Vanaprastha: Becoming Conscious of Your Mortality
On this Spot, Sadhguru answers a question on vanaprastha, in Indian tradition the last phase of life, where one withdraws from worldly activities and into the forest. How does living in the forest help you die well? And is this traditional prescription still relevant in modern times? Read on to find out.
Questioner: There has been this tradition in India of vanaprastha, that is, beyond a certain age, one is supposed to go into the forest and live there. This is supposed to help them die well. What is the rationale behind that? And how to take this decision in modern times?
Sadhguru: In modern times, if you walk away into the forest, thinking you are in vanaprastha, there is not much danger of tigers eating you up or anything like that, because there are very few. But there is every chance that you may get arrested. Vanaprastha does not necessarily mean going to the forest. Yes, vana means forest, but vana can also mean garden. Essentially, the idea was to withdraw from a place that has four walls. You do not want to live in four walls, because four walls create a false sense of immortality. If you are already in a box, it gives you a coffin-like feeling. When you live in a coffin, you think you are going to be here forever.
You should do this – on Purnima nights, ladies should sleep outside. On Amavasya nights, men should sleep outside – no matter if it is cold, it rains, or whatever else happens. If you sleep outside, you will feel vulnerable. You will understand, your very body will understand clearly that it is not forever. That is the fundamental idea of vanaprastha. You build a home not to make yourself immortal, but because a human child is not designed to grow up totally outdoors. It takes some time for a human body and mind to get to a certain level. When an elephant is born, the mother elephant stands next to the baby for three days – then both of them just walk away in the jungle.
A human child needs a few years of nurture and protection. At that time, along with the children, you also enjoyed the comfort of four walls. But then, people had enough sense to understand that if you think that you are immortal, you live with a lie. You being immortal is a lie. To make that very clear – not just intellectually but in every way – the first thing is to step out of four walls. This is why many sadhus and sanyasis never sleep in buildings. They will either sleep under a tree, or, if the weather is very harsh, they will sleep in a cave or something like this. Even if they build buildings, they just build a roof, leaving the sides open. Or if they do build walls, they will always be of mud. It will never be an over-protected kind of situation.
Being in touch with the earth and the elements constantly reminds the body of its mortality. It may not be in your head, but the earth constantly reminds your body that you are just a pop-up. You will go back to the earth. When people say they are ill and something is wrong, the first thing I tell them is to work in the garden. The idea is to bring the body in contact with the earth. The earth is both nurture and the ultimate resting place for everybody. Unless you go with Elon Musk and have your body buried on some other planet. Otherwise, this is where we come from – this is where we go to.
In a closed, four-walled structure, there is no such reminder. People assume they are immortal. Even if someone dies at ninety, they say, “He was so healthy and well – suddenly he died.” He has been dying for ninety years! People’s idea of death is that somebody should be dragged to the hospital, and after at least a few months of torture, as the bill is growing, they will say, “Let him die.”
If you want to become conscious that this body is mortal, the first thing is to step out of protected atmospheres, so that the body feels and understands that it has to go at some point. Actually, many people who moved into vanaprastha became very healthy. I have seen this, both here at the Isha Yoga Center and at the iii (Isha Institute of Inner-sciences, USA). People moved into the ashram because they were already over sixty-five. But in the last eight to ten years, they have become so much fitter, younger, and healthier. They are looking much better and stronger than ever before, just by being exposed to the elements and walking around a lot.
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People do not go to vanaprastha to die there but because they are conscious that they have to die, which is very important. It is not that because you reached a certain chronological age, you must die today or tomorrow. But you must be conscious that you are mortal. Once you are completely conscious that you are mortal, you will see everything – property, money, relationships – with a distance. You will understand that this is a web you created for your survival. You managed to catch a few people in it, but you should not be stuck in it. You should keep a little distance to it, knowing that it has to go when it is time.
Vanaprastha essentially meant to be in communion with vana or the forest, so that you do not live with a lie of being immortal. Mortality comes home. Let’s say there is a storm. When it is pouring heavily, you may be sitting in your room with your music turned on or your headphones plugged in, not hearing anything, not experiencing anything. But if you are out in the jungle, just one storm, and you will see how vulnerable the human body is. If even for a night, you stay out there, in the lightning, the thunder, the rain, and the wind, suddenly, a certain wisdom arises within you. I have seen this with seasoned mountaineers – exposed to the elements and risking life every day brings a certain stillness and ease. You understand that you are mortal. You know if you make one mistake, you are dead.
Vanaprastha is just that – to bring a deep sense of mortality to this body. If the body knows it is mortal, it gradually calibrates itself well. It will not foolishly waste its energy. It will definitely live much longer. Vanaprastha is not necessarily about dying. It is about making a person absolutely conscious of one’s mortality. Without that, a human being is not a human being – they will live a very idiotic life. You know, Gautama the Buddha used to refer to the whole world as fools. He was not wrong, though he could have been a little gentler. But he was from BC – he could say what he wanted. I am in the twenty-first century – I have to say some nice things.
The understanding and the wisdom behind that is essentially this: clearly, every cell in your body should know that you are mortal. Once you know that you are mortal, you will become super energy efficient. If you just move consciously, without wasting anything, then you are doing yoga, in a way. The physical dimension of yoga is to teach the body how to do something in a graceful way, without any kind of aberration. This will also happen to a human being if one becomes fully conscious. Cobras, for example, are instinctive creatures. If you are at total ease, they cannot bite you. Only if they see your chemistry is agitated, if they sense fear in you, will they go for you. If you see that you are mortal, you have to be fully conscious. Death could come in the form of a snake.
This is why we have set ourselves up near a forest – you must feel the elements. If none of the elements are touching you, you will not even know that you are a life. Most of the time, you are just a bundle of thoughts, emotions, ideas, opinions, prejudices, and nonsense. If you sleep outside and there is a thunderstorm that night, all your ideas, opinions, thoughts, and emotions will vanish. You will understand you are part of the elements. Unfortunately, most people have not really been outdoors in any serious sense.
Only those who are walking around, feeling life, know they are mortal. You built homes, you built protection, you made arrangements for a certain stage of life, to handle certain things, because a human being is also a social creature. But once you feel that you are done with that, you must go into vanaprastha. Going into the forest is not a possibility now, so people come to ashrams. Some have come early, though it is never too early.
Even in earlier times, when people went into vanaprastha, they did not necessary live completely out in the open. They went into an ashram, deep in the jungle, where arrangements – clothing, food, everything – were very simple and frugal. You were exposed to nature and the elements. When you are in a forest, you cannot forget your mortality. Mortality is not an idea. It is a reality that is calling this body every moment. If your body does not hear that call, your mind will become stupid. Vanaprastha is an effort to get out of that stupidity, to get out of that web of lies that every human being creates.
In the coming years, we will make many more arrangements in terms of vanaprastha, because even those who came young are slowly getting old.