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Religion and Aging in the Indian Tradition

Religion and Aging in the Indian Tradition
Item Code: NAS078
Author: Shrinivas Tilak
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Language: English
Edition: 1997
ISBN: 8170305470
Pages: 244
Other Details: 8.50 X 5.50 inch
weight of the book: 0.39 kg
About the Book

The author's primary insight is of extreme meaningfulness: Every culture must confront the deterioration and death accompanying aging. How this confrontation has occurred in Indian culture has significance for understanding all cultures including contemporary advanced industrial cultures. The manner of aging is a cultural construct and there is a specifically Indian way of aging. That way is shown in this book through the analyses of key concepts - aging (jara), stages of life (asrama), time (kala), determinate deeds (karma), desire (kama), change (parinama), and rejuvenative force(vaja).

The author offers important transcultural insights into the realities of aging, disease, and inevitable death faced by all. The composite Indian religious tradition provides patterns for shaping the aging experience into a meaningful system of vital social values, ethical principles, and life goals. This analysis of the Indian approach provides significant clues for understanding aging in other cultures.

About the Author

Shrinivas Tilak is professor of religious studies at the University of British Columbia.


If aging is a biological process, old age is a construct of culture. So important, so difficult, and so delicate is the task of investing life with purpose and meaning at the time of perceived decline that the measure of a culture’s sophistication and health may reside precisely in its creative imaging of the dignity of old age. It may also reside in its ability to inspire the "courage to be’"—to borrow Paul Tillich’s now famous phrase—despite the stress of aging, the impinging sense of loss and the awareness of approaching death (for the individual, family, and society).

Dr. Shrinivas Tilak in this pioneering study of traditional Indian views on aging and old age invites entry into a civilization’s rich reflections on and constructions of a liminal zone of human experience. He has looked at the topic with care and insight through the dialectical relation of Vedic religion, Buddhism, and Hinduism as nuanced by the different historical periods and the concerns of the various genres of texts. He has also analyzed his data from the perspective of modern gerontology with reference to theories of engagement, disengagement, and differential disengagement. He finds the traditional Indian approach to be close to the latter.

According to the differential disengagement theory, one should selectively cast away some of the norms and values of middle age and take on a role more suited to old age. The Hindu view of the stages of life (asrama) attempts to overcome the extreme opposition between this-worldly life (pravrtti) and renunciation (nivrtti)— which threatened the very fabric of Indian society in the 6th century B.C.E.—by incorporating the positive features of both. Hindu thinkers analyzed, for example, the basic types of experiences in men’s lives related to family, society, and religion and created appropriate categories such as the stages of life to characterize these experiences. They assigned to these stages of life attendant duties and goals to provide, concurrently or serially, experiences of this- worldly life and renunciation. And they correlated these stages with _ the aging process so that by the end of a lifetime a man’s experience would have incorporated the poles and made possible, upon deep reflection, their ultimate integration.

Accordingly, the asramas have a distinct order or rank. The first stage is studentship, which provides the seeds for this-worldly life: the student is educated for his future occupation and the skills of living in this world as a householder. The first stage also provides the seeds for renunciation for the student is trained in discipline, concentration, and chastity in a peaceful place outside the city in order to develop the initial taste for renunciation. The second stage of married life brings to fruition the occupational training and the duty to produce children. While the training in renunciation moves to the background, there are periods of the day or days of the year for the practice of withdrawal such as during morning prayers and yogic exercises, vows and pilgrimage. The third stage involves with- drawal from family obligations, a move to the forest, and the practice of chastity, thereby relegating the householder stage to the background (even though husband and wife may withdraw together) and bringing renunciation to the foreground. The final stage of complete renunciation proper, which may be postponed for future lives, completes the experience of renunciation by total with- drawal from society, enforced by being casteless and by constantly wandering or meditating in an isolated place.

Since the stage of renunciation in old age provides the freedom and calm to contemplate the experiences of life, it allows for mental integration of all phenomena and ultimately the experience of oneness. This mental integration has incorporated but ultimately transcended the original opposition of this-worldly activity and renunciation. Hence, in Hindu terms, there is the experience of the fullness of life leading to the realization of Brahman.


The present study is undertaken with the assumption that in India’s literary heritage there is a wide range of attitudes to and images of old age and aging which, if identified and expressed from a gerontological perspective, could substantially contribute toward the development of a contemporary Indian gerontology that is also culturally nuanced. As a first step toward this future enterprise, the present study is concerned with the origin and development of the meaning and significance of aging and its medical and metaphysical dimensions with reference to selected Vedic, Buddhist and Hindu texts.

Given the relative lack of historical records in India, studying an aspect of Indian social and cultural history based on textual sources is neither unusual nor unreasonable. Decades ago the social anthropologist Irawati Karve (1965, 23) observed that a people’s literature has a peculiar relation to its social institutions. In one type of literature the social institutions are idealized, in another they come in for ridicule, in a third the depiction is starkly realistic. This interrelation of the written or oral literature and the actual social institutions as lived by people makes for a fascinating study. Such an enterprise, to paraphrase Karve again, need not be construed as a nostalgic dip into a vanished past but rather as a tryst with the past that lives in India’s present, vividly, obstinately and obtrusively. It must be studied by those who are interested in India’s present and future.’ I hope, then, that the findings of the present study, when checked against the growing epigraphic and archaeological evidence, will advance the understanding of old age and aging in Indian tradition.

Process of Aging

Although in the popular sense aging has to do with the elderly only, aging is actually a lifelong process and an integral part of living. Circumscribed by birth at one end, aging is terminated at some point by death. Death, too, therefore, has a rightful place in any study of human aging. In fact, both aging and death are inherent in conception and begin at the same time as birth. Changes engendered on and within the body by the aging process are quite rapid in infancy and childhood and even more so in the fetus. Conception initiates a truly marvelous set of life events. Never does one age so rapidly again as in one’s embryonic development whereby one ages, it is said, the equivalent of two billion years in less than a period of nine months.

Biologically, aging is a progressive and irreversible changing of the structures and functions of the living organism. Though deadly and stressful from the individual perspective, aging and death are nonetheless inevitable for the continuation of the species and life in general. The etiology of aging has not yet been scientifically explained nor is there a definite answer to the question of what is essential and primary in the decaying process of involution.

In the past, however, the causes of aging, the stress it generates, and death were understood in three basic ways. One view traces them to the gradual loss of an élan vital that is important for the maintenance of life. Senescence and death are natural processes inherent in the body cells; they are to be explained as due to the gradual loss of the energy stimulus which is supplied to the developing (and aging) organism at the moment of fertilization. Bodily growth and differentiation over time continue to take place in the organism until finally no energy is left and the organism dies of old age. The second view attributes aging and death to the gradual accumulation of a toxic substance in the body. Constant readjustment among the bodily humors necessary for human survival, according to the third view, renders the body susceptible to aging. Aging, therefore, is a stressful process. Like a mechanical device gradually worn out with use and the passage of time, the individual grows more and more inadequate to carry out the vital functions and eventually succumbs to death.

Notwithstanding the historical controversy regarding the etiology of aging, it is generally recognized that the process of aging incorporates within itself two simultaneously existing components: while there is growth and development of the body, there is also continued decline and atrophy of the body. In early life the growth aspect of aging masks and overwhelms the potentially degenerative process. The rate of aging, whether as development or decline, varies greatly from one individual to the next depending upon the bodily constitution. Again, in any single individual the aging process may appear to occur more rapidly during one period of life than another and at a greater rate in one organ than another (Hall 1984, 5). Not surprisingly, various meaningful ways of learning to live and cope with the stress of aging have been devised in different traditions.

The above observations on aging lead us to the discipline of gerontology which may be seen as a set of systematically argued beliefs and values concerning aging and the human response to it. The activity theory (Gubrium 1976), for instance, suggests that the aging individual actively aspires to extend the norms of middle age as long as it is physically and mentally possible to do so. The rival disengagement theory (Cumming and Henry 1961) posits that with age every individual comes under increasing pressure to cede control and power to the younger members of the family/community. As a cultural system, therefore, gerontology is the organization of concepts, theories and normative practices concerning both aging as a process and the aged. As an adaptive cultural response to the stress of aging and its consequences, it overlaps religion, which too, is concerned with providing meaning to life, aging and death.

Accordingly, though aging is a biological process, attitudes to- ward aging, the treatment the aged receive, the evaluation of the status of the aged, and the roles considered appropriate for them are as much matters of religious and cultural tradition as of physics or biology. This fact helps explain why aging has been infused with differing meaning and significance in terms of symbols and images in various traditions.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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