Reconceptualizing Lifespan Development through a Hindu Perspective
Reconceptualizing Lifespan Development through a Hindu Perspective
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter presents insights from the Hindu life stages and lifespan constructs to argue for a dialectic synthesis and integration rather than an oppositional stance between the “one-size-fits-all” and the “one-theory-for-every-culture” relativistic perspective. The dialectical nature of the Hindu lifespan constructs that integrate structural and content dimensions (e.g., individualism in collectivism) and dynamic concepts of developmental processes in the Hindu worldview (e.g., karma, dharma) illustrate a way to bridge developmental and cultural psychology. The “synthesis” perspective, highlighted in the Hindu worldview, offers alternate stances towards life, as well as coping strategies and techniques that are not only becoming prevalent globally, but appear to have practical utility in dealing with life circumstances and represent survival of the test of time in a pluralistic and dynamic India.
Our paper focuses on lifespan conceptualizations articulated in the Hindu worldview. Differing from the much more widely examined Confucian and Taoist models of the East, the Hindu worldview of lifespan development provides an alternative conceptualization of the place of humans with respect to context, the purpose and meaning of life, and ideals of successful ontological progression. We use this conceptualization to illustrate bridging developmental and cultural psychology by rephrasing the three questions posed to us by the editor of this volume as follows: (1) What insight can we bring from the Hindu conception of the lifespan to provide an alternative synthesis to the oppositional stance between the “one-size-fits-all” developmental perspective and the “one-theory-for-every-culture” relativistic perspective?; (2) Might the Hindu life-stages offer a conceptualization of the human lifespan in which both structural and content dimensions are integrated, thus arguing against characterizing the distinction between developmental and cultural psychology as one of structure versus content?; and (3) What is the relevance of the Hindu worldview in the current context of increased interface between cultures?
Our focus on Hindu conceptions of the lifespan is timely, not only for its potential theoretical significance but also because of its increasing relevance in the current era of globalization. Increased legitimacy and acceptance of the body–mind connection in medical and health science has led to interest in mindful and contemplative meditation practices that were methods of Hindu yoga and psychological sciences. There is increasing interest in examining the (p.277) constructs of faith, spirituality, forgiveness, hope, longing, and compassion and their effect on affective, cognitive, and motivational systems, which are an integral component of the Hindu psychological worldview for optimization of mental health. In addition, India, with its young educated workforce in the global economy, is arousing interest in the psychology of its people (see also Arnett, 2011). In discussing the Hindu life-stages and world view as an alternate conceptualization of lifespan development, we also consider its implications for alternate stances toward life or coping strategies and techniques that are not only becoming prevalent globally but appear to have practical utility in dealing with life circumstances.
We respond to the previous questions by presenting a backdrop of the Hindu cultural milieu within which we elucidate select constructs pertinent to human development in India,1 providing insight into the uniqueness of the Hindu perspective. We then present the Hindu life-stages with a focus on the historical ideals, rituals and purpose and relate them to contemporary manifest lifestyles. Thereafter, to illustrate bridging developmental and cultural psychology, we attempt to map and integrate Hindu conceptions within the meta-theoretical conceptual framework provided by Overton (2006). Finally, we reflect on some implications of the Hindu worldview on human development in the global context.
Hinduism in Contemporary India
Not many are aware that the term Hindu is not Indian in origin and in fact does not denote the followers of a particular religion/faith. Etymologically it means “inhabitant of the land of ‘Sindhu’ that is India” (Nityananda, 2000, p. i). Around the sixth century B.C. the flourishing civilization of the Indo-Gangetic plains known as the ‘Sindhu Ganga Samatala’ was shortened by Persians to ‘Sindhus’ referring to the place they lived. The syllable ‘sa’ got transmuted to ‘ha’ in Persian and Sindhu became Hindu henceforth for a community sharing a common heritage. Later ‘-ism’ was added to denote the religion they followed (Nadkarni, 2003; Nityananda, 2000; Thapar, 1966). Hinduism, even today, is referred to as ‘Sanatana Dharma,’ meaning ‘a moral code based on the eternal sustaining values of life.’ Over at least three millennia, contributions from several philosophers, common practitioners and religious reformers have led to the evolution of Sanatana Dharma which is seen as applicable to all people and all times. In its basic philosophy, Hinduism is a strictly monotheistic and pan theistic religion, although it is misunderstood widely (even by many Hindus) as polytheistic. Secular in its approach and tolerant of alternative paths, Hinduism now encompasses a range of belief systems, from its core monotheistic core philosophy to polytheism, and even animism and atheism (Thapar, 1966). Hinduism represents a way of life and functions as philosophical and cultural model.
Ashish Nandy (1988, cited in Nadkarni, 2003) once observed that religion should give a theory of life and a theory of transcendence and that Hinduism (p.278) provides both. This may be the reason that despite the odds (abstract philosophical doctrines, written in Sanskrit language to which only the privileged few had access), Hinduism reaches the common man and woman and connects with the daily life of the Indian population. It permeates everyday life through daily rituals, celebration of festivals and storytelling of the great epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well analysis and discussion of Hindu thought in newspapers, and dedicated programs on television and radio.
Erikson (1979) once commented that “faced with a traditional world image of such consistency and pervasiveness as the Hindu world,…we, observers and diagnosticians of today, cannot ignore or simply leave behind some fundamental questions…one such question is that of the residual power, even under conditions of rapid modernization, of the traditional world images…” (Erikson, 1979, p.16). We suggest that the Hindu worldview provided by these images represents the common denominator that links a vast range of individuals such as an illiterate Indian villager, a world renowned nuclear scientist, the common person on the street, or even the frequent flier at Delhi international airport (Bharati, 1985).
In the following sections, we present (1) core Hindu constructs about the meaning and purpose of life and their significance for lifespan development, followed by (2) a description of the life-stages and appropriate conduct or developmental tasks in each. We address the traditional and idealized Hindu worldview initially as the theoretical stance and later connect these ideals with contemporary practices of the Indian subcontinent when describing life-stages. In presenting core Hindu constructs about the meaning and purpose of life, we highlight the underlying dialectic of individual action and agency with duty to the structured social world within which one is embedded. This underlying coexistence and symbiosis of individuality and social embeddedness also emerges in the description of the purpose, rituals, and ideals of each stage in the Hindu life cycle (see also Nsamenang, 2011).
Hindu Developmental Worldview
From the Hindu perspective, the central goal of life, succinctly stated, is to use present life ashramas2 (stages) to become refined so as to either take a higher-order birth or end the cycle of births and death by purification and following the tenets of dharma. There is no denial of this worldly life. The body is seen as the vehicle of the soul (atman) and has to be kept pure and healthy. “The valuable developments of Ayurveda, Natya Shastra, and Kama Sutra strongly imply the significance of worldly aspirations as genuine concerns” (G. Misra, personal communication, Aug. 1, 2009). Thus, the theme of transcendence or spirituality is not an exclusive goal but encompasses the life lived well in this world through careful observance of the dharmas. Common constructs that bind Hindus are the acceptance of the four life-stages (or ashramas), four varnas (classification of major occupations later distorted to caste), and four (p.279) purusharthas (life goals)—namely, righteousness or obedience to the moral law (dharma), wealth or material welfare (artha), pleasure (kama), and emancipation (moksha). These common ideals of life provide the spirit of unity to the social and moral life of the majority of Hindus (Radhakrishnan & Moore, 1957). Many of these concepts have complex and dialectical relationships with each other. We elucidate some of these relationships that are relevant for lifespan development to make the case for the uniqueness of the Hindu worldview.
Dual View of the Individual
In the Hindu perspective, individuality is not defined by one’s embodied form but by the unique nature of the individual soul or atman. “The notion of atman brings in the imagery of shared selfhood and furnishes a ground for similarity and identity, necessary for empathy, compassion, and forgiveness in this world” (G. Misra, personal communication, Aug. 1, 2009). According to the Hindu worldview, all things on earth, including one’s body, are transitory. The only permanent reality is the atman. The body is merely a vehicle for the atman, and on death it will be cast away like old clothes. Hence to believe that the body is a serious substance and not a temporal existence is maya or illusory. The birth of the soul in a material human form is considered the highest form (albeit more limited than the spiritual form) because it affords the individual an opportunity to act with intellect, wisdom, conscience, and willpower. Individuals should search for and identify with their true and permanent spiritual self or atman rather than mistakenly identify with their embodied self, which is merely a transitory and perishable vehicle of the atman. Throughout life they are thus encouraged to rise above bodily urges and pleasures and strengthen their higher spiritual self by developing self control (e.g., control over hunger with fasts, control over mind with meditation). This identification with one’s higher spiritual self sets the stage for overcoming attachments and developing a sense of individualism and personal autonomy within the collective social structure in which one is immersed (Saraswathi, 2005).
Moksha: Living Life with the Goal of Transcendence
Hindus believe that the central goal of a person is to transcend worldly life through refinement and purification of one’s self. Based on belief in reincarnation, a life led with righteousness will lead to either a rebirth with greater purity or obtaining final release of the spiritual self or atman from the repetitive cycles of birth and death and merging with a super consciousness called Brahma (the ultimate soul, called Paramatma). This release of the soul and its merging with God consciousness is termed attainment of moksha. The material world is considered illusory or maya, in that people get distracted from their path of moksha by attachment to the temporal, impermanent material world (including family and friends).
Dharma refers to the moral code to live by. It is ultimately the life-governing principle and sustains righteous living. Dharma is interpreted in three different ways (Nadkarni, 2003), which reflect a synthesis of collectivistic and individualistic ideals that typify Hindu life. First, it refers to duty to family, society, ancestors, one’s own self as well as to all living beings and nature. Second, it underscores the adoption of universal values and ethical behavior for the welfare of others and self. Third, and most important, it means to uphold and maintain the desire for knowledge, spiritual growth, and wisdom. In the third meaning of dharma, the core onus lies on the individual’s sense of personal agency. Individuals are believed to be able to control, change, or modify their current and future karma or destiny through righteous practice of dharma in accordance with their caste, gender, stage in life, and life circumstances. The notions of karma and dharma permeate the consciousness of millions of Hindus and are part of their daily vocabulary, songs, and music. Karma is defined as the law of action/deed and the law of causality (Nadkarni, 2003). It is employed in three discernable ways: (1) karma refers to concrete actions (including thoughts and feelings) that a person does through being in this world; (2) it refers to the accumulated rewards and retributions one carries from past lives (most popular usage); and (3) karma is used to proactively change the course of one’s destiny, emphasizing the “making” aspect of karma (Menon, 2003). Karma is a dialectical concept not just for explaining current situations that defy indigenous logic (accommodating to given inexplicable life events) but as a proactive concept allowing one to act in a collective world by doing what is right (dharma) and hence reaping rewards that can be banked and may save one from impending negative life events. “Karma is not just a doctrine of ‘reincarnation,’ ‘fatalism,’ or ‘pre-destination’; it is a promise of hope. Given the innate tendency of the unconscious (gunas) towards light (sattva) combined with an individual’s personal efforts in this direction (dharma), karma assures that the attainment of the goal of existence (moksha) is certain even though there are apt to be many setbacks in the process…”(Kakar, 1981, p.48).
The above descriptions illustrate that the Hindu developmental perspective is unique in several respects. There are many points of departure in the Hindu worldview from current views in mainstream developmental psychology. First, the “individual” is not an embodied self but rather a bodily mirage that needs to be actualized spiritually rather than in ways emphasized in current theories of self-actualization. Because the “embodied self” provides the means of actualizing the spiritual self, it has to be disciplined and kept healthy but not embellished with vanity (especially after midlife). By late life, it needs to be transcended. Second, the starting point of the individual at birth in any given “lifetime” is at a different point in their pursuit of perfection or union with the God consciousness and not comparable in its qualities (gunas) to any other person born. Theories of future time perspective in lifespan psychology do not adequately cover time perspective which transcends one’s current lifespan. Third, the central consistent teleological goal over the lifespan is self-perfection (p.281) while other goals such as material gains and legacies, which are emphasized in current lifespan theories, are underplayed. Belief in the temporal nature of life on earth as a station in the journey of the spiritual self to which one arrives with nothing and takes nothing other than the legacy of one’s deeds (karma) has no motivational parallels. Fourth, the goal of life itself involves a dialectical way of thinking. The prescribed path is to “live” in such a way so as to transcend life itself. And fifth, there are currently no analogous dialectical constructs in psychology such as dharma (moral obligation to individual spiritual self as well to social collective self) and karma (retributive as well as proactive construct) (see also Jensen, 2011).
In our interpretation of the Hindu life-stages3 presented in the following section, we extrapolate two intersecting themes: the individual as situated in the social world and the pursuit of moksha (which transcends social embeddeness) as the ultimate goal of life. The transformation in the final stage of life has the goal of becoming part of the cosmic universe. The mundane or worldly aspect of individual development emphasizes social adaptation. However, the ultimate goal of the life-cycle consists of a spiritual component—that of self-realization or actualization—and this, by definition, is individualistic in nature.
Herein lies the core underlying point: the Hindu life-cycle provides a third alternative to the East–West, collectivistic–individualistic prototypes that dominate thinking in cross-cultural psychology today (Kagitcibasi, 1996). Development from the Hindu perspective is characterized by both collectivism and individualism depending on the life-stage (Saraswathi, 2005; see also Phinney & Baldelomar, 2011). We argue that this intersection of the individual as socially situated and yet as following a path of individual self-realization represents a synthesis of individualism and collectivism that is unique to Hinduism as an alternative conception of the lifespan. Although these theoretical implications of the Hindu conceptualization of the lifespan are elaborated upon in a later section, we emphasize the simultaneous focus on individualism and collectivism that emerges in the description of the Hindu worldview and stages of life that follows.
Hindu Conceptions of the Stages of Life
The life course from birth to death is divided into four ashramas or stages. A brief description of these stages is provided to illustrate a perspective of human development that is a dialectic synthesis of an “individual-in-social relations focus” and an “individual pursuit of self-realization.” Ashrama means a resting place and dharma the moral code, thus ashramadharma implies resting places in the forest of human life for people to achieve their liberation, that is, moksha (Jayaram, 2009).
The four major stages begin at the end of infancy and early childhood and are roughly translated as the stage of apprenticeship (brahmacharya), building family (grahasthya), extrication from material world (vanaprastha), (p.282) and renouncement (sanyasa). Although there are substages of the infancy period, the serious observance of conduct (dharma) is initiated during apprenticeship or brahmacharya. All stages and substages are marked by samskaras (transformative rites/ceremonies) associated with the transitions that emphasize the change in social, moral, and individual obligations. These rites are aimed at “forming well or thoroughly making perfect” of the human being (Nadkarni, 2003) and involve the process of maturation and moral perfectibility and purification (Madan, 1987). Perfectibility comes from daily life customs and practices. As Pandey (1969) explained, the samskaras help in the refinement and purification of human life, facilitate the development of personality, impart sanctity and importance to the human body, bless all material and spiritual aspirations of man, and ultimately prepare him for an easy and happy exit from this world (pp. 277–278). Similarly, Menon (2003) emphasized that the distant goals of renunciation and moksha cannot be achieved without translating them into daily practices of gradual purification. Specific activities are associated with purification (e.g., bathing, fasting, meditation, prayer, alms-giving), whereas other activities are associated with impurity (such as not bathing, menstruation, death in the family, contact with a person of low caste, and negative emotions). These ideals of daily practices are instilled and reinforced culturally. It is critical to note that these practices are context specific. Characteristic of Hindu dharma, what is expected is governed by caste, life-stage, and context and life circumstances. “Perhaps it is this looseness of structure, this lack of emphasis on any particular set of moral obligations, that gives the Hindu moral code its resilience—a resilience that is demonstrated in that it remains a faith to live by for millions, even today” (Menon, 2003, p. 448).
Infancy and Childhood
There is acceptance of the child’s individual characteristics as children are thought to be born with subconscious urges (vasanas) or temperament (gunas) as predispositions from previous lives. The rites (see Table 13–1) mark the gradual transition of the child as an individual into the expanding context of the collective. After the prenatal symbiotic relationship with the mother the newborn moves to a dyadic intimacy with her during early infancy. A month after birth, for the naming rite of “namakarana,” the mother and infant emerge from a seclusion (maternal) room into the bustle of an expectant family, and the mother ceremoniously places the baby in the father’s lap for a name-giving ceremony. From the family, the mother and infant move into the wider world in the third or fourth month with the performance of “nishkramana,” the child’s first outing, looking at the moon and looking at the sun. Between the sixth and ninth months, there is the important rite of “annaprasana,” the first time the child is given solid food, initiating the process of the child’s individuation or separation from the mother. This is followed by inclusion in the wider family (dyadic dissolution marked by shaving off the hair), and then into the social world of school (marked by starting of education, vidyarambha). Thus, the idea is that each stage goes through a cyclical process of “induct–embed–detach,” (p.283) which leads to the next cycle of “birth” into a new social role (first as symbiotic infant, then psychological birth as individual-but-in-social-world, then as student, then as householder, and so on.)
Socialization in infancy and childhood are characterized by indulgence and relaxed childrearing. Most parents continue to believe that it is better to let children grow at their own pace rather than rush to train them. This is witnessed often in homes where young children may fall asleep in the living room amidst adult interactions and be carried to bed rather than told “It is bed time. Go to your room.” Child training comes later, after school entry. Although many factors affect employment decisions of women, conversations with educated mothers of young children who live in urban, middle-class housing societies, reveal that it is not uncommon for women to stay home (in the absence of a mother or mother-in-law as caregiver) and sacrifice their career aspirations rather than send the young children to daycare or nursery, which they believe restricts the child’s freedom of expression.
Brahmacharya (Stage of Apprenticeship)
This stage starts from late childhood and extends through the period of student life (considered 8 to 18 years historically, but extended now). This stage in the life-cycle is marked by the sacred thread ceremony in males of the three upper castes of the four caste hierarchy4. At this stage, a person is expected to lead a strict celibate life, learn humility, and be devoted to acquisition of the knowledge necessary to lead a life useful to oneself, family, and society. “Brahman or consciousness is the truth of one’s being. Charya is from “chara” to move or walk in the direction of Brahman. During the period of brahmacharya, there is high energy and it is channelized during the gurukulavasa or living in the teacher’s house to learn the Vedas, Upanishads and other shastras” (Swahilya, 2009, p. 8). To concentrate on learning and avoid distractions, various austerities were prescribed in relation to food, personal comforts, and conduct (Radhakrishnan & Moore, 1957).
Although strict adherence to traditional austerities of brahmacharya is infrequent today, in practice, moderate expressions and expectations continue. For example, youth are expected to be celibate until attainment of educational credentials (delayed sometimes until the late twenties in the middle class). Marriage is postponed and sex outside marriage is frowned on, creating a social hiccup as the period of education keeps getting extended. Boys and girls are often sent to separate schools and/or have separate activities and seating in co-educational secondary schools. Similarly, youth are expected to postpone their indulgence in material pleasures until education is completed. Although this is changing with increasing materialism, simplicity in clothing and ornamentation is encouraged, especially during the period of apprenticeship as students.
Among Brahmins (highest caste), youth who are in training to become priests or Vedic scholars, strict adherence to the prescribed code of brahmacharya is still mandatory. Most school curricula include basic Indian philosophy with (p.284) emphasis on tolerance and humility. Finally, respect for teachers, parents, and the elderly is a general observance even today, although not as universal as earlier. Youth today are perceived as more assertive and as challenging the views of elders, unlike their earlier cohorts. However, disagreements are rarely expressed verbally, and there is a general tolerance for the traditional views of the elderly.
Grahasthya (Stage of Family)
The order of the householder is highly lauded because “all the other ashramas (stages of life) depend on that of the householder, even as the living beings depend on their life for air” (Devaraja, 1994, p. 31). As Madan (1987) noted, Hinduism forbids men from renouncing worldly life (expected in the next stage) until they have discharged the traditional three debts: to the Gods, Gurus (teachers), and Pitru (ancestors). This is the stage of the life-cycle when a person marries and raises a family. This is the stage for the fulfillment of desires for Artha (wealth) and Kama (sensuous pleasures). But the primary dharma of the householder is to fulfill his obligations to his extended family and raise children to be good citizens. It must be noted that “Hinduism does not regard romance as the whole of married life. Husband and wife are copartners in their spiritual progress, and the family provides the training ground for the practice of unselfishness” (Nikilananda, 1998, p. 78). Even when immersed in the life of the householder, individuals are expected to develop a sense of detachment (live like water on the lotus leaf, on/in it yet separate). The householder is expected to resist becoming enslaved in bonds to such a degree that he neglects his obligation to his own self, purification, and the path of self-realization.
Contemporary norms and practices continue to reflect this traditional script. Even in nuclear families, there is emphasis on joint family functioning for major family decisions (marriage, buying property) for which the extended family is consulted. Interconnectedness in family is fostered by frequent visits and clearly prescribed roles for extended kin in weddings and other rites of passage. Despite some slackening with time, expected obligations to parents, siblings, and ancestors are fulfilled.
Marriage of the young adult is a family arrangement, and this attitude persists among the majority of youth in both urban and rural areas. The goals of marriage are security, institutionalized sex, and procreation. Duty and respect, rather than love and romance, are considered the foundation of marriage. Marriage is still considered a permanent bond, and there is social sanction only for widowers’ remarriage, although exceptions are made in recent years in the case of young widows. The family system remains essentially patriarchal. Divorce is a recent phenomenon, even so, it is perhaps the lowest in the world (1.1% or 11 per 1000; www.divorcerate.org/divorce-rate-in-india.html).
Note that even in the social embeddedness and bonding necessitated by marriage and raising a family, a certain degree of detachment is expected to prevent excessive attachment that may be a deterrent for self-liberation in later stages. Fathers, in particular, are expected to remain fairly distant from their (p.285) children, and open expression of affection is frowned upon. This is changing with the present generation of young fathers.
Vanaprastha (Stage of Extrication from Attachments)
The third stage (vanaprastha) is an antechamber to the last stage of complete renunciation (sanyasa). Vanaprastha means “forest bound,” and there are a few historical accounts of kings and prosperous individuals who headed to the forest to meditate to understand the meaning of life, renouncing all worldly comforts and legacies. As a figurative expression, it involves the gradual withdrawal of the mind and from worldly material attachments to focus on the search for atman, the true spiritual self. It is also marked by the birth of a grandson. Individuals at this stage are expected to actively extricate themselves from all worldly activities and attachments and devote themselves to a life of contemplation. The process is not of simple disengagement, nor withdrawal from human effort and struggle, but rather the slow and painstaking development of humility and equanimity by accepting contextual influences on human goal pursuit and accomplishments and recognizing the transience of human emotional states, shifts in power, and relationships (Kakar, 1997). As Kakar explains, the middle-age crisis of renunciation versus involvement is positively resolved through the acquisition of a specific virtue—equanimity. Ideally, the Indian tradition seems to say, the contribution of middle age to human development is a sense of equanimity. This is neither a resignation from life nor a withdrawal from human effort and struggle but is that which provides a person with a wider psychological context for his actions. Equanimity implies the acceptance of the transitory nature of all relationships and emotional states. It includes awareness that human strivings are insufficient to reach desired goals unless the “surround” is also ripe for the success of these efforts (pp. 94–95)
Currently, the practice of vanaprastha, in principle, is evident in the thousands of senior citizens who throng to congregations where religious leaders or scholars interpret scriptures and their philosophical meanings in public forums, using epics and parables as well as contemporary life experiences to explain the laws of karma, dharma, and moksha. A ritualistic expression of vanaprastha is seen in the elderly who throng to worship at temples during early morning and late evening prayers, after domestic responsibilities have been passed on to the next generation. Temples also provide forums for explication of Hindu philosophy through scholarly analysis of the scriptures and discussions. Depending on one’s intellectual orientation, the search for self-actualization may be sought through prayers (seeking Divine intervention for purifying the soul; Bhaktiyoga) or through the knowledge acquired from scriptures (Gyanayoga).
Until the recent past, upon reaching 60 years of age women would give away their ornaments to their daughters and daughters-in-law and men would transfer property to their sons, signaling the beginning of renunciation. Today, with increasing longevity and economic uncertainty, and doubts regarding whether their sons will care for them in their old age, parents do not actually transfer their (p.286) jewels and property but prepare a will or let close kin know who will inherit what after their demise.
Sanyasa (Stage of Renunciation)
With the toughest of developmental tasks, the fourth stage of Sanyasa was a very rare attainment even in ancient times and was the prerogative of sages, ascetics, and great scholars. However, even the common man during this last stage is expected to abandon his attachment to worldly objects and focus his mind on attaining liberation from the cycle of birth and death. It is expected that prior to such renunciation one has fulfilled obligations to one’s family, parents, and society and has studied the Vedas systematically. Death itself then becomes “… an encompassing cosmo-moral scheme of life” (Madan, 1987, p. 119). These notions are represented by the daily life practices of individuals (75 years and older) who withdraw from engagement in mundane household affairs, reduce food intake, consume only the amount absolutely essential for survival, reduce personal ornamentation, and end the pursuit of material wealth. Individuals at this stage spend long hours in meditation, prayers, and reading of the scriptures, even when mobility gets restricted with age and one is unable to attend discourses on scriptures by scholars in public forums. Personal self and ego are always de-emphasized. Vanity is considered a vice and usually ridiculed in people after age 60 years.
Thus far, we have described the basic Hindu worldview of development and its implications for daily life practices in the contemporary world, noting that it does not fit neatly into the individualism–collectivism continuum but rather requires a different model of individualism within collectivism. However, instead of treating it as an esoteric, obscure perspective that does not fit in the literature of developmental psychology, we now integrate the Hindu life-stages in a broader meta-theoretical framework for the study of human development offered by Overton (2006). Meta-theories are a level above theories and provide the substratum, rationale, and logic within which psychological constructs are created and integrate the methods developed to study these constructs. We suggest that at this meta-theory level we may actually find a potential way of bridging developmental and cultural psychology.
Theoretical Interpretation of Ashramadharma: An Alternate Conception of Human Development?
According to Overton (2006), a theory of development must address the nature of the developmental phenomena (the “what” of development) and the nature of transitions or change (the “how” of development). To address the nature of development, Overton contends that it is necessary to differentiate between two dimensions of behavior, the expressive–constitutive dimension of behavior (i.e., the underlying pattern or structural organization of each stage) and instrumental–communicative dimension (i.e., strategies and means of adapting (p.287) to socio-cultural world used at each stage). To address the nature of change, Overton differentiates between transformational change (representing change in form, organization, or structure) and variational change (representing individual variations within stages).
Building upon the distinctiveness of the Hindu perspective from mainstream psychological theories and situating it within Overton’s conceptual framework, we present our stance on the two questions posed in bridging developmental psychology and cultural psychology: (1) the one-size-fits-all question and (2) the structure versus content distinction as representing the focus of developmental versus cultural psychology, respectively.
In addressing the one-size-fits-all question, we contend that a universal theory of development may well be unlikely given the diversity of the human circumstances. Further, in approaches that compare cultures on dualistic linear dimensions, such as the individualism–collectivism, characterization of developmental context also seems inadequate in terms of the range of diversity that exists within and between cultural communities (Kagitcibasi, 1996). Yet, only the staunchest cultural relativist would argue for a theory for every culture. So, what is a potential solution to the debate between the universalistic ideals of developmental psychology and the cultural-specific focus of cultural psychology? We think that the answer lies in identifying a core dimension or organizing principle of human development trajectories and noting regularities in variation, as suggested by Rogoff (2003).
We propose that assumptions about the locus of developmental change in different worldviews can serve as this core dimension or organizing principle. In the models of human development typical in developmental psychology, developmental change is more often than not viewed as situated in the individual. Stage theories such as Piagetian stages of knowledge construction, Erikson’s psycho-social changes, and Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning are perhaps the best known examples. This view is often contrasted with those in which development is seen as situated in changes in the individual’s relation to the social world (e.g., see Rogoff, 2003, for a discussion of Mayan stages of infancy and childhood). In yet another possible conception, development is viewed as situated in the individual’s relation to the spiritual world—for example, Nsamenang’s (1997; 2011) delineation of the stages of human development that characterizes indigenous views in West Africa. Still other potential models may be illustrated in the ethno-theories of indigenous or tribal communities, in which individual development is represented as the individual’s relation to the natural world (Highwater, 1995). In terms of locus of developmental change, we extrapolate and interpret the Hindu life-stages to illustrate a model of lifespan development organized around an individual-in-social-relations focus, rather than conceptualizing lifespan development from an individual-centered focus. Menon and Shweder’s (1998) analysis of life-stages, as described by Oriya women, is a notable illustration. They document that the phases are marked by transitions in social responsibility, family management, and moral duty, rather than by chronological age or biological markers.
(p.288) Our interpretation of the Hindu developmental perspective applying Overton’s (2006) criteria also addresses the second question—that is, the structure versus content distinction. Overton’s discussion of the “what” of development, more specifically the distinction between the expressive-constitutive and the instrumental-communicative dimension has to do with the structure–function distinction. The expressive-constitutive dimension of a developmental phase/stage represents its structure, whereas the instrumental-communicative dimension represents the function (and perhaps the content) dimension. By arguing that the Hindu developmental perspective describes both the structure and function/content aspects, we take a stance against a universalistic deep structure. We assert that the contrast between “development as situated in the individual” versus “development as situated in transformations-in-individual’s-relations-with-social world” is a structural contrast, not just a difference in values.
In Table 13–1, we summarize the Hindu life-stages, illustrating what develops, focusing on both the expressive-constitutive and instrumental-expressive dimensions at each developmental stage. We document the underlying organizing structure of the Hindu life-cycle in that each stage goes through a cyclical process of “induct–embed–detach” in an ever-widening social world. We argue that this organizing principle differentiates the Hindu life-cycle from more typical models in which development is viewed as situated in the individual. But that raises the next logical question: How is the Hindu conceptualization different from other discussions of “individual as situated in the social world” (e.g., Confucian models)?
We suggest that the difference lies in how the Hindu life-cycle addresses developmental transformations or the “how” question mentioned by Overton (2006). To build our argument for the Hindu stages of life as an alternative conceptual framework for development, we integrate two core underlying principles of the Hindu life-cycle to illustrate how both the what and how of development are addressed—namely, the individual as situated in the social world and the pursuit of moksha (which transcends social embeddedness) as the ultimate goal of life.
The “What” of Development
We propose that the expressive–constitutive dimension of the Hindu life-cycle is represented in the underlying structure or organizing principle of the Hindu stages as transformations in social relations—that is, in relations between individual and social world. The cyclical and repeating transformations (induct–embed–detach) push an individual through an ever-widening social world, with dissolution at each level leading to a birth into a higher level of synthesis with the social world, until one reaches the highest level of oneness with the universe represented in Brahma. For example, the child is introduced at birth to the mother, then family, then larger kinship (in some cases the village), and then through the guru to the larger peer group (see Table 13–1). (p.289)
Table 13.1 Hindu Life-Stages: Structure and Content Dimensions
Ritual marking end of period/Transition to next
Expressive–Constitutive (Organizing principle—Central Mode of Relationship)
Instrumental–Communicative (Strategies; scripts)
Jatakarma (marking birth; welcome to life)
Organizing principle: No separation between self and other.
Parents—indulge, ensure survival;
Infants—express needs and have needs filled.
Dyad in family
Dyad in world
Organizing principle: gradual exposure and orientation to social world.
Primacy of mother–child relationship;
Parents—support mother in her role;
Child—to form relationship with mother or primary caretakers.
9 months to 2–3 yrs
Chudakarana (tonsure, shaving head)
Organizing principle: self–other distinction but as embedded in dyadic social relationships;
End of period: dyadic dissolution and psychological birth.
Parents—socialize child to be function in dyadic relationships
Child—learning conventions of dyadic relationships
2/3 to 5/7 years
(begin formal education)
Familial relationships are developed
Organizing principle: Consolidation of familial relationships;
End of period: dissolution of family relationships while transitioning to extrafamilial social world.
Parents—socialize into roles and obligations of dyadic relationships first in nuclear family, then extended, and finally in world;
Children—learn to contextualize relationships and roles; be obedient, respectful, conforming.
5–7 to 8–12 years
Dissolution of familial relationships and social birth marked by Upanayana ceremony.
Organizing principle: enter adult world as novitiate or inductee.
Parents—socialize to function in extra familial settings, especially formal settings;
Children—learn social conventions; social responsibility; practice of religious rituals; acquire self-discipline.
12 years through adulthood
Organizing principle: induction into adult world, through focus on student–teacher relationships for learning.
Along with skill development (usually vocational) there is considerable emphasis on overall human development—that is, on qualities or human virtues like discipline, concentration, attention, introspection, and willpower or self-control.
Emphasis on skill development: “Dhurandhar vidvaan”
For example, response to hunger is trained by practicing delayed gratification through “vrattas” (fasts);
Motivational appetite and self-discipline is trained by practicing celibacy and dharma or dutiful living, whether or not it felt good.
Young adulthood to middle adulthood (marked by marriage)
Organizing principle: embedded in social world with responsibility for others; focus on householder responsibilities.
The individual, prepared through the Brahmacharya phase, is given social sanction to enjoy all worldly pleasures of wealth, sexuality, attachment, and savor them as a connoisseur, but with a focus on the value of controlled and measured reactions to these impulses.
Principles of Dharma and Karma govern life decisions:
prayer, sermon, meditation, reflective practice is used to manage desires for worldly pleasures, not by repressing or denying them but by learning to recognize these cognitions in one’s psyche with meditational and reflective practice and controlling their response to them by self-adjustment, self-discipline, and regulation.
Mid-adulthood to old age
Stage viewed as an idealized pathway to achieve nirvana during the next stage: sanyasa
Disengage from social relationships, personal wealth directed toward caretaking at large;
Organizing principle: dissolution of and detachment from individual relationships while becoming embedded in society at large.
To allow oneself to be treated as just another life form devoid of family name, fame, fortune and even basic pleasures of life was the goal of this stage, either by retiring to a forest or becoming a “bhikshuk” living on scraps donated by others.
Preparation for Moksha
The onus of truly renouncing one’s egoistical strivings and engaging in generative/altruistic action for public good.
Strategies are of self-control and spiritual development aiming toward higher spiritual and self-understanding, lowering of egoistical impulses, understanding temporality of life, and actively disengaging from worldly and bodily pleasures.
Renounce all social and material relationships.
Organizing principle: dissolution of all relationships to transcend worldly relationships and become part of universe.
Aspire for salvation, having given up worldly strivings and realizing one’s essence as the manifestation of the same power that governs the universe.
Focus on Moksha; become “nirlipta” (no bonds); merge self with cosmic energy “so-hum” (Samadhi). Transcend bodily self—asceticism. Hence, late life physical declines have less negative psychological impact.
(p.292) Further, we suggest that the instrumental-communicative dimension and means of adapting to the socio-cultural world derive from the ideal or end-point of development. As stated earlier, in the Hindu developmental perspective, what develops is the spiritual self (atman), which is conceptualized differently than the embodied self. The developmental teleological goal is liberation of this spiritual self at a higher level, through self-purification, to finally merge with the Brahman (moksha). However, the significance attached to need fulfillment at each stage suggests a simultaneous attention to changes in the development of the embodied self. The developmental trajectory, therefore, is one of increasing self-control through self-discipline and purification to identify with the spiritual self rather than take pride in the fallible temporal embodied self. Throughout the stages of development, the samskaras (rites and rituals) marking maturation and moral growth or refinement (Madan, 1987) emphasize instrumental strategies and means of adaptation that promote self-discipline aimed at self-realization in terms of the spiritual self, going beyond merely the body. Because the body nurtures the spirit and is instrumental in performing righteous deeds, the first half of the lifespan is devoted to the development of control over body and mind, and the latter half of lifespan focuses more on mental control of desires, ego, and emotion (see Table 13–1, for examples of instrumental strategies at each stage). Thus, the development of reflective meta-cognition and wisdom is of prime importance to Hindu psychological ideals. We may view the ashramadharmas as fostering self-discipline and control by providing instrumental scripts for action from late childhood onward to support transformations in structure of relations between the individual and social world. The instrumental scripts and strategies foster setting personal goals in accordance with social norms and expectations and may facilitate use of available resources and support. Through social sanctions, as well as approval and disapproval by society, social expectations serve as an orientation or standard for development, selection, pursuit, maintenance, and disengagement of personal goals.
To summarize, we argue that the dual characterization of self as spiritual and embodied self with emphasis on purification, perfection, and transcendence from repetitive life-cycles to unite with the cosmos reflects an alternative to the dichotomy between the individual and social world. It reflects a conception of “individual-in-social-world,” while also representing a dialectic fusion or synthesis of individualism and collectivism. This intersection of the individual as socially situated and yet as following a path of individual self-realization represents a fusion that is perhaps best represented as “individualism-in-collectivism” (implying inseparability of individualistic and collectivistic ideals). This synthesis is apparent in the voices of women in the study by Menon and Shweder (1998), wherein the women who might appear docile, submissive, and subject to many restrictions in fact display their culturally constructed sense of agency, power, and belief that their karma is in their hands.
Further, this characterization also represents a synthesis of structure and content in that the Hindu life-stages represent both dimensions of what develops (the structural organization of the stages, as well as the content dimension). (p.293) But the question remains: In what way is the synthesis of “individualism-in-collectivism” different from other models of development that focus on the individual as situated in the social world? As stated earlier, we suggest that the difference lies in the Hindu conception of developmental transformations—that is, the “how” of development.
The “How” of Development or Nature of Change
Once again we use Overton’s framework to review Hindu concepts of how change occurs. Hindu constructs of change include both transformational (from one stage of life to another) as well as variational changes (individual differences in paths taken as well as the degree of progress made). As Overton suggests, from an inclusive relational meta-theoretical position, we argue that Hindu constructs offer a conceptualization of both transformational change (i.e., that drive and structure progress through the stages of life), as well as those changes that reflect individual variations in specific strategies and pathways taken.
Transformational change explains changes in the organizing principles of stages. In other words, these are changes that everyone goes through. Tied synchronously with these changes are Hindu childhood rights and ceremonial rituals shaping the child’s world and initiating the child into progressively larger social circles from the symbiotic mother–infant dyad to a full-fledged member in the community. A“samskara refers to the forming well or thoroughly, with sanskriti (culture) as opposed to prakriti (nature). It points to the process of maturation, of moral perfectibility.” (Madan, 1987, p. 99). The samskaras ceremoniously mark the transition points of a widening world of childhood and place the child at the center of rites that also command the intense participation of the whole family. As such, these samskaras heighten a sense of both belonging and personal distinctiveness—that is, they strengthen the child’s budding sense of identity while embedding this budding identity in an ever-widening cycle of social inclusiveness (Kakar, 1996). The relational value of the stages following the stage of childhood is summarized succinctly by Ramanujan (1990). “If brahmacharya (celibate studentship) is preparation for a full relational life, grhasthashrama (householder stage) is a full realization of it…vanaprastha (the retiring forest dweller) loosens the bonds, and sanyasa (renunciation) cremates all one`s past and present relations!”(p. 54).
In contrast to transformational change in a stage-like fashion that is applicable to all individuals, variational change explains individual differences in progress through the stages of development. Core constructs of the Hindu developmental perspective provide for a simultaneous focus on both transformational and variational change. The discontinuous transformational changes apply to the embodied self, and continuous variational changes apply to the individualistic spiritual self, both actualized via different paths and at different rates of progress.
In the lifelong pursuit of moksha, each stage of life involves progressively deeper understanding of one’s nature, greater humility, and a higher level of (p.294) volitional control over one’s physical and mental (impulsive) self. People are encouraged to expand their capacity in executive function (ability to think, plan, reflect) to develop meta-cognition and control impulses of sexuality (kama), aggression (krodha), greed (lobha), and attachment (moha) to objects and people. These psychological strivings are thought to make people act in reactive ways for self-serving purposes. There being no end to material desires, people are advised to recognize the insatiability of material wants of the embodied self and instead identify with the spiritual self. The practice of reflection is encouraged because it can increase alertness to early signs of these cognitions, giving people the ability to control their responses to them by self-adjustment and regulation. A person in a higher state of spiritual self-control is considered wise, demonstrates equanimity, and is not easily reactive in anger or excitement but demonstrates focused intentional action and arousal.
With an inherent belief in the plasticity and malleability in human development at all stages, Hindus accept individual variation. From birth, individuals are believed to be positioned differently in their personal goal to achieve moksha. Their actions during life modify their advancement on this goal. Furthermore, refinement can be obtained flexibly via many paths, depending on intellect and inclination such as karmayoga (selfless service, as represented by Mother Theresa), bhaktiyoga, (complete devotion to God through prayer and meditation), and gyanayoga (pursuit of knowledge/enlightenment). Furthermore, the pathways noted above allow the person the flexibility to pursue the goal of moksha with different degrees of immersion in the collective social structure (e.g., in bhaktiyoga a person may renounce or walk away from worldly roles and responsibilities in pursuit of the higher pursuit of moksha prior to getting into grahasthya). Thus some individuals may not go through the stages of becoming a householder but directly progress via bhaktiyoga to leading the life of a saint.
Besides pursuing moksha, other worldly goals of the embodied selves in Hinduism depend on age, gender, caste, and chosen life paths. Attainment of these goals is achieved by actions conducted dutifully according to the moral code without awaiting reward or fearing social consequences. These Hindu notions of development represent variational change through the mechanism of “embodied action” (somewhat akin to action theory; Eckensberger, 2003). Actions involve intentional behavior toward meaningful goals and motivational processes and are accomplished via steps of planning, prioritizing, and managing oneself through accomplishment or failure of achieving outcomes.
Thus far we have focused on our response to the first two questions posed by our editor and outlined the Hindu developmental view to suggest that it is not adequately represented by current developmental theories nor does it fit into dichotomous East–West distinctions. It has its own unique teleological goal of development, distinctive structural stages and developmental tasks, and dialectic processes to accomplish these tasks, which are sufficiently distinct to warrant a third view of development. In addition, we have proposed that an examination of the locus of developmental change in different worldviews may serve as an organizing principle for theories, thus limiting the proliferation of (p.295) a theory for every culture. We now turn our attention briefly to the third question—namely, what is the relevance of the Hindu worldview in the current context of increased interface between cultures?
Implications of Hindu Life Conceptions in the Global Context
In our interdependent and interconnected world, it is imperative that people become better versed with the worldview of one another. We suggest that understanding Hindu psychology and developmental perspective can certainly contribute in this regard, although it might also raise questions about the relevance of the idealized notions presented above to everyday life of Hindus and their Diasporas around the world. We do not claim that the above description fits all Hindus any more than an individualistic model fits all European Americans. As with other nations, India is undergoing rapid socio-economic change. The one unambiguous agreement among all visitors to India is its incredible diversity and coexistence of stark contrasts. We contend that the belief system we have described and analyzed cuts across region, caste, and class variations and provides a common unifying force for a very large proportion of Indians amidst all the diversity. The degree of orthodoxy of practice may well vary, but beliefs in the basic tenets (such as karma, dharma, and moksha) as well as the rites and rituals of stages of life continue to maintain a stronghold regardless of income, education, and residence (Bharati, 1985; Menon, 2003; Radhakrishnan & Moore, 1957; Sen, 2005). Witnessing any significant life event, such as a birth, marriage ceremony, 80th birthday, or a cremation, reveals the common shared culture of the people. Interestingly, as can be expected with a diverse society, an underlying worldview appears to pervade the psyche of non-Hindu Indians as well because of its popularization via media and practice.
This mosaic of a multicultural, gigantic society in transition offers a fertile ground for the study of dynamics between individual-level and societal-level changes. But, the contribution of the Hindu worldview can be more penetrating and pervasive if we broaden our scientific mindset to address the dialectical questions outlined in preceding sections showing the uniqueness of Indian constructs. For example, we know that cultural psychology and developmental psychology are inextricably intertwined and that people develop within the context of cultures, which are also evolving over time (Keller & Greenfield, 2000). But answers to the core question of how individuals absorb, transmit, perpetrate, and, at the same time, change cultures with their individual interpretations of it seem to elude us. These sorts of questions involve dialectical change, synthesis, and integration from which we shy away because we struggle to address them with our current theoretical and methodological tools. Instead of shying away from these dynamics of change, synthesis, and integration that characterize much of developmental psychology, we need to bring them back into focus and take bolder measures to look for answers. We claim that a balanced approach would be beneficial for psychology (p.296) (see Hermans, 2001; Hermans & Kempen, 1998) but have limited ourselves to lip-service for over a half-century while remaining entrenched in polarizing dichotomies and debates of nature–nurture, continuous–discontinuous progression of development, active–passive view of the developing person, or, more recently, individualism–collectivism (see Saraswathi, 2005, on dichotomies in the study of self) as well as primary–secondary control and coping. Overton (2006) includes such reductionist theories that frame concepts as polar opposites or antinomies within one meta-theoretical perspective, which he terms, split metatheory.
Contrary to thinking of concepts in polarities, the Hindu developmental view challenges us to think of concepts in dialectic and contextual terms. Using the example of the “individualism–collectivism” polarity, we call for a third view to integrate the Hindu perspective because it cannot be forced to fit within such a continuum. Similar arguments can be made for many other constructs outlined in the Hindu worldview. For example, much debate has ensued related to the optimization of primary and secondary control model (OPS model; Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995; Schulz & Heckhausen, 1999) as to whether secondary control is in fact secondary (Gould, 1999) or, for that matter, if it is even control (Morling, 2006, 2007; Skinner, 2007). According to the Hindu perspective, these are not linear opposites and using one does not preclude the use of the other. In fact, acceptance (secondary control) may be what leads to changing the environment to bring it in better synchrony with oneself—that is, adapting to it. But, as Morling and Evered (2006) stated, “Western people may not wish to acknowledge that they simultaneously consider changing the environment and adapting to it, because this would acknowledge a self-contradiction that Westerners are acculturated to avoid” (p. 293).
Scientific training and articulation of psychological constructs in polar terms—especially where one pole has an advantaged position versus the other—is a formidable barrier to an inclusive developmental psychology and to efforts at integrating cultural and developmental psychology. To the extent that the Hindu psychological perspective has a high tolerance for co-existing contradictions, juxtaposed dualities, and holistic syntheses (Sinha & Tripathi, 1994), we see a consonance between the Hindu perspective and Overton’s relational metatheory that involves the synthesis of opposites. In our view, developmental psychology needs to grow further in a direction that is more encompassing of complex human-environment dialectics to build bridges with cultural psychology.
Furthermore, we think such theoretical advancements will be ineffective without associated advancements in how constructs are measured, because meta-theories are closely tied to meta-methods (Overton 2006). The physical science model of an objective psychology has shut the doors to self-observation methods such as those employed in contemplative meditation in the Hindu worldview, which may, in fact, be quite fruitful in the study of adult development in particular. The recent explosion of research in mindfullness-based-stress-reduction methods in biopsychology and health sciences reveals the fertility of such methods of inquiry. When done routinely, yoga postures and (p.297) breathing exercises (pranayama) have been found to cure and prevent physical ailments as well as mental states (stress, anxiety, depression) and offer a gold mine for further developmental psychological inquiry. Deliberate and mindful reactions to stimuli (such as those involved in acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, hope) can actually increase a sense of control and are related directly and indirectly to physiology and mental well-being (Nyklícˇek and Kuijpers, 2008). In our achievement-oriented stressful lifestyles, practices that nurture the spiritual self and help us regulate ourselves hold the promise of abundant balanced living. The Hindu developmental worldview was developed as a practically oriented path to afford balanced living and mental health (equanimity). Developmental science may also find it a fruitful model on how to seam the chasm between theory and practice in the art of living.
Our grateful thanks to Richard Shweder, Jaan Valsiner, Fred Rothbaum, R. C. Tripathi, Girishwar Misra, Nandita Chaudhry, & Lila Krishnan for their constructive feedback on this chapter. We incorporated as many suggestions as we could, although, perhaps, gaps still remain, and the best can always be bettered.
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(1.) For those interested in learning more about the Hindu philosophical influence on psychology more generally we recommend other sources such as Paranjpe (1998), Chakkrath (2005), Laungauni (2007) and Rao, Paranjpe, & Dalal (2008).
(2.) Development of upper castes and males was anchored to these idealized life-stages as benchmarks. Our discussion reflects the focus on life-stages as applicable to males. For a more specific focus on women, see Menon and Shweder (1998).
(3.) The chapter reflects one way of approaching Hindu life-stages that we think helps bridge Hindu cultural psychology with meta-relational perspectives in developmental science. Other authors have approached life-stages in somewhat different ways (Chakkrath, 2005; Menon & Shweder, 1998) and have enumerated other core values of the Hindu worldview that extend the contribution of Indian psychology (Laungani, 2007).
(4.) The Hindu life-stages described here are an idealized view applicable to the three upper castes (among the fourfold division of castes) and to males in particular. However, the core concepts of Dharma, Karma, and Moksha color the worldview of a vast majority of Hindus, including those of the lower castes as well among those converted to other religions, with the exception of Islam.