Advaita Asharama, Mayavati is celebrating its 125 years of glorious existence. This Ashrama, in its significance, transcends the physical barrier and leaps into the transcendental realm of the Oneness of existence and the Divinity of the human being—the two cardinal principles of Advaita philosophy. It is not just an Ashrama with buildings of bricks and mortar; it is the personification of Advaita way of living, a dream of Swami Vivekananda that has come true. Its beautiful natural environs sing the glory of Brahman, the ultimate cause of this universe and Its identification with the individual self. Its heritage and legacy have been interwoven withthe struggles and sacrifices of scores of dedicated monks, who gave up their lives at the altar of their cherished goal. In all, Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, stands for the highest principle of life one can live on this earth.
Sangama is a beautiful word in Sanskrit, which indicates the tone and spirit of the word ‘con-fluence’. The idea of confluence can be understood in three realms: 1. Physical Confluence 2. Intellectual Confluence and 3.Spiritual Con-fluence. Meeting and blending in the physical sense is more possible in this age of globalisation than ever beforeThe world has literally become a global village, in which communication and exchange of knowledge and information are done seamlessly through widespread internet networks. However, such physical confluence has failed to bring about ‘belongingness’ among the people as is evident in the frequent eruption of conflicts— even in this age —based on religion, race, and nationality. Hence we can safely say that physical connectedness through technological means has failed to meet the expectation of leading to global harmony and peace.
The next higher level of conuence is intellectual confluence, which has been going on for many years among several nations. The study of culture and civilisations, exchange of ideas, and cooperation in the form of of combined academic programs have enriched world literature and culture and have contributed to a better understanding and sympathy among nations. However, such an attempt has not been able to achieve brotherhood and oneness among the citizens of the world.
The highest level of confluence is the spiritual confluence that Advaita Vedanta stands for. It declares that differences between men and women are but false representations of the one Divine Reality. In Advaita, every human being is a manifestation of the Universal Truth, which is of the nature of spiritual consciousness. This is the real confluence where all the differences vanish and only the Truth, the oneness, prevails. Advaita Ashrama in Mayavati which is in the lap of the Himalayas signifies this ideal of spiritual confluence.
The Confluence of East and West
Rudyard Kipling says in one of his poems: ‘East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’. However, Swami Vivekananda had a different point of view. He approached the problem from a very innovative angle. According to him, the apparent power and strength are the ideals of the West while fortitude in suffering is the ideal of the East, especially in India. Swamiji wonders ‘Who knows which is the truer ideal?’ He continues, ‘The West says, “We minimise evil by conquering it.” India says, “We destroy evil by suffering, until evil is nothing to us, it becomes positive enjoyment.” Well, both are great ideals.’ 1
Swamiji calls upon humanity not to destroy each other’s ideals, since both — the East and the West — are bent upon the same work, which is the annihilation of evil. Swamiji clarifies further:
You take up your method; let us take up our method. Let us not destroy the ideal. I do not say to the West, “Take up our method.” Certainly not. The goal is the same, but the methods can never be the same. And so, after hearing about the ideals of India, I hope that you will say in the same breath to India, “We know, the goal, the ideal, is all right for us both. You follow your own ideal. You follow your method in your own way, and Godspeed to you!” My message in life is to ask the East and West not to quarrel over different ideals, but to show them that the goal is the same in both cases, however opposite it may appear. As we went our way through this mazy vale of life, let us bid each other Godspeed.2
The life mission of Swamiji was to inspire all men and women irrespective of whether one is from the East or the West. He said,‘ It may be that I shall find it good to get outside of my body — to cast it off like a disused garment. But I shall not cease to work! I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God.’3
Several attempts in history to achieve harmony between the East and the West have come to nought. It is impossible to reach that goal due to the utter disparity between every kind of physical expression in both civilisations. It is still harder to harmonise Eastern thought with that of the West due to the different viewpoints each has towards fundamental ideas like human life, God, the world and the like. Hence, Swami Vivekananda worked hard for spiritual harmony between the East and the West, which he believed was the only means of attaining real unity between the people belonging to the two halves of the globe. Sister Nivedita in this context says that Swamiji had a twofold mission: ‘one of World moving and another of nation-making.’4 Swamiji’s endeavour to bring about spiritual harmony between the East and the West was a part of his universal mission.
Swami Vivekananda’s tireless effort in the western hemisphere led to a friendly relationship between the East and the West. In this context, Swamiji calls upon the Indians, ‘To give and take is the law of the Nature… They (the Westerners) have been for a long time giving you (Indians) of what wealth they possess and now is the time for you to share your priceless treasures with them.’5
It is Swami Vivekananda who, in modern times, started the real work of confluence between the East and the West. Advaita Ashrama in Mayavati is the quintessence of such a confluence.
Sri Ramakrishna – Prophet of Harmony
Swami Vivekananda’s work of harmonising the ennobling ideas of East and West was inspired by his Master Sri Ramakrishna, who embodies the best of East and West. Swamiji, in his vesper hymn dedicated to the Master, praises him as the Bhāsvara Bhāva Sāgara; an ocean of enlightening divine moods. Every earnest spiritual seeker in any part of the world can look upon Him to be his or her spiritual ideal and identify one’s chosen deity or idea of divinity with Him.
Also, Sri Ramakrishna personifies Advaita Vedanta. Advaita is not an exclusive philosophy leading to a particular state of spiritual enlightenment. In contrast, it is the confluence of all ideas of Reality, the pursuance of which will lead to, according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, sarvātmabhāva, oneness with the whole existence. Advaita is the merging point where all individual limitations are transcended and unified into one single non-dual consciousness.
Sri Ramakrishna’s ascendence to Nirvikapla Samadhi and further, his remaining in the state of Bhavamukha reflect such a state, where one would be able to identify oneself with every entity in the universe — animate or inanimate — having a universal mind that will resonate with every individual mind in the universe. Sri Ramakrishna was in that state of perfect harmony and union with the whole existence throughout his life. Hence, it is befitting to designate him to be the embodiment of the ideal of Advaita articulated by the Upanishadic sages of the yore. Through this, Sri Ramakrishna also becomes the wonderful centre of harmony between the East and the West.
The Dream of Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda wrote a letter to Swami Swarupananda, the first President of the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati in March 1899. In that letter, he stated: ‘I send you a few lines for your consideration in the prospectus.’6 These lines manifest the most liberal idea of Advaita, both as a philosophy and also as a spiritual experience :
In Whom is the Universe, Who is in the Universe, Who is the Universe; in Whom is the Soul, Who is in the Soul, Who is the Soul of Man; knowing Him — and therefore the Universe — as our Self, alone extinguishes all fear, brings an end to misery and leads to Infinite Freedom. Wherever there has been expansion in love or progress in well-being, of individuals or numbers, it has been through the perception, realisation, and the practicalisation of the Eternal Truth—THE ONENESS OF ALL BEINGS. “Dependence is misery. Independence is happiness.” The Advaita is the only system which gives unto man complete possession of himself, takes off all dependence and its associated superstitions, thus making us brave to suffer, brave to do, and in the long run attain to Absolute Freedom.7
The above lines perfectly and immaculately reflect the great idea of Vedanta, which has been echoed by the Upanishads from time immemorial and has swept the length and breadth of this holy land, thanks to innumerable saints and sadhakas, spiritual aspirants, who have broadcast this grand truth through their life and teachings through the ages.
Then, what is the role of Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, in disseminating this age-old ideal? Swamiji answers:
Hitherto it has not been possible to preach this Noble Truth entirely free from the settings of dualistic weakness; this alone, we are convinced, explains why it has not been more operative and useful to mankind at large.
To give this ONE TRUTH a freer and fuller scope in elevating the lives of individuals and leavening the mass of mankind, we start this Advaita Ashrama on the Himalayan heights, the land of its first expiration.
Here it is hoped to keep Advaita free from all superstitions and weakening contaminations. Here will be taught and practised nothing but the Doctrine of Unity, pure and simple; and though in entire sympathy with all other systems, this Ashrama is dedicated to Advaita and Advaita alone.8
Advaita and Advaita Ashrama
As we can see, Swami Vivekananda’s ideal of Advaita is that of the non-sectarian universal truth, which every religion and philosophy in the world can identify with. It is interesting to note that the Prabuddha Bharata, the mouthpiece of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, published by the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, had to say in those early days of the inception of the Ashrama in this regard. It will help us to understand the concept of Advaita as conceived by the early members of the Ashrama, guided by the enlightening words of Swami Vivekananda as enunciated in the Prospectus.
As early as in the June 1900 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, we find an interesting article The Advaita Ashrama: A few Explanatory Words. It clearly explains Advaita Philosophy, which is the bedrock of Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati as follows: ‘While believing naturally in the elevating power of all systems of religion and allowing its members full liberty to choose and follow their own ways of upasana, the Philosophy of Advaita— which derives its support not only from the simple unequivocal text of the Shrutis but also from the results of modern scientific research—forms the basic principle of its thought and action’ (page 83).
The type of education being imparted to the novices of the Ashrama is also spelt out in this article in clear terms: “Education which is nothing more or less than the unfoldment of the within, is accordingly, in keeping with the Advaita viewpoint, imparted more by assisting each member to think out for himself form, and adjust himself in his own way to, the facts of Being and Existence than by pressing upon him the opinions formed by others, thus gently leading him to develop and harmonise, to the fullest extent and satisfaction of his heart and reason, his individual ways of thought with conclusions directly deducible from the Advaita’ (ibid).
What were the general rules to be followed by the monastic members of the Advaita Ashrama? ‘The Ashrama, .. lays down, as the first condition for membership, the rule that every member should take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience’ says the said article. The next two rules are prescribed in the following manner: ‘The two following rules, therefore, enjoin upon every one of the members to give that respect and toleration to the habits and religious opinions of others, which he would, they should accord to his, and practise in daily life his belief in the Brotherhood of man and the Selfhood of all’(ibid).
The article next emphasises the importance of a strong physique, and moderate exercise to ensure good habits regulated by strict discipline. Also, ‘.. the Ashrama deems it wise to have some of its manual work done by the members. This will not only make them strong and healthy and, to some extent, independent of outside help’ (ibid).
It is felt in the article that ‘study would form another important and necessary occupation of the members. The usefulness of discriminative study in an institution of this character cannot be too much emphasised’(page 84).
The practice of Yoga, according to the article, is ‘the last, though not the least object to be particularly attended to by the members of the Advaita Ashrama.’ ‘This is the channel through which the energy acquired by judiciously following the disciplinary methods indicated above, should be directed so that they may lead up to the highest point of spiritual evolution and ground the character firmly on the adamantine rock of conviction, gained through the practical experience of the spiritual truths’ (ibid).
Prabuddha Bharata published an article written by a member from South India in its July 1905 issue titled Advaita and the Advaita Ashrama (page 128) which gives a clear idea of the philosophical foundation on which Advaita Ashrama at Mayavati was established. Here it is lamented that ‘neither the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers nor the modern metaphysicians are able to supply us with such a synthesis of reconciling ourselves to all the contrasts and divergences of our surroundings. With such despair in the West, the East boldly proclaims through the Upanishads that the Peace, which the prophets found, can be obtained here in this life, and is the birth right of every human being.
Then the article states that Advaita Vedanta, which is built on the rock of experience of the ancient Rishis as revealed in the Upanishads, is the highest pinnacle of human thought and stands for the realisation of Brahmavidya here in this life. To live up to the ideal of Advaita Vedanta is the only means to permanently alleviate human misery and ensure human progress.
The article also articulates two main objectives of Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati: 1. The study and culture of Advaita by its members at home and abroad. 2. Admission and training of Brahmacharins and Sannyasins to carry the Gospel of Advaita to all men in all lands. Here also given three General Rules of the Ashrama, applicable to monastics and other members, which are being followed in letter and spirit even today:
No external worship of images, pictures etc shall be practised nor any ritual except the Viraja Home shall be performed in the Ashrama.
- Sadhana should consist of Japam or Ashtanga Yoga and study and work in some department or other of the Ashrama.
Taking their stand on Advaita and making it the goal of their teaching, members should think and speak respectfully of other systems of philosophy of religion (page 130).
In the end, the article says that Advaita Ashrama inculcates the spirit of self-sacrifice and intense activity and it believes in an all-ground growth of character.
The Movement Marches On
What makes Mayavati Advaita Ashrama unique and distinct from other centres of the Ramakrishna Order is its complete commitment to the Advaita ideal. All its activities—the journal, medical, maintaining the garden, serving the guests—centred on this life-giving fountain of Advaita. In this abode of non-dualism, unlike in the case of other institutions, Advaita has not remained a philosophy to be studied or a transcendental state to be achieved. It has become the living force of every monk of this Ashrama. Moreover, this Ashrma which is surrounded by high mountain peaks and evergreen forests reminds one of the Tapovana of the Upanishadic ages and continues to be the perennial inspiration for all serious-minded students of Vedanta and spiritual aspirants, who long to rise to the state of oneness with the whole existence, the cherished goal of Advaita.
Even after 125 years, Mayavati has retained its spiritual fragrance and relevance like the bountiful and beautiful natural ambience it is surrounded with and continues to remind humanity of the fleeting nature of the world and the eternality of the Atman, the only Reality the Advaita vouches for. It will remain so in the coming centuries, until as Swami Vivekananda professed, ‘the whole world shall know it is one with God.’
- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 4.76.
- Ibid., 4.76-77.
- Ibid., 5.414 .
- Complete Works Introduction.
- Ibid., 5, 356.
- Ibid., 9.113.
- Ibid., 5.435-36.