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In the Vedic society of India, whose roots extend back 4000 years, there were four social classes, or castes. The Brahmins were the priests, the Kshatriyas the kings and soldiers, the Vaishyas the merchants, artists and agriculturalists, and the Shudras were the laborers. These classes were distinctly demarcated, and to have for example a businessman rule the country would be as ludicrous as having an actor for president, and look at how that worked out for us! Triple the debt much???

The Hindu caste system is not to be confused with the Ashramas, or four age-based life stages described in ancient Indian texts such as the Upanishads and the epic poems, Mahabharata and Ramayana. It is these I wish to discuss because maybe we non-Hindus could learn a thing or two.

The four asramas are Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciation). This system is integrated with the four proper aims of life, which Hindu philosophy specifies are Dharma (piety, morality, duties), Artha (wealth, health, means of life), Kama (love, relationships, emotions) and Moksha (liberation, freedom, self-realization).

1. Traditionally in India one is a student, or Brahmacharya, until the age of 24. The student lives with a teacher or guru, acquiring knowledge and practicing celibacy. Dharma.

2. The householder (Grihastha) stage typically lasts until the age of 48, and its emphasis is on providing for the family. Artha.

3. In retirement, responsibilities are handed over to the next generation as the householder assumes a more advisory role and gradually withdraws from the world, enjoying the castle he helped build. Kama. The retirement stage represents a transition to the final stage, that of renunciation, which usually begins at the age of 72 and leads to Moksha or liberation.

4. Sannyasa is characterized by renouncing material desires and the pursuit of pleasure, as well as worldly attachments and concerns in favor of a simple life of contemplation. But though Sannyasa is traditionally practiced by men and women in the twilight of life, there have been younger individuals, often student-aged, who elect to skip the middle two stages, renounce worldly and materialistic pursuits and dedicate their lives to the spirit.

The sannyasi, or if female sannyasini - not to be confused with Samurai, the military nobility from Japan, although sannyasis have wielded weapons as warriors, when necessary - is typically an ascetic, owning few if any possessions, and living a peaceful, love-inspired, quiet life, the goal of which is liberation while in the body. One who attains such liberation is called a jivanmukti, or free soul. The sannyasi's way of life has influenced other religions, and is similar to the monk of Buddhism and the priest or nun of Christianity.

The Hindu epics describe the ideal sannyasin. In the Mahabharata, specifically in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that "the poets rightly teach that Sannyasa is the foregoing of all acts which spring out of desire; and . . . renouncing (the) fruit of acts . . . for, being in the body, none may stand wholly aloof from action; yet, who abstains from profit of his actions is abstinent." (chapter 18)

Famous sannyasins include Adi Shankara (8th century AD), Swami Vivekananda (b 1863), who along with Swami Prabhupada (b. 1896 and founder of the Hare Krishna Movement) was responsible for introducing Hinduism to the West, as well as Parahmahansa Yoganada and perhaps the most austere of them all, Ramana Maharshi. Mostly these men became renunciates at an early age and remained unmarried, although Prabhupada practiced Sannyasa after retiring from the life of a householder, when he was nearly 70.

Other variations exist. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, whose marriage was arranged in early adulthood, elected to remain married and practice celibacy in a platonic cohabitation with his wife while he devoted his energies to the indwelling spirit, which he often externalized as Divine Mother. Some individuals skip the retirement stage only and in their late 40s go directly from being spouse and parent to living the life of the monk.

But this is India and prior to the 21st century. What of those who wish to live a simple and ascetic life, whatever their age and station, and without the traditional appearance of the Indian renunciate, who typically owns nothing but a loin cloth, a staff and a begging bowl?

The Bhagavad Gita describes karma yoga, specifically nishkama karma, or dispassionate action, in which one lives in the world but is not of the world, in which you go about your daily life, punching the clock and raising the kids, but though your hands may be in society, your head is in solitude. You remain detached, above the fray, having transcended the dualities of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, and abiding in peace.

Ramana Maharshi once said: "The sannyasin who calls himself a sannyasin is not a sannyasin. It is the householder that does not consider himself a householder who is the real sannyasin."

For to identify yourself with a particular role is to identify yourself with the individual that plays that role, which indicates rather resoundingly that you haven't transcended your ego-based personality. The only real renunciation is of the flesh, of identification with the particular body you happen to inhabit and abide as pure consciousness. Ask yourself, "Who was I before I was born?" Answer this question and act accordingly and you can wear what you want, and live how you choose. For as the poet said, we're all actors in life's play. It's what goes on behind the scenes that's the real deal. That last bit is all mine.

All the world's a stage so become a sannyasi today and get a built-in excuse for being single at any age. Not that you need one.

 All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the bard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
- from Shakespeare's "As You Like It"


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