Life in the Guru's Ashram

Swami Mangalmurti Saraswati

Even disciples living in the intense vibrational sphere of the guru's ashram sometimes fall into complacency and forget why they have come. In the beginning of this year, on a normal working day, the guru unexpectedly withdrew himself from us. Before dawn all the ashram offices and departments including the kitchen were locked. Guru remained in his room, refusing food and keeping a detached silence from everyone. There was no work, no food, no word or sign of interest from him all day. A stony and self-inquiring atmosphere descended upon the ashram. The usual question, 'What is happening?' took on an intense new light. Our recent attitude towards work and ashram life had definitely become increasingly slack and guru felt it the most. We seemed to be losing our understanding and perspective of discipline and why it is a necessary part of ashram life.

Guru never explained his actions directly to us, but in a short time we came to realize the necessity of assuming more responsibility for ourselves and the sadhana of our work and ashram life. Childish dependence upon him and ashram authority to force us to maintain discipline and to keep up the continual work routine had to be transcended. Without self-discipline our spiritual evolution had no foundation. If guru has to continually police the ashram and develop community enforcement as if his disciples are naughty children who will never learn, what is the spiritual benefit? This is not what guru's energy is ultimately meant for. After being told what he expects from us, we should know fundamentally what must be done and how each one of us can do it. But we must also develop acceptance and learn to integrate our work and guru's teachings into our lives. Otherwise, how will our consciousness ever awake to the powerful world beyond the sphere of our present limited knowledge.

Our involvement with the guru and his teachings needs solidity and depth. The 'bhakti image' of devotion that appears in the new disciple is not enough. Along with the feelings of pure, unselfish, divine love, there must be a corresponding acceptance, an intelligent enthusiasm and desire for his teachings. The guru's withdrawal was not only a way of intensifying his demands, it was also a test for the ashramites. It was a method of awakening us from our fantasies distractions and general unawareness of daily actions and reactions. The guru's anger is in fact a blessing to shake our minds back to the present reality and the real aim and purpose of ashram life.

It is not enough for disciples to merely fulfil the nominal student-conditions regarding money, food, sex, study and work. It is quite possible to live in the ashram as a student and behave perfectly, yet still never 'serve the guru' in a deeper sense. If through lack of discipline, we continue to encourage the different aspects of our personal ego, our spiritual growth will be very slow.

Guru expresses himself to us in many different ways, but mostly through the medium of work. Work is our sadhana and it must be done with awareness and a higher aim, otherwise we are no different from the millions of other people who live more or less static lives without evolving much towards self-realization; The material world is held in bondage by the very things which many of us continue to generate here. These distractions carry us far away from both the guru and any spiritual awakening. Ashram is not for social gathering, relaxation and having a good time. Here we must direct our energy totally towards work and developing a deeper relationship with guru and life in all aspects. We must freely and willingly submit ourselves to every kind of discipline without recrimination or reprisals.

Accepting the basic conditions and commitments of ashram life creates the intensity of tapas, because here none of our preferences, desires and habits are even slightly indulged. However, each person usually tries to minimize that intensity by 'exerting himself in various ways. We argue for our rights, compare our past and present conditions, refuse to acknowledge authority and often neglect the responsibility or work that the guru has given us. There are always problems as people project their own way of thinking and acting into their work. These are all ways of avoiding the intensity of the inner struggle. Trying to discipline ourselves further, to be open and accepting, makes the pressure of sadhana and ashram life that much more difficult to endure. But this is precisely the point where we begin to develop deeper knowledge and insight, which is the purpose of living in the ashram near the guru.

The basis of our sadhana is to frustrate our personal egotistical drives, but the ego does not want to die and resists our prods. However, through this frustration-self-observation, the form of our limited mental realm becomes apparent. Emotions such as fear, loneliness and aversion can be recognized as soon as we start to identify with them. Thus, we are able to detach ourselves from them before they can distract us from the real source of peace within. This is the wonder and salvation of karma yoga. It is not an annihilation, but a perfect awakening of the unlimited and unqualified consciousness or self.

Intense sadhana lays a firm foundation of understanding and self-control for our future experiences. As we progress into the deeper layers of the mind, willpower and understanding are required. The guru's physical presence is indeed a blessing. Through this disguised form of love, we are given the opportunity to awaken from our lower tamasic nature. To intensify our sadhana, we must learn to impose self-discipline upon ourselves to restrict and control our personal habits and desires. This necessitates the rechanneling of endless urges to indulge ourselves and waste time. The opportunity of being trained under austere living conditions may seem harsh and unattractive to us now, but in the future these very problems and obstacles which are being created for our growth will become the foundation of our spiritual life and the source of our most pleasant memories and dreams of 'early ashram life'.

Through constant tuning with guru and our work, we begin to communicate with the deeper levels of ourselves. As more of our personal tendencies and weaknesses become obvious, our sadhana becomes more important to us as a means of overcoming them. Until we understand this clearly and are able to discipline ourselves without being forced by guru's prodding presence, how can we expect to establish a special relationship with him? Until the guru's teaching is fulfilled in our sadhana and daily life, he will continue to be present only in the form of the teaching, which brings us no closer to 'Satyam's door'.