a higher form of energy. Hinduism also considers Kama or desire as the root cause of human sufferings that hinders salvation by inducing delusion and bondage in repeat cycles of birth and death. One could win over desires through detachment by regularly practicing yoga and meditation and performing regular sacrificial offerings to God. Hinduism permits sexual activity for all Grihastha men within a limit for pleasure and procreation and so long it is not in conflict with the Dharma established by tradition and social norms.

As among all desires, sex is the most dominant and difficult to restrain, the scriptures have laid down several laws and principle for individuals on the subject clearly citing that while sexual activity is one of the obligatory duties of a householder, if it is misused for mere enjoyment it would lead to attachment, delusion and downfall. Marriage is regarded as a sacred institution for both the husband and wife wherein mutual energies and destinies join together for pleasure and procreation; the sexual relationship outside marriage is not permitted except for limited occasions in special circumstances as laid down in certain Dharmashastras. In essence, sex is considered as an important aspect of human life but lust is considered as sinful and enemy of man.

Moksha (salvation):

This is the ultimate object of the life according to Hinduism as by attaining Moksha one gets rid of the cycle of numerous births and deaths. Some Scholars treat the first three Purushartha as just means to achieve Moksha as the end goal of all human souls. While Dharma leads the human on the path of righteousness, Artha and Kama fulfil the temporal needs of life and enrich his experience with meaningful learning and if the three are pursued in right perspective through the various stages of life, it enables the pursuit of Moksha or salvation liberating his soul to the world of Brahman – the Supreme Soul.

While the pursuit of Dharma begins in the early life itself when the man is initiated to studies, the Artha and Kama come into play in the majority cases when the man enters into Grihastha Asharam. The pursuit of moksha can be undertaken any time depending upon the inclination and attitude towards the life. However, in most of the cases Moksha is pursued in the old age on retirement after fully living and enjoying the life of a householder. Moksha literally means the absence of moha (attachment) or delusion. Moha or delusion could be overcome by augmenting the virtue of sattva in man which helps to overcome his desires through self-control, detachment, surrendering self to God by supressing the qualities of rajas and tamas.

Relevance of Purushartha in Human Life

The main purpose of defining Purusharthas in the Vedic and ancient era for men was to ensure people understand their reasons for existence, do not neglect their obligatory duties, value their family and worldly possessions, do not become slaves of desires leading to moral and social decadence and destruction of family values and remember the ultimate truth of life that is endeavour for salvation to escape the miseries of the cycles of repeat birth and death. The four Purusharthas does a balancing act in the above pursuit of life because on one hand they allow the person an enriching and rewarding experience of life, on the other hand it also shows the path of salvation through renunciation and worship of God i.e. Moksha, in Hinduism considered as the parama-purusharth or ultimate goal of human life. This code of conduct is ideal and equally relevant to all human beings in any age, space and time.

Continued to Part V


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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