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Ashrams, Capitalism And False Prophets

Ashrams, Capitalism And False Prophets

October 15, 2010

With increasing numbers of people visiting ashrams, it's worth questioning whether these establishments will meet your needs.

Julia Roberts goes on a spiritual journey in the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love. The film sees her give up her life in New York to journey across Italy, India and Indonesia. Whilst in India she visits an ashram where she largely meditates and scrubs floors. The purpose of her visit is, in part, to finally meet the guru a former lover greatly admires. Inner peace, silence and harmony are all qualities that she begins to learn more about. She also encounters Richard from Texas who is there for atonement of a kind. At the same time, we see groups of people arriving in coach loads from across the world, to all partake in a little bit of ashram action. Quite soon, the place begins to look a little bit like a one-stop-shop for crowds in crisis, a spiritual Butlins of sorts. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so cynical here; they are of course expected to keep operating by some means. The film, though criticised by some as being tourist orientated, does give us a glimpse into one ashram set up. Others may of course be different, but as we delve into the world of ashrams, I wonder whether people actually scratch the surface of what these establishments are really about, and how they seem.

Mention ashrams to people in the west today and one popular image is that of the Beatles, who in 1968, stayed at the former Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram in Rishikesh. It is understood that most ashrams and yoga centres in Rishikesh offer devotees a closer chance to reach ‘Moksha’. I presume this is because of the sublime mountains and the proximity to the holy river. The term itself has often been equated to the notion of release and is synonymous with reasons that people continue to seek out ashrams today. Though we are now past the liberal sixties and hippie seventies, people continue to seek out a means of finding some sort of spiritual enlightenment or solace. At the same time, it is worth questioning whether a communal environment is the best method of attaining this sort of spiritual clarity. People may discover that the journey they need to make could be a million miles from sitting in an ashram.

I for one am not very good at chanting for example, but I understand that most large ashrams may promote this as part of their activities. I understand its methods in yoga to align the breath to core rhythms. However, at the same time, I’m also aware that most ashrams may instead be reading from holy scriptures - and although no harm has ever come of chanting ‘Hari Krishna’, or ‘Hari Rama’ – when it gets a little more complex, is everyone actually on board? Do they understand what they are saying and most importantly, is it conducive to their end purpose? At this point, it’s worthwhile to re-examine your motivation. Often, a desire to experience something ‘other’ can encourage people to pursue different interests, which for some, will include the word of Maharishis or Gurus. I won’t deny my fascination with the Gregorian Chant for example – maybe this is just an inverse version of the above. Yet, I’d think twice before I went to live in a monastery.

For several years this ‘industry’ has continued to develop steadily as a niche for those that needed it. However, as the interest for all things ‘mind, body and spirit’ has increased in the last decade or so, ashrams have experienced a surge in popularity. Though this is the good for their awareness, it also presents the possibility of a rogue element. Not to imply that ashrams are going to turn into a malevolent force, but simply that their popularity may inspire an increase of self-interested capitalist development. The Ounodesign blog now looks at what has become of Maharishi Mahesh’s ashram, but it is a far cry from the thriving success of other ashrams launching road-shows, satellite sites and tours around NRI outposts all over Australia, Europe and America. Just the other day, my mother asked me to book her into an ashram in Oxford as it was where a notorious guru was currently residing. I felt for her, she wanted to be closer to a spiritual leader, but I saw nothing other than a rock-star and a teenage girl, (but that was just my perspective). Although, when you think that there’s merchandise involved, then this can become quite a lucrative deal for the ashram organisers through their ‘global outreach programmes’ and maybe my analogy isn’t so far-fetched.

In the last few years, I’ve also seen the celebrity of Baba Ram Dev develop, he’s an interesting character, with some interesting ideas, and according to the New York Times the ‘Indian who built a yoga empire’. It is no surprise that with such a massive following, global ashrams would have been set up to make the most of his celebrity. It almost seems like a waste not to. But at the same time, with technology allowing global messages to be widely circulated, I feel that a lot of literature and ideology regarding spiritual enlightenment (yoga, meditation) ought to, in principle, be open source. Yes, for some communities in India, an ashram filled by ‘western’ tourists will prove beneficial to the local community, but this is something that the visitors themselves ought to consider. In other circumstances, I’ve seen visitors quite readily involve themselves in a system that encourages them to clean more than just floors, accept a vow of silence and accept a strict regime of meditation and chanting. The stricter these itineraries are, the closer they seem to boarding school, and dare I say it even cults. For some, this is a welcome break from the chaos of their own lives, but for me, whenever I see large crowds of people submit to chanting, I’m always instinctively afraid.

Ultimately, it is best to acknowledge that no two ashrams are the same. They originated as hermitages in quiet and rural environments for the purposes of good, and of course, no one can be blamed for wanting a part of that for themselves or their own community. I know, however, that my bedroom, with the lights turned down and some ambient music is as about much silence as I need for meditation or ‘quiet time’, others will have different demands, but before you book that retreat in Goa, Rishikesh or even Oxford, do consider what philosophy is employed there, does it sit with what you wish to gain. Most importantly, consider how individuals a hundred, or even fifty years ago, not able to travel, managed to find peace for themselves.


  • ramdev
    06.12.10 12:41 AM
    Sometimes, I think Ramdev is the only guy who actually speaks any sense these days. He may be the best politician India has!
  • Sandeep
    25.10.10 07:54 PM
    I'm glad you all appreciated this, it is, as you mention an attempt to ask questions rather than demonise ashrams.

    I've been to Rishikesh before, it's definitely a sublime place, foreboding and beautiful at the same time, though that was several years ago. I look forward to seeing how the ashram scene develops.
  • sharell
    17.10.10 06:19 PM
    Barnaby, I'm with you! I haven't visited an ashram in India either...I guess my spiritual journey hasn't meant to involve one so far. I'm also not keen on the communal atmosphere. I actually find it a bit disturbing....the prospect of having to be "on board" with things I might not be entirely comfortable with (chanting is a good example).
  • indra
    15.10.10 05:12 PM
    As i read this i realised i was reading it with a smile, oh how i am on the same page as you here. I read Eat pray Love and i think i may be one of the few that wasn't impressed with it, hence i won't see the film. Maybe this is to do with the fact i study Yoga, Have had a partially Asian up bringing and the thought of taking 6 months out of my life to visit Rishikesh with 10.000 other westerns searching for enlightenment isn't something that floats my boat one bit.
    However i will be by passing Rishikesh to take a look in Jan 2011, or more like 'to run for the hills':0)
    In your words' I for one am not very good at chanting '...Everyone can chant so don't be so hard on yourself it's all about having the confidence to do it, which i think is something that is dampened down in the western world. People don't chant because thy think and feel stupid, final. They have no choice in my class, it's part of Yoga, so get over whatever it is inside that is stopping this (of course I'm not so harsh)
    Ive taught people who would never dream of opening their mouths when they first began, now they raise the roof it's fantastic to observe.
    Oh and to find Peace and enlightenment, if your not looking within, your not going to find it with some Sadu at the foot hills of the Himalayan mountains
    So before i go on any further, thank you, i really enjoyed this piece.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    15.10.10 03:58 PM
    I have a lot of reservations about ashrams and the way they are run today - and the people who run them - which is why I haven't yet visited one, even though I live barely a couple of hours from the Sivananda Ashram at Neyyar Dam.

    If people are genuinely interested in finding inner peace, I think they ought to realise that all kinds of extraordinary insights are possible simply by delving into one's own soul. A great teacher is of course hugely influential and helpful, but in the end, your soul is what you're trying to improve or better understand, and travelling in India or falling in line with a system of meditation doesn't mean you're going to find that better soul there. It's inside you, and always has been.

    This was one of your best yet, throwing up many questions and ideas. Thank you!

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