Ashrams are an outstanding feature of the social organization in ancient India. This system particularly developed during the later Vedic period.
Liberally Ashram means halting place. But in the Indian social system it implied stoppage or stage in the journey of life with a view to prepare one-self for further journey. The life of the individual was divided into four Ashrams. Presuming that each individual lived for roughly one hundred years, the entire life was divided into four periods of twenty-five years each, representing one Ashram.
The first Ashram or stage was known as the Brahmacharya Ashram which lasted till the age of 25 years. A major portion of this Ashram was devoted to education. During this period the student stayed with the teacher, who looked after his physical, mental and psychological development. During this period the student had to lead a life of simplicity and chastity. He had to maintain strict control over all his organs and to avoid all pleasures and luxuries.
Thus we find that the Brahmacharya Ashram was essentially a period for the development of body and mind.
The Grihastha Ashram or the stage of a householder was the next stage which lasted from 26 to 50 years. The most important duties of the individual at this stage include the setting up a family and beget offspring’s. This stage of life was considered to be the hardest stage because the person had also to devote attention to sacrifices, worship, charity etc. The home was also considered as an important place for the practice of dharma shashtras.
The house holder entered the third stage of vanaprastha Ashram when he saw the signs of old age coming upon him. The person entering this stage was expected to renounce the comforts of a settled home life and retire from the world. He was expected to give up all desire for children, desire for possessions and desire for the world. During the Vanaprastha Ashram he was to take up residence in the forests and castigate the body to purify the soul. He was expected to lead a life of complete detachment and to utilize his time for the study of Upanishads, Srutis and meditation.
The last stage in the journey of man’s life was Sanyo’s Ashram. It was the final and certain means of reaching the supreme goal of acquiring a knowledge of the self and emancipation from the bonds of life and death.