In Hinduism, any of the four stages of life through which a “twice-born” (see upanayana) Hindu ideally will pass. These stages are: the student, who is devoted and obedient to his teacher; the householder, who supports his family and the priests and fulfills duties to the gods and ancestors; the hermit, who withdraws from society to pursue ascetic and yogic practices; and the homeless mendicant, who renounces all possessions and wanders from place to place begging for food. In English the word has come to mean a place for the pursuit of spiritual or religious disciplines, often under a guru.
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An Ashram in ancient India was a Hindu hermitage where sages lived in peace and tranquility amidst nature. Today, the term ashram is sometimes used to refer to an intentional community formed primarily for spiritual upliftment of its members, often headed by a religious leader or mystic.
Traditionally, ashrams were located far from human habitation, in forests or mountainous regions, amidst refreshing natural surroundings conducive to spiritual instruction and meditation. The residents of an ashram regularly performed spiritual and physical exercises, such as the various forms of Yoga. Other sacrifices and penances, such as Yajnas were also performed. Many Ashrams also served as Gurukuls or residential schools for children. The word ashram is derived from the Sanskrit term "aashraya", which means protection.
Ashrams have been a powerful symbol throughout Hindu history and theology. Most Hindu kings until the medieval ages are known to have had a sage who would advise the royal family in spiritual matters, or in times of crisis, who was called the rajguru which literally translates to royal teacher. A world-weary emperor going to this guru's ashram, and finding solace and tranquility, is a recurring motif in many folktales and legends of ancient India.
Sometimes, the goal of a pilgrimage to the ashram was not tranquility, but instruction in some art, especially warfare. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, the protagonist princes of ancient Ayodhya, Rama and Laxman, go to the Rishi Vishvamitra's ashram to protect his Yajnas from being defiled by emissary-demons of Ravana. After they prove their mettle, the princes receive martial instruction from the sage, especially in the use of enchanted weapons, called Divyastras (Sanskrit Divya: Enchanted + Astra: Missile Weapon. The Sanskrit word 'astra' means missile weapon, such as an arrow; as opposed to 'shastra', which means a hand-to-hand weapon, such as a mace.) In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna, in his youth, goes to the ashram of Sage Sandiipanii, to gain knowledge of both intellectual and spiritual matters.
Sometimes, the word ashram is used as a synonym of matha, but mathas are generally more hierarchical and rule-bound than ashrams, belonging to ancient orders of Hindu sadhus (Renunciants who are still searching for realization, as opposed to Rishis who have found it.)
A number of Ashrams have been founded in India in the 20th century as well, most notably the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad which served as Mahatma Gandhi's headquarters during the long struggle for India's independence and Aurobindo Ashram, founded in Pondicherry by the Bengali revolutionary-turned-Hindu-mystic Aurobindo Ghosh and Pujya Sant Sri Asaramji Bapu's Ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad and Rampura dist Rewari and in Jind of Haryana state in India founded by in 1918. Dayaram Ashram is located in Nanadiya village of Gujarat. Other examples of more remote ashrams include the Swami Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh based in the Himalayas.