What is an Ashram?

Michael Pollick

In the Hindu religion, practitioners are encouraged to seek out deeper spiritual instruction with a guru or other master sage. This often involves spending time with other believers in an isolated communal center called an ashram. This center may also serve as the principal home of a yogi, guru or other revered mystic. While living in an ashram, the instructor and believers all share a simple vegetarian diet and spend many hours in meditation.

Yoga practitioners often meet at spiritual retreats.
Yoga practitioners often meet at spiritual retreats.

The word is Sanskrit, although different sources provide different translations. Generally speaking, it means a hermitage or place of penance. Unlike the Christian practice of building churches in public areas, a Hindu ashram is almost always located in remote parts of the forest or mountain range, much like Buddhist or Christian monasteries. It is this simple setting away from the distractions of modern life which give it its ascetic appeal.

Some ashrams offer intensive yoga practice.
Some ashrams offer intensive yoga practice.

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This is not to say that an ashram is necessarily a simple structure. It can indeed be a small cottage with minimal amenities, but it can also be a large modern facility with dormitories, publishing houses and educational buildings. In fact, many Hindu children are routinely sent to a local ashram for religious and secular education, in the same way that Catholic schools provide an alternative to public education in the United States.

While living in an ashram, practitioners spend many hours in meditation.
While living in an ashram, practitioners spend many hours in meditation.

Over the past few years, other religious orders have studied the dynamics of a working ashram and have designed spiritual retreats based on that model. It would not be unusual to find a "Christian ashram" operating in a rural location in Western countries. Practitioners of yoga may also meet in isolated meditation centers based on these principles.

Although we may want to view an ashram as totally separated from political or military worlds, this has not been the case historically. Various leaders have used them as training grounds for their militaries, much like the martial arts training provided by Chinese monasteries. During his successful resistance movement against the British, Mahatma Gandhi used several as bases of operation, although stressing non-violence according to Hindu precepts.

Mahatma Gandhi used ashrams as bases of operation during non-violent protests.
Mahatma Gandhi used ashrams as bases of operation during non-violent protests.

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