Ashram Life

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

How does living in the ashram accelerate evolution?

The ashram cannot be a permanent abode for anyone. It is a place where you can go for a short or long period of time in order to accelerate your spiritual growth, such is the atmosphere created there. From ancient times, ordinary people as well as monarchs have lived in ashrams just like sannyasins for fifteen days to six months. During this period they would live in a very simple way. They were actually trying to transform the very personality. They would keep minimal possessions, sleep on the floor, not keep any money, ornaments or valuables with them, and eat only once a day. Thereafter, they would go back to their normal householder life and find that they were able to see the world from a better perspective and manage life in a better way. Their peace of mind and strength were greater.

It is not possible for everyone to take sannyasa, but it is possible for everyone to enjoy and experience sannyasa life for at least fifteen days. When in the ashram, people must practise selfless service. In the olden days, ashrams had a lot of agricultural land and cows, but now ashrams are slightly different. Nevertheless, you must give yourself selflessly. You also develop detachment in the ashram. Although you live and work with fifty or more people, you realize that at the end you are not at all related to them.

Detachment is a very important qualification for a person who wants to acquire peace of mind and to progress spiritually. Detachment is not carelessness; it does not mean that you do not love or serve others. In the ashram you learn to love, serve, work and enjoy without any attachment. Love without attachment is a very difficult idea to understand, but when you live in the ashram in an atmosphere of peace, tranquillity and friendliness, you know how to manage and live with people without involving yourself in complicated relationships.

In the ashram all the samskaras come to the surface. In normal life this does not happen because there are many ways to escape reality. There are so many objects of sensual pleasure and distractions that your fears, anxieties, insecurities and passions cannot be seen. However, for an ashramite or sannyasin, all the deep-rooted complexes that were being suppressed come to the surface. This gives you a chance to know exactly what you contain. It is an opportunity to bring your deep-rooted personality to the forefront.

In the calm, quiet and unassuming atmosphere of the ashram, you can also decide what you can be. Outside, this is not possible. If you see an artist, you want to be an artist; if you see a sportsman, you want to be a sportsman; if you see a boxer, you want to be a boxer; if you see a cinema artist, you want to be a cinema artist; if you see a politician, you want to be a politician. You have no knowledge of your reality. In the ashram, your mind is like a clean canvas and so you realize what you have to paint on it, what you are capable of and what you can do.

—Switzerland, September 1981

How did the concept of ashram life evolve?

The ashram culture is a very ancient culture. The problems that our society faces today were experienced by our ancestors, too, many thousands of years ago. Of course we say that today the world has gone bad, people are corrupt, dishonest and so on, but this has always been the case, and the administrators have always found it difficult to manage the problems of society. Therefore, they developed various schemes in order to contain the rajasic and tamasic nature of man. It was through these schemes that the ashram culture evolved in India. Ashrams were managed by rishis and munis who were people of perception and vision. They were more concerned with humanity than with any political, social or economic system, and they realized that unless man’s tamasic nature was contained, it would not be possible to create an ideal society.

As long as the ashrams were intact and their administrators were unselfish and magnanimous, everything went well and this country produced intellectual, spiritual, political, military and philosophical stalwarts. Our literature bears evidence to this; even the medical books by Sushruta, Dhanvantari, Charaka and Madhava were written in excellent poetic form, not just in prose. Therefore, the ashram culture is not a monastic culture. Sannyasins are not monks. The word ‘monk’ comes from the word ‘mono’, but sannyasa does not mean that. It refers to those people who have dedicated themselves to a particular cause and do not just exist for their own family. Such are the people who have to look after ashrams.

Shram means labour, to work hard. The ashram was developed as a place where you have to work hard on two fronts. You work on the external front, in the kitchen, the garden, the goshala, the factory, doing whatever is required, and at the same time you work on the spiritual front. You should understand that problems face a human being on both fronts. Problems with money and business, marriage and death, or management of the family create anxiety, anguish, depression, difficulties, worry and so on, which everybody is trying to solve. However, these are not the only difficulties our ancestors became aware of. What about the mind? What about emotions and passions?

If you do not solve the mental problems which come to you through birth and inheritance, society and the process of development in life, then you will either face a disaster or not make any progress in life at all. A person who has no control over his mind cannot control his family affairs or the daily events of his life. Mental control is not suppression. The mind has to be educated; it has to be properly enlightened. That is the role of the ashram in your life.

You cannot grasp the concept of akarta, non-doership, just by a process of thinking; you can only grasp it by a process of living. In the ashram most swamis are totally involved in some specific work. Swami Niranjan carries the load of the ashram, but if he has to go to Calcutta or Bombay or America for ten or fifteen days, he goes with a free mind; he does not carry the load with him, because there is no question of expectation from him.

You should try to become a part of the ashram, get into the swing and work hard physically with dedicated responsibility, with creative intelligence, with all the skills, techniques and knowledge you have at hand as a businessman, teacher or professor, carpenter or agriculturist, or even as an unskilled labourer. You should work in the same spirit as if you were working for your institution or home, and as if the people in the ashram were your kith and kin. And when your time expires, just close the file and leave. Then apply the same attitude to your family, work, money and profession. That is the message of the ashram.

What is the difference between an ashram where swamis live and a community where all kinds of people live together?

The purpose of a community and that of an ashram are quite different. The purpose of an ashram is to create an atmosphere or zone of spiritual influence. Therefore, the people who live in and run the ashram should be able to contribute to that spiritual, magnetic or positive influence. If you include the whole community, you have to relax certain rules. The quality cannot be the same because people who take to sannyasa have a different state of consciousness. The kind of person who has decided to live this life has a different attitude to his own self, the institution and guru.

The swamis who stay here live a very, very detached life. They are not at all concerned with this institution or even with the work they do, but they do the work perfectly. I do not see even one person making any mistake, whether it is accounting, translating, editing, managing, marketing or the kitchen. They do it perfectly as though they were totally involved, as if they were the doer, but they are not at all involved. This kind of life, the life of detachment, has been called anasakti yoga in the Bhagavad Gita. It creates a kind of magnetic field and the people who come here can experience a little bit of that magnetic field. However, if I included the whole community, things would not be the same. People may have respect for spiritual life and ashrams (of course, most Hindus have respect for spiritual life and ashrams, and they do try to maintain the discipline of the ashram because they know about it), but the flesh is weak, the mind is weak, and people do not know how to manage themselves. So we keep the community as a second cadre. Our main thrust is detachment and their main thrust is attachment. The ashram and outsiders have different ways of dealing with food, dress, language and interactions. The gap is always there. Many times people ask me how to narrow this gap, but I say no, let it be, because this is the gap which they feel and recognize the moment they come here.

In a community there are diverse elements, and you have to have do’s and don’ts. To impose many do’s and don’ts is bitter, but if you do not impose them there is no social acceptance. Even if you do not interact physically with society, even if you live four kilometres away from the town, you are still a part of society and there has to be some sort of acceptance. Such social acceptance becomes very difficult when communities with diverse cultures, taboos and idiosyncrasies gather together. That is what I take care of. In India we have many ashrams, like Ramakrishna Mission, Sivananda Ashram, Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, Sri Aurobindo’s ashram, my ashrams and many other swamis’ ashrams. There must be thousands of ashrams here.

What is expected of these ashrams is spiritual health, either in the form of therapy, peace of mind or right understanding. If, for example, my son has become wayward, I may send him to an ashram for a few months to get him back on track. If a husband and wife are not getting along well, they go to their guru and an improvement comes about. In this way, the ashrams are able to look after the problems that creep into one’s family life or community life. That has been the role of ashrams.

An ashram’s involvement with commerce and religion is not looked upon with respect. People do not accept it. Most ashrams sell their books and some ayurvedic medicines, but they are not involved in big commercial gains. It is not accepted by society and the government rules also do not permit it. If we become commercial, we lose the tax exemptions and other facilities that the government provides for institutions like ashrams and temples.

In this ashram you have slightly better facilities than some other ashrams, where you are just provided with a mat to sleep on the floor and no mosquito net. In my guru’s ashram in Rishikesh, for some time I managed the guests. When visitors came, I just gave them a key and told them where the room was, but there was nothing in the room. In those days there was no electricity, no bed, nothing. Just the room! Can you imagine? Nobody even thought, neither us nor the visitors, that the minimum amenities should be provided. They were so happy to get a room because people do not expect any kind of luxury in an ashram. Most people feel, even Christians, that when you undergo some suffering, you are purifying your karma. Hindus also feel the same way, that when you experience a little suffering in the name of God, you are purifying yourself. So when you go to an ashram and get a little pain, diarrhoea, dysentery or fever, it is purging of karma.

—November 1985, Ganga Darshan

Can you speak on the difference between children brought up in ordinary society and children brought up in an ashram environment?

Those who have children must know that their children do not belong to them. You cannot claim them through religion, nationality or the family system. You are only their caretaker, their babysitter. You should not expect anything from them. Just give them good food and good games as much as you can. If you want them to study, do it in such a way that they feel as if they are playing. We have one fixed rule for children in our ashram – we let them do whatever and whenever they want to. If they pluck guavas, we let them; they work, sleep and play of their own free will.

Every person and every child should have a personality of his own and the evolution of this personality can only take place in an atmosphere that encourages independence. Children should be exposed to the world as it is; boys and girls should not be isolated. If they are not exposed, they will not progress and will develop fear in their minds. Do not say things like “That boy or girl is bad” or “Do not go to these people.” Let them go to those places and persons, and encourage them to see what happens. When exposed to the natural situations of life, children are destined to become intelligent. No one will succeed in cheating them. The children in the ashram or outside the ashram should be provided with an atmosphere of fearlessness.

—October 1985, Ganga Darshan

How does spiritual illumination come about in the ashram when one is so busy all the time?

The science of ashram life was planned long, long ago. Its purpose was not merely to provide a retreat or relaxation from everyday tensions, and not even to just give a spiritual glimpse of one’s daily practice. The very purpose of ashram life was to create an environment where everybody lived and worked together.

In the most ancient veda, the Rigveda, there is a mantra: let us go together, speak together, sing together, and so on. This was the spirit behind ashram life. In different periods, the structure of the ashram did vary, but the spirit remained the same – everybody getting up and going to bed at the same time. Whether working in the kitchen, garden, fields or cowshed, everybody worked as a community.

It is believed that spiritual enlightenment can take place only through meditation, but that is not correct. Spiritual illumination comes alongside karma yoga. When you live with your family, you do karma, not karma yoga, and when you practise karma yoga and meditation together, spiritual enlightenment comes quickly. Therefore, all over the world the ashram culture was very prominent once upon a time. Householders would take a little time off from their hectic activities and live in an ashram for a short period, working there just like an ashramite, and then return home with a new realization and understanding about life. This helped them to have a better relationship with their family and also gave them an opportunity to assess their way of life.

When you live the life of a householder, you face responsibility. At the same time, householders in general are not aware of the purpose and objective of life. They do not know the spiritual purpose behind marriage and having children. When you come to the ashram, after some time this realization becomes very clear. Then the most important thing is felt to be samadhi or spiritual awareness. This is the most difficult thing in life. There is nothing beyond this achievement for man. Millions and millions are striving for samadhi, but only a few hundred are able to walk towards it. Out of those, only a few are able to reach the ultimate. The ultimate aim in human life is that great illumination. Man is destined for that, and that is also the basic difference between human and animal incarnation.

Ashram life is an aid to illumination every moment that you live there. In the ashram you do not meditate the whole day long, you work the whole day long. You see the glory of divinity while you graze the cows, work as a carpenter, in the kitchen cutting and boiling vegetables, when you look after the bank accounts, cash and cheques, see to the cleaning of the premises, take care of the sick from dawn to dusk. When the sun rises, you see the ashram humming with activity, and when the sun sets the ashram is still very active.

The inmates of the ashram live a very simple life and the guests or visitors are also obliged to live that life. The simplicity of life is a type of penance. Therefore, as far as I have seen, ashrams have just one objective in mind: to keep alive an atmosphere that will accelerate the pace of evolution in spiritual life.

What prevents people from deriving the benefits of staying in the ashram?

I think everyone who comes to the ashram is benefited. Even if one derives minimal benefits, it is worth it. There is no negative effect from approaching life in an ashram. There is, of course, only one point that we have to take care of. We must remember that the ashram and our home are two different situations. When we go to an ashram, we should not expect the ashram to be a hotel. Then we can derive maximum benefits. For those who go to an ashram for a short period, this attitude is important. However, those who go there as sannyasins should bequeath every material possession. That will completely drive away insecurity from their minds.

—September 1980, Switzerland