There are different types of ashrams in the world – they are not all the same. Some ashramas may look very similar or even the same at the beginning, but as a student progresses, they become very unique within themselves. They have their own special identity and special interests. They may have slightly different philosophies also, but all genuine ashramas follow the standard of Vedic literature and the standard set by self-realised yogis and acharyas.
Some ashramas and charlatan gurus may teach that you are God. They teach that you are controlling the sun, the moon, the rain etc. during your mediation. Ashramas that teach these ideas are factually not traditional or even authentic in the strict sense of the Vedantic and yogic teachings. The fact is, we are not God! We are not even in control of our own destiny, what to speak of the sun and the moon? We do not know how many hairs are on our head, or how many have fallen out today. We cannot control the digestion of our food. The self is certainly not the Supreme Controller of all these things. However, the self is a spark of divinity – like a spark from a fire, or a ray of light from the sun. The self is qualitatively the same as the Absolute Truth, but quantitatively different. The spark has the qualities of fire, but does not have the totality of fire; a ray of light has the qualities of the sun, but does not have the full potency of the sun. Being a part of the Absolute Truth, the living beings have some of the qualities of the Absolute Truth, but not in full.
There is a popular Bengali saying amongst common people in India – yata mata, tata patha – “Whatever path you take leads to the same goal” (all roads lead to Rome), but in authentic ashramas this is never the teaching. There are three stages of self-realisation mentioned in the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavata:
वदन्ति तत्तत्त्वविदस्तत्त्वं यज्ज्ञानमद्वयम् ।
ब्रह्मेति परमात्मेति भगवानिति शब्द्ययते ॥
“The Absolute Truth is realised in three phases of understanding by seers of the Truth, and all of them are identical. These phases of the Absolute Truth are expressed as Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan.” (Bhagavata 1.2.11)
Brahman means realisation of the spiritual effulgence emanating from the Absolute Truth, Sri Krishna. Paramatama means the realisation of the localised presence of the Personality of the Absolute Truth, Sri Krishna, situated in the hearts of all living beings, guiding their wanderings through millions upon millions of lifetimes. Bhagavan means realisation of the name, form, qualities and activities of the Absolute Truth, Sri Krishna. These are the three stages of realisation mentioned throughout the yogic literature of India – Krishna as the Brahman effulgence, Krishna as the localised consciousness in all living beings and Krishna as Bhagavan, Reality the Beautiful.
If you explore a particular path it may only take you to a certain level of realization, because that is as far as it goes. All paths of yoga do not necessarily lead to the ultimate realisation of Bhagavan. Some paths of yoga only elevate a person to the stage of Brahman, others to the stage of Paramatama, and yet others, such as the practice of bhakti-yoga, lead one to the realisation of Bhagavan. These practices are known as sadhana. Sadhana includes such things as waking early in the morning at 4:00 am, immediately bathing and performing other yogic cleansing practices, then performing meditation and mantra meditation such as OM, gayatri, gopala-mantra, kama-bija mantra and the Hare Krishna Maha-mantra.
हरे कृष्ण हरे कृष्ण कृष्ण कृष्ण हरे हरे
हरे राम हरे राम राम राम हरे हरे
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
These activities are usually performed between waking and sunrise or shortly thereafter. OM and gayatri meditation are performed three times a day at sunrise, midday and sunset, whereas maha-mantra meditation can be performed throughout the day and is not restricted to time, place and circumstance.
In ashrama life, the day is often filled with common devotional practices, such as study of the Vedas and the philosophy of yoga, working in the ashrama gardens, performing menial tasks for the maintenance of the ashrama, and on occasion performing Vedic rituals and observing fast days and spiritual festivals. A yogi in an ashrama is engaged 24-7, 365 days a year in the various practices of yoga. The true yogi is not someone who practices yoga for just a few minutes a couple a times a week. The process of self-realisation requires a lifetime commitment. A life in an ashrama is the best place to achieve this. Some people will stay in an ashrama for a few weeks, six months, a year or two, and some spend a whole lifetime there.
In Sanskrit, the word ashrama literally means a place of no work – but if you stay for more than a few days, someone will eventually hand you a broom, a rag, or ask you to do some work in the garden. An ashrama means a place of no material work. In this world we work to earn a living, to acquire material possessions or to increase our own name and fame. Some people also work for the good of society, but such people are very rare. Most are simply working for themselves and their ‘extended self’ which means their family or community. In an ashrama everything you do is not for yourself, but for your spiritual self.