Monday, January 10, 2011

Ashram Living, Loving, Learning...

Sunday we went into Pondicherry so we could see the town, get a bit of history, and visit the original Sri Aurobindo Ashram which was established there by the famous Indian nationalist himself, back in the 1920's.  Our tour guide was not the most proficient historian but he was sweet and funny, which was better in the long run.  His name is Bunty (which apparently means Teddy Bear) and he wore cool sun shades the whole time.  Steve calls him the Fonzy of India.  I had to laugh, he was pretty Fonzy-esque (Minus the leather jacket).

Bunty told us a story he made up about why Pondicherry has its name -- something to do with the French who came 2000 years ago (actually, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive to India in 1498) -- and some other stories that were shrouded in suspect historical accuracy.

He explained why Aurobindo came to this French colony in 1910 to escape the British who were persecuting him for his political beliefs and (anti-imperial) activities.  After coming to Pondy, however, he took up the spiritual practice and began writing on spirituality, leaving politics behind.  His devotee, Mirra, a French nurse and spiritualist (long time practitioner of the occult) came to India in search of her guru in 1914.  She would later help establish and run the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in downtown Pondy (1926-1973).  Expanding the ashram into a larger communal living arrangement, Auroville, was also her idea (as directed by the Divine, of course).  Auroville began in 1968 as an experiment, an international city (planned for 50,000) in which everyone would live in harmony and find greater consciousness.  Mirra became known as the Mother (a title given to her by her Master, Aurobindo) and upon Aurobindo's passing became the leader of the community.  She is revered today in Auroville as something of a demi-goddess.  Her photo is everywhere and even the famed MANTIRMANDIR (Mother Temple) is named for her and by her...

Aurobindo (1872-1950)

The Mother 1878-1973
Matrimandir ("The Mother Temple")

Visiting this ashram and talking with members of the PSU group, some began to question  what an ASHRAM is and what its purpose is.  

One member said they didn't think Sadhana Forest was an ashram and if people at home asked where she had been in India she wouldn't say she had stayed on an Ashram because it didn't fit with the typical American person's vision of what an Ashram was.  She said she'd probably tell them she stayed in an "intentional community" and that people might understand that better.  I suggested that maybe we could teach people what the true meaning of ASHRAM was and not give in to perpetuating stereotypes that Westerners held.  

Most Americans probably think of an Ashram as a very holy, very structured place with people walking around in flowing white robes, professing truths, giving talks, leading meditations, etc.   But that’s not quite what ashram means in the traditional Indian sense.

ASHRAM comes from the Sanskrit root word shrama = “to toil” or “to work”

This work is meant to bring greater spiritual consciousness and often people today think of visiting Ashrams to focus on Yoga.  But Yoga is but one part of the spiritual practice for someone seeking enlightenment.  KARMA YOGA means the yoga of ACTION... the spiritual practice we achieve through WORK and by fulfilling our dharma (duty).

Like all words, the Sanskrit term Ashram has changed over time.  It has different meanings today to different people than it did to the yogis of the past.  Some ashrams focus on meditation, some on yoga, some on martial arts, others on social work (I’ve visited ashrams in India that are orphanages or rehabilitation centers of child prostitutes).  There are probably thousands of YOGA ashrams in India – and each one is unique in its mission and interpretation of the practice.  As you know, YOGA has so many different meanings, too! 

While the traditional Hindu concept of yoga (Sanskrit: “to yoke” or “to unite”) focuses on the spiritual connection between body, soul and cosmos – many modern day yoga ashrams in India focus on the Westerners expectations of yoga as primarily a physical/spiritual practice and not a lifestyle choice.  For Westerners, we go and “do” yoga… we don’t live yoga.  But Yoga, as I understand its meaning in classic texts, refers to a whole series of practices/intentions meant to enhance ones mental state (consciousness) – and these do not happen only ‘on the mat’ as they say.  So even a ‘yoga ashram’ may not be what we think of it here in the States…

For both terms (Ashram and Yoga), the end goal is similar = greater unity with the self and with the cosmos (for there is no distinction between the two). The ultimate goal: MOKSHA.

Many ashrams have teachers to guide people in their practice. In Sanskrit the word for teacher is: Guru.  Teachers guide us in meditation, yoga, hard work, and exploration of the self/of the divine.  But not all ashrams must have "a" teacher, per se.  Some, like Sadhana, prefer to focus on the experience of communal living, which means we are all each others' teacheres.  The learning we gain from the discipline of living in an intentional community surpasses the specific teachings of the Guru.  Our spiritual practice here is focused also on the environment, and living sustainably in the forest.  In this sense, the forest is our teacher, too.

In the ancient Hindu scriptures and epics (which we discussed in the course this fall) individuals go to ashrams when they need to remove themselves from the world and discover something without the noise and distraction of the material world.  Sometimes this discovery is done with a guide, at other times solo.  Often this discovery is done in community, sometimes in solitary exploration (hermitage). In the classic Hindu Epic, the Ramayana, Rama and Sita call their refuge in the forest during their exile an ashram.

In the classic texts, the stages of life are called the Ashramas – Ashrama Dharma (hard work/duty) – and these consist of four phases each person was expected to pass through to reach MOKSHA (a.k.a. = enlightenment, union with God):

1)      The student (celibate)

2)      The householder (family man)

3)       The ascetic (Vanaprastha, literally means ‘move to the forest’, to an ashram, eats only fruits/veggies, wears simple clothes, has few material possessions) – I’ve seen this called “the anchorite”!!

4)      The monk (Sanyasi, or he who renounces all worldly things, devoted only to spiritual practice: prayer, yoga, pilgrimage).

Sadhana Forest is an Ashram, in the most traditional sense.  It is a place of retreat, in the forests, where one can find sanctuary, refuge, and quiet from the busy world and its nagging, grabbing, bustling noise.  It is a place to do work.  It is a place to raise one’s consciousness.

Aviram, the founder of Sadhana, is a guru in as much as he is a teacher.  He doesn’t claim the title guru, nor does he claim authority in spiritual masters. Still, he is one of the most enlightened and authentic teachers I’ve ever met despite the fact that he is not promoting a particular school of thought or spiritual path.

Sadhana’s purpose seems to be to provide a more authentic model of living.  It is a community devoted to intentional living.  The hard work and toil that is done at Sadhana connects people to the earth, the forest, the soil, the plants and the fruits/vegetables.  As such, we are connecting with the sacred, or the Divine.  To me, it is the most true form of ashram I’ve encountered.    

Aviram believes that the work we do here is best done in community – where we are constantly sharing our talents and our skills.  That is why he does not set up a schedule of events or programs (he does not set the agenda).  If people come who like to meditate, they find each other and together they sit – when the toil is done and the food has been shared and we decide to find the quiet space to do that.  If someone comes to Sadhana who knows yoga, wants to practice or teach or share this with others, than that someone finds other likeminded people and they practice yoga.  Together they decide on a time and when there is quiet time for this, they gather.  When I was there, several people met for yoga at sunrise each day.  Others used the free time in the afternoon to practice their own meditation. People meditated in groups or alone, in the main hut or in hammocks, by the pond or in the shade of a palm.  The casual, low-stress, calm vibe was something people seemed happy to embrace.  Other people didn’t practice yoga or meditation at all (at least not in formal ways) but found peace in the garden spreading compost, or in the field cutting tall grass for mulch, or on the energy-bikes revving up watts for their laptops.

So yes, I do believe Sadhana is an ashram.  Most people I know call it an ashram.  I often use the world eco-village because that freaks people out less and it accurately describes what type of ashram this is.  I think most community members who live there understand it as an ashram.  It is both a place of toil (shrama) and a place of retreat (shraya).  As such, it is a spiritual place that brings us closer to our true selves.  It also brings us closer to each other.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful teaching and post. I thoroughly
    enjoyed reading every sentence. I think it will be one I read again. It reminds me that toil and retreat go hand in hand. Thanks Whitney :)