Hinduism - 4 Stages of Life and 3 Ways of Salvation - Parallels with Christianity

The Four Goals of Life

The four goals of life according to Hinduism are dharma (righteousness), artha (worldly prosperity or material well being), kama (enjoyment or pleasure), and moksha (liberation).[i]

1. Dharma:    Dharma is translated as righteousness, duty, law, and religion in English. In Hindu mythology, Rama, Yudhistra, and Harishchandra are all symbols of dharma – ones who symbolized the dignity and power of dharma through their lives.

Dharma is a relative term – relative in the sense that it has sense only in its practical relation to each of the varnas and the ashramas. The edifice of law  dealing with the varnas (i.e., caste divisions) is called the varnasarama dharma. The varnasarama dharma, however, must be distinguished from the practice of the modern caste system. The Hindus came about with the varnasarama dharma theory for the purpose of benefit to the society. Dharma is social and relational. A cooperative division of labor in society is imperative for its progress. Each individual must perform his duty (dharma) as prescribed by the law related to his varna. He must be faithful to his dharma for the benefit of society and his own self.

The mythological basis for the varnasarama dharma theory is that Brahma, the Creator God, is the originator of the castes.[ii] According to this mythical account, the Brahmin or the priestly caste came from the mouth of Brahma and so were the sole authority on deciphering and proclaiming the scriptures; the Kshatriya or the warrior group came from the arms of Brahma; the Vaisyas or merchants, from his thigh; and the Sudras or the workmen, from his foot. It is the dharma of the Brahmin not to eat non-vegetarian food. It is the dharma of the Kshatriya to protect his people from the enemies. That is the reason why when Arjun desired to back off from killing his cousins out of love and compassion, Krishna explained to him the meaning of life and dharma and encouraged him not to give in to his feelings but fulfil his dharma of being a Kshatriya by killing the enemies of righteousness, presently his brothers.

The modern world looks at the caste-system as the greatest evil, because of the inequality it presupposes and the evil it produces. It is a hindrance to the self-actualization a Sudra. Most scholars, however, agree that the caste system originated out of pure motives – aiming towards a well-organized and cooperative society. Caste system, according to them, becomes an evil when it is implemented as a means by the upper castes to dominate and suppress the lower castes.

The ashrama dharma divides a human life term into four stages. At each of the stages, an individual is expected to fulfil his particular ashrama dharma -- related to that particular stage – in order to attain moksha (salvation). This too is a responsibility-duty-oriented division, which we will later explore a little more.

The Hindu concept of dharma can well be interpreted to serve utilitarian purposes. In a recent TV programme entitled COURT MARSHALL on the SAB TV, when Karan Thapar questioned Dr. Praveen Togadia about the kind of subtle maneuvers they employed while contesting the elections in Gujarat, he replied by saying that if it was dharma for Sri Rama to kill Bali from a hiding place… then it is equally right for them to employ any means to accomplish their dharmic purposes. [iii]

2. Artha: Hinduism is not a not-this-worldly religion altogether. It also emphasizes the importance of earthly prosperity. Progress by development occurs through the pursuit of worldly and material well being, and that in accordance to the rule of dharma. This is the material aspect of life. A man not only ought to pursue righteousness (dharma) but also pursue material prosperity (artha). Almost every Hindu aspiring to be rich worships the goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. Various religious ways are sought by the Hindus to ward off an evil eye, to destroy a dangerous spell, and to tap the flow of riches.

3. Kama: Life’s goal is also to satisfy the demands of the flesh. The enjoyment of kama, physical desire is not evil when it is pursued in accordance to the dharma in Hinduism. The erotic sculptures over the temples at Khajuraho and other places, the once prevalent practice of the devadasi system, and a host of other things bear witness to the religious encouragement of kama. It doesn’t, however, mean that Hinduism promoted licentiousness, though some of its gods favored that. Hinduism does uphold the virtues of Pativrata (a wife’s faithfulness and total allegiance to her husband) and Tyaga (renunciation of worldly desires). The pluralistic nature of Hinduism also allows a plurality of ethical ways, only they must be someway disguised as a form of dharma.

4. Moksha: Moksha can be translated as ‘liberation’ or ‘release.’ It is the release, exit of the self from this world of existence and liberation from the series of birth and rebirths.[iv] Release can be obtained at different levels. A householder who, for example, conducts well his household affairs gets into Swarga-loka where gods live. A brahmacharya who performs well his dharma enters Maharloka. A vanaprasti enters Jnanaloka and Tapaloka to enjoy higher pleasures. A righteous sanyasin enters Satyaloka. But the final part of salvation can only be obtained when an individual merges with the Over-Soul Brahman in the final stage of realization. A person can achieve moksha by following three ways. We will examine each of them later.

The ideas behind the doctrine of moksha are Samsara, Karma, and Punarjanma. There is also the concept of Maya (illusion – subjective and objective) which is posited to explain each of these. Samsara is the universal manifestation,[v] the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The law of Karma states that each man receives the fruit of his actions in the next birth (Punarjanma). The cycle of rebirth goes on and on until moksha is attained. Moksha is the release from rebirth by union with the absolute. By breaking loose from these chains of Maya and avidya (ignorance) and merging with Brahman in absolute identity moksha is attained.

The Four Stages of Life

Hinduism divides the life of man into four stages. They are as follows:

  1. Brahmacharya. The bachelor-student life.

  2. Grihastya. The householder life.

  3. Vanaprasthi. The life of retirement to forest, i.e., the hermit life.

  4. Sanyasin. The holy sage, ascetic life.

The above four stages are known as the ashram dharmas. These were dharmas or duties assigned to each period of a man’s life. While the first three stages are said to be obligatory, i.e., all men experience them, the last is only optional, and not all men reach it.[vi] Each period or stage may be divided into 25 years each.

The first stage of Brahmacharya is of student life. This is the period of life when man lives in the house or ashram of the guru, his teacher and guide, and under his supervision studies the sacred texts. He also acquires expertise in various fields of learning at this stage.

The student must be obedient and submissive to his teacher, without which he can learn nothing. The guru to him is like God since he helps him to meet and know God. The respect for the guru and for the parents is to be continued to the end of ones life.

The Grihastya is the period when a man gets married and settles down to ordinary family life. It is known as the householder life. Living with his family and looking after them, the householder also contributes much to the society in which he lives. Continuation of the family line by reproduction is a significant part of this stage. All the dharmas pertaining to this stage contribute much to the wellbeing of the society, family, and lineage. Virtues like honesty, responsibility, industry, and hospitality are obligatory during this period. The householder is not just a provider of his family needs but also a guide to his family. Dharma, artha, kama, and moksha are highly pursued during this stage.

The Vanaprastha period, i.e., of hermit life, is the stage when a man retires to the forest with his wife and meditates on the value of life. Away from all pursuit of worldly materials, he can now concentrate on spending his time in meditating on the values of life and strive to know God. The observance of such a life is, it may be noted, highly impossible in the modern era. The ashram dharmas were solely enacted in accordance to the feasibility of circumstances during the Vedic and puranic era and could not have been envisaged for our times.

The final stage of life, which only some can reach, is that of the holy sage, the ascetic life called the Sanyasa. During this stage a man renounces all worldly attachments, immerses himself in his struggle to know the truth and experience union with it. The Sanyasin practices hard asceticism to overpower his flesh and his senses. The goal is to become so liberated from the domain of the senses and carnal passions so as to transcend them, realize God and attain moksha.

All that are faithful in the observance of the various varana and ashram dharmas enter the various respective gradations of heaven.

The Three Ways to Become One with God

Freedom from Samsara, the cycle of birth and death, is moksha. It implies union with Brahman – the only Absolute Reality. By this experience of Brahman, avidya (ignorance) is destroyed. By the power of Maya one is deceived into believing that the plurality of phenomenon is true.  In his avidya he is chained to samara, the manifest world filled with the cycle of events, of birth, death, rebirth, etc. Moksha is the eternal, intrinsic nature of the Atman and is the chief goal of life. It can neither be produced, modified, attained, nor refined since it is an accomplished fact, the intrinsic nature of the Atman that needs to be discovered by intuition. Self-realization or realization of the Atman (Self) as the reality of the universe is moksha. The key is detachment from the phenomenal world and union with Absolute Reality.

Three ways have been prescribed by which one may attain perfection, or be liberated from the bondage of Samsara.[vii] They are as follows:

  1. The Karma Yoga, i.e., the path of work

  2. The Jnana Yoga, i.e., the path of knowledge

  3. The Bhakti Yoga, i.e., the path of devotion

The Karma Yoga is the practical method, the Jnana Yoga is the theoretical method, and the Bhakti Yoga is the emotional method.[viii]

1. The Karma Yoga.  This is the path of action. It essentially involves the working out of right principles in ones life so as to be liberated from the chains of Samsara. The bad Karma has its roots in selfishness and the desire for the fruit of action. The Bhagvad Gita states that action should be motivated by detachment from the desire of its fruit. Action is, indubitably, superior to inaction. Only action that is selfless is liberating.

“If one performs all actions including daily duties dispassionately, without anger, without attachment, in the spirit of selflessness, in dedication to God, without desire for the fruit, such action will free the individual soul and will lead him to perfection.”[ix]

Such action alone constitutes sacrifice. Every single act must be a sacrifice (Yagna). Sanyasa is the renunciation of the desire and not the renunciation of action. Tyaga is the renunciation of the fruit of all works. Karma includes acts of sacrifices, gifts, austerity, dharma, etc. but true, liberating Karma is desireless.

2. The Jnana Yoga. It is the way of knowledge, not the kind of scientific or physical knowledge that the world pursues but a metaphysical, a mystical one. It is the knowledge of reality as it is by union with it. While the plurality of the universe as it appears to us does constitute our experience of self and the world, the Gita calls for consideration of the Jnana Yoga. It calls for union with the absolute non-dual Reality – the realization of self as Self. For this the mind must be disciplined and tuned in with Reality. The individual self is the hindrance when it phenomenalises as a separate entity from other entities. Jnana or knowledge happens when this self realizes that it is Brahman – Being – Reality; and that all the other phenomena is itself in manifestation. It is held that Jnana Yoga is difficult without Karma Yoga. Study of the Vedas and other scriptures is the action followed by long periods of reflection and meditation.

3. The Bhakti Yoga. This is the way of devotion, the way of trust and love. Devotion is interpreted as the bond of trust and love to a personal God.[x] Unlike Jnana Yoga, which focuses on the Impersonal Brahman, Bhakti Yoga focuses on a loving attachment to God, a longing for God for its own sake. To be noted is the concept of this God as being transcendent and yet totally immanent. All icons of this God are to be considered as symbolical. Absolute meditation and undivided devotion to Ishwara is essential to Bhakti. God must become his/her sole refuge. For those who have found Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga extremely difficult, the Bhakti marga comes in as solace.

A true devotee has three distinctive qualities: evenmindedness, undivided devotion, and skill in action. These three qualities woven together in perfect harmony within the devotee knit him/her to his/her Lord. By absolute devotion, one is united to his/her Lord in love. Stories abound of how Vishnu finds the marks of the beating inflicted on his devotee’s body on his own. The Lord is so tied to his devotee that in one story he forgets to bring his chakra along with him when he hurries to rescue his devotee from peril.

Thus, by following any of the above three ways a person can find his/her way to God.

Parallels in Christianity

The Four Goals: Christianity also talks of righteousness, material prosperity, enjoyment of life, and salvation (Matt. 6: 23; Ps. 1; Eph. 6:3; Ps.104: 14;

Jn. 3: 16), but it has no division of class or caste within it. It neither does set rules for ashrama dharmas. The moksha of Christianity is moksha from sin, its condemnation, and its misery. Hinduism talks of liberation from the misery of the world. But then it delimits that misery as being an illusion of the self and reduces it to a picture of recurring birth. The difference centers on the diagnosis of the human problem. It also consists on how the solution is formulated. “Why is a man here” (the goal of human existence) is tied to “Where did man come from” and “Where is he going?” What a person believes about his origin and his destiny (past and future) affects his decision (present) greatly. Christianity does differ greatly from Hinduism in the explanation of all these three questions, although it resembles superficially to it in its acknowledgement of the belief on creation and judgement.

The Four Stages of Life: Although Christianity doesn’t subscribe to the theory of ashram dharma, it does uphold the virtues of social responsibility, duty, protection of family, respect of parents and elders, detachment from carnal lusts, sacrificial giving, etc. One is required to fulfill his duty according to his position. There is a time for everything.

The Three Ways: Christianity, especially in its Protestant form, emphasizes the fact and is built on the assumption that man can never be reconciled to his God by his own works. Man is intrinsically sin-proned, lustful, and proud. That is why, we have the concepts of Grace, Sacrifice, and Atonement on which Christianity stands. But a Christian is saved unto good works (Eph. 2: 10).

Christianity does talk about spiritual knowledge, but it is the practical knowledge of knowing God as ones Lord and accepting Jesus as ones Lord and Savior (Jn. 3:16). The world is not an illusion. It is real – created by God. The self is not God. But man is created in the image of God and the Christian is expected to grow up in the image of Christ the Son of God. In this way, the Karma marga doesn’t is a failure according to Christianity. Jnana can be reinterpreted as knowledge of God, not intellectual but personal and relational. It is not Jnana of one being God himself but Jnana of God as ones God.

Christianity finds great parallels in Bhakti Yoga. Devotion is sublime to Christianity. “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” is said to be the greatest of the commandments. Loving God and obeying his commandments (Bhakti and Karma) go together. Christian Bhakti, however, is anti-idolatry. Idolatry is considered an affront on the dignity of God. The devotional hymns of popular Hinduism are much parallel to Christian worship. The only basic differentiating element is the cross of Jesus Christ, which also segregates Christianity from any other religion of the world.

[i] David A. Brown, A Guide to Religions , (Delhi: ISPCK, 1998), p. 79
[ii] Ibid., p. 68
[iii] Not exact quotation. Court Marshall, SAB TV, 23rd January, 03; 10:30 PM
[iv] David A. Brown, A Guide to Religions, p. 68
[v] Glimpses of World Religions, (Mumbai: Jaico Publishing House, 1957), p. 39
[vi] David A. Brown, A Guide to Religions, p. 31
[vii] Glimpses of World Religions, p. 31
[viii] Ibid., p. 31
[ix] Ibid., p. 32
[x] Ibid., p. 36

© Domenic Marbaniang, ACTS Academy of Higher Education, Bangalore, February 2003.


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