Of Ashrams and gurus

There was a time I was deeply interested in the gurus of India, their lifestyle, and their teaching. I would have seen almost all of Sadhguru’s youtube videos, read the Inspired Talks of Swami Vivekananda, and was awestruck by Autobiography of a Yogi. Charismatic leaders are loved and adored by millions. Being a skeptic, I walked through this stage with eyes and ears open for possible alternate explanations of their joy and contentment. I visited the ashrams in anticipation of discovering a truth not told to the masses. Having traveled to India almost every three months for a period of 10 years, I had a good understanding of the people in different regions. Their lifestyles and motivations. The psychology student in me was always alert to nuances and narratives. I heard what was said and not said. I was fascinated by their reverence of their Gods and gurus. And also by the practical social service, the whole meditation industry seemed to provide its people.

I perceived that loneliness seemed to be a driving force in a thriving network of ashrams, temples, and gurus. In this amazing land of a billion people, millions are seeking refuge from loneliness. They seek belonging.

Sadhguru has said, “the more lonely and depressed you feel, the more the need for company. The more joyful and exuberant you become, the less you will need company”.

This is a revelation to me because, in counseling, I have met hundreds of people who are lonely and depressed and have absolutely no need for company. They will not even consider calling their best friend, even though the friend has always been caring and understanding. Depression takes you away from people and connections. You feel a need to isolate yourself. And those who are joyful? Does joy make you need less company? No. I have experienced that when you are joyful and content, you have no problem with company. You neither need more nor less of it.

But I think I understand Sadhguru’s quote to mean depressed people may not want company – but that’s what they need.

But what about the joy? Quite obviously, these gurus are brimming with joy and contentment. Always in a good mood and having a peaceful manner. But is it all because of meditation? Or is it human connections? If we dig a little deeper and ask, “Who finds joy without relationships?”. Does a guru? A pastor? A motivational speaker? They have thousands of followers hanging on to their every word which gives them an immense sense of power and accomplishment. They have hundreds of human connections giving them their dopamine ‘high’. They have found the magic formula, but some might attribute this ‘high’ to meditation, contemplation, solitude, or prayer. But without followers who contribute to this ‘feel-good’ factor, there will be no charismatic leaders, gurus, or pastors. These leaders absolutely thrive on human connections. But they preach a different sermon. And that is to find happiness and contentment within. True enough. There is a tiny percentage of people who are able to do this. But having visited a few ashrams in India, I saw that the vast majority were meditating to forget the misery in their lives.

Being a counselor, I love listening to people. People interest me and I have no problem striking up conversations anywhere with anyone. In one ashram in Rishikesh, I found that those who talk the most are the most damaged. Many women seek refuge in the ashram and in meditation because of terrible life circumstances – a loss of a child, a divorce, domestic violence, or being forced to live with a serial adulterer. In another ashram about 60 miles east of Mumbai, I spoke with the men who were residing there. Being city dwellers, they spoke candidly about simply escaping home and work responsibilities for a few weeks. They just need peace and quiet from the incessant demands of modern Mumbai life. The ashram meant free food and accommodation. They happily lent a hand in making the breakfast dhal curry for the hundred-plus guests. Some were learning how to make flatbread in the outdoor oven. Making the bread was a full-day affair. Meditation was sometimes forgotten as they gathered under the mango trees of the ashram to enjoy each others’ company. Tired and rejected men come to the ashram to find friendship and camaraderie. When I asked them if they preferred this life over life at home, I couldn’t find a single soul who opted for long-term ashram living. They felt alive in the city, among bickering family members and business partners who kept them on their toes. They wanted to be alone only for a short time, knowing full well that prolonged aloneness will lead to loneliness.

The long-term residents of yet another ashram in Bangalore were in that particular situation. No more do they have a family to go back to. No friendships have been cultivated and relationships have been too quickly severed. Most of them were women and they were struggling to make relationships work at the ashram as well. Those who spoke with me told me about long bouts of depressive moods overtaking them, where they felt like they didn’t want to eat or get up from their sleeping mats. In the beginning, they felt pride in being in the inner circle of the guru. They were so enthusiastic and energetic and were given ashram responsibilities. A time of thriving. But during this time, they let go of their outside relationships. They saw these relationships as toxic and unnecessary. The more they embedded themselves in the ashram life, the more they felt drained by their families and friends. At some point, the ashram became home and soon things turned sour. The new residents were given some of their responsibilities. The guru paid more attention to others. Little by little the joy faded. The loneliness crept in. But they are stuck. They have no family to go home to. No friend will welcome them because of their former holier-than-thou attitude.

In the evening of life, alone has become lonely.

It has probably been a decade since my travels with one last visit to Rishikesh a few years ago. Somehow, I have a feeling the ashrams, gurus, and followers will fit into the same blueprint even in the coming years. It is a system that works to absorb the mighty and the misfits, keeping some of them safe for a time and energizing others to overcome their demons.

A little note – none of the ashrams I stayed at were popular or famous, like Sai Baba’s Ashram in Bangalore or Sadhguru’s Isha Foundation near Coimbatore. The ashrams I visited were quiet retreats with fewer than 100 guests at a time.

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