Saturday, 5 December 2009

A King's Education Continued: Duties for the Four Stages of Life

Sorry for the delay in posting this but its been a rough, hectic week. But onwards...

Book 1, Chapter 2 continued:

After pointing to the duties of the four varnas, Chanakya continues to outline the duties of the four ashrams, or stages of life. I find it curious that he begins this list with the grahastha ashram, or the second stage. But I suppose it is not that odd given that his primary preoccupation is with the stage of life that contributes to political and economic activity.

NB: Hindu tradition divides human life into four stages: Brahmachara or study and growth and development; Grahastha or "householder" stage or when a person marries, raises a family and grows professionally; Vanaprastha stage that is for preparing to renounce material pleasures and preparations for the final stage; Sanyasa or renunciation when a person gives up all material attachment to follow spiritual growth.

1. Chanakya begins by listing the duties for the second or "householder" stage of life. These involve earning a living by taking up a profession indicated by the tradition set up by one's ancestors. Is this the first sign of rigidity perhaps?

But I don't read this as a stricture from Chanakya but rather a suggestion. It would make sense to follow in the path of the elders, especially in a primarily agrarian society.

He also explicitly points out that a man must marry a woman according to his social circumstance and station (how terrifically modern and practical!). However he does point out here that this marriage may be with someone of a different "people" or "tribe."

Echoing obviously the discomfort with female menstruation found in many cultures, Chanakya further indicates that sexual relations within marriage must be carried out only after the menstrual cycle and only after ritual cleansing. Funny, just how many ancient cultures found this aspect of human biology discomfitting!

The final duty for the householder is more interesting from a social angle: only after gods, ancestors, guests and servants have been duly fed and taken care of can the house-holder eat his own food. I like the emphasis on taking care of others first, especially those who are economically and socially inferior or dependent. Definitely this is an incipient/early articulation of social responsibility as a necessary aspect of citizenship!

2. For the student or a young person in preparation, Chanakya lists another set of duties. Not only does he recommend independent study (I like this!), chastity (teenage pregnancies were frowned upon even back then, I guess), ritual ablutions and learning the rites, but also points to the necessity of begging for one's sustenance.

This is a an ancient tradition where the students would be required to leave the gurukul or school to organise the food for themselves, their teachers and the school itself, irrespective of a student's social status and political power.

The practice seems intended to instill a sense of equality within the student group and to teach humility to the scions of powerful dynasties. It seems like a more effective way of teaching humility and responsibility than accepting support from parents. I wonder if there is a way to adapt this idea to modern education? Would make for an interesting experiment.

Chanakya's final injunction here is that a student must develop self-discipline by following the example of the teacher, the sons of the teacher (indication again of inherited professions), and in their absence, of a reputable adult.

AHA!!!! I just realised the reason for the strange order in listing the four stages!

3. The third stage requires a person to revert to many of the habits of a student - living with frugality and eliminating sexual pleasure and desires, and focussing on independent study (I assume here Chanakya means study of religious texts and meditation).

And now he gets very specific on the elements of material frugality: one must sleep on the floor, and dress in deer hide (as opposed to more comfortable fabrics like silk, cotton or wool). This is also the stage where a person must offer service to gods, ancestors and guests. Moreover, the diet in this stage must shift to steadily to only eating what is found in the forest or vana (Ah! Hence the name!)

Wow! This is a real tough one as reverting to a frugal, modest life after one has followed a life of pleasure is always much harder. The emphasis here seems to be on re-learning humility and modesty as well as finding ways of eliminating physical desires.

4. Finally, the fourth stage of life is renunciation. The first duty here is to bring an end to the dominion of the five senses: I guess this is why the earlier stage is so focussed on controlling material pleasure.

Chanakya points out that this requires not beginning any new projects and cutting oneself off from social groups and affiliations (including family). In this stage, a person must rely on charity for sustenance (and I assume whatever the forest will provide) and should not work for a living.

Moreover a person should not stay in a single place, even in a forest, but rather roam from one place to the other, refusing to form any attachment to any place of living. This final one seems like a real tough stricture: having cut off family and friends, this seems to require even giving up the last vestiges of attachment to the physical world.

Chanakya seems to think that by such renunciation, together with bathing in clear waters, self-study and meditation, a human being cleanses one's inside and out.

I wonder if this is in meant to be an elaborate preparation for facing death? Especially as in the Hindu tradition, death is meant to be a passage to another life? It would make sense in this case to give up all baggage from a current life in order to begin afresh.

Living as I do - in the West - I am always fascinated by people who tell me they follow Buddhism or other "eastern" philosophies/lifestyles because they find the Biblical traditions harsh. Yet to me this "eastern" articulation of life seems like a much harsher view of human life, especially as it has no possibility of any intervention from any deity or power beyond the self to offer comfort or support. Far from being comforting or safe, this is definitely one long school of hard knocks! On the other hand, I like the fact that the ultimate responsibility and ultimate power is left to the individual.

Interesting paradox again: seems that Hinduism requires identity to be simultaneously social and family driven while also being ultimately - and remorselessly - individualistic.

In the final verses of this chapter, Chanakya starts to tie up the two ideas of social structure and stages of life. This one has made me think a lot. Next post will be about the summing up verses but also about my thoughts on this chapter which really has posed more questions than provided answers.


  1. Am reminded of these lyrics by Rilo Kiley (band name): "The absence of God will bring you comfort, baby".
    For me, keeping things real and honest is more comforting than what I would describe as unwarranted beliefs.

    "Interesting paradox again: seems that Hinduism requires identity to be simultaneously social and family driven while also being ultimately - and remorselessly - individualistic. "

    At least it (Hinduism, as you present it) freely acknowledges the paradox, rather than going to one extreme (epitomised by the US) or going to the other extreme- traditional Chinese culture (and other cultures in that part of the world) which claim to be all about the group and yet there's a strong undercurrent of individuality constantly either in tension with that or feeding off of others' altruism. There's a wealth of stuff about such contradictions in evolutionary game theory too, which I could go on about too, but won't because it's dry and mathematical. These paradoxes seem to be pretty fundamental to all living things, though. The time nature of the swapping of independent/dependent roles plays out in both nature and here in the text, which is interesting.

  2. From all my reading, Hinduism (which is a bit of a misnomer in itself) makes room for the paradoxes. The reason for it is a lack of a "fundamental" text or belief. As the philosophical structure accepts that human beings will have different psychological/intellectual/spiritual (take your pick) capacities, interests and needs, it provides a range of texts.
    I think what is interesting is the ACCEPTANCE (as opposed to tolerance) of the possibility that one may be wrong, change one's mind and that another belief or idea is equally or possibly even more feasible and valid. That is quite a different point of departure from other traditions.