What is the relevance of the Ashram today?

The Ashrams want us to take shelter in them!! I am a rogue godman. LOL.

Terminology and an effort at interrogating the psychoanalytical significance of the closed space of an “ashram”. 

The term ‘ashram’ has its roots in the Devnagri term ‘ashray’ or shelter. Traditionally it has symbolised a protected place where one could find shelter from the vicissitudes of the world. Conversely, it has also come to mean in the contemporary Indian secular mindset, an escape from the rigours of everyday life. And within the pre-Vedic cultures, the right to permanently live in an Ashram was confined to those whose chosen path was Brahma -vidya, that is those who sought the knowledge of the Self or Atman. Later on, due to social decadence and subsequent ossification of work-roles, the Ashram life became a prerogative for Brahmins where the latter chose to carry out elaborate Vedic rituals prioritising them over the erstwhile seeking of the Ultimate Truth. It is within this context of social ossification and Brahmin prerogatives that Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita exhorts Arjuna to fight on for by the time the Mahabharata came into being, Ashram as a geographical place of solace and true quest had deteriorated into a fiefdom of a handful of hereditary Brahmins under royal patronage. So during the time of the composition of the Bhagavad Gita itself we find that the shift in the understanding of an ashram occurs. It is no longer a geographical terrain but the ethical mores constructed within one’s heart. The boundaries of the Ashram become the boundaries of moral, religious and spiritual ethics. This concept of the ashram throws up interesting observations for us today: the Ashram in psychoanalytic terms starts to be a sort of the Super-ego of Freud, acting as an internal censor against unrighteousness. The mythical attacks of monsters and demons on Ashramites becomes attacks of the unconscious Id against the claims of the super-ego. So, like everything else in our Post-Modern world, the Ashram too is a sign which can be sine die  interpreted using various hermeneutic tools.


My concept of an ashram. I am getting incorrigible day by day.

The Catholic appropriation of the Indian Hindu concept of the Ashram and ensuing controversies.

“Over the past … decades, the Catholic Church in India has made more overt efforts to relate the Christian faith to the pluralistic Indian religious landscape. One of the tangible signs of this trend is the renewed interest in the Catholic ashrams that have been a fertile ground for various experiments in adaptation known as “inculturation.” Sociologist Helen Ralston describes this new interest in ashrams within Indian Catholicism as the product of a new religious consciousness inspired by Vatican II and galvanized by the 1969 All India Seminar on the Church in India Today, which “called upon all.. . to promote ashrams and an ashram way of life.” The Ashram-Aikya, an association of nearly 100 influential Indian Catholic theologians committed to ashnunic ideals and lifestyle, has made a sustained theological argument that ashram life and spirituality are the most authentic signs of an inculturated Indian Christianity.” [1]

                                               The Catholic Church in India appropriated the concept of the Ashram for her own ends. This has elicited strong reactions from right-wing Hindu fundamentalists. The Church. post Vatican Council II, wanted to enter into dialogues with other religions and termed this movement asinculturation[2]. According to the Church, different regional differences in the world demanded different yet adaptive religious practices. So we had in India an active effort by Benedictine monks from Europe who wanted to adapt their choir practices into Indian plainchant in the lines of the Vedic chants.They even donned saffron clothes and integrated Yogic practices within their daily schedule. It is to their initial work that we have quite a few Catholic Ashrams in India today. But this mode of life has come under scrutiny from both conservative Catholics and Hindus. The latter see this mode of living as bordering on heresy and the dilution of their Faiths. In fact, quite a number of times, the Church hierarchy here in India as well as that in Europe has hauled up members of Catholic Ashrams for deviating from orthodox doctrine. Liturgical practices in many of these Ashrams have also drawn the attention of the Roman curia for the preservation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Hindu fundamentalists have repeatedly pointed out that these Ashrams are ways to confuse ordinary Hindus in believing that saffron wearing Catholics were in fact Hindu sadhus and what in fact the Church considers as inculturation was in truth an intrusion into Hindu culture in the guise of the Ashram movement. While these are ground-realities and are to be debated by sociologists and Catholic liturgists, the scope of this essay does not permit further elucidation of these controversies[3].

An ashram is a monad which helps you to look into yourself even out in the world.

The Relevance of the Ashram today and seeing the Ashram as a Post-modern Signifier.

So, we return to the possible significances of the Ashram today: does it have any role to play in contemporary life? The answer in a nutshell, is yes,  without any ambiguity. The lived-experience of life in an Ashram where eternity meets temporality, where the cacophony of the world is silenced definitely provides at least a psychological space for the harried individual. In today’s context, the Ashram should be viewed as a safe-haven where a lay person of any Faith can find solace from the humdrum of the world. Sri Ramakrishna exhorted his young monastic disciples to form ashrams where lay devotees can come to experience God within their hectic, worldly lives. It is another matter that today most ashrams are just part of money-making scams, dens of vices and are not thought of highly by the majority of Indians. The Ashrams often tend to function as all-engulfing cults.[4] This too needs concentrated attention by religious leaders and sociologists but for the sake of this essay, we can only highlight the symbolic and ideal values of an Ashram.


[1]See the excellent essay by Selva J. Raj, “Adapting Hindu Imagery: A Critical Look at Ritual Experiments in an Indian Catholic Ashram,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies (2000).

[2]See Michael Amaladoss, “In Our Own Tongues: Perspectives from Asia on Mission and Inculturation,” Theological Studies 66.3 (2005): 719.

[3] See “I Went in Search of Utopia.And Got Center Parcs; It Was Set Up in India in the Sixties as an ‘Experiment in Human Unity’ with No Money, No Religion and No Rules. but at Auroville There Are Meetings Lots of Them, and Tamils Who Do All the Work .Don’t Mention the Servants,” The Mail on Sunday (London, England), 18 March 2007, 60.

“A forthright German woman in her 50s asked me: ‘What do you call it when everyone has to adhere to a single idea? Fascism!’ Yet Auroville is endorsed byUnesco and the Indian government and gets special privileges such as tax exemption. Surely there is something admirable about trying to live differently, however tiresome it may be, and their ecological achievements are incredible.

But I have never been anywhere that felt less spiritual, whatever that means. India is my favourite place and this wasn’t India.”


[4]Stork, Jane. Breaking the Spell: My Life as a Rajneeshee, and the Long Journey Back to Freedom. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2010. This is a disturbing book and similar works abound on the ISKON. Naturally the ordinary Indian is suspicious about ashrams today.

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