Although monasteries are an old system in all religions, an ashram is a quite new concept in the West. The practice of living in an ashram appeared in the West with Swami Vivekananda, then later with our beloved master Paramahamsa Yoganandaji, and today ashrams contain people of many spiritual backgrounds.
The modern approach to ashram
is a spiritual abode where residents engage in sincere spiritual living with love and compassion. Visitors come to charge their lives with spiritual experience and return to society with a new understanding.
An ashram has an atmosphere that promotes study of spiritual texts with practical applications. Ultimately, it is a place of God where peace, love, and harmony are cherished. Ashram has deep meaning for spiritual life.
Ashram is a Sanskrit word with many meanings:
- A hermitage or monastery: where hermits or monks practice lives of austerity.
- The four stages of life: brahmacharya (life of a disciplined student), gārhasthya (an ideal householder’s life), vānaprastha (life of retirement with charitable and philanthropic activities), and sannyāsa (life of renunciation). One can live in any one ashram.
- A place of shelter: People in difficulty can visit an ashram to receive practical advice from the head of the ashram. It may be an orphanage (anatha ashram) or a jara or briddha ashram (old-age home) with a spiritual atmosphere.
- A place of study: In particular, a place for Vedic study, but it can in general be any school or college.
- A residence: A home can be considered an ashram.
- A forest where an ascetic practices austerities.
- A name of the Lord found in the Vishnu Sahasranama (thousand names of the Lord).
Ashram is derived from the verb shrama, which means "to exert oneself" and "to practice austerity." Thus, from this meaning, one can easily surmise that an ashram is not a place for an easy life; it is a place of hard work and austerity. It is a place where we can cultivate self-discipline with love. When we visit an ashram as residents or visitors, we should arrive planning to work hard. When we work and serve, our minds should be in God so that our egos and arrogance come to an end. Many people think that an ashram should be a place of comfort and convenience where others serve them. This is a wrong understanding of ashram.
Ashram is also derived from the word ashraya; thus, it has the following few meanings:
- Following, and
- The Supreme Self
An ashram is a "spiritual shelter". We should all strive to create a divine environment in an ashram through our humble presence. At an ashram we can serve each other with love and humility and receive spiritual guidance from the masters. Our bodies are shelters that allow us do many things. Family, society, and all creation are shelters that provide us an opportunity to grow.
We, the ashram residents and the visitors, should "support" each other with love and compassion. Our mutual love and help create a heavenly atmosphere.
"Following" is the art of students sincerely following the practical guidance of seniors and teachers, which transforms their lives and activities.
The last meaning of ashram is "the Supreme Self." An ashram is the body of the Divine, and we should always feel the presence of God in any ashram. We are the children of God. We should live every breath of our lives with love, and we should be worthy examples of God's children in this modern world.
Our beloved Gurudev said that ashram is the body of God and gurus. We should live in such a way that whoever visits an ashram can feel the presence of God. To create this environment, residents and visitors have a great responsibility. Regular spiritual practice changes the atmosphere of a place. A loving environment among the residents creates an abode of love. Visitors should also join the spiritual practices and perform seva (selfless service). Communication with love and sweetness adds to the beauty.
When so much turmoil, stress, and unrest cover the world, ashrams can create an oasis of love and peace for all seekers.