The Four Ashramas of Life: Connecting Wisdom from Benedictine to Hindu to Anabaptist Sources
Brother Aaron was our liaison to Saint John’s Abbey at the Collegeville Institute last fall.
He always came to our scholars’ seminars with a resource to offer.
When he came to my seminar on jubilación, he brought with him a handout on the four ashramas of life from the Hindu tradition.
Here is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar expounding briefly on what these are:
An Ashrama (āśrama) in Hinduism is one of four age-based life stages discussed in ancient and medieval era Indian texts.
The four ashramas are: Brahmacharya (student),
The Ashramas system is one facet of the Dharma concept in Hinduism.
Or, if you prefer a little more context, here’s another short essay.
Two things strike me about these four stages, based approximately on 25 years in each stage:
That the turn from worldly concerns about providing for the household to more spiritual matters in the third ashrama takes place at about the 50-year point in life. That’s the jubilee year in the Bible and is the basis of the concept of jubilación.
That the last stage, approximately age 75 to 100, the Sannyasa ashrama, calls every person to spiritual detachment from worldly matters, even from the family and group to work on behalf of the whole human race or universe. Of course, the image that sprang to my mind was of Mahatma Gandhi.
The word I selected for my theme for the year 2017 is this one:
The simplest definition of this word is “truth force.”
Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, believed that one could love and resist evil at the same time.
My ancestors, the Anabaptists, believed something similar.
They based their belief on the life and teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount.
I want to delve into the study of nonviolent resistance in the weeks and months ahead.
Are these four stages from the Hindu Vedas familiar to you? Do they fit your life? Have you ever met someone who personified “satyagraha”?
I have not heard of these four stages, but I like the way he divides life into sections with a certain purpose for each. Give or take a few years, mine seemed to fall into place that way. Soon I will reach stage four. I like the way you connect it to the year of jubilee! Thanks for making me think about how my life has unfolded in the past and continues to do so.
I think you have been preparing to enter the final stage of four as you have been writing, blogging, and giving yourself away, loosening your grip on the material world and deepening your spiritual perception, Elfrieda. The process is a long one, and reflection drives it deeper. Thanks for starting the conversation today.
Shirley, you asked:
Are these four stages from the Hindu Vedas familiar to you? Yes.
Do they fit your life? If we color outside the lines a wee bit, yes.
Have you ever met someone who personified Satyagraha? Yes. Although you don’t fit the age boundary YOU are the epitome of Satyagraha. Except in you, I would define it as “fierce truth” (instead of truth force).
Laurie, you probably know more about these stages than I do. And I certainly don’t feel like an example of Satyagraha myself. I’m just beginning to learn, although I do remember reading the word first in some of the books of MLK. I like that definition of fierce truth. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done … you are fierce with reality.”
― Florida Scott-Maxwell, The Measure of My Days
With the question, “Have you ever met someone who personified truth force?” the image of Martin R. Kraybill, the pastor of my youth, came into view. If you were to examine the folds in my gray matter you are sure to see the imprint of dozens of verses of scripture spoken from his pulpit.
I know very little about Hindu teachings except from the Pray chapters in Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Also, I learned a tad bit from a willowy blonde student who had just returned from an Ashram.
See – very thin knowledge.
It will be interesting to see how you link the principles of Anabaptist nonresistance (I see your distinction here: nonviolent resistance) in the coming weeks. I want to pose a question about the last stage, detachment: Is it not possible to remain attached to family and group while working on behalf of the whole human race?
Marian, I didn’t know your pastor, but I certainly would place my own pastor in the role of truth force, at least as I knew him in the 1950’s and ’60’s. So I hear a humble but truth-filled, spirit-filled voice.
I can’t really answer the question about attachments to family and group in the last stage except to say that I had the same question as I read about it. I’m hoping that some of my Hindu friends may be able to enlighten me.
I am not familiar with these particular Vedas as 4 stages of life but they are apt and I can see their wide applicability.
I admire Gandhi – do you know that he spent some years here in South Africa? I have read much about him. And MLK was one of the greats too.
Non violent resistance – may there be more of an awareness and action of this. We can ALL do it in small and meaningful ways eg not purchasing goods from suspect companies. Lessening our impact on mother earth, leaving only footprints. Speaking up against injustice –
I listened to the short video and read the words too – thanks Shirley. May the force be with you as you practice truth.
Thanks so much, Susan. I too am reading about and re-watching movies about Gandhi. His time in South Africa was an extensive period of preparation. Without it, he would not have been able to do what he did in India.
Thank you, also for the affirmation and the lovely blessing.
People around the world are waking up to the calling to love and resist. In my life, you confirm this calling.
I seldom write in your wonderful blog, though I love reading it. This time, it has touched me ❤ deeply. I’ve been reading some of my Dad’s early sermons. (He died 2 years ago, age 95, and was a Mennonite pastor and historian.). On July 8, 1962 his sermon was titled, ‘Blessed Are The Peacemakers’. Interesting that one line stated, and I quote, “The real test of our peace motives and convictions come in time of community and national stress”. ..”Jesus said we need to overcome evil with good”…he went on to say, “Christ never intended to have his religion propagated by fire and sword, or to acknowledge bigotry. But the children of God are peacemakers”.
Now I will appreciate reading words from folks to help me figure out to live out ‘truthforce’!! Thank you!!
Thank you, Lois. Yes, your father was/is absolutely right: “The real test of our peace motives and convictions come in time of community and national stress”. ..
I am collecting nonviolence classics in a list. I put what I have so far up on Facebook this morning if you want to check them out.
Thanks for commenting. It wasn’t hard, was it? Come back again. 🙂
I love the concept of “truth force.” I imagine truth blasting in with gale winds, knocking down ignorance. (I guess that’s not a very nonviolent image.):) It seems to me that the four stages of life overlap. Those who are most engaged remain students all their lives, don’t they? Like you and Marian, I also believe that one can love and resist evil.
I look forward to reading your posts on nonviolent resistance.
Ha! Well nature is violent sometimes too. But still not as powerful as love.
As I understand the four stages (only superficially), they are sequential but variable (some enter earlier or later than every 25 years). And evidently there are “old souls” — people who enter the last stage much earlier.
Thanks for the encouragement, Merril.
Love❤ your 2017 word, “truth force” ?. I sense you’ve always beén living and writing from the essence of truth force. I saw this essence present early in your memoir story, Blush. Perhaps, it just has manifested in different forms in your 4 stages.
My life has been a bit non-traditional (single, never married). So, my four stages might look like: 1) student; 2)young activist and spiritual seeker; 3) change-maker(Org.Development); guide (leader coach); re-centered justice seeker; 4) yet unknown perhaps simply, open to possibilities.
I plan to spend more time with all you’ve written here. Thank you.
Thank you for these kind words, Audrey. You demonstrate that the “householder” stage can take more than one manifestation, and your description of yourself in the third stage is accurate as I have come to know you. I like the phrase “re-centered justice seeker.” I’m glad you want to ponder more. So do I.
Bravo, Shirley! Very well written. Kudos to you for broadening the dialog way, way beyond the traditional Anabaptist/Mennonite arc and elevating the conversation to be more inclusive of global faith traditions.
Your blog post about “ashramas” brings back memories from 1988, when I was a freshman at Goshen College in Professor John Roth’s class “Christian Community” class. For one of my class essays, upon learning about Jubilee, it was natural for me to draw the parallels between Jubilee and the Hindu ashramas from my faith.
I would like to add two observations from my personal life. First, albeit unintentionally (or was it my sub-conscious without even realizing it?), my life’s narrative seems to be broadly fitting into the 4 ashramas – especially as I get closer to the 50-year mark. Second, I’ve come to realize that these 4 stages may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. In other words, there’s overlap between them. For example, I have such a strong learner in me (“learning” is part of my “genius” – tying it to an essay I wrote earlier this month https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/you-ready-unleash-your-genius-raj-biyani ) that the “student” phase has continued with me even in my second phase of life (householder), and I believe will continue with me even in my third (retirement) phase.
Congratulations on selecting “Satya graha” as your theme for the year 2017. You exemplify the moral fortitude as someone who can role-model “truth force” as I’ve already seen you leading your life with truth.
To your question about people who personify “Satya graha” – Mary Eleanor Bender is the first name that comes to my mind. Having lived in her home for 5 years and having known her for almost three decades now, Mary Eleanor’s life personifies the essence of “truth” in just about every manner imaginable.
Raj, welcome to this conversation and thank you for taking time to respond. You are our resident expert: born in India, educated at Goshen College and the University of Chicago, Microsoft employee for many years, most recently, as head of IT in India. I love that you are blogging and hope that readers here will read your excellent essay on genius above.
What really amazes me is that you made the jubilee/ashrama connection when you were an undergraduate. And now you are preparing emotionally and intellectually to enter your own jubilación. Can’t wait to see what wonderful things will happen in your life and in the many other lives you touch.
Mary Eleanor Bender is indeed a personification of Satya graha! Hope she will see your tribute to her.
Thanks Shirley, though you’re giving me more credit than I deserve. My freshman essay in the “Christian Community” class was not even 10% as profound as your blog entry on this topic 🙂
Like you and several others in this discussion, I’ve been a big fan of Gandhi and have read several books about him. My all-time favorite though, is the writing on Gandhi by the late Eknath Easwaran (1910-99), who was born in India, grew up in the historic years when Gandhi was leading India nonviolently to freedom from the British Empire. As a young man, Easwaran met Gandhi, and the experience left a lasting impression on him, which is reflected in Easwaran’s writings. In 1959 Easwaran came to the US with the Fulbright exchange program and in 1961 he founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, which carries on his work with publications and retreats. Easwaran’s translations of the Indian spiritual classics (including The Bhagavad Gita) are my favorites because of his lucid writing style.
Here’s his book on Gandhi that I would recommend – https://www.amazon.com/Gandhi-Man-Changed-Himself-Change/
Thanks, Raj. On your recommendation, I have now ordered.
Are these four stages from the Hindu Vedas familiar to me? No, it’s the first I’ve heard of them. I’ve had Hindu friends, but the talk usually stayed on food and culture, and never got around to philosophies of life. Do they fit your life? Yes and no — the values do, but I seem to flow back and forth through all phases, and sometimes feel I’m in all of them simultaneously. Have you ever met someone who personified “satyagraha”? Many people: right now, I’m especially drawn to my mentor, Laureen Virnig OSB. A gentle, but powerful force for the truth of love.
I enjoyed this time of reflection, inspired by you, this morning. Now I’m off to spend the day celebrating Ken’s 75th birthday!
Happy birthday to Ken! I’m glad I got to meet both of you in Collegeville and St. Cloud, Tracy. These ashramas apparently haven’t made it to many of us in the west, yet. I was hoping to find a book on them, but nothing yet. Maybe Raj, above, will write more on this subject. I’m so glad you have a “truth force” mentor. Holding all of you with intent at this moment.
Thank you, Shirley. I love this post. I learned about the Hindu stages of life around 1970 when I began studying Hinduism. I thought of my life in terms of these stages. According to your division (and wikipedia), we must live to a ripe age to take part in renunciation, but I don’t think the stages work quite that way. It’s not so much about age. Life seems takes me through these stages in its own time with individual timelines. My husband spent his last years focused on teaching, writing and sharing what he’d learned–which must be what this schema calls “retirement,” but spiritual works better and you’ve used that, too. Few in Western culture find value in this stage, and renunciation is even more problematic. Vic died at 67 and there was much forced renunciation in those last years, but the teaching continued, as did being a householder and student. The edges between the stages blur.
I’m thinking about renunciation and what it means to me now. Sometimes I feel like a renunciate, but my introverted and introspective time may soon change when young family moves here. Sometimes the last stage is called the forest dweller. That works for me.
Satyagraha is a wonderful word to explore. I think of the Dalai Lama who is endlessly political, worldly, and loving with incredible stamina for a man of 80. I wonder if he’ll ever withdraw from the world. Also Mother Teresa who could be fierce and demanding n her protection of the helpless.
You offer so much wisdom from your own reading, studying, relating, and living, Elaine. Thank you so much. All stage theories need modification to fit individual experience, and this one is probably no different. I would love to find a book in English that uses these stages and makes them accessible to non-Hindus. Do you know of any?
That last stage, renunciation, if taken too literally, seems a great loss. But when lived out in spiritual, yet incarnated ways, like the two exemplars above, this stage shows us the best of what human beings can be.
Blessings as you become householder, forest dweller, and “retiree” all at once! Perhaps that’s another way to define jubilación. I’m about to find out also.
Dear Shirley, at first I did not think I would have anything to add to this week, and then I came across this in my daily devotional.’Someone once described the various life stages as: youth, middle age and ‘You’re look very well!’ Here are a few more suggestions for those in their third and fourth phases of life. (1) Accept the fact that you are getting older. you can’t be fifty any longer, but you can make seventy or eighty or any other decade just as profitable. Each age brings its own rewards and older age brings knowledge that can be put into good effect. (2) Keep busy. Dr. Martin Gumpert, in his book, You are Younger that you think (now out of print), said that: ‘Idleness is the greatest enemy of the aged and presents them with their ticket to death.’ When I was seventy, I was sent a list of people who had accomplished great things after they had reached that appointed three score years and ten. Did you know Michelangelo was painting and designing buildings up to the time of his death at eigthy-nine. Many famous people did not even start to make an impact on the world they were in their middle or older years.’
This was written by Selwyn Hughes (1928 – 2006) Well worth sharing.