attractions of ashram life, which for many Westerners is a new, exotic
cultural experience and the hope (in the past) of seeing and being helped or healed
a God man. Westerners usually arrived there with their heads stuffed with what
actually were illusions about 'spirituality', and impressed - often beyond measure - at their first glimpse of the man they already believed to be God, Creator of the Universe, the Father who sent Jesus to earth, the avatar of all holy incarnations and much more incredible things besides. Many had not previously experienced anything of 'spiritual India', such as some of the ca.
two million parasitic sannyasins, fakirs, soothsayers, yogis, astrologers,
nagas, priests, religious mountebanks and swamis, of whom the vast
majority are out-and-out (but clever) frauds.
By comparison to Indian street life, Prashanthi Nilayam
seems a relative oasis, for inside its walls there are seldom beggars, itinerant
priests, pressing salesmen or the like. But Prashanti Nilayam is definitely
no "Abode of Supreme Peace" or Utopian retreat for the visitor - no silent sanctuary from
worldly problems nor a place full of saintly people. It is noisy and dusty, rooms one gets are ofteny left filthy by the previous occupants. It is a place of both physical and
mental-emotional hardship for many visitors, with many queues and much interminable waiting and a plethora of rules (many unspoken) which are designed to control the crowds and provide some security for residents. The prices of rooms
have increased from almost nothing to very considerable sums, and the leasing of apartments there is exorbitant and money can never be got back if one leaves. One also meets more peculiarly
confused, unrealistic and suffering people visiting these ashrams than any of
the followers ever admit or write about. One elderly Indian devotee in
the IAS with long experience of the ashrams and residents assured me
it is "a snake pit of jealousy". I have witnessed many incidents which
bear this out. The former Head of Administration for over 20 years,
Mr. Kanhaia Jee, told me that the PN staff "fight like dogs" when
Swami's back is turned!
Apart from the hope that being near to the self-proclaimed God will confer spiritual gifts and blessings, there are some other attractions of ashram life for foreigners. One is the great change of culture, climate, daily sights and sounds, food habits and the behaviour of visitors world-wide - until it becomes as familiar as the humdrum life many visitors are seeking to escape. There is often (but unfortunately not always) a lack of hurry and stress. Life in India - even for hard workers - is still slower and closer to non-industrial society. It was also a place to avoid the world media and constant depressing news. Part of the visiting experience is to meet culture and the people rather than suffer the usual alienation of mere tourism. It is instructive to persons who have seldom stepped over cultural boundary lines before. Despite the enormous physical and social problems in India, one can meet smiling faces among even the poorest of Indians, who would seem to have little to be happy about - few material goods, health benefits or social compensations.
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