Ashrama Dharma is one of the pillars of Hindu socio-religious tradition. More than a strict common practice it is an ideal template for a fulfilled life. It divides life in four phases. The phases do not only give guidance to a person who wants to attain various goals in life, but it is also a practical way to sustain society. The experience of a phase is important to grow into the next phase.
Through the four ashramas, or phases of life, a person also seeks to fulfill the four essential goals of Dharma (can be translated as natural law or moral conduct), Artha (worldly gain), Kama (sensual pleasures), and Moksha (liberation from rebirth). These goals show different perspectives on life; through Dharma one focuses on doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong in relation to the people and the world around us, while the Artha perspective focuses on doing what is profitable and avoiding loss, the Kama perspective allows us to do what is pleasurable to our nature and to avoid pain and Moksha emphasizes the importance of our spiritual development.
The first phase is from birth till adulthood. The central focus is on learning. To learn to be the master of ones own body and senses, not their slave. To develop discipline and acquire a solid spiritual outlook that will last through the upheavals and instabilities of life. Right above the studying boy we see a symbol for Dharma on a small placard; standing on a chariot, Krishna and Arjuna, each blow on a conch. This is a scene from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the great Hindu epics. When Arjuna stands ready to commence a war, in doubt however at the many lives that will be demanded, Krishna relates to him that this is his Dharma; to commence the war. Moreover, that accepting and living in accordance with his Dharma will unveil his path to salvation. Dharma remains of importance through all of the four phases.
The second phase is the most important phase in order to maintain society. The focus shifts to earning money, contributing to society and perhaps sustaining a family. Special importance is given to acquiring material wealth (Artha) and satisfying physical desire (Kama) without falling victim to the temptation of considering these pursuits as objectives per se.
While caught up in these endeavours one should always uphold society's morals, based on Dharma. Unlike Christian scholars, Hindus believe that Artha and Kama are practical goals in life needed to keep an economy running and to raise children free of hunger and want.
In this work of art the merchant's vegetables and bronze balance symbolize Artha. On the wall behind him a small placard shows two well known Bollywood actors putting their arms lovingly around each other. This image embodies physical desire; Kama.
The third stage of life starts when one retires from work and when the children are old enough to live their own lives. At this stage one gives property to his heirs or donates it, and becomes more inward looking. One still contributes with experience, through advising and teaching. Having fulfilled one's desires in the previous stage, one is expected no longer to be driven by sensuous pleasures and the desire for wealth. Thus ones's endeavours will be more dispassionate and detached, as one does not pursue any specific result. One is permitted to earn his livelihood though not to accumulate wealth. The focus in this phase should shift to Moksha. On this painting, the third person from the left lends his advice to the merchant. He is clad in garments of a colour associated with spirituality in India; orange.
In the fourth phase a person cuts all bonds with family and friends and renounces the material world in order to fully focus on their spiritual path to enlightenment; Moksha. The old man on the right sits outside the colonade. He no longer actively participates in society. He concentrates on meditation to achieve Moksha using a cord made of seeds of the banyan tree that he lets slip through his fingers.
The ashram system was meant to be adopted by those belonging to the three highest castes; the 'reborn'. Those belonging to the lowest caste and those who didn't belong to any caste were not consciously aware of the ashram-system. Although developed for men, women also pass through life's four ashramas.