New Stage of Life Impending!
The (idealized) Hindu stages of life go something like this:
1) Youth until mid 20s: Celibate studenthood; preparation.
2) Mid 20s to late 40s or so: Householder; career and family; material accumulation.
3) Late 40s (about the time of grandparenthood) to 72: Retreat from worldly responsibilities; attention to spiritual matters; perhaps becoming a forest recluse.
4) 72 (or whenever one feels ready for it) until death (or enlightenment): Wandering ascetic; a life totally devoted to god and searching for relief from the cycle of life and death.
The Western lifecycle goes something like this:
1) Youth until mid 20s (although it is increasingly extended until early 30s): Uncelibate studenthood; sowing wild oats; preparation.
2) Mid 20s/30s to late 60s or so: Career and family; material accumulation.
3) Late 60s until death: Retirement; (ideally) enjoying all that one has accumulated; or perhaps just feeling ill and waiting until death.
In actual practice, the Hindu lifecycle looks more like the Western one. Most Hindus get attached to the second stage and never move on to the third or fourth stages—or else move into a third stage that is more like Western retirement. What is the attraction of this second stage? Is the accumulation of wealth and career really so enticing? Or does it just become a habit that is hard to break? Perhaps we are trapped in it by fear, by our constant worries that we will not have enough money or lose our health, and nobody will take care of us. In the modern world where we have to depend on our own savings rather than family to take care of us, this fear does seem to have a strong basis. But then, maybe we just have lost our ability to appreciate the attractions of the last two stages of the Hindu cycle.
The problem is that the last stage of the Western life is not all that attractive. Many of us spend much of our life preparing for it, and even yearning for it. But then it just marks the end of social relevance, waiting for death. The pinnacle of the Western cycle usually happens sometime in the second stage, or even the first. After that, we just fade away.
The Hindu cycle—idealized as it is—points to a second half of life in which withdrawal from society is linked to spiritual realization, the creation of new meaning. I want to go for it. What am I waiting for? Retirement? That’s too late.