Ashrams are monastic institutions. Life in a Monastery is known as Monasticism.

Ashrams have existed in India for thousands of years. They have been a powerful symbol throughout Hindu history and theology. The roots of monastic life are traceable in the Vedic literature. Scholars are of opinion that the Jainism and Buddhism traditions adopted their precepts from the Vedic-Brahmanical traditions for monk life.   The asceticism and monastic practices possibly emerged in India in the early centuries of the 1st millennium BCE.  Hindu monasteries played a role in the composition of the Upanishads. Six of these Upanishads were composed before the 3rd-century CE, probably starting sometime in the last centuries of the 1st millennium BCE. In addition to the Upanishads, evidence of Ashrama tradition can be found in the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Evidences are there to show that there were sectarian monastic groups in the ancient days. There were Pasupatas and Kapalikas attached to temples dedicated to Lord Siva. There were other non-denominational monks also leading solitary ascetic lives.
Buddhism and Jainism are the first monastic religions originated in India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. The disciples of Buddha wandered about, preaching and teaching the Dharma. It was the Buddhist monks that carried the monastic ideal all over India and abroad.

Hinduism adopted the monastic tradition of the Buddhism and Jainism in addition to the age old ideal of Sanyasa. Organised monasticism in Hinduism was started by Sri Sankracharya in 8th Century AD. It was he who consolidated the doctrine of Advaitha Vedantha and unifying the main currents of thoughts in Hinduism. He established four monasteries in the four corners of India. They are (1) Sringeri Math in South, (2) Sarada Math in the West, (3) Jyothir Math in North and (4) Govardhan Math in the East.  Sankaracharya had four disciples. They were Sureswara who was put in charge of Sringeri Math, Hasthamalaka of the Sarada Math, Toaka of the Jyothir Math and Padmapada of the Govardhan Math. Sankaracharya also divided the monks owing allegiance to the above Maths into ten sects called Dasanami Sanyasins. These ten orthodox orders of Sanyasins are (1) Saraswathi, (2) Bharathi, (3) Puri (belonging to Sringeri Math); (4) Tirtha,     (5) Ashrama, (belonging to Sarada Math); (6) Giri (7) Parvatam, (8) Sagaram (belonging to Jyothir Math); (9) Vanam and (10) Aranyam (belonging to Govardhan Math). Though a number of Hindu monastic sects are there today, the above ten orthodox orders are the authentic Vedic Sanyasins of Hinduism.

Disagreeing with the Advaitha idealism, Ramanuja, a student of Advaitha Vedantha monastery, launched Vishishtadvaitha philosophy and founded Vaishnavite Ashrams across India.  Madhavacharya, another monk of Advaitha Vedantha monastery who also disagreed with Advaitha philosophy, initiated theistic Dvaitha School and established monasteries. Nimbarka, another scholar evolved a new philosophy as Dvaithaadvaiha and started Mathas centered on loving devotion of Radha-Krishna worship. Ramananda, a Vaishnava devotional poet started Lord Rama based Vaishnavism movement, which is considered as the largest Hindu monastic community of modern era. Ramananda and its Ashrams accept disciples without discriminating any by gender, class, caste or religion.

Shaiva Mathas were also established from 1st millennium onwards. The Shiva Maths have been from diverse schools of Shaivism,  ranging from nondualist to theistic schools and regionally went by a range of names such as Jogi, Natha, Darshani, Kanphata etc. Lingayat movement emerged in Karnataka around 12th Century. There have been large Lingayat monasteries across India.

As time changes, the monastic orders are also adjusting to the situation. Orthodox orders could not adjust to the changing times remain as specimens of ancient tradition with diminished following and waning prestige. New organizations with modern orientation are taking shape. Due to the exigencies of history, religious leaders, especially the monks, had to initiate essential social reforms and show the way for material welfare as well.

Though there have been individual women-monastics from very ancient times, Hinduism rarely encouraged monasticism among women. However, a monastic order for women has been started under the inspiration of Sarada Devi, the spiritual consort of Sri Ramakrishna.

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