Greatness of retired life

by Swami Prajnanananda
on 16 Feb, 2021

Everyone loves freedom- free to do what one wants or skip doing something unwanted and relax instead. In retired life you have more freedom which others only can dream to have. There is no regimental routine; no compulsion of a work schedule to suit others. It is a great feeling that there is no body above you in the hierarchy of organization to compel you with your time management. Time is not just money; it is much more precious. You have earned enough money to sustain life and now you have your free time which is thousand times more valuable than any material wealth. If you are wise enough, you should get out of the past routine as a first step. Now, you have time to do a lot of things you missed in your life- You can go to the beach and watch the waves of the ocean, sit in a park and listen to birds chirping, visit temples, play with children, chat with friends or just take rest whenever you feel like. You are now free from most restrictions and obligations, be it private or public. 

Every stage of life has its own beauty and inherent advantages. When you lose something, you gain something else. Now you have gained your time, the most precious thing in life. After the experiences faced through the years, time should be more valuable and meaningful. You will find the world and your own self more acceptable if you have properly experienced your active life in the stage of a house holder, playing different roles of mother/father, wife/husband, employer/employee, performer/spectator etc. Generally, withdrawal from any activity is much more difficult than entry. For example, the politicians try to continue in politics and exercise power even after being relieved of all positions in the party and government because it is difficult for them to live without power. Similarly, the corporate leaders, businessmen, engineers, doctors and many others. People want to cling on to the old familiar pattern in some way or other. This is because of poor planning of life and most importantly not understanding the purpose of life itself. In our culture, we have four stages of life each stage well defined for the activities and the end results. Each phase has its objectives and the qualifications to enter and exit. It is like passing the elementary school to enter high school and then the university. Retired life is called vanaprasta ashram, the third phase indicating withdrawal from routine active life of a grihastha (house holder). 

Brahmachari is the first stage where one learns profession and religious way of life. The Brahmachari gets qualified to enter married life as he must follow many rituals and cultural aspects necessary for the house holder stage. In the second stage, the grihasta fulfils his requirements of artha (wealth), kama(pleasure) and punyam or dharma(merits). In this stage, material life has primary role and spiritual life has secondary role. This is because the house holder not only supports his own family but has an obligation to support the people in other stages of life who have no income to support themselves. In the vanaprasta stage (hermit), the priority gradually shifts from preyas(temporary pleasure) to Shreyas(ultimate ananda or immortality).In the fourth stage of sanyasa(monk), life is wholly dedicated to shreyas, the ultimate goal. As it is told in Bhagavad Gita by Lord Krishna, you may continue to remain in the family and pursue knowledge for liberation. Sarva karma sanyasam(actionless state of a jnani) is not inaction. It is not running away from responsibilities. You may opt to be with the family or change your lifestyle as per your past imprints and suitability. You will only have to face different sets of issues in any ashram. Lord Krishna advices the married life with spouse and children for the vast majority of the people as sanyasa requires a great level of maturity and dispassion. Whether you live with your family or go to an isolated place, the purpose must be to shift the focus from material world towards inner growth which is spiritual. 

However, the ‘old age homes’ or the so called ‘senior citizen living’ may not be the best options for managing old age. These are the products of the highly materialistic and competitive society in modern age, forced on the aging population.  Just imagine a society where all the old people live in a separate gated community and similarly the others in the rest of three stages viz kids, youth and middle age also live separately. Is it possible to have such a society in the first place? It is not a good idea for the old people to live only with other elderly and get isolated. If you have a knee problem, the other will have heart problem, the third will have kidney problem. You will be discussing about your health issues most of the times. Is this a healthy way of living? When you are old, you should live with young ones and see the cheerful faces. What is the use of seeing pain, hurt and inability around you?  Even if you happen to live alone or in places like old age homes, you can still move around and interact with kids and youth. It is obvious that in a competitive society your children may have to live away from you for better remuneration or conducive environment. It does not mean that you have nobody else to associate with. You have other children in the neighborhood. They need your help in coaching and sharing your knowledge and experience. You have the best of companions in these young people who can make your life purposeful and cheerful. Instead of complaining about ‘generation gap’, you should make a ‘generation link’ with confidence and live-in harmony and peace. In our culture, everyone interacts and help each other in the street where you live. This is the reason why we still do not have so many psychiatrists to deal with mental problems. That is why Lord Krishna advices Arjuna and the like to take up activities prescribed by the scriptures and get matured. You should live a normal life and interact with kids and young ones until you gradually get matured to accept the reality and withdraw to spend more time with yourself. 

By simply getting away from people you can not remain quiet and peaceful. Perhaps your mind may be more agitated in a lonely place than otherwise. Everyone wants to enjoy the life, not to sit in a corner and brood over or cry. To enjoy, we should know how to enjoy, otherwise every enjoyment will result in misery. Age has nothing to do with your sadness or happiness; it is your attitude and choice that make the difference. In our tradition we all lived in a joint family until recently. In a big family you live with your son, daughter, daughter in law and grandchildren, sometimes even with brothers and their families. The trick is to accommodate others and learn to live without interfering in the freedom of others who live with you. This is not a suggestion to live in big families but to take the idea from there and accommodate others who live with you. It is not possible and not necessary to sit in samadhi all the time. God has not given this human body to simply sit in samadhi 24/7. You should learn to accept things as they come. Whether you live in your own family or with some strange people, there is always a situation where you will have to interact with others. In our hospitable culture, we entertain any stranger at our doorstep seeking food or shelter. ‘Atiti devo bhava’ says the scripture.

Even in the Upanishads, karma and upasana are discussed before introducing self-knowledge. Proper karma with proper attitude is karma yoga. When karma is done as yoga, it gives chitta shuddhi (purity of mind). Upasana gives integrated personality, otherwise known as chitta naishcalyam. Therefore, Adi Shankara in his commentary says that the first volume of Taittireeya upanshid (Shiksha valli) talks about krama and upasana before introducing self-knowledge dealt in the second volume. The retired life is a great gift to lift oneself up to the final goal of life. Generally, people have a lot of things to complain. If it rains for two days they whine, “it is always raining here, I cannot go out”. If there are a few visitors they rant, “Always someone comes and disturbs my work”. If there is no one, they will say, “No one cares, I am alone”. Even when nothing is happening, they complain about ‘nothing happening, boring’. With old age complaints will become more frequent and intense due to the fast-changing world and deteriorating health. If you have not done your karmas well in your grihasta ashrama, the complaints only grow. Therefore life lived in every stage must produce maturity. The struggles of school life, marriage and parentage should enable one to gain internal growth.

nbsp;At least, in the retired life you have enough time to sit back and review your life and fill up the gaps. It is never too late. This complaining nature must be resolved. Again, the Upanishad comes to our rescue. There is a clear guidance in Taittireeiya Upanishad (Section 11 of First volume). When the student leaves the gurukulam after 12 years of learning, the teacher gives the student the following instructions before he gets married: “Speak the truth. Follow dharma. May you not deviate from the study of vedas. May you not break the family lineage. May you not deviate from dharma, your own wellbeing, from propitious activities, from the duty and teaching of vedas. May you not deviate from the worship of deities and ancestors. May your mother, father, teacher and the guest to be gods to you. The right actions are to be followed, not the improper ones. Charity should be given with respect, in plenty with concern. If you have any doubt regarding conduct, follow what the wise people with experience committed to dharma do. This is the injunction of sruti and smriti. Life must be led in this manner.”

It is interesting to note that saint Patanjali, in his yoga sutras, follow this principle of step-by-step progress in life. Pratyahara, withdrawal from sense objects is the fifth step of the eight steps of the ashtanga yoga. In this stage, gradually the senses and mind turn inward instead of going outward to sense objects. This results in self-control and makes one fit for the next three internal steps of dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Saint Patanjali follows the teaching of the vedas and instructs the yoga students to follow the steps of yama and niyama before asana practice. Then comes pranayama and pratyahara. As found in the commandments of vedas and in smritis, yama and niyama also advice the values of non-violence, truth, non-stealing, celibacy, non-acquisition, purity, contentment, penance, svadyaya (study of scriptures) and offering to the Lord.

If one has followed the above advice of the scriptures in life before retirement, such a person would be ready for the vanaprasta ashrama and be peaceful on retirement, not worried about old age or loneliness. Learning from others and contributing to the society makes life meaningful. These two activities never stop in the transactional world. You may have to learn a few new things in the ever changing world. Have self confidence that you can do it, never give up easily and become lazy. You came alone and you will leave alone, all other things happen in between. Dependence makes you weaker. No one can take your pains as substitute. When you can walk, do not sit back and do not lie down when you can sit. Do not seek help when you can do small physical works like washing, cleaning, cooking milk and gardening. The created world is not different from the creator, the Lord. The effect is not different from the cause. Gold chain, the effect is not different from the cause gold, in essence. There cannot be a gold chain without gold. The glory of God is manifest in everything you find around you. 

The entire creation is a package of duality such as pleasure and pain, day and night. If you can see the law of the Lord in everything, you will be able to appreciate life. You can now see the glory of God in whatever you missed in your earlier life-in music, in sport, in the sun rise, in the flow of river and so on. Gradually you will have the maturity to accept the world and your physical and mental status as they are. However, gradual withdrawal from routine active life is a must for everyone to face the fall of the body smoothly and gracefully. A wise person is neither worried about death nor desperate to end life to avoid pains because it is only the body that falls not the jivatma, the individual. The jiva will continue the journey with a new appropriate body commensurate to the punya and papas earned. Further, in the vanaprasta ashrama if one dedicates the life to study of Vedanta, such a one is blessed to reach even the highest goal of life which is-liberation from bondage, the cycle of birth and death. Retired life is the time you can learn to go beyond time, by recognizing that timeless peace in you. This is the time to discover your true nature which is absolute peace and happiness.

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