Serenity Through an Ashram Experience in India

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Me, watching the sunrise on banks of Ganga near Aurovalley Ashram, India

In the pre-dawn hours, India’s Aurovalley Ashram is a receptacle of peace. The air is filled with devotion. Birds sing and sacred music floats in from another nearby ashram. In the east, towards the Ganga River and the misty mountains of mysterious Rajaji National Park, a pale yellow band starts to widen on the horizon.

After the ritual of getting washed and dressed, I throw a shawl over my shoulders and close the metal door of my room by 5:55 a.m. I soak up the serenity and natural beauty of this garden-like ashram in north India, between the sacred cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh, and walk in the half-dark along a path lined with the abundance of nature.

Lotus pond on the grounds of Aurovalley Ashram, a place of natural beauty.

I take my seat in the circular meditation hall, beneath large, black-and-white portraits of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, who look out with an unending well of love, compassion and understanding. In the centre of the room a large green crystal ball glows. The founder of Aurovalley Ashram, Swami Brahmdev (Swamiji), walks in and sits across the room from the portraits; other sadhaks (people who live, or who are staying, at the ashram) quietly take their places in the darkened room. Incense burns beneath the portraits in homage; and the only sounds are the many birds that inhabit this natural paradise.

Your responsibility is to know yourself. The definition of responsibility is to become aware of your abilities and respond to them.

Become aware of your abilities and give your life to them. Swami Brahmdev

This is the magic sadhana hour, the hour when the world awakes and celebrates the miracle of the sun, of life and of beauty. Everything is washed clean, afresh, humming with sacred energy. After an hour of meditation, I walk out to a pink-tinged sky, the sun just appearing over the horizon, and walk the very short distance to the yoga hall. Lined with floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, the yoga hall invites the morning sun.

Aurovalley Ashram, India -- yoga ashram near Rishikesh

Dhyana, the ashram manager, and long-time resident, takes her place at the front of the room. She opens the doors to let the fresh air in, and leads us gently through a one-hour class. Around the time the class ends, we hear the loud clang of the meal gong signaling breakfast.

It’s easy to live when you realize everything is temporary. When you call something “mine” you give birth to ego. Choosing ego will not make you beautiful. Swami Brahmdev

Breakfast of porridge and fruit, or chapati and beans, and hot milky tea is served by two sadhaks, and people can choose to eat inside or outside around a massive tree. Everyone washes their own metal plates, cups and cutlery, and so by 8:30, the activities of the day begin. A small yellow school bus leaves to pick up local children and their teachers, and bring them back to the school and playground on the ashram grounds, and people begin working to contribute karma yoga activities or take care of personal business. There is nothing on the ashram schedule until satsang at 11:30 a.m.

Teachers and children arriving at Aurovalley Ashram, India

Afternoon

Sometimes, like the other sadhaks, I take the school bus into Raiwala village to buy fruit, peanuts, sweets and a cold Limca. Then I walk back, through the village and the countryside, passing meandering cows, groups of school children in crisp uniforms, men on bicycles and motorcycles, women at work around their houses and Indian soldiers who are here for education and retraining. It’s a pleasant walk, about four or five kilometres, and the setting becomes more and more pastoral as I reach the ashram.

Nature has given us the power to smile and laugh to deal with difficulties. Laugh at your life and it will become easy. Swami Brahmdev

At about 11:30 everyone gathers either under the mango tree or in the new library for satsang, a Sanksrit word that means “in the company of the highest truth.” Swamiji sits before us and answers questions, in the time-honoured tradition of Indian spiritual enquiry. Questions range from, “what is consciousness?” to “how can I get rid of unwanted thoughts?” to “why do we meditate?” Swamiji answers every question with enthusiasm, generosity and conviction; his spiritual understanding springs from a deep well infused with the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother and his own realizations. His answers are fresh and original and he speaks English with style and wit.

Swami Brahmdev (Swamiji) during satsang in the new library, Aurovalley Ashram, India

Satsang is the spiritual heart of the ashram, and it is something I try to never miss. I feel inspired by Swamiji’s words and the quiet, concentrated energy of the group. Lunch immediately follows, the biggest meal of the day, with rice, vegetables, dal (lentils) and sometimes salad fresh from the ashram garden. Like all the other meals, people eat mostly in silence; and even the children at the ashram speak very quietly. After lunch again is free time, for karma yoga or personal activity. Some people garden or clean; or help out with specific skills — on one visit, I proofread and edited one of Swamiji’s books, for example.

Live life full of faith and trust in yourself. Meet life with that faith and confidence. Swami Brahmdev

In the late afternoon, the bookstore opens, run by a long-time ashram resident from France.

Women sadhaks performing karma yoga to help build the World Temple at Aurovalley Ashram, India

And then the gong goes for tea time! One of my favourite times at the ashram. The shadows are becoming long, and the hot mid-day sun is dissipating. People break from their activities to get a cup of hot milky tea from the dining hall. For me this is prime writing time. Cleaning, laundry and other personal chores are done; I have tea; and the sun is not too hot (unless I am at the ashram in April or May). In fact, I am writing this on the terrace beside my room, under thick, luxurious foliage, drinking hot tea and feeling very happy, very content and very peaceful. This is about as good as it gets for me!

Thoughts are a power. You can choose your thoughts. With your thoughts, you make your life. Swami Brahmdev

Sometimes, at 4:30, there is another yoga class in the yoga hall, depending on who is here to teach it. Currently, there is a very good teacher here from Colombia who teaches a vigorous vinyasa-style class. So, each day at 4:15 I decide if I want to exercise my mental / creative self with more writing, or my physical self with more yoga. It’s the kind of dilemma I love to have.

On the road to Raiwala Village, outside Aurovalley Ashram, India

But sometimes, like the other sadhaks, I go out from the ashram in the afternoon. Recently, I went to Haridwar for the aarti with a group of women from Colombia who had room in their tourist bus; and to Rishkesh for the aarti with two young women from Australia; we split the price of a taxi.

Evening

Dusk is called the magic hour, and nowhere is it more magical than Aurovalley. The sun sets across the fields and behind a mountain, and the streaks of light seem to bring an incredible clarity to the white buildings, green lawns and thick trees with freshly painted white trunks. Birds play in the trees, the parrots flashing bright green; and the afternoon sun has heated the fields of tulsi, releasing the intoxicating aroma. Local farmers and other workers gather their tools and begin to head home. I sometimes hear a herd of cows being driven along the country road beside the ashram.

Local temple on the walk to Ganga (Ganges) River, outside Aurovalley Ashram, India

This is a lovely time to walk through the fields and down a rocky path, past a sadhu’s ashram, to the banks of the holy Ganga, the Ganges River, Mother River of India. There is a small ghat beside the river, with a tiny Hanuman temple; and to sit here and watch the river flow past, and stare out at the mist-covered Shivalik hills of Rajaji National Park, is to experience a kind of natural high. For this is my favourite place on earth, the most peaceful, inspiring and sacred place I have ever been. There is something timeless and primordial about the scene. The pandit shows up wearing the saffron robes pandits have always worn, the river flows as it has always done, the wild mountains are filled with elephants, leopards, snakes, birds and other creatures, as it has always been.

Meditation is a process of coming back home. Anything that brings you more near to yourself is meditation. Swami Brahmdev

To walk meditatively here to the evening (6 p.m.) meditation is to arrive in the perfect state, filled with gladness and gratitude. I sit with one eye on the portraits and another on the open door facing the sunset. My whole being says thank you to the divine for creating such beauty and for giving me the opportunity and ability to experience it. After some meditation time, Swamiji begins to chant, deeply, resonantly; and I feel I am hearing the voice of the divine, rolling around the circular marble chamber. I look outside and see a perfect crescent moon, a glowing disc hanging in the azure sky above the darkened trees.

The outdoor dining area at Aurovalley Ashram, India

After Swamiji finishes chanting, people begin to drift out of the meditation hall and into the deepening twilight. The gong is sounded and it’s dinner time. The end of a long lovely day. Dinner is eaten in tranquility and afterwards people relax for a short time together, and then drift towards their rooms.

By 8 p.m. the ashram is quiet. I love this time alone in my room to read and write … and log onto the internet or sometimes make phone calls. It is morning in Canada, and a good time to connect with people. But, in truth, I do not feel like socializing at this time. I prefer to go up on the roof and commune with the stars, which are very visible as the ashram is located in the countryside.

Silence is one of the symptoms of psychic awakening. Only in silence can you understand life and know what to do, what to say, what to eat, where to go. Swami Brahmdev

By the end of the day at Aurovalley Ashram, I feel like I have dropped deeply within myself, where I am in tune with my own inner rhythm. And that is really what being at Aurovalley is all about for me: reconnecting with myself, especially the part of me that is endless, timeless, divine.

Nighttime at Aurovalley Ashram: crescent moon hangs in the azure sky.

Mariellen Ward
Mariellen Ward is a freelance travel writer whose personal style is informed by a background in journalism, a dedication to yoga and a passion for sharing the beauty of India's culture and wisdom with the world. She has traveled for about a year altogether in India and publishes an India travel blog, Breathedreamgo.com. Mariellen also writes for magazines and newspapers.
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