I recently visited a friend at his ashram in India. Located about 2 hours outside of Mumbai in the direction of Pune in the state of Maharashtra. My friend is in his third year of study of Vedanta, an ancient Hindu philosophy originated in India. Another post will contain information about Vedanta, for now this post will focus on the history and the contemporary purpose of the ashram.
Throughout history, ashrams have been used for a myriad of purposes, most sharing the common theme of human development. Fundamentally, an ashram is a place of study, thought, spirituality, or focus. Traditionally, ashrams are located away from common habitation, in forests, mountains, or equally remote areas. The purpose of the remote location is to create an environment conducive to intellectual and spiritual development and away from distractions. Life in an ashram is very akin to monastical life, often following a strict and compulsory schedule and lifestyle. This may include eating vegetarian, waking before sunrise, practicing karma yoga (mostly in the form of chores), chanting mantras, meditating, being disconnected from internet, and only eating 2 meals a day and eating with your hands.
In the East, ashrams have a deep bind to the culture of society. Like entering monastic life, attending an ashram is often seen as a respectable action in society. It allows one to not only further discover their “self” but learn and practice “right actions” in order to be a better person in society. Many ashrams in the east charge a fee (commonly higher for foreigners), but some are donation based or even free (funded by outside donations) like many monasteries.
In the West, quite a few ashrams have been established. Most western ashrams are based on a form of Indian culture, such as yoga or meditation. Most often western ashrams can be compared to a yogic retreat, often coming at all-inclusive fee covering a normal time period of about 1 week (of course, people stay as long or as short as they can arrange). In the west, an ashram can provide a break from traditional life and a opportunity to surround yourself with yogis and other spiritually curious people.
Hopefully, this provides some clarity as to what is this mysterious word ashram being thrown around. Keep in eye out for another post about a personal experience in an ashram.