Ashrama in Hinduism is one of four age-based life stages discussed in Indian texts of the ancient and medieval eras. The four ashramas are: Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (forest walker/forest dweller), and Sannyasa (renunciate). It is a hermitage/ monastery where spiritual and yogic disciplines are pursued. Ashrams are often associated with a central teaching figure, a guru, who is the object of adulation by the residents of the ashram.
The Ashrama system is one facet of the Dharma concept in Hinduism. It is also a component of the ethical theories in Indian philosophy, where it is combined with four proper goals of human life (Purusartha), for fulfilment, happiness and spiritual liberation. Moreover, since the four ashramas can be seen as the framework of an influential life-span model, they are also part of an indigenous developmental psychology which from its ancient beginnings until today has shaped the orientations and goals of many people, especially in India.
Under the Ashram system, the human lifespan was divided into four periods. The goal of each period was the fulfilment and development of the individual. The classical system, in the Ashrama Upanishad, the Vaikhanasa Dharmasutra and the later Dharmashastra, presents these as sequential stages of human life and recommends ages for entry to each stage, while in the original system presented in the early Dharmasutras the Ashramas were four alternative available ways of life, neither presented as sequential nor with age recommendations.
|Ashram or stage||Age (years)||Description||Rituals of transition|
|Till 25||Brahmacharya represented the bachelor student stage of life. This stage focuses on education and included the practice of celibacy. The student went to a Gurukul (house of the guru) and typically would live with a Guru (mentor), acquiring knowledge of science, philosophy, scriptures and logic, practicing self-discipline, working to earn dakshina to be paid for the guru, learning to live a life of Dharma (righteousness, morals, duties).||Upanayana at entry. Samavartana at exit.|
|25–48||This stage referred to the individual's married life, with the duties of maintaining a household, raising a family, educating one's children, and leading a family-centred and a dharmic social life. Grihastha stage was considered as the most important of all stages in sociological context, as human beings in this stage not only pursued a virtuous life, they produced food and wealth that sustained people in other stages of life, as well as the offsprings that continued mankind. The stage also represented one where the most intense physical, sexual, emotional, occupational, social and material attachments exist in a human being's life.||Hindu wedding at entry.|
|48–72||The retirement stage, where a person handed over household responsibilities to the next generation, took an advisory role, and gradually withdrew from the world. Vanaprastha stage was a transition phase from a householder's life with its greater emphasis on Artha and Kama (wealth, security, pleasure and desires) to one with greater emphasis on Moksha (spiritual liberation).|
|The stage was marked by renunciation of material desires and prejudices, represented by a state of disinterest and detachment from material life, generally without any meaningful property or home (Ascetic), and focussed on Moksha, peace and simple spiritual life. Anyone could enter this stage after completing the Brahmacharya stage of life.|
Ashrama and Purushartha
The Ashramas system is one facet of the complex Dharma concept in Hinduism. It is integrated with the concept of Purushartha, or four proper aims of life in Hindu philosophy, namely, Dharma (piety, morality, duties), Artha (wealth, health, means of life), Kama (love, relationships, emotions) and Moksha (liberation, freedom, self-realization). Each of the four Ashramas of life are a form of personal and social environment, each stage with ethical guidelines, duties and responsibilities, for the individual and for the society. Each Ashrama stage places different levels of emphasis on the four proper goals of life, with different stages viewed as steps to the attainment of the ideal in Hindu philosophy, namely Moksha.
Neither ancient nor medieval texts of India state that any of the first three Ashramas must devote itself solely to a specific goal of life (Purushartha). The fourth stage of Sannyasa is different, and the overwhelming consensus in ancient and medieval texts is that Sannyasa stage of life must entirely be devoted to Moksha aided by Dharma.
Dharma is held primary for all stages. Moksha is the ultimate noble goal, recommended for everyone, to be sought at any stage of life. On the other two, the texts are unclear. With the exception of Kamasutra, most texts make no recommendation on the relative preference on Artha or Kama, that an individual must emphasise in what stage of life. The Kamasutra states,
The life span of a man is one hundred years. Dividing that time, he should attend to three aims of life in such a way that they support, rather than hinder each other. In his youth he should attend to profitable aims (artha) such as learning, in his prime to pleasure (kama), and in his old age to dharma and moksha.— Kamasutra 1.2.1 – 1.2.4, Translated by Patrick Olivelle 
Alternate classification system of life stages
stages of life
(Saving of life)
|Saisava||0–2 years||No moral codes during this period|
|Balya||3–12 years||Brahmacharya||Dharma||Vidyarambha, Learning of alphabet, arithmetic, basic education|
|Kaishora||13–15 years||Brahmacharya||Dharma and Moksha|
|Tarunya||16–19 years||Brahmacharya||Dharma and Moksha|
|20–29 years||Brahmacharya or Grihastha||Dharma, Artha and Moksha|
|30–59 years||Grihastha||Dharma, Artha and Kama and Moksha|
|60–79 years||Vanaprastha||Dharma and Moksha|
|80+ years||Sanyasa||Dharma and Moksha|
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