When we talked about the caste system we observed how in classical Hinduism there are particular dharmas or duties for individuals according to their standing in society. At about the same time in Hindu history, specific expectations also arose concerning one’s sex, resulting in different patterns of life for men and women.
Regulations formulated in classical Hinduism prescribe particular stages of life to be followed by upper caste men and women.
The same text that specifies dharmas to each of the castes, the Laws of Manu, also set forth an ideal pattern of life for upper caste males. The Laws of Manu were written by and for these men. At about the same time, a parallel pattern begins to emerge for females of high castes. Most ideals were based on the notion of stages, a very common way of thinking about an individual’s life: from childhood to old age. It is important to keep in mind that these stages of life were regarded as ideals and pertaining to the three upper castes. For that reason, they did not necessarily described the life cycle of each and every member of Hindu society.
They did, and they still do to a large degree, depict the way life should be lived according to the believe of millions of Hindus.
According to Manu, males undergo four orders or Ashramas during the course of a life time.
The Brahmacharya or the “Student Stage”
This Ashrama begins when the boy is initiated into the “twice born” through a special ritual in which he would receive a sacred thread (read about the caste system to learn more about this). This thread signifies his standing as an upper caste member, although this does not indicates to which caste he belongs.
The Laws of Manu specify that initiation should take place when the boy is seven if he were a Brahmin, ten if he were a Kshatriya, or eleven if he were a Vaisya. This initiation is what constitutes the second birth.
In the classical and Medieval period of India’s history, the initiation would mark the time when the initiated left home to live and study with a guru. During this period, the young man lived a highly disciplined life and studied the Vedas and religious rituals.
The teacher would teach him the ways of personal purification, morning and evening devotions to the gods, and sacrificing. He was expected to be completely devoted to his teacher and his studies. The Laws of Manu forbade specific things: honey, meet, perfumes, spicy foods, girlfriends, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, gambling and even looking at women. All of these things were believed to pollute or to detract attention from studies.
A young man remained a student until it was time for him to marry and to become a productive member of society. Marriage was regarded as the natural state for adult men and women. To deviate from this path was considered unusual and shameful.
The Household Stage
The student entered the household stage in his early twenties. During this period, the young man would rise a family, pursue an occupation appropriate to his caste, establish himself as financially independent and as a responsible contributor to society.
Due to the householders’ importance to the well-being of the social order, the Laws of Manu proclaim this is the most excellent stage. It is at the householder stage that we see life of males and females most closely intertwined. Indeed, this is the only stage of life that the two sexes share, according to this patterning.
The Third and Fourth Stage
The Laws of Manu go on to specify a third and fourth stage for men beyond the householder stage. These final two Ashramas pertain to the pursuit of religious objectives. In the third stage, that of the “forest dweller”, a man and possibly his wife move to a more modest dwelling, usually to the edge of a village near a forest. Here he, and perhaps she, begin to withdraw from active social life in order to become more introspective and devoted to the life of the spirit. It is important to note that this stage begins only after a man has raised a family, earned an income and discharged his obligations to society.
The Laws of Manu were very interested in keeping men in their prime at the householder stage, where they could be productive members of society. It seems that these codes were a response to what had become something of a problem: Young men leaving off searching religious experience before they could be of any use to society. In this sense, the Ashramas were intended to regulate religious behavior by delaying religious experience until one’s later years.
The fourth stage of life is an specially interesting one. It is a stage of rigour and austerity that few men would embark upon it. This is the Ashrama known as Sannyasa, or “renunciation”. When a man enters this stage, he renounces his former identity and everything associated with it: his name, his wife and family and all material goods. He lives his remaining days as a wandering solitary ascetic. He performs no rituals, no works and subsists only on the generosity of others. Those who contribute to the well-being of the sannyasi could accumulate good karma by doing so.
With no incumbencies, the sannyasi is free to devote full energies for the search of god and salvation. Today, these holy persons are a familiar sight in India, easily recognized by their orange robes.