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The Atmosphere and Purpose of an Ashram
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken to residents of the Sivananda Ashram on March 22, 1982.)

The human mind is made in such a way that it can easily miss the point, and the very prerogative of the human mind is this, that it should always miss the point. It can never remember what the essential background is of anything that it is embarking upon or engaged in.

When one starts an institution, opens up an organisation, has followers, conducts conferences, writes books, meets people and does various things, it is very easy for the mind to miss its main purpose in the background and be carried away by the books that are written, the glory that comes as a consequence of one's importance, the largeness of the institution, the number of the followers, and the facilities or comforts which are provided to the body and to the ego. No one loves anything more than comfort. Physical, psychological and social comfort is what we seek. It is very easy to interpret comfort in a very convenient manner, going on a tangent and totally missing the point, and in a way deceiving oneself. This is something one has to guard against, especially when one takes to a spiritual path and a religious life, and regards oneself as a spiritual seeker, a humble disciple of a great Master or perhaps a servant of God.

No one is so great in this world as to not be able to succumb to these weaknesses. No great man was born in this world who can go entirely scot-free from this world under these circumstances. The world is too big for even the greatest of men.

Hence, here a few of us are seated as followers, disciples, and admirers of Gurudev Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. Seekers of Truth, lovers of spiritual life and people who are in search of peace of mind, etc., these are the persons seated here. In their presence I am asked to speak, and I can only speak what I am endeavouring to deeply ruminate within myself day in and day out as one of those people like many others in the world who can very easily be caught in the whirl and the current of the movement of the world.

Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj started this ashram. I have always defined an ashram in a very novel way. The ashram is not a set of buildings, because buildings are everywhere in the world. Delhi has thousands of buildings but they are not called ashrams, so it is very clear that buildings do not make an ashram. Otherwise, ashrams would be everywhere because there are buildings everywhere. What else do you find, apart from buildings? You see people. You can also find people everywhere. If you go to any city you will see thousands of people, but it is not called an ashram. Therefore, buildings do not constitute the ashram, and people also do not constitute the ashram. Then what else is here except buildings and people? This is a very subtle question.

You say, “I go to the ashram.” Where are you going? You are going to a place which is a patch of earth on the surface of the Earth. You are going to a building where you are going to see people. Now, you cannot say a piece of earth is the ashram. You cannot say a building is the ashram. You cannot say people are the ashram. Then what remains? Minus earth, minus buildings, minus people, what do you see? So what do you mean by saying you are going to the ashram? You have very a peculiar, unintelligible notion, which is unintelligible to one's own self also.

You are not interested in rooms. It is not that you came here to find rooms. You want an atmosphere. Now I am coming to the point. An ashram is an atmosphere; it is not people, it is not a building, it is not a patch of earth. It is an outlook of consciousness, an attitude of the mind, a way in which we look at things, and the manner in which we interpret the circumstances of life. This may be said to be the differentia which strikes a departure from other places in the world which are also pieces of earth, buildings and people.

Here you have an atmosphere which you do not have anywhere else. What kind of atmosphere is it? This is an atmosphere which is charged with the vitality of an outlook of life which is very peculiar and novel to people who are staying in an ashram. What makes this an ashram, or what makes anything an ashram or a holy place, is the way in which the people here think, conduct themselves, feel, react and hold opinions.

In my opinion, it is for this purpose that Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj started this ashram, an ashram which has to be understood in the manner I described. He did not want buildings. He was an out-and-out renunciate, and wanted nothing for himself. This is a digression. I am giving a little sidelight on the personality of Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. He was not a person who wanted an ashram. He wrote books and underlined the sentences: “Do not start ashrams. Nobody should start ashrams. Don't open a kitchen. Don't have disciples.” He wrote all these things for important reasons. However, Swamiji started the ashram, not because he wanted to give you physical comfort, bathrooms, electricity, fans and so on. This is not the reason for starting an ashram. It is to give you some guidance in reorienting your mind, which is your problem. You had plenty of facilities in your house, so why did you leave everything and come here? You have come here for a different purpose, which is invisible to the eyes.

An ashram cannot be seen with the eyes. Nobody can photograph an ashram. You photograph only buildings and people, not the ashram. The ashram is in the mind of people, so how can you photograph that? Once a television man asked to photograph the ashram. I said, “You cannot see it, so how will you photograph it?” He was surprised. However, I had a very interesting chat with him.

It is very necessary that you should be very guarded in your thinking. You have to be vigilant till the last breath of your life. No one has attained the heights of spirituality. It will be foolhardy on the part of any seeker to think that that he has attained savitarka, nirvitarka or anything. Nothing of the kind. We are perhaps in the lowest of levels. We see the world of diversity. We see the physical world, and we see it with a meaning which is personally connected with us. To see the world itself is bad enough, and to see it in the way it is connected to us personally is worse; and we do both things.

To obviate this difficulty and to enable the mind of honest seekers to train themselves in this new line of religious or spiritual thinking, Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj has started this institution, this ashram, this Sivananda Ashram or The Divine Life Society. It is a representation of an atmosphere into which you are trying to enter, God willing, after you quit this body.

St. Augustine was very fond of referring to the church as the city of God manifest on Earth, as the church represented the kingdom of heaven. You will be wondering how a church can represent the kingdom of heaven. A church is a mortal, physical, brick-and-mortar structure, and is presided over by a bishop or a cardinal or a pope. How can it represent the kingdom of heaven? St. Augustine's interpretation of the church as the representation of the kingdom of heaven was perhaps along the lines I tried to direct your mind. I do not think by ‘church' or ‘the pope' St. Augustine meant a human being sitting inside a huge palatial building. He was referring to a vibration which was in harmony with that vibration which is commensurate with what is called the kingdom of heaven.

So the church and the temple and the ashram mean practically one and the same thing as far as their inner connotation is concerned. We too are like that. Now I am coming to another point altogether. We are not boys, girls, husbands, wives sitting here. We are unable to get out of this idea, it is very clear. Each one thinks he is a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, etc. This is an obsession in our heads, and perhaps it does not easily leave us till we die. Even after death it may not leave us, so we take rebirth.

It is necessary for us to think as St. Augustine thought or Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj thought. Neither is this ashram a set of buildings and people running about for some easy life, nor is the church or the temple like that, nor are we sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. We are humble pressures of the spirit endeavouring to commune itself with the great conflagration from where it has come. If this atmosphere created visibly in the form of these buildings is going to help you even as a modicum in the direction of this movement, we would be paying our humble tribute truly to Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj.

There is very little for me to say except that we have to think in the way which would be admired by God's eyes. If God is to look at us, He may say, “Right.” If all humanity says that you are wonderful and crores of people garland you but you are a poor nothing before the eyes of God, that is very unfortunate. But if you are unwanted persons in the world who are spat at – many received this treatment, and even great saints had to suffer this – but you are something in the eyes of that Mighty Being, then that is worthwhile.

So people who are living in this ashram should thank the founder of this institution, worshipful Gurudev, a hundred times for having given this little physical comfort so that we may not have to run about in the hot sun, rain and wind to beg. That difficulty he has tried to obviate with his great mercy and compassion, not because we have to revel in indulgence and comforts, but so we may utilise it as an instrument to the extent only, not beyond that, for moving onward along the path which is the one that we have chosen when we left our home. This is a fact we should not forget.