I went with 20 SRSG students to the Sadhana Kendra Ashram in Domet, which is about 100 kilometers from here. The ashram is 50 or so km past Dehradun on the highway towards Simla, just where the road crosses the Yamuna. The landscape is hilly and the Yamuna flows shallow but clean through what looks like protected forest land. The ashram is situated on the high bank outside the flood plain, just above a canal that diverts some of the river water for irrigation and so on.
The ashram complex itself is fairly large with six or seven blocks of various sizes, architecturally homogenous, which includes a school for 400 local children. The buildings are painted yellow and maroon. There is no temple of any kind, only a meditation hall, which serves as the ashram's spiritual focal point.
The rooms are unheated. Toilet paper is forbidden. Clothes must be washed in the canal and not in the bathrooms. The temperature was a couple of degrees colder than Rishikesh and the mornings were foggy, sometimes until noon before clearing. The dining area is in the open, which especially at breakfast could be quite chilly, but oddly cosy in the way that drinking hot coffee while outside skiing is pleasurable.
The nearest town is Vikashnagar, about 15 minutes away by tempo. It holds little attraction other than the possibility of buying fruit and sweets and an internet café or two. There was scant evidence of the ennuie that often leads Western visitors to ashrams to go rushing off to market or sightseeing at every opportunity.
The geographical location is superb. Magnificent views of rugged mountains, river terrain, ancient and recent majestic ruins [?], peasant dwellings and their rural ways, vast skies filled with stars ant night and the river mists in the morning, the grand skillful flights of eagles soaring close overhead and far away on yonder mountain peaks, many other birds with their exquisite songs, and finally, most importantly, periods of intense, pervasive silence. (One student's remark)
When we came, the ashram had perhaps 30 people staying there, guests and permanent residents combined, predominantly consisting of people from France, though there were also a few Americans. The age distribution was fairly equal, from brahmacharis in their 20's to senior citizens, including an interesting 77-year old French-Canadian woman who is an Osho sannyasi.
The essence of the ashram schedule is four one-hour meditation periods per day, the first at 4.30 in the morning, the others at 8, 3 and 7. Other than the three meals, the only other scheduled activities are a question and answer period with Swamiji from 11 to 12.30 and a darshan from 4.30 to 5.30. At first it seemed that there was too much free time in the day, with spaces of at least 30 to 45 minutes (and 2 1/2 hours after lunch) cushioned between each activity, but over the six days it became clear that these periods allowed for breathing space. They were not long enough to get totally distracted, but gave time to relax, rest, read and prepare.
The overall effect was one of promoting a stress-free atmosphere without allowing for completely spacing out. If you wanted to read, it was enough time to concentrate, probably the limit for most people. It was not enough for me to get any work done. Besides that, there was no internet facility to speak of while we were there.
The ashram residents do most of the maintenance work. There is one woman hired as the chief cook, but the devotees do all the cutting and cleaning. There are a few other hired staff for cleaning, driving, etc. The devotees were all unfailingly cheerful and polite. Some of them appeared to be practicing silence vows, but on the whole there was little unnecessary talk. No one was late for meditation... not even our students, who fit into the program seamlessly, merrily cutting vegetables, washing pots and pans and serving at mealtimes.
The most significant element in the ashram is without a doubt Swami Chandra himself. A sign greets you at the entrance: "The ashram is the guru's body. Keep it clean and tidy." The corollary, of course, is that the guru is the soul of the ashram and there can be no doubt that this ashram has a vibrant soul.
The 80-year-old Swami attends all meditation sessions except on Mondays when he secludes himself. He has been practicing a vow of silence since 1986 and communicates only in writing whenever he wants to say something. Physically, he has an imposing Punjabi body with a high wrinkle-free forehead. Whenever he writes something he nearly always laughs gustily on hearing it read back.
During the meditation sessions he sits on a chair on an elevated stage at the front of the meditation hall. Afterwards, when he walks out through the hall, everyone stands up and folds hands. At meals, he sits at a table at one end of the hall. At lunch he always serves sweets at the beginning of the meal while the devotees sing "Om Hari Sharanam." When he has given everyone a sweet, he sits down and the devotees sing the "Brahmarpanam" verse before they start eating.
During the darshans, he sits in a chair while the disciples sit around him on the floor or in chairs. The atmosphere during darshans is intimate. The disciples clearly adore him. They wait patiently while he reads the written question and then takes a fair bit of time to write out his answer. The answer, usually written in English, is translated into both Hindi and French. Usually only one or two questions could be entertained in the 60 to 90 minute period.
Other than these two darshan periods, there was no philosophical discourse. There is a library, but it is eclectic and seems to be the result of visiting devotees' deposits. There are a few magazine subscriptions. The Swamiji is an educated man, but the accumulation of knowledge is not his priority. The primary focus of the books, again, seems to be saints' biographies. There was no Udasin sectarian literature of note that I could see. There are a couple of signs in the library also exalting the lives of the saints as the best kind of reading, and Swamiji himself mentioned this at least twice in the question and answer periods.
Swamiji belongs to the Udasin sect, which might be classified as an offshoot of Sikhism, as the founder Avinash Chandra Udasin was the son of Guru Nanak. How he differs exactly I cannot say, but the concept of God appears to be identical to that of most of the Sant-based traditions--God is personal but formless. In this sampradaya, bhakti is given a significant place, in particular in the form of a prayer repeated in English and Hindi at the beginning of each meditation session ("Oh Parameshwar Prabhu... You are known by so many names... I am thine... Whosoever I am, I am thine...") and a half-hour kirtan period before the even meditation session. The kirtan was mellow and created a good, warm, peaceful vibration.
On the whole, the Swamiji's philosophy leans towards the yogic approach based on meditation and in which the knower, knowing and the known all disappear in a kaivalya-type of liberation. Nevertheless, in answer to one question, about the hint in one of his books that there were realizations to be had above the realization of the self, he said that God had many energies.
One of our ashram's people commented later that the lack of philosophical or "dogmatic" discourses or apologetics about the superiority of a particular method or authenticity of a tradition allowed the individual meditators to come to their own personal realization without constraint.
Our ashram's devotees all fell in love with Swami Chandra and his ashram. The accumulated effect of the meditation after six days is still being felt quite intensely. On returning here, we had a debriefing session in which they all gave their feedback. In fact Swami Veda asked us to visit the ashram in order to see "what a real ashram is like." What exactly he meant by that is known only to him, but I took it seriously and asked everyone to write their own impressions and state what they liked about Sadhana Kendra and what elements they would like to see implemented at the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama. I told them to be open and honest, as everything they said would be held in confidence. Obviously, the two ashrams were created by people with different personalities and with somewhat differing purposes, nevertheless, it is never harmful to see what your own "clients" say about the "competition's products."
Our ashram's devotees particularly liked the following:
- The overall consensus that nearly everyone mentioned was Swami Chandra's constant, yet tranquil presence. At no time that we were there was there a harsh word for anyone, or even a hint of oblique criticism. I don't think I have ever seen an ashram where the guru is so venerated and yet so close to his disciples. One of our students commented: "Above all, Swami's love, benevolence and presentness definitely sets the example for all to follow. He is the Path, literally. On the more mundane level, he is always in a wonderful mood. His joyfulness is absolutely infectious so that even the deepest and wisest, eternal communications are delivered joyfully. This abiding love is the practice. Thus, discipline is not a harsh, stern or stoic penitence but rather communion in the fullest sense with the glory of transcendence. It is the most supreme example of tapasya I have yet experienced..." Others mentioned that his presence at all activities exerted a pull on the students which made tardiness or absenteeism almost non-existent. They truly felt they were "sitting close to the feet of the guru..."
- The staggering of meditation periods "helped my mind to quieten the whole day and to feel the devotion."
- The meditation hall is reserved for meditation only. One keeps the same seat day in day out, "so you can sit on your same energy every time."
- The seva requirement, "which features varying group and individual, personal interactions which are the vehicle for drinking and savoring the wine of love and devotion... compassionate bonding." Many of our students favorably remarked on the fact that so much of the work was done by ashram residents, in contrast with SRSG. One of our students commented that the two groups bonded so well that he felt "they did not want to let us go when the time came." One student remarked that he felt there was no ashram politics, no sense of who was senior or who junior, who Western who Eastern, etc. "This is the most important part. To serve. Every one of the ashramites and guests should serve the ashram." One student observed that the word seva should be used in our ashram also, instead of "karma-yoga," which she felt still had the sound of some self-directed purpose.
- Nearly everyone felt that the above had an effect on the quality of the food, also. Practically all liked the food here better. One student commented that the ideas about improving SRSG food tend to varying it by adding European dishes, but in fact, if there were a little more devotion and love, that would make a greater difference. Several people remarked that no chilis are used, only black pepper and ginger.
- The food service system was prefered by most to the SRSG lining-up system. One student said that commensality is necessary in an ashram in order to create a common spirit. How can there be unity if there are twenty kitchens in an ashram?
- Ashram rules are clearly painted on the walls and are maintained and followed. The ashram schedule has not changed in 20 years. Consistency.
- They seem to follow the SRSG motto "Love, serve and remember" better than we do. "practice, not theory."
- "I learned about devotion to the master. How everyone stands up every time he enters and exits... how everyone entering and exiting the meditation hall gives salutation to the master's pictures, as Swami Veda does, but we don't."
- Many of our people commented that they liked the somewhat leisurely schedule with the emphasis on meditation: "I really enjoyed the practice of meditation without any disturbance. The timings were very, very good. There is a lot of time between meditation periods so we have time to prepare ourselves or take rest. That is how one should practice meditation, slowly and enjoyingly." "I learned that with our timetable and disorganization, people end up being stressed, which is not appropriate for an ashram. Here there was harmony and calm, which helped us a lot." "Plenty of time was given for self-study."
- Several people commented on the daily satsang (i.e. kirtan) at the beginning of the evening session. One female student commented that the women woke up every day hearing Nandaji singing sweet devotional kirtans at 4 in the morning. "A peaceful, mind-setting way to get up."
- One student observed the presence of "wise, authoritative leading matajis and babajis who reside in the ashram, giving stability and love."
There were one or two negative comments. Dinner too late, breakfast too early. Not enough fruit or milk served.
Anything suggestions for SRSG?
Anything suggestions for SRSG?
- Almost universally the request was for Swami Veda to be a little more present, either in meditation or for darshan at least once a day. One European Gurukula student lamented that she had been in the ashram for four months and had yet to exchange words Swami Veda. There is too great a distance between him and the disciples. "People hunger for a personal relation and personal support from the guru. Perhaps there could be a similar system of writing personal questions and Swamiji answering them."
- The second most universal demand was that there be more meditation time. Some suggested at least lengthening the evening period to a full hour, others requested increasing to three hours daily. One student suggested that if a 10 o'clock curfew were kept, extra meditation time could be found between 4.30 and the 5.30 prayer time.
- One student suggested adopting the daily kirtan satsang. Another said that at least the Monday satsanga should be taken a little more seriously with better tabla playing, etc. "Kirtan every day brings devotional feelings, softens and opens up the heart."
- Another frequently mentioned comment was that ashram residents should be more directly involved in service. One student in particular admired the Sadhana Kendra's outreach with a school and said that we run the SRSG too much like a business and do not do enough for the local community.
My question to Swami Chandra.
In view of what seemed to be Swami Veda's purpose in sending us to Sadhana Kendra, I thought I would ask Swami Chandra what he thought. My question, submitted in writing was, "What do you think is the essential element in creating an ashram with a conducive environment for sadhana? And what advice would you give to a guru or spiritual teacher who wants to start an ashram?"
Swamiji's answer centered mostly on his telling his own story. In the 1950's he performed tapasya on an island in the Ganges upstream from Haridwar, near the Sapta Rishi Ashram. His reputation grew and increasing numbers of people came to visit him. At that time he broke his silence for one hour a day to speak with them. In 1964, floods very nearly washed him away and also prevented his bhaktas from seeing him. They therefore requested him to move to the mainland and built a bhajan kutir for him as well as a small guest house. This small ashram started to grow and more guest rooms were built nearby.
By the early 80's, the surrounding area was gradually built up with many ashrams, many of which blasted bhajans over the mikes early in the morning. This disrupted the peaceful atmosphere cherished by Swamiji and he asked his disciples to find a quiet place near the Ganga or Yamuna. This led to the move in the present location.
The arrival of Swami Premavivekananda, who had previous experience in social work in Rajasthan, resulted in greater social outreach. He is the one who had the school and charitable dispensary built. Swami Chandraji said, "Now this body is 80 years old and so I can no longer run away from all this. Nevertheless, I still go into seclusion every Monday and every year I go for two months of seclusion in Jammu, where I used to live in a cave and there is now a pakka building. For those two months, no one can interact with me and they leave my food in an adjoining room once a day."
The only thing he mentioned as an important element was the unchanging schedule of four hours meditation time each day.
Om tat sat.
More pictures at Giancarlo Colombo's Facebook page.