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There are probably about a hundred ashrams in Rishikesh of one sort or another. We hear that a good ashram is a great place to learn just about anything about Indian culture and religion, from Sanskrit to yoga, Ayurvedic medicine to Hindu religious philosophy, traditional instruments to classical Indian dance. We’ve considered looking into it, but we’re not sure what we would like to study, and which ashram would be best.

For me, the most interesting thing to study would be the ashram itself. From what little I know about it, the ashram seems like a wonderful environment for moral and spiritual development. I am fascinated by how vital an institution it is, even alongside all the shiny new Western style universities the country possesses.

The closest thing we have in the US is the residential college, which, while it may provide an enjoyable ethos for living and learning, does little for the immortal souls of its students. Indeed, the boundless hedonism embraced by most student bodies across the nation often borders on destructive, and certainly operates outside of the limits of human behavior articulated by almost all of the world’s spiritual traditions.

So why aren’t there many ashrams or ashram-like institutions in the United States? I can think of two reasons. The first is economical: our expectation for material comforts and freedoms is higher, our standards for construction and accommodation are more litigiously controlled and, as a result, running an institution of formation or education is much, much more expensive.

When we describe the cost of education in the US to our friends in India, jaws drop. And then we clarify: that price is dollars, not rupees. Our friends turn white and sway a little, as though they peering down from the top of a high building and suffering from severe vertigo. Then they quickly change the subject. Let’s just say that with the amount of money that went into our American educations, we could have easily retired in India.

The other reason is cultural. In America, we are very protective of individual liberties. Ashrams are fairly scripted communities: they lie somewhere between a monastery and a school in their organizational mentality. Are many Americans willing to agree to a stringent code of ethics and rigorous pattern of life during a short term course of study? It is, at the very least, a foreign idea. We value our space and our freedom too much.

Now that Amar has returned to Delhi for Diwali, Sarah and I are left pondering what we are going to do. We are enjoying the weather and clean air in Rishikesh, and we don’t have much incentive to travel elsewhere. So we are thinking maybe we’ll find an ashram, and study Hindi.

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