The Meanings of Life

Awhile back I was introduced to an idea from Hinduism, namely the idea of four discrete life stages, or ashramas. These are defined in the context of what are considered to be the four proper goals for human life, the puruṣārthas. Obviously there are cultural specificities wrapped up in the traditional definitions of these goals and life stages, which don’t necessarily translate to alternative cultural contexts. But I was struck by the idea nonetheless.

The preoccupations of Euro-centric philosophy have tended to be translated into the world of popular culture in the form of the question, “What is the meaning of life?” — as if it would never occur to anyone that life might have multiple meanings. Philosopher Derek Parfit moved the discussion in a more interesting direction when, in his book “Reasons and Persons”, he framed the issue as, “What makes a person’s life go best?” Here is Parfit describing a concept that he finds plausible:

We might claim, for example, that what is good or bad for someone is to have knowledge, to be engaged in rational activity, to experience mutual love, and to be aware of beauty, while strongly wanting just these things.
-Derek Parfit, “Reasons and Person”, p. 502 

I happen not to find this exact concept to be a plausible answer to the question of what makes a person’s life go best, but I appreciate where Parfit takes the question. I find the idea that there are multiple objectively proper pursuits for a human life, and that these can be articulated as such, to be a compelling one. And that is why the idea of the four ashramas and the four puruṣārthas resonated with me.

I’m not going to try to go into depth on these terms, because I am not an expert and I am not Hindu. These ideas are not for me to adopt unless I were to make a proper study and choose to embrace the full tradition, likely including religious conversion. Rather, my intent is to recognize the wisdom apparent in the tradition, and to be stimulated by it to scrutinize the traditional ideas of my own culture, the ideas on which I have the expertise that comes from having marinated in them my entire life.

So, with humility and gratitude for the opportunity to reflect on these ideas, my gloss on the four puruṣārthas is simply this: They posit that a good life entails proper attention to duties and virtues, to agreeable circumstances, to enjoyment, and to personal/spiritual liberation. And I notice at once that this list covers some very similar territory to the hierarchy of needs described by Abraham Maslow:

User:Factoryjoe, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s not to claim that Maslow’s hierarchy is the same as the puruṣārthas, nor even that the puruṣārthas entail any hierarchy at all. But the overlap is clear. Various items in Maslow’s hierarchy could be described in terms of the importance of duties and virtues, or of agreeable circumstances, or of enjoyment, or of personal/spiritual liberation.

Maslow intended his hierarchy to describe his observational insights into human motivation. It is not, strictly speaking, an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” But if we are to consider such a question, is it not insightful to pause and consider what answers are implied by how people tend to act?

For me, this was the crack through which the light of the ashramas came pouring in.

The four ashramas are Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, and Sannyasa. They represent a way of thinking broadly about progress through life, in terms of the commitments, purposes, and attitudes that are proper to each. And again, I am in no position to unpack the full meaning of these; rather, my encounter with them motivates me to consider how the ideas of my own culture differ. The implications of the encounter are my subject here.

Brahmacharya describes the life of the student. Grihastha describes the life of career, marriage, child-rearing — what Americans probably just think of as “adulthood”. Vanaprastha describes a kind of retirement, where one’s responsibilities are fewer and one’s focus in life shifts — notably, from what I earlier called “agreeable circumstances” and “enjoyment”, to personal/spiritual liberation. Sannyasa describes a more thorough renunciation of material life in order to focus fully on those spiritual pursuits.

The key difference that I notice between the ashramas and, shall we say, the American Dream, is that America’s dream does not really concern itself with liberation. The ideas of being a student, having a career, and retirement are certainly part of our vocabulary. But our conception of such things is based, as I see it, on two principles:

  1. In America’s version of Grihastha, you work as hard as you can until retirement, climbing the ladder of responsibility and achievement, accumulating consumer debt but also hopefully net worth, and mostly focusing on duties and agreeable circumstances (which involve things like career success, a nice house, a new car, and the largest possible television). If you happen to cultivate some virtues along the way, so much the better, and if you happen to enjoy yourself, even better still, but responsibility, achievement, and wealth are where it’s at.
  2. In America’s poor substitute for Vanaprastha, you leave your career behind, collect Social Security, take distributions from your 401(k), and focus on enjoying your agreeable retirement circumstances to the utmost. (If certain old financial planning commercials were to be believed, the foremost token of the happy retirement would be your new vineyard.)

If we go back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I think we can see the flaws in the American vision of life more clearly. Obviously our working lives have the purpose of meeting our material needs, to cover the bottom two tiers of the hierarchy. Everybody has to make a living somehow. But we also build our careers with our eyes fixed on Esteem in the fourth tier, so much so that we often neglect our third-tier needs for Love and Belonging. And in the process, we workaholics spend 40, 45, 50 years in those careers, figuring that when retirement comes we will finally slow down and enjoy the fruits of our labors — only to find that our neglect of the third tier isn’t going to be repaired overnight, and that we haven’t actually done the work of personal development, of emotional and psychological and spiritual growth, that opens up the prospect of Self-Actualization.

We spend decades sacrificing our relationships and our better selves on the altar of a long and impressive career that, we hope, will allow us to pay off student loans, a house, maybe fund a few years of travel, and then afford however much long-term care we require before we make our inevitable exit. For those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy more lucrative careers, it might even pan out that way. For others, who struggle to make ends meet in America’s dog-eat-dog world of laissez-faire oligarchic capitalism, they’ll be doing good just to meet their essential needs for food and shelter.

To put it bluntly, the American Dream goes like this: Brahmacharya, Grihastha, dead.

My encounter with the ashramas and the puruṣārthas has not given me an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” But it has made me think that life has multiple dimensions of meaning, and that a focus on each of those different meanings is natural and appropriate in certain phases of life. And it has made me think about how better to balance my own life, so as to attend to the needs for Love and Belonging, and to do the work of personal growth that must go into any aspiration toward Self-Actualization.

In my own life I am very much in the thick of Grihastha. But now I find myself thinking about a future transition to Vanaprastha, ideally much sooner than full retirement age. I contemplate what that new phase of life will be made of: A slowdown in my professional obligations? A new career altogether? Some alternative form of self-employment? And I think about the personal growth involved with gracefully moving from one stage to the next, with releasing myself from one set of concerns to embrace new ones.

Whatever it is that, in Parfit’s terms, “makes a person’s life go best”, it can’t be climbing the ladder for as long as possible. There is a time to climb the ladder, and there is a time to get off wherever you’re at, somewhere interesting, and find something else to do.

And yet, before now, I don’t think I ever even pictured the “career ladder” as anything other than an infinite climb into the stratosphere.

It’s not a beautiful mountain. There’s no amazing view. We don’t climb it “because it’s there.”

We climb it — we get on it, and we climb it, and we keep on climbing it, and keep on climbing it — because we don’t stop to think that there’s something else to do. Brahmacharya, Grihastha, dead.

Now I think about what should come between Grihastha and dead. I’m glad to say I think there’s room for a lot.

2 thoughts on “The Meanings of Life

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