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Sanatana Dharma, the eternal faith...
Sanatana Dharma - "The Eternal Dharma (Ethos, Law, Values)" is the traditional name of Hinduism, alludes to the idea that certain spiritual principles hold true forever, transcending man-made constructs and representing a pure science of consciousness. This consciousness is not merely that of the body or mind and intellect, but of a transcendental state that exists within and beyond our somatic existence, the unsullied 'Soul' of all. Religion to the Hindu is the eternal search for the divine Brahman, translated as the "Supreme Immanent and Transcendent Truth" or the Cosmic Spirit. Hinduism is based on the practice of Dharma, the code of life. Hinduism has no founder. The greatness of Hinduism is its Freedom of Thoughts and Actions. According to Hinduism, all existence, from vegetation to mankind, are subject to the eternal Dharma, which is the natural law. Even Heaven - Svarga Loka and Hell - Naraka Loka are temporary. Liberation from material existence and the cycle of birth and death to join, reach or develop a relationship with the "universal spirit", is known as Moksha, which is the ultimate goal of all Hindus.
Basic themes common to the value system of Hindus are the belief in Dharma - individual ethics, duties and obligations. Samsara - Reincarnation or rebirth, Karma - "actions", leading to a cause-and-effect relationship, and Moksha - salvation for every soul through a variety of paths, such as Bhakti - devotional service, Karma - selfless action and Jñana - enlightenment, knowledge, Raja - meditation and belief in God - Ishvara. Reincarnation, or the soul's transmigration through a cycle of birth and death until it attains Moksha, is governed by Karma. Anyone who search after truth is a Hindu. There is One and only God and One Truth. Hinduism teaches universal peace, brotherhood and tolerance of other religions, as expressed in the Rig Veda verse:
"Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudha Vadanti" - Rig Veda 1:164:46
There is only one truth, only men describe it in different ways
Hindus believe in One and Only God - Brahman which expresses itself in trillions of forms. God is nameless and timeless. But there is nothing wrong to worship a God with name and form (nama-roopa), since man cannot conceive anything without any name and form. In fact, in the Shruti scriptures of Hinduism, God or Brahman has been described as Saguna Brahman (God-Brahman with attributes) as well as Nirguna Brahman (God-without attributes. In the Upanishads, God is described as Neti-Neti (not this-not that) method.
Hinduism is more a way of life than a specific religion. In Hinduism one can find all religions of the world. The most important aspect of Hinduism is being truthful to oneself. Hinduism has no monopoly on ideas. It is open to all. Hindus believe in one God expressed in different forms. For them, God is timeless and form less entity. Hindus believe in eternal truths and these truths are opened to anyone who seeks them, even if he or she is ignorant of Hindu scripture or ideas. This religion also professes Non-violence - "Ahimsa Paramo Dharma" - Non violence is the highest duty. True Ahimsa implies curtsey, kindness, hospitality, humanity and love.
During the time of Upanishads, when the Hindu Rishis (scientists of that day) said there is only One God - Brahman, they found out that laymen could not understand that concept. So they wrote Itihasas (epics) and Puranas [mythological stories] filled with many gods, with the concept that when you worship any God form, you are actually worshiping one and only God Brahman. Lord Krishna reiterated that point by saying, "Call me by what ever name you like; Worship me in any form you like; All that goes to One and Only Supreme Reality." So a Hindu when worshiping any God form is actually worshiping One and Only God Brahman.
A Hindu can worship as many Gods and Goddesses as he wants because
Hindus believe that all forms of Gods and Goddesses are the manifestations of one god or power.
At the time of death, the body dies but the soul never dies. The soul passes from one body to another after the death, like a body changes clothes, the soul goes on taking endless number of bodies; until it pays off all the karmas attached to the soul. The path the soul takes is decided by the past actions which as popularly known as "Karmas". After death the soul seeks an ideal body to be born again. So if you are born rich or poor - it is because of your actions in your previous life. Thus the journey of life continues and death with karmas attached to it from one life to another by undergoing pain or pleasure. The different methods of god realization provide an easy way to put an end to the drama. Then the individual soul, which is called "Jeevatman", will merge with Absolute Soul or Infinite Power [God], popularly known as "Paramatman". This merging process is called Salvation or Enlightment.
Rituals or Samskaras:
Rituals are basically an art of worshipping the God. Vedic Rituals are called Samskaras, means refinement are carried out throughout the whole life cycle. Hinduism prescribes both ritual and spiritual practices for the final liberation of men. The ritual aspect is meant to make man more spiritual in the end. Each and every important event in the life a Hindu, who has chosen to lead a normal householder's life calls for the performance of certain rites. These rites are intended mainly to invoke the blessings of various gods and ensure success in the performance of his ordained duties. They are performed during various stages in his life for different ends. There are 16 Samskaras, details below:
Ritual to guarantee conception
Ritual to protect fetus and to have a boy
Ritual at the last month of pregnancy
Preparation of astrological chart of child
Naming the child
Taking the child out of the house for the first time
First feeding of rice to the child
First cutting of hair of the child
Boring ear lobes of the child
Beginning of child learning alphabets
Wearing of holy threads by boys
Commencement of the Vedic studies
First shaving of the child's head
Home coming after completion of Vedic Studies
Marriage Rituals
Funeral rituals
Rituals at the time of death, these lasts for 12 days and is carried out to ensure that the departed soul is at ease and it goes to heaven where there are lesser difficulties.
Tirtha Yatra
Ritual of going to holy places for purification and redemption from sin.
The Vedas are the main scriptural texts of Sanatana Dharma, and are large corpus of texts originating in Ancient India. Veda means knowledge, the word Veda came from the root word "vid" meaning "to know". The Vedas, regarded as ?ruti - meaning what was heard by or revealed, form part of an oral tradition in the form of an ancient teacher-disciple tradition. As per Hindu tradition the Vedas were 'revealed' to the Rishis referred to in the texts, not composed or written by them. Even though many historians have tried to affix dates to the Vedas there is as yet no common consensus as there is for the scriptures of other religions. The Vedas are arguably the oldest surviving oral traditions in the world. They were never written down until the time of Krishna around 3500 B.C. According to Kanchi Madom even an enquiry into how old is Vedas, is improper because they are eternal truths. The Vedanta and Mimamsa schools of Hindu philosophy assert that the Vedas are apaurusheya -"unauthored", that is, they have neither human nor divine origin, and are eternal in nature. As per Hindu tradition, the sage Vedavyasa divided the Vedas into Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sama-Veda, and Atharva-Veda at the beginning of the Kali Yuga. The 4 Vedas are:
Rig Veda
Knowledge of Hymns 10589 verses
Go to Rig Veda page for details
Yajur Veda
Knowledge of Liturgy 3988 verses
Go to Yajur Veda page for details
Sama Veda
Knowledge of Music 1549 verses
Go to Sama Veda page for details
Atharva Veda
Knowledge given by Sage Athrvana 6000 Verses
Go to Atharva Veda page for details
The Brahmanas are part of the Shruti; They are composed in Vedic Sanskrit, and the period of their composition is sometimes referred to as the Brahmanic period or age approximately between 900 BCE and 500 BCE. They are essentially commentaries of the Vedas, explaining Vedic ritual. The earliest Brahmanas may have been written several centuries earlier, contemporary to the Yajurveda commentary prose, but they have only survived in fragments. Each Brahmana is associated with one of the four Vedas, and within the tradition of that Veda with a particular shakha or school:
Rig Veda - Shakala shakha: Aitareya Brahmana & Bashkala shakha: Kaushitaki Brahmana
Sama Veda - Kauthuma & Jayminiya - Jayminiya Brahmana
Yajur Veda - Krishna - Maitrayani,Carakakatha, Kapisthalakatha & Taittiriya Brahmana
Yajur Veda - Shukla - Vajasaneyi Madhyandina: Shatapatha Brahmana, Madhyadina & Kanva: Shatapatha Brahmana, Kanva recension
Atharva Veda - Paippalada: Gopatha Brahmana
The Aranyakas are part of the Sruti; these religious scriptures are sometimes argued to be part of either the Brahmanas or Upanishads. The name translates to "the forest books", meaning, treatises for hermits or sadhus living in the wilderness. This contrasts with the grhyasutras, treatises intended for domestic life. Their language is early Classical Sanskrit, and together with the bulk of the Upanishads, the Aranyakas form the basis of Vedanta, roughly dating to a few centuries before the Common Era.
The Aranyakas discuss philosophy and sacrifice. They are believed to have originated with the various mystical ascetic groups that developed in post-Vedic India. The Aranyakas constitute a more philosophical and mystical interpretation of the themes presented in the Vedas, as opposed to the Brahmanas, which were primarily concerned with the proper performance of ritual. Like the Upanishads, the Aranyakas may have initially constituted a secret or hidden teaching, not in the sense of being forbidden or restricted, but rather being both a non-obvious expansion on the themes of the Vedas and a teaching that was primarily conveyed individually from teacher to student. The Aranyakas are associated with and named after individual Vedic shakhas:

Aitareya Aranyaka belongs to the Shakala Shakha of Rigveda
Taittiriya Aranyaka belongs to the Taittiriya Shakha of Krishna-Yajurveda
Katha Aranyaka belongs to the Katha-Charaka Shakha of the Krishna-Yajurveda
Kaushitaki Aranyaka belongs to the Kaushitaki and Shankhayana Shakhas of Rigveda
Maitrayaniya Aranyaka belongs to the Maitrayaniya Shakha of Krishna-Yajurveda
Talavakara Aranyaka belongs to the Talavakara or Jaiminiya Shakha of Samaveda

The Atharvaveda has no surviving Aranyaka, although indications are that there did exist Araynaka works attached to this Veda in the past.
The Upanishads also known as Vedanta and Srutisira are part of the Vedas and primarily discuss philosophy, meditation and nature of God; they form the core spiritual thought of Vedantic Hinduism. The Upanishads are mystic or spiritual contemplations of the Vedas, their putative end and essence, and thus known as Vedanta - "the end or culmination of the Vedas". The Upanishads were composed over several centuries. The roots of many Indian religions are built upon the foundation of the Upanishads. The term Upanishad means literally "those who sit near" and implies listening closely to the secret doctrines of a spiritual teacher.
The Upanishads are also called the Vedanta. The literary meaning of Vedanta is "the end of the Vedas." But the spiritual meaning of Vedanta is "the cream of the Vedas, the pick of the inner lore, the aim, the goal of the inner life. In the Upanishads the spiritual meanings of the Vedic texts are brought out and emphasized in their own right. According to our Indian tradition, there were once one thousand one hundred and eighty Upanishads. Each came from one branch, shakha, of the Vedas. Out of these, two hundred Upanishads made their proper appearance, and out of these two hundred, one hundred and eight Upanishads are now traceable.
The thirteen principal Upanishads are: Isha, Katha, Kena, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Chandogya, Brhadaranyaka, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Svetasvatara, Kaivalya, and Maitri. The message of the Upanishads is the life divine, the life of transformed humanity, and the life of an illumined earth-consciousness. The Upanishads tell us that the renunciation of desire-life is the fulfilling enjoyment of world-existence. This renunciation is neither self-denial nor self-rejection. This renunciation demands the transcendence of ego to breathe in freely the life-energy of the soul and yet to live a dynamic and active life in the world where one can achieve Infinity's Height, Eternity's Delight, and Immortality's Light.
Upanishads are texts revealing ultimate truths by different saints. Upanishads teach that there is One and Only thing that is BRAHMAN. You and I are just reflections of Brahman. Or we are indeed God... Upanishads teach us "Tat Tvam Asi" - That Thou Art. In fact, the word Upanishad can be broken down as upa (near) ni (down) shad (sit) meaning that teachings of Upanishads were conveyed from masters to students when students sat very next to masters and nobody overheard those teachings.


Upa Vedas
The Vedanga are six Angas, explanatory limbs or auxiliary disciplines for understanding Vedas. They are Vedic supplements. The Vedangas are first mentioned in the Mundaka Upanishad as topics to be observed by students of the Vedas. Later, they developed into independent disciplines, each with its own corpus of Sutras.
The word, Upa-Veda, comes from 'Upa' - subsidiary and 'Veda' - sacred knowledge. The Upa-Vedas are like appendices to the knowledge of the Vedas. A class of texts on sacred sciences, composed by rishis over the course of time to amplify and apply the Vedic knowledge.
Phonetics and phonology (sandhi)
Hindu science of health and longevity
Dharnur Veda
Hindu science of archery and war
Sanskrit grammar
Gandharva Veda
Hindu science of Music
Artha Shastra
Hindu science of governing by Kings
Rituals and legal matters  
Astrology and Astronomy
Darsanas are schools of philosophy based on the Vedas. The Agamas are theological. The Darsana literature is philosophical. The Darsanas are meant for the erudite scholars who are endowed with acute acumen, good understanding, power of reasoning and subtle intellect. The Itihasas, Puranas and Agamas are meant for the masses. The Darsanas appeal to the intellect, while the Itihasas, Puranas, etc., appeal to the heart. Philosophy has six divisions—Shad-Darsana—the six Darsanas or ways of seeing things, usually called the six systems or six different schools of thought. The six schools of philosophy are the six instruments of true teaching or the six demonstrations of Truth. Each school has developed, systematised and correlated the various parts of the Vedas in its own way. Each system has its Sutrakara, i.e., the one great Rishi who systematised the doctrines of the school and put them in short aphorisms or Sutras
Sage Gautama wrote Nyaya sutras
Sage Kanada wrote Vaisheshika sutra
Sage Kapila Gita starts with this philosophy
Sage Patanjali wrote Patanjali Yogasutra
Sage Jaimini wrote Mimamsa Sutra
Sage Veda Vyasa
Gautama Rishi systematised the principles of Nyaya or the Indian logical system. Kanada composed the Vaiseshika Sutras. Kapila Muni founded the Sankhya system. Patanjali Maharshi is the first systematiser of the Yoga school; he composed his Yoga Sutras. The Yoga-Darsana of Patanjali is a celebrated text-book on Raja Yoga. Jaimini, a disciple of Vyasa, composed the Sutras of the Mimamsa school which is based on the ritual-sections of the Vedas. Badarayana composed his famous Vedanta-Sutras or Brahma-Sutras which expound the teachings of the Upanishads. The different schools of the Vedanta have built their philosophy on the foundation of these Sutras.
Vedanta is a school of philosophy. The word Vedanta is a compound of veda "knowledge" and anta "end, conclusion", translating to "the culmination of the Vedas". Ved?nta is also called Uttara Mimamsa, or the latter enquiry, and is often paired with Purva Mimamsa, the former enquiry. Purva Mimamsa, usually simply called Mimamsa, deals with explanations of the fire-sacrifices of the Vedic mantras, in the Samhita portion of the Vedas and Brahmanas, while Vedanta explicates the esoteric teachings of the ?ra?yakas and the Upanishads, composed from ca. the 6th century BC until modern times.
Vedanta is one of the world's most ancient religious philosophies and one of its broadest. Based on the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India, Vedanta affirms the oneness of existence, the divinity of the soul, and the harmony of religions. Vedanta is the philosophical foundation of Hinduism; but while Hinduism includes aspects of Indian culture, Vedanta is universal in its application and is equally relevant to all countries, all cultures, and all religious backgrounds.
The Vedanta is the most satisfactory system of philosophy. It has been evolved out of the Upanishads. It has superseded all other schools. The Mimamsa school has laid great stress on rituals, or Karma Kanda. According to the Mimamsa school, Karma or ritual is all-in-all in the Veda. Upasana (worship) and Jnana (knowledge) are only accessories to Karma. This view is refuted by the Vedanta school. According to the Vedanta, Self-realisation (Jnana) is the foremost thing, and ritual and worship are accessories. Karma will take one to heaven which is only an impermanent place of refined sensual enjoyment. Karma cannot destroy the cycle of births and deaths, and cannot give eternal bliss and immortality.
Advaita Vedanta is a sub-school of the Vedanta, the other major sub-schools being Dvaita and Visishtadvaita. Advaita literally non-duality is often called a monistic system of thought. The word "Advaita" essentially refers to the identity of the Self - Atman and the Whole - Brahman. The key source texts for all schools of Vedanta are the Prasthanatrayi - the canonical texts consisting of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Brahma Sutras. The first person to explicitly consolidate the principles of Advaita Vedanta was Adi Shankara.
Dvaita originally called Tattvavada, founded by Shri Madhvacharya, stresses a strict distinction between God - Vishnu and the individual living beings - jivas. According to Madhva, souls are not 'created' by God but do, nonetheless depend on him for their existance. Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami explains dualism in his book, Dancing with Siva, by stating that in dualism, God is seen as the efficient cause of the universe and not as the material cause. He is the potter causing the clay to emerge, rather than serving as the source of the clay itself.
Vishishtadvaita is monism of the qualified whole, in which Brahman alone exists, but is characterised by multiplicity. It is a school of Vedanta philosophy which believes in all diversity subsuming to an underlying unity. Ramanuja, the main proponent of Visishtadvaita philosophy contends that the Prasthana Traya i.e. the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and The Brahma Sutras are to be interpreted in way that shows this unity in diversity, for any other way would violate their consistency. Visishtadvaita philosophy of Ramanuja provided the philosophical basis for the establishment of Sri Vaishnavism and gave Vedantic backing to the brimming devotion of the Alwar saints and their composition of wonderful poetry and devotional songs in praise of Lord Vishnu. VisishtAdvaita, which stands for "Advaita, qualified by chit-achit visishtam" is a non-dualistic school of Vedanta philosophy.
Itihasa, literally meaning that which happened is the word for History. The word is often used within India to refer to Hindu Epics, Mahakavyas such as Ramayana and Mahabharata.
One of the most important literary works on ancient India, the Ramayana has had a profound impact on art and culture in the Indian Subcontinent. The story of Rama also inspired a large amount of later-day literature in various languages. Valmiki's Ramayana, the oldest and most widely read version of Ramayana is the basis of all the various version of Ramayana that are prevalent in the various cultures. Valmiki Ramayana has been traditionally divided into seven books, dealing with the life of Rama from his birth to his death.
In his Ramayana, Valmiki expresses his view of human code of conduct through Rama: life is evanescent and the hedonistic approach to it is meaningless. However, that should not allow one to be indifferent to one's own rights and duties laid down in the ancient texts. He thus adopts the view that Dharma is what is proclaimed in the Veda and it should be followed for its own sake, not for what it brings you in pain or pleasure. Doing this will ensure one's welfare in this and the next world. In addition, Ramayana also reinforces the need for thinking about the consequences before making promises, for if you make them you must keep them, no matter how hard it may be.
With its vast philosophical depth and sheer magnitude, a consummate embodiment of the ethos of not only India but of Hinduism and Vedic tradition, the Mahabharata's scope and grandeur is best summarized by one quotation from the beginning of its first parva (section): "What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere."
In its scope, the Mahabharata is more than simply a story of kings and princes, sages and wisemen, demons and gods; its author, Vyasa, says that one of its aims is elucidating the four goals of life: kama (pleasure), artha (wealth), dharma (duty) and moksha (liberation). The story culminates in moksha, believed by many Hindus to be the ultimate goal of human beings. Karma and dharma play an integral role in the Mahabharata.
The epic is traditionally ascribed to Maha Rishi Veda Vyasa, who is one of the major dynastic characters within the epic. The first section of the Mahabharata states that it was Ganesha who, at the behest of Vyasa, fixed the text in manuscript form. Lord Ganesha is said to have agreed, but only on condition that Vyasa never pause in his recitation. Vyasa then put a counter-condition that Ganesha understand whatever he recited, before writing it down. In this way Vyasa could get some respite from continuously speaking by saying a verse which was difficult to understand.
Apart from 18 parvas there is a section of poems in the form of an appendix with 16,375 verses which is known as Harivamsa Parva. So in total there are 19 Parvas, even though many saints do not consider the last Parva as an important parva. The Bhagavad Gita is part and parcel of Mahabharata.
The most important part of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-Gita. It is a marvellous dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna on the battle-field, before the commencement of the great war. Bhagavan Sri Krishna became the charioteer of Arjuna. Sri Krishna explained the essentials of Hindu religion to Arjuna. Just as the Upanishads contain the cream of the Vedas, so does the Gita contain the cream of the Upanishads. The Gita is the most precious jewel of Hindu literature. It is a universal gospel. The Gita teaches the Yoga of Synthesis. It ranks high in the religious literature of the world.
Yoga Vasishtha is an ancient scripture narrated by sage Vasistha to Rama. A unique and an extremely profound discourse, that provides innumerable insights and secrets to the inner world of consciousness. This extremely huge scripture covers all the topics that relate to the spiritual study of a seeker. This scripture is a must read for anyone trying to understand the concepts of consciousness, creation of the world, the multiple universes in this world, our perception of world, dissolution of the world and the liberation of this soul. Yoga Vasistha propounds that everything from the blade of grass to the universes is all but consciousness alone. There is naught else but consciousness. It expounds the non-dual approach to this creation.
Rama, the eldest son of Dasaratha, after completing a piligrimage of holy places returns to the palace. He is constantly found wandering in thoughts and completely disenchanted with the worldly life and the pleasures of the kingdom. This surprises and concerns the father king dasaratha. One day, in his court arrives the great sage Visvamitra. Visvamitra requests Dasaratha to send Rama with him while he conducts his yagna. He wants Rama to fight the demons who would disrupt the yagna. When Dasaratha expresses his other concern about Rama's sudden change in behaviour. Vasistha then asks for Rama to be brought before him. Rama is then brought to the palace and king Dasaratha asks Rama, as to what is bothering him? Rama then explains his disenchantment with the worldly things and expresses sadness at the miserable life as a wordly man. The ensuing answer to Rama's questions forms the entire scripture that is Yoga Vasistha.
Harivamsa, in Sanskrit "the dynastic history of Hari ie. Vishnu", is a Hindu mythological text written in Sanskrit. Harivamsa is a kind of appendix to the Mahabharata, that runs to 16,375 verses and focuses specifically on the life of Lord Krishna. Along with the Ramaya?a and Yogavasishtha, the Harivamsa is considered to belong to the category of Hindu scripture known as itihasa, or 'history'. Harivamsa takes its name from Hari, the well-known epithet of Vishnu, of whom Krishna is considered to be an avatar. Harivamsa includes many details of Krishna's youth and upbringing not found elsewhere in Hindu itihaas.
Purana, meaning "ancient" or "old" is the name of a genre, or a group of related genres of Indian written literature as distinct from oral literature. Its general themes are history, tradition and religion. It is usually written in the form of stories related by one person to another. Puranas are called the Vedas of the common folk, for they present the mysteries through myth and legend.
They have five characteristics (Pancha-Lakshana) viz., history, cosmology (with various symbolical illustrations of philosophical principles), secondary creation, genealogy of kings and of Manvantaras. All the Puranas belong to the class of Suhrit-Samhitas. The Puranas were written to popularise the religion of the Vedas. They contain the essence of the Vedas. The aim of the Puranas is to impress on the minds of the masses the teachings of the Vedas and to generate in them devotion to God, through concrete examples, myths, stories, legends, lives of saints, kings and great men, allegories and chronicles of great historical events. The sages made use of these things to illustrate the eternal principles of religion. The Puranas were meant, not for the scholars, but for the ordinary people who could not understand high philosophy and who could not study the Vedas.
There are eighteen main Puranas and an equal number of subsidiary Puranas or Upa-Puranas. The main Puranas are:
Six puranas addressed to Lord Vishnu are:
1-Vishnu Purana
2-Narada Purana
3-Srimad Bhavata Purana
4-Garuda Purna
5-Padma Purana
6-Varaha Purana
Six Puranas --addressed to Lord Siva are:
1-Matsya Purana
2-Kurma Purana
3-Linga Purana
4-Vayu Purana
5-Skanda Purana
6-Agni Purana
Six Puranas addressed to Lord Brahma are:
1-Brahma Purana
2-Brahanda Purana
3-Brahma-Vaivasvata Puranaor Brahma-Vaivarta Purana
4-Markandeya Purana
5-Bhavishya Purana
6-Vamana Purana
The best among the Puranas are the Srimad Bhagavata and the Vishnu Purana. The most popular is the Srimad Bhagavata Purana. The Srimad Bhagavata Purana is a chronicle of the various Avataras of Lord Vishnu.
The eighteen Upa-Puranas are: Sanatkumara, Narasimha, Brihannaradiya, Sivarahasya, Durvasa, Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya, Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesa and Hamsa.

Ashramas: The four stages of life
In Hinduism, human life is believed to comprise four stages. These are called "Ashramas" and every man should ideally go through each of these stages. Meritorious way of life particular to each of the four stages of life, following which one lives in harmony with nature and life, allowing the body, emotions and mind to develop and undergo their natural cycles in a most positive way. The four stages may be said to represent periods of Preparation, Production, Service and Retirement. Deeper Hindu thinking suggests, however, that there is also a natural progression of these values so that one should grow toward more fundamental interests. This movement toward more enduring and satisfying values has been institutionalized in the understanding of the four stages of life.
Brahmacharya: The Celibate Student
This is a period of formal education. Student, usually between 12 and 24 years of age, during which, the young male leaves home to stay with a guru and attain both spiritual and practical knowledge. During this period, he is called a brahmachari, and is prepared for his future profession, as well as for his family, and social and religious life ahead. The goal is to acquire knowedge, build character and learn to shoulder resonsibilities.
Grihastha: The Married Family Man
This period begins when a man gets married, and undertakes the responsibility for earning a living and supporting his family. At this stage, Hinduism supports the pursuit of wealth (artha) as a necessity, and indulgence in sexual pleasure (kama), under certain defined social and cosmic norms. This ashrama lasts until around the age of 50. According to the Laws of Manu, when a person's skin wrinkles and his hair greys, he should go out into the forest. However, in real life, most Hindus are so much in love with this second ashrama that the Grihastha stage lasts a lifetime! This stage of the householder after the 'Gurukula Vasa' he graduates himself into the mundane world, taking a wife to assist him in his performance of Dharmic duties. People in the other three Ashramas heavily lean on the Grihasta for support and sustenance required to carry out their respective duties. The Grihasta earns his livelihood by whatever a vocation befitting his being a member of his group, raising children, supporting his own family, kith and kin besides the persons performing their duties in the other three Ashramas. In this ashrama an individual pays three debts - service of God, serving sages and saints and to ancestors and enjoys good and noble things in life in accordace with Artha-Kama-Moksha.
Vanaprastha: The Hermit in Retreat
This stage of a man begins when his duty as a householder comes to an end: A stage comes when business, family, secular life like the beauties and hopes of youth have exhausted themselves and need to be left behind. Become a grandfather, his children are grown up, and have established lives of their own. At this age, he should renounce all physical, material and sexual pleasures, retire from his social and professional life, leave his home, and go to live in a forest hut, spending his time in prayers. He is allowed to take his wife along, but is supposed to maintain little contact with the family. This kind of life is indeed very harsh and cruel for an aged person. No wonder, this third ashrama is now nearly obsolete. This stage of Elder Advisor usually between 48 and 72 years of age. The person retires usually from worldly attachments to lead a life of contemplation and meditation alone or with his wife. What life holds beyond middle age depends in the end not on fancy and imagination but on the realities of the values of life we regard as inviolable. Vanaprasta may be termed as the beginning of a person's real 'adult education' to evaluate his performance thus for as Grihasta and reorder his life in such a way as to discover who he is and what life is all about. This is known as ascetic or hermit stage of life. In this stage one gradually withdraws from active life and begins devoting more time to study of scriptures, contemplation and meditation.
Sannyasa: The Wandering Recluse
Fourth stage of an Ascetic - Solitaire - usually beyond 72 years of age. This means 'Samyak Nyasa' - 'Total detachment' from worldly pleasures including the bare necessities to subsist. This is the last 'Ashrama'. He does not aspire to be recognized as somebody who matters - The wish of the Sannyasi is just to be a 'persona non grata'- one who exists almost without giving any thought to his being - with no desire for name or fame or recognition. At this stage, a man is supposed to be totally devoted to God. He is a sannyasi, he has no home, no other attachment; he has renounced all desires, fears and hopes, duties and responsibilities. He is virtually merged with God, all his worldly ties are broken, and his sole concern becomes attaining moksha, or release from the circle of birth and death. Suffice it to say, very few Hindu men can go up to this stage of becoming a complete ascetic. When he dies, the funeral ceremonies-Pretakarma are performed by his son and heir.
Courtsey: www.mailerindia.com
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