"One must become intensely conscious of one's kinship with all creation, capable of enjoying its beauty and intelligence without any sense of 'mine' or 'thine'." — The Aquarian Almanac

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October 31, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: The Third Ashrama: Renunciation

” Embodied beings are bound by thirst for existence.

Without pure Renunciation,

Attraction to the pleasures of samsara cannot be stilled.

Thus from the beginning seek Renunciation.”

– Tsong Kha Pa

” For to bear all naked truths,

And to envisage circumstance, all calm,

That is the top of sovereignty.”

– John Keats

Is there a difference between Renunciation and selflessness?  Are they essentially the same idea?

Perhaps one way aspect of Renunciation is by looking at it as the letting go of any claims of ownership on the part of the personality.  In that regard Renunciation is a selfless act.  The two ideas are definitely intertwined.

While all the four stages of life in Hinduism will involve some form of renunciation, isn’t it the fourth stage of the sanyasi which is considered the stage of renunciation proper?

In the third ashrama the individual is pictured as retiring from his* householder duties and family connections, which constitute the second ashrama, and goes to live in the forest. There he becomes the hermit, devoting his life to scriptural study and the daily performances of sacrificial rituals to various deities as taught in the vedas.  Through this discipline he prepares himself for the fourth and final stage stage of sanyasa, renunciation.

“Having subdued all faults of the mind and the heart by easy means in the practice of the first three modes of life (viz., pupilage, domesticity, and seclusion) one should pass into the most excellent and the most eminent of all the modes, viz., Sannyasa or Renunciation. Do thou then pass thy days, having acquired that purity. Listen also to me. One should, alone and without anybody to assist him or bear him company, practise Yoga for attaining to success (in respect of one’s highest object of acquisition). One who practises Yoga without companionship, who beholds everything as a repetition of his own self, and who never discards anything (in consequence of all things being pervaded by the Universal Soul), never falls away from Emancipation.”

From The Mahabharata

Santi Parva, Section CCXLV

Translated by sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

* The four ashramas traditionally applied only to men in Hindu society.

see also...

Ashramas-Four Stages of Life
Explanations drawn from the teachings of
Swami Nikhilananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math

A person's duties, in the Hindu tradition, are determined by the stage of life (Ashrama) to which he belongs. Life, which is regarded by Hinduism as a journey to the shrine of truth, is marked by four stages (Ashramas) each of which has its responsibilities and obligations. These four stages of life are:

1. Brahmacharya Ashram (first 25 years)
Student life -observing celibacy

2. Grihastha Ashrama (25 to 50 years)
Householder (married life)

3. Vanprastha Ashrama (50 to 75 years),
Scriptural studies and meditation on God

4. Sanyasa Ashrama (75 to100 years)
Cultivation of God-consciousness- Monastic way of life

Brahmacharya Ashram (first 25 years)

The first stage of life covers the period of study, when a student cultivates his mind and prepares himself for future service to society. He lives with his teacher and regards his teacher as his spiritual father. He leads an austere life and conserves his energy, spurning the defilement of the body and mind through evil words, thoughts and deeds. He shows respect to his elders and teachers, and becomes acquainted with the cultural achievements of the race. Students, rich and poor, live under the same roof and receive the same attention from the teacher and his wife. When the studies are completed, the teacher gives the pupil the following instructions, as described in the Taittiriya Upanishad:

Grihastha Ashrama (25 to 50 years)

With marriage, a person enters the second stage of life. A normal person requires a mate; his biological and emotional urges in this respect are legitimate. Debarred from marriage are those who have a dangerous ailment that may be transmitted to children, or those rare souls who, as students, forsake the world at the call of the spirit.

Children endow marriage with social responsibilities.
Hinduism does not regard romance as the whole of the married life. Husband and wife are co-partners in their spiritual progress, and the family provides a training ground for the practice of unselfishness. A healthy householder is the foundation of a good society, discharging his duties (may be )as a teacher, a soldier, a statesman, a merchant, a scientist, or a manual worker. He should be ambitious to acquire wealth and enjoy pleasures, but not by deviating from the path of righteousness(dharma)

Vanprastha Ashrama(50 to 75 years)

When the skin wrinkles, the hairs turn grey, or a grandchild is born, one is ready for the third stage of life (by retiring from the householder's responsibilities). At this stage, the pleasures and excitements of youth appear stale and physical needs are reduced to a minimum. The third period of life is devoted to scriptural study and meditation on God.

Sanyasa Ashrama (75 to100 years)

During the fourth stage, a man renounces the world and embraces the monastic way of life. He is no longer bound by social laws. The call of the Infinite becomes irresistible to him; even charity and social service appear inadequate. He rises above worldly attachments, finite obligations, and restricted loyalties; he is a friend of his fellow human beings, of the gods, and of the animals. No longer tempted by riches, honour or power, a monk preserves equanimity of spirit under all conditions. He turns away from the vanities of the world, devoting himself to the cultivation of God-consciousness.

Through the disciplines of the four stages of life, a Hindu learns progressive non-attachment to the transitory world. The movement of life has been aptly compared to that of the sun. At dawn the sun rises from below the horizon, and as the morning progresses it goes on radiating heat and light till it reaches the zenith at midday. During the afternoon it goes down, gradually withdrawing its heat and light, and at dusk it sinks below the horizon, a mass of radiance, to illumine other regions.

This is a pretty common explanation of the Ashramas no doubt. It is the most popular explanation of the physical phases of ones life.  In my opinion, all it shows the exoteric representations of what should be seen as four general stages of inner development.

All of the above has a strong and very important teaching regarding the moral, ethical and spiritual self.

Renunciation, the most hazardous of all stages, confuse many spiritual seekers and lead them astray.  However, it is Renunciation- samyasa- that is behind every stage, from Brahmacari to Vanprastha.

I think that’s a pretty accurate assessment, Kristan.

Perhaps we could say it is the traditional view rather than the common view. Most non-hindus wouldn’t know about the four ashramas or four stages of life.

As I reflected on your post I found myself wondering about another question, does it matter that it is exoteric? These four stages of life (ashramas) are intimately linked with the Hindu notion of duty (dharma) and the different general roles in life that Hindus find themselves born into via the caste system.   The whole thing attempts to bring together the spiritual, social and ethical aspects of society as a whole through which the individual can fulfil his/her duty at each stage of life (stages largely based on physical age, as you rightly say).  Any system designed to operate across society as a whole is necessarily exoteric, but that may not take away from its value.  Plato, an Initiate, espoused a socio-religious system for Greek society with predetermined general duties and responsibilities and what might be likened to a three tiered ‘caste’ system, albeit not determined by birth. This is outlined in his, ‘The Republic’.

I’m not suggesting that these two systems should be adhered to, I’m just saying I can appreciate the broad scope they entail and that they must, by necessity, be exoteric.  Any system of belief or knowledge in the public domain is exoteric.  All the teachings we currently have and study on Theosophy are exoteric, yet we would see these as highly valuable, I would imagine.

I’m just wondering out loud, Kristan. I’m not disputing anything you have stated.  Yes, it would seem Renunciation would be involved in every ashrama, so, one question might be ‘what characterises the fourth sand final stage (of the Sanyasi) that Renunciation is particularly associated with that stage?’  (It’s still not clear why Renunciation is given as the hallmark of the 3rd Ashrama here on TN, so I can only comment on stages as traditionally given, for now.)

Interestingly, Tsong Khapa in his ’Three Principal Aspects of the Path’ states that Renunciation is the starting point of the Path. 

‘Without pure renunciation there is no way to pacify
the yearnings for the joys and fruits of cyclic existence.
Since craving for existence chains us thoroughly,
first search for true renunciation.’

From this base of Renunciation, the aspirant is then instructed to develop compassion and the wish to help all beings to be free of suffering.  So, renunciation here leads on to developing and nurturing one's responsibilities towards all beings, rather than something to be developed as we withdraw from the world. However, this is a Buddhist text.

I see value in investigating these various traditions and their modes of growth through the lens of Theosophical Philosophy which we can ascertain primarily through the Secret Doctrine and other key theosophical texts.  The Three Fundamentals, 7fold Nature of the Cosmos and Man, Human Perfectibility etc. all provide lenses to look at Sacred Texts in an original way, knowing that the well is always deeper than we can see at present.

We can certainly learn about other cultures through these cultural patterns and establish an understanding and sympathy.  But more importantly, I believe we can extract from them what is meaningful and useful for the present journey we are on. Being a Theosophist means in part, to me, the freedom to draw from the entire inheritance of mankind what resonates with the needs of the path ahead for each one of us.

Hi Gerry - that’s a really nice way to put it.  Yes, everybody, including students of theosophy(!), has the freedom to draw upon the world’s great spiritual traditions and extract what is meaningful. 

There’s always a lens we look through, shaped and coloured by our beliefs, experience and understanding which will either aid or hinder, clarify or distort what we find.

That limited lens is the personal consciousness.  We move forward by discovering where our limitations are and aspiring to the universal perspective.   That is why no matter how much we might think we know or don't know there is a necessity for humility.  I think we could draw a correlation between what might be called the Universal View and the concept of Enlightenment.  Human beings have this capacity.  Mahatmas are the evidence.

I appreciate what you are getting at here, Gerry. The reason i said 'There's always a lens we look through' is because even when we talk about taking a universal view or perspective to look at the teachings of different spiritual traditions, we each will have our own understanding about what such a view might be.  There's nothing wrong in that. 

Hello Peter,

"does it matter that it is exoteric? These four stages of life (ashramas) are intimately linked with the Hindu notion of duty (dharma) and the different general roles in life that Hindus find themselves born into via the caste system."

Though I do agree that these systems do encourage a sense of duty, the ego is far too predominant in this age. Thus this codex of life that was intended to bring one into a harmony with their fellows and Nature, inevitably kindled a sense of separative duty and self-righetousness. Divisions became solidified.  Spiritual seekers abandon their families hoping for enlightenment, while the "lower caste" smite themselves- believing that they are not able to advance spiritually because of their "lowly" birth i.e. poverty, lack of education, etc. etc.  

A Mahatma said something very important about Damodar... do you recall?  

This is the problem, if you ask me.  A highly philosophical way of living such as the ashramas, begun to mirror a misunderstood structure of life; the caste system.  Both became exoteric and misrepresented. The deeper meanings were in time forgotten.  Look what Bhavani Shankar states regarding this topic in his Doctrine of the Gita;

"The Sanskrit word for caste is Varna, not the outer colour of the physical body, but the colour of the subtler bodies, and the very word Varna implies that the four-fold caste is no artificial imposition on Man by some external authority. It finds its sanction in the very constitution of human nature. The One life is the Light of Ishwara, and when it appears through the modifications of Prakriti and its Gunas, it appears as different colours, Varnas, with different Gunas and Karma, energes and consequent actions. As Bhagavan says in the 40th verse of the 18th Chapter, "There is no being on earth or among gods in heaven who is free from these three qualities of matter", and further in the 41st verse1 it is explained, "Of Brahmanas, Kshattriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, 0 Parantapa, the duties have been distributed according to qualities born of their own natures." Evolution itself implies different stages of growth. The duties of Brahmana, such as serenity, self-restraint, austerity, knowledge, etc., of Kshatriyas, such as prowess, firmness, splendour, not flying from battle---of Vaishyas, such as ploughing, protection of kine and trade---of Shudras, the duty of service, fit in with thetendencies developed in them through several previous births. The scriptures in pointing out these several duties as proper for respective castes simply reveal the workings of Nature's law, and thus giving man an insight into the workings of Nature, help on human evolution."


"Moreover, as against the modern secular conception of Society as being a body politic, the basic idea on which the system is founded is a spiritual one in which the four castes are considered as forming so many limbs of the Purusha, the spiritual Being, Prajapati, (vide Purusha-Sukta). The Brahmanas are His mouth, the Kshattriyas are His arms, the Vaishyas His thighs and His feet are the Shudras. Here there is no question of great and small; all are parts of an organic whole, and all have to perform their proper functions to preserve the welfare of the whole. It made the mind familiar with the idea of all work being a sacrifice. The Brahmana does his work; so also the other castes do their works. It gave a spiritual direction to all work by holding prominently before men this idea of human solidarity and sacrifice. Strange as it may seem this institution of caste founded on the idea of a common spiritual origin pointed to an organic; solidarity and spiritual unity of the race. Though the Colours (Varnas) are different from each other, the separative element was accidental and in reality they are one in their origin, the Light. So viewed, the system induced in each a sense of duty irrespective of results and gradauly paved the way for worshipping Bhagavan through devotion to one's duty referred to in the 46th verse of the 18th Chapter: "Him from Whom is the evolution of all beings, by Whom all this is pervaded by worshipping Him with proper duty, man attains perfection." While the fostering of a sense of duty attenuates the personality and lifts motive out of personal inclination on to the impersonal idea of righteousness, the recognition of Bhagavan as the source of all Life and Dharma curbs the Ahankara involved in the separative sense of duty, and thus are laid the sure foundations for the life of renunciation, and a hankering for liberation, Mumukshutva, is aroused. For action in which attachment and Ahankara are, absent does not bind."

The Human form is the temple consisting of all four ashramas and four castes; deeply corresponding to the 3 gunas; the 4th equated to the Brahmana and Samyasi- the renouncer, unattached, and free from the bonds of Nature.

This is how I see it.  Obviously there are many interpretations.  The philosophical structure of Hinduism is the most complex, conveying a deeply beautiful philosophy which is defiantly flawless. However, just as anything can turn in the hand of the profane, some of the most important aspects of the Hindu Dharma; the Occult Life, have become watered down and quite possibly corrupt.

Yes, it would seem Renunciation would be involved in every ashrama, so, one question might be ‘what characterises the fourth sand final stage (of the Sanyasi) that Renunciation is particularly associated with that stage?

Check out the ashramopanisad.  It divides each ashram into 4 subdivisions. I believe you find an answer :)

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 8, 2015 at 7:17am

Hello Kristan - you raise some important points in your response to my question about ‘the exoteric’.  Yes, whatever its origins, the caste system appears to have become terribly abused as time went on.  I’m not sure its something I would support even in its ideal form.  I’m also not entirely persuaded by Bhavani Shankar’s interpretation of the reasons underpinning the caste system, much as I value what he writes on the Gita. However, that’s a topic all in itself which would need further investigation before coming to any firm view either way. 

From what you have presented it would seem that it does matter that a system is exoteric.  In this case it matters because we believe the system has become corrupt and doesn’t reflect the original meaning and intent.  

Are all exoteric systems of belief corrupt and distortions of the underlying truths?  Or are some ‘exoteric’ just by virtue of being in the public domain rather than secret, hence still valuable if not necessary?  Or, perhaps they are exoteric by nature of their being partial truths (gradual lifts of the veil) rather than the whole or ultimate truth?  Perhaps in some cases all three apply.

Permalink Reply by Kristan Stratos on November 8, 2015 at 9:00am

Thanks Peter,

I do believe all three apply. 

I personally think that every philosophical codex of life needs a keybefore it can be properly understood and practiced... No need to go into detailed examples about this, we see religious followers in every nation of the world claiming to be living in accordance with scriptural rite and religious doctrine.  All, or most it seems are very base and outright extreme in their understandings.

Fundamentally, I believe that a "religious way of life" is quite necessary for a path of higher living.  Every Theosophical Text i.e., Ancient Scripture or as Gerry said; "inheritance of mankind," lays down modes of living which develop moral and ethical responsibility in addition to a deep spiritual understanding. This is the way of feeding the Soul; not only that of  the individual microcosm, but the Macrocosm Soul as well.  

We- the egocentric man- have defiled ourselves by a partial understanding, or forgetting all together the Sacred Truth.  Our efforts are our own savior, but our understanding is far inferior compared to the Ones who do understand and taught in Their turn.  Help is needed for a successful reform regarding all aspects of Human Nature.  Humility, altruism and responsibility cultivate this.  It is up to the individual to decide which aspect of life they can apply this.

Mistakes done now lead to fruits of refinement.  So, with social obligations; this might be the first step for some to gradually understand the bigger picture and refine the unrefined mind.  Those with a naturally developed capacity to recognize even a glimmer of Theosophical Teachings will understand these "exoteric" interpretations to be something far more meaningful.

We are Theosophists, as much as we are a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, etc. etc; let us try to go beyond literal interpretations.  Even if it isn't a firm understanding, it is a start to recognize something far greater.  

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 8, 2015 at 11:08am

Those are valuable thoughts, Kristan. Thank you.  I hope I haven’t given the impression that by suggesting exoteric teachings may be valuable I think we should therefore take them all literally.   Perhaps I'm misunderstanding what you are referring to?

As I mentioned earlier, all of our theosophical teachings from HPB, Subba Row, Judge, the Mahatma Letters etc are exoteric by virtue of the fact they are all in the public domain. We wouldn’t want to take everything therein literally, yet they are exoteric nonetheless.   Even taken together, that whole body of theosophical teachings are also only a very partial glimpse of the Wisdom Religion, fitting for our (humanity’s) current stage of development, or lack of it.  Yet neither of these two things would diminish their  importance in our eyes or hold us back from a serious study of what has been given out to us.

Permalink Reply by Kristan Stratos on November 8, 2015 at 2:57pm


My responses weren't at all directed towards something you had said, but just about general/superficial understanding behind very important topics, such as the generalities that the learned Swami Nikhilananda had explained regarding the ashramas.  It is a massive topic as most are... Its very difficult to approach the subject unsystematically, this is all.

By the exoteric and esoteric, it is my belief that there is no detectable  difference between the two to the uninitiated; meaning an esoteric manuscript may very well be accessible to the masses (and numerous probably are already), but the key that makes it esoteric is hidden within.  I personally don't believe any student would recognize an esoteric text if it were right under their nose... isn't that the story with most things? ;)

Permalink Reply by Kristan Stratos on November 8, 2015 at 3:26pm

By the way, if those are interested in reading the very important Mahatma Letter that I had vaguely referred to, it is LETTER No. CXXXIV;

"They join the Society, and though remaining as stubborn as ever in their old beliefs and superstitions, and having never given up caste or one single of their customs, they, in their selfish exclusiveness, expect to see and converse with us and have our help in all and everything....

... that unless a man is prepared to become a thorough theosophist i.e. to do as D. Mavalankar did, -- give up entirely caste, his old superstitions and show himself a true reformer (especially in the case of child marriage) he will remain simply a member of the Society with no hope whatever of ever hearing from us."

This letter explains a lot that can be applied to this topic of the ashramas.

Permalink Reply by barbaram on November 7, 2015 at 6:29pm

I am not sure why renunciation is associated with the four ashramas if they represent the different stages life.  Each stage, especially the first two, seems like a natural unfoldment of physical development.  The age range associated with each stage also seems odd since I do think people in the past had this type of longevity. 

Permalink Reply by Kristan Stratos on November 8, 2015 at 4:26am

That is one of the issues regarding the literal interpretation of the four ashramas.

The brahmacari, grhastha, and vanprastha are all subject to change. Consider a young child who is deeply concerned regarding the welfare and rights of all living beings, seen and unseen. Someone so sympathetic with all of nature that they view each animal, person, even atom as an integral part of life. Not just their life, but all of life recognizing it as one family and working with all in that way. This is an attitude belonging to the grhastha ahsrama. No physical family is needed to enter in what many Vedic texts call the most important ashrama. No age confinements to an inner character which is able to develope naturally.

Of corse, this is my opinion and general understanding.
Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on November 8, 2015 at 9:51pm

Perhaps each ashrama is a training ground in renunciation for the next stage.  In the student stage one studies and learns for the good of humanity renouncing the fruits.  In the householder stage one takes what one has learned and applies it to the good and services of a householder, family man/woman, participant in society again renouncing the fruits and working for the good of others.  In the next stage the devotee renounces all possessions and position for the sake of pursuing truth one-pointedly, again for the sake of all. This being a much grander renunciation.   It seems to me the whole process is one continuous exercise in progressive renunciation.  Perhaps this idealizes it a bit but maybe this is the deeper purpose for the process.

Permalink Reply by Kristan Stratos on November 7, 2015 at 1:16pm

"Having subdued all faults of the mind and the heart by easy means in the practice of the first three modes of life (viz., pupilage, domesticity, and seclusion) one should pass into the most excellent and the most eminent of all the modes, viz., Sannyasa or Renunciation."

This, to me, sounds a lot like text books on Rajayoga.  The Mahabharata is absolutely amazing, I find just about every parva can be read numerous ways.

The above section defiantly leads one to consider the deeper and subtler aspects of the three modes of life... the 4th is Pure and shines with brilliancy.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on November 2, 2015 at 9:40pm

November 1, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: The Third Ashrama: Renunciation

” Leaving the life of the householder, let him enter the homeless state, delighting in the discrimination which is hard to enjoy.”

— Buddha

“Perfect renunciation is impossible without perfect observance of ahimsa in every shape and form.”

— M.K. Gandhi

Permalink Reply by Peter on November 3, 2015 at 10:44am

” Leaving the life of the householder, let him enter the homeless state, delighting in the discrimination which is hard to enjoy.”   — Buddha

Buddhism does not use the four ashrama system which is Hindu only and based on the Vedas.  The issue in buddhism was whether a householder, who still enjoys a sensual life in some form or another, could attain nirvana or whether the person had to take up the robes of the monk bhikku (monk) in order to do so.  So it is very unlikely that the Buddha, in the above quote, is talking about the transition from one ashrama (stage of life) to another.

In the Hindu system, the person who takes up the third ashrama (the Hermit or Forest Dweller) does not normally become homeless, but makes his home, or hermitage, away from the demands and responsibilities of family life, devoting himself to the scriptures etc, although the wife may go and serve the husband throughout this stage.  At the next and fourth stage, the Sanyasi, he gives up everything even his home (hence this stage is referred to as one of renunciation) and becomes the wandering ascetic or sadhu.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on November 2, 2015 at 9:42pm

November 2, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: The Third Ashrama: Renunciation

” Step out of sunlight into shade, to make more room for others.”

— The Voice of the Silence

“You own not one thing in this world….. All you possess is given you only while you use it wisely.”

— W.Q. Judge

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on November 3, 2015 at 11:58am

These passages refer to the selflessness aspect of renunciation that was asked about above.

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on November 3, 2015 at 11:44am

November 3, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: The Third Ashrama: Renunciation

” The highest perfection of freedom from action is attained through renunciation.”

— Shri Krishna

” He is the disinterested spectator: this is the hallmark of him who is free even in life.”

— Shankaracharya

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on November 4, 2015 at 12:35pm

November 4, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: The Third Ashrama: Renunciation

“Happy are the noble of heart whose youthful glories enhanced the days’ light and largesse, while they themselves stripped off their ornaments at the parting of the ways.”

— Avraham Ben Yitshak

“Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save.”

— Will Rogers

Permalink Reply by ModeratorTN on November 6, 2015 at 2:40pm

November 6, 2015 Theme for Contemplation: The Third Ashrama: Renunciation

“Observe this simple counsel of perfection: forsake all, and you shall find all. Renounce desire, and you shall find peace.” — Thomas a Kempis

“The current of spiritual energy flowing from the heart of every spiritual man increases in volume and force as he grows in devotion and self-renunciation.”

— Bhavani Shankar