Sr. Pascaline Coff, OSB


          Ashram spirituality: a school of prayer, a pilgrimage to the “cave of the heart,” a culture of contemplation, a powerhouse of the divine Spirit.

          Ashrams are part of India’s great spiritual legacy, schools of prayer teaching contemplative discipline and leading to contemplative experience. The guru or teacher in this school is the divine Spirit who teaches through silence and stillness. Ashram life is a whole way of life in which its members tirelessly strive for union with the Divine: “Even as an arrow becomes one with its mark, let the faithful soul be one in Him” (Mundaka Upanishad).

          Spirituality basically is the grasp of the Spirit within us. What we become as a result of that grasp and our surrender to it is what colors and fleshes out our spirituality. For the Hindu the most direct way to respond to the Spirit’s grasp was/is to seek Brahmavidya, “knowledge of the Lord.”  Ashrams were authentic responses to this burning drive to "know the Lord" to experience the Lord, to seek the “mark” swiftly like an arrow. In his afternoon lectures at Shantivanam, South India, Fr. Bede Griffiths often said: “The aim of an ashram is to realize the Self – and then you know God!”

          Ashram spirituality therefore came to birth in the ancient Indian psyche and its ambiance as a relentless contemplative movement toward the all transcending and all immanent mystery of the Divine. This is the real call of the ashram. “See the self in the Self through the Self” is the central theme of the Upanishads, the Hindu Scriptures, which gives us a theological basis for the Indian ashram. The one who perceives the divine Self within, sees the same Self in all things. Sankaracharya, Hinduism’s Thomas Aquinas, taught that “True exhalation is the emptying of the mind of all our illusions, and true inhalation is the realization that ‘I am spirit.’ ” We are all created to awaken to this Truth, and in India, yoga taught in the ashrams is one of the sure ways to awaken to this Spirit. Fr. Bede Griffiths believed that one of the greatest gifts Hinduism has given to all of us is the teaching and practice of the presence of the Self or the Spirit within our selves. This is the way the divine Presence dwells within each of us uniquely, yet it is the one, same Holy Spirit. Hindus call this the Atman.

          Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet laureate, wrote that sin is the ignorance that blurs the purity of our consciousness. But this darkness of ignorance disappears through the shining forth of divine light in our intuitive faculty, which is how we perceive with our inner eye, our “third eye,” the eye of our heart. And the truth that we ought to be perceiving is that the entire cosmos, including ourselves, is permeated by the divine Presence!” Know that all this, whatever moves in this moving world, is enveloped by God” (Isa Upanishad). Our own St. Paul speaks of the “fullness of him who fills the whole creation” (Ephesians 1:23-23).

          Another Hindu Scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, offers a spirituality of ashram life as the threefold way of integration; perception of the divine dimension in reality (Jñana), experience of divine love in self-surrender and devotion (bhakti), and active participation in the Lord’s work in the world (karma). This is the contemplative thrust of the ashram, which offers us a real balance for our spirituality today. In India, as we said above, the thirst was/is for Brahmavidya – knowledge of the Divine, knowing the Lord. For us, authentic Christian spirituality demands our awareness of the divinization process taking place deep within us (Gal. 4,6-7).

          The ashram is a leaven, inconspicuous, feeble, but essential, called to bear witness to the mystery of Christ, hidden in the heart; and those in the ashram are called to awaken the Church to this mystery. “All activity of mind and body will come from this Silence, the Silence of the Father, and then return to this Silence.”(Bede Griffiths).

Characteristics of Ashram

          Seated under the coconut trees at Shantivanam (during the year I had the privilege of being there), Fr. Bede would often explain to newcomers that, while each ashram, Hindu or Christian, has its own uniqueness, there are three qualifying and essential characteristics: 1) simplified lifestyle; 2) intensive spiritual exercises (sadhana); 3) openness to all religions. These three characteristics in themselves promote the work of the school of the ashram; inner silence and an initiation to contemplative prayers (sadhana). This is not just a mystical immersion into abysmal depths of our being. It is awareness of the divine Spark within and of the Fire that Jesus came to enkindle, along with an awakening of our consciousness to the perception of our history as God’s history. It is an alertness to that divine Spirit who speaks to us through the problems and struggles of our times. [An excellent resource for this would be: Karlfried Durckheim’s The Way of Transformation, 1071/90.]

Spiritual practices and values

          In this “school of the Lord’s service,” as St. Benedict loved to call the monastery, the work of inner silence and an initiation into contemplative prayer are added: the practices of yoga; meditative chanting, namajapa, bhajans, etc.; offering of light (arati); twilight prayer sessions (sandhya); worship (puja); sharing of spiritual experiences, the “Magnalia Dei”(satsang); the study of Hindu and Christian spiritual classics which include teachings on peace and non violence (ahimsa); and some degree of creative and appropriate social concern. Many ashram communities are urgently adding contemplative, ecological concerns and practices. Ashrams offer an ideal setting for fostering interreligious dialogue. For this outreach some study preparation is required for permanent members.

          We are all aware that some of the greatest social and spiritual liberation movements in India have emerged out of her Ashrams. The Independence Movement that began with Fr. Raimundo Panikkar’s father and ended with Mohandas Gandhi is the most conspicuous of them, spiritually enlivened by the Satyagraha Ashram. Gandhi believed that people could not be transformed through socio-political efforts unless supported by an integrated spirituality. Fr. Bede and others decry the loss of Gandhi’s vision today so much so that exploitation is being experienced from the top down.

Ashram values, besides inner silence, peace and nonviolence, include: truth, freedom, simplicity, equality, hospitality (welcoming the Divine in the others), and faith sharing that embodies and enriches the community of counterculture.

Radical meaning

          The word ashram etymologically derives from the root shram = intense exercise of body and mind. With the prefix a/â, it could mean either a place of rest or a place of intense exertion. Today, as seen by the experts, it is either: “a place of ascetic exertion” or a place where nothing is difficult, a “garden of Eden.” In ancient times an ashram was merely a hut in the forest, the dwelling of a seer or recluse (vanaprastha). The seer was called a rishi (root = to go) one who goes to or sees the Source of being. Besides its paradisiacal peace, ashrams were prominently a place of refuge and hospitality, yet a place of ascetic exertion. The austerities (tapas) of ashram dwellers brought forth fruit. This spiritual endeavour of these forest dwellers then brought its reward. The ashram became an abode of peace and harmony between animal and men and women, between God and nature. The positive quality of this peace was characterized by non violence (ahimsa), love! Tagore described ashrams as “places where: Students and teachers are daily growing toward the emancipation of their minds into the consciousness of the Infinite. By the help of an unseen atmosphere of inspiration that surrounds the place… Where (people) have gathered for the highest end of life; in the peace of nature where life is not merely meditative but fully awake in its activities. Where they are hidden to realize (our) world as God’s kingdom to whose citizenship they aspire, where sun rises and sun sets and the silent glory of the stars are not daily ignored, where nature’s festivities of flower and fruit have their joyous recognition from (people), and where the young and old, teacher and student sit at the same table to partake of their food and the food of Eternal Life” [S. Jesudasan, in “The Christakula Ashram”].

Essential features and prerequisites

          The first essential and basic feature of any ashram would certainly be the provision for true teachers (true gurus). Only the Sadguru (the Lord) can truly lead others “from darkness to Light.” Therefore, members of an ashram include both spiritual leaders and those who are striving to make the spiritual ever uppermost in their daily lives. Ashramites are a group of people who have put the effort towards God-realization before all else. Spiritual exercises (sadhana), which leads to this realization must be primary and before all else. Ashram life has been considered from ancient times in India to be a very effective means of attaining union with God, in a setting that is simple, peaceful, austere and welcoming. Ashram spirituality begets a prophetic and a spiritual ministry whose central concern is the recreation of [men and women] and the attaining of the knowledge of God (Brahmavidya). Shankaracharya insisted on certain prerequisites for acquiring Brahmavidya: discrimination (viveka) of what is eternal or non-eternal; (vairagya) renunciation of all desire to enjoy the fruit of one’s own karma here and hereafter; (shama-damadi) the acquirement of tranquillity; self-restraint and other means; (moksha) the desire for final release…

To conclude

          Ashrams are places where we recover our original unity, arrive at new innocence and learn to stop imagining that we are not already one with all our sisters and brothers throughout the world. In ashrams people begin to wake up to and be what they already are. While an ashram is truly a place where one can go for prayer, interiority and encounter with God, with the support of other God-seekers, it is even more so a way of life through which God is experienced in one’s heart of hearts.

          Whatever your lifestyle may be, may you always walk in the afternoon breeze with the Lord in the inner ashram of your own heart realizing the I Am of your Self!


            Gandhi, M.K., Ashram Observances in Action, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad 1955/59

            Grant, Sr. Sara, “Ashrams,”in Vidyajyoti, October 1982.

            Griffiths, Bede, “The Monastic Order and the Ashram,”in American Benedictine Review, June 1979

            Kampchen, Martin, The History and Life-style of the Ashram.

            Painadath, Sebastian, S.J.,”Ashrams: A Movement of Spiritual Integration,”in Concilium 1994.

            Vandana Mataji, Gurus, Ashrams and Christians, DLT, London, 1978.

extracts taken from an article by Sr. Pascaline Coff from

Saccidanandaya Namah - a commemorative volume Saccidananda Ashram Shantivanam 1950 - 2000

(with kind permission from Sr. Pascaline Coff) 


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