The Master Ideals of Indian Culture: A Reappraisal-IV–M.S. Srinivasan.

[Published in Mother India.]


The third and last quartet of the Indian social Ideal, is the four Ashramas.  Ashramas are the four stages of human development.  The first stage is Brahmacharya, the stage of the student life, second is Grihastha, the stage of the householder, third is the Vanaprastha, stage of the “forest dweller”, fourth is Sannyasa, the stage of the renunciate.  Let us look at this classification deeply and closely going behind the words and forms to the psychological truth behind them.

The first stage of Brahmacharya is the life of the student.  In ancient India, education is not merely a matter of information and knowledge or acquiring professional skill to earn a living but learning the Art and Science of living, which means to know the highest aims and laws of life, Nature and Spirit and harmonise human life with these higher laws and aims.  In a psychological or yogic perspective Brahmacharya means transformation of sexual energy into vital, intellectual and spiritual energy.  So in this first stage the student is taught the discipline by which this inner transformation is accomplished.

The next stage is that of the Samsari, the householder. In this phase, the individual puts into practice what he has learnt during his previous life.  He satisfies his artha­kama needs and motives, takes up and fulfils his civic and social responsibilities to the family and community, all these under the restraining guidance of some higher moral standards of Dharma of his species, type, profession, group or community, with a conscious understanding that these are not the highest aims of life but only the indispensable preparation and training for the realisation of the highest spiritual aim of Moksha.  If the individual goes through these two stages with the full understanding of their meaning and significance, by the time he reaches the end of the second stage, say around the age of fifty, he has fulfilled most of his social responsibilities, he has the full experience of life, his faculties are well exercised and developed, and his basic natural needs, desires and cravings are satisfied.  He is now mature enough to pursue the higher spiritual aim of life and devote his attention exclusively or more and more to these higher aims.  At this advanced stage, the Indian culture counsels the individual to gradually relinquish his civic, social and professional responsibilities, transfer them to competent young men, and retire into seclusion to contemplate on the higher aims of life.  Here the extreme view holds that the individual, at this stage, has to renounce life and go to the forest or an Ashram for the full-fledged pursuit of the contemplative life. It is this view which gives the name of Vanaprastha, “forest-dwelling”, to this third Ashrama.  But the less drastic and more balanced views counsels that the individual may remain in life, but without any active interest and responsibility in society, as an experienced and wise veteran, offering the wisdom and knowledge of his experience to the community, especially to the younger generation.

 This Indian perception has specific relevance for the modern age.  One of the disturbing features of contemporary society, especially in India, is the phenomenon of old men, who are in positions of power in higher levels of the hierarchy, obstinately clinging to their power and refusing to delegate their power to the younger generation. And the result is, not only the younger men are denied opportunities for professional and personal growth, but the society as a whole is deprived of the fresh outlook, creative dynamism and vitality of youthful leadership.  In the royal traditions of ancient India the ruling king normally relinquished his throne and royal responsibilities at the age of around fifty and handed over the responsibility of government to his son or whoever was chosen as the prince. But long before this transfer of power the young sovereign was groomed for his future responsibilities by a rigorous “inhouse” education, training and discipline and followed by “on-the-job” training by assigning to him important administrative and military responsibilities.  Normally the prince took charge at the age of 25 to 30, and the king retired at the age of around fifty, not to relax and enjoy the life of retirement, but to pursue the higher aims of life.  In this advanced stage of his life he may go to the forest or the monastery, renouncing life altogether, or remain in the palace free from all responsibilities, preparing himself for the spiritual life, giving his guidance and advice to the young sovereign.

 The modern management concept of Line and Staff functions may help us to understand the significance of this Indian practice.  Line positions are those which involve power and responsibilities for decision-making and execution, whereas staff positions involve advisory functions giving expert and specialist guidance to line managers.  Line managerial positions require, apart from the qualities of intelligence needed for making right decisions, a lot of youthful vitality and energy to get the decisions executed in the organisations.  But staff positions, which do not have the power and responsibility for making or executing decisions, require not much of vitality and energy, but more of the qualities of intelligence and therefore can be staffed by older men.  The vital energy of youth is normally driven by the motives of ambition, success, achievement and enjoyment.  This youthful vital energy of the community has to be channellised at the right psychological moment in “line-management” positions of the society.  On the other hand, the vitality in the old is waning, though in many cases, their intelligence may be sharp, active and creative.  So it is easier for the old-especially those who had gone through all the joys, experiences and responsibilities of the samsaric life-to renounce the desire for wealth, power and enjoyment and turn their intelligence and energies to the pursuit of some higher spiritual aims. This is exactly what the Indian approach to human development attempts to do. It tries to solve at one stroke the problems of the young as well as the old. The energies of both the old and young are channellised in appropriate directions at the right psychological moment of their life.

In an inner psychological perspective, these three stages of life represents the functions of learning, application and contemplation, which have to go on more or less simultaneously for progressive evolution of the individual and the community.  The first function, related to Brahmacharya, is learning, which means acquisition of knowledge.  The second function, corresponding to the householder, is the application of knowledge for a progressive growth, enrichment and wellbeing of the community.  The third function representing Vanaprastha, is contemplation.  The leaders of a nation or group have to reserve some free, unoccupied time for contemplation on the nature of the self and the higher purpose of life and also on the vision, values, present condition and the future direction of the group they are leading.

The last stage is Sannyasa, the life of the absolute renunciate, the wandering ascetic, or the cloistered monk, one who has no outer responsibility whatsoever and who has dedicated the whole of his life exclusively to the spiritual pursuit.  Indian culture gave the highest respect to such spiritual renunciates and this quality of renunciation still holds a great motivational appeal for the Indian mind and for the Indian masses.

This is in short the ancient Indian synthesis on human and social development.  The whole of life is viewed as an evolutionary pilgrimage to the Spirit, moving towards self-realisation in the divine and universal Self of all.  All individual and collective endeavour of Man, his society, economics, politics, religion, culture and spirituality is viewed as an unconscious or conscious striving towards this spiritual goal. All human life is a field of education, training and experience which gradually prepares the human soul for the highest goal.  The primary aim of Indian socio-political thought and practice is to evolve a social system which will help the individual and communal life of man to grow consciously towards this highest spiritual ideal.

From the point of view of an integral spiritual vision, there are three shortcomings in this Indian scheme of life which has to be corrected through a more integral approach.  In this integral view, the spiritual ideal should not be pushed towards the last stage of life and as a pastime for the old.  It has to be held before all people, young and old and the whole society, as the ideal to be consciously pursued.  In fact, if we want to create a morally and spiritually healthy future for humanity, it is the Young, who are the creators of the future, have to be inspired with the spiritual ideal.  Moreover, the possibility of success in the spiritual path is greater when we begin the journey when we are young and in the fullness of vital vigour and energy, than when we are old, when the vital energy begins to wane.  So the spiritual quest for the highest aim of life must begin in the very first stage of the Brahmacharin, which means in the school.  The young learner must be given a clear understanding of the highest spiritual aims and values of life and provided with an integral discipline by which he can consciously progress towards the spiritual aim through work, life and action.

And the aim of the next stage, that of the householder, is not merely to fulfill social responsibilities.  The aim of this second stage is to make the social responsibilities a conscious means, process, preparation or education for progressing towards the spiritual ideal.  This process is or can also become a path of psychological growth which leads to the development of the faculties, capacities and qualities of the mind, heart and will and action, like for example the capacity for wielding power and wealth with a sense of responsibility and values or enjoyment with restraint or relationship with harmony and love.  Similarly, the aim of the last two stages of life is not to gradually withdraw and ultimately retire from life; its aim is to provide sufficient space for a more intensive and concentrated inner contemplation on the ultimate aims of life or inner communion with the spirit or divinity.  In the integral view this intensive inner communion should not lead to an inner escape into an other-worldly nirvana but to a greater manifestation of the inner gains in the outer life.

 The second defect of the ancient Indian scheme is an undue emphasis on outer renunciation as the means of spiritual development.  Though some of the Indian scriptures like Gita laid a greater emphasis on inner renunciation, after the advent of Buddhism the ideal of world-negation and outer renunciation somehow impressed themselves upon the Indian mind as the sign of the highest spirituality.  But the integral view will go back to the viewpoint of the Gita with its emphasis on the inner renunciation of ego and desire as the sufficient basis for spiritual liberation and perfection.

However, all are not capable of this highest inner renunciation.  In fact this inner renunciation is much more difficult spiritual achievement than an ascetic outer rejection of life.  So the graded and graduated approach of the ancient Indian scheme still has a practical validity.  The individuals and the community are educated and enlightened on the highest spiritual aims and values of life and the various methods to realize these aims.  But for practical motivation, to take each individual and the group as he is or as it is in his or its present state of evolution and gradually elevate their consciousness¾through a path of progressive renunciation of the lower motives and aims for higher motives and aims until the human consciousness is prepared for the highest, may probably be the right strategy of development.  But, as we have indicated earlier, in the integral view the spiritual growth and the inner preparation for it must begin very consciously from the first stage when we are young, with an emphasis on inner growth through work, life and action and a progressive inner renunciation of ego and desire.

 The third shortcoming of this Indian scheme is that it aims primarily at the spiritual salvation of the individual and holds no hope for the perfection of the society.  The entire human society and the outer life of man is viewed as a school and framework for the spiritual liberation of the individual.  But the human society as a whole is considered as incapable of any spiritual perfection.  In the integral view, inner growth and spiritual perfection of the individual and the society have to be linked together.  The outer social framework must provide the right and favourable environment for the inner spiritual growth of the individual.  But at the same time whatever inner gains that are achieved by inner growth have to express itself through every activity of the outer life, so that there is a parallel and simultaneous inner and outer growth of the individual and the collectivity.  And ultimately, inner spiritual perfection of the individual has to manifest itself in the outer life leading to the perfection of the society.

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