Vanaprastha: The Work of the Forest

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Erikson’s Concept of Generativity

Erik Erikson was a leading figure in the fields of psychoanalysis and human development. His conception of the life cycle remains highly influential. 

Each developmental step entails “a potential crisis because of a radical change of perspective. Crisis…connotes…a turning point, a crucial period of increased vulnerability and heightened potential, and therefore, the … source of (both) strength and maladjustment.”

Erik Erikson 1

Most generative people work at their jobs because they feel it is necessary to do so: even if they have already earned enough to survive, they feel they must continue to work to support themselves and their family in a manner commensurate with expectations and ambitions that typically relate to social and economic standing.

The stage of development characterized by generativity generally occurs between the ages of 40–65. During this stage the well-adjusted person is making progress in the career she established earlier in adulthood. Individuals at this stage contribute to society through their role as parents, employees, or employers. They may also be active in community organizations. Yet later in this stage concerns relating to economic and social positioning become less pressing for some and are no longer sufficient to motivate work. Dante famously alluded to the mid-life transition in the fourteenth century:

Midway upon the journey of our life,

I found myself within a forest dark

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.2

Although this crisis can feel disorienting, it does not presage an end to generativity: if it is successfully resolved it gives rise to a new kind of productive work. This new stage is based on a new sense of identity that is less concerned with economic and social positioning. It can be captured by the words “I am what survives of me”.3

Erikson’s Encounter with Dharma

Erikson encountered the Hindu concept of Vanaprastha while writing Ghandi’s Truth, his psychobiography of Mohandas Gandhi. Erikson admired the Hindu scheme but refrained from integrating it into his conception of the life cycle. In this image Gandhi is seated (center) with his secretary, Miss Sonia Schlesin, and his colleague Mr. Polak in front of his Law Office, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1905

“What we treat as a matter of maturational stages for the Hindu is dharma…”

Erik Erikson 4

While work pursued after resolution of this later in life “identity crisis” is generative, it is distinguishable from work motivated by previously predominant concerns. This new type of work is often pursued for decades prior to retirement and provides a rich source of meaning for those who find themselves less motivated by concerns that inspired success in earlier adulthood.

Erikson sought to describe life stages in objective terms. A type of work that existed between older adulthood and retirement – a type of work that corresponded to a stage of life and work that Hindu philosophers call Vanaprastha – was not particularly pertinent to the conceptual framework Erikson sought to describe. Erikson described developmental stages rather than culturally specific sources of meaning that drive work at each stage. The individual looked to cultural and religious systems – not psychoanalysis or the study of human development – to derive meaning from work. It was to these cultural systems, not theories of human development, to which the individual looks for meaning.

Erikson saw older adulthood as giving “indispensable perspective to the life cycle” and noted that the “great philosophical and religious systems…seem to have remained responsibly related to the cultures and civilizations of their times.” 5 In his profile of Erikson’s ideas, Robert Coles writes that Erikson found “in dharma a congenial way of seeing man’s efforts, struggles and achievements.” 6 Erikson may have had Vanaprastha in mind when he observed that culturally sanctioned avenues of transcendence were based on renunciation yet remained ethically concerned with the “maintenance of the world.” 7 Systems of meaning functioned as a means of motivating work for the individual and conformed to the needs of society at large.

The Intentions that Generate Work

“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

David Foster Wallace8

Vanaprastha captures an approach to work that is otherwise difficult to describe. The western lexicon lacks a concept that refers to work distinct from that which we do “to make a living” and that is primarily motivated by concerns that transcend necessity, personal survival, or positional concerns related to social standing, wealth, and power.

Hannah Arendt’s concept of Action9 is relevant to discussion of the conditions that govern work insofar as it refers to work that is untethered to economic necessity. But while Action is a type of activity that is pursued for the good of the community, it does not address the developmental or spiritual context surrounding such work. Action is a category of activity that is distinguishable from what one does to “make a living” but does not correspond to a developmental or spiritual stage.

While one can find excellent conceptualization of adult development in the ideas of Erik Erikson and a superb categorization of the different conditions that govern work in the ideas of Hannah Arendt, the Western intellectual tradition lacks a concept that refers to a developmental stage characterized by work motivated by wisdom.

The Concept of Vanaprastha

The term Vanaprastha comes from the Sanskrit words meaning “retiring” and “into the forest”.

“Strength (in older adulthood) takes the form of that detached yet active concern with life bounded by death, which we call wisdom… accumulated knowledge, mature judgement, and inclusive understanding. Not that each (individual) can evolve wisdom for himself. For most, a living tradition provides the essence of it.” 10

Whereas Western philosophical and religious systems lack a conceptual category that corresponds to a life stage characterized by transcendent work, Hindu philosophy clearly identifies such a stage. Vanaprastha refers to a stage of life that calls for generativity inspired by wisdom.

Vanaprastha entails the purposeful pulling back from old professional and personal duties to become more devoted to activities propelled by wisdom. The word comes from the Sanskrit words meaning “retiring” and “into the forest”. The individual does not literally “retire”: he continues to engage in generative activity, but such activity is embedded in a new system of meaning.

Erikson11 would have readily acknowledged two facts that point to the relevance of the Hindu concept of Vanaprastha:

  • Work can be motivated by wisdom.
  • Wisdom entails much more than a retrospective positive assessment of one’s past accomplishments.

Wisdom in Vanaprastha constitutes a new form of generativity. While it entails a form of “retirement”, it is not the person or goal directed activity that is “retired” but rather the individual’s preoccupation with egocentric concern.

Knowledge versus Wisdom

The work pursued during Vanaprastha employs what Arthur Brooks (following Raymond Cattell) calls “crystallized intelligence”. 12 Whereas “fluid intelligence” is used to fuel success early in one’s career, crystallized intelligence corresponds to wisdom and becomes more relevant to one’s career in later adulthood. Crystallized intelligence refers to the ability to use knowledge learned in the past. It increases with age. Put simply, “when you are young you can generate lots of facts, when you are old, you know what these facts mean and how to use them.” Brooks distills the essence of the distinction by citing an aphorism: “knowledge (i.e., fluid intelligence) is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom (i.e., crystallized intelligence) is knowing not to put it in fruit salad.”

The Hindu concept of Vanaprastha adds perspective to a range of difficulties commonly encountered among adult strivers. In Hindu philosophy, Vanaprastha is the third stage of life: the stage preceding it is called Grihastha. During the Grihastha stage it is appropriate to build a career, accumulate wealth and maintain a family. Difficulties frequently arise in Grihastha among those who are deemed highly successful by conventional standards. From a Hindu perspective, such difficulties occur because these high achievers “get stuck” in this stage: Successful strivers become excessively attached to the money, power and prestige that flows from this type of work and “try to make this stage last a lifetime”.

Brooks describes the distress frequently encountered among people who have achieved generative success. They frequently fail to embrace skills that grow in older adulthood (crystallized intelligence) but rather cling to the fluid intelligence that has historically helped them achieve success in the world. Ongoing attachment to money, power and prestige leads strivers to try to prolong Grihastha instead of moving to a new stage of work and life, Vanaprastha.13

Advancement and Recapitulation

… a civilization can be measured by the meaning it gives to the full cycle of life, for such meaning, or the lack of it, cannot fail to reach into the beginnings of the next generation, and thus into the chances of others to meet ultimate questions with some clarity and strength.”

Erik Erikson14

Vanaprastha does not entail a literal move to the forest or withdrawal: It is rather a metaphor that illustrates a different way of engaging with the world. Most Hindus at this stage of life stayed with their families and communities. Vanaprastha involves a gradual change in the individual’s focus where concern for the immediate family evolves into a broader interest in the well-being of society. Whereas work had previously been predicated on the pursuit of “personal gain”, one’s newly forming identity entails pursuit of a “better world”.

The individual gradually detaches from her previous role and assumes a new role. She may evolve into a counselor, peacemaker, judge, and teacher. He may become an advisor to the young and middle aged and typically shapes the direction of work undertaken by others.15, 16, 17 To the extent that the identity, motivations, and intentions that predominate in Vanaprastha focus on benefitting the community at large, they not only correspond to the spiritual development of the individual but also reflect the conditions surrounding development of the human capacity to work. In this sense Vanaprastha simultaneously reflects an advancement and a recapitulation: While the generative individual progresses spiritually by responding to the needs of the community, by focusing on group survival Vanaprastha also evokes the primordial origins of work and the social context within which our capacity to work evolved.


  1. Erikson, Erik. Identity, Youth, & Crisis. Norton, 1968.
  2. As cited in Brooks, Arthur. From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. Penguin, 2022.
    Dante Aligheri (1995) The Divine Comedy (A. Mandelbaum, trans.) London: David Campbell.
  3. Erikson 1968.
  4. Coles, Robert. Erik Erikson: The Growth of His Work. Atlantic Monthly Press. 1970.
  5. Erikson 1968.
  6. Coles 1970
  7. Coles 1970.
  8. As cited in Brooks, 2022. Wallace, David Foster (2009). This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life. New York: Little, Brown.
  9. See and for further discussion of Arendt’s ideas.
  10. Erikson 1968.
  11. Erikson’s scheme does not specifically describe a change in the type of generativity that can occur after career building but prior to retirement. The wisdom that potentially characterizes Erikson’s final stage of development – Integrity vs. Despair – is limited to those 65 and older for whom retirement is approaching or has already taken place. Wisdom at Erikson’s stage of Integrity vs. Despair entails acceptance of what one has already accomplished and the feeling that one has lived a successful life.
  12. Brooks 2022.
  13. Brooks 2022.
  14. Brooks 2022.
    For entries 15 through 17, see:
  15. Albertina Nugteren (2005). Belief, Bounty, and Beauty: Rituals Around Sacred Trees in India. Brill Academic.
  16. Sahebrao, Genu Nigal (1986). Axiological Approach to the Vedas. Northern Book Centre.
  17. Mariasusai Dharvamony (1982). Classical Hinduism.

4 thoughts

  1. This is terrific Andy. Very evocative and worth spending time with to understand what you are “generating” here. I see you there, in the forest!

    The finality and the lethality of COVID has pushed my thoughts about career and work in this direction.

    Question: how did the concept of Vanaprastha cross your path?

    1. I am indebted to Arthur Brooks for re-introducing me to the concept. His recently published book (referenced in the article) discusses
      the concept, and I was immediately struck by its relevance. I then re-visited Erikson to better understand how it fit into Erikson’s conception of the life cycle.

      1. Excellent – thank you. One final thought (although this essay has struck a chord in me and in friends, so there are actually many many thoughts!): trees are one of the few organisms that grow more and more fertile with time. This seems to fit the spirit of Vanaprastha!

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