In India, the ancient civilization had its birth, blossoming and preservation in the forest. This historical fact has been aptly illustrated in the verses of the Yajurveda (26/15) which refer to the ancient seers engaged in the acquisition of knowledge in the heart of forests, on the hill tops, in the caves around the river banks, dwelling in their hermitages surrounded by the beauty of nature.
This says Buddha, the great yogin, to his disciples: “Have you never heard it said by wanderers who were vulnerable, aged, your teachers and the teachers of your teachers about the ancient Arahants, Buddhas, and so forth who sought the remote and lonely recesses of the forest, where noise, where sound hardly is, where the breezes from the pastures blow, yet which were safely hidden from the eyes of men, meet for self-communion, even as I (Buddha) do now?” (Digha Nikaya III. 54)
In the words of poet Tagore, “Thus in India, it was in the forests that our civilization had its birth. It was surrounded by the vast life of nature, was fed and clothed by her, and had the closest and most constant intercourse with her in varying aspects.” (Sadhana, p4)
In the past, those who wanted to realize or had already realized the aim and end, their solitary abodes, even in the remotest forest, gathered the seekers of knowledge. The disciples included the rich and poor, the king and the beggar, the old and young, both men and women from all levels of society who had left their distant homes, their mundane possessions and all their earthly attachments in search of truth. The modest huts, the solitary forest homes, caves carved in rocks – often inaccessible as a challenge to the devout – where in the master dwelt, served as the medium of knowledge, more so of yoga, that quenched the thirst of many students, and thus the traditional heritage of Indian culture was handed down from generation to generation.
These unadorned hermitages – except for the vast beauty of nature around – referred to as ashrams had no pomp such as the modern universities display. The teachers taught not because they were paid but because they considered it their duty to import their knowledge to the deserving, and the students were accepted not because they subscribed their fees in kind but because they were found fit for such studies. Alike, the teachers, even the students were an example in themselves for the very life they preached and pursued, and the conglomeration of students gathered there not for acquiring knowledge that was to bring their daily bread but to know the reality and to live that reality. From all available cultural records, it is evident that in ancient India, both the masters and the disciples valued not the quantity but the quality of knowledge.
Indian culture was, and to some extent still is, essentially esoteric and available only to earnest students and imparted solely through the medium of personal contact with the teachers. The little that is known through its esoteric metaphysical systems – especially in the case of yoga – does not represent even a fraction of all that has to be intrinsically lived. The texts of various systems of philosophy serve merely as indices and therefore are void of essential details of technique meant for the practical students. For this reason, the real centres of learning were the hermitages where the teachers well-versed in practical details lived the very knowledge they preached and guided the students in their respective training courses.
Especially in so far as the yoga training is concerned, the available texts prove to be of very little value; most of the practices remain secret knowledge with the teachers and these have therefore been confined generally amongst the circle of yogins who would communicate the actual technique only to the most deserving pupils. The genuine yogins living in the solitude of mountains were hardly accessible, and there are today only a very few who would be eager to learn yoga under the conditions which may be imposed upon them. Even in ancient India, the yoga monasteries were few and far apart, and the training in the technique of yoga, for all practical purposes, became extremely difficult.
Sporadic efforts to save yoga from such an enigmatic existence by investigations into the subtleties of its metaphysics and theories have won a measure of success in keeping alive certain scholastic interest in the subject, but the vital technique for practice remained and still remains as obscure and elusive as ever. The present monasteries have lost their antiquated dignity and vigour and what is taught there is of doubtful origin and value. The recent spurt of the so-called yogashramas and centres of health and physical training patronized by the unwary has caused a further slump in the true perspective – from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Furthermore, the contrast between hermitages and modern universities as centres of learning is also very vital, for the latter fail to supply the necessary environments which contribute to the way of life in conformity with the teachings, under constant supervision and contract of the teachers. As a result, there is much barren superfluity of academic and mechanized knowledge, which sticks to students as an objective additive of decoration, without any harmony being established between the basic understanding of life and habituation to such a living. This duplicity in the acquisition of knowledge and its actual practice in day-to-day life is responsible for much that is hypocritical, unpleasant and suicidal.
The institution of yoga education in ancient India had a different value, was applied differently and had therefore a different method of imparting it. The significance of masters and their abodes of learning could be appreciated only by those who realize the difference between theory and practices, between ornamental and applied knowledge, and between mechanized education and an integrated way of life. To all forms of learning which belong to the former category, and what is generally available at the modern university level, yoga supplements the latter. The hermitages represent the integral quality, which moulds the personality, while the universities impart quantitative training to the masses. What is needed in the changed context of the world at present is the harmonious synthesis of what is best in each.
—Printed in YOGA Vol. 10, No. 8, August 1972