So far, the first two life stages of student and householder described by Hindu philosophy would not seem that different from any western concept of those stages. It is the next two stages (retirement and sannyasin) that the paths start to diverge.
In the US at least, people approach retirement with mixed feelings. For those people who loathe their jobs, it may come as a welcome relief from a routine that they find hateful, a chance to enjoy life free from restrictions. Such people look forward to retirement.
On the other hand, there is also the pervasive sense that retirement means, to use a sporting metaphor, that you are no longer in the game and are now a spectator, not influencing the course of major events in any way. People who feel this way do not want to let go of the power and prestige their jobs give them and want it to continue forever or until they collapse at their desks.
Another constraint is the feeling that when you retire, you should be able to at least maintain the same standard of life as when one was working. These considerations make people want to postpone retirement until later so that they can make more money and live better in retirement.
But the idea of retirement in Hinduism (once again I am using as my source the book The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and all quotes are from this book) is not at all like this kind of passive withdrawal from the rush of life to a life of leisure while one awaits the end of ones days. Rather, it is the beginning of an important stage.
Smith says that a marker that one is ready to enter this third stage is the birth of the first grandchild. But this is probably just a proxy measure to symbolize that one’s children have themselves reached the stage of householder and are thus no longer dependent on you. In other words, you have now fulfilled your obligations to your family, and presumably also to your vocation and your civic responsibilities to your community.
But usually such a stage comes earlier than the customary retirement age in the US, which is about 65. For many people, their children are grown and independent by the time they are around 55 or so. Retirement at an early age is, in this philosophical framework, not a sign of early goofing off or simply giving up, but a sign of eagerness to enter this rewarding third stage of one’s life.
As Smith says “If worldly achievement and the exercise of power is best, middle age, the stage of the householder, will be life’s apex. But 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 times when the rivers of our lives flow gently.”
It is worth quoting Smith extensively on this because he says it so well:
For twenty or thirty years society has exacted its dues; now relief is in order, lest life conclude before it has been understood. Thus far society has required the individual to specialize; there has been little time to read, to think, to ponder life’s meaning without interruption. This is not resented; the game has carried its own satisfactions. But must the human spirit be indentured to society forever? The time has come to begin one’s true adult education, to discover who one is and what life is about. What is the secret of the “I” with which one has been on such intimate terms all these years, yet which remains a stranger, full of inexplicable quirks, baffling surds, and irrational impulses? Why are we born to work and struggle, each with a portion of happiness and sorrow, only to die too soon? … To find meaning in the mystery of existence is life’s final and fascinating challenge. (emphasis added)
The way one does this is what sets this philosophy apart from western conceptions of retirement for people at this stage. In the old days, one “would take their leave of family, the comforts and constraints of home, and plunge into the forest solitudes to launch their program of self-discovery. At last their responsibilities were to themselves alone. “Business, family, secular life, like the beauties and hopes of youth and the successes of maturity, have now been left behind; eternity alone remains. And so it is to that – not the tasks and worries of this life already gone, which came and passed like a dream – that the mind is turned”…It is time for working out a philosophy, and then working that philosophy into a way of life; a time for transcending the senses to find, and dwell with, the reality that underlies this natural world.”
Going into the forest may not be quite feasible these days or in this country, but the idea of seeking solitude in order to figure things out can be manifested in other words. It is probably not even strict solitude that is called for but more the breaking free of the kinds of ties and distractions that the second stage of life carried with it.
The point is that this third stage of life is not a sign that life is leaving you behind. The third stage is what you have been preparing yourself for.