Swami Satyananda Saraswati describes ashram life and speaks about the importance of karma yoga. A compilation from the talks given in Chamarande (France) and Zinal (Switzerland) in Sept. 1980, and at Satyananda Ashram, Mangrove Mountain (Australia) in Nov. 1980.
The ashram culture is a very old tradition. We know about the ashrams in India, ancient Greece, the Essene communities of Palestine. During the Atlantis civilisation we also have references to ashram life.
Ashram is a place where people come from every walk of life and live for some time without having any involvement or attachment. There is no caste, colour or sex barrier. In the olden days, kings and ordinary farmers lived together in the ashrams. The ashram life was designed in such a way that everybody automatically participated in the functions, and there was so much co-operation, co-ordination and harmony.
The ashram food is different to what we take in our ordinary day to day life. That helps the people to purify their physical bodies. All day in the ashram the aspirants are exposed to physical work, which is very important for spiritual evolution. Intellectual work is a barrier to spiritual life, but physical work relaxes tensions, minimises passions and excitement, and at the same time balances the metabolic processes. Sometimes we do so much physical work in the ashram that purification of the body takes place spontaneously even without the practice of hatha yoga.
Nowadays the ashram is often misinterpreted as another type of clinic, therapy centre or educational institution. But it is none of these. Actually the word ashram is derived from the Sanskrit root 'shram' which means 'hard work'. So an ashram is a place where you have to work hard. That is why Lord Buddha used to call his disciples shramaneras. Shraman means 'labourers'. You have to labour hard on the external, physical plane to transform the excess energy of your mind. If you do not provide this energy with a constructive outlet, it can become a very destructive force.
The magician and the demon
There is a short story which is often told in India to illustrate this. Once there was a magician who longed to have some special powers in order to accomplish his work. So he went to his guru and told him about his desire. The guru thought about this for some time, and then he gave the magician a special mantra whereby he could invoke a spirit from the nether regions. As soon as the magician returned to his home, he uttered the mantra and a demon appeared before him.
- Now sir, said the demon, since you are my master, please give me some work.
- Alright, build me an ashram, the magician ordered, and instantly the ashram was erected because the demon possessed supernatural powers.
- Finished, said the demon, what next?
- Build a straight road connecting to it, replied the magician.
- Done, said the demon, what shall I do now?
- Make a garden with trellises all around, commanded the magician, and in a trice that too was completed.
Like this, the demon went on producing until the magician ran out of ideas. So, when the demon demanded further tasks, the magician could think of nothing more to give him. At this the demon became infuriated.
- Unless you give me work right away, he shouted, I will kill you.
The poor magician was terrified and ran to his "guru for help.
- Don't worry, said the guru. I will tell you how to manage him. What you have to do is erect a smooth wooden pole about thirty feet high. Then tell the demon to climb to the top, pour oil all over it, and climb down. As soon as he reaches the bottom, he must climb back up again.
So the magician went home and relayed his guru's instructions to the demon, who immediately took up the work and began climbing the pole. Each time he reached the top, he poured more oil down the pole until eventually it became so slippery that he was only able to climb it very slowly with great effort. In this way the magician kept the demon occupied and at bay, so that he no longer posed any problem.
This parable relates to our own demon, the mind, and the physical labour we do in the ashram in order to pacify and control it. Otherwise the mind becomes negative and poses a threat to us, just as the demon did in the story before the magician found the solution. So, in ashram life, the first function of karma yoga is to control the negative aspects of the mind. Otherwise, the energy dissipates itself in all kinds of diversions: attractive and destructive sensual passions, broken and unsteady thinking.
Tending the inner garden
The second function of karma yoga is to cultivate the inner life. In a garden, you have to dig the earth, sow the seeds, manure it, remove the weeds and watch over what you have created by night vigil. This is only a reflection of what you are doing internally. Within the mind there is a wild, uncultivated garden which grows all kinds of bushes and weeds. It doesn't allow flowers, fruits or any beautiful things to grow. It contains all sorts of thorny bushes and you have to clear them out.
What happens when you sow good seeds, good samskaras and karmas in this garden? Then the little animals which live in the trees come out at night and undo all that you have done during the day. What are the animals that come out at night? The first is desire, the second frustration, and the third attraction to sensual life. That is why it is said in the Upanishads 'Do not sleep by night.' Your inner life, your inner garden, has to be carefully tended and watched over in exactly the same way as we take care of the garden here in the ashram.
The ashram is a symbol, an external expression of what should be happening in everybody's minds and hearts. The ashram life is designed in such a way that it reminds you of illumination at every moment that you live there. In an ashram you do not need to meditate; you work the whole day. You see the glory of divinity while you graze the cows; work as a carpenter; cut and boil the vegetables in the kitchen; look after the bank accounts; cash cheques; clean the premises; take care of the people who are sick; from dawn to dusk. When the sun rises you see the ashram humming with activities like a beehive, and when the sun sets the ashram is still very active.
The inmates of the ashram live a very simple life and the guests or visitors who come from outside are also obliged to live that life. That simplicity of life is a type of penance. Therefore, as far as my ashrams are concerned, I have always had just one objective in mind: to keep alive an atmosphere in the ashram which will accelerate the pace of evolution in spiritual life.
How to derive maximum benefits
I think everyone who comes to the ashram will surely be benefited. As such, even if one derives minimum benefits, it is worth having that much. There is no negative side in approaching the life of an ashram.
There is, however, one point which we have to take care of. We must remember that ashram and our home are different situations. When we go to an ashram we should not expect the same type of life we had in our family. Nor should we expect the ashram to be a hotel. Then we can derive maximum benefits. For those who go there for a short period, this attitude is important. But those who go there forever, they should bequeath every material possession. That will completely drive away insecurity from their minds. I have had plenty of such experiences with people who come to stay with me.
Those people who could get on better with the ashram life were people who had bequeathed all their material possessions. But those who did not do it and had a little money in this bank and in that bank, did not fare well in ashram life. Insecurity is man's weakness, and so long as you depend on material things for security, you will continue to have insecurity with anxiety. When you have bequeathed and renounced all material possessions and don't even have a penny to your name, then there is no insecurity, because you have nothing left to depend on.
So, to live in the ashram for a short period, one must come prepared to live any kind of simple life. To live there forever, one should come to live as a destitute.