As I wrote about my experience of the Sri Ramanasramam (in Tamil; Sri Ramana Ashram is the Sanskrit version), it occurred to me that some readers of this blog aren’t exactly sure what an ashram is. I’ve been to just a few, so my experience is pretty limited, but I’ll try to explain as best as I know how.
An ashram is usually dedicated to a guru and his or her teachings, and normally is created organically as people begin to hear of the guru and come to visit and receive their teachings. Eventually, the number of visitors becomes large enough that someone has to start organizing food, sleeping arrangements, time with the guru, pujas (worship ceremonies), and all the other activities of a spiritual community.
Some ashrams have a living guru, and some have a teacher who was a direct student of the guru, and carries on their teachings. In some cases, there is not a specific teacher; instead, the devotees read out the guru’s teachings from books, and sometimes there are discussion groups.
Every ashram has its own culture, based in large part on what the guru’s teachings and personal style were like. That culture is also based on how the devotees perceive the guru, and on their own culture of origin. Every ashram continues to evolve after the guru leaves the body, changing as time goes along, with some changes more intentional than others.
Ashrams in India vary enormously. An ashram can be essentially an extended family living its beliefs, and perhaps carrying out charities as well. Others operate on a large scale: The ashrams founded by or dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, for example, are essentially small towns with craft workshops and farms. There are ashrams where the swamis are “sky-clad” – that is, naked – and live on mountaintops, consuming practically no food or water. An ashram can be highly devotional, with bhajans (devotional songs) being sung all day on an organized schedule; an ashram might be silent. Some of the newer ashrams I’ve seen springing up around Tiruvannamalai seem to be organized around physical yoga, ayurvedic principles or vedic learning, as well as around the teachings of other gurus.
The Ramana ashram asks very little of visitors and guests, other than respectful behavior. Other ashrams can be quite different. At some I’ve visited, it’s expected that you’ll attend all the worship activities. At others, you are expected to give daily service while staying there – to work in a garden or kitchen, for example, or perhaps to help with office work.
The Ramana ashram attracts many visitors from all over India, and from other countries, particularly in the cooler season (which is starting now). The ashram grounds contain a limited number of bungalows and individual tiny houses for visitors. During my previous visits, I stayed in these rooms. They are close to the meditation hall and dining hall, and because they lie within the ashram walls and grounds, they have a secluded, quiet feeling to them.
As the number of visitors to has increased, the ashram has acquired and built a number of guest residences in the neighborhood south of the ashram, across the road from it. On this visit, Alan and I stayed in one of these. It’s just beside the main road running past the ashram, and like many Ramanasramam buildings, it is clean-lined, features white-painted stucco and natural wood, and is sparsely but elegantly appointed.
The clean lines and elegant austerity of the ashram are an accurate visual representation of its culture. Ramana was born into a Brahmin family, and while Brahmin life is full of ritual and rules, Ramana’s own teachings come down to a simple, clear message: ask all the time “Who is this who experiences?” Whatever the experience is – happiness, attachment, distraction, grief, desire, anger, bewilderment, analysis, love – you must question who it is who’s having that experience. And then go even deeper: Who is it who’s watching this experience?
Ramana’s moment of spiritual transformation took place at the age of 16. He was in his uncle’s house when he was seized with a sudden awareness he was going to die. The clearest account of this transformation I’ve read is the one that’s hand-painted on a board in one of the large halls at the ashram – the hall containing a life-size representation of Ramana in black stone. Here’s the text:
When Sri Ramana Maharshi realized the Self he was a lad of sixteen, still at school. He took a single step and reached the goal.
Maharishi himself described how this happened…..
“It was about six weeks before I left Madurai for good that the great change in my life took place. It was quite sudden. I was sitting alone in a room on the first floor of my uncle’s house. I seldom had any sickness, and on that day, there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden violent fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to account for it, and I did not try to account for it or to find out whether there was any reason for the fear. I just felt ‘I am going to die’ and began thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a doctor or my elders or friends; I felt that I had to solve the problem myself, there and then.
The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: ‘Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.’ And I at once dramatized the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed, so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word ‘I’ nor any other word be uttered. ‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body, am I dead? Is the body ‘I’? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless spirit.’ All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process.
‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with my body was centred on that ‘I.’ From that moment onwards the ‘I’ or Self focused attention on itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death had vanished once and for all.
Absorption in the Self continued unbroken from that time on. Other thoughts might come and go like the various notes of music, but the ‘I’ continued like the fundamental sruti note that underlies and blends with all the other notes. Whether the body was engaged in talking, reading or anything else, I was still centred on ‘I.’ Previous to that crisis, I had no clear perception of my Self and was consciously attracted to it. I felt no perceptible or direct interest in it, much less any inclination to dwell permanently in it.”
From Self Realization – The Life and Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi by BV Narasimha Swami & Ramana Maharshi and The Path of Self-Knowledge by Arthur Osborne.
Despite the austere simplicity of Ramana’s transformative experience, and of his core teaching, daily life at the Ramana ashram is filled with pujas (worship ceremonies) and rituals. Brahmin priests and pujaris – boys who are training in Hindu religious ritual and Sanskrit chanting – perform pujas at specific times of day, and also for specific times of the month and year (such as each full moon, and Hindu holidays, of which there are plenty).
For many of the western disciples and devotees, these pujas and rituals are pleasurable, or grounding, or satisfying in some way. For others, they seem foreign, even extraneous to Ramana’s core teaching. For those who regard the religious observances as inessential, it can help to remember that Ramana himself was born into a Brahmin family, and that ritual was natural to him. Though Ramana’s own transformative spiritual experience had nothing to do with Hindu ritual or religious beliefs (and he noted that himself), it’s good to remember that he felt pulled to Annamalai (or in Sanskrit, Arunachala), a mountain held sacred because it is where Siva appeared as a column of light.
Ramana took up residence in the Annamalaiyar temple, located at the base of Annamalai on its southern side, to engage in continual meditation. He worked through Hindu religious texts with other swamis who came to spend time with him. Years later, Ramana said that learning these texts showed him that their teachings were essentially what he had learned himself from direct experience, rather than through studying. But knowing these texts did allow Ramana to employ a framework and words that were helpful to devotees who came to him for his support on their own spiritual paths.
The nice thing about the Ramana ashram is that it’s quite acceptable to come and go as you please. You can attend the pujas and readings of Ramana’s works and teachings (offered in both English and Tamil). You can go to the library and read. You can sit in the meditation hall, or in the big hall where Ramana’s burial site is located and many devotional ceremonies are held; you can sit in the room where Ramana’s death experience is displayed on the wall for anyone to read and contemplate; you can go into the little temple where Ramana’s mother was buried, and where Ramana placed a Shiva lingam and a Sri Chakra Meru statue. You can visit the samadhis (shrines over tombs) for various disciples of Ramana who lived here at the ashram with him, and who received his blessing and guidance on their own spiritual paths. Each samadhi shows the person’s dates of birth and death, but instead of “died,” it says, “Absorbed into Arunachala.” There are even samadhis you can visit for the animals who were close to Ramana: Lakshmi the Cow; Jackie the Dog; Valli the Deer; and The Blessed Crow. You can sit near the halls and and look at Arunachala, or watch monkeys playing and peacocks strutting. Really, there are very few rules here at the ashram, and mostly they are simply rules of sensible conduct: don’t wear shoes in or near the temples and meditation places; wear modest clothing; don’t make cell phone calls inside the halls and temples.
The first foreigners to come see Ramana were attracted by the power of his presence and his wisdom. These were mostly people serving in the British Indian bureaucracy, people who happened to find themselves getting deeply interested in Indian spiritual life, and who wanted to meet a true sage. They found one in Ramana, and wrote about him. This in turn drew others seeking spiritual nourishment, and so it grew from there.
Since Ramana passed from the body in 1950, I think it’s the simplicity and immediacy of his teachings that has drawn so many foreigners. Ramana’s core method of reaching realization – self-enquiry – is accessible even if you’re not at all familiar with Hindu religious mythology and ritual. There’s also an intellectual dimension to Ramana’s teachings that seems to appeal to Westerners who want to test and evaluate, not simply accept things on faith. (This same preference, of course, applies to many Indian people.)
By the time I came here in 1980, a few foreigners were living here in Tiruvannamalai year-round, or for a good chunk of the year. Now, that number has expanded enormously, and so has the number of houses and apartment buildings built to accommodate both the foreigners and the increasing number of Indians who visit the ashram. The building boom continues apace, spreading out south and west from the ashram and Annamalai, with piles of building sand and rubble on the roads, cement trucks navigating the potholes and mud lakes in dirt roads, and crowds of bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters and painters converging on building sites.
The road outside the ashram is busy and crowded with commercial activity, and a constant stream of honking trucks, cars, auto rickshaws, motorcycles and buses. Yet somehow inside the ashram walls, there is still a sense of quiet. It remains a place where people go to turn within.