Vanaprastha in Modern Times

Bhaswati Seal*

In ancient times our ancestors in India envisioned the journey of our life over four stages, called Ashrams, which were a natural evolution in the life of an individual based on their needs at a particular age. This Vedic framework was laid out for a reason. It was practical and helped to maintain harmony in society and with the family.

From birth to approximately 25 years of age was called the Brahmacharya ashram, a time to acquire knowledge, and develop oneself.

Next  follows the Grihastha ashram, from 25 to 50 years of age, a time to earn a living, get married, have children, and play an active role in the economy and society.

Beginning anywhere between 50 and 60 years of age was the Vanaprastha ashram, which literally meant a departure for the forest or a period of stay in the forest. Our scriptures say Vanaprastha starts when one gets wrinkles, and white hair and has grandchildren. This period lasted till the age of 75  years.

Vanaprastha marked a gradual withdrawal from the very active involvements of the previous Grihasthashram and more time devoted to the Self and contemplating on one’s purpose in life and trying to understand the workings of this Universe. It was a move towards simplifying one’s life and exploring spirituality.

At the end came Sannyas ashram, a time of renunciation with no attachment to place and creature comforts. One’s focus turned inward to feel the presence of God and reach one’s highest potential of merging with the Universal Consciousness in this life. A  person observing Sanyas ashram may lead the life of a wanderer. This period of old age would be from the age of 75 till the body’s final journey.

Many of us follow the tenets of the first two ashrams in today’s world, without much thought as they unfold. However, the third stage, Vanaprastha,  may not be getting the attention it deserves. Many people continue Grihasthashram till their last days. While there is no need to give up one’s home and family to move into a forest, a shift in mental attitude is required, to live for the larger society.

When the system of four ashramas was followed in society,  many individuals during their Vanaprastha years came up for the selfless service that is needed for institution and nation-building. Today the absence of that concerted effort is a loss to society.

Let’s look at a few aspects of Vanaprastha that most can practice, including some Yama and Niyama. Maharishi Patanjali in his treatise Yoga Sutra has described the eight limbs of  Yoga. Two out of these eight limbs are Yama (self restraints) and Niyama (positive guidelines). Observed together they give a structure for living in harmony with others and oneself.

Post the age of 50, after career peaks have been reached and a family raised one may have a yearning to do something different. What elements of this ancient system of Vanaprastha can be followed in today’s world to continue one’s development and get a sense of fulfilment?

Simplify life

While we may continue to live in our homes, Vanaprastha entails downsizing and living simply. It is a time of detachment from material comforts and luxuries, that is practicing the Yama of Aparigraha, non-possessiveness. We may not need everything that we have surrounded ourselves with to raise a family. Pare down to the essence in all aspects of your day – eating, dressing, daily activities. Make conscious Saatvik (loosely translated as moral) choices to have a wholesome life. Become aware of what and how much you really need, let go of the rest. One becomes keenly aware that for optimum health the Yama of Mitahara – moderation in food is necessary!  Focusing on the abundance in one’s life will lead to Santosh, contentment.

Even though one remains at home a gradual withdrawal from worldly affairs is called for so that the next generation, those in the Grihasthashram can run the household. Seniors can be mature counsellors to others. One needs to resist the urge to interfere in the choices and daily activities of family members.

More engagement with Nature

Vanaprastha is a time of shift from spending most of our time inside four walls to spending time in God’s creation. Being in touch with the elements of Nature is an exhilarating feeling which many of us may have forgotten. Experience the regenerative power of Nature through activities like gardening, a daily visit to a park, or living on the city’s outskirts or in a small town with more access to Nature. Or it can be in the form of regular outings to nature, treks, and nature walks. When we immerse ourselves in the five primordial elements, panchamahabhuta – sunlight, open skies, fresh air, rain, the earth under our feet, and greenery, we rekindle our awareness of being a part of Nature. Allow slowing down and drawing our sustenance from Nature.

Be a Giver

Give freely your time and expertise, support those who need it most. Shift your focus and efforts to work for the good of the larger society. Let those in the earlier stages of their life benefit from the wisdom of your years. You could do that as a mentor in your professional field, as an involved hands-on grandparent, as a volunteer in a field close to your heart. Being involved in the education of younger generations brings joy and helps to pass on valuable sanskaras. Do something for others outside your immediate family, in a small or big way.  Through selfless work, the elderly can observe the Yama of Daya, compassion, and the Niyama of Dana, generosity.

Time for Self-expansion

Vanaprastha does not mean resting on your laurels. Continue to learn new things. Read to your heart’s content, learn from the wisdom of great thinkers of yore. Recognize this as a time of strength, a time to contemplate on yourself, Swaadhyay, and the larger society. Empty nesters may have more time on their hands, which is an opportunity to do something soul-satisfying that nurtures one’s spirit.

Explore the Spirituality  

This is the time for exploring the spiritual dimensions of life. Daily prayers, meditation, and reading the scriptures help us to understand the metaphysical forces that guide our lives. No matter what one’s relationship with God has been till now, this is a good time to dedicate your life force for something higher than yourself and surrender with Bhakti to a higher power.  This Niyama of Ishvarapranidhana,  contemplation of Ishwar, God gives strength and solace to the soul. It is the opportunity to do Sadhana for the divine.

Vanaprastha can be a  time of restructuring and rejuvenating your life. Letting go of what is not working so well and making a fresh start with some of the things that you have always wanted to do but never got around to till now.  And expanding your circle of caring to include a much wider world…think Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

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*Leaving behind  the corridors of the corporate  world, the author is a Yoga teacher, and health coach specializing in Therapeutic Yoga, Prenatal & Postnatal Yoga. She teaches online to students internationally,  www.srimoyiyoga.com.  She has fond memories of the yoga classes at her school, Lady Irwin School, New Delhi,  which kindled a lifelong interest in Yoga. Bhaswati also enjoys spending time in nature, growing a fruit garden using permaculture principles on the outskirts of Bangalore.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Very nice !! Captures the essence !! Crucial aspect of a sustainable circular economy !! 👍 consume and scales up forever isnt logically sustainable – there has to b giving and renunciation … well captured

  2. Bhashwati
    Beautifully written and very practical
    We get caught in our daily life not aware of the short- and long-term goals in the pursuit of happiness
    There is so much to learn from the history and culture of our past.

    Thanks for the reminder

  3. Very well written Bhaswati.
    Knew about these 4 ashrams of life all along, but now, when we have actually reached the Vanaprastha stage…..didn’t have the insights nor the motivation to do the appropriate things.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Bhaswati, that’s a very well written piece. Everything you’ve said resonates. It reinforces my feelings as I take baby steps towards the ideology and way of life you’ve propounded.
    Looking forward to more from you.

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