I was fortunate to grow up in a loving home with kind and generous parents. This old picture reminds me of my joyful childhood! My mother had chosen to stay at home and care for us while my father, an academician, traveled to many distant educational institutions of the world, taking us on his adventures. This was back in the 1980’s!
Indian culture is rich in traditions. The concept of Dharma or in simpler terms, duty is deeply rooted in customs and it guides everyday life. Ideally, core Dharmic values are taught, mostly, by setting morality-based examples. For instance, in ancient times, it was the duty of a son to take care of his aging parents, and by doing so, the value of respect and reverence was passed on to his children. Daughters were taught to care for their future in-laws with compassion. Joint family systems, where many generations live together is fading, but the sense of duty and caring for elderly parents is still strong.
While staying together might not always be possible, especially since many sons and daughters have made faraway lands their homes, frequent visits or bringing aging parents to live with and care for them, is not uncommon.
Dharma or duty has many facets. One facet is the methodical arrangement of life according to age and assuming the responsibilities that come with it. Widely discussed in ancient Indian texts, are the 4 stages in a person’s life, namely Ashramas. Ashramas are places, where we can grow spiritually. Extrapolating this to real life, each phase offers us the opportunity for spiritual growth.
The four Ashramas are:
Vanaprastha (senior/retired) and
The duties in each Ashrama/stage of life, are not imposed. Rather, they are derived from wisdom passed from generations and examples set by parents, grandparents, and honest members of society. Mothers and fathers become our first teachers and are revered in the form of “Divine Guidance” in our lives.
So, what is the role of a father, mother, child, and young adult?
Ancient cultures had definitive functions for various age groups. In ancient India, young adolescents (mostly boys) were sent to “Gurukuls” or traditional schools, set in forests, where learning was austere and all disciples were treated alike, be it a king or a commoner, sleeping on a hard floor, wearing basic clothing, and eating simple food. This strict regimen imparted students with skills of discipline, surviving hardships, living in moderation, and treating people honorably. Given the harsh forest conditions, girls were educated and taught skills closer to home. Girls became scholars as well, learning from their mothers/family and other knowledgeable sources.
Empowered with life-skills, young adults returned to help their parents by sharing various responsibilities. They were ready for the 2nd stage of life-the life of a householder. They became the next generation of fathers and mothers. Mothers were child-bearers and nurtured their family, whereas fathers were financially responsible for providing food and shelter for their families. Women, with their multi-tasking and fine executive abilities, managed multigenerational homes. Their challenges lay in allotting finances judiciously for the efficient running of family life. Men and women shared their householder jobs, taking care of aging parents and bringing their children up, wisely.
Householders empowered their children with tools to become independent and conscientious individuals. Getting their grown-up children married and settled was a huge responsibility. Retired life could be peaceful, only when everyone was appropriately established in their lives!
The final stage of Ashramas, is renouncing all material comforts, and instead, seeking higher wisdom. Learning to let go of physical, and emotional attachments was a natural progression after all other duties were duly taken care of.
No written rules or guidelines can force people to perform their duties. The concept of SVA-DHARMA or personal duty is instilled in every person at a young age. Moral codes and structures laid down by previous generations become roadmaps for a leading a fulfilling life. The essence of all 4 stages of life must be deeply understood and implemented. Living under the vigilant gaze of society, keeps misconduct in check, moral probity is upheld, and mutual respect is championed.
No society is devoid of challenges and problems. Many moral laws are bent, distorted, and grossly misunderstood. However, it is up to us to distill ancient knowledge while adapting to modern lives and current circumstances. With time, gender-based differences have softened and traditions have evolved to dovetail our lifestyles. Leading an accomplished life encompasses living with purpose and humility, practicing equality and compassion, while keeping our “Sva (Self) Dharma (Duty)” and spiritual progress alive.
Our parents are beacons of sacrifice, love, and compassion. Whether their teachings are set in firmness or delivered with tenderness, as a parent and fellow-human being, I realize that the end goal is to elevate children and people around us, to pursue a meaningful life.
The tenets of the 4 Ashramas operate in the domain of Yogic Philosophy. Yoga teaches us how to perform our Sva Dharma. Yogic practices lay the foundations of self-discipline, moderation, a sense of duty and seeking higher purpose in life.
“Parents rarely let go of their children, so children let go of them.
They move on. They move away.
The moments that used to define them are covered by
moments of their own accomplishments.
It is not until much later, that
their stories and all their accomplishments, sit atop the stories
of their mothers and fathers, stones upon stones,
beneath the water of their lives.”
~ Paul Coelho
Author : Deepti Gupta
All of us have a story to tell. Turning ideas into words and life's experiences into stories is empowering and fulfilling.