In The World But Not of the World
The ancients knew that it was not possible for most people to become renunciants without going through the experience of a householder. Therefore, they divided life into the four ashramas or stages. The celibate young man who pursued his studies of the scriptures as well as secular science and arts, was called the brahmacharin. A bachelor, he could pursue knowledge without hindrance or cares of the household. When he had completed his studies, he was to choose between a life of total renunciation, which he could adopt and was pre-eminently qualified for, and a householder’s life.
Under most circumstances, he was advised to take up the householder’s life, known as the grihasthashrama. To be a householder didn’t mean to lead a permissive and generally licentious life. A householder was a most respected person. He was a married man with children who earned his living by honest means looked after the family, conducted his daily spiritual duties, such as meditation, study of the scriptures, etc., and above all, contributed to the spiritual heritage, by providing food, clothing and shelter to the wandering mendicants, sannyasins and sadhus. Charity was part of his duty.
After his children had grown up and needed no support from him, he and his wife, who would also be proficient in spiritual matters, would seek quiet spots in and around forests, build a cool thatched hermitage and settle down to a life of tranquil contemplation and deeper study of the Upanishads. That was the stage of vanaprastha. When the vanaprastha, after proper investigation and deep meditation, became qualified to enter the blissful Supreme Consciousness and was convinced by his personal experience of the unreality of the external world when compared to the eternal Brahman, he was free to take sannyas. He then became a renunciants, who was above caste, creed or even sex, a free being with no position whatsoever, eating what chance brought him and sleeping under the trees or under the bare sky, his heart overflowing with the bliss of Brahman. He was a true sanyasin. Having experienced the world of senses, he had deliberately rejected it in favour of the Infinite–endless existence, consciousness, bliss (sat, chit, ananda).
This traditional division of life into stages is all the more relevant today, although, this kind of sannyas is now difficult. Where are the householders who willingly support sannyasins? There may only be a very few! So many frauds have worn the ochre, that the ordinary man in the street is likely to abuse even a genuine sannyasin who begs for his food. And he is of course justified. Nobody loves to be taken for a ride.