I have travelled far away to fascinating places all over the world. One of them was Thailand, which impressed me a lot because of the visible traces of Vedic culture in its traditions and heritage. Vedic concepts are so intricately woven into their religion, social culture and folklore that it is certain that there was a very strong link. The legend of Rama is a household one. Just as we do in India, the Thai people enact the story of Rama through their song, dance, art and sculpture. Just as he is for us, there too Rama is both the perfect man as well as divinity incarnated. The streets and roads are named after the heroes of the Ramayana and so too are the hotels and businesses. This indicates a mass awareness of the tales of Rama and Sita.
There I visited a gigantic Brahma temple. Apart from India, the land of the Vedas, this is the only other place in the world where Brahma, the creator, is worshipped. Part of the Vedic trinity, Brahma is worshipped as the creator, along with Vishnu, the preserver, and Mahesh or Shiva, the transformer or destroyer. Naturally, once the creation has taken place, the creator has no role to play after that, hence the scarcity of Brahma temples as opposed to Vishnu and Shiva.
In the Vedic rites and rituals, apart from the trinity, Brahma is also eulogized as one of the panch mahadevas along with Vishnu, Mahesh, Devi and Ganesha. In 1968 when I visited that temple over one crore rupees of incense was burned daily in worship. Apart from that I also visited grandiose Buddha temples, which were simply spellbinding because of the sheer enormity of their size as well as their attention to detail. I also felt that these were not just monuments of a dead and gone tradition but one that was vibrant and alive even today.
As I moved out of the capital city of Bangkok into the villages and rural area, I came across its monasteries, which maintained many of the same traditions as sannyasins in India do for our people. After all, it is the sannyasa traditions and wandering mendicants or sadhus that are to be applauded for preserving these traditions for us. If they did not do it, we would simply have no access to this knowledge.
I lived in their monasteries as a bhikshu, which is the name given to their renunciates who subsist solely on bhiksha or alms. Each morning the bhikshus set out for the villages nearby and after collecting alms from five homes they sit down somewhere to have their only meal of the day. These monasteries do not have kitchens. Each and every inmate has to go out for bhiksha.
This has been the tradition in many ashrams of India too since very ancient times. In the sannyasa tradition of India this practice played a very important part in a sannyasins life. It gave him the practical experience of aparigraha or non-possession, which in turn purifies the ego and gives rise to an inner surrender to the will of the divine. Nowadays, however, if a sadhu goes for bhiksha in the village, he will get nothing. When you do not have food for yourself, what can you give to another? This tradition and culture is only possible in a prosperous society where you have plenty to feed yourself so that you can also think of others as well.
I saw that Thai men, women and children all come to these monasteries and spend a few days there, out of their own choice. This has become one of its unwritten traditions, so much so that even the king and queen live in the monasteries for some time to attain a new kind of experience. During their stay each and every person, even if they are from the royal family, followed the routines, disciplines and etiquette of the monastery. They wore unstitched cloth, slept on the floor without a special bed, shaved their heads, moved out for bhiksha like the renunciates, and followed all the other disciplines of that life in act, work and deed. Then when they came to leave they returned with a new and better focus, which gave them the skills needed to excel in life.
This is a most valuable contribution that ashrams have made to society. Just as in the Vedic era when the ashrams of Valmiki, Vashishtha and others were visited by people of all classes and all relevant sciences were taught to them according to their needs, in the same way the ashrams today provide a learning ground for children, youth and adults.
In my own life I have realized that all that I learnt at my guru's ashram was what was useful for me in life, not what I learnt in the textbooks in school. To know in which century Ashoka ruled the empire of India had no relevance to my life, but to know how to build a house did. All the crafts I have learnt or skills I have developed, whether it is writing, speaking, managing, administering, organizing, teaching or propagating, have been through my total and complete involvement in the activities and affairs of the ashram.
I learnt to cook and feed others and also to look after the needs of the sick and ailing. I learnt how to assume responsibility for my duties and tasks and how to complete them successfully. I learnt crisis management too. Sometimes we would wake up to find a problem and the whole day would pass trying to solve it. It used to be a challenging experience from which I always learnt a lot.
Once when we had to construct a building and had no water, we decided to dig a canal from high up in the mountains where there was a stream and bring it down to the ashram, which was many kilometres away. For this we made a big tank or reservoir in the ashram and collected the water. When released at the top, the water took a full month to reach the tank - that is how far it was. There are lessons that each individual has to learn about life so that he can face it squarely. Unfortunately this is not provided in schools or colleges and nor do the parents assume that role or responsibility towards their children. However, this training is crucial for the success or failure of an individual. Even if a child has no academic qualifications, if he has learnt these lessons he will be able to survive in life without difficulty. Because these lessons relate to his capacity to interact with life, to be able to take the correct decisions and formulate the correct ideas about what he should or should not do. Luck and opportunity knock on everyone's door at some time or the other, one should only know how to utilize it.
Here in India each family goes to an ashram for some time. Parents introduce their children to ashrams at a very tender age so that they can imbibe a strong and resilient foundation for their lives. Now, even that is not necessary because the children themselves are keen to visit the ashram. In an ashram you get a chance to forget yourself for a few moments and live only for others. This in itself gives you a new vision and concept, which is full of promise and confidence in yourself.
The greatest lesson we have to learn is the lesson of life. And this becomes available to us when we decide to step out of our routine existence and adopt some different ways to live by, even if it is for a short time. One of these ways is ashram life, where you can stay for a few days as a sannyasin and live a life that is diametrically opposite to yours and learn how to deal with different situations, different people, different problems and, at the same time, also learn to deal with yourself. Both children and adults should have this experience. Children, however, will gain more from this experience as their acceptance of the ashram is simple and straight from the heart.
In his youth, Rama lived in an ashram for twelve years, acquiring the skills needed by a young prince who is one day destined to rule. Sita, too, lived in Valmiki's ashram with her sons, Luva and Kusha. Krishna also lived in the ashram of Sandeepany. They too went out for bhiksha, slept on the floor and wore the simplest of clothing, although they were from the royal families.
Why were they sent for that life by their parents, who could have educated them in the palace itself by calling the best tutors for their education? We cannot merely say that it was the custom. Instead we will have to realize that it became the custom because of its relevance in the life of every individual.
Ashram life is as relevant in our lives today as it was then. Even today, to live in the ashram for a few days as a sannyasin offers you the scope for enlarging your vision about yourself, and about life as well. You begin to understand yourself better, which in itself is a great achievement because it is our great misunderstanding of ourselves that leads us to disharmony.
School going children feel more confident about themselves after residing in the ashram. They also begin to feel a responsibility towards life and the necessity for a sense of direction and focus. College kids are able to gain much more through their stays in the ashram by involving themselves totally in the ashram activities and routine. Through this they inculcate discipline and a sense of perfectionism and commitment to work, where the work is done not for its rewards but as an expression of creativity and joy. Newly married couples learn to shoulder their new responsibilities better through their stay in the ashram and adults gain from the spiritual environment that permeates the place.
The ashram acts a shock absorber for each individual. The traumas, stresses and strains of life sometimes get too demanding for us. They eat up our energy and deplete our reserves. The ashram is an ideal place to stay and recharge yourself by stepping out of your normal life and living not just for yourself. Or if you feel that some unknown obstacle is disturbing your life on account of which you are unable to progress. Often the studies are disturbed or the job unstable. Or the marriage is not materializing. In some cases lack of direction, commitment and seriousness about life could be the cause of disharmony. No matter what the cause, the ashram is a panacea for all ills.
I have seen many people who came to the ashrams at Rishikesh, Munger and even to Rikhia, and after living there for some time engaged in ashram life had a breakthrough. The ashram is not anyone's home. It belongs to everybody and yet to nobody. No one stays in an ashram forever. They come and go like flowing rivers finding new pathways and new terrain.
The word ashram is derived from the word shram, which means to labour. So shram forms the foundation of ashram life. Anything you set your heart on to achieve cannot be attained without struggle or effort from your side. A student labours hard to get good marks. A housewife labours hard to look after her family. A husband labours hard to meet the needs of his children. Each and every living creature struggles hard to survive.
In the ashram too the sannyasins labour very hard, but this struggle is for perfection of one's thoughts, words and deeds. The effort is towards attaining balance in these different facets of one's personality. The head, heart and hand must synchronize if you want to realize your goals, whether they are material, spiritual or both. The ashram provides a suitable environment for this metamorphosis to take place because the lifeline of the ashram is spiritual. By spiritual I mean pure and untainted.
Purity of environment enhances that side of our personality which is ready to accept inherent weaknesses and blemishes, change our outlook and opinion as well as improve ourselves. The fault is not in the environment or in the people with whom we have to interact, the problems we face arise from within. The circumstances only act as a catalyst to bring them to the surface. Everything you feel, think, say or do is coming from deep within. Ashram life gives you the chance to reflect on this and therefore the changes that take place in you after spending time in the ashram are more permanent and abiding.
Ashram culture is going to be a panacea for the people of this modern era because it will provide them with a positive environment to explode that seed of creativity which is dormant within them.