Conscious Aging and Vanaprastha

Team IIBP Issue 7

Vanaprastha is the third of four ashram of concept in Hindu traditions and literally means retiring into a forest. It is considered as a transition phase from a householder’s life with greater emphasis on spiritual liberation of self. It is gradual transition of householder responsibilities to the next generation, increasingly hermit-like lifestyle, and greater emphasis on community services and spiritual pursuit. It is a stage of detachment and increasing seclusion. Usually a person learns to serve as a counselor, peace-maker, judge, teacher to young and advisor to the middle aged. Hindu traditions always respect freedom of an individual (young or old) and personal choice. Manusmriti offers elaborate prescriptions for drastic kind of renunciation.

In contrast, the Mahabharata suggests: Vanaprastha is a symbolic metaphor and declares that a man should rescue his kinsmen and relatives and friends from distress, to the best of his power, Markandeya Purana suggests that a householder, after he or she has taken care of progeny, parents, traditions should enter the third stage of life, or Vanaprastha and must lead a frugal life. Vanaprastha appears in many major literary works from ancient India such as: Hindu Epic Ramayana, Mahabharata and Abhijñānaśākuntalam. Many of the legendary forest hermitages, mentioned in various Sanskrit works have become sites for major temples and Hindu pilgrimage.

Today Vanaprastha stage can be defined as a gradual evolution of a “family man” to a “society man”, from one seeking “personal gain” to one seeking a “better world, welfare of the community. At present, 95 million people in India are above the age of 60, by the year 2025 nearly 80 million more will be added to this population bracket. With improved life expectancy rate in our country, it’s estimated that as many as 8 million people are currently above the age of 80 years.

Changing family value system, economic compulsions of the children, neglect and abuse has caused elders to fall through the net of family care. Homes for the Aged are ideal for elderly people who are alone, face health problems, depression and loneliness. Still there is a need for greater emphasis on community living.

The popular belief is that old age leads to identity crisis and that older adults have little contact with the younger generation. Readers will be surprised to know that research suggests that younger people are more lonely than older people. Aging is a personal experience and we can learn a lot by spending time with aged people sharing their experiences and understanding their perspectives. Conscious aging means to ‘move on.’ It means living through shifts in perspective …from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one, normally accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction. We should know that old age can have such profound and gratifying meaning. The care of the body continues but the obsession with it surely ends. Thus elders become less self-occupied and a shift occurs from egoism to altruism.

About the Author: Dr.Usha Srivastava, Retired Professor, Higher education Govt of Madhya Pradesh Bhopal.