In our modern-day society, we break up our life into four phases: early childhood, adolescence, career, and retirement. Because our priority is economic growth, everything has been set up to support that. Our formative years are to educate us in preparation for a productive work-life, then comes the career itself which dominates our lifespan, and at the end of that is retirement to finally relax into. We are cogs in the economic engine: produce and consume, and if we are good at it then that is defined as success, measured in wealth.
Traditionally spiritual societies approached things a little differently. The priority was not economics, but nurturing life itself within a human being. For example, in India there was the concept of Varnashrama Dharma. This will sound rather foreign to our western notions but from age 0 to 12, a child was just allowed to play. There was no formal education, just natural exploration according to a child’s own inner intuition. We do see some nods to that in Montessori and Charter schools but of course the mainstream educational system puts every child into a very prescribed track at 5 and that is mandated by State law.
From 12 to 24 was the time of discipline and learning. Our modern science is very divisive – everything must be broken down to be understood. But in Varnashrama Dharma, the understanding was that everything is united and One. So, before education came in, a person was invited to see how everything is connected and part of a whole. Instead of instilling competitiveness into children, they were nurtured towards inclusiveness. Education is an empowerment. Knowledge is power – so this power should only be passed on to those who have this foundation of inclusiveness. And today we can see that the world is a product of not heeding this message. Knowledge is in the hands of people who see themselves as exclusive, and that is how all of this inequality has been bred.
Then, from 24 to 48 people would decide to either pursue a householder path, or a spiritual path full-time. At one time about 30% of the Indian population would choose to enter spiritual service. These days that has disappeared from most of the world but we can still see it in places like Bhutan (a Himalayan nation located just east of Nepal, north of India). So not only would spiritual wisdom be preserved in a robust way, because of so many pursuing that path, but also the population growth would naturally control itself because only 70% would have children.
At age 48 the householders would undo their family entanglements for the next 12 years. They would endeavor to free themselves from social and business obligations. All of these attachments that today we identify with, would slowly be let go of. The children would be old enough to take care of themselves and because everyone resided in the same household, the older generation would prepare themselves to leave. Older men and women would enter the ashrams separately and delve deeper into spiritual growth as they approached their 60th year.
At age 60 aging husbands and wives who had spent the prior 12 years apart, now come back together and get married again. The first marriage was physical and emotional. Now it is a marriage of flowering spiritually together, living with and in nature. These twelve-year cycles were aligned with the solar cycles, as we are reflections of the solar system that we inhabit.
Varnashrama Dharma may not be applicable absolutely anymore, but we can still take wisdom from it. We should be consciously aware of these twelve-year cycles and shift between the priorities that drive our lives. The larger trajectory of a life should be towards inclusiveness and spiritual evolution.
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