The Muslim Element in the Indian Population

The Asramas In Early Medieval India

There were two main elements of the social organisation, one of which was varna, and the other ashrama or stage of life. The division of life into four stages was a very old system evolved by the Aryans. From the very beginning the number of Ashramas has been four, though there are slight differences in the nomenclature and in their sequence. These were Brahmacarya, Gärhasthya, Vänaprastha and Sannyasa. Twenty five years were allotted to each stage on the basis of hundred years’ span of life. They were observed according to the Dharmasastra by a Dvija or twice-born. There may be doubt as to how much it was actually observed. It is possible that the Brahmanas at least in limited number practised it.

Among Muslim writers, only Al-Biruni gives a detailed account of the four stages of life. He mentions these stages only in respect of the Brahmanas, we may presume that very few of other two castes, viz., the Ksatriyas and the Vaisyas followed them. Their occupation orobably was responsible for leaving the ideal scheme. At least the first two of the adramas were generally followed by every Dvija. The Sadras, however, were not allowed to enter any stage except that of the householder. Al-Biruni’s account of these ashramas is undoubtedly taken from the Dharmasastras and not drawn from actual life. Though we have a few epigraphical references  to these dramas and the Smṛtis of our period mention them accordingly, we may conclude that to some extent they were followed by at least a section of the society. Before entering the first stage of life a Brahmana boy of eight years was invested with a pair of the sacred thread. Now he became a Brahmacarin which was the beginning of the first stage of life. Al-Biruni gives very elaborate rules and regulations governing the whole life of a Brahmana divided into the four ashramas.


The first period of the Brahmanas life extends till the twenty-fifth year of his age, or according to the Vishņu Purana, till his forty-eight year. His duty is to practise abstinence, to make the earth his bed, to begin with the learning of the Veda and of its explanation, of the science of theology and law, all this being thought to him by a master whom he serves day and night. He washes himself thrice a day and performs a sacrifice to the fire both at the beginning and end of the day. After the sacrifice he worships his master. He fasts a day and he breaks fast a day, but he is never allowed to eat meat. He dwells in the house of the master, which be only leaves in order to ask for a gift and to beg in not more than five houses once a day, either at noon or in the evening what- ever alms he receives he places before his master to choose from it what he likes. Then the master allows him to take the remainder. Thus the pupil nourishes himself from the remains of the dishes of his master. Further, he fetches the wood for the fire, wood of two kinds of trees, palasa (Butea fondosa) and darbha in order to perform the sacrifice. Undoubtedly the whole account of Al-Biruni relating to the first stage of life is based on the study of the Puranas and Smrtis like Manu in which the life of a Brahmacari has bean described in detail. As regards the study of the Vedas, we have some epigraphic references also. A Brahmacārī, Vasudeva by name, is mentioned in a grant of Bhojadeva of Kanauj who devoted his time to the study of Asvalayana Sakta. In one inscription it is mentioned that Brahmacari of Vajasneya  school was granted a gift of village. The life long Brahmacaris, who devoted their whole life to study, are also mentioned in a Chauhana record.


The second period of his life extended from the twenty-fifth year to the fiftieth. Soon after his return to his paternal home the young Brahmana proceeded to many with the permission of his teacher but he was not allowed to marry a girl of more than twelve years of age. He lived by asking a gift or present or fee obtained for teaching the Brahmana: or Ksatriyas. Lastly he lived from what he gathered on the earth or from the trees. His last duty was to beat the drum before fire and recite the prescribed holy texts. The description of the second stage can be confirmed with the rules and regulations prescribed by Manu for a householder.”


The third stage of the Brahmana’s life extended from the fiftieth year to the seventy-fifth year. This stage was called Vanaprastha. His wife could accompany him to the forest or remain behind with his sons. He led the same life as he had done before in the first period. He clothed himself in barks of trees or skins. He let his hair and nails grow, lived on fruits, plants and roots of the forest, and slept on the ground. He did not anoint himself with oil. Perhaps this order was never universally recognised.”


The fourth period extends till the end of life. He wears a red garment and holds a stick in his hand. He is always given to meditation, he strips the mind of friendship and enmity and roots out desire and lust, and wrath. He does not converse with any body at all. When walking to a place of a particular merit in order to gain a heavenly reward, he does not stop on the road in a village longer than a day, nor a city longer than five days. If any one gives him something he does not leave a remainder of it for the following day. He has no other business but of caring for the path which leads to salvation, and for reaching ‘moksa’, whence there is no return to this world. This stage was that of a Bhiksu, Yati, Sannyasin, Paribrājaka or Pravarajita. We may refer here to the accounts of Sulayman which describe a life similar to that of a Sannyasin, as given by Al-Biruni. Sulayman writes that in India there were men who wondered in the forests and mountains and rarely associated with men. They ate occasionally dry herbs and fruits which were available in the forests. They also fixed iron ring round the copulatory organ, so that they might not have relation with women. Some of them were quite naked or had only a leopard’s skin thrown over them and in that posture kept standing with their faces turned to the sun. He wondered after seeing the Sannyasi in the same posture after sixteen years, and was surprised that his eyes had not melted by the heat of the sun.

These accounts show that some people renounced the world. The Dharmasutras prescribe a code of standard conduct for a Sannyasi. He was required to lead a life of complete detachment from the world, contentment, self-abnegation and meditation. Pleasure and pain had no meaning for him. He was advised to be a well wisher of all living beings, he should neither be afraid of nor frighten to any creature. He should always devote himself to the realization of the self through meditation and austerities. To quote Apastamba, “It is ordained that he shall wear, clothes thrown away by others. Some hold that he is free from all ( forms of morals and manners, so he may go about naked) that he should seek to realize the self, renouncing truth and falshood, pleasure and pain, the Vedas, the world and the next one, that he attains salvation after knowing the self (Buddha). But this view is contrary to the teachings of the scriptures (Sastras), for, if salvation could be attained by mere knowledge of the self, the knower of the self should not feel any pain in this world.

Both the accounts of Al-Biruni and Sulayman mention that the Sannyasi lived in the forests or mountains. But during the period from 800 to 1200 A.D. we are informed that there were numerous monastic establishments and Hindu Sannyasins lived in the mathas attached mostly to the Siva temples and shrines. It need not be pointed out that Śiva is Mahayogin. His worship in the form as Śivalinga was well-established during this period. He was the patron deity of Sannyasins. They worshipped Śiva and their mathas were attached to the Saiva shrines. Sulayman’s account of the Sannyasin may have reference to a ‘hathyogi’. As regards the red dress, we may point out that Käṣãуa ( garments of reddish colour) was used by Buddhist monks.  The garment of saffron colour was used by the Hindu Dandin Sannyasins.

The whole account of Al-Biruni regarding the Ashrama system is almost on traditional lines. According to it, in the first stage a boy after Upanayana studied the Vedas and other sacred works under the guidance of a teacher. With the permission of his teacher the student married and entered the second stage of his life. As a house-holder he was to continue progeny, offer charity, give aims and perform sacrifices. Then he renounced the world and entered the third stage of life. He went to forest for medation. Indeed it was a period of preparation for the final stage of life, i.c., Sannyasa, which required complete renunciation and attachment from the world. In this stage of life a person subjected himself to self-mortification and asceticism, and tried to comprehend the Divine Reality. While wandering from place to place he tried to seek salvation. It would not be out of place to remark that, like the caste system, the system of ashramas was not followed strictly. It represented an ideal, rather than a reality. It seems that in practice it was followed by a small number of people, mainly from the Brahmaṇa  Varṇa. Al-Biruni associates these ashramas only with the life of a Brahmana, which supports the above remark.

A general picture of the society is depicted in an inscription, which records that the fame of Harṣa, the Chandella ruler, had spread, “in the halls of princes, where sages dwell, where good people meet in the village, in the assemblages of the lowly, among the rows of shops of merchants, where streets cross, where wanderers talk together on the road, and in the huts of the dwellers of the forest.” Making allowance for its too generalised character, we may remark that the description has reference to the various professions adopted by the people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *