The Place of the Ashram in Spiritual Life

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

When we start the spiritual journey it is like a rebirth, a new awakening into the unknown inner dimension. It is a complete about turn! Another direction is taken and we begin to walk the invisible path, to discover the vast uncharted land within. Such a journey is exciting but dangerous if not properly and systematically planned and directed by a master traveller.

Spiritual Child

In order for the spiritual child to grow and develop, the mind and vision to expand and the hidden faculties to emerge, the ashram environment and the guidance of a guru are essential. In the beginning, the aspirant must be nurtured and protected from the dangers and temptations of the outside world which will confuse, distract and devour him. The ashram environment provides this protective atmosphere for encouraging a different quality of mind, broad vision, strong willpower, detachment and discrimination, under the caring eye of the guru, enabling us to master the forces of nature, both internal and external. However, it is important to realise right from the very beginning that the ashram is not a place for escaping from reality, but a place where we have to come face to face with ourselves.

Birth of the ashram

An ashram is a spiritual powerhouse, first established in ancient times by siddhas and gurus of a very high order whose sole purpose was the spiritual wellbeing of all seekers within its fold. According to Swami Sivananda: “Ashrams are born on account of the pure mental ray of a yogic sankalpa, not on account of their own personal desire.” Usually the guru is forced to create an ashram because thousands of people come to him for guidance. They come to the ashram so that they can absorb and utilise his knowledge and keep their inner flame lit. The type of ashram is dependent on the kind of people who come and their needs.

Rajneesh says: “The ashram, the commune of the master and his disciples, is an upanishadic discovery. It is not a monastery – that is a totally different phenomenon. It is not a condemnation of the world but a place where you learn the art of how to live in the world.”

Guiding spirit

When we begin spiritual life we are travelling within spiritual darkness, avidya, so we need a light, someone to illumine the path into the dark night. Therefore, an ashram needs a guiding spirit, an inspirer, a human dynamo from which to draw courage and strength. This guiding light is the way, the gate into our own selves. The ashram becomes the focal point for tapping into the tremendous storehouse of spiritual energy generated by the guru and his sadhana.

The ashram is, in fact, an extension of the guru's energy. Due to him alone, the ashram is a living, breathing organism, always evolving, never static! His compassion is like a great sea of energy; we have to learn how to ride those energy waves and tune into the source in order to awaken the evolutionary energy that lies deep within us. In the presence of a living guru we can quickly experience breakthroughs in the realm of consciousness.

Swami Sivananda talks about the powerhouse of guru energy thus: “An ashram is run by a selfless yogi who is a realised, liberated soul. It is a dynamic centre of spirituality for the upliftment of thousands. A correspondingly large amount of spiritual force flows in and stimulates the spiritual faculties of those who take part in the common functions...spiritual entities, eternally perfected beings are present in those places where common spiritual functions are conducted. When people in the ashram join to practise yoga, meditation or to chant the Lord's name, a huge spiritual current is generated which purifies the hearts of the practitioners and the atmosphere.”

So, the ashram is born, lives and sometimes dies with the guru. He is behind the whole drama of ashram life but uninvolved in it. It has been said that when the philosophy of the moving spirit disintegrates, not only ashrams but even nations disintegrate with them.

Maintaining the ashram vibration

In the ashram our energies are constantly intermingling; we vibrate within the same energy fields. This positive spiritual energy is not understood by the mind but our inner being comprehends it very well. The serenity, power, purity and greatness of these vibrations must, therefore, be maintained. So we keep the life very simple and natural and the environment very neat and clean. We follow simple disciplines like fixed times of eating and sleeping, silence, participating in karma yoga, etc. The atmosphere should be free from negative thinking, worldly gossip, political discussion, TV and radio and reading of newspapers and cheap novels. When the outer life is simple and systematic then the mind will follow suit. Simplicity is another name for divine vibration, but whenever worldly desires and cravings come in the atmosphere is polluted. We must always keep in mind, therefore, that ashram life gives us what we need and not what we want.

Austerity and penance

The simplicity and discipline of ashram is a type of penance which accelerates the pace of our evolution. Most ashrams of any worth are set in an isolated place and are designed to make life naturally difficult – no proper roads, no telephones, no hot water, no electricity, no worldly contact, etc. The conditions are austere and extreme.

Paramahamsa Satyananda says: “The austerity of ashram life brings about a great metamorphosis of body and mind, otherwise we live just like robots in luxury. The ashram should be built along simple lines. It should be situated in an out of the way place where there are so many difficulties. At times there should be cyclones, floods and extreme heat or cold. Sometimes it should be pleasant and at other times very suffocating. This is my concept of a very beautiful ashram. This is how God created Nature.”

By subjecting ourselves voluntarily to the hardships of ashram living we develop strong, stable and balanced minds and a lot of psychological problems become cleared. As a result we can cope more easily, creatively and spontaneously with the world. The ashram is thus a catalytic agent in the evolutionary process, so one should participate in all of its activities in order to gain the full benefit and also contribute to the ashram vibration, growth and progress.

There is no harmonious growth of the whole without the progress of each one of its parts. The growth of the ashram and our own spiritual growth increase simultaneously when we join with full heart and mind in all its functions. In fact, the ashram is an external expression of what should be taking place in the mind and heart.

Egodectomy and remoulding the personality

Regarding the ashram and spiritual growth Swami Sivananda writes: “Atmic knowledge, strength born of discrimination (viveka), inner inexhaustible spiritual strength born of wisdom and atma (soul) can be had only in an ashram, not in trigonometry, B.Comms and M.Comms. Only he who has discrimination and dispassion (vairagya), who has inner life, can serve the world. Such people are produced by ashrams. He who has no longing, no craving, no egoism, no sense of mineness, in whom the egodectomy has been performed – we want such people who have undergone the egodectomy operation. This operation is done only in ashrams.”

It is the ego which stands between us and our own selves and between us and advancement on the spiritual path. However, in an ashram one loses one's normal ego props. Our well known fixed routines, thinking and behaviour patterns are steadily and systematically broken according to our level of acceptance and understanding. This enables us to tap new resources within ourselves that we have not drawn upon and awakens our natural intuitive and creative faculties.

It is not possible to make the ashram conform to our model of being. We have to learn to adapt to and adjust with others which brings us face to face with our own frustrations, ambitions, insecurities and weaknesses. We begin to reassess things and our angle of vision changes. The egodectomy involves a kind of death in relation to our true needs, in relation to power, status, sex and money, which can be a very painful process.

Living in the now

In the ashram we are forced to live in the present. The environment is so immediate, so vital and fluid, so demanding and full that there is no time to escape into the past and future. We thus gain the ability of living in the here and now. Situations, people, work and interactions are always changing and the atmosphere is so fresh and alive that it forces the mind to be always alert and extrovert in the present moment. By cutting off the escape routes into the past and future and following regular discipline, we come face to face with our fixed behaviour patterns and rigid conditioning of who we think we are, and can see that it is all a mere fabrication – an illusion! We have been identifying with an illusory self which does not, in fact, exist. This illusion has to be shattered if we are to progress in spiritual life and the ashram is the place to shatter it, because it is like a continuous encounter group in which self-observation and analysis become a fulltime occupation. It could, in fact, be called the perfect psychotherapeutic environment!

Ashram and society

When we join an ashram, or stay in one for an extended period of time, we should always remember that we come from society of which we are a product. We should be able to relate to people and serve them, not just live a cavelike existence. So, at the same time as we undergo a process of self-evolution and enfoldment we must also perform nishkaam seva, selfless service. Sadhana and service must go hand in hand. As Paramahamsa Satyananda says: “He who lives for others truly lives.”

Mahatma Gandhi has also said: “I do not want my house (his ashram) to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be barred. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible, because I do not want to be blown off my feet by any one of them. Mine is not a religion of the prison house. It has room for the least among God's creatures; it is proof against insolent pride of race, religion and colour.”

Importance of karma yoga

The basic concept of ashram centres around hard work. We work out our karma by means of karma yoga, not expecting anything in return. We work for the purification of our awareness. We cannot clean the dross of the mind unless we involve ourselves in action or karma. In the words of Paramahamsa Satyananda: “The ashram is a place of spiritual and physical labour where both physical and mental energy is expended to work out karma. All types of energy are expressed and channelised in the form of work.”

If we did not involve ourselves in work we could not handle the energy awakening which takes place with spiritual growth. Furthermore, we need to keep the mind constantly engaged to pacify it, otherwise it becomes negative, dissipated and unsteady and poses a threat to us. Physical work relaxes tensions, minimises passions and excitement and balances the metabolic process. In general, karma yoga purifies the body and mind to such an extent that spiritual experiences come automatically. And because the ashram is structured in an absolutely different way to worldly life, a lot of sadhana is not necessary – the whole of life, every action, becomes a sadhana through the scientific process of karma yoga.

According to Swami Niranjanananda: “Karma yoga has to be understood not as the yoga of action, but as the yoga of rearranging the entire personality for the better; not as a method of submitting to someone's will, but as a method of knowing the visible and invisible actions taking place within the personality. It is, therefore, not mere physical activity but the psychological aspect of yoga and leads one to an awakened state of awareness. Its principal aim is to harmonise the action of the self which leads to union with the higher Self. Through meditative action and observation the vision changes. Every action and reaction has to be observed. There should be no ego identity – total surrender. This leads to purity, to dimensions unknown where we can experience the action of joy and light and that is perfect karma yoga.”

The good of the whole

One must work for the good of the whole. For this, roles of subordination and cooperation are vital, both to diminish the ego and prevent administrative chaos. In the words of Sri Aurobindo: “You have to put aside your own ideas, preferences and criticisms. To feel hurt by what others say, do or think is always a sign of weakness, and proof that the whole being is not turned towards the divine interest alone.”