When I wrote the blog “Self-Development or Nirvana”, a friend Shrikant felt that I have over simplified Nirvana! He also said “My definition of modern Nirvana…..is….be balanced…be at peace….be happy…. be as good a person as you can possibly be….be thankful to Almighty for what you are!!!!!” I told him that when I wrote about leaving all whatsapp groups as Nirvana, I meant it is as a metaphor. In this blog there could a bit of repetition of thoughts as I am elaborating on Nirvana!
This exchange started a chain of thoughts in my mind. Hinduism is a very old religion, it is a way of life, and all the thinking, teachings and preaching prevalent today, are thoughts from a totally different environment which prevailed when these thoughts were expressed. Human society as we visualize today did not exist in olden days. It started developing today’s format as late as in 18th century when industrialization started taking place.
Earliest human societies were groups or tribes of people which consisted of hunters and gatherers. They would move around the areas surrounding but had limitations. Twenty thousand years back there were pastoral and agrarian societies. Pastoral societies depended on domesticated live-stock and agrarian societies grew crops, settled in certain areas as permanent residents. Life obviously was not easy and larger settlements started from 6000 BC. On this scale, large cities are very recent phenomena.
What must have been life when the Ashrams in Hinduism were defined? I am aware that the top creations/achievements in this world are done at a very young age. So it is possible that many of the brilliant treaties must have been written by people at a very young age. These were prodigies! Like Dynaneshwar wrote Dnyaneshwari at 18, Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of 5! My point is when these treaties were written, many things that exist in today’s life just did not exist. So a new interpretation of Ashrams, vis a vis modern civilization, is essential.
For this purpose, we must first understand the meaning of Ashrams as interpreted, based on old knowledge. I am taking the definition of Vanaprastha & Sannyasa which I felt were reasonably comprehensive.
Vanaprastha – The Hermit in Retreat:
- This stage of a man begins when his duty as a householder comes to an end
- He has become a grandfather, his children are grown up, and have established lives of their own.
- At this age, he should renounce all physical, material and sexual pleasures, retire from his social and professional life, leave his home, and go to live in a forest hut, spending his time in prayers.
- He is allowed to take his wife along, but is supposed to maintain little contact with the family.
- This kind of life is indeed very harsh and cruel for an aged person.
Sannyasa – The Wandering Recluse:
- At this stage, a man is supposed to be totally devoted to God.
- He is a sannyasi, he has no home, no other attachment
- He has renounced all desires, fears and hopes, duties and responsibilities.
- He is virtually merged with God, all his worldly ties are broken, and his sole concern becomes attaining moksha, or release from the circle of birth and death.
- (Suffice it to say, very few Hindu men can go up to this stage of becoming a complete ascetic.)
- When he dies, the funeral ceremonies (Pretakarma) are performed by his son and heir.
I will not discuss about Sannyasa as I feel that it is irrelevant and I don’t believe in it. Just because it is mentioned in Hindu treaties, I need not discuss it. So we will discuss Vanprastha.
In the definition of Vanprastha, first two lines are just statements of facts. The third line suggests what he should do at this stage. Next it said, he can take his wife along. But the question is does wife want to go?
To start with, something which does not include both male & female species is incorrect. This thought process “of he”, mentioned in definition is very old. It is suggested that he should renounce everything as his duties in life are over. His children are grown up, he has grandchildren and so on. Does reaching an age really mean that his duties are over? Has everything in life to do with duties? Is life only about duties then what about pleasure? When this status is reached, I feel that he has the right to enjoy his carefree moments of life without any serious responsibilities. He may want to do things which he was not able to do, during his busy life. He may want to paint, he may want to trek, he may want to learn to sing, and he may just want to meet his friends once in a while for a cup of tea. He may want to read books. He may want to travel and see the places he has not been to. He may want go for a pilgrimage- what is pilgrimage? The definitions are changing. My friend Shrikant suggested that the recent Alaska Cruise that we took was a pilgrimage, to be with the nature for a week! Yes, I agree.
The system of ashrams is believed to be prevalent since the 5th century BC in Hindu society. However, historians say that these stages of life were always viewed more as ‘ideals’ than as common practice. According to one scholar, even in its very beginning, after the first ashram, a young adult could choose which of the other ashrams he would wish to pursue for the rest of his life. Today, it is not expected that a Hindu male should go through the four stages, but these thoughts still stand as important “pillars” of Hindu socio-religious tradition.
Many things in life are followed as “Pratha” (a way of life followed as a tradition). Many a times we follow these as God’s directive. We don’t try to discuss traditions in reference to modern society and modern way of thinking. Some of traditions may not withstand analysis of modern way of thinking as these were decided when world itself was totally different. My friend Ramesh said that Pratha becomes tradition, Tradition becomes faith and faith turns into blind faith due to fear of God! Very appropriately said!
Why were thoughts like Ashram suggested, like giving up everything in Vanprastha? First scientific point that needs to be discussed is the life expectancy of those times. I don’t think many saw their grandchildren, maybe many died even before they produced children. That is the reason population was not increasing rapidly in those days. In fact societies were wiped out by diseases like plague and cholera! Now those people who saw their grandchildren must have found life irrelevant as not many people of their age were around. So what else do you do? Give up everything, maybe die quietly one day! There was nothing else to look forward to, for such people, maybe it was very easy to give up everything when there was nothing.
What is the meaning of life? What is reason to live? What is the purpose of life? To be born and to die are two things on which we have no control. It is the life in between that matters. Based on these discussions on life we can try to arrive at definition of Nirvana! Our definition of Nirvana should address these three questions.
I do not think anyone will be able to give you an answer unless we know a person who has attained nirvana. We as humans probably do not understand this completely. This is similar to a color blind person from birth, will never able to explain what red and blue is. The person will be able to talk about the wavelength of the color, how it’s used in the human world, it’s speed, through education but will never really can explain the look or feel of the color.
If you are in the state of nirvana, then you will not be having attachments to anything. No greed, no wants, no lust, no fear, no temptations. Nothing. Zero. That is when you know you have attained nirvana. ( As per older thought process)
Some people think that they have let go of these worldly things, so they have attained nirvana. It’s not easy, but not impossible. Can everybody attain it?
My take on Niravana, similar to thoughts Shrikant’s mentioned at the beginning and bang opposite of old thinking.
- Always keep your humility and empathy for others
- Keep your faith intact and believe in divine power, some people may call it God
- Let the child within you be always alive
- Be keen to learn something new, it could be technology, art, religion
- Don’t lose your ability to keep smiling
- Enjoy your passions, it could be watching movies, reading books, travel
- Do something which you were never able to do in your life
- Don’t feel bad to enjoy materialistic things but never go after them
- Be thankful to Almighty for what you are- (as my friend Shrikant said)
- Last but not the least be in touch with family and friends, always
I feel that if we achieve 70% of above we have reached Nirvana! This my friends is my definition of Niravana!! What is your take?