By Swami Harshananda
Vānaprastha literally means ‘forest hermit’.
Significance of Vānaprastha
This is the third stage of life for a dvija. Vaikhānasa seems to have been the ancient name for a vānaprastha. Generally, a gṛhastha, around the age of 50 or 55, after the birth of grand-children, when the hair starts turning grey and the skin gets wrinkled, is expected to hand over the responsibilities of the family to his children and retire to the vana or forest. He may take his wife if she is willing to share his life of austerities or leave her with his sons.
Duties of a Vānaprastha
- If he had established the śrauta or the Vedic fires, he could carry the same with him to the forest also. Otherwise he could carry the gṛhya or domestic fire.
- He was expected to perform some śrauta sacrifices like the Darśapurṇamāsa and the Cāturmāsyas.
- He had the freedom to give up the śrauta fires and kindle a separate fire for certain limited rituals.
- He had to live an austere life by not shaving the hair, growing a beard, subsisting on simple food available in the forest like roots, vegetables and fruits or even by begging from other hermits.
- Eating once a day and occasional fasting were emphasized.
- Bathing thrice or twice a day, wearing a deerskin or coarse garments, performing the five daily sacrifices, studying the Vedas and observing continence were compulsory.
- He was expected to devote his mind in contemplation on God or Brahman.
- Some dharmaśāstra works describe four types of vānaprasthas.
- Vānaprasthas who were suffering from severe old-age ailments or incurable diseases could commit religious suicide by mahāprasthāna or by entering a river or fire.
- Though brāhmaṇas could take sanyāsa after vānaprastha stage, it was denied to others.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore