This series systematically explains some of the important philosophical concepts that form the foundation of the Vedic culture and the Krsna consciousness movement
Part II: In last month's issue, we discussed how the Vedic literature recommends the varnasrama system, the organization of society into four social divisions (varnas)and four spiritual divisions (asramas), and we discussed the characteristics of the fourvarnas. Now we'll discuss the four asramas: (1) brahmacari, or student life; (2)grhastha, married life; (3) vanaprastha, retired life; and (4) sannyasa, renounced life.
The goal of Vedic society is to bring people closer to God. Attachment to God and attachment to matter are diametrically opposed. The more people are attracted to material life, the less they will be inclined to spiritual life, and vice versa. Therefore thevarnasrama system stresses progressive detachment from material enjoyment
This does not mean that people in Vedic society were deprived of enjoyment. They were restricted for their own benefit from the types of sense gratification that cause suffering and continuous bondage in the cycle of birth, old age, disease, and death. And they were encouraged to enjoy in a more refined way, in accordance with religious principles. This type of pleasure is much more enjoyable and conducive to health and well-being, and it elevates one to higher consciousness and spiritual awareness, instead of degrading one to lower forms of life.
The greatest attachment in the material world is due to sexual pleasure, described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam as a tight knot binding one to this material world. Sexual activity that ignores religious principles increases one's desire to stay in the material world and decreases one's spiritual intelligence. Therefore in Vedic society sex was limited to marriage, and it was for procreation only.
Now let us analyze the functions of the four asramas:
The brahmacari asrama is student life, the first quarter of a man's life. Education in Vedic society did not consist of mere accumulation of data facts, figures, equations, dates, formulas, and so on. Neither did it consist of speculative attempts to explain the world in terms of big bangs and primordial soups. Vedic education was intrinsically spiritual. It taught the student practical knowledge about using the material body in conjunction with the laws of God in order to live happily in this material world and to attain the goal of life, pure God consciousness.
This does not mean. however, that people in the Vedic ages had inferior material knowledge. Unlike our modern society, with its inductive attempts to gain knowledge. Vedic society derived highly developed knowledge from a perfect source: the Vedic scriptures, which emanate from God Himself. In this ancient literature we find descriptions of things modern man prides himself on having invented only recently: nuclear technology, airplanes, and space travel, to name a few.
In Vedic society boys from the age of five would receive their education from a spiritual master, or guru. They would live in his residence, called an asrama, strictly observe celibacy and sense control, and serve him with humility and dedication. Theguru would teach them according to their natural inclination, or varna. At age twenty-five the student could enter the householder asrama. Girls would be educated by their parents and live at home up to the time of their marriage.
The grhastha asrama is married life. the second quarter of life. In family life there is the natural tendency to accumulate money and acquire material objects. All fourasramas are for spiritual advancement, but only the grhastha asrama allows for making money. Therefore, the entire Vedic society was maintained by the householder asrama.
This may seem unfair to us today. Everyone wants to acquire as much as possible and not have to share it with others. But the Vedic system counteracts this materialistic tendency by establishing charity as the religious duty of the householder. For example, before taking his meal, the grhastha was supposed to step into the street and call out loudly three times: "If anyone is hungry, he should come and eat in my house." Only then would he and his family eat.
The grhastha understood that charity to saintly persons is not a liability but an asset in one's spiritual account. In Vedic society brahmacaris and sannyasis used to beg from the householders. Begging helped the brahmacaris and sannyasis culture humility and enabled the grhastha to use some of their money for a spiritual cause.
The householder benefited by the association of saintly persons because he received valuable spiritual instructions from them. He knew that a society without holy men and God conscious preachers, without charity and sacrifices, is a hellish situation.
The stage of retirement from family life is called vanaprastha. It is the third quarter of life. Modem society postulates the goals of life as wealth, fame, beauty, sense gratification, ample opportunity for sex, and so on. Consequently, people often continue trying to attain these things until they die. Politicians cling to their power even when they're senile or invalid. Dying businessmen pray to their doctors to prolong their life just a little so that they can finish some business. Aging film stars get face lifts in a vain attempt to trick nature.
Vedic society was based on the understanding that the spirit soul is covered by a temporary body subject to birth, old age, disease, and death, and that the soul is the real life eternal, distinct from matter, and full of knowledge and happiness. The body, along with all material attributes like fame, wealth, and beauty, will perish sooner or later.
When the householder reached age fifty, he would enter the vanaprastha order, giving up his sexual relationship with his wife and gradually retiring from business and family life. He would travel to places of pilgrimage, often accompanied by his wife, and devote more time to spiritual practices, such as reading the holy scriptures and meditation.
Instead of increasing his attachment to matter at the end of life, he would gradually detach himself from worldly affairs. He knew that material accomplishments have no value at the time of death. When the soul transmigrates into another body, all assets like cars or bank accounts have to be left behind. A man is born without a penny, and he has to leave this world in the same condition. At death the only useful asset is knowledge of one's true self and of one's relationship with God. With this objective the retired householder would prepare himself for the final stage of life.
The renounced order, sannyasa. is the last stage of life. In Vedic society it was entirely reserved for spiritual advancement The sannyasi would leave his family in order to give up any attachment to his wife and children. He would travel without any possessions, without any insurance plan or material security, and simply depend on Krsna. His only business was to become Krsna conscious and convey his realizations to others.
The sannyasis were the spiritual leaders of society. They lived by the charity of the householders, and anyone would be honored and happy to receive sannyasis in his house, for their presence afforded an opportunity to hear realized transcendental knowledge.
The Vedic literature states that charity given to a qualified brahmana is returned a thousand times in the next life. and charity given to a fully realized devotee is returned by unlimited multiplication. And we find the following statement regarding the benefit of associating with saintly persons: "The verdict of all revealed scriptures is that by even a moment's association with a pure devotee, one can attain all success."
By their preaching, sannyasis created a potent spiritual atmosphere. Their very presence reminded the attached householders that they too would one day have to renounce their possessions either voluntarily or at death and that they had better prepare for this ultimate test.
Vedic society did not see life as a one-time event but as a continuous cycle. Preparation for the next life and worship of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna, were essential ingredients of social life. Simple living and high thinking enabled people to concentrate on their long-term goal of spiritual perfection and God consciousness.
Today's materialistic society is devoted exclusively to the pursuit of short-term goals. God consciousness is thought of as impractical, outdated, unrealistic, or non-progressive. But this kind of thinking has stripped people's lives of meaning and lasting values. It has created an atmosphere of anxiety, because people have nothing to live for. Society has lost its soul.
Materialistic persons desperately try to prepare for any conceivable problem or calamity. But no one is preparing for the one disaster that's sure to strike death. Spiritual knowledge means to understand that death is not the end of all our efforts. but the final exam of one lifetime, which determines our next destination.
Spiritual culture is not a matter of East or West Indian or American. It is the eternal right of every human being, for it leads to the perfection of life. So modern life is certainly a different culture from the Vedic one. But must we follow the culture in which we were born and raised if it is entirely opposed to the progressive values of life?'
Materialistic values, even if they seem progressive, accomplish only one thing: the endless repetition of birth, old age, disease, and death. The Vedic literature tells us that all activities that do not provoke an attraction for the Personality of Godhead are nothing but a waste of time, because they obstruct us from attaining our spiritual destination.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.10) states:
Life's desires should never be directed toward sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation. since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal of one's works.