6 Important Lessons From the Ashram
The word ashram comes from the Sanskrit word, Srama, which means “religious exertion.” However, in more recent times the term “ashram” is used to describe any facility used by a spiritual community. They can vary in size from a small hermitage housing just a few people to multiple building complexes which are home to hundreds, including whole families.
Ashrams have existed in India for thousands of years, and, more recently, many ashrams have been established in other parts of the world. Traditionally, ashrams were located away from the mainstream of human population. Nowadays, ashrams can be found in most parts of India, and range from cheap accommodations for westerners to closed communities with strict rules and codes of conduct. Most ashrams are either led by a living spiritual teacher or follow the path laid out by a particular lineage. Ashrams tend to have a set schedule, followed by the permanent residents, which visitors are invited and sometimes expected to join. Some ashrams also served as “gurukulas” or residential schools for children, adhering to a particular tradition.
Westerners often have the impression that most Indians practice silent meditation and yoga asanas on a regular basis. While this may be true for some, the average Indian’s spiritual practices are more of a devotional nature. Most Indians will have a small shrine in their home, dedicated to the family deity, and will visit their local temple to participate in prayers and rituals. Pilgrimages to sacred sites are also very much a part of an Indian’s spiritual duties. Ashrams play an important role by offering food, housing, and support to the thousands of pilgrims constantly on the move in India.
Personal Experience: A Different Kind of Community
In general, an ashram is a sacred place and very different from a hotel. It represents an opportunity to step away from worldly affairs and return to a simpler way of living. It’s a place to nourish your soul, deepen your spiritual practice, and awaken to your true Self. An ashram is a place for inner freedom.
I have been connected with an ashram community called the Shree Satuwa Baba Ashram in India’s sacred city of Varanasi for almost 14 years. During this time, I have visited it two to three times each year, spending between a few weeks to several months there each visit. The Ashram dates back 300 years, and, although touched by the modern world, still functions in accordance with ancient Vedic traditions. It is home to a residential school for boys training to become Vedic priests and provides temporary accommodations for several thousand pilgrims a year, all on a donation basis. Because of its traditional nature and fairly basic facilities, it receives few western visitors. Fortunately, even though I am something of an anomaly, I was quickly accepted into their family.