Vanaprastha-Ashram: How I’m Transitioning to the Hindu Way of Spending the Evening of Life
- By successfully embracing vairagya or non-attachment I will make my next morning (rebirth) better.
Late in the afternoon of life, as the shadows start getting longer, the mind starts contemplating the approaching evening of our life. Nowadays, due to the miracles of medicine, a healthy lifestyle, and a generous helping of good luck, our evenings are many times stretched long. This late afternoon-evening of life is the stage of life that the Hindu philosophy calls vanaprastha-ashram, the third stage of life.
The first stage of life is living as a student and is called Brahmacharya-ashrama. The second householder stage, Gruhasta-ashram, describes being married with a family and being a sustainer of society. The third stage is vanaprastha-ashram, mentioned previously, where our children have hopefully settled, and we have retired/retracted from active management of our household, profession, and material ambitions. Finally, for special people who devote themselves to seeking spiritual knowledge and abandoning material pursuits, irrespective of age, there is Sanyasa-ashram.
I am currently transitioning into the Vanaprastha-ashram stage. Vanaprastha-ashram, in ancient times, literally meant handing over the household to your children and going outside (vana = forest/garden, prasth = to go). Going outside could be figurative or literal. Forest-living meant joining either a commune in the forest under the guidance of a spiritual teacher or going on a pilgrimage with no plan to return. In modern days, however, a retirement community is an option. Essentially, vanaprastha-ashram is getting out of the hair of the descendants and seeking spiritual pursuits.
All of us want to transit into the vanaprastha-ashram on our own terms, with careful preparation and deliberate, masterful strides. We do not want to be dragged, screaming and protesting by the merciless time. We have spent our entire childhood and young adulthood deliberately, or accidentally, preparing for adulthood through studying, learning occupational skills, gaining societal behavior skills, and playing games in order to have the best possible adult life. Similarly, in our adult life, we should dedicate a portion of our time to preparing for our retirement age, which for many of us may be quite long.
In preparing for retirement, I read innumerable articles on a successful retirement. Many of these dealt with various financial aspects, including investing, smart spending, taxes, and charitable giving. There were other articles suggesting that I take up a part-time job for a social company or pursue intellectual stimulation. Some articles suggested picking up a new hobby or restarting an old hobby that had to be abandoned previously. These aspects are very well covered in many articles and websites.
However, none of these sources included the most foundational preparation for retirement that is described by the Hindu word vairagya, which roughly translates to non-attachment. This means not forming new material attachments (things and people), decreasing previous attachments (detachment), and letting go of ego, feelings of superiority or inferiority, revenge, fear, paranoia, and things that are beyond human control. This internal mental reset is a gradual process. We do not need to immediately leave our domicile and get rid of our possessions. We just have to start being constantly aware of the transitory (non-permanent) nature of people and things and be ready to surrender them at the appropriate time, including our life. Non-attachment also does not mean ‘not caring.’ In contrast, successful non-attachment involves unlimited caring. Instead of caring for just your family, friends, etc., your care circle increases drastically to include the entire creation. In this non-attached state, you put your best effort without any attachment to results.
The practice of non-attachment is a gradual upwards staircase, with each step slippery and sloping upwards. Climbing is difficult, but it is possible by practicing the ability to enjoy without attachment those very things that were previously enjoyed with attachment.
This means evolving from an inward-facing (self-centered) life to an outward-facing (universe-centered) life and outlook. This outward-facing lifestyle is best facilitated by getting involved in service activities. Not just a sporadic volunteer hour but actual, meaningful involvement in the entire process of the service project. Developing a service-centered mindset by participating in service projects, even when you are working, makes the transition to larger participation later in life easier. Performing service without any expectation of living or even posthumous gains is the true practice of non-attachment.
By practicing non-attachment to our best possible ability, and also being present as a home/haven if our own or others need us, our evening will stay brightly lit for ourselves and the people around us, who may be starting their day in the earlier hours. Being a Hindu, I also know that successful non-attachment will make my next morning (rebirth) better.
(Top photo, courtesy Twitter)
Mandar Pattekar is a radiologist by profession. His service interest is in the basic education of children in underserved urban areas of America as well as improving urban food deserts. He likes to share the universally applicable Hindu Dharma principles with interested people.
Thank you for the beautiful reflection, I hope you enjoy your evening years!