There are four ashramas, with this shivahari started the topic about the ashramas.
They are brahmacharya, grhasta, vanaprastha and sanyasa.
A boy born out of the three varnas, when initiated with the sacred thread, enters bramacharya ashrama. This is an ashrama exclusive for the study of the respected shastra – the Vedas or the shastra vidya – study of wepon, artha shastra – money matters. On has to perform the sandya vandhana, in the morning, afternoon and the evening. The time perion prescribed is, before the sunrise till after the sunrise, when the sun is over the head and before the sunset till after the sunset. After the sandya vandhana, there is another karma specified for the brahmacharis which is called samidhadhanam – samid means twigs, this is the karma in which one salutes the fire god through a simple fire ritual. He should change the sacred thread after the period of unsociability, after birth in the house, a death etc. and the sacred thread should be changed every year during the month of shravana – august/September on the full moon day. The other details which are said in the smriti shastras does not hold water at this period, like the brahmachari going for biksha, not wearing a footwear or the likes.
When he finishes the studies, he takes the permission of the guru after giving him the dakshina – donation if he is capable. This is what I did when I left the gurukula – the school of study, to take the griharsta ashrama. For this one is required to fet the samavarthana karma done. This is like a preparation to get married. But my friend, who stayed back with our guru, to help him in the teaching and do service to him, took, what is called as naistika brahmacharya – which is a vow to maintain celibacy till death. But it is not a compulsion for one to either take-up the grhasta ashrama or naistika, he if has full vairagya – dispassion, can leave for sanyasa. About sanyasa we will see later.
The person, who has taken the permission to marry, can decorate himself. He wears golden studs, shaves and manicures himself, wears the dhoti in a special way called panchakacha, pancha – five and kacha – tucking. And, he should get married to a virgin girl as soon as possible. This is when he enters the grihasta ashrama – the householder. When he has a boy and with black hair still on his head, the practice is to take up the initiation of the fire oblation. This now is reduced. For the fire oblation one should get initiation, which is called agni aadhana. For this the person receives the fire in a pot and carries it on him for a period of an year before he starts to perform the karma. Once he installs the fires, there are three fires; he should see to it that it burns all the time. The fires are named as gaarhapatya, aahavania and daakshinagni according to its positioning. This is the fire that is used to burn him too, if he dies as a grihasta. If he fulfills the duties of the family and has got the desire to go to sannyasa, but still does not have the full dispassion, he goes to vanaprastha ashram. This is like a trial for the sannyasa ashram. But, if he has dispassion then he may leave the householder life for sannyasa ashram.
The vanaprastha ashrama, is the third ashrama in the order. This is the ashrama your grandfather took, before he left for sannyasa. In this the husband and wife, both leave the house, and stay in a secluded place, spending the time in meditation and other practices. Other practices means, to listen to scriptures, to read the scriptures and chant the name of lord.
Then, the fourth and final ashrama, which is sannyasa ashrama. This is an ashrama one can take from any walk of life if one has the total dispassion. Otherwise, one is much worse than a human being, and will go to hell when he dies. Sannyasa is accorded this great state, which is why when we see a sannyasi we salute him then and there. He removes the sins of the previous twenty one generations and the following twenty one generations. He is considered to the moving form of god Sri Vishnu. Only a Brahmin is allowed to take-up sannyasa, but some argue that, since all the three varnas have the karmas they are eligible to give-up also. There are two types of taking of sannyasa, vidvat and vidivat. Vidvat means one who has taken sannyasa because of the knowledge. And vidivat means one takes sannyasa in order to gain the knowledge, through all the rituals. And there is another type, called apat sannyasa, which is to take sannyasa in death bed, through word or mind. For the vidivat sannyasa, there are rituals prescribed, the person before the sannyasa night does a homa called, viraja homa. And he gives pinda, rice balls mixed with sesame, to all the ancestors and himself. In the morning, he is taken to a river side and the connections with the karmas, viz., the sacred thread and the tuft are removed once for all. And now the guru pronounces him sannyasi, and if the person is dispassionate he may leave from there to the forest. If the person wants to live in the society (of sannyasa) then he will be given the ochre robe. They should not hurt any living being, even plucking of flower, leaf or fruit is negated for them. They should give up the fire, both worldly and scriptural. They should live only by taking alms. That is why they are also called as bhikshu – a person who takes alms. They should not stay in a single place (village) for more than one day and in a city for more than five days. Even then they are required to stay only in the outskirts of the village. They may stay, in the outskirts of the village temple during chaatur masya – four months in the rainy season. But this chaatur masya is observed only for two months mostly following a rule of accepting fortnight as month.
And one who has taken sannyasa may belong to four types. The kutichakaa, bahudakaa, hamsaa or paramahamsaa.
The kutiichakaa sannyasi, can get food from his house or his relatives. He should chant gayatri mantra or spend the time reading holy books always. Should wear tuft, only one sacred thread, and have tridandi – three numbers of staff, and a vessel for carrying water.
The bahudakaa sannyasi should leave his relatives and should take alms in others house. This is also limited, he should not ask for alms in more than seven houses per day. If he gets sufficient food, he should stop asking, if he does not get any food at all, should not go to the eighth house. He should spend his time reading scriptures.
The hamsaa sannyasi should have only one staff and ochre robes. And the paramahamsa is one who has given-up the staff. But though hamsaa has some karmas, the paramahamsa has no karmas. They should chant OM atleast 10,000 times.
Then there are people, though few, who belong to a group called atyashrami. This means, they are beyond the ashramas. The karmas of any ashrama, will not bind them. They are the people who have realized the self.
Whatever be the varna or the ashrama they are required to worship their family deity withot fail. And in the case of the Brahmins they should follow the nitya karma – daily rituals, like sandya vandana etc without any excuse.