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Mar 31 2005

The four stages of life: Stage 1- the student

For most people, their starting philosophy comes from what they acquired in their early childhood and is strongly influenced by the religion of their family and the values of their family and local community. Of course, the religious philosophies of the major religions encompass many strands, as they must if they are to maintain broad-based support. If their basic philosophies become too narrow, rigid, or constraining, then they will lose members or breakaway groups will form. Already, major religions have broad sub-groupings, such as the many denominations of Christianity, the Sunni and Shia groups of Islam, the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements in Judaism, the Mahayana and Theravada branches of Buddhism, and so on.

But even these subgroups allow for a wide diversity of philosophies within them. But most people tend to know only the range of philosophies of the religion of their own childhood. Thus they tend to be unaware of elements of philosophies of other religions that might have appealed to them.

For those who would like to go further afield in their philosophical explorations than just their own religious tradition, I can recommend the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. (All quotes in this series of postings are from this book.) What I like about the book is the approach taken by the author, who is a Methodist minister. He simply lays out the basic elements of each religion. He does not try to make value judgments of each one, or compare and contrast the religions, or try to rank them. He simply describes what each one says about the major questions that concern them, and leaves it to the reader to take from them what they may. But this is not just a dry ‘just the facts, ma’am’ approach either. Smith manages to balance a non-judgmental approach with commentary delivered in a lively way.

Since I tend to be very eclectic in my tastes, not bound by any particular religious tradition, and willing to use ideas from whatever source as long as I find them interesting or useful, Smith’s book appealed to me. A section that I found particularly interesting was Hinduism’s approach to the life cycle, that each person’s life can be split up into four stages, each having its own distinct characteristics.

Although I grew up in a country where almost 20% of the population were Hindus and I had many Hindu friends, I had never really gone beyond a cursory understanding of this ancient religious tradition, so the four stages of life described by the book were unknown to me until I read this book a few years ago. The philosophy of life implied by these four stages does not seem to me to be organically connected to Hindu theology and could be adopted by believers in any religion or by atheists.

Hinduism takes the diversity of human nature seriously and accommodates “a variety of paths towards life’s fulfillment.” But it also asserts that each person goes through four stages of life “each of which calls for its own appropriate conduct.” I will end today’s post with a description of just the first stage, which is that of the student, leaving the other stages for later.

The student stage starts around the age of ten (give or take a couple of years) and lasts for a dozen years. “Life’s prime responsibility at this stage was to learn, to offer a receptive mind.” There will come a time later, during other stages of your life, when you will have responsibilities to bear. But “for this gloriously suspended moment the student’s only obligation was to store up against the time when much would be demanded.”

But the learning envisaged was not just factual information or knowledge just for knowledge’s sake, to create a mere walking encyclopedia. Education also required that character be developed and good habits cultivated so that one would lead a good and productive life. “The entire training was more like an apprenticeship in which information became incarnated in skill. The liberally educated student was to emerge as equipped to turn out a good and effective life as a potter’s apprentice to turn out a well-wrought urn.”

I like the fact that this says that the student’s only obligation is to learn and not be too concerned with other, ostensibly weightier matters. This enables students to immerse themselves in the learning process, to experience the joy that true learning brings with it. (Note that grades and degrees and other types of credentials are not synonymous with the model of learning described here and may even detract from it.) But although the student is absolved from responsibilities for other things at this time, learning does take place with an eye to the successful carrying out of responsibilities that must be inevitably shouldered as one goes through the later stages.

What constitutes those three later stages – that of householder, retirement, and (most intriguingly) sannyasin – will be described in later postings.

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