Grihastha (Sanskrit: gr̥hastha) literally means “being in and occupied with home, family” or “householder”. It refers to the second phase of an individual’s life in a four age-based stages of the Hindu ashram system. It follows Brahmacharya (bachelor student) life stage, and embodies a married life, with the duties of maintaining a home, raising a family, educating one’s children, and leading a family-centred and a dharmic social life.
This stage of Ashrama is conceptually followed by Vanaprastha (forest dweller, retired) and Sannyasa (renunciation). Combined with other three life stages, Hindu philosophy considers these stages as a facet of Dharma concept, something essential to completing the full development of a human being and fulfilling all the needs of the individual and society.
Ancient and medieval era texts of Hinduism consider Grihastha stage as the most important of all stages in sociological context, as human beings in this stage not only pursue a virtuous life, they produce food and wealth that sustains people in other stages of life, as well as the offsprings that continues mankind. The householder stage is also considered in Indian philosophy as one where the most intense physical, sexual, emotional, occupational, social and material attachments exist in a human being’s life.
In Indian traditions, Grihastha stage of life is a recommendation, but not a requirement. Any Brahmacharya may, if he or she wants, skip householder and retirement stage, go straight to Sannyasa stage of life, thereby renouncing worldly and materialistic pursuits and dedicating their lives to spiritual pursuits.
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The Sanskrit word Grihastha (गृहस्थ) is a composite “Grih-astha” of two root words Grih (गृह) and Astha (अस्थ). Grih means “home, family, house”, while Asth means “devoted to, occupied with, being in”. Grihastha means that which “being in and occupied with home, family” or simply “householder”.
Grihastha is part of the ancient Hindu concept called Chaturashrama, which identified four stages of a human life, with distinct differences based on natural human needs and drives, as well as how these stages integrated with fulfilling, joyful four goals of life called Purushartha – Dharma (piety, morality, duties), Artha (wealth, health, means of life), Kama (love, relationships, emotions) and Moksha (liberation, freedom, self-realization). Grihastha is considered to be the most intense of all four stages, where a man or woman pursues all four goals of life, with greater emphasis on first three – Dharma, Artha and Kama. In contrast, Sannyasa is the stage where the individual renounces Artha and Kama, and pursues Moksha with a single minded pursuit.
The stage “Grihastha” is preceded by Brahmacharya (student) stage of life, and followed by Vanaprastha (retirement, forest dweller, still an advisor to the next generation) stage. In ancient texts, Grihastha stage of life is said to extend from the age of about 25 to about 50.
A man or woman entered the Grihastha stage after a Hindu wedding. They would build a home, raise a family, earn wealth, enjoy worldly life and participate in the society through virtues such as charity.
The Chandogya Upanishad and Vedānta Sūtras discuss all four stages of life – student, householder, retired/hermit and ascetic. However they hold Grihastha ashram as the highest because, explains verse III.4.48, not only does the householder performs the duties recommended for all four asramas, they have to produce food and goods on which people in other ashramas survive. The shared duties of four ashramas are – tenderness for all living creatures (ahimsa), self-restraints, and others.
Some chapters of the Upanishads, for example hymn 4.4.22 of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, specify only three stages of human life – Brahmacharya, Grihastha and Vanaprastha. They make no mention of gender, class or caste restrictions on these stages of life. All three stages are recommended as path to Brahman (inner Self, Soul). In contrast, later texts specify four stages of human life.
- Dharmasutras and Dharmasmritis
Grihastha ashram, declares Gautama Dharmasutra in verses 3.2 and 3.3, is the foundation of all the ashrams, and essential to the existence and continuation of society because the other three ashrams do not produce offspring.
Manusmriti, similarly states in Sections VI.87 through VI.90, that it is the householders who feed all those in other three stages of life, and those who seek spiritual pursuits live on, attain fulfillment because of those who accept and prosper in Grihastha ashram. Manusmriti uses the concept of ashram broadly, and in verses III.77 to III.80, declares Grihastha stage as noble, excellent and that “just like all beings need air to survive, so do all beings take life from the Grihastha Ashram because of the food they produce and knowledge they apply”.
In Sections IV.1 through IV.6, Manusmriti states a Brahmana, after being twice-born and completing his studies with his teacher, should marry and live in his house. He must seek a means of living that causes no injury or least possible injury to all living beings, except in times of distress. For this householder stage, the text declares that the Brahmana (graduate from Brahmacharya) should accumulate property by ethically pursuing his caste’s occupation. Manusmriti lists five appropriate sources of income or means for survival for the educated Brahmana – Ṛta (ऋत, lawful gleaning and gathering, proper natural work), Amrta (अमृत, accepting gifts and charity), Mrta (मृत, begging), Pramrta (प्रमृत, agriculture, tillage) and Satyanrta (सत्यानृत, trade, commerce, money lending). The text disapproves of one means of survival for the householder – Shvavritti (श्ववृत्ति, dog-like subsistence, servitude, slavery).
When the scriptural studies appropriate to the student have been completed, and he has received blessings of his Guru, let him enter into the order of the Grihastha (householder). Let him pursue and obtain, by ethical ways, home, wife, and wealth, discharge to the best of his ability the duties of his life’s stage. He should satisfy the soul of his ancestors with funeral cakes; the gods with oblations; guests with hospitality; the sages with holy study; the progenitors of mankind with progeny; the spirits with reverence; and all the world with words of truth.— Vishnu Purana, 3.IX.1 – 3.IX.31 
The Indian Epics have extensive debates on Grihastha stage of life, offering a contrasting spectrum of views on its merits and nature. An illustrative recommended guidelines for conduct in householder stage of life is stated in Book 1, the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata, as follows,
It hath been said in the oldest Upanishad that a Grihastha (householder), acquiring wealth by honest means, should perform sacrifices; he should always give something in charity, should perform the rites of hospitality unto all arriving at his abode, and should never use anything without giving a portion thereof to others. He should abstain from all vicious acts, should never inflict pain on any creature. It is then only that he can achieve success.
- gRhastha Sanskrit English Dictionary, Koeln University
- S Radhakrishnan (1922), The Hindu Dharma, International Journal of Ethics, 33(1): 1-22
- RK Sharma (1999), Indian Society, Institutions and Change, ISBN 978-8171566655, page 28
- Sahebrao Genu Nigal (1986). Axiological approach to the Vedas. Northern Book Centre. pp. 110–114. ISBN 81-85119-18-X.
- Manilal Bose (1998). “5. Grihastha Ashrama, Vanprastha and Sanyasa”. Social and cultural history of ancient India. Concept Publishing Company. p. 68. ISBN 81-7022-598-1.
- L Mullatti (1995), Families in India: Beliefs and Realities, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 26(1): 11-25
- What is Hinduism? (Editors of Hinduism Today), Two noble paths of Dharma, p. 101, at Google Books, Family Life and Monastic Life, Chapter 10 with page 101 in particular
- Alban Widgery (1930), The Principles of Hindu Ethics, International Journal of Ethics, 40(2): 232-245
- Mazumdar and Mazumdar (2005), Home in the Context of Religion, in Home and Identity in Late Life: International Perspectives (Editor: Graham D. Rowles et al.), Springer, ISBN 978-0826127150, pages 81-103
- gRha Sanskrit English Dictionary, Koeln University
- stha Sanskrit English Dictionary, Koeln University
- R Sharma (1986), A Socio-political Study of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120800786, page 435
- John Gray (2009), Where truth happens: The Nepali house as Mandala, Anthropologica, 51(1): 195-208
- Max Muller, The Sacred Books of the East: The Vedanta-Sutras, Pt. 2, Vol. XXXVIII, Oxford University Press, pages 324-325
- Paul Deussen (1906), The Philosophy of the Upanishads, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, pages 54-61
- See the following Upanishads: Brahma, Sannyasa, Aruneya, Kantha, Paramahamsa, Jabala and Ashrama; For English translations and secondary source – see Paul Deussen (1906), The Philosophy of the Upanishads, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, pages 374-377
- Sanskrit Original: Gautama Dharma Sutra page 3;
English Translation: UC Pandey, Gautama Dharma Sutra, with the Mitaksara’ Sanskrit commentary of Haradatta, 1966, OCLC 702663294
- Original: ManuSmriti Chapter 6, Verses 87-90 (in Sanskrit);
English Translation: Max Muller, The Laws of Manu, p. 214, at Google Books, The Sacred Books of the East, Oxford University Press, pages 214-215
English Translation 2: RK Sharma (1999), Indian Society, Institutions and Change, ISBN 978-8171566655, page 28
- Max Muller, The Laws of Manu, p. 89, at Google Books, The Sacred Books of the East, Oxford University Press, page 89
- Original: ManuSmriti Chapter 4, Verses 1-6, pages 114-115 (in Sanskrit);
English Translation 1: Max Muller, The Laws of Manu, p. 128, at Google Books, The Sacred Books of the East, Oxford University Press, pages 128-129;
English Translation 2: William Jones (1796), Manu Smriti – Ordinances of Manu Chapter the Fourth, page 89
- Muller translates it as gleaning of corn, William Jones as lawful gleaning and gathering, Prasad translates it as proper natural work
- pramRta Koeln University, Germany
- satyAnRta Koeln University, Germany
- zvavRtti Koeln University, Germany
- Muller translates it as dog-like menial subsistence, William Jones translates this as service for hire, Prasad translates it as slavery
- Original: Vishnu Purana pages 209-211 (in Sanskrit);
English Translation: HH Wilson (Translator) Vishnu Purana, Volume 3 Book III, Chapter IX, pages 93-94
- See, for example, Adi Sankara’s commentary on The Bhagavad Gita of the Mahabharata, AM Sastri (Translator), at pages 83-95 and 179-182;
For another example, see Chapter 63, Book 13 of the Mahabharata, KM Ganguli (Translator)
- KM Ganguli (Translator), The Mahabharata – First Book Adi Parva Section XCI
- J. A. B Van Buitenen (1974), The Book of the Beginning, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0226846484
- MN Dutt (Translator), Sambhava Parva – Adi Parva The Mahabharata, verse 3, page 132