For many years I have been been intrigued by the ancient Hindu teaching that we have four stages or disciplines (ashramas) of life. As a young person we pursue the Brahmacharya, or the disciplines of student life. We learn the skills and ethics of living. As mature adults we are to pursue the way of the Grihasta, the householder, who cares not only for the family and household, but the community and wider society. In mature middle age, we then move into the Vanaprastha ashrama, or the “forest dwelling discipline.” We begin to set aside the responsibilities of householding, move into the forest, and begin to simplify our lives, devoting more time to reflection and the refining of the wisdom we have learned in our previous years. That’s where I am now, with a verdant forest right outside my door and a woodshop awaiting its products in the basement. In our last years, we develop the discipline of the Sannyasin, who lets go of the cares of this world, its attractions, pleasures and power, in order to reunite with the primordial power of the Brahma, the One.
One chart portraying this passage establishes the age of 72 as the point of transition to the life of the Sannyasin. Well, I may or may not be standing at that threshold, but there are enough intimations of it to have emerged in a poem that came bubbling up the other day. As I worked with it and reflected on its range of meanings I was once again aware of how much this Hindu view contrasts with the idea of a single life calling that dominates Western culture.
For us in the West, where Biblical traditions inform us deeply, the idea of vocation, or calling, functions like the idea of the four ashramas of Hindu tradition, but we have only one calling for our life. Our sense of vocation, that is our sense of the purpose of our lives, flows from the single call that first came to Israel to be a righteous people. It got largely individualized with Christianity, so that it became the call to follow God’s purpose of salvation for our individual lives. In the monastery, the call meant a life-long withdrawal from the world into a monastic life. With the Protestant Reformation it got connected to a life-long occupation. With the secularization of modern life, it was reduced to the job. It wasn’t until this point that women came to be seen generally as equally eligible to have a calling, a vocation, beyond the necessities of child-bearing and householding. Until the mid-twentieth century, you worked in this single calling until you dropped, about the age of 65, from which we get the magic age for Social Security (and Medicare!) in this country.
Both traditions have a lot to offer to us in a time when the old models for living are being both disrupted and reconstructed. On the one hand, rapid economic transformations are rapidly eroding the idea of a single life-calling in the occupational world. Moreover, the traditional Hindu ashramas do not seem to take account of male and female variations in life’s stages. On the other hand, even within this economic disruption, the Western idea of vocation might still be able to direct us to world transforming activity, both individually and collectively. In addition, with our increased longevity within the enormous disruption of contemporary occupational life, the four ashramas might help us deal more creatively with the necessary arc of our personal, bodily lives.
Moreover, we don’t need to think of these ashramas simply as chronological steps in life. They can be seen as skills or sensibilities we can cultivate at almost any age. There is room for letting go in the dreamings of our adolescence. There is constant need for humble learning in our old age. And householding, while its content may shift, is an ever-present testimony to our sheer bodilness as creatures.
It is grindingly clear that our economy and occupational structure has a long way to go to enable people to live according to staged disciplines like this. Many people have reflected on these matters, from Erik Erikson and Daniel Levinson to George Vaillant and Gail Sheehy. If you’re interested, check their writings out. Or leave a brief comment below. Whatever stage you’re in, let it blossom. Let it call you forth. Even unto the fourth calling.
all that matters
in this world
at the roots
of sunlit life…