In the last eight articles, we discussed all the fundamental concepts of sanātana dharma; that sanātana dharma is not a religion but a law that is supreme and eternal, which governs all creation. The two most important tenets being – all is Divine, and every action has a reaction which leads to reincarnations. The core and the highest philosophy is advaita vedānta found in the sacred upaniṣadic part of the vedas which are the main texts of sanātana dharma. We also learnt that the God of sanātana dharma is brahman who is beyond names and forms, attributes, and qualities, with the best definition being – satyaṁ-jñānam-anantam – which means, it exists, it is awareness, and it is eternal, without a beginning or an end. We learnt that humans are endowed with a mind, which is a collection of thoughts, and is the main reason why the divinity of one’s own existence is hidden from the person, and one is tricked into believing that oneself is anything other than divine; this illusion is called māyā. The knots of ignorance of one’s own existence as pure divinity, the unwanted desires and the unnecessary actions leading to consequences, cause bondage or limitedness of human existence. However, with the help of a guru one can attain freedom, provided one develops discrimination, detachment, self-restraint, and most importantly a burning desire for mokṣa or liberation. We also learnt that attaining mokṣa or mukti does endow oneself with a bliss which is supreme. But at the same time, a truly realised person does not necessarily abandon the world, but instead remains active and dedicated to the welfare of all, while constantly living in the awareness of one’s own divinity.

So far, so good!

Now that we know the ultimate purpose of human birth is to attain mokṣa, let us also know how sanātana dharma lays out a very clear, step-by-step approach for the same.

Most of you who might have been blessed by a temple priest or a learned scholar must have heard a mantra that they would chant while blessing anyone – ‘शतमानं भवति शतायु: पुरुष: शतेन्द्रियः आयुष्येवेन्द्रिये प्रतितिष्ठति śatamānaṁ bhavati śatāyuḥ puruṣaḥ śatendriyaḥ āyuṣyevendriye pratitiṣṭhati’. This mantra from the taittirīya brāhmaṇa means, ‘May you be blessed with a lifetime of hundred years with fully functioning senses and have all the faculties fully intact to perform all the duties.’ In sanātana dharma, a person is blessed to have a full lifetime of a hundred springs during which one must discharge all duties, be it individual, family, social or spiritual. This period of hundred years is divided into four phases of roughly twenty-five years each, with certain duties prescribed for each phase. Let’s learn about each of these phases.

sanātana dharma guides that every individual has four goals – dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣa, collectively called as caturvidha puruṣārthasWe all know about mokṣa being the highest goal, and the other three being there to lead one towards the final goal of mokṣadharma is to lead a life in accordance with the laws of the material and spiritual world, thereby earn wealth or artha in the righteous way using which one could fulfil righteous desires or kāma, and finally develop renunciation to attain mokṣa. Similarly, there are four stages of life too as proposed by sanātana dharma and described in dharmasūtras, during which the individual is expected to perform certain duties. These four stages of life were called varṇāśrama dharmas.

The first being brahmacarya āśrama, which is the period during which one undertook studies of scriptures and life skills, that helped one eke out a livelihood and raise a family without losing sight of the ultimate purpose of Self-Realisation. So, the first twenty-five years were spent in the pursuit of knowledge and dedicated to studies in the ancient schooling system called gurukulas, run by gurus who were adept in both the knowledge of the material world as well as the spiritual sciences. Thus, the first stage was dedicated to learning dharma – or righteous ways to lead one’s life.

Thereafter, the next twenty-five years of a person’s life was spent in the next stage of life called gṛhastha āśrama, wherein a householder entered the institution of marriage, raised children, worked, and earned to fulfil the needs of the family. Thus, the other two goals of life namely, artha and kāma were fulfilled during this stage.

The next stage of twenty-five years was called the vānaprastha āśrama, which literally means ‘living in the forest’. At this stage, the person had to give up all the duties of a householder and leave his hearth and home to live separately in a forest hermitage away from society and dedicate one’s life for social service and spiritual practises. In old times, usually the husband and wife left their home and stayed at the āśrama of their family guru where they rendered service, and at the same time practised spiritual austerities. This was done to prepare oneself for the next stage of life comprising of the last twenty-five years called sannyāsa āśrama – or the stage of complete renunciation.

Swami Vivekananda pursued the path of sannyāsa soon after brahmacharya.  He could dedicate all his energy to the mission of spreading spirituality to the world and serving the society, while redeeming himself from the bondage of cycles of birth and death.

At this stage, having matured in one’s spiritual practises, like a fruit that ripens naturally, one was readied to be able to give up one’s body while completely established in the awareness of one’s own divinity, thus being freed from the cycles of birth and death and becoming eternally free by attaining mokṣa, the highest and final goal.

These āśrama dharmas were a path, well-thought and well-laid, for anyone to go through one’s life and find the ultimate fulfilment of Self-Realisation. Everyone spent the former half of their lives in preparing and entering the world through the first two stages of brahmacarya and gṛhastha, and then spent the latter half to prepare and exit the world through the last two stages of vānaprastha and sannyāsa.

The four stages of life were a step-by-step approach to realisation of divinity and liberation from bondage. Great kings like Bharatha followed this path and so also the sages like Yajnavalkya, or in recent times leaders like Mahatma Gandhi.

This did not mean that there were no exceptions to this path of four stages of life. It was permitted for one to skip the stages in between and directly choose to be a renunciate, practicing sannyāsa āśrama. The society did not ridicule or look down upon or ostracise such a person, but instead appreciated that such a person, with less interest in worldly affairs, was keen to pursue the path of Self-Realisation more fervently. The famed advatic scholar, Sri Adi Shankaracharya is an example who after his father’s demise, took due permission from his mother to be allowed to enter sannyāsa āśrama in his pre-teens, without having had to go through the stages of gṛhastha or vānaprastha. Similarly, Swami Vivekananda pursued the path of sannyāsa soon after brahmacarya. The result was they (Sri Adi Shankaracharya and Swami Vivekananda) could dedicate all their energies to the mission of spreading spirituality to the world and serve the society in their own way, while redeeming themselves from the bondage of cycles of birth and death. The motto being – ‘आत्मनो मोक्षार्थं जगत् हिताय च ātmano mokṣārthaṁ jagat hitāya ca’– which means ‘to redeem oneself and also serve the society’. With lesser encumbrances such renunciates could do a lot for all, and society does remain indebted to them for their contributions.

However, for the average person, the four stages of life were a step-by-step approach to Realisation of Divinity and liberation from bondage. Great kings like bharata followed this path and so also the sages like yājñavalkya, or in recent times leaders like Mahatma Gandhi. This path is for all and only goes to show the depth and clarity of sanātana dharma to help the ordinary to evolve, lead a good life and attain a good end.

caturvidha puruṣārthas

sanātana dharma guides that every individual should have four goals to guide them through the different stages of life:


A life led in accordance with the laws of the material and spiritual world.


Wealth to be earned in a righteous way.


Righteous desires to be fulfilled.


Liberation as the highest goal to achieve upon complete renunciation.