The Stages of Life
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
There is a beautiful side to the cycle of life when we understand it from a deeply spiritual perspective. In India’s ancient civilization, human life was divided into four stages – phases in a grand concept thousands of years old. Sadly, the spirit of these ancient traditions has gradually been forgotten, so here I would like to talk about the inner meaning of these four stages as a framework for life today.
The first stage in life starts before the baby is born. When the mother is pregnant, she is given a mantram – a sacred phrase or holy name – that she will repeat most of the time. It shows the genius of our ancient civilization: not only the mother’s diet but the mother’s thoughts and feelings influence the baby. If the mother repeats the mantram, the baby has a head start on the spiritual path.
This stage of life is traditionally called brahmacharya, which is usually translated as “celibacy” because this is the period before marriage and family. But brahma– charya literally means “conduct that leads to awareness of Brahman,” or God, and the underlying meaning is not just self-control but a complete pattern of daily living that prepares us for the ultimate goal of Self-realization. The focus of this first stage of life is really education: gaining the skills of victorious living and learning that life is meant for the service of God in all around us rather than the pursuit of personal profit or pleasure.
In ancient India, this lofty ideal was embodied in forest ashrams where children were sent to be educated in self-control and meditation in addition to high intellectual and cultural attainments. Then the sages would send their young graduates home to their community, telling them, “Now you can contribute to life and leave the world a little better than you found it.”
This is the purpose of the next stage of life, that of the grihastha or “householder.” These are the years in which young people embark on a career and perhaps raise a family, ideally helping the whole community to prosper with right livelihood while raising children with high ideals.
The third stage, retirement, begins a process of detachment from personal goals. Here the skills, experience, and resources acquired during the second stage are “given back to life” in selfless service. Inspired by this ideal, many Indian physicians today dedicate large blocks of time and money each year to providing free medical care for the poor; successful business people initiate or underwrite critical social services, helping the underprivileged to start small businesses or get an education. Much the same spirit seems to be developing in other countries as well.
Spiritually, however, something more than selfless service is required in this stage. If we see the first half of life as a period of physical and material growth, we have to recognize that at this level, the second half of life is marked by an irreversible decline. This is an insistent reminder that it is time to turn inwards and develop the spiritual side of our personality, which can grow even as the body ages.
The first signs of physical decline are distressing for everyone, of course. The natural tendency is to cling to youth and pretend nothing is happening. It took me years to realize that in trying to hide the signs of age, I was fighting not only a losing battle but a battle not worth fighting. Once I grasped this, I immediately started withdrawing my identification with the body through the practice of meditation. This is the traditional focus of the third stage of life, dedicated to the discovery that we are neither body nor mind, but the deathless Self that dwells within.
This growing detachment eventually becomes what in Sanskrit is called sannyasa: renunciation, letting go of every personal attachment. This begins with material possessions, for as everyone knows, “You can’t take it with you.” Renouncing possessions can be difficult, but what I found nearly impossible is letting go of possessive attachments to other people. We call such attachments love, but all too often they include a good measure of attachment to ourselves. The mystics of all religions tell us that the highest kind of love shines equally on all.
I don’t mind telling you that this was the hardest lesson for me to learn. I have always been a person with passionate loyalties, and to learn not to restrict that devotion to a few individuals was a long and painful process. But today all that wealth of passion, all that depth of love, flows not only to my own family but to all of life. That is the fruition of the fourth stage of life. The body has to decline in these years, but what the Bhagavad Gita calls “the dweller in the body” can shine forth, a greater source of wisdom and inspiration than when we were young.