A classical formulation of the ideal life cycle is called the “four stages of life.” It applies almost exclusively to males, but the implications for women are fairly clear. The traditional system is called varnashramadharma, the “law (dharma) of caste (varna) and life stage (ashrama).” Upper-caste Hindu males begin the cycle as students, in a stage between the ages of twelve and twenty-four. Under the tutelage of a guru young men learn the basic sacred traditions, rituals, and sacred texts. From ages twenty-four to forty-eight they become “householders,” marrying and raising a family according to conventional norms. During these first two stages, men seek religious fulfillment by turning outward and engaging their world with extroverted energy and drive. At forty-eight a man enters into the stage of a “forest-dweller” or “senior mentor” to younger men. Some actually move toward a life of greater solitude during this stage, even if they do not head for a hermitage in the forest. Some men past the age of seventy-two enter the stage of the renunciant, or sannyasi. They formally set aside as many ordinary ties to their former lives as possible, leaving behind wealth as well as material responsibility in quest of self-realization. Both of the latter two stages call for increasing introspection and time for personal prayer and devotion. Though fewer individuals follow the four stages formally now than in the past, the cycle remains a traditional ideal and a useful map of spiritual progress for those who choose to pursue it.
View of the seventeenth-century Temple of Minakshi, Madurai, south India. Massive royal gateways define the inner (mostly covered) courtyards, and the two spires protruding through the roof stand over the main “womb chambers.” (Photo courtesy of Michael Harter, S.J.)