Just as early Indian Society was divided into four classes, the Varna so was the life of an individual divided into four stages- the Ashram. But there is no reason to believe that both originated simultaneously. There is no reference to Ashram in Vedic literature. The four stages were Brahmachari, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, Sanyas.
This scheme was ideal, for a majority of them never went beyond the first two. It has been suggested by historians that the last two were added as a countermeasure when Buddhist and Jainas encouraged the young men to take up asceticism and bypass the family life altogether. Meditation and the spiritual quest were presented as the aim of life, which was becoming very popular. The Ashram system was conceived to gain the lost ground and provided an individual with a chance to do both to live as a householder, procreate, allow the society to go on, and take up asceticism later in life. We shall now see the main features of the four stages-
This stage began when a child became Dwija by the investiture of sacred thread and became a full-fledged Aryan. He left his home to live with his teacher at his place. He had to lead an austere and celibate life, study Vedas and such other instructions imparted by his guru. The Kshatriya boys were also taught horse-riding, archery, fencing and other martial art. The student was expected to treat his Guru most reverently, attending to all his heeds, obey his commands with implicit faith, and even beg food for him if necessary. This Ashram was completed when a Brahmachari was pronounced learned in whatever course he was taking, usually at least one of the Veda. This happened in his early twenties. A ritual bath (Snah) back at his home would finally make him Snataka (Graduate).
The stage of householder began with marriage, which was a positive duty for three reasons- it afforded to fulfil the religious duty by performing household sacrifices, procreation of children for continuing the lineage and assuring ancestors of happy afterlife and sexual pleasure. Attending to his economic pursuits appropriate to his social standing, including in amusements and pleasures, joining his equals in social gatherings, looking after the education of children, marrying off the daughters, performing regular sacrifices were some of his duties in this stage.
When a person had his sons completing their Brahmacharyashram and entering the stage of the householders, and having completed his own social tasks and family responsibilities, handed over the tasking of the household to his son and prepares himself for the third stage of life. He starts meditation. Frequent forays into the jungle for weeks or months, giving counsel to his offspring in the ways of life and generally detaching himself from world affairs, but not actually leaving it altogether are the main features of this stage. In the later years, he started living permanently in forests, in hermitage, where he performed regular rites and studied religious literature. He raised spiritual power by self-mortification. He lived on fruits collected from the forests or alms given by the villagers.
This last stage came when a man left his hermitage, gave up the performances of all ceremonies and truly broke all attachments to worldly thing. He became a homeless wanderer (Sanyasi) with nothing but a begging bowl, a stick and a few rags of cloth. He was enjoined neither to hope for life nor to wish for death, nor to show any emotion, and abstaining from all worries, desires and cases.
The above is an ideal scheme of the Ashram system. In actual practice, very few went up to the fourth stage. Even the entry into the third stage may have been precipitated by the behaviour of his sons who would not be averse to seeing the back of their father for farming out the property. In a majority of cases, the third stage was lived in the vicinity of their villages or towns.
Moreover, strict adherence to the ashram system was also in direct conflict with another basic feature of Aryan life- the sacraments. There were many “Sanskars” to be performed without which man’s passage in this world was incomplete. The last of these- the Antyeshti (the last rites)- could not be performed for a Sanyasi, a wanderer, who may die far from his native place where his sons would not reach him. This may also have been the reason to skip the last stage.