[Dec. 19, 2014]: I was not planning to write this post, but as dinner was relatively late, and I do not like to go to sleep so soon after eating, thought I would take down some further notes on staying at Amma’s Ashram (Amritapuri).
I wanted to add some of my experiences here, for the reading pleasure of those interested, or for the guidance of those thinking of coming to Amma’s.
In brief, my recommendation is: come here! It is a place you should really experience. In this post I commented briefly on the food, and then wrote about the practices of Seva, or Selfless Service/Karma Yoga.
Cuisine at Amritapuri
Three meals a day are included along with the accomodation fee.
I mentioned late dinner – (free) dinner time is around 8 pm (though on certain days – such as today which was an Amma “Bhajan” day (when Amma is part of the Bhajans, and sings herself, in a very enthusiastic and devotional way) – on days like today it is usually not until at least 8:15 that the Bhajans end, when the mad rush of Indians and foreigners clamber over each other for the metal plates, for receiving the free rice, subji, and sambar).
One has a choice of about three places to eat at most meals. First, there is the free meal, which is usually rice, with plenty of Kanchi (rice water), and some slight variations on spicy subji (vegetables) and sambar etc.
The free meals are not bad – I partake of them often. Though sometimes I feel like something besides white rice.
If one is thus looking for something different, there are also various foods available at the “Indian canteen” and at the “Western canteen”s, respectively. Here for a moderate fee (e.g., 50 to 100 rs. for a meal, depending of course), one can add a bit of variety to one’s diet.
Despite the somewhat late, (non-Ayurvedic in timing), dinners on certain nights like tonight, I have few complaints about the meals situation. The residents and guests at this ashram are really quite lucky to have such a nice little range of food options, for moderate prices or even for free, and the food is of very good quality and generally quite tasty. They do a great job here, and I am very grateful for this nice nourishment situation.
Karma Yoga – Seva (Selfless Service)
Something else that I like about Amma’s Ashram is the opportunity (and the encouragement!) to undertake Seva.
Seva is a Sanskrit term meaning literally “Service,” often expanded to “Selfless Service.” It is work not done for an extrinsic end, and/or for money, estate, or good name, but is intended to be work done in the spirit of voluntarism. It can be work undertaken for the community, or work undertaken for one’s own spiritual growth, or so on.
I actually find Seva to be one of the most enjoyable and important aspects of living at this ashram.
Everyone is encouraged to work at least one or two hours of Seva per day. There are a wide range of Sevas available – from washing dishes, to managing recycling or compost, to putting cards into envelopes (I observe an army of, generally older people, peacefully doing this on the temple balcony every day), chopping vegetables in the kitchen, pushing people in wheelchairs….
I personally have been working with the Compost team, which is surprisingly fun and enjoyable. As it is generally a core group of longer-term residents supervising and working on the compost, along with a mix of those staying for only a couple of weeks, there is a lot of camaraderie amongst the group. And it is a great way to meet people at the ashram, to get to know them, and to make friends while one is here.
Many of the long-term people here are very hard-working in their Seva, and their hours of work and dedication, and spirit of selfless service, makes the contribution of short-termers like myself pale in comparison.
While I have been doing about 2.5 to 3 hours of Compost seva per day, many of the longer-term residents, work 6 to 8 or even 10 hours per day. This, again, is strictly work done in the spirit of Seva, selfless service – it is charitable work, for which they are not paid.
This work is being done to maintain the community, or as these individuals’ personal karma yoga (the yoga of “action” or work) or spiritual practice.
Karma Yoga as Spiritual Practice
One friend of mine in the Compost, Mussam, from Lebanon, has been at the Ashram just four months, but does over 6 hours of Seva work in Compost each day.
He told me that he is at a stage of his spiritual practice where he wants to focus principally on Karma Yoga (the yoga of “action”). He says that in future, if so inspired, he might wish to again partake of other spiritual disciplines (eg., such as the reading of scriptures (an element of jnana yoga, or the yoga of knowledge)). But right now, he wishes to focus exclusively on Karma Yoga, or being of service to the Ashram.
This I thought was quite a refreshing and admirable stance to take.
It is notable how rare is this attitude, or spiritual path, in contemporary Western circles.
That is to say – the vast majority of people doing “spiritual practice” in the West, will sooner take a Yoga class, or practice Meditation, than engage in any kind of Selfless Service or Charitable work.
(This is not to judge those people – people are busy of course, and everyone has their own unique set of circumstances, restrictions, priorities, habits, and so on…
But it is intriguing the extent to which (as we might say this, speaking under the matrices of the yogas), to most practitioners of “yoga” today, Karma Yoga takes a definite back seat to Hatha Yoga (e.g. Yoga asanas) or Raja Yoga (e.g. meditation).
Mussam’s commitment at this “stage” of his Sadhana, indeed reminded me (though he had not been acquainted with these verses himself), with certain verses of the Bhagavad Gita – such as this aphorism at the opening of Chapter 6:
Action is the means for a sage / who seeks to mature in discipline; / tranquility is the means / for one who is mature in discipline. (Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 6 v. 3)
This exceedingly simple suggestion is rather fascinating: Tranquility is important, but first, the Gita suggests here, one would do best to undertake the path of action — in order to “mature in discipline.” Then, once one is thus “mature in discipline,” the time may be more ripe for, and one may derive more benefit from, practices centred on tranquility.
I remember this making intuitive sense to me the first time I had read it.
Say: start out in the world. Learn about this world of action. Once you have got your feet wet (and dirty, undoubtedly), you will have matured in discipline (or not). It will be more appropriate to practice tranquility, once you have thus spent some time in the world.
Reminds me also of C.G. Jung’s interesting points regarding the extroversion and introversion of the individual. Jung suggested (what also seems quite intuitively valuable), that the first half of one’s life, would be useful to spend “extroverting” – until roughly mid-life – and then, once one has thoroughly experienced the world (to a greater or lesser degree), it will be time to turn inwards.