The Stages of Life (Part 3)

Vanaprastha, or the third stage of life, after brahmacharya (student life) and grahasthya (social life), is when one enters the retirement age.

Literally speaking, vanaprastha means “entering the forest.” Though it does not mean entering the forest “for rest” per se. Retirement is, indeed, “withdrawing from one’s occupation,” as most lexicons define it. Yet it is not withdrawing from work. Vanaprastha is not the end of one’s life work, but only the end of one’s occupation with society.

The Retirement Age

Ideally, it is suggested, that men and women enter this stage of life between the ages of 48 and 60. In case of a married couple, whoever first reaches the ideal age has the privilege and liberty to enter vanaprastha, and invite their partner to join him/her.

The criteria of ideal age is purposely let lose between the above two ages, since it may vary from person to person. In the case of married couples with children, though, it is suggested that they retire after the last of their children has completed schooling, and is ready to work.

Now, what did the retired do in the forest?

In the olden days, the forest served as a house to various institutions of learning. Schools, colleges and universities were not buildings made of brick and mortar, but vast spaces in the open, under the shady trees, and starry skies.

Many of the retired took care of those forest academies. They taught, and helped in the organization of those academies. The best among them would be appointed as the head of the institution and called guru. The pupils were all part of guru’s larger family, the gurukula.

Alternately, the retired could also live as hermits in one of the ashrams, or communes. Even then, however, they did not sit idle. Ashrams are the forerunner of modern-day cooperative societies. They were not only self-sufficient, but also self-sustaining. Having no adequate means, some of the gurukulas would often turn to those ashrams for their daily needs and requirements.

Lastly, there were those who would rather live in total solitude, in a hut or cave. They would go deeper into the forest, to spend the rest of their life in deep contemplation and meditation.

The Social Balance

This, the last group of retirees, was honoured as the “power house,” the generator of lifeforce, and the regulator of social life. “Without them,” a guru would explain to his pupils, “this world would go out of balance, and perish. There is so much noise in society that there has to be a realm of total silence to balance it.

“Those who live deep in the forest are actually working to maintain the balance. They are not idle. They are as active as any one of us, perhaps more. For we primarily work on the physical, mental and emotional levels, whereas they work on the intellectual and other higher levels of consciousness.”

The gurus of gurukulas were down-to-earth people. They had no personal ego, and no personal interest. They were there to serve. And they taught from their own experience. They shared their knowledge and wisdom freely, and without any reservation.

Respect for the Environment

Run by the vanaprasthis, the forest academies were all resident schools. Day schools were unknown, and there were no schools in the cities. They were all in the forest. This way, the children learned to respect and take care of the environment – the flora, and the fauna – very early in their lives.

Being an environmentalist was not a profession, or a paid job, but an obligation all of them had to carry out, notwithstanding the particular area of their learning. A practitioner of medicine was as much an environmentalist as an entrepreneur, or a professional in any other field.

Egalitarian Community

As former members of society, the vanaprasthi knew the exact needs and requirements of society. They worked to fulfil such needs and requirements.

One important need was that of bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The egalitarian principles were, therefore, held in high esteem. Children belonging to different social backgrounds – princes and paupers – lived together in love and harmony.

Thus, the vanaprasthis contributed positively to the character-building of the future generation, and the overall growth of the nation.

Relevance of Vanaprastha Today

Vanaprastha is basically about “letting go.” There comes a point in our life when we must let go of everything. Death does not allow us any baggage, not even this body. At that point, if we have not been practicing the art of letting go, we suffer tremendously. The journey into unknown becomes extremely painful.

It is, therefore, in our own interest that we prepare ourselves for the final Let Go through vanaprastha. In other words: a) We do not postpone our retirement; and b) We live the ideals of vanaprastha in our retirement.

Consider this:

The retired entrepreneurs and professionals teaching in our schools, colleges and universities; our students learning from their actual life experiences, and not from the textbooks written by the inexperienced (I call them the non-initiates); our politicians and parliamentarians do not run for a second term, but join the institutions of political sciences instead, to share their successes and failures.

I think we would have a better society. It is just a thought, but worth considering. A right kind of vanaprastha could cure our society of many of its ills. One thing that is for sure is this: Our social machinery would have new and young operators with fresh minds and hearts.

I do not say that they will not make mistakes. They can make mistakes too, but those would be new mistakes. They would not make the mistake of making the same mistakes, whereas our oldies keep making the same mistakes, and falling into the same pit. They are too old to even learn from their own mistakes.

A reminder to myself: Time for vanaprastha!

The writer is a spiritual activist and author of more than 130 books, several in English (, His organization runs Holistic Health/Meditation Centers, a National Plus/Interfaith School, a Charitable Clinic and a Public Reading Room in Bali. For more information, call Aryana or Debbie at 0361 7801595, 8477490.

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Anand Krishna

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