A widespread misconception in the West about Hindu philosophy on life is its otherworldliness, its emphasis on keeping an eye on the afterlife and a constant preoccupation with the soul, renunciation and liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
This observation is based on thoughts and practices that existed during the period when Europeans first came into contact with India. But it was not always so. The primary Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, not only deal with matters related to God, soul and salvation, but also make direct references to every aspect of society – political, economic and social. Discussions on kingdoms and empires, references to democracy and the social organization of everyday life are also found in the Vedic texts.
The spirit of free inquiry and strong interest in enjoyment of life on this Earth has always been present in the writings of Hindu sages and philosophers of all ages. They have written on every aspect of human behaviour and relationships.
Hinduism emphasizes that before attaining Moksha (salvation), it is essential for humankind to first enjoy worldly pleasures by creating wealth with hard work and honesty that would also benefit the rest of the society. Lord Krishna lays special emphasis on work: “Do your prescribed duties as action is superior to inertia. Even for the maintenance of the physical body, work is essential.” (Gita: 3.8).
The tenets of Hinduism grade the life span of the individual into four stages:
Stage 1: Brahamcharya (studentship). A person must observe celibacy during the early years of life that are to be entirely devoted to acquiring knowledge and skills in order to fulfill his/her ambitions for the future.
Stage 2: Grihastha (family life). The next phase of life is to get married and live a domestic life by maintaining a household.
Stage 3: Vanaprastha (retirement). When a Hindu householder has discharged his obligations toward his family and society, and the children have grown up and married, he is expected to retire in order to focus on the spiritual aspect of his life. Traditionally, Hindu retirees feel they have outgrown the activities of amusement and entertainment, and seek higher things in life; they want to reflect, pursue spiritual studies and meditate. The more active retirees devote their time to selfless community service.
Stage 4: Sanyasa (wandering ascetic). This is the last station in the Hindu’s life journey. When saturated with spiritual knowledge, a person renounces all worldly pleasures and gives up everything – personal identity, family, wealth, material possessions and all bonds of relationships to become a wandering ascetic. The mind is detached from all sources of suffering and pleasures.
The individual considers the whole world his family. Wearing a long unstitched saffron robe or sari and carrying nothing except a begging bowl and a staff, he or she would wander from village to village acting as a travelling spiritual teacher. The journey would end at a sacred place like Banares or Haridwar, where one would live as a hermit, praying and meditating until one’s last breath. But, now a days, not many Hindus follow this path.
Hindu texts glorify the second stage, domestic life, considering it the most important one as it supports the other three: “Just as every living being depends on air for its existence, similarly, domestic life is most crucial in order to support all other stages of (one’s) life.” (Manusmriti)
Hinduism is a way of life as its texts touch upon every aspect of human behaviour, activities and relationships in this world. It would be a fallacy to think it focuses only on renunciation of worldly pleasures and promotion of asceticism.
Article By: Ajit Adhopia
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