Why retire from world in our old age?

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

It has often been said that there are no atheists in India, although there’s little doubt things are changing due to the toxic influence of Western culture.

Maybe it’s because of the grip Hinduism had on the people, or because of the high value placed on the role and position of family and community in that society, or perhaps an unintended consequence of the caste system.

Broadly speaking, the Indian culture recognises four stages in a man’s life. The first is that of the student where the young man of higher caste is apprenticed to a guru, who teaches the boys in his care what Indian culture and religion says about life and its mysteries. He teaches the Indian folkways and the Hindu scriptures, and they learn discipline and self-control through meditation and yoga.

The second stage is that of a householder. At this point his parents will choose a wife for the man and he settles down to raise a family and gets involved in business. He will be expected to play a role in his extended family and his community. Traditional Indian culture is both family-oriented and civic-minded.

The third stage is that of the seeker. Whereas Western thought tends to view householding and business as the main and perhaps the final focus of life, Indian culture views it as a transitional period leading to what we, perhaps mistakenly, see as early retirement, for it can begin as soon as the man has provided enough for his family that they can get along without him. Thus he is freed to move on to the next stage in life, often around the time that the first grandchildren are born.

The seeker is sometimes referred to as a ‘forest dweller,’ not that he goes to live in the woods – although some do – but they often continue to live in the family household, apart from the others, and no longer as the decision-maker.

After years of having experienced life, it is only now that he begins to understand it. He will read his scriptures, meditate and talk with gurus, seeking to understand the meaning of life.

The fourth stage of the man’s spiritual development in India is that of the wise man or holy man. Having sought to comprehend the meaning of life as a seeker, its mysteries reveal themselves to him, hopefully in his sixties or seventies. This is what all of life prepared him for. He is now in a position to be sort of a guru himself, a man who can be sought after for wise counsel. He has seen it all: youth and age, masculinity and femininity, health and sickness, good and evil, society and solitude, trial and failure, feast and famine, activity and silence, life and death. Now he can put it all together in a meaningful whole, both for himself and for anyone who seeks his wisdom.

We in the West generally miss the point of old age. We see it as a time of ease, hedonistic even, and the sad result is that all the lessons we have learned, lessons that could help our children and grandchildren avoid the potholes in the road of life that we fell into, are interred with our bones.

We might not be able to change the world, but we can change our world and that of the generations that follow us by taking a leaf out of the books of the Indian guru.