What is an Asrama?

Jan 1 2012 - Krishna Talk 136

The karmi or the fruitive worker, who is only inclined to eat the fruits of his own labor, will always find it difficult to appreciate the concept of an asrama. Being always engaged in passionate pursuits to materially benefit himself, his family, friends, his town, state or country, how can he ever conceive of the transcendental nature of the selfless activities that completely form the foundation of asrama life? In his mind, the only criterion for any institution to exist is based upon how much it contributes materially to society – and he is more than ready to condemn any such institution that does not. He lacks the understanding that an asrama cannot be designated as a mere institution of this world. On the contrary, it is a place where the Supreme Lord Himself takes up residence in order to receive the loving service of His dear devotees.

Though an asrama is far beyond the scrutiny of any mundane observation, the fruitive worker dares to question its existence. Certainly, an asrama is not a place for that ass of a man who thinks that if God exists then He is only meant to supply the material necessities of society. On the other hand, when dry toil wears out those faithless laborers that are always vigorously endeavoring to attain their desires, they fall back on the misconception that merely abstaining from work will give them freedom from their current dissatisfaction. However, sooner or later they bounce back to perform fruitive work, realizing that they cannot hold their position by such abstention. Thus they meet dissatisfaction at every step. In the Bhagavad-gita Krsna says:

 na karmanam anarambhan naiskarmyam puruso’snute
na ca sannyasanad eva siddhim samadhigacchati

A man cannot attain the state of divine consciousness free from material action simply by abstaining from action. Neither can perfection be attained simply by renunciation. (Gita. 3.4)

 Furthermore, in the Srimad Bhagavatam we find the following verse:

naiskarmyam apy acyuta-bhava-varjitam
na sobhate jnanam alam niranjanam
kutah punah sasvad abhadram isvare

na carpitam karma yad apy akaranam

 Even if knowledge of the self is free from the reactions of mundane activities, it is unappealing if it is devoid of the proper conception of the Infallible Lord. What is the use of fruitive activities, which are always inauspicious, if they are not utilized for in the service of the Lord? (Bhag. 1.5.12)

Affinity to either artificial renunciation or exploitation of material nature is but a diseased condition and the normal position of the soul can only be through dedication to the Supreme Lord Sri Krsna. An asrama is thus a place that facilitates a lifestyle centered on the Supreme Lord and His teachings under the guidance of a bona-fide acarya.

The Definition Of Asrama

In a general sense asrama refers to a residence where holy people live and perform religious austerities. In Sanskrit the term asrama is broken down as – aryata sramyate yatra iti asramah. This means that an asrama is a place where people strive to attain immortality. Also, the term ‘asrama’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘srama’ that means exertion or fatigue. The term ‘asrama’ has been used in Sanskrit literature to mean both a place and mode of life associated with religious exertion, and also as a place where there is no exertion (a-srama). In a way, both usages are proper and can be harmonized to mean that an asrama is a place where there is no exertion for selfish material ends, but all exertion is only to serve the Supreme Lord and His devotees. Wherever this ideal is found, that place can be termed as an asrama irrespective of any material consideration. In such a mode of life the residents of the asrama never incur any karma, or reaction since their activities become transcendental. The same concept can be found in the following verse of Srimad Bhagavatam:

vanam tu sattviko vaso gramo rajasa ucyate
tamasam dyuta-sadanam man-niketam tu nirgunam

Residence in the forest is in the mode of goodness, residence in a town is in the mode of passion, residence in a gambling house displays the quality of ignorance, and residence in a place where I reside is transcendental. (Bhag. 11.25.25)

True Philanthropy

There is a widespread misconception amongst the spiritually illiterate people of the current age regarding the practical functions and obligations of an asrama. Indeed, there seems to be no discrimination amongst them whatsoever in judging what actually qualifies to be called an asrama. Any remote establishment in the countryside with a temple where people live a simple life passes off as an asrama. Moreover, nowadays people expect that an asrama should perform social welfare activities like building schools and hospitals, although such responsibilities solely rest on the national government.

It was the Christian missionaries, who came to India in the Eighteenth Century that introduced institutional welfare work to Indian society. Such philanthropic activities were used as a means to convert Hindus to Christianity. In order to counteract this, the Ramakrishna Mission and other Hindu asramas and religious institutions adopted similar welfare schemes.

However, the original ideal of an asrama is solely concerned with the spiritual upliftment of society and is totally independent of any obligation to perform any type of mundane social welfare. The crisis of birth, death, old age, and disease are the actual problems of this world, and the main objectives of an asrama should address the difficulty of how to escape the cycle of birth and death and reach the eternal spiritual platform. True philanthropic activities are eternal in nature, unlike those that simply feed the temporary necessities of bodily existence. Some may argue that a poverty stricken destitute will never be able to understand the philosophy of life unless he is fed properly. However, when there are enough people ready to listen to the spiritual message of the asrama, it is pointless to divert ones resources pursuing mundane philanthropy and thus neglect the main objectives of the asrama. This might sound similar to the utilitarian concept, “Maximum good to the maximum number of people” – the only variation being that the asrama is there to provide the maximum spiritual good to a maximum number of interested people. On the other hand, the intrinsic quality of a genuine Vaisnava is that he is para-duhkha-duhkhi – he is distressed to see the distressed condition of others. A Vaisnava will go out of his way to alleviate the miseries of such people to whatever little extent possible. Thus the concept of an asrama can be understood to be a wholesome environment built on spiritual foundations and objectives, collecting resources for its basic sustenance and projects, and sensitive to the miseries of the people in general.

Nowadays, politicians and world leaders are busy accumulating huge amounts of money for themselves and cheating the public in the name of economic development, while they constantly fight for more and more power. The devotees of the Lord, on the other hand, may also sometimes collect huge amounts of money – not for themselves but only to show that Krsna has sovereignty over everything that exists and to bring about a God conscious revolution amongst the masses. The devotees of the Lord don’t exist in order to enjoy the facilities of the asrama, neither do they retire to the forest to renounce everything. They find the golden means and constantly engage themselves in using everything in the service of the Lord. In reality there is no scarcity of basic necessities on this planet. A few people in power artificially create such scarcities out of narrow-minded greed. The devotees of the Lord stand up to fight such gross ignorance and uproot it from the source.

The Role of the Guardian

An asrama cannot be maintained as a place of informal get-togethers of neophytes who lack proper training in spiritual philosophy and etiquette. Such a place, lacking expert guidance, depending solely on textbooks and the subjective opinions of its members, can only lead to confusion and havoc. The guidance of a true guardian is necessary and is the very life of the asrama. Without submitting to the guardian by the way of initiation and receiving proper instructions to understand spiritual knowledge, the members are but nothing more than spiritual orphans.

tad-vijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacchet
samit-panih srotriyam brahma-nistham

In order to understand the Supreme, one should humbly approach a spiritual master who is learned in the scriptures and has full of faith in the Absolute. (Mundaka Upanisad 1.2.12)

The sastras describe the characteristics of a true spiritual preceptor in the following way:

krpa-sindhuh susampurnah sarva-sattvopakarakah
nihsprhah sarvatah siddhah sarva-vidya-vi
sarva-samsaya-samchetta nalaso gurur ahrtah

 One who is an ocean of mercy, who is fulfilled in all respects, who has all good qualities, who works for the benefit of all souls, who is free from lust, who is perfect in all respects, who is well-versed in the scriptures, who knows the science of Krsna, who can remove all the doubts of his disciples, and who is always alert in the service of Krsna is known as a genuine guru. (Hari-bhakti-vilasa 1.45-46)

The very nature of spiritual knowledge is that it is descending and can never be understood by any scholastic research. This means that it is passed down through the disciplic succession, or the parampara system, to the qualified student who has whole-heartedly submitted to his spiritual preceptor. Unlike material sciences that can be taught in a scholastic or empiric method, spiritual knowledge can only be realized within the heart by the process of surrender, sincere questioning and service to the spiritual master. Thus, if there is no spiritual master and only textbooks, the process is incomplete.

Asrama and Varnasrama

smartavyah satatam visnor vismartavyo na jatucit
sarve vidhi-nisedhah syur etayor eva kinkarah

Krsna (Visnu) should always be remembered and never forgotten at anytime. All rules and regulations mentioned in the sastra should be subservient to these two principles. (Padma Purana 6.71.100)

An asrama is built around the above concept centered on Krsna or Visnu. Apart from the physical meaning of a hermitage, the term asrama is also used in the sense of varnasrama, i.e. the four orders (asrama) or occupations (varna) to which every human being belongs. According to varnasrama there are four orders of life namely, brahmacari asrama (celibate student life), grhastha asrama (married life), vanaprastha asrama (life in the forest) and sannyasa asrama (the renounced order). Varnasrama based on ones occupation are again classified in four divisions – brahmana (priestly class), ksatriya  (administrative class), vaisya (merchant class), and sudra (worker class). The whole varnasrama system is structured around the principal of constantly serving the Lord and without it the structure becomes dysfunctional. The same has been explained in the following slokas of Srimad Bhagavatam:

mukha-bahuru-padebhyah purusasyasramaih saha
catvaro jajnire varna gunair vipradayah prthak

ya esam purusam saksad-atma-prabhavam isvaram
na bhajanty avajananti sthanad bhras†ah patanty adhah

From the mouth of Brahma, the brahminical order has come into existence. Similarly, from his arms, the ksatriyas have come, from his waist the vaisyas have come, and from his legs the sudras have come. These four orders and their spiritual counterparts (brahmacari, grhastha, vanaprastha, and sannyasa) combine to make human society complete. If one simply maintains an official position in the four varnas and asramas but does not worship the Supreme Lord Visnu, he falls down from his puffed-up position into a hellish condition." (Bhag. 11.5.3-4)

However, in the modern age, the essence of this varnasrama system as the guiding principal for all activities has been mostly lost. It is said in the scriptures, kalau sudra-sambhavah – “In the age of Kali everyone is a sudra.” The traditional social customs are not followed, although formerly they were followed strictly. Although externally the caste system which is mistakenly based on ones birth exists, the true essence of varnasrama can only be found in small groups of devotees who accept the daiva-varnasrama system. Daiva-varnasrama follows the original classification based on the natural qualities of a candidate, as opposed to congenital considerations. Moreover the followers of daiva-varnasrama place more emphasis on being a Vaisnava above any other classification of the varnasrama system. The scriptures enjoin that the Vaisnava is above the varnasrama system:

sat-karma nipuno vipro mantra-tantra-visaradah
avaisnavo guru na syad vaisnavah sva-paco guruh

A brahmana may be expert in mantra, ritual, and the six kinds of brahminical work performing and teaching sacrifice, studying and teaching scripture, giving and receiving charity but if he is not a Vaisnava he cannot be a guru. On the other hand, a Vaisnava, even if born in a family of untouchables, may be a guru. (Padma Purana)

With the advance of the age of Kali the moral and spiritual deterioration in society is very acute. The following verse in Srimad Bhagavatam gives some of the symptoms of the age of Kali:

dure vary-ayanam tirtham lavanyam kesa-dharanam
udaram-bharata svarthah satyatve dharstyam eva hi
daksyam kutumba-bharanam yaso ’rthe dharma-sevanam

 A holy place will be considered to be no more than a body of water located at a distance. Beauty will simply depend upon one’s hairstyle. Filling the belly will become the supreme goal of life and insolence will be accepted as truth. A man who can maintain his family will be regarded as an expert, and religious principles will be observed only for the sake of attaining fame. (Bhag. 12.2.6)

Consequently, to maintain a healthy Krsna conscious lifestyle is almost impossible without a facility where we may find the association of like-minded devotees and a spiritual environment where every object, action, or person reminds one of Krsna. Those who are intelligent enough to recognize the futility of the rat-race of material existence and are in search of a meaningful spiritual mode of life will always yearn to be a part of such a spiritual family or asrama. Those that submit their lives and become members of such a spiritual family are not bound to any obligation in this material world that they have left behind.

devarsi-bhutapta-nrnam pitrnam na kinkaro nayam rni ca rajan
sarvatmana yah saranam saranyam gato mukundam parihrtya kartam

 O King, a person who has given up all duties to take full shelter of Mukunda, who affords shelter to all, is no longer in debt to the demigods, sages, ordinary living beings, friends, relatives, mankind or even one’s forefathers. (Bhag. 11.5.41)


World peace is, and has been for many decades, a favorite topic of discussion for almost all kinds of people or institutions – be it the United Nations, political parties, environmental organizations, so-called spiritual or religious organizations, educational institutions and, cultural societies – they all harness popularity in the name of world peace. Yet war after war is being fought even after harping on so much over world peace. On introspection however, the truth is that peace initially begins at an individual level. As mentioned previously, inactivity cannot bring peace, as the very nature of the soul is dynamic and activities centered on bodily maintenance and enjoyment only lead to frustration. Just as in music, if even a single string is out of tune the result is an uneasy discord. Similarly, unless the soul co-operates favorably towards the organic scheme of Krsna Consciousness, it cannot attain peace. The asrama is thus not a sedentary place, full of the grave faces of people who were unsuccessful in vocations – it is a harmonious place sheltering fortunate people with fine intelligence that have found the true joy of the soul in the transcendental service of the Supreme Lord Sri Krsna.