In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Old Age and Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • Hindu Constructions of Old Age as a Life Phase
  • Ayurveda and its Theory of Rejuvenation
  • Cultural Constructions of Old Age in Hindu India
  • Sociological Studies of Old Age in Hindu India
  • Intergenerational Reciprocity or the Lack Thereof
  • Emergence of a Competing Model of Elder Care
  • Poverty and Old Age
  • The Law and Old Age
  • Gender and the Experience of Aging
  • The Diaspora and Aging Indians

Hinduism Old Age and Hinduism
Usha Menon
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0211


Among Hindus in India, the understandings and experiences of old age are refracted, to some degree, by cultural meanings about this phase of life that can be traced back millennia. Ancient Hindu texts—the Dharmasūtras (manuals consisting of terse rules about appropriate human behavior), the Dharmaśāstras (various treatises on the Hindu concept of dharma, a Hindu term notoriously difficult to translate but often glossed as “natural law,” “duty,” “justice,” “essential nature or character,” and “patterns of behavior” that sometimes articulate contradictory perspectives), and the Hindu Epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata)—have addressed the issue of the ideal life course for an upper-caste man. In doing so, these ancient texts have discussed elaborately the cultural meanings attached to the process of aging and to old age—largely from a male perspective. While there is no formally articulated and culturally sanctioned model of the female life course, a few scholars of religion have been able to glean such a model from the literary sources mentioned above. Both these models, one explicit and the other implicit, color the experience of aging and old age among Hindu men and women in contemporary India. Contemporary empirical research has also yielded cultural models for both the male and female life course. While these models demonstrate the influences exerted by textual exegeses, they include distinctive elements that appear to deviate from these traditional influences. Since the 1960s, considerable research on the social, cultural, economic, demographic, health, and psychological aspects of aging and old age in India have been done by sociologists, economists, legal scholars, and mental health experts interested in gerontology. While these studies vary in their research foci and in their theoretical and methodological approaches, most conclude that old people in India live in rather perilous circumstances. Whether these circumstances are the result of modernization, globalization, and economic development is less easy to discern because the necessary longitudinal data are lacking. Apart from these studies, there have been a fair number of anthropological investigations as well, highlighting the cultural shaping of the aging experience. In this regard, Vatuk 1980 (cited under Cultural Constructions of Old Age in Hindu India), Vatuk 1987 (cited under Gender and the Experience of Aging), and Vatuk 1990 (cited under Cultural Constructions of Old Age in Hindu India) are exhaustive examinations of aging among the Rayapuris of north India; Cohen 1995 (cited under Mental Health) and Cohen 1998 (cited under Cultural Constructions of Old Age in Hindu India) are masterful analyses of senility in contemporary India; and Lamb 1999 (cited under Gender and the Experience of Aging), Lamb 2000 (cited under Cultural Constructions of Old Age in Hindu India), Lamb 2002 (cited under The Diaspora and Aging Indians), Lamb 2005 (cited under Emergence of a Competing Model of Elder Care), and Lamb 2009 (cited under The Diaspora and Aging Indians) are wide-ranging explorations of female aging, competing models of elder care and the meanings attached to new cultural spaces such as old-age homes—are all significant and illuminating.

Hindu Constructions of Old Age as a Life Phase

The cultural significance of any life-phase is best understood when juxtaposed against the prevailing cultural models of the life course. Ancient texts present the ideal life course for upper-caste males. Tilak 1989 elaborates on this model and its constituent four phases—that of the student (brahmacarya), the householder (grhastha), the forest-dweller (vanaprastha), and the renouncer (sannyasa). However, the phases are not equally significant. Traditionally speaking, the householder phase, representing the fully relational, and the renouncer phase, as discussed in Raja 2005 and Ram-Prasad 1995, representing the a-relational, were iconic while the student phase was considered preparatory and the forest-dweller phase transitional. It is also possible to study these ancient texts and infer the contours of the ideal female life course in which marriage, as Young 1981 suggests, is the most significant life experience. Although textual influences can clearly be discerned, Kakar 1997 and Menon and Shweder 1997 find that contemporary models of the male and female life course are quite distinctive: Hindu men today rarely choose radical renunciation, and while marriage continues to define a Hindu woman’s life, it is less significant than in the past.

  • Kakar, Sudhir. “The Search for Middle Age in India.” In Welcome to Middle Age! (And Other Cultural Fictions). Edited by Richard A. Shweder, 75–98. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    Using the Dharmaśāstras and Hindu epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—as well as popular Hindi sayings, fiction and movies, Kakar explores contemporary understandings of the life course and old age. He claims that, for Hindus, the life course consists of only three phases: childhood, youth and old age, with old age being triggered by the marriage of one’s eldest child and the beginning of the next generation’s own reproductive career.

  • Menon, Usha, and Richard A. Shweder. “The Return of the ‘White Man’s Burden’: The Moral Discourse of Anthropology and the Domestic Life of Hindu Women.” In Welcome to Middle Age! (And Other Cultural Fictions). Edited by Richard A. Shweder, 139–188. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    While primarily describing the domestic life of Hindu women from the temple town of Bhubaneswar, Odisha, it presents a model of the female life course that consists of childhood, youth, early adulthood, mature adulthood, and old age. Although marriage continues to be significant, it no longer defines life phases (see Young 1981); instead, family role seems to be the determinative factor.

  • Raja, Ira. “Ageing Subjects, Agentic Bodies: Appetite, Modernity and the Middle Class in Two Indian Short Stories in English.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 40.1 (2005): 73–89.

    DOI: 10.1177/0021989405050666

    Analyzes two Indian short stories written in English—“A Devoted Son” by Anita Desai and “The Remains of the Feast” by Gita Hariharan—to highlight the cultural salience and significance of the renouncer. Even in modern India, this figure continues to carry considerable mystique because, irrespective of class and caste differences, many Hindus still believe that old people should withdraw from the world and its activities and pleasures.

  • Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. “A Classical Indian Philosophical Perspective on Ageing and the Meaning of Life.” Ageing and Society 15.1 (1995): 1–36.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0144686X00002105

    Given the well-acknowledged tension that exists in Hindu ways of thinking between world-affirmation and world-renunciation, Chakravarthi examines old age as an opportunity for cultivating renunciation. He emphasizes that the cultural significance attached to renunciation greatly depends on the richness of the life being renounced. His goal in this reinterpretation of an ancient ideal is to provide a perspective that has relevance to even non-Hindus.

  • Tilak, Shrinivas. Religion and Aging in the Indian Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    This pioneering study is an exhaustive analysis of ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts that discuss the ideal male life course and old age. While it documents a remarkable variety of views, it also highlights a widespread ideology that views old age as a period of differential, but not total, disengagement. In old age, an upper-caste Hindu man should give up the world but then engage in practices that will enable final liberation.

  • Young, Katherine. “Why Are Hindu Women Traditionally Oriented to Rebirth Rather Than Liberation (Moksa).” In Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Asian Studies. 937–945. Hong Kong: Asian Research Service, 1981.

    Young claims a thorough examination of ancient Hindu texts reveals traditional understandings about the female life course—even when they do not explicitly address this topic. She postulates three life phases—that of unmarried virgin (kanya), auspicious married woman (sadhva) and widow (vidhva). This model demonstrates the centrality of marriage for Hindu women: it marks the beginning of adulthood, and, when the husband dies, widowhood marks the beginning of old age.

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