Have you ever wondered what it would be like to leave your own high-stress, high-tech life and disappear into an Indian ashram? Gurukulam is a new film about life at the ashram of Swami Dayananda, in Rishikesh, India, who was the spiritual Guru of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Directed by Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal, this film offers a window into a life where men and women of all ages, from all over the world, come to study with this renowned teacher of the Upanishads, the Bagavhad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. Most stay for three months, some live there for years, and more than two hundred others have become Dayananda Sanyasi’s disciples, roaming the globe teaching Vedanta and Paninian grammar.
Gurukulam portrays this life at its most potent – a general feeling of calm, devotion, and peace. Set in the mountains, amidst greenery, visiting students file in and out of the temple, the dining area, and the Swami’s lectures, quietly and with great discipline.
Dressed in traditional Indian white or orange clothing, the students are totally immersed in ashram life. They study and chant all day – at their cottages, in the dining hall, and while they are walking. They offer blessings to each other and to the Gods with fruit and flowers. They wave their hands in front of the flames in the temple and prostrating at the feet of their wise old Guru.
There is little dialogue in the film, a specific device employed by the filmmakers with the intention of drawing the viewer into the experience. We meet devotees who are as quiet and unassuming as their surroundings, even while they eat and dress. A former professor and atheist who became a swami, an electrical engineer who has come to learn that happiness doesn’t depend on external things. There is a funny moment when a Westerner shows looking for a quick fix on spiritual life. The contrast becomes really apparent when he asks a fellow devotee for his mantra – which is not going to happen – and then as he waits impatiently to retrieve a book from the library, staring up at the ceiling fan and pulling at his collar completely effected by the heat.
Swami Dyanananda’s teaches from the Bhagavad Gita, that “one is the whole” and that “enlightenment is not an event.” As the eighty-something year old man sits comfortably on the stage, he says “enlightenment is not a problem to be solved.” When teaching in front of a group of children, he says, “if you want your life to be good, work while you work, play while you play.” That’s good advice.
The devotees take care of the Swami, driving him around the ashram in a golf cart, through the village to visit the farm, helping him walk, and putting on his shoes and socks. They must do this. It isn’t because he is old but because he is so immersed in his studies – in God – that he doesn’t even notice how low the roof is at the farm where they grow their food.
This is a rare opportunity to experience the rhythms and traditions of living the contemplative life on a ashram as Indians have done since the Bagavhad Gita was written so many thousands of years ago. If you want to get a glimpse, you might be tempted to go . . . and stay.