I had been travelling around India, exploring our cultural heritage; but I found myself being drawn not to places of artistic or historic interest, but to those located on a more spiritual map, though it was hard for me to define what exactly ‘spiritual’ was at the time. They were sites of pilgrimage, real places that the senses could grasp, real communities of real people living together. Places that beckoned from a strange conjuncture of the physical and metaphysical.
The call took me to the Ramanasramam in Tiruvannamalai, though it was not on my itinerary. I vividly remember the first sight of the place. Its open gates, its greenery, its peace, held out a promise that only asked me to collect on it. I realised I was there to receive, a task I found both more daunting and more satisfying than the more usual calls to acquire or achieve have ever been.
I consciously followed a routine when I was in Tiruvannamalai, one which soothed me, revealed how frayed and jangled my nerves had been, and perhaps mostly are in daily life. Like the more experienced spiritual junkies, I sat in the cool, clean and tranquil meditation hall of the ashram for long hours, did my rounds of the shrine of Sri Bhagavan, browsed through the ashram bookshop, walked clockwise round the 14 kilometre base of the holy mount Arunachala, ate in the usual cafes — and surreptitiously looked for company among the hordes of spiritual seekers.
Over long hours in the meditation hall I experienced what I could only term the ‘energy there.’ People came and went; they sat just as long as I did, or longer, or they read a book, or chanted a song to Ramana which resounded sweetly within the walls. For a heart and mind accustomed to the pace and ambition of the city, this slowness, nothingness, emptiness was a relief. I chanted to myself the lines of an Eliot poem I dimly remembered: I’m not here to verify, instruct myself, inform curiosity, or carry report; I’m here to kneel, where prayer has been valid.
In the same spirit, I went on the four-hour-long walk around the holy mountain. Not barefoot, like the pilgrims atoning for the past or purifying their minds — my devotion and courage weren’t strong enough — I went in my sandals.
The road is sprinkled with tea and coffee shops, for rest and refreshment; but there is an ever-present deep silence, that, somewhere in the second or third hour of walking, finally draws you into itself, intimately explaining the meaning of a ‘pilgrimage.’
The word ‘ashram’ looks close to ashray — refuge or shelter — but is actually more deeply related to shram — work, toil, austerities. (The four stages or ashrams of life refer to the duties, the shrams, enjoined upon us at each stage.) The word once had associations with monks and monkhood, a community involved in spiritual penances. Peculiar, then, that an institution that symbolises austerity should be such an attraction for those in the thrall of our age of excess. We, who have everything, who are encouraged to equip ourselves with even more, how does the ashram fit into our economy?
Do we seek more spiritual growth, more personal evolution, a more spiritual model of acquisition? Yes. But there is also the pull of contrasts, of the crest for the trough, of the everything for the nothing.
An interesting interpretation of the ashram is Pune’s Osho Meditation Resort. They check you for HIV/AIDS at the gates, charge a hefty one-time registration fee (at the time of writing, an un-ashram-like Rs. 1,000-1,500), and a considerable daily admission fee for the meditations and other ‘facilities.’ Perhaps that’s why it rechristened itself several years ago, though it is still the Osho Ashram to most. It has all the trappings of a modern resort: A swimming pool, tennis courts, jacuzzi and a state-of-the-art guest house with steep room charges (up to $100 per night in season). At first glance, people seem more like members of an exclusive club rather than devotees in an ashram, and the free sex rumours have not quite died down. And yet, even as you, in fancy robes, hang out at the chic German Bakery, the word ‘ashram’ refuses to entirely evaporate; there is the persistent hint that there is something more on offer here than a relaxed good time.
There are dance sessions, musical performances, other celebratory, social events. But the meditations, all day long, beginning at five in the morning, provide the pull toward something inward. Perhaps it is the toughest kind of ashram to be in; its socialising, good food and easy chatter make it so easy to reproduce just the pattern one might have come here to forget, or to put aside, and instead lead to the quest for cooler and more hip forms of spirituality.
Which way it goes — resort, parties and fun or a quiet sanctuary within oneself — depends on you. The meditations, almost hidden away beneath the resort trappings, encouraging you to dance with yourself, forgetting to look or be looked at, careless of the immediate environment, in the darkness of having lost all social contact, lost in the terrifying vacuum of the self without an image, sway the balance.
The idea of retreat and refuge, though not etymologically connected, is one of the ashram’s great attractions. What do we retreat from? Traditionally, it was domestic life, which kept us trapped in humdrum activities, mundane things. In today’s urban scenario, we seek to retreat from work, city-life, traffic, pollution, competition and stress. More usually, we seek picture-postcard vacations; occasionally, though, when more frazzled than usual, the mind will look deeper.
‘Reclaim your life!’ said a popular ad, implying, no doubt, that corporate executive’s life was lost somewhere in the debris created by modern work pressures. The paradox: Those very pressures provide the material means for life reclamation, the money, the car, the privileged leave.
The ashram is much less exacting. There is no long weekend or annual holiday here. It is always there, its gates open, a perennial spring offering retreat, self-connection, meditation, an oasis of non-doing in the modern desert of accomplishment and achievement. The thirsty, inevitably, are drawn.
Why do we go again and again to a physical ashram, or wander from one to the other? One may well ask why one goes to the office every day, or to the cinema every weekend. Is it a new kind of addiction, a lifestyle disease? Or a place to slow down, let go, and get back in touch with natural rhythms?
An ashram can be whatever we choose to make it. Its call stays the same: Put off sense and notion, sail this way, here fulfilment lies. Those of us who have been seduced will heed it and go — we go in order to come home.
I first visited Pondicherry while I was coping with the aftermath of a broken relationship. I vaguely knew that an ashram existed there (experienced friends advised I stay in ‘an ashram guest house’), but I discovered that the Aurobindo Ashram dominated Pondicherry life. Many visit for the beaches and the resorts, but, spread all over the town — guest houses, playgrounds, residential buildings, hospital, school, and other facilities — it is, simply, The Ashram.
Its spiritual centre is the original ashram, now the joint samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, in the verandah of the old block of houses where they used to live. Like many of the steady stream of visitors, I went because the Ashram figures prominently on the small tourist map of Pondicherry. But I was enchanted by the smell of serenity in the small courtyard, instantly drawn by the tree bending like a cocoon over the white marble shrine.
Austere, even rigorous in its decorum, the Ashram allows you to do nothing but sit in silence and absorb the peace. I sat for over an hour on my first visit.
Once again — or was it for the first time? — I realised that there was nothing to do; it was enough just to be there in that sanctified space.
I went every day, sometimes twice or thrice, sat under the tree, feeling the embrace where the sky meets the earth, where the ethereal stoops down to take some poor material thing, like myself, in its hand to caress it. I rented a bicycle and trundled along the narrow, paved streets, enjoying the smallness and the slowness. I had quiet, solitary meals. I sat on a bench on the beach road and looked out on the sea, doing nothing.
I now live in Pondicherry, but I moved here for love, not on a spiritual quest. I still find myself visiting the ashram every now and then, though. The love, not only of a woman, but of a place, a small town, pulls me toward its quiet, living centre.
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(This story appears in the 17 July, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)