Origin of Ashrams

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

In previous times, when there were less people enclosed in areas in the form of villages and hamlets, there were certain people who were knowledgeable in that society. Where they lived, other people of the community would go for advice, learning, knowing something and for some solution to their questions.

A family affair

Where it took a mystical religious turn, those people became the pandits, the priests, who guided society with their knowledge and understanding.

Where these people had no external, material, social bent of mind, they became the munis who reflected on various thoughts, ideas and perspectives. They brought the first teaching to society. People came for learning, and eventually, started to live with the munis for extended learning. Then, children started to come for learning and to develop traits and skills; and these first organically developed ashrams were known as gurukuls, the family of the teacher, the family of the master.

Just as in a school, you see different classes, in the same manner in the gurukul, there would be different classes where the vidya, the knowledge, could be imparted according to the receptivity of the student. Gurukuls became the main education centres over a period of time.

They were like the first schools, the first colleges, where sixty-four different social and spiritual disciplines and skills were taught. These subjects were managed and maintained by the people who were known as the seers, the rishis, the knowledgeable, the intellectuals of society, the sadhakas, practitioners, developers of the society. These gurukuls where the rishis lived were not bachelor pads. They were households. The teacher, with the wife and their children were the main group from whom the learning was derived. It was more like a family affair.


Out of this group, another group emerged who were the ascetics. They did not want to live in the human community, and left the human community to follow their own spiritual aspirations. These ascetics, tapasvis, were originally known as yatis. Possibly the word ‘yeti’ has come from this word ‘yati’, a recluse who does not mingle with people and society. They lived in isolation and were self-content and self-contained.

From these yatis who were the first level of tapasvis, evolved the other groups of renunciates and ascetics in which sannyasins were a group. The sannyasins followed the path of asceticism in the past and were well versed in the ancient scriptural lore. Therefore, they also became the holders of knowledge, experimenters, exponents and practitioners of knowledge. The lifestyle of yatis and sannyasins revolved around this understanding and living.

Later on, the ascetics became quite powerful due to their austere lifestyle, intense and keen understanding and perception of nature and the cosmos. They were able to express many of the abstract truths which were previously only in the realm of experience in the form of prose and poetry, in the form of an idea, a thought and a philosophy. From there the darshanas evolved. The various philosophies from Samkhya to Vedanta, pre-Shankaracharya, to Nyaya, Vaisheshika, to the yogas, tantras, Upanishads and Vedas evolved from such keen insight into nature. Many of these groups were rishis and many were ascetics, both.

Come to work

Ashrams were identified as those places where the ascetics, the renunciates lived. Gurukuls were identified as those places where the educationists, the householders lived.

In an ashram where a renunciate was living, people started to come. If somebody practises meditation, some practical organization has to be there for maintaining the place, cooking, purchasing, cleaning. A single person cannot meditate eight hours, ten hours without any support or help.

Where austere sadhanas used to be practised by the tapasvis for days and days, or weeks and weeks, a group of people used to come together to help the ascetic. That became the aa-shram – come to work.

The word ashram is something that developed over a period of time naturally as an indication that the people who were helping the tapasvi, were going to an ashram. The tapasvi used to do his tapas for years and years, and his helpers would collect wood, make the fire, cook, clean and organize. In this manner, the ashram developed.

Living and learning

Later, two different groups of people started to come to the ashram: one group who simply came to live and who were not interested in philosophy, theory or the discipline of the ashram; and the other group who came for the teaching which was their focus, and they were not interested in living.

At Ganga Darshan ashram, there are also two types of people. Everybody here is not a yoga knower, practitioner, or a teacher, and they need not be. They have not come for yoga, they have come for living, and that is perfectly accepted in the ashram.

Living in an ashram does not make anyone a yoga teacher. Not everybody knows yoga. Some people dedicate themselves to yoga, learn, live, develop and propagate yoga. It is one small group.

In the past, sannyasins have come to society and retreated back into isolation. They brought something to society and then they went back to maintain and preserve their knowledge until the next need came. This happens every time in the propagation and development of a vidya, knowledge, and understanding. In Munger, Sri Swami Satyananda never spoke on Vedanta or on any other philosophy or theory. He only spoke on yoga: the practical, the scientific, the physical, the psychological, the psychic, the mystical, the spiritual. He spoke on every subject, but in a practical, scientific and clear manner.

That was the mandate he received, and to fulfil that mandate, he established the Bihar School of Yoga. The continuation of that mandate is: yoga as a vocation, as a profession, as a practice and yoga as a sadhana, as a lifestyle and as a culture.

Ashrams are not gurukuls or static centres; they are evolving places following a sequence of growth, development and evolution where the exposure to something can turn into a better connection and a deeper experience.

10 January 2016, Ganga Darshan, Munger