In This Article Āśrama

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Āśrama as a Place for Religious Practice
  • Related Statuses: Snātaka, Atyāśramin, Pañcamāśramin
  • Āśrama and the Status of Women and Śūdras
  • Āśrama from the Perspective of Psychology and Sociology

Hinduism Āśrama
by
Timothy Lubin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0005

Introduction

The concept of āśrama is one of the most often cited features of Hindu doctrine on how one should live one’s life. According to the Smārta tradition (that segment of Hindus whose primary scriptures are the Smṛtis, authoritative codes of precepts taught by legendary sages imbued with divine wisdom), the whole edifice of classical dharma is commonly summed up as varṇāśrama dharma, or dharma in accordance with birth-class (varṇa) and mode of life (āśrama). In other words, the duties and rights of individuals vary depending on their caste status and their current mode or stage of life. Apart from this usage, the term āśrama can also denote a place of residence set aside for a life of piety, usually more or less removed from society.

General Overviews

Since the beginning of the Common Era, āśramas (as modes of life) have been understood to follow a formal sequence—what Olivelle 1993 has called the “āśrama system.” However, as Olivelle 1993 has demonstrated, in the earliest sources, the āśramas were distinct occupations chosen by a qualified male after the completion of a period of study called brahmacarya (pursuit of brahman [holiness or divine wisdom]). Although a few earlier scholars had noted this fact, it was generally overlooked or glossed over. Subsequently, with the canonization of the ideal of sequential āśramas, brahmacarya was recognized as the first āśrama of the sequence, rather than as the preparation from a choice of āśrama. Olivelle 1993 is the best place to begin for an overview as well as for an introduction to all the topics outlined here. The encyclopedic approach in Kane 1962–1975 is still useful for its in-depth discussion of the primary sources. By contrast with Kane 1962–1975 and the textually grounded historical approach of Olivelle 1993, Dumont 1970 and Madan 1982 offer a sociological analyses that stress the complex interplay between worldly and renunciant ideals in Indian society. Burghart 1983 faults Dumont 1970 for basing its anthropological analysis too much on the (Brahmin householder-constructed) āśrama system.

  • Burghart, Richard. “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia.” Man 18.4 (1983): 635–653.

    DOI: 10.2307/2801900E-mail Citation »

    Framed largely as a response to Dumont 1970, this article contrasts the Brahmin householder’s depiction of renunciation with the ascetic’s, noting the inadequacy of the āśrama system as a representation of actual attitudes and practices. Underlines the important role of the anthropologist in observing the social dimensions of the ascetic life.

  • Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System. Translated by Mark Sainsbury. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

    E-mail Citation »

    The tremendously influential structuralist analysis of social hierarchy and the āśramas, emphasizing the dichotomy between the worldly ideals of the householder as man-in-the-world and the ascetic as individual-outside-the-world, which Dumont takes to be fundamental to Indian society. Originally published in 1966 in French (Paris: Gallimard).

  • Kane, P. V.History of Dharmaśāstra. Rev. ed. 5 vols., 8 parts. Poona, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962–1975.

    E-mail Citation »

    Volume 2 of this classic, encyclopedic study of Dharmaśāstra includes a chapters on the āśramas, on the saṃkāras (transition rites) of upanayana (initiation of the brahmacārin) and marriage (which creates the gṛhastha), on the vānaprastha, and on the saṃnyāsin, as well as much other material on the duties of householders. Although dated, Kane is still a good point of departure. Originally published in 1941.

  • Madan, T. N.Way of Life: King, Householder, Renouncer. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    An influential sociological study of how classical ideals of āśrama are reflected in Indian society.

  • Olivelle, Patrick. The Āśrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    This monograph revolutionized our understanding of the origins and development of the classical āśrama system by pointing out that the sequential model was an innovation introduced around the beginning of the Common Era and canonized by Manu, whereas the earlier Dharma Sūtras taught a choice of lifelong āśrama to be made at the end of the period of studentship (which was not counted as an āśrama at all). Olivelle also notes further elaborations and refinements of the system in later sources.

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