The term Varna Asrama Dharma invokes a picture of backward, regressive social system in which some people enjoyed a higher social status due to their birth while many were enslaved.
While this is true in the way the implementation of Varna Asrama Dharma evolved, that was not the aim of Varna Asrama Dharma. The aim of this series is to put it in perspective and see for ourselves what we can learn from Varna Asrama Dharma.
While Varnas are based on Gunas and Eternal can be traced to our evolution from primates (as seen in last chapter), Asramas are man-made and is for human beings.
Asramas have been defined based on social needs and bodily needs of human beings. If people follow the Asramas as defined in our dharma, that can solve most of the social and economic problems world faces today! It’s true, Read on..
Literally Asrama means ‘Way of Living’. There are four Asramas talked about in various scriptures. They are Brahmacharya, Grhasta, Sanyasa and Vanaprastha.
According to the earlier Sutras (Vasishta Dharma Sutra, Gautama Dharma Sutra) a person in Brahmacharya can move into Vanaprastha or Grhasta. But Manu smrti prohibits it and calls for only Grhasta’s to move into Vanaprastha.
According to Manu, after Brahmacharya, a person moves into Grhasta and then into Vanaprastha. Once the children of a Grhasta are mature and independent and Grhasta is done with the commitments to kids, he/she should move into Vanaprastha.
After Vanaprastha one should move into Sanyasa.
Asramas tuned to Human needs
Brahmacharya – Brain development and Learning
Brahma (the absolute, original, first, the Self-existent spirit) carya(practice, perform) means the performance of the absolute/original/first one.
Interestingly according to scientific studies, brain growth in humans from conception to adulthood mimic the human brain evolution of millions of years. In particular, detailed studies show that the human brain regions that expand the most during infancy (after birth) and childhood are the same parts that expanded the most during evolution as humans diverged from other primates.
From birth to teenage years, there is a fourfold increase in the volume of the human brain.
During this period, there are also marked improvements in motor, cognitive and perceptual abilities. It is well known that an infant’s interaction with its environment helps to sculpt inter- and intraregional connections within the cortex, eventually resulting in the highly specialized adult brain.
The relatively delayed rate of development of the human brain, compared with that of other mammals makes it more susceptible to the influence of postnatal experiences, teaching and instruction.
According to scientists, extra-large helpings of social and cultural knowledge from Gurus/teachers customize the infant brain, making both babies and the species (as a whole) more adaptable and allowing for complex social institutions to develop.
According to research, pure cognitive development (e.g., the ability to abstract) is established by mid-adolescence. This is the period of intense and formal learning for a person as the abstraction abilities get developed.
Hence the early stage of life till adulthood is defined as the Brahmacharya stage of life. It is mandated that a person has to spend time in formal learning through different Gurus during this stage of life, so that the human brain which is susceptible to learning and adaptation is given an appropriate amount of knowledge.
Grhastha – Professional and Emotional Development
Grhasta is the stage of life from late teens (early adults) to mid-life period.
Professional Development – Hardwiring the Brain
According to scientific studies a second wave of overproduction of gray matter happens from the late teens and through the 20’s.
Following the overproduction of gray matter, the brain undergoes a process called “pruning” where connections among neurons in the brain that are not used wither away, while those that are used stay—the “use it or lose it” principle.
Thus late teenagers and adults can “exercise” their brains and hard-wire it for sports or playing music or mathematics or science or arts or anything we want.
This means that late teens and in 20’s are in a position to choose a profession for themselves in which they can excel and those capabilities are with them for rest of their life, hardwired in their brain.
Thus this is the stage of life, where a person comes into a resting place in terms of profession and hardwires his/her capabilities in brain. This is the stage of life where a person enters into a stable professional house in which he spends the rest of his life. This stage of life extends from late teenage to mid-life period.
Hence this is the period best suited for professional life.
Emotional Development – Sociability and Family
According to science, the development of the emotional component of cognition and behavior lasts well into adulthood. This process is associated with a marked decrease in anxiety, affective intensity, and sociability during the midlife period.
Hence this is also the period (through the adult age) best suited for family life.
GrhastA – One who holds a stable house (profession and family)
Grha means a resting place. It can be mapped to a habitation or home. Grhasta means a stable resting place. GrhastA means one who has a stable resting place.
Typically GrhstA is understood as one who has his own house, which is interpolated to be a married person. But owning a house is more than being just married.
It means a person who has identified a profession to excel and is already into it. In fact only then a person is eligible to have his own house.
Vanaprastha – Innovation in new domains
Entering a new Domain
Vanaprastha is the stage of life defined from mid-life period well into old-age. Vanaprastha is translated as ‘retiring to a forest’.
It can be viewed as a stage of life where we enter a ‘new’ domain (Vana) that is different from the profession where we made most of our life.
After sometime, our professions become routine and mundane to us. Our mind gets rested for most part and rusted. In particular when our kids are settling down, we are in a position to take risk and enter into new domains.
We should make use of that stage of life and start on a new profession or domain that we do for interest and not for living.
Use the Brain or Lose the Brain
According to science, the human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in old age, it can grow new neurons. Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, use it or lose it.
In other words, by entering into a new Vana (domain), as we are in a position to take risk as our kids have settled down, we are re-invigorating our mind and keeping it working all the time.
This ensures that our mental abilities are very well maintained from mid-life period to very old age.
Modern Vanaprastha options
Rishis of the yore entered forest along with their spouse and experienced this new domain. They concentrated much more on the vedic rituals and practices apart from research as their family worries were well settled. This helped them live long with full mental capabilities.
In modern times, once the children are settled and the risks of family goes off, one should get into a new domain that is of interest to them and is mentally challenging.
The new domain need not be a job. It could be social service or entreprenuership, trying out innovative ideas for society. To put to use all the esxperience in innovating, enjoying the innovation without worrying about the risks of life.
It could be even raising Grand-children with full attention and focus.
Sanyasa – Stress free old age
Sanyasa is the stage of life from old-age to death. Sanyasa means ‘giving up’ or ‘abandoning’.
Stress induced brain shrinkage in old age
According to science from the age of 60, human brains start shrinking. At the same time brain shrinkage in itself does not immediately cause impairment in cognitive functions and memory.
At the same time, research has shown that the shrinkage of a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex result in the release of high levels of stress hormones which results in impairment of memory and diseases like alzheimers.
In other words stress at old age is a definite recipe for cognitive problems and diseases like alzheimers.
How can we beat stress at old age..?
Our dharma says ‘giving up’ or ‘abandoning’ is a way of removing stress from old age.
Such people who have given up on wealth, relationships and consider the whole world as theirs do not suffer from any memory ailments or diseases, as they feel no stress at all.
Hence if one adopts the Sanyasa Asrama beyond the age of 60 or 70 as they feel fit, they can beat stress and live a mentally healthy and happy life till their death.
Next in Series
We saw here Asramas defined in our dharma were in tune with bodily needs. We will see in the next section how they are in tune with social needs.
More posts by this author:
- The Eternal Varna Asrama Dharma – Part 6
- Asramas and Physical Development..
- The Eternal Varna Asrama Dharma – Part 7
- Realizing Atma – Part 1 – Br Up 4.4.22
- The Eternal Varna Asrama Dharma – Part 1