Why not pick up your bags, passport and dreams, and run off to an ashram in India?
By Yuliya Ni
“Sometimes one day spent in other places gives more than ten years of life at home.”
– Anatole France
A spiritual journey to India is unlike any other trip you will ever take in your life. At every juncture you will encounter distinct perspectives; every ashram, every guru, holds unique wisdom.
“A spiritual pilgrimage to India is not primarily about information,” according to travel writers Anne Cushman and Jerry Jones. “It is about initiation.”
Ashrams are places of spiritual retreat. They are not meant to be an escape from life, but a respite from worldly pursuits. They offer spiritual seekers an unencumbered place where they can spend time concentrating solely on the spiritual aspects of life. There are plenty of ashrams all over the world, especially in India, but it is necessary to find one that fits your needs.
Three years ago, I went to the biggest ashram in India to explore new cultures, meet new people, find myself and, though it may sound ridiculous, kill my ego.
Prasanthi Nilayam in Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh lies about 125 kilometers northeast of Bangalore. It was the ashram of Śri Sathya Sai Baba, one of the most revered spiritual leaders of the 20th century. For more than 50 years, he walked a path seeking the highest ideals of truth, right conduct, peace, love, and nonviolence. People from far-off places came to learn directly from Sathya Sai Baba, who interacted with all his followers on a personal level, without any intermediaries.
The ashram complex consists of beautiful temples, a Kalpa vriksha (wish-fulfilling tree), a meditation tree which is one of the most magical places there, and Darshan Hall, where Sathya Sai Baba met his devotees.
It was not easy to get to this ashram. After arriving in Delhi, I had to wait for a flight to Bangalore, and from there take a taxi to Puttaparthi. Accommodations in the ashram are free. Usually people stay in a dormitory, sometimes 20 people to a room, but I was lucky to share a room just with two women.
In spite of a strong desire to kill my ego, the room in which I was going to live petrified me when I first entered it. It was small and dark, with dirty mattresses and a little window. The man who showed us the room told us to beware of monkeys, as they often steal things from the rooms, especially food.
After arriving, I went to Darshan Hall for a ceremony that takes place twice every day. (Darshan is a Sanskrit term that means “sight.”) The ceremony attracts up to 20,000 devotees, who gather for meditation with melodious mantras. For the first time, it was pure torture to sit on the floor for three hours.
Despite my first feelings of discomfort, I got used to living in the ashram surprisingly soon. I felt very comfortable and safe among people from all over the world wearing saris and other traditional Indian clothes. During the next Darshan ceremony I did not feel discomfort anymore, just calmness and serenity. Moreover, I was really lucky to see Sathya Sai Baba alive (he died on April 24 last year).
Though it was three years ago, I can still vividly remember the colorful buildings in the ashram, the thousands of flip-flops in front of Darshan Hall, the smell of incense, monkeys all over the ashram, and traditional Indian food with tones of curry and other spices. I spent my evenings drinking coconut milk in the company of new people telling incredible stories of their lives. It was impossible not to feel the strangeness of the moment, when everything is so unusual. But at the same time, everything and everyone went in such a usual manner that it was sometimes hard to remember I was in reality, and not a dream.
My intention to kill my ego was quite successful, as India changed me. I left behind my solely materialistic ambitions; I was no longer interested in the standard values of an average glamour girl. I ceased to consider material welfare as an ultimate goal. I understood that life is not just about money and comfort, but about finding yourself, listening to your heart and following your unique path.
Many people return to the ashram every year. A few days can do wonders, but a few weeks – even months – can really make a lasting difference in your life. It is unlikely that you will come back from your trip the same.
Of course, the experience is not for everyone; if you are a complete skeptic, it is probably not the best idea to go to an ashram. Such places are rewarding for people who are completely open-minded to everything around them, who can accept things they do not understand, but feel, and realize that the deepest and most important things in life are invisible.
For more about Prasanthi Nilayam: http://www.sathyasai.org/ashrams/prashanthi.htm