The four stages of life: Stage 2 – the householder


In a previous post, I spoke about Hinduism’s description of the first stage of life, that of the student. Today, we’ll look at the second stage, that of householder. Once again I am using as my source the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and all quotes are from this book.

The marker that indicates that you are entering this second stage is evoked by its name, which indicates that you are no longer dependent on your parents but are setting up your own home, getting married, raising a family, and starting a career. This stage corresponds to the time when your “physical powers are at their zenith.” If you view the four stages of life as paralleling a day, then the student stage is the morning and the householder stage is noon, the peak, the apex of ones energies.

During this stage ones interests and energies turn outwards in three directions: family, vocation, and the community. A person’s “attention will be divided between the three. This is the time for satisfying the first three human wants: pleasure, through marriage and family primarily; success, through vocation; and duty, through civic participation.”

Hinduism says that it is perfectly appropriate to satisfy these needs at this stage of one’s life. It does not advocate denial and asceticism. It basically says that it is natural to want pleasure and success, and as long as one also fulfils ones duties, seeking these things is not frowned upon. Hedonism of this kind is not frowned upon.

So far, the two stages described so far do not seem to be much different from what anyone might recommend. But what Hinduism says is that just as the sun will set and its rays will grow dimmer, it is natural that the desire to satisfy these wants also will ebb with time. It says that we will “notice a time when sex and the delights of the senses (pleasure) as well as achievement in the game of life (success) no longer yield novel and surprising turns; when even the responsible discharge of a human vocation (duty) begins to pall, having grown repetitious and stale.”

Hinduism says that we should accept this decline in these kinds of appetites as indicators that one is ready to move on to the next stage and one should not try to cling onto this stage by extreme methods or by artificial means or by trying to rekindle the flames of desire that one once had.

I think that this sense of acceptance of the need to move on to a new phase of life is what westerners will find hard to accept. So much of contemporary life in the US is devoted to holding back the tide of time and prolong by any means this stage of one’s life, to try to look young, to act young, to want to be attractive to young people. The cosmetic industry, the plastic surgeons, the pharmaceutical industries, the clothing and entertainment world – all derive immense revenues from the desire of so many people to stay forever young, not mentally or metaphorically, but in actuality.

This is what also causes people to work hard even into their sixties, seventies, and beyond, to achieve greater heights in their careers, to make more money, to be seen as an even greater success. We see the phenomenon of “people who cannot bring themselves to relinquish key positions when a younger generation with more energy and new ideas should be stepping into them.”

But as they get older, it becomes harder and harder to maintain that pose while the rewards cannot help but become less and less meaningful

Smith points out that the reason some people are loath to leave this stage is because their values “are supremely those of body and sense” and they cannot see any value in life beyond middle age.

But if you have a sense of meaning and value beyond those of body and sense (and this is where developing a personal philosophy of life is invaluable) and “if vision and self-understanding carry rewards equal to or surpassing these others, old age has its own opportunities, and we can come to happiness at the time when the rivers of our lives flow gently.”

In Sri Lanka, the retirement age is 55 (or at least used to be when my father retired and still is, I believe), which is astonishingly young by American standards. Partly the reason for this is economic. In countries with high unemployment and where employment opportunities are limited, having people retire at younger ages is one way of providing jobs for people entering the work force. But it does have its advantages in that a person at 55, freed from the demands of career, can devote their still considerable energies to the third stage of life, that of retirement.

But Hinduism’s view of retirement is quite different from how we envisage it here. It is not where you just goof off or dream of buying a condo by the beach and living a life of luxury, or roaming the highways in an RV or going on ocean cruises to tropical islands.

Retirement in Hinduism is not a mere post-script to one’s life. Rather it is a crucial step in the ultimate goal of reaching self-awareness. We’ll see how that plays out in a later posting.

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