Four Phases of Life
Four Stages of Life in Ancient India
Depending on what kind of person you are and what stage of life you are in, Hindus believe that your life parallels a day in your life. Morning, afternoon, evening and night:as are your days, so is your life. An ideal life, Hindus say, is hundred years and it passes through four phases, each a quarter of a century long.
Each phase has its demands and expects certain behavior. From the time you are born to the time you are in your mid twenties the focus of your life is being a student. Your primary responsibility is to get educated, to learn. At this stage your only obligation is to pay attention to what the teacher says or shows. Good study habits are to be cultivated. With the help of parents and teachers strong character has to be acquired. By the end of this period the graduate has good liberal education and beginner’s professional skills. The morning is over.
The afternoon, the second stage, is the time to take over the responsibilities of a householder. During this phase, men as well women are physically at their zenith. You are energetic and interested in achieving position and power and accumulating possessions-house, car, clothes and things. The life feels fulfilled through activities that are directed outwards: sexual pleasure, children, professional success and friendly social interactions. After spending years of life delighting in the senses, the novelty and surprise begin to lose their attraction. The life seems repetitive and stale.
The evening has arrived. It is time to move on to the third phase of life– retirement. Some get stuck at stage two. They never cross the threshold to phase three. By this time you have become a grandparent. You are ready to withdraw from the immediate familial and social obligations that you have so far shouldered. You have specialized and generously given to your family and society at large. But now you realize that life should not be over before you have understood it.
The time has come to go within, to ponder, and reflect upon the meaning of life, without interruptions. This is the time to know yourself. Who am I? The “I” that you have been so close to but had no time to really be with. This is the time to get to know this “I”. You mull over what your life is about. Why were you born? why did you study, excelled in your profession and created a loving family? You reminisce how you delved into pleasures of life, loved your wife and children. At times they got sick and you got sick. You had your share of happiness and sorrow. But you struggled long, only to die too soon. You read. You spend time with the wise, with the like-minded individuals to know what does it all mean?
All of us have this question at the back of our minds but only handful reflects upon it.
The fascinating challenge of life is to find life’s mystery and meaning. This is the phase when you get time to plunge into the solitude, to discover your real self. The retirement time is when you seek something more than yourself, beyond yourself. It is the phase to work out an answer for yourself and then weave that answer into your daily life. It is time to dwell with the reality that underlies the natural world-Te of the Tao or the “Self Within” as the Buddha teaches. You have experienced a lifetime of living. You have learnt to live with generosity, wisdom and compassion. Retirement is refirement of a life within. You want your mind to be peaceful and your heart pure.
The night of life has arrived, the last phase, the phase when you’d ultimately become a dream. According to the tradition time has come to leave the comforts of your home and go to live in a forest ashram. This is the time when you disengage with life’s ties. You neither hate nor love anyone or anything. Living in home is no longer required or is even attractive. If all the things have run smoothly you don’t want to be somebody anymore. You prefer anonymity.
At the forest ashram your body feels free and your feet are rooted. You are now a homeless mendicant who has not only shed his egotism but ego as well. At this stage the only desire the mendicant has to merge with the underlying reality, the Brahman.