Vanaprashta (Skt: ‘home in the forest or woods’)
In traditional Hinduism this is the third asrama (Vedic stage of life) in which the male, having fulfilled his matrimonial dharma as a householder, generally retreats to the forest to study the deeper meaning of sacred texts and to become adept at meditation.
Some Hindu texts stipulate that the religious recluse must be a Brahmin, but this view is not universal.¹
Vanaprashta is a difficult path to follow, especially today. Within the changing face of Hinduism the contemporary practice is more a psychosocial rather than geographical withdrawal. Today’s Hindu meditator, whether male or female, may pull back into the deeper aspects of the psyche (and perhaps beyond) without necessarily leaving the household.
This shift is made evident in Pauline Kolenda’s ethnographic study conducted in Khalapur, where she notes:
Jivan Mal was a Gandhian. Like Gandhi, he tried to live his life according to the four ashramas, and when we knew him, he was in the third ashrama; he was a vanaprashta one who had retired from ordinary life to devote himself to religion. He explained that he and his wife were “like brother and sister”; he had given up sexual activity. Consistent with his religiosity and his Gandhianism was his strict vegetarian diet, but inconsistent with his Gandhianism was his inability to consort with untouchables, to be near them or to take food or drink from them or with them.²
¹ When I first made this entry at earthpages.ca, Wikipedia made little or not mention of Vanaprashta. But it’s caught up. For more details on the life of the traditional hermit, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanaprastha .
² Pauline Kolenda, “Micro-Ideology and Micro-Utopia in Khalapur: Changes in the Discourse on Caste over Thirty Years,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 24, No. 32 (Aug. 12, 1989: 1831-1838), pp. 1833-1834. One might ask how such snobbishness could be a sign of positive spirituality and in keeping with God’s will.