Maintaining Inspiration in Ashram and Sannyasa Life

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Ganga Darshan, 3 December 1994

After many years of poorna sannyasa life one can get tired of institutional life and feel mouldy and rusty. When physical communication with one's guru is becoming increasingly rare, what philosophy, way of thinking and attitude can renew that inner drive and inspiration?

There are two ways to answer this question: one is institutional and the other is personal or human. Institutionally, in the sannyasa tradition it is said that you have to live in an ashram environment for a period of twelve years. After twelve years you leave the ashram and go through the stage of parivrajaka for as long as is necessary to attain maturity in life, and then settle down working for the benefit of the community and your own spiritual life. Once, when people had fewer desires and ambitions, they could spend twelve years in the ashram, attain whatever they needed according to their capacity, and then move out with the blessings of the guru, the teacher, the master, taking with them an aim, a direction in life, while maintaining contact with the ashram, the guru and the guru's mission. That was the traditional approach.

On a personal or human level, if I look at the generations of sannyasins who have been through the ashram, from my own generation of the late 1960s and 1970s to the present generation, there has been a great change in the mentality and behaviour of the sannyasins who have stayed in the ashram. Many times a spontaneous assessment happens in my mind about the kind of life we had and the work we did in the early days, and how today, within the ashram structure, we have to accommodate everyone's ambitions and needs. Things have definitely changed and will keep on changing according to the times.

Role of the ashram

Today people come to the ashram with one aim, one ambition. It is not a clear, sattwic aim; it is an ambition to realise or to become something or to have an opportunity to express their nature and creativity. We have to think very clearly about what we want to achieve in life. If we have ambitions for power then sannyasa life is definitely not going to work out. If we have other types of ambitions, such as meditating for twenty-four hours a day or doing sadhana whenever we please, then that is also not going to work out, because it is not the ashram's direction to fulfil people's ambitions.

The ashram is a place where opportunities are provided to develop immunity from the negative tendencies in life. That is my firm belief and conviction. In order to attain this immunity from the negative, tamasic and rajasic environment, one has to be very clear headed. Not everyone who wears geru is a perfect being; sometimes people who wear geru tend to misuse the trust of the guru, the institution and the mission. Geru is only the beginning of a process which continues on and on for life; it is not an end. I don't become a saint by wearing geru; rather geru represents a trust which my guru has placed in me, hoping that one day I will have the ability to fulfil that trust, to fulfil that mission which he has given me.

The vision of an ashram is immunity. The vision of a sannyasin is transcendence through immunity. In order to develop this awareness, however, we have to discover what we need to do in life. There is no doubt that in the ashram personal ambitions play a very strong role because they come out here. But if we have awareness then we can learn how to handle and channel whatever negativity is appearing. We come to an ashram with a desire to become, to attain or to realise something. Then later we may find that the people with whom we are living are often worse than us. Although you are wearing yellow, you may feel that you are better than a person who is wearing geru and has been in the ashram for forty years.

We have to consider the limitations, the ambitions and egos of everyone, and at the same time we have to provide each one with an opportunity for expression. That is the job of the teacher, and it is very difficult because often there is also dependency on the teacher. When the teacher provides a person with an outlet through which to express their nature, other people often react and due to their limitations create some crisis or problems or difficulties for that person. The guru or teacher has to manage to keep everyone happy while they may be fighting among themselves.

Discovering the spirit of the ashram

An ashram environment provides many opportunities. If you are aware of them then hopefully you won't get rusty and mouldy, because you learn to take every day as a new day of your life and not as a continuation of the past. Looking back at my sannyasa life, I feel that I have not utilised my full ability or strength. There is so much more that I could do or could have done, but I don't feel rusty or mouldy. Whereas for some people spending one day in an ashram can be like one year and they become extremely negative about the whole situation. These are the realities of life. But when I look at my own life, I feel that in all these years I have gone through a process of learning and I am still learning and I will continue to learn, because I am aware of the opportunities an ashram can provide me with.

First, the ashram provides the opportunity to observe one's interactions with people – whether I react to you positively or negatively and how I can handle that reaction to create inner harmony. Second, how I can maintain my clear headedness, a clear train of thought and not succumb to negativity from other people. Third, what can I do to support and help other people in whatever they are doing. Fourth, what are the ways by which I can develop immunity from the effects of karmas, of ambitions and ego. The ashram can provide many, many opportunities in life to those who want them. It is only a matter of discovering the spirit of the ashram and one can do this only when one is in tune with and feels a part of the environment.

Renewing the inspiration

On an organisational level, I am thinking of introducing a system where, after completion of a few years, swamis are pushed out of the ashram for six months or one year to fend for themselves, so that they can learn how to survive in society without being dependent on the ashram or on the teacher. Live a normal life and after one year, if the inclination and inspiration continue to be there, then come back for another few years. It often happens that when you are in an environment you don't appreciate it, and only when you leave do you realise what was there and return with renewed inspiration. This will not apply to people who are living part-time outside the ashram, such as karma sannyasins who have their own families and jobs and respect for ashram and sannyasa life.

We are very immature in relation to the world. In the confined environment of the ashram we are able to see many things, but in the world there are too many distractions which allow us to divert our attention here and there whenever we feel a crisis is coming. Outside we can escape from a crisis, but in an ashram we cannot escape, we have to face the crisis. At the same time, however, if sannyasa is to be lived in its true essence we should not lose touch with the realities that exist outside the ashram gates.

Moment of dedication

It is important not to lose the inspiration with which we first arrive. The only example I can find of someone who has not lost that original inspiration is Paramahamsaji. We come with inspiration but then, when we get caught up in the external situations and circumstances, the purity of that inspiration is lost to us. Maybe the inspiration continues but it is definitely not pure and it doesn't give us the same strength and stamina to deal with the existing situations and conditions. I became aware of Paramahamsaji's inspiration when he sent a message for the Tyag Golden Jubilee Convention. The message was: “I still hold dear to my heart and cherish the moment of dedication, fifty years ago, when I surrendered myself to my guru, Swami Sivananda.” This shows a mentality which has always remembered the beginning and not the end.

We are always concerned with the result and not with the beginning or how to go about it. If we are students we want a degree to display. If we are sannyasins we also want a degree. What is the difference? The degree becomes our aim and not the moment of dedication. Remembering that moment of dedication is a very powerful inspiration in itself, which makes one realise that, I am a seeker on the path and have many miles to go before I rest.

So the original inspiration should be maintained. Every disciple has to make an effort to remember what the motivation, the pull, the attraction was which brought you to this path, and how that pull, that attraction became a force in your inner life. Only then will you not feel rusty or mouldy.