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.