Were chaturashram (4 stages of life) applicable for all the 4 castes (Brahmin, Vaishya, Kshatriya, Shudra)? Did lower castes really get the chance to observe bramhacharya, i.e. to be educated?
The questions are:
Were chaturashram (4 stages of life) applicable for all the 4 castes (Brahmin, Vaishya, Kshatriya, Shudra)?
Did lower castes really get the chance to observe bramhacharya, i.e. to be educated?
Yes, it is applicable to the people of all varnas.
The four ashramas are: Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciate).
The 4 ashram system is an Ideal system. It has been devised with a view to driving home the idea of liberation/moksha into the minds of people. And, it can happen, if one can shift from ashrama to another smoothly.
It does not mean that everyone will adopt this system.
The story of Jada Bharata is a perfect example of in spite of one's sincere efforts, how cautious one should remain, so that our mind should not get entangled into the world attachments.
The story of Dharma Vyadha will be an eye opener to many, who thinks that a Sudra/householder cannot attain wisdom as well as tranquility in the midst of discharging householder's duties.
Was Chatur-ashram applicable for all the different castes?
No, Shudras are considered life-long grihasthas.
Shudras only belong in one Ashrama as per Gautama Smriti:
- Live with his wife (only)
'Another commentator explains the Sûtra to mean that he shall live with his wife only, and never enter another order (i.e. never become a student, hermit, or ascetic).'--Haradatta.
Some more verses:
Yogi-Yājñavalkya (Parāśaramādhava, p. 537).—‘There are four stages prescribed by the Veda for the Brāhmaṇa, three for the Kṣatriya, two for the Vaiśya and one for the Śūdra.’
Vāmanapurāṇa (Do.).—‘Four stages have been spoken of for the Brāhmaṇa; three only, i.e., those of the Householder, the Student, the Hermit, for the Kṣatriva; only two—Householdership and Hermitship—for the Vaiśya; only one, that of Householdership, is proper for the Śūdra.’
Smṛtyantara (Aparārka, p. 966; Parāśaramādhava, p. 538).—‘Having paid off the three debts, being freed from all notions of I and mine, the Brāhmaṇa, the Kṣatriya and the Vaiśya, [and not the Shudra] may go forth from the house.’