ashram lit

marcus boon & christie pearson visit five ashram libraries to document a history of sacred publications. their research takes them on an unexpected pilgrimage.

photos by christie pearson

Ashrams are often thought to be places of silent retreat. People go there to escape the noise of this world and their own internal chatter, to find peaceful, joyful silence beyond language and its endless ambiguities and obscurations. At the same time, the great yogis and saints were teachers who sought to communicate the path that leads to this place of peace. After their deaths, texts were a way of preserving the memory and the living transmission of these teachers.

In both India and the West, there is a long and rich history of ashram literature, which attempted to document the Divine. The history of relations between Asian religions and the West is revealed in these publications. They also reflect the complex history of European colonialism in Asia, which imposed itself as much through language and culture as by guns and armies. English was the language of colonial power in India, and thus today we have the strange paradox that an ashram library in the middle of Tamil Nadu is full of books written in English.

The resurgence of Hinduism in India in the nineteenth century involved an explosion of magazines, tracts and books in many languages. These writings were aimed at both Indians and non-Indians, since most of the great teachers were universalists seeking to spread a spiritual message to the whole world. The teachers who brought Vedanta, as well as Buddhism and other Asian traditions, to the West at the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth often started publishing houses linked directly to their ashrams and organizations. Writing, translating, editing, printing and distributing texts were devotional acts done by disciples, devotees and often the teachers themselves.

aurobindo ashram

Our work begins at the home of the great Bengali saint and Indian independence hero, Sri Aurobindo. A prolific writer and editor, in his youth Aurobindo produced pro-Independence newspapers that gave a powerful political meaning to the message of Vedanta before building this spiritual community with his partner, Mira Alfassa, a French woman who came to be known as The Mother.

Aurobindo Ashram has taken over a good portion of the buildings in downtown Pondicherry. The library at the ashram is housed in a gorgeous old French colonial mansion. We rent bikes from the Aurobindo guest house and quickly become part of the nonstop ringing jingle of Indian traffic as we ride through the colonial town to the library each day. The opening hours of the library are precise and strict, but inside all manner of activities are possible. Old men with thick spectacles slumber in dark rooms of musty books. Eager young students pore over thick philosophy texts. The librarian tries to play records from his fifty-year-old collection but is missing a part for his turntable; he wonders if we can get one from Canada.

The journals produced by the ashram tell their own story, from the fabulous Victorian-era political broadsides of Bande Nataram to the dense scholarly journal Arya from the 1920s and 1930s, to the multicoloured psychedelic covers of the 1960s. Innovations in magazine design, the ups and downs of the ashram itself and the visions of particular editors all coloured the journals in particular ways, registering periods of expansiveness and inclusion as well as returns to core values.

Marcus Boon teaches contemporary literature and cultural theory at York University in Toronto. He is currently working on a book entitled Sadhana: Asian Religions & Twentieth-Century Literature. Christie Pearson is an artist, writer, architect and yogi. She is currently researching a book about world bathing traditions.

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