The life of a Brahman was, according to the Laws of Manu, divided into four periods or Âsramas, that of a pupil or Brâhmakârin, that of a householder or Grihastha, of an ascetic or Vânaprastha, and of a hermit or Yati. 1 The first and second stages are clear enough; they represent the scholastic and the married stages of a man's life, the former regulated by the strictest rules as to obedience, chastity, and study, the second devoted to all the duties of a married man, including the duty of performing sacrifices, both public and private. The names of ascetic and hermit for the third and fourth stages are of course approximate renderings only; not having the thing, we have not got the name. But the chief difference between the two seems to be that in the third stage the Brahman still keeps to his dwelling in the forest outside his village, and may even be accompanied there by his wife, see his children, and keep up his sacred
fires, performing all the time certain exercises, as enjoined in their sacred books, while in the last stage a man is released from all restrictions, and has to live alone and without any fixed abode 1. Some translators have used hermit for the third, and ascetic for the fourth stage. In Sanskrit also there exists a variety of names for these two stages, but the distinctive character of each is clear, the third stage representing a mere retreat from the world, the fourth a complete surrender of all worldly interests, a cessation of all duties, a sundering of all the fetters of passion and desire, and a life without a fixed abode. The modern Mahâtmans should therefore be considered as belonging partly to the third, partly to the fourth or last stage. They are what we should call friars or itinerant mendicants, for it is their acknowledged privilege to beg and to live on charity.
Another name of these Samnyâsins was Avadhûta, literally one who has shaken off all attachments, while in the language of the common people they are often called simply Sâdhus, or good men.
It has sometimes been denied that there are any Samnyâsins left in India, and in one sense this is true. The whole scheme of life, with its four stages, as traced in the Laws of Manu, seems to have been at all times more or less of an ideal scheme, a plan of life such as, according to the aspirations of the Brahmans, it ought to be, but as, taking human nature as it is, it could hardly ever have been all over India. Anyhow, at present, though
there are men in India who call themselves Samnyâsins, and are called Sâdhus by the people, they are no longer what Manu meant them to be. They no longer pass through the severe discipline of their studentship, they need no longer have fulfilled all the public and private duties of a married householder, nor have remained for a number of years in the seclusion of their forest dwelling. They seem free at any time of their life to throw off all restraints, if need be, their very clothing, and begin to preach and teach whenever and wherever they can find people willing to listen to them.
That the rules laid down in Manu's Law-book had often been broken in early times, we learn from the existence of a whole class of people called Vrâtyas. As far back as the Brâhmana period we read of these Vrâtyas, outcasts who had not practised brahmakarya, proper studentship 1, but who, if they would only perform certain sacrifices, might be readmitted to all the privileges of the three upper castes. That these Vrâtyas were originally non-Aryan people is a mere assertion that has often been repeated, but never been proved. The name was technically applied, during the Brâhmana period, to Aryan people who had belonged to a certain caste, but who had forfeited their caste-privileges by their own neglect of the duties pertaining to the first stage, brahmakarya. There were actually three classes of them, according as the forfeiture affected them personally or dated from their parents or grandparents. All the three classes could be readmitted
after performing certain sacrifices. In the modern language vrâtya has come to mean no more than naughty or unmanageable.
It is curious to observe how the Buddhist revolt was mainly based on the argument that if emancipation or spiritual freedom, as enjoyed in the third, and more particularly in the fourth stage, was the highest goal of our life on earth, it was a mistake to wait for it till the very end of life. The Buddhists were in one sense Vrâtyas who declined to pass through the long and tedious discipline of a pupil, who considered the performance of the duties of a householder, including marriage and endless sacrifices, not only as unprofitable, but as mischievous. Buddha himself had declared against the penances prescribed for the Brâhmanic ascetic as a hindrance rather than as a help to those who wished for perfect freedom, freedom from all passions and desires, and from the many prejudices of Brâhmanic society. It seems almost as if the early Buddhists, by adopting the name of Bhikshu, mendicant, for the members of their order (Samgha), had wished to show that they were all Samnyâsins, carrying out the old Brâhmanic principles to their natural conclusion, though they had renounced at the same time the Vedas, the Laws of tradition, and all Brâhmanic sacrifices as mere vanity and vexation of spirit.
3:1 Manu VI, 87.
4:1 Âpastamba II, 9, 22, 21, &c.
5:1 Journ. As. Soc. Bombay, XIX, p. 358 (they use silver coins).