The Role of Ashrams in India – Part 2

Please see part 1.

Photo by Suhas Mehra
Photo by Suhas Mehra

From a talk given at Pondicherry by Beloo Mehra, 2007 (Part 2)


Continued from Part 1….

The key role of an ashram in ancient as well as in modern India is that it serves as a centre for organizing individual and collective life around spiritual pursuit and inner seeking. In his book, The Renaissance in India and Other Essays on the Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo writes:

“The whole root of difference between Indian and European culture springs from the spiritual aim of Indian civilization….A spiritual aspiration was the governing force of this culture, its core of thought, its ruling passion. Not only did it make spirituality the highest aim of life, but it even tried, as far as that could be done in the past conditions of the human race, to turn the whole of life towards spirituality” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 178).

This characteristic of Indian tradition and culture, that of spirituality being the highest aim of life and turning of all life towards spirituality, was and continues to be visibly represented by the institution of ashram. Presence of a Guru or enlightened Master represents the soul of the ashram, and the disciples and devotees gather around it surrendering the responsibility of their external life and inner development to the Master.

In traditional lineages, after the physical passing of the guru, someone among the chief disciples takes the place of the living guru (generally as per the guru’s declared wish) and the tradition continues, and most likely renews itself in the presence of the new guru. In traditional ashrams, there is typically a special process of initiation for the entry of new members, and often it is the guru who has the final say in the matter.

Ashrams in India are generally understood as abode of sanyasins, renunciates and ascetics, those who have given up the worldly life and all worldly pursuits and are pursuing a specific spiritual path or order. Ashrams provide a physical, psychological and spiritual center for these aspirants. A deep, psychological unity and a strong sense of community of seekers pursuing the same aim in life are important advantages offered by the collective living experience in an ashram.

In the past, in most ashrams in India only men were allowed to join, and an emphasis was placed on leading a celibate life. This tradition continues to this day in many ashrams. Some spiritual masters allowed women to join the ashram community, but even there some type of segregation was practiced, so men and women devotees would not interact freely outside of the regular ashram activities like satsangs, kirtans and pujas. The householder devotees of the gurus in these ashrams were not typically living in the ashram community and would only occasionally visit the guru and the ashram. Many of them, however, lived in the vicinity of the ashram to soak in the spiritual ambiance of the community.

The Guru of the Ashram

The Presence of the Guru is indeed the soul of an Ashram. In India the spiritual quest or seeking for the Divine generally begins with a journey for the search for a guru. As Sri Aurobindo writes in one of his letters –

“The Guru is the Guide in the yoga. When the Divine is accepted as the Guide, He is accepted as the Guru.” (SABCL, Letters on Yoga, p. 615).

It is the presence of the guru, the spiritual energy and force of a self-realized master, that is generally the starting point for the foundation of an ashram, a community of people attracted to the teachings of this master, the methods of spiritual sadhana taught by him or her. The psychological comfort and a sense of deep relaxation one may experience in the presence of the master or when surrounded by the special Force or vibration of the place where the master lives are generally what bring the individual back to that Guru. Those who are deeply attracted to the guru’s teachings and feel a sense of ‘call’ to follow the path of the guru may over time decide to form a community with other seekers on the path, giving birth to an Ashram. The organizational structure of such a form of community is developed and refined over time as and when needs emerge. What is generally asked of the disciples is a complete surrender to the Guru. Sri Aurobindo explains the deeper reason for this surrender in these words:

“Surrender to the Guru is said to be surrender beyond all surrenders because through it you surrender not only to the impersonal, but to the personal, not only to the Divine in self but to the Divine outside you; you get a chance for the surpassing of the ego not only by retreat into the self where ego does not exist, but in the personal nature where it is the ruler.”

However, he also makes an important distinction between surrender to the Divine and surrender to the Guru, when he writes:

“In surrendering to the Guru, it is to the Divine in him that one surrenders—if it were only to a human entity, it would be ineffective. But it is the consciousness of the Divine Presence that makes the Guru a real Guru, so that even if the disciple surrenders to him thinking of the human being to whom he surrenders, that Presence will still make it effective.”

It is therefore, the Divine Presence of the Guru that becomes the primary reason for the deep sense of psychological shelter or refuge one feels in an ashram.

Another important point to emphasize when speaking of ashrams in India concerns the diversity of spiritual paths, traditions and teachings that are at the center of these institutions. This diversity is an inherent characteristic of Indian spirituality. Yet this diversity is meaningful only when seen as a multitude of paths leading to the One and the Oneness that pervades all.

This Unity in Diversity is a key aspect of Indian spiritual traditions, and when combined with another aspect of maximum spiritual freedom to approach the Divine it has resulted in an unbroken chain of pursuit for spiritual knowledge. The result has been a large number of gurus, enlightened masters and teachers offering a large number of paths and practices. The process by which a seeker finds the right guru is often a deeply personal one, and something that is generally not explainable through logic. It will be perhaps correct to say that in most cases it is not the seeker who finds the guru, but rather the Divine through the Guru or the Divine in the Guru who seeks out his or her disciples and facilitates a sort of meeting of souls. However, in some cases people may also end up choosing a guru simply because their parents or grandparents were aspirants on that particular path. It will be quite appropriate here to listen once again to the words of Sri Aurobindo:

“All true Gurus are the same, the one Guru, because all are the one Divine. That is a fundamental and universal truth. But there is also a truth of difference; the Divine dwells in different personalities with different minds, teachings, influences so that He may lead different disciples with their special need, character, destiny by different ways to the realisation. Because all Gurus are the same Divine, it does not follow that the disciple does well if he leaves the one meant for him to follow another. Fidelity to the Guru is demanded of every disciple, according to the Indian tradition. “All are the same” is a spiritual truth, but you cannot convert it indiscriminately into action; you cannot deal with all persons in the same way because they are the one Brahman: if one did, the result pragmatically would be an awful mess. It is a rigid mental logic that makes the difficulty but in spiritual matters mental logic easily blunders; intuition, faith, a plastic spiritual reason are here the only guides.”

By continuing to keep alive the tradition or path started by a guru, the ashrams have served an important role in providing a continuity to the tradition, and at the same time allowing and encouraging aspirants of that tradition to continue their individual journeys of seeking while benefitting from the spiritual and psychological comfort provided by a collective life with other individuals pursuing the same aim in life.

To be continued….

(Go to Part 3)

17 thoughts on “The Role of Ashrams in India – Part 2

Add yours

  1. Whenever I read you, I see a little further than I did before. I see deeper and wider.

    I never realized before that the central impulse driving Indian civilization was a quest for the divine.After having read this post, now that I look back on all that I know of Indian thought and philosophy… it seems so self-evident. I am asking myself how I missed the obvious all this while.

    Thank you for being such a wonderful conduit. You enrich even without trying to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have banned my saying thank you. Time for me to impose the same ban on you 😀

      Glad somethings in this post helped discerning readers like you see wider and deeper. Of course, much depends on the reader too, I am sure you will agree to that!

      As for the “central impulse driving Indian civilization” – check your email in a few minutes, will be sending you one shortly 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beloodi, I read your narration about the real meaning od Ashram in Indian context with great interest. This is no doubt a valuable writing. I also expect you to write about unique feature Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Love, Purnendu


    1. Thank you Purnendu. Happy you enjoyed this writeup. In part 3, I do describe a little bit about Sri Aurobindo Ashram, particularly those things that make it unique. But it will not be exclusively about Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Do check back in a couple of days for part 3 (concluding part) of this series. Thank you!


  3. Ashrams are unique. They provide the spiritual comfort and bring one closer to the reality. At the same time, they keep you away from what should not bother you. Great post Beloo and I must confess that you write on a wavelength that seems higher to me.. 🙂 I like that fact – there is newness and things I don’t see anywhere else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Parul for your sweet and kind words. It certainly takes a keen and close reader to feel the ‘wavelength’ or ‘feel’ of the written words. Thank you for being such a discerning reader 🙂 I try to write on topics and ideas that mean something to me on a deeper level. And it is always a blessing to find readers who can feel the depth of the topic in their hearts too.

      As for this topic of Ashrams, yes indeed they are places that provide a deep spiritual comfort to the visitors, provided they are open and receptive to the deeper Presence and Force that is there.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the concept of ashrams, of learning from the learned masters, but most often my problem is of surrender to the Guru. I hardly am able to find a Guru that I would like to deeply trust. Perhaps I haven’t looked well. But, I have read so many tales of fake and greedy Gurus that I’ve been put off them forever. When I visited Auroville, many years ago, I was taken aback with the peace and serenity that the inhabitants exhibited. I wonder if people like us who don’t live in Ashrams can experience that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rachna, as I said in my piece often the process of ‘finding’ a guru is a very deep subjective one. Generally speaking, (and as I understand it), one never goes out to look for a guru as such, some experiences and circumstances in life leads one to one’s guru. Sometimes the guru is not really a ‘person’ but a place, a form of the divine, a deity. In our Indian tradition we hear stories of many saints who didn’t have any ‘formal’ gurus but they reached great heights of spiritual realisation and experience. So there is a great, even mind-boggling diversity in our tradition.

      Yes there is a concern about some fake gurus etc. However, here too we find another sinister thing happening. Often the media makes a huge hue and cry when a scandal breaks out about some ashram or guru, but if the charges are proved false (as in the case of Swami Nithyananda and a few more), you don’t hear a peep from the same media about this. At the most there is a one-line report. Such bigoted coverage creates a huge distrust among a lot of people. And have you noticed that the media hardly ever plays out any such ‘big scandal’ stories about catholic priests, monasteries and convents where all kinds of child abuse, money scandals and so much other illegal activities are going on? Or about the bigot mullahs and other Islamic leaders who spew venom in the name of their religion. But if at one random Hindu ashram you find one fake guru or one scandal, voila – the hue and cry that happens for days, weeks, months is just nauseating.

      I didn’t want to go into all these issues in this series on Ashrams, because I wanted to keep my original writing focused on all that is deeply meaningful and true about Ashrams, about this tradition of guru-shishya in our spiritual culture. But I am thankful to you for your comment which led me to say this all this 🙂

      As for Auroville, I agree with you about the vibration of peace and serenity that is in that place. But Auroville is not really an Ashram, it is supposed to be a township, a living experiment in human unity. Sri Aurobindo Ashram can qualify as an Ashram, but that too is a very non-conventional ashram. I will write a bit about that in part 3. Hope you come back to read that. And since you bring up this point of peace and serenity in an Ashram, I will add something about that too in the context of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Thanks for this important point 🙂


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