ASHRAM . The term ashram or ās'rama is derived from the Sanskrit root śram, meaning "intense exertion." It refers to both the mode of life associated with religious striving and the abode of those so engaged.
As a mode or way of life specified for twice-born Hindus (usually male), the ashramic ideal set forth four stages of development: being a student (brahmacārin) devoted to one's teacher; a householder (gṛhastha) with obligations to family, priests, and deities; a hermit (vanaprastha) who, with or without his wife, retreats from material concerns; and finally a renouncer (sannyasin) who forsakes all possessions in order to contemplate the eternal and, like the hermit, pursue mokṣa (spiritual liberation).
A clear delineation of this four-fold system can be traced to the Upaniṣads (cf. Jābāla Upaniṣad 4), which are believed to have been composed by ṛṣis (seers) in forest hermitages that were likewise called ashrams. The latter became places where young students and older seekers would come to "sit down near" (upa-ni-ṣad) a respected teacher (gurū) who would serve as their spiritual guide. Because the ancient Hindu teacher insisted on oral transmission, the gurū-śiṣya (teacher-disciple) relationship became central. Ashram life was simple and no distinctions were made between rich and poor or between castes. It seems, however, that only boys were sent to study outside the home, and thus the ashramic system of education contributed to a gap in learning between the sexes. Besides study, students would perform chores for their gurū, including begging for alms from wealthy residents. It was common for rulers and other wealthy individuals to support the establishment of these educational centers.
"Graduation" was marked by social expectations as well as a ceremonial bath. In the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (1:11:1) we read that, upon completing their initial brahmacarya stage of learning, students were exhorted by their teachers to "speak the truth," "practice virtue (dharma), " and not neglect their studies or obligations to teachers, gods, and ancestors.
Over the centuries, ashrams became centers of pilgrimage, as people were drawn to one gurū or another, and to their legacies. As the spiritual magnetism of these gurūs came to attract Jains and Buddhists as well as Hindus, the forest retreats gradually lost their sectarian character.
Revival of Hindu Ashrams in Modern India
Revival of the ashram mode of life in the early twentieth century can be attributed to neo-Hindu movements and, more specifically, to Hindu Reformers like Narendranath Datta, known as Vivekananda (1863–1902), Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950) and his disciple Mira Richard, known as "the Mother" (d. 1973), and Śivānanda (1887–1963).
Each of these early reformers was open to the West but, as Indian nationalists, they were also critical of British colonialism and Christianity's apparent link to it. They selected aspects of Western Christian ideas and culture that could be incorporated into the religious and philosophical traditions being retrieved from ancient Hinduism. This blending gave rise to creative institutions that identified themselves with one or more of the three traditional spiritual paths or mārgas, namely the path of selfless action and social service (karma-mārga); the path of ritual and devotional practices (bhakti-mārga) ; and the path stressing contemplative union with God (jñāna-mārga).
This modern ashram movement attracted support and followers from the West as well as the East and, in this way, it provided an ecumenical model of spiritual renewal, in addition to advancing the cause of nationalism by stressing Indian identity, advocating independence in political and economic life, and countering claims of Western superiority.
One of the earliest and most enduring manifestations of the renewal of ashram life can be seen in the Ramakrishna Mission and Ramakrishna Order founded in Calcutta by Vivekananda in 1897 and 1899 respectively. Named after Vivekananda's gurū, Ramakrishna, who died in 1886, this mission was the first to be successful in the West. Today it has more than eighty centers in India and some twenty others abroad dedicated to education, social welfare, and the spread of Upaniṣadic thought. The order combines the Hindu tradition of renunciation (saṃnyāsa) and selfless service (karma yoga) with Christian models of organized monastic life. In 1954 a separate, independent women's branch named after Ramakrishna's wife, Śrī Śāradā Devī, was opened.
While the early period of the Ramakrishna movement follows the classic pattern of disciples gathering around a charismatic figure, later developments exemplify the way in which movements become institutionalized and routinized, such that loyalty once focused on a gurū is redirected to the organization itself.
Śāntiniketan (Abode of Peace) Ashram, originally founded in 1863 by Devendranath Tagore in a rural part of Bengal, was refounded in 1901 by his son, Rabindranath Tagore. This ashram provided a setting for the blending together of Indian and Western traditions and values, a cross-pollination that led to the restoration of the tradition of disciples living with their teachers, a rejection of caste distinctions, and the development of a communal life-style lived in harmony with nature. Today, what remains of Tagore's project is attached to Viśva Bhārata University.
In 1915 Mahatma Gandhi initiated the Satyāgraha (Truth-force) Ashram near Ahmedabad, Gujarat. It was moved three years later to Sabarmati. For Gandhi, it was essential that political and economic progress be rooted in religion, which he understood as a liberating force of truth and love. These ashrams were envisioned as training centers for persons of all classes, castes, and creeds who were committed to personal and national liberation. To make them accessible, he had situated them in the midst of towns and villages rather than in forests. He sought to combine the three mārgas and drew on both popular and Vedantic expressions of the Hindu tradition. A second ashram, Sevāgrām, was established near Wardha in Maharashtra under the guidance of Vinoba Bhave (1895–1982), who was especially concerned with advancing women's liberation.
Later, in 1959, Vinoba established the Brahmā Vidyā Mandir Ashram, also near Wardha, for women disciples, who were responsible for its day to day running. Its raison d'être was to empower women in the service of national unity. Both here and at the nearby Sevāgrām Ashram, followers lived according to the eleven principles formulated by Gandhi. These included five observances drawn from the moral prerequisites set down in Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra : ahiṃsā (nonviolence and love), satya (truth-seeking), asteya (simple living), aparigraha (minimizing possessions), and brahmacarya (celibacy). The six additional observances called for sharir ashram (manual labor), asvāda (restricted consumption), sarva bhaya barjana (fearlessness born of taking refuge in the Lord), swadeshi (solidarity with one's country, especially its poorest inhabitants), sarvadharma samatva (a respect for all religious traditions), and sparsha bhāva (rejection of untouchability).
The largest, most organized, and most commercialized of the modern ashrams is the Aurobindo Ashram located in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu. Established in 1926, this spiritual retreat has some 2,000 members, many from the West, and is dedicated to the integration of the jñāna and karma mārgas. Its goal has been to develop an "Integral Yoga" that will allow Hindu spirituality to engage the contemporary world and its ideas. Prior to his death in 1950, Aurobindo transferred his authority to a disciple known as "the Mother." Under her leadership the ashram expanded and, to this day, she is the one who is regarded as its dominant symbolic gurū.
Swami Śivānanda, founder of the Śivānanda Ashram (1932), served his nation in several ways. Besides supporting social service programs, his creation of the Divine Life Society enabled him to gain a following for Vedantic teachings at home and abroad. His ashram, with its commitment to contemplation and its openness to seekers of all faiths, had a significant influence on the Catholic ashram movement, which was likewise driven by nationalist and anticolonial sentiments.
The Christian Ashram Movement
If the neo-Hindu reform movement involved in reviving ashram life can be seen as a creative response to the challenges posed by both British colonialism and Western Christian imperialism, the Christian ashram movement should be seen as a creative response, by some Indian Christians and foreign missionaries living in India, to challenges posed by existing forms of institutional Christianity that tended to alienate their followers from the rich cultural heritage of India. In other words, Christian ashram movements were the products of a new religious consciousness that recognized the colonial structures embedded in Christian institutions and responded by creating communal spaces where more authentic indigenous expressions of the faith could be developed.
Protestant Christians took the lead in this move to indigenize and inculturate Christianity. At a meeting of the National Missionary Society in 1912, Charles F. Andrews, a Christian minister who collaborated with Gandhi, put forth a proposal to establish ashrams to accomplish evangelical and social goals. In 1921 Savarirayan Jesudason and E. Forrester Paton established the first major Christian ashram, named Christukula, in Tirupppatur, Tamil Nadu. The founders of this and other Protestant retreats drew their inspiration from Hindu reformers like Gandhi, who is known to have stayed at Christukula. Protestant centers borrowed from the bhakti tradition, taking from it its melodies, instruments, vernacular phrasing, and democratic outreach to all castes. Gandhi-like, they emphasized social work, education, and health programs and took clear stands against colonialism. In the late 1940s, after independence, an Inter-Ashram Fellowship was formed.
Although it is not usually recognized as such, the Bethany Ashram, founded by Orthodox Syrians, was in fact the first Christian ashram to be established. It was founded in 1918 in what is now Kerala with the goal of drawing on the traditions of bhakti yoga and jñāna yoga in order to revitalize Orthodox Syrian spirituality in a way that would reflect its ties to Indian culture and the goals of nationalism. Today the Orthodox Syrian Church has a number of autonomous celibate communities with monks wearing the ochre-colored (kavi- colored) robes of Hindu renunciates and following a vegetarian diet, but because little else remains of Hindu forms, the term ashram seems to be nominal.
Among Catholics, a proposal to combine Christian monastic practice with elements of Hindu ashram life was made as early as 1891 by a brahman Bengali convert, but it was met with incomprehension. It was not until the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) that the seeds of inculturation were sown and institutional support for a Catholic ashram movement was made available by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India. That said, the need for Catholic ashrams had already been anticipated by two individuals: a French diocesan priest named Jules Monchanin and Henri le Saux, a French Benedictine who took the name Abhishiktānanda. Together they formed the first Catholic retreat center, Saccidānanda Ashram, also known as Shāntivānam (Forest of Peace), in 1950. Although Europeans, these pioneers were steeped in Hindu spirituality and they were committed to an Indianization of Christianity in order to Christianize Indians.
In Shāntivānam, inculturation led nuns and monks to adopt the kavi- colored robes of Hindu renunciates and to use Sanskritic names. New residents are welcomed with dīkṣā, a ritual of initiation, practice yoga, and follow a vegetarian diet. The chapel is built like a typical South Indian temple, an OM is inscribed over the entrance to the sanctuary and its altar has the shape of an inverted lotus. During the liturgy verses, from the Upaniṣads and the bible are read. Atop a gopuram ("tower") are statues of Paul, Mary, and Benedict, carved in poses reminiscent of Hindu temple mūrtis (images) and Jesus is regarded the Sat (true) gurū.
It should be noted that such attempts at inculturation were met with suspicion and criticism by many in the Hindu community who regarded the linking of evangelization and Indianization as a stealth form of Christian imperialism. Sīta Ram Goel's work Catholic Ashrams: Sannyasins or Swindlers?, published in 1995, exemplifies this response.
In the decades following Vatican II, a noticeable shift occurred. Ashram pioneers like Ignatius Hirudayam, SJ, in Madras, Sisters Vandana Mataji and Sara Grant in Pune, and Bede Griffiths, OSB, who took over leadership of Shāntivānam, stressed the ecumenical dimension of their communities. Their goal was to create a prayerful climate where "otherness" was valued and where participants in interfaith encounters and collaborations would be mutually challenged and enriched.
Marks of True Ashrams: A Consensus
As the ashram movement of Hindus and Christians enters into the twenty-first century, a consensus seems to have emerged regarding the requirements of genuine ashrams, that they be open to people of all creeds, castes, cultures, and countries; include women, whether in separated or mixed communities; address social inequalities; be responsive to the needs of those who do not belong to the ashram's denomination or sect; challenge such divisive elements as communalism, fanaticism, and fundamentalism; protect the environment; treasure the pluriform spiritual heritage of India; and contribute to national integration.
Amaladoss, Michael. "Ashrams and Social Justice." Word and Worship 15 (1982): 205–214.
Dhavamony, Mariasusai. "Monasticism: Hindu and Christian." Bulletin Secretarius pro non Christianis 37, no. 131 (1978): 40–53.
Gandhi, M. K. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Translated by Mahadev Desai. London, 1949.
Griffiths, Bede. Christian Ashram: Essays towards a Hindu-Christian Dialogue. London, 1966.
Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell. Mother of Bliss: Ānandamayī Mā (1896–1982). Oxford, 1999.
Jesudason, Savarirayan. Ashrams, Ancient and Modern: Their Aims and Ideals. Vellore, India, 1937.
Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharma Sastra: Ancient and Medieval Religious and Civil Law. Vol. 2, part 1. Pune, India, 1941.
Mataji, Vandana. Christian Ashrams: A Movement with a Future? Delhi, 1993.
Miller, David M., and Dorothy C. Wertz. Hindu Monastic Life: The Monks and Monasteries of Bhubarneswar. New Delhi, 1996.
Olivelle, Patrick. The Asrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution. Oxford and New York, 1993.
Ralston, Helen. Christian Ashrams: A New Religious Movement in Contemporary India. Lewiston, N.Y., 1987. Provides an insightful survey of Hindu and Christian ashrams.
Selva, Raj J. "Adapting Hindu Imagery: A Critical Look at Ritual Experiments in an Indian Catholic Ashram." Journal of Ecumenical Studies 37, nos. 3–4 (Summer/Fall 2000): 333–351.
Vandana. Gurus, Ashrams, and Christians. Madras, India, 1978.
Williams, George M. "The Ramakrishna Movement: A Study in Religious Change." In Religion in Modern India, edited by Robert D. Baird, pp. 55–79. New Delhi, 1981.
Judith G. Martin (2005)
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