The term Varna Asrama Dharma invokes a picture of backward, regressive social system in which some people enjoyed a higher social status due to their birth while many were enslaved.
While this is true in the way the implementation of Varna Asrama Dharma evolved, that was not the aim of Varna Asrama Dharma.
Varna is a dharma. It is eternal. It is the law of Universe. There will always be four professions. Knowledge providers (brAhman), Service providers (kSatriya), Material/goods providers (Vaizya) and Labor (Zudra). This is how it is at all times and nothing can change it ever.
Similarly Asrama is a dharma. Asramas have been defined based on bodily needs of human beings. Asrama are the Law. This is how human beings are tuned and setup.
Practising Asrama dharma is simply understanding the way societies and individuals evolve and aligning our life to towards it. Those who follow Asrama dharma lead a happy existence tuned with nature.
The dharmasutras say "A student has to be simple not show off, not wear perfume and not engage in sexual intercourse. He has to have spiceless food and should not have ritual food, have less salt, honey and meat. Student has to serve the teacher and focus on learning from the teacher.
He shall not engage in recreational activities in places frequented by his teacher. He shall speak with women only as much as is required. He shall be gentle, calm, controlled, modest, firmly resolute, energetic, not given to anger and free from envy."
Thus Brahmacarya is the stage of life focused on learning with little or no gratification to senses.
Brahmacharya – Brain development and Learning
‘brahma’ is the process of ‘ati sRsti’, the super-creation or evolution which evolves higher order beings from lower order beings. Carya means practice, perform. Brahma-carya means practicing/performing the evolution.
Interestingly according to scientific studies, brain growth in humans from conception to adulthood mimic the human brain evolution of millions of years1. In particular, detailed studies show that the human brain regions that expand the most during infancy (after birth) and childhood are the same parts that expanded the most during evolution as humans diverged from other primates2.
Thus the word ‘brahma-carya’ (performing evolution) is apt to describe this stage of life of a person.
From birth to teenage years, there is a fourfold increase in the volume of the human brain. During this period, there are also marked improvements in motor, cognitive and perceptual abilities. It is well known that an infant’s interaction with its environment helps to sculpt inter- and intraregional connections within the cortex, eventually resulting in the highly specialized adult brain4.
The relatively delayed rate of development of the human brain, compared with that of other mammals makes it more susceptible to the influence of postnatal experiences, teaching and instruction3
According to scientists, extra-large helpings of social and cultural knowledge from Gurus/teachers customize the infant brain, making both babies and the species (as a whole) more adaptable and allowing for complex social institutions to develop5
According to research, pure cognitive development (e.g., the ability to abstract) is established by mid-adolescence. This is the period of intense and formal learning for a person as the abstraction abilities get developed6
The early stage of life till adulthood is defined as the Brahmacharya stage of life. It is mandated that a person has to spend time in formal learning through different Gurus during this stage of life, so that the human brain which is susceptible to learning and adaptation is given an appropriate amount of knowledge.
The dharmasutras say "After bringing his anger and excitement under control and taking the final bath with the permission of his teacher, man should select his wife. This is the Grhastha.
A householder alone offers sacrifices; a householder performs austerities, provides for the guests. Of all the four orders, the householder is the best because as all living beings live dependent on their mothers, so all mendicants live dependent on the householder."
Thus grhastha not only takes care of family but is a provider to the society by contributing professionally to the society.
Grhastha – Professional and Emotional Development
Grhastha is the stage of life from late teens (early adults) to mid-life period where professional and emotional development happens.
Grha means a resting place. It can be mapped to a habitation or home. Grhasta means a stable resting place. GrhastA means one who has a stable resting place. Grhasta means a person who has a stable profession and family relationships (spouse) and hence entitled to perform different ‘karma’.
Professional Development – Hardwiring the Brain
According to scientific studies a second wave of overproduction of gray matter happens from the late teens and through the 20’s. Following the overproduction of gray matter, the brain undergoes a process called “pruning” where connections among neurons in the brain that are not used wither away, while those that are used stay—the “use it or lose it” principle7
Thus late teenagers and adults can “exercise” their brains and hard-wire it for sports or playing music or mathematics or science or arts or anything we want. This means that late teens and in 20’s are in a position to choose a profession for themselves in which they can excel and those capabilities are with them for rest of their life, hardwired in their brain8
Thus this is the stage of life, where a person comes into a resting place in terms of profession as brain gets hardwired in its capabilities more and more. This is the stage of life where the person uses such hardwired capabilities to make a living. Approximately, this stage of life extends from late teenage to mid-life period, though there are exceptions.
Emotional Development – Sociability and Family
Although pure cognitive development (e.g., the ability to abstract) is established by mid-adolescence, the development of the emotional component of cognition and behavior may last well into adulthood16. This process is associated with a marked decrease in anxiety, affective intensity, and sociability during the midlife period.
These changes in behavior may be mediated, in part, by the concrete anatomic changes. The development of emotional component is needed for sociability and family life. This happens in adulthood. Hence this is also the period (through the adult age) best suited for family life.
The dharmasutras say "A vani should wear matted hair and a garment of bark or skin made by himself. He should not enter a village or even step on ploughed land. He should gather uncultivated roots and fruits; observe chastity; be full of patience; and when guests come to his hermitage (built by himself), honour them with almsfood of roots and fruits.
He should only give and never receive, and bathe at dawn, noon, and dusk. After establishing the hermit fire, he should maintain the sacred fire."
Vani is thus extremely physically active, learning a lot of new skills and totally independent.
Vanaprastha – More physical activity and learning
Use the Brain or Lose the Brain
One of the things that happens in grhasta stage is that we go from a period of the acquisition of abilities to largely using abilities that have been acquired earlier in life. Most of the fundamental skills that we apply in our profession or in everyday life are things that were mastered at a young age, and we are doing them in 'automatic pilot' mode13
Because our brains are highly dependent in their functional operations in recording information in detail, they slowly deteriorate. Without that recorded detail, memory and brain speed are compromised. This contributes to Cognitive decline as we only use our skills in a professional setup and learn less13
Human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even as we age, it can grow new neurons. Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from this mental inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, use it or lose it13
Natural ageing of human brain
The ability to generate neurons in hippocampus region of brain, which is needed for learning, seems to continue in human beings even at old-age11. This means human beings have ability to learn all through their life.
But it is also seen that the from mid 40s to late 50s, cognitive functions such as reasoning skills slow down. In studies published in British Medical Journal, it is found that middle-age participants experience decline of sharpness in memory, verbal fluency etc upto 3.6 percent over 10 years10
The decline in cognitive function is supposed to be happening due to reduced blood supply to brain parts. This can only be addressed by rigorous physical activity.
Upside of Ageing of brain
Also there is an upside to ageing. Measures of cognition such as moral decision-making, regulating emotions and reading social situations actually improve, beginning with middle age, simply due to the experiences gathered. Starting at around age 40, people tend to remember positive images more than negative ones10
Entering a new Domain
All these mean that key to healthy ageing is increased physical activity and exercises as one ages12. More social interactions, a less stressed working environment that can sustain decline of memory sharpness or verbal fluency. Roles that contribute to larger social groups, decision making and positive guidance. More important is the need to continue learning that retains our brain plasticity13
That’s what is Vanaprastha all about. Vanaprastha is the stage of life defined from mid-life period well into old-age. Vanaprastha is translated as ‘entering Vana’ and hence as ‘retiring to a forest’. It can be viewed as a stage of life where we enter a ‘new’ domain (Vana) neccesiating newer learning.
Vana-prastha is the way to healthy ageing of our brain and body.
The dharmasutras say "A saMnyAsin should be shaven-headed, free from selfish yearning, and without possessions. He should go randomly go to seven houses to beg for almsfood at a time when smoke is not rising from the kitchens and the pestles have been laid aside.
He should wrap himself with a single piece of cloth, or cover his body with an antelope skin or with a garment of grass nibbled by cows. Thus a saMnyAsi is totally dependent on the society unlike Vani who is totally independent.
He should sleep on the ground and not keep a fixed residence, staying in the outskirts of a village, in a temple or an abandoned house, or at the foot of a tree. Thus a saMnyAsin is again totally connected and dependent on society, while reducing his needs to the minimum.
He should apply his mind to the cultivation of knowledge." Thus a saMnyAsin should keep his mental faculties alive by unlearning what he learnt till then and trying to learn the Atma jnAna.
SaMnyAsa – Stress free old age
Isolation and Social disconnectedness
The health, life, and genetic legacy of members of social species are threatened when they finds themselves on the social perimeter. Social isolation impairs learning that requires the inhibition of previously learned responses, e.g., reversal learning/ unlearning, extinction and causes cognitive decline15
While isolation and social disconnectedness impact across all age groups, the effect of it is extremely severe in older age groups15
Isolation can happen for older adults, even while being part of a family, as other members of family get into variety of pursuits. Physical disabilities can lead to disconnectedness from society. These lead to huge decline in cognition.
Stress induced brain shrinkage in old age
While isolation and disconnectedness lead to cognitive decline, losing unlearning abilities, even holding family responsibilities or getting affected by various family events cause a lot of stress.The stress has its own set of problems.
It has been widely found that the volume of the brain and/or its weight declines with age at a rate of around 5% per decade after age 409 with the actual rate of decline possibly increasing with age particularly over age 709
At the same time brain shrinkage in itself does not immediately cause impairment in cognitive functions and memory. Research has shown that the shrinkage of a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex result in the release of high levels of stress hormones which results in impairment of memory and diseases like alzheimer's.
In other words stress at old age is a definite recipe for cognitive problems and diseases like alzheimer's14
So we have a situation as we grow, that remaining connected with family and its responsibilities can cause mental stress and diseases like alzheimers while disconnection and isolation causes cognitive decline, lack of unlearning abilities etc.
saMnyAsa - recipe for healthy old age
saMnyAsa is the stage of life from old-age to death. saMnyAsa means ‘giving up’ or ‘abandoning’. saM is all together. nyAsa is depositing or giving up. saMnyAsa is the stage in which everything is given up.
A saMnyAsin is disconnected from all the family relationships, (at least) mentally. This is to avoid all kinds of stress occurring through family connections. Living a stress free life is key to a healthy old age.
A saMnyAsin is supposed to be on the move, which means physically active (as much as possible) as well as connected to the overall society in some way. It is to provide the social connectedness.
The person is also in search of the Atma jnAna, seeking newer learnings, reversal learning, (unlearning and re-learning). This keeps cognition healthy. The person in search of Atma jnAna also trains to be balanced/equipoised, peaceful, patient etc. Hence the saMnyAsin practices meditation, yoga and such exercises that unite the body and mind.
A saMnyAsin has minimal needs (jeevan maatra artha cesta), lives just to sustain life in the body as the person has given up all the desires which keeps the body and mind healthy.
Thus people who have a healthy life in old age are those who are very active mentally, physically, live stress free, with minimal needs. That is the crux of saMnyAsa.
Difference between Vanaprastha and saMnyAsa
A Vani is a forest hermit while saMnyAsin is a wandering ascetic. What is the difference between them..? The primary difference happens to be their method of living.
A forest hermit, a Vani lives in the wild on products of the wild, wearing products of the wild. A forest hermit makes his own food from roots, fiber, honey, finds his own water, builds his own hermit. The life of a forest hermit is tough physically. He makes his own food, clothes and shelter. His hair is matted as he does not comb it.
This is the age between middle and old age. This is the time for re-learning or keep using the brain. Though neurons continue to be generated in this phase, blood supply to brain reduces and need lot more physical activity. Thus a vanaprastha stage ensures there is no cognitive decline and the person remains physically active.
A wandering ascetic collects food from others by alms. He either wears discarded clothes or is naked. He keeps wandering or resides in temples, broken buildings etc. In other words a wandering ascetic relies on the society to survive.
Being silent, speaking only for Vedic recitation or other useful pursuits that serve the society, living without fire or protection (minimalist) are all common for Vani and saMnyAsi.
Vani has to be able-bodied. Vani learns a lot of new things in a different way of life. Vani’s life is very active. This is what is required for keeping the use of brain continuously, keeping up the blood supply to brain by activities, keep learning a lot of new things, be more connected to society than a particular family. Vani is totally disconnected from the society, but that disconnection is self-induced and to find new learnings.
saMnyasin is in the care of society. He is not able-bodied as Vani. saMnyAsin is totally connected to society as he depends on the society. saMnyAsin suffers wanton isolation and hence never feels isolated. saMnyAsin has no stress at all as he has the entire society to take care of him and no family relationships.