Romila Thapar on Ageing
International Women’s Day special
On the eve of her 90th birthday, sociologist and gender specialist Zarina Bhatty decided to give herself a gift which she wants to share with the world this International Women’s Day.
Bhatty edited a book ‘A Portrait of Ageing’ in which 11 veteran writers including Professor Romila Thapar, Uma Chakravarti, Mohini Giri, Hasan Suroor and Rami Chhabra have been invited to spare a thought for the elderly in these youth obsessed times.
‘Having plodded on and reached a very ripe age of 89, I have been giving some thought both to the positive and negative aspects of old age in the present technology dominated and individual driven society,’ writes Bhatty in the introduction adding that it is time for some conscious raising about the state of senior citizens in the country today.
According to the 2020 National Commission on Population report it is estimated that there are nearly 138 million elderly persons in the country. Out of this colossal figure 67 million are men and 71 million women, the growth rate of the elderly population being higher than that of the general population.
Below is an excerpt from ‘The Last Stage’, the chapter contributed by Romila Thapar where the historian talks of the marginality of the ageing ones, especially women and ideas of afterlife:
“Old age cannot be considered a separate entity of one’s life. It is integrated after all, with what went before, even if it is the last phase. Every culture has a myth or a theory of how one must live one’s life if ideally allowed to. Many suggestions have been made on how to do so.
“A length of life can be viewed in various ways. Let me take as an example the one that is held out as an ideal division. The reason for the divisions is left rather vague, and the definitions are opaque and can be read in various ways. It comes from just one limited aspect of our culture and is by no means widely practiced, but its idiom has caught the fancy of many. Interestingly what is suggested as an activity for old age becomes, not always, but quite frequently, an effective way to negate the prescribed social life.
“I am referring to the theory from Brahmanical texts that speak of the four Ashramas, the four stages of life. The idea comes from Brahmanical texts but also resonates with others.
In a highly patriarchal society such as ours, only upper-caste men are eligible to live life by these four stages. Women are not mentioned.
“The first of the four Ashramas, when one is a youth, is that of Brahmachari and is the stage to study, but not just study. it assumes a distancing from family, where the student leaves home and goes to live with a teacher and his other students. In such a system, family relations tend to become temporarily somewhat distant.
“It primarily involves the relationship between the student and the teacher, where what the teacher teaches is imprinted on the student’s mind and is not questioned or argued over.
“It could also but to a lesser degree, be imprinted by quiet discussions with the peer group, that of fellow students. This stage fits the pathshala, gurukul and madrasah systems where the teaching is taken for granted as correct and not to be questioned.
“The early years of childhood are taken as the most formative.
Witness the selection of the Dalai Lama when he is a young child and therefore can be better trained. I think the Jesuits also maintained that they required the child to be placed in their care only for his first seven years would guarantee a good Catholic Christian.
“Then comes the second state, that of the Grihastha, when the student returns to society. He becomes a householder. He has an occupation that brings income, and he marries and raises a family.
“Middle life is spent on ensuring the welfare of the family. Ideally, there is a compete commitment to society and social rules in this state. The pattern of society is preferably not to be questioned, and the grihastha follows the rules.
“Of course, there are the nastikas, dissenters, and non-believers who do not observe the rules. They abjure the grihastha stage, become renouncers, and join monasteries where they live all their lives. But this was only a tiny percentage of people for whom Brahmanism was unacceptable.
“The third stage of Vanaprastha is a partial moving away from society. The man who founded or inherited the household can consider leaving it when his children and grandchildren have taken over its maintenance. If he so wishes, his wife can accompany him.
“The couple is ageing, and their presence in the household is not essential. They have to turn their attention to other thoughts. Ageing also involves differences with the younger ones. Was this suggested as a kind of safety valve to prevent friction in the household? Often there is a bonding between grandparents and grandchildren.
“Incidentally, this stage could also be a subtle way of introducing the marginality of the ageing ones. The earlier two stages are a requirement for respectable living. The third stage is optional. It contradicts the second stage, but the tie to society is not severed.
“The final stage of Samnyasa comes with recognized old age. The man goes into the wilderness to contemplate his life, to think his thoughts and prepare for the final exit. This is done solely and voluntarily by whoever may wish to do so.
“His life now negates all his links to society and the family. His death rituals are sometimes performed before his final departure from home and from the people he has lived with. His distancing is also marked by the final ritual when he actually dies he is not cremated but is buried in a sitting position.
“Given its source, this theory gives little attention to women’s life-times. Young girls are not educated. They are merely taught to help in the household and trained to be good wives. Grihastha, in a sense, is their basic education.
“They may accompany their husbands later in life to an ashrama or be left behind. The latter would not have been an attractive alternative since such a woman was not the most welcome in many families. The even more unwelcome women were widows.
“Ageing widows get pushed around in the family home and end up in homes for widows, such as the ones in Vrindavana and elsewhere. For many centuries the Shramana religions provided a more viable choice. They maintained nunneries, and some still do. There was, therefore, an alternative life for women too.
“It has been suggested that these four stages were worked out in Brahmanical texts to counter Shramana renunciation and residing in their monasteries.
“Entry into a monastery was at a younger age bypassing the duty of a householder. This was viewed as essential to the continuance of society and therefore frowned upon by Brahmanical opinion. Renunciation was open to anyone at any age.
“Children could become novice monks and nuns, live in monasteries and nunneries, and be tutored in religious texts. To avoid this, the four-stage scheme does allow renunciation but only after one has fulfilled one’s obligations to society in the first two stages.
“In theory, the last stage is, in some ways, a negation of the previous three as it contradicts their purpose. It is a negation of living as a social being both participating in and contributing to society. The negation is permitted only in old age when in any case, age necessitates a degree of withdrawal.
“Isolation alone gives a distinctive quality to old age as it provides the freedom to think of one’s thoughts to reflect on what one has made of one’s life. It is also intended to make one think of the proximity to the threshold of death in anticipation of what may or may not lie beyond. Not surprisingly, much of the literature from such thinking focuses on questions of mortality and immortality.
“Some of these ideas are provocatively referred to in the Katha Upanishad dialogue between Nachiketas and Yama, the God of Death. Possibly the central question posed by Nachiketas which Yama hesitates to answer, concerns the mystery of death. What happens to a person at death? Is he still there?
“In a stark way, it raises what some regard as the fundamental question. Is death a termination or is there an immortal soul that is released when the body dies, and this soul has continuity into the next life? This would make it imperative that the body, being of a material substance, deteriorate and dies, hence the link between old age and death.
“The continuity of the soul from the body that has passed to the one that is born is assumed but can it logically be so, as there is no recognizable connection between the two? For all practical purposes, it is a new life.
“The assumed karma connection linking the actions of the present life to the next one is an idea that some believe in and some do not. Similarly, the afterlife in heaven or hell is entirely a matter of belief. Needless to say, these many theories about projected afterlife are often solace to those suffering from a problematic life on earth.
“By contrast, one thinks about the myth invariably quoted as the narrative of immortality from early Indian sources: the myth of the churning of the ocean. The devas/gods and the asuras/demons were anxious to drink it. So each held one end of an enormous snake used as a churning rope, and a massive churning took place.
“Many objects and deities surfaced, and finally came the elixir. The gods consumed it as fast as they could after a near miss when the asuras tried to take it away, which the gods prevented them from doing.
“The gods, therefore, became the only immortal ones. The myth captures the imagination of many cultures, but undoubtedly, its most impressive representation is in a long sculptured panel along one side of the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
“Much has been written about it, and speculation about its many meanings abound. The gods had to be immortal, and the humans mortal. Given that we know humans have no immortality, this had to be a fundamental difference between man and god.
“According to some texts, the exception is that there is neither old age nor death in heaven. But one has to reach heaven first. In a sense, humans are imprisoned in their mortality, whereas the gods escape with immortality. Gods never grow old.
“However, two human incarnations of Vishnu die but not of old age. Rama and Krishna live from infancy to adulthood but do not become old men. They die before that.
“One popular belief is that after returning to Ayodhya and after the episode when Sita left him, Rama walked into the Sarayu river. Krishna was meditating in the forest when a hunter saw his foot from a distance and mistaking it for a deer shot an arrow into it.
“But significantly, the name of the hunter was Jara, becoming old. This introduces a touch of ambiguity.
“The question of immortality that is linked to that of age was among the more widely debated questions in early times. Belief in it was foundational to established religion.
“Still, it was contested by those that did not accept the idea, such as the many Shramana sects of the Buddhists, Jainas and Ajivikas. The materialist philosophers, the Charvakas and Lokayatas, rejected it entirely. The debate was lively and continued through centuries.
“Other religions had other theories about the afterlife. These involved Judgement Day and going to either heaven or hell. Although some, even among the latter, preferred the idea of rebirth or reincarnation…
“Contemplating one’s life begins when one distances oneself from the family one has created and lived with. How real is the concept of samnyasa/ asceticism? As one ages, one tends to cling to family and friends rather than move away from them.
“Living with loneliness can be a way of life that appeals to only a few. Most people are socially gregarious.
“Ageing, of course, does not happen in complete isolation because even the ascetic requires the presence of a caregiver. In the past, families played this role.
“Today it is one of the traumas of ageing in societies where the nuclear family has replaced the extended family since the elderly have to search for a caregiver. Families are not always present or able to provide care.