Chapter 6: The First Two Ashramas – Brahmacharya and Grihastha
The supreme objective of life has been conceived as a fourfold aim of human existence. The fourfold aspect is merely to facilitate its understanding and approach, and not because it has a real fourfold division. The great Reality of life cannot have divisions or degrees in its content, but our understanding of it has stages of approach regarded as a fourfold effort in the form of dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
I explained the importance of the concept of dharma in the evaluation of the other aims of life, artha, kama and moksha, and also their inter-relations—how one is linked to the other and draws sustenance from the other. When we understand this fourfold objective in this manner, we also understand at the same time that the four arthas or objectives are complimentary to one another in the sense that when we evolve intellectually, morally, psychologically, spiritually, and even materially, we seem to be dragging with us all these values of existence. When we advance on any path, we seem to be parallelly advancing on other paths also.
All these four paths or aspects are so intimately related to one another that we cannot ignore any one of them, but to take them into consideration in our daily life is to also understand the law called dharma which operates in terms of them. As I told you last time, dharma is a universally applicable rule of conduct and it applies to each and every person in every walk of life, in every stage of existence. Only the method of its application may vary.
The goal of our diet is to appease hunger. Though diets may vary, the principle behind them is to appease hunger. Likewise, there is a single principle behind the observation and the practise of the conduct of dharma, but its application varies from stage to stage in the development of the mind. It begins to be felt at greater and greater intensities, and its necessity becomes more and more stringent. Also, the laws which we have to abide by become more and more rigid, as it were, and more inescapable when we rise higher and higher in our evolution. There seems to be some sort of condoning, some pardon or exception, etc., in the beginning, but all this is an apparent permission given to us, something like the exceptions that we give to children in the rules of life. It is not that these rules do not apply; they do exist, and operate inexorably. The conduct which is expected to be demonstrated in one’s life is not merely an outward behaviour but a real expression of an inner feeling and participation in the law.
Dharma is not a compulsive force that is expected from outside; it is a voluntary acceptance of the operation of the necessary law. In the beginning, morality appears to be a kind of outer compulsion: We fear the law and then abide by its mandates. Whatever be the type of law that we operate under in the world, in the initial stages it comes upon us as a kind of necessity or compulsion from outside, a kind of ‘ought’; but in is real form, it is not a kind of external ‘ought’ but a voluntary acceptance.
An acceptance of a necessity cannot be called a compulsion. When it takes an internal form, dharma becomes a conscious acceptance of eternal values. As long as we live in our bodies, we are wedded to the external objective world, chained to the necessities and needs of physical existence, and we appear to be controlled by an external law. All law is ultimately a copy of the law of nature. Nature presses itself upon us both outwardly and inwardly. The law of nature is a very comprehensive term. It includes all existing laws operating everywhere. In the beginning, it appears to be an external law. It may appear to be the law of gravitation, or the law of health, physically; it may appear to be the rules of physics, chemistry and biology. These are external laws of nature, but nature is not exhausted by these external operations. Nature is also inside us.
In Sanskrit a very beautiful term, ‘Prakriti’, is used to designate nature. Prakriti is nature, and the law of nature is the law of Prakriti. This Prakriti is outside as well as inside. We are made up of it in every way; every fibre in us is constituted of Prakriti. From the outside, when viewed in terms of space, time and causation, the law of nature or Prakriti may come pressing upon us like the waves of an ocean inundating us. From inside us, it tries to work as a kind of inflorescence of flowers. While there is a pressure involuntarily exerted upon us from outside, there is a natural growth, as it were, from inside. This law is not merely physical, biological and psychological; it is also intellectual, moral and spiritual. Finally, it is the law of the Absolute operating in this universe, and it is this law that is called dharma.
Last time I mentioned two terms, satya and rita, found in the Vedas. Satya is the Truth, which is the Absolute, and rita is its expression—the cosmic order. The cosmic order is also the natural order. Truth is Eternal Existence, and rita is its expression. The law, the method, the symmetry and the system that we seem to see operating in the cosmos is the expression of Truth being universal. Its pressure is felt both in the outer phenomena and in the inner psychological realms. It is because of this difficult complexity of the manifestation of dharma, the intricate manner in which Truth expresses itself in creation, that the ancient seers visualised the necessity for the fourfold classification of our approach to this fundamental reality of dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
Now, closely related to this universal classification of dharma, artha, kama and moksha there is also a subjective classification of the stages of life, which we call the Ashramas. Ashrama here does not mean a monastery. It means a stage of life, an abode literally speaking, but an abode of the soul in its evolutional process. The Ashramas are related to the Purusharthas; just as we have dharma, artha, kama and moksha as the Purusharthas of life, we have the four stages or grades or degrees of the development of the human mind in one’s life called Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa. These classifications signify the different types of discipline that we have to undergo in the pursuit of the objectives, the Purusharthas.
Truth in its pristine nature is difficult in its comprehension. Hence, we were asked to look upon it as an object of the fourfold effort. To minimise the difficulty in understanding and approaching it, now we are told that the Purusharthas themselves are difficult to approach and practice unless we individually, each by oneself, undergo a system of discipline in our life. The discipline called upon every individual is the system of the rules of the Ashramas. We are familiar with these terms Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa, but their inter-relationship may not be clear. It is not merely a social order, as many would take it. It is not a convenience that we have introduced into society for certain practical ulterior purposes. Not so. The Purusharthas are not merely a concoction of some brave genius; these classifications have some close relationship with Reality in itself. So also, this grouping of the stages of life has something vitally to do with our practical conduct in relation to the Purusharthas.
The aim of our existence is single and indivisible: the realisation of the Supreme Being. There is no other purpose in life, but this purpose appears to be manifold on account of the limitations of our personality. It is the nature of the degrees of the entanglement that determines the degrees of our ascent from stage to stage. The orders of life and their relations to the Purusharthas are so beautifully conceived that in the performance of the duties in respect to these, nothing seems to be excluded. It is a complete approach.
The sowing of the seed in fertile soil is the beginning of the gradual growth of a tendril into a tree which bears fruit later on. The concept of the Ashramas, beginning with Brahmacharya and ending with Sannyasa, is also a concept of the gradual growth of the human mind in its maturity of experience. These classifications into the stages of life are more psychological and spiritual than social and external. Therefore, they relate more to ourselves personally than to others socially.
The whole setup may be regarded as a system of the stages of the conservation of energy. All moral conduct aims at conservation of values in terms of energies, forces which constitute everything in nature, including the internal as well as the external world. The purpose of all rules in life is the conservation of energy, not only with the Ashramas but also with the Varnas, or the classifications of society—and for the matter of that, any system of ethics and morality. In India especially, great importance is given to the conservation of the forces which constitute individuality.
We, as individuals who aspire for perfection, are embodiments of force. This concept is generally attributed to a philosopher in the West called Leibniz. It was he who thought that everything is made up of forces. But before the birth of Leibniz, in India people had already discovered this necessity of regarding every unit as a centre of force. As individuals, as bodily encasements, as physical embodiments, we are bursting energies—energies seeking release, asking for expression, wanting an escape, never being able to rest. This is the nature of energy. Energy cannot be bottled up for a long time. It can be restrained for some time, but not always.
The very meaning of energy is force tending towards expression. Force has to be harnessed for a particular purpose, and for the time being we may confine ourselves to the understanding of individuals as centres of force. While everything in the universe is a centre of force, now we are particularly concerned with our own self as individuals aspiring for perfection. Because we are energies seeking release, we have to be cautious about our own self. By ‘we’, I mean each individual designated by ‘I’. Everyone as a subject, pure and simple, is a centre of force, and this force has to be harnessed. If it is not scientifically and logically harnessed, it shall seek its expression in its own ways.
If we are not able to utilise the water of a river that is locked up behind a bund or a dam, the water knows what to do with itself: it shall break through the dam and seek its expression anywhere it likes. It shall burst open by force. If our energies are not properly utilised, the energies shall find a way out, like a soda bottle bursting. The purpose of the analysis of life into the Ashramas and the Purusharthas is to see that the individuality does not take the law into its own hands and act as it would like, but be directed to move along a definite course of action.
From the very beginning, from childhood, the fundamental institution of the Samskaras, for example, is conceived in such a manner that it is always in view. We have the beautiful system of the Samskaras from Garbhadhana, Pumsavana, etc. These are not just ideas of ritualistic people, but beautifully thought out systems of the expression of the human energy in practical social life. Today we have lost knowledge of all these sciences, and look at them as superstition. It has become a fashion nowadays to look upon every blessed thing of old as a superstition. It is not so. The system of Samskaras, which forms a part of living life according to the rules of the Ashramas, has a meaning in the conservation of human values.
Today, if our students run riot, there is a lot of complaint about them. The truth is that their energies have not been systemically channelled. Their energies go hither and thither like bursting soda bottles, and they do not know what to do. Their energies are linked with human intelligence, unfortunately, and when the energies go astray, the intelligence also goes astray.
It is like a bullet: The bullet contains fire, so when a bullet hits the target, it is fire that is hitting, not merely a lead ball. It is the force that penetrates. Likewise, when energy is channelled in a particular direction, intelligence also gets channelled. It is like a poisoned arrow: Together with the arrow that shoots forth, there is also the poison that is attached to it.
Human energies are not harnessed properly these days on account of defective systems of education. The manner and system of discipline of the human mind and intelligence is called education. And if we do not discipline it properly, well, like a comet shooting into the skies, it shall shoot forth anywhere it likes, and carry the energy with it. This is a part of the explanation of social misery these days. There is no proper education.
No one knows the aim of life and, therefore, one can attach to any community, any system of thinking, and can do anything at any time. This social chaos seems to be threatening us even today, at this advanced stage of our civilisation. All this is because of a fundamental error in misconceiving, underestimating and disregarding human values, considering human values as meaningless, as nothing at all and without any significance, and together with it brushing aside all eternal values of life. When we become irreligionists, become atheists, become materialists and lose the sense of the sacredness of life, then we begin to live not a human life, but a kind of vegetative existence that somehow drags itself forward blindly and dashes against anything that comes in front of it.
This cannot be called life. It is called dragging on, pulling on, getting on somehow or the other. Are we to get on, pull on in life, or are we to live it? As human beings we are supposed to always regard ourselves as superior beings, Homo sapiens. Are we not to live intelligently? To live life is to understand it in its correlation to other life.
All study is comparative, in one sense. We cannot have a bifurcated study of anything. Every subject bears a relation to some other subject and some other thing in the world. In this comparative study of human values, which bears relation to eternal values, we come to regard ourselves as very sacred units of experience, understanding, and relationship with others. It was this concept of the eternal relationship of human values that gave rise to the concept of the Ashramas and the Purusharthas. Glorious is this culture that conceived these ideas, because they have Eternity as their background. Hence, sometimes this dharma is called sanathana dharma: a dharma that is eternal, a dharma that will not perish in the process of time. It cannot perish because its roots are in the Eternal. These eternal relationships of human value have given rise to the concept of the Ashramas and the Purusharthas.
The Ashramas, commencing with Brahmacharya, are the systemised training of the individual for the harnessing of energy. What is energy? Energy in one sense is universal. It is everywhere like electricity, but it manifests itself in a certain intensity when it is associated with certain magnetic fields. Electricity is everywhere, but it is more keenly felt in a magnetic field, as every electrician knows. Likewise is energy; it is everywhere. The human system is a kind of magnetic field, in which it expresses itself palpably; and when we realise it as a magnetic field, visibly felt, palpable, it is then that we have to be careful about its operation. We do not go into a magnetic field without caution.
Energy in a general sense is everywhere, and we are not very much concerned with it; but when it becomes part and parcel of our own nature, we become very much concerned with it. This energy that is magnetically bottled up in us and seeks expression has to be dealt with in a particular manner. When we grow into an adult, into a mature mind, our energies become more and more intensified and uncontrollable. They seek expression, but in what way are they to be expressed?
Before trying to express our energies, we have to try to conserve them. The conservation is the preliminary process. We cannot expect fruit from a tree immediately. In the beginning it has to be tended with great care. The tending of this growing tree of human energy and taking care of it with great affection is the stage of Brahmacharya. One is very cautiously brought up in this stage, so that there is no contamination by unspiritual values, forces which are antagonistic to growth—forces which may repel it and break it open. When it is tended and taken care of, it grows like a lion cub—very powerful, potent in itself, and it has the tremendous potency of power to become a lion one day.
Likewise, the body grows. We should not regard it as meaningless. It is something that grows, and our purpose is to enable it to grow and not to dissipate the energies in the very beginning. In ancient days when people were supposed to live for at least one hundred years, this classification was done into a fourfold group of twenty-five years each. Twenty-five years of Brahmacharya was very diligently practised. This number of years may not be strictly applicable now, but the principle behind this classification is that a very large part of our life is to be utilised for helping growth, rather than expecting the child to start doing something. It is not the time for that, it is the time to grow and become something. We have to be something, in order that we may be in a position to do something later on.
So the stage of Brahmacharya is the stage of becoming something in oneself—gathering strength from all corners and not allowing the energy to leak out. The energies are not to be used in the stages of Brahmacharya. They are only to be tended, conserved and enabled to grow until they become powerful enough to meet the buffets of life, the challenges of existence—and then, the question arises of relating oneself to the Purusharthas.
Every stage of life is a stage of education. In the Chhandogya Upanishad we are told the entire life of a human being is a life of a studentship: a process of studying nature and understanding its laws. Nature includes everything—not merely things, but also laws and relations. Hence, when nature is regarded as a complete system in itself, organically related in its parts, we are also to regard human life in a similar manner. All the parts, not merely as things but also relations, constitute a complete whole. Our life is a composite structure—Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, Sannyasa, dharma, artha, kama, moksha. All these are so intimately related to one another that we cannot ignore the existence and the operation of any while we are engaged with another.
The conservation of energy, Brahmacharya, enables us to become strong physically, mentally, and morally. Remember, just as nature is everything, Brahmacharya is everything because the conservation of energy is outside as well as inside. So a Brahmacharin is strong internally as well as externally. He is physically tough and morally strong because of the equalised energy in the body.
When there is unequal distribution of economic forces, for example, we have what are called the rich and the poor. This is a sort of imbalance in society; likewise, there can be imbalance in our bodily system when energy is centred in any particular part of the body, especially the senses. It is the senses that channel the energy and drag it to certain external things or objectives. Not to allow the senses to meddle with the energies inside is Brahmacharya. The eyes, the ears, the nose, the palate, etc.—all the senses connive to put this energy of the system to use in some particular manner. Therefore, the Brahmacharin is a sense-controlled, self-controlled person.
The energy of his system is equally distributed physically, vitally and morally; he is energy from top to bottom—unreleased, unharnessed energy. Because of this, the Brahmacharins are called agni-manavakas, fire lads. They are like fire, fire which will only burn when interfered with, and not otherwise. This is a very beautiful term, angi-manavaka: a lad who shines like fire, glows with brahmavarchas—effulgence—because of the equidistribution of the energy in his system. He looks beautiful on account of this.
When this is achieved in an appreciable manner, the question arises in facing the Purusharthas. The actual living of the practical life commences with Grihastha. The Brahmacharya is just a preparation for it. We face life in the Grihastha stage, and the energies that we have conserved in the stage of Brahmacharya will help us in the stages of life, just as the money that we have earned will help us in living life. If we earned nothing, then we will have to live a beggar’s life.
The Grihastha dharma has a direct relationship with the fulfilment of artha and kama. Two of the Purusharthas, artha and kama, bear immediate relationship to Grihastha dharmas. Grihastha literally means one who lives in a house. Griha means a house, tha means one who is there. One who is a householder, in one sense, is a Grihastha—which means to say, one who regards and respects material values, and has something to do with vital values. The Grihastha dharma is a stage of education again, and it is in this stage that part, but not all, of the energy is utilised for an educative purpose.
It is not a stage of enjoyment. This should not be mistaken. A Grihastha should not be living a life of enjoyment. It is as much a period of training as the life of a Brahmacharin, but it is a different kind of training altogether. He has to confront material values and material existences, and face them. In facing them he may have to battle with them and spend some of the conserved force.
Now you may be wondering, why this institution of Grihastha dharma at all? Is it necessary to utilise the energy conserved in the stage of Brahmacharya, or can we rise up straight to moksha? This question has also been discussed in our scriptures. Two views have been held, something like the debate of the homeopaths and the allopaths that we have these days. There is some truth as well as drawbacks in what the allopaths say, and the same applies to homeopathy also. We cannot universally support everything that someone says. Everyone says some truth, though not the whole truth.
Likewise, our scriptures have conceived the necessity of having two types of approach to eternal values: the direct and the indirect. Sometimes in Vedanta sastras, these paths are called the Suka-marga and the Pipilika-marga—the path of the bird and the path of the ant. The bird flies direct, whereas the ant has to crawl slowly, and may go round-about. Both may reach the same destination, but they take different lengths of time. If they have to go to Swargashrama, the bird will fly directly across the Ganges, but the ant will have to go around via the bridge. It will take a lot of time. The direct path is the Suka-marga, or the path of the bird. This is being directly concerned with eternal values from the very beginning itself.
There have been very rare souls who live such a life. They never allowed even the least dissipation of their energies in terms of objects. Such were those who never lived the life of a Grihastha. Suka Maharishi was an example, from whose conduct this name of Suka-marga has come—the path of Suka Maharishi. It was all consciousness of God, from beginning to end. He began his life with God-consciousness and he ended his life with God-consciousness. To live such a life is difficult, but even an approximation to such a life is called Suka-marga, whatever be its measure of success.
Some of the Upanishads also collaborate this view of those who take to the path of nirvritti directly from the stage of Brahmacharya, and directly enter Sannyasa. This is Nirvritti-marga throughout, from beginning to end. This also is permitted in some of the Smritis and some of the Upanishads for exceptional souls whose minds are perfectly mature and whose vasanas and samskaras are not rajasic or tamasic, who are made of a sattvic nature, who glow with a lustre of God alone and nothing else, and who want nothing else but God.
Few though they may be in number, such people exist even today. We cannot say the world is bereft of them. Such are the Nirvritti-margins who take to the path of the Eternal, the Absolute, the path of God, the path of devotion, the path of knowledge, the path of yoga. Such are those Nirvritti-margins rising, shooting forth like a star from Brahmacharya to Sannyasa.
But, unfortunately, all are not birds with feathers and wings; in this world there are many other things created by God, and they too have to move along the lines accessible to them. Those who have wings can fly; those who only have legs have to walk; those who have no legs may have to crawl. We may have to roll sometimes if we have no limbs – but move we must.
Everything must move towards the same goal, consciously or unconsciously. It is not the human being alone that tends toward this consciousness. Everything in this universe cries for God. The sun and the moon, the winds that blow, the rivers that flow, the ocean that bubbles, all cry for God. Every motion of even a leaf in the wind is supposed to be a longing for God. Hence, there is nothing which can be completely free from this longing or aspiration. Something may be conscious of it or unconscious of it. We may be unconsciously dragged or consciously moving; this is the only difference. But everything does move towards a single destination, not many destinations.
There being many a method of approach to the same goal, many systems of practice may have to be allowed. So apart from nivritti, there is also the path of pravritti, and this fourfold classification systemically and diligently practised, without missing even one link in the chain, would be the pravritti dharma of the human being. But remember it is also dharma; nivritti dharma and pravritti dharma are both dharma in the sense that it is a law that has to be followed—a law of the same Truth that operates everywhere.
The Grihastha is allowed certain satisfactions, not for the sake of satisfaction, but for an expression of a part of his desire and energies for the higher purpose towards which he makes a preparation. The fulfilment of desires, pursuit of wealth and material values in Grihastha life are all intended as an educative means of plodding onwards into the Vanaprastha and Sannyasa stages. The Grihastha is one who cannot completely conserve all his energies, who cannot sublimate all these desires in one stroke. He is one who tries to control by appeasing. A little of satisfaction sometimes helps us in exercising control. This is a law that may be found to be applicable in many walks of life.
We cannot be one hundred percent in everything. A little leniency is sometimes allowed, merely with a view to exercise more control. The intention is not leniency but self-control. The channels of expression are, therefore, intended as helps to self-control in the end. There are many rules enjoined in the Smritis, for example, of how disciplined the Grihastha must lead his life. Even the little satisfaction that is allowed to him through the senses is a very regulated one. There is space, time and causal connections limiting these satisfactions. It is not that he can do anything he likes. While the Brahmacharin is not allowed any sensory enjoyment because his stage is supposed to be one of conservation of power, the Grihastha is allowed a certain amount of satisfaction for a higher purpose. When this higher purpose is to be kept in view, the satisfaction ceases to be a satisfaction.
When we are studying for an examination, racking our brain, going through our textbooks to prepare for tomorrow's examination, we may drink a cup of tea or have a good dinner together with our preparation, but our mind is not there. It is only an aid. The food that we take and the satisfactions that we have are only a part of the training, and we do not take them as satisfactions at all. But we know the necessity of these satisfactions; they help us in the training.
In the Anugita of the Mahabharata, we have a beautiful monologue of King Janaka. He speaks about the way he rules the kingdom. King Janaka was an ideal Grihastha. Those who can properly understand the way in which Janaka lived his life will know the way in which a Grihastha should live. Lofty the thoughts of Janaka were, so lofty that many of us cannot reach that state of thinking. He was questioned by many people, “How do you regard it compatible to be a Brahma-jnanin as well as a king at the same time? Where is correlation between the type of knowledge that you possess and the type of life that you are living?” He was tested many times and was questioned thus.
His answer was a great lesson to all seekers of Truth. “I do not enjoy, I only experience,” was the answer. “I do not know what is enjoyment, but I do have experiences. When I experience a state of consciousness through the nose, it is not I that have this experience; it is the divinity that is presiding in the nose that experiences this,” said Janaka.
The human personality is presided over by principles of consciousness. These are called adhidaivas in our theology. The eyes are supposed to be governed by the Sun, the Moon governs the mind, and so on. Every limb of the body is governed by some cosmic principle. The individual is a part of the cosmos, and the whole governs every limb of the part. That which is in the whole is also in the part; that which is in the cosmos is in the microcosm, so it is quite intelligible and natural that the principles governing the cosmos should also govern the individual.
“Why not take things in that principle?” was Janaka’s answer. “Why should there be a Janaka at all? I don’t see a Janaka here. For me a thing like Janaka does not exist; it is only a name that has been given to a system of working, of a group of principles called deities, or adhidaivas, who perform their duties. Indra works through the hands, the Sun works through the eyes, the Dig-devatas work through the ears, Varuna works through the palate, and so where is Janaka? To whom do you put the question?”
Janaka's beautiful answer indicates the way in which an ideal Grihastha should live life. It is not a life of enjoyment—far from it. We are so much wedded to enjoyments and pleasures that we do not seem to be in a position to think in any other way. The education provided to us by nature is free from the concept of pleasure and pain. Pleasure and pain do not come into the Truth of Reality. These are merely values that we have introduced by thinking in terms of the senses. Truth cannot have any relationship either with pleasure or pain. When we think independently of the senses, the idea of pleasure and pain drop off. So it was that Janaka replied.
This was a reply to all the queries of the Grihasthas and those who do not find an answer in life: To introduce cosmic meaning into individual life would be the method of living a Grihastha life. So the Grihastha is a wise person who supports life while not enjoying it, and contributes personal values to social values. Sometimes the Grihastha’s life is supposed to be pre-eminent on account of his contributing personal value to social value, and supporting it while not enjoying it. Conceived thus, the life of a Grihastha is glorious. But difficult it is to live like this because few people are educated in this matter. We have to think in a new way altogether; and when it is properly taught and lived in this way, the life of a Grihastha becomes a preparation for God-realisation, as it ought to be.
So there is a very gradual growth from the stage of Brahmacharya to Grihastha and then, being done with all social relationships, one is supposed to withdraw completely into the stages of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa. These are interesting things I shall touch upon next time.