This paper was presented at
Psychology: The Indian Contribution
National Conference on
Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness
organised by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
Pondicherry, India, 10-13 December 2004

(click to enlarge)

Vanaprastha- An Experiment, A Way Of Life

Rajalakshmi.N.P & Dr. Devi Balakrishnan
PSG College of Arts and Science
Coimbatore

Abstract

In the present day world of growing population and technology there are a group of individuals who are trying to find their places in the society all over again. They are the aged or senior citizens. This study is an overview about ‘Vanaprastha’ which began as a unique experiment in community living by senior citizens. The study aims at finding potential areas of research in such communities for social scientists in the Indian context.

The population of the study was individuals living in this community complex. They are all above the age of fifty and members of both sex live here. The community and their residents were observed and a few of them were interviewed.

The study brought out many potential areas of research such as the physical, physiological and psychological characteristics of the old aged, their social functioning, their religious and spiritual interests and pursuits, and paranormal phenomenon. Further comparative studies can be conducted to understand the benefits and limitations of living in such communities.

The present study presents a plethora of opportunities for research in the area of old age, living situations for the aged and effects of spiritual practices.

Introduction

The population of the present day is going through changes in its constitution, attitudes and life style. An integral and growing part of the population are the ‘golden agers’. They live in an “age of ageism*” (*prejudice against the old, term coined by Butler). With the ever increasing speed of present day life and movement towards nuclear families, the aged are being sidelined and their lives take a back seat. Instead of a relaxed life to reminiscing about their past life and enjoying their time they are forced either to indulge in the fast routines of their children or live in old age institutions.

The Indian of the yesteryears, way back, had chartered a certain way of life to guide an individual and setting him guidelines to act upon. This brings us to the concept of “ashrama dharma”. Hindu way of life recognizes four ashramas or stages in the life of a human being. They are brahmacharya (stage of studentship), grihasta (the stage of a householder), vanaprastha (stage of a forest dweller) and sanyasa (stage of renunciation).

A vanaprastha (from Sanskrit vana, forest, and prus, dwelling) is a person who is living in the forest as a hermit after partially giving up material desires, the person is in a retreat from worldly life. This stage denotes a transition phase from material to spiritual life. It is the third in the four phases of a man.

Vanaprastha or the stage of forest dweller begins when a person has discharged his family duties and when his children are in a position to look after themselves. In ancient times when this stage came, a householder usually entrusted his family properties and responsibilities to his children, and went to a forest along with his wife to live there and work for his spiritual progress. Again in modern life it may be difficult for many people to give up life and go to a forest.

But it is possible to bring some fundamental changes in ones lifestyle and pace of living and rearrange ones priorities in life. Actually this is a phase of review and reflection and very crucial from a spiritual perspective. It is however important to note that a person cannot escape from the burdens of life if he has many responsibilities to discharge. For example if he has growing children or ailing wife, he cannot abandon them and escape into some monastery.

The present study is an overview of an old age community called ‘Vanaprastha’, which provides a similar living situation, their life style, their spiritual practices and their view on this life. This facility is a unique experiment in community living by senior citizens. The objective of this study is to identify potential areas of research in such communities for future research projects in the Indian context.

About Vanaprastha

‘Vanaprastha’ has been formed as a trust. The trust planned at building a community where the aged could have companionship yet maintain their individuality and continue their lifestyle and enrich its quality. The community has been located idyllically near the foothills of Marudhamalai.

The community consists of bungalows surrounded by flower and vegetable gardens. There is a central hall which functions as a prayer hall, dining hall and has an attached common kitchen. The maintenance of the complex is done commonly. They also have visiting doctors, plumbers, electricians, cleaners and gardeners. There is a pyramid built for meditation and a reading room is available with a collection of books mostly on areas of interest of the residents. For travel, a van is present in the campus.

In the community, group activities take place such as a music club, bhajans and festivals are celebrated collectively. They have lectures on health, philosophy and other areas of interest. They also spend time on games, take courses on pranayama, meditation (Anapanasati form), art of living and some take classes on Sanskrit, Vedas, bhajans, etc from other residents. They are also involved in social service or community building activities by offering essential medical services to nearby villages and by adopting the nearby government school.

The uniqueness is in the system in which the community is formed. The complex accommodates individuals above the age of 50 years. There are twin buildings each being independent. The cottages, as they are called, are allotted on lease and cannot be rented or sold. The maintenance and food expenses are shared. If they wish they can cook in their houses also. The individuals can choose to have one or two bedroom cottages so that their children can stay with them when they visit. On the demise of one person the spouse can still stay in the cottage and on their demise the children can utilize the facility.

The residents act cooperatively and periodic meetings are held and constant efforts are taken to enhance the quality of life. They also have an in-house journal called Vanaprastha Flashes. The members have tie ups with a hospital and bank to provide them quick and easy service.

They consider spirituality as a tool for enrichment of life. The complex also has a pyramid which is used as a meditation centre for which they had received training. The ultimate aim of this community is health, harmony and happiness.

Aim

This study is to have a bird’s eye view of the system in ‘Vanaprastha’ and to uncover prospective areas of research.

Methods Used

The population of this study consisted of the residents of the complex ‘Vanaprastha’.

Information was collected from the pamphlets of the complex, observation and interview of some of the residents of the complex.

On the basis of the information collected discussions were done with individuals from the field of social sciences to unearth areas of valuable research.

Since this study is preliminary and exploratory in nature and aims to gather information no hypothesis is being framed.

Discussion

This attempt at gathering preliminary information has thrown light on certain areas. To start with are some common areas of research such as adjustment in old age, loneliness, quality of life, general well-being, stress, prevalence of disorders of the old age, role change, effects of retirement and coping mechanisms, level of cognitive and social functioning, health, need pattern, religious interest, relationship with family, friends and neighbors and studies in the area of physical and physiological functioning.

Apart from these areas of existential importance such as attitude and opinion towards life and death, faith in God, value systems, belief in after life and past lives, the effects of karma, samskaras etc can be ventured into. An area of particular importance is their pyramid meditation centre. Earlier studies have revealed several unique and beneficial qualities that may be derived from Pyramid Meditation. Experienced Mediators relate profound results in their quest for expanded awareness. Many people feel that psychic powers are stimulated or heightened by the use of pyramids. The use of a pyramid in meditation can accelerate the process bringing feelings of calmness, wellbeing and a more open and positive attitude. Many users claim increased memory recall, visions of past incarnations, telepathic communication and an expansion of awareness. In the course of the interview the researchers came to know that some have had some out of body experiences, clairvoyance etc. Such paranormal phenomenon provides a host of information and probability for research.

During the interview some of the residents said that in the “sunset of their life” this was a “peaceful haven” and that they enjoyed the safety and security of the community. At the same time they had the liberty to pursue their interests, keep in touch with their children and the outside world and yet were not stuck in a busy, congested city environment. This provides a base for using this community as a comparative unit in studies of institutions for old age. It is a good ground for socio-geriatric research.

But such communities are not just a bed of roses. They have certain limitations such as a set pattern of food i.e., a common menu provided at scheduled timing. This may not suit everyone’s tastes and comforts. The members are not allowed personal luxuries such as pets, their own preferences in the plan of the building etc. The growing strength of residents impinges on the freedom of the members.

In spite of such drawbacks the concept of ‘Vanaprastha’ is a blend of earlier Indian ideas and present day life styles, to promote a conducive environment for persons in their ‘golden years’ to seek, understand and nurture themselves. It could even be a model set up for future senior citizens. The varying elements in this setting bring forth a combination of activities and behaviour which will interest researchers of social sciences not only of the western genre but also those with an Indian bent of mind.

Conclusion

Facilities like ‘Vanaprastha’ are a safety nest for the senior citizens and the arrangement allows for opportunities to gain better understanding of the characteristics and problems and solutions related to old age and provides for additional areas of research such religion and spirituality and even paranormal phenomenon. This community itself began as an experiment and it will continue to be so by providing varied avenues of scientific exploration.

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http://hindunet.org/Moksha/a1v1i002.html Last modified 30-Jul-00

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanaprastha last modified 15:19, 13 Dec 2003.