Kashi or Varanasi, is known as Avimuktha Kshetra in ancient Hindu texts – the place where an individual soul would attain moksha from the cycle of births and deaths. Vanaprastha is the 3rd stage in the Vedic Chaturashrama after brahmacharya, viz. the formative years of being a student, followed by the 2nd stage, that of a grihasta of being married and living the life of a householder. Vanaprashta is followed by the 4th and final stage, namely sannyas or living life of a renunciate.
Vanaprashta starts when a person hands over household responsibilities to the next generation, takes an advisory role, plays a greater role in serving the community and pursues spiritual quest seeking to become one with the supreme being or Brahman. In this stage an individual transitions from pursuing artha and kama to one having greater emphasis on moksha i.e. spiritual liberation.
Vanaprastha is Sanskrit, which literally means “retiring to the forest”, which is how life transitioned for individuals living the chaturashrama life. Vanaprastha is the ashrama or stage of life, where one leaves family and relatives behind and goes off into the jungles or forest to live a solitary life of seeking and meditation and furthering one’s spiritual journey. It is a time of introspection and going deep within through sadhana to engage in spiritual practices and austerities with the aim of realizing one’s true nature, i.e., Oneness with the Brahman.
In vanaprastha, normally a couple or individual starts living away from the humdrum of life, far away from a city or village, They just work for fulfilling their daily needs and not to collect wealth. This stage trains a couple/individual to get detached from the social life, typically materialistic luxuries. It makes them and their family emotionally stronger to face the fear of death, which means permanent separation.
During the stage of vanaprastha, an individual may withdraw from involvement with the world, but still remain within it to share the wisdom that one has accumulated in the earlier stages of life of the chaturashrama by teaching, mentoring, counseling the next generation as well as serving the community around him/her.
The Manu Samhita says:
Grhasthastu yada pasyed vali palitam atmanah;
Apatyasyaiva capatyam tadaranyam samasrayet.
When a householder gets to see wrinkles on his body, white hair on his head, and his grandchildren, he should resort to the forest
Svadhyaye nityayuktah syad danto maitrah samahitah;
Datta nityam-anadata sarvabhutanukampakah.
He should be engaged in regular study, control his senses, keep friendly behavior with everyone, and have a tranquil mind. He must always give in charity, not accept gifts from others, and have mercy on all living beings
Until retirement, most elders would have led an hectic life of striving for wealth, name & fame, creating wealth for their future generation, good education for their children, travel and holidays and following pursuits that were appropriate to their social status. In all this, with some exceptions, most are unable to pay any attention towards spiritual pursuits. On retirement, most of them would be facing an empty nest syndrome as children leave home, to distant places for career, marriage and pursuits elsewhere. This chase for the high life leaves very little scope for following the path of chaturashrama.
Having not paid much attention to spiritual pursuits, many elders face a deep void in this area and perhaps even cynicism. Their worldly achievements no longer make sense. Instead, there is a strong craving for inner peace and true joy. Some individuals, who have spiritual aspirations, live within the community and serve it in various ways. Those well-to-do and blessed with good health, will use this phase of their life in pursuing things they have always wanted to do, such as traveling, socializing, meditating, etc. while some others will use this time in reading, writing, researching, creative work and art-related activities, finding joy and fulfillment in them.
However, such comfort may not be available to many other elders, where there is more inclination towards spirituality. Others may have fears of spending time in solitude due to recurring health problems, financial constraints, etc. A serious problem with the elderly living alone is that they become easy targets for criminals, particularly in the urban areas.
Under such circumstances, most elderly people compromise with the conditions they are confronted with. Some end up living in old-age homes, while others with severe health issues are placed in nursing homes. And, there are elders so attached to their family, that they cannot imagine living in any other way but with the family, where they are largely ignored.
Homes for the elderly
The Indian Census projections suggest that the share of elders as a percentage of total population in India will have increased from around 7.5% in 2001 to almost 12.5% by 2026 and surpass 19.5% by 2050. A report released by the United Nations Population Fund and Help Age India suggests that the number of elderly persons is expected to grow to 173 million by 2026, indicating that there is huge untapped potential for this segment of society. Waking up to this fact, realtors have only recently begun to address this segment more seriously, although the effort has been rather feeble.
The more traditional old-age homes are establishments usually run by NGOs or government agencies populated with elders who can, for whatever reasons. no longer live with their families or are entirely homeless. There are more than a thousand old-age homes in India with most of them offering free accommodation or at minimal charges.
Community Living For The Elderly – Super Expensive Homes
An idea, picked up from the West, and slowly catching up in urban extension in India, is the concept of community living for the elderly. Typically, a community living place for the elderly is a closed or gated community providing all facilities to make an elder citizen’s life fulfilling and comfortable until their exit from the world. The facility includes the basic necessities like housing, food, water, electricity, health care, and security, and extras like housekeeping, library, walking-cum-jogging trails, gymnasium, yoga center, indoor-outdoor games, an entertainment center and even large halls to meditate or spend time in solitude.
The very facilities indicate that these “sanitized” gated communities are meant for the rich and super rich. They are well out of the reach of even the wide middle class, as they entail investments of minimum Rs. 50-60 lakhs for even the smallest dwelling in cities such as Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Pune, etc.
However, these are preferred by many people as the elderly can live with self-respect and spend their time in their own way. Also, they can find like-minded people in the same complex with whom they can find companionship and shared interests. Most important is that their safety is ensured. In such a complex the residents have their private lives, with the benefits of group living, and full security.
An unexplored alternative, and one offering huge potential for a spiritually elevating peaceful and graceful exit is a community or living space for the elderly in an avimukta kshetra such as Kashi-Varanasi.