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Research, Essays, Commentaries – Inspired by the Social-Cultural-Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo (PLUS a bit of photography too!)

The Role of Ashrams in India – Part 4 (Final)

Please see part 1part 2, and part 3.

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Photo by Suhas Mehra

From a talk given at Pondicherry by Beloo Mehra, 2007 (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3….

This final post in the series presents a few important details about Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Sri Aurobindo himself once wrote about the organic ‘development’ of the Ashram in a letter:

“There was no Ashram at first, only a few people came to live near Sri Aurobindo and practice Yoga. It was only sometime after the Mother came from Japan [in 1920] that it took the form of the Ashram, more from the wish of the sadhaks who desired to entrust their whole inner and outer life to the Mother than from any intention or plan of hers or of Sri Aurobindo. (CWSA, Vol. 36, pp. 102-103).

Situated in a busy city of more than a million people this Ashram can not really be considered a quiet place of retreat but a vibrant centre of life in a modern urban setting. But let me make this statement a bit more personal.

I recall the time when I was going through what may be called as a state of ‘indecisive turmoil’ about moving to Pondicherry — of course, I wasn’t going to be part of the Ashram as such, but undoubtedly the move to Pondicherry was led by an inner call to be closer to the Ashram here, to be in the spiritual ambiance of this city where Sri Aurobindo had lived for 40 years. Though my inner decision was actually made spontaneously, one particular evening outside the gate of the Ashram school, it was my rational mind that needed some convincing which happened over the next two years. During this mental turmoil period I once had a conversation about it with one of my teachers. And his words still echo in my ears. I paraphrase below what he told me back then —

“If you are looking for peace and quiet, you shouldn’t move to Pondicherry. Because Pondicherry Ashram is not a place to come if someone is looking for peace, it is a place meant to help you see all that is imperfect and false and distorted and insincere in you. Where is the room for peace in such a process? It is a place that will force you to begin a deep and sincere in-search. But if you yourself aren’t aspiring enough for such a process, circumstances will definitely arise in life that will compel you to go through an inner heat of sort (after all, the word ‘tapas’ or ‘tapasya’ itself means intense heat). It is a place meant to help people awaken to the true life-affirming spirituality, spirituality in this life and this world, not as a retreat away from life and world. It is a place to do some serious work on yourself, the inner you, which is not really a peaceful process most of the time.”

And eight years after I moved to Pondicherry, I can most comfortably say — how correct he was! Heat is the first thing that comes to mind now that I think of what it is like to be in Pondicherry. And I am not speaking of the hot Pondicherry weather, but the fiery heat that is generated from an intense process of going within every time a life circumstance or situation forces me to dig deeper and deeper. The deep lessons learned through such a process, lessons about myself and the manifold imperfections of my outer nature, difficult and often discomforting though some of these lessons maybe, are worth the effort and the heat.  Ashram 1 As also mentioned on the Ashram’s website, the dynamic character of the community reflects the life-affirming aim of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga. But of course, if we dig deeper we find that the search for that inner peace is not separate from an intense heat-generating in-search, an intense inner journey to know ourselves more and more, in all our parts and their movements. The Mother had once called the Sri Aurobindo Ashram a veritable laboratory to work out the future society.

[L]ife in Sri Aurobindo Ashram is organised around its central objective, viz., development of consciousness. This effort involves the study and exploration of consciousness at all levels of life. It is a serious practice of the discipline or yoga of integral consciousness, within and without, by each individual. This means a continuous effort at becoming aware of oneself in every activity of the mind, heart, life-force and the very body. Simultaneously, one seeks to become aware of consciousness in things around and to relate oneself to it. This is done at the physical level, the pranic level, the emotional level, the mental level and the spiritual. Whatever the form of activity, it is geared to this aim; its practical, outer results are consequential. Following the motto, “All Life is Yoga”, every single activity is invested with this significance: to become conscious and raise its quality in the subjective existence along with an effort to inject this motive in the activities of everyday life. The community life proceeds on these lines of growth of consciousness in every field of exertion. Support systems have been evolved through the years, which ensure that things are done with due regard to the presence of consciousness in every form and individual effort is poured in to lift up the levels of consciousness, subjectively and objectively. (Source)

Sri Aurobindo Ashram is also unique in another regard. Unlike most traditional ashrams in India, right from the beginning the Ashram admitted women members. Women and men members participate in all Ashram activities with no restrictions of any sort. In fact, the Ashram community also includes hundreds of children who are studying at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (which is based on the philosophy of Integral Education, from early childhood education to undergradate level). These children generally come from the families of devotees living near or around the Ashram, or from other parts of India.

Another important characteristic of Sri Aurobindo Ashram is that here sadhaks are left free to determine the course and pace of their sadhana in accordance with their own natures, though it is understood that they have accepted Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as their gurus. But since there is no ‘living’ guru in the Ashram, the sadhaks are supposed to look for guidance within and by trying to get in touch with the Higher Consciousness.

Work as an offering to the Divine is an essential aspect of the Yoga, and all members of the Ashram do a certain amount of productive work each day in one or another of the Ashram’s departments. Ashram 2 To conclude, a few words from the Mother and Sri Aurobindo will reveal a bit more about what makes Sri Aurobindo Ashram rather unique among most of the Ashrams in India.

“Here we do not have religion. We replace religion by the spiritual life, which is truer, deeper and higher at the same time, that is to say, closer to the Divine. For the Divine is in everything, but we are not conscious of it. This is the immense progress that man must make.” (The Mother, CWM, Vol. 13, p. 110)

The As[h]ram is not a religious association. Those who are here come from all religions and some are of no religion. There is no creed or set of dogmas, no governing religious body; there are only the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and certain psychological practices of concentration and meditation, etc., for the enlarging of the consciousness, receptivity to the Truth, mastery over the desires, the discovery of the divine self and consciousness concealed within each human being, a higher evolution of the nature.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 36, p. 531)

In light of the above quote it must be clarified that the reference to the “teachings” of Sri Aurobindo here by no means suggests any exclusive, limiting or narrow worldview. In fact, those who have read even a little bit of Sri Aurobindo know for a fact that his dynamic and futuristic vision of Life, Existence, Truth, Reality, Spirituality, and Everything is perhaps the widest, highest and deepest. There is no exclusivity or narrowness there of any kind. More on his teachings may be read here.

This is the concluding part of the series. If you have missed the previous three parts, click here, here and here.

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About Beloo Mehra

Beloo is the author of two books, one on Indian Education, titled "ABC’s of Indian National Education" and an ebook featuring a selection of her essays, titled "The Thinking Indian." She holds several degrees in Education and Economics, has extensive teaching experience at school and university level in India and the US, and has a keen interest in the educational, social and cultural thought of Sri Aurobindo. She currently lives in Pondicherry, spends her time doing some reading, some writing, some teaching, some gardening and a whole lot of reflecting on life, living, society, politics, religion, art, literature, India, the World, and everything else under the Sun and the Moon.

10 comments on “The Role of Ashrams in India – Part 4 (Final)

  1. Rachna
    June 4, 2015

    Enjoyed the series and loved reading in depth about Aurobindo Ashram.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Visited the Ashram back in 2010 and of course, I am no stranger to ashram life, having spent two years of my Masters’ degree in one 🙂 Interesting insight into the workings of the ashram, Beloo. I like the reference to heat and what it means in this context. All spiritual growth is one of burning heat. Well said.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. C'est la vie
    June 7, 2015

    I need to ask you this and ask as earnestly as can be….how do you write such amazingly detailed, tediously explained write-ups. Its incredible…the amount of hardwork you put in….just incredible!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beloo Mehra
      June 8, 2015

      Thank you so much for your kind words of appreciation. I enjoy doing research and writing, especially on topics that are really meaningful to me and help me know my culture and country better 🙂 That’s the easiest explanation I can think of! Thanks again! And keep visiting. I have another series in works, hopefully that will also be of interest to you.

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. Zephyr
    February 5, 2016

    Nothing could have explained about the ‘laboratory’ of human existence better than your lucid description aided by the sharing of the circumstances leading to your own coming to Pondicherry and encountering the heat, both external and inner to connect with your deepest self. Aurobindo Ashram is the quintessential Ashram in every which way.

    Call me old fashioned, but I firmly believe that more the student finding the Guru, it is the Guru calling to his/her students, who then come as if drawn by strings to the Ashram. You are lucky to have heard that call and responded. And I am lucky to have connected with you. I hope to at least visit the Ashram if not get that call from the Guru!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beloo Mehra
      February 5, 2016

      Oh I agree completely, it is always, always the Guru who finds the student. So I suppose I am old-fashioned too 🙂 In fact, when I first gave this talk several years ago (this article is based on that talk), this very question was asked by one member of the audience – about how did I choose to come to Pondicherry. And my answer was exactly what you said – I didn’t make the choice, He did. I had no option left but to follow.
      I guess, in a way we all find that Guru, or the right Guru (right for us) finds us. Sometimes that Guru is in the Heart only. Because ultimately, THAT Satguru Within is what we all really seeking for. Isn’t that so?
      It will be lovely, absolutely lovely to meet with you someday, we can talk more about the Pondicherry Ashram and so many other things 🙂 Thanks for this wonderful, insightful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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