Inclusive ashram open to all religious traditions

Features – January 24, 2008

Anton Muhajir, Contributor, The Jakarta Post, Karangasem

Students of Ashram Gandhi Candi Dasa in Karangasem regency, Bali, have to practice their spiritual beliefs amid the constant noise produced by the bars, restaurants and cafes that are located just a few meters away from the ashram building.

The 2008 New Year’s celebrations showed just how difficult the situation could become for them.

While others celebrated the end of the year by partying, the 13 students of Ashram Gandhi sat cross-legged, trying to enjoy a moment of silence, while embracing the coming of the new year.

They chanted the holy mantrams (Hindu’s traditional prayers) by heart. They tried hard to act as if they were not aware of the festivities outside.

The year may change but not the students and the ashram.

Established in 1976 by prominent spiritual Balinese figure, Gedong Bagoes Oka, Ashram Candi Dasa — located in a part of Bali popular with tourists — is now the headquarters for two other ashrams: the Ashram Gandhi Vidyapith Denpasar, which was established in 1996 and the Ashram Gandhi Vidyapith Yogyakarta, established in 1997.

Ibu Gedong, as she was familiarly known, was an ardent activist for interfaith dialogue activities.

Many of Indonesia’s well-known religious figures came to the ashram when Ibu Gedong was running the place. Former president Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur, was one of the frequent attendees.

Even though an ashram is meant to be a place to learn about Hinduism, Ibu Gedong imposed a totally different set of rules, permitting others with different religions, or sometimes also people with no religions, to learn and live in the ashrams.

Besides religious teachings, the ashrams have also taught other skills needed in life, such as embroidery, craftsmanship and farming.

I Nyoman Sadra took the lead over the ashrams after Ibu Gedong passed away in 2002. He was one of Gedong’s first batch of students and also a former member of the Sarvodaya International Trust, a Bangalore-based international organization that aims to follow Gandhi’s way of life.

Sadra has also acknowledged that not all the students come to the ashram for spiritual reasons. Many of them do so simply because they cannot afford to go to school.

I Ketut Dharma Saputra is one of them. The 15-year old is the son of a poor farmer from Gianyar. His neighbor brought him to the ashram after hearing the ashram provided free schooling for its students. Ashram Gandhi gives educational assistance to all the 13 students who live in the ashram.

“We give them educational assistance from junior high school to university,” Sadra said.

He added that they had also built a kindergarten, which now has around 30 students. The learning process continues after school as these students still have to learn and practice spiritual and religious subjects in the ashram at night.

“It feels very awkward at first, but we learn to live with it,” Dharma commented on the obligation for students to practice religious teachings.

Unlike their peers, who are spoiled by television, Play Station and junk food, these teenage students eat no meat and must practice a modest way of life.

But life, however modest, requires money.

This fact has created confusion for Sadra as the ashram has no fixed income. The ashram has chosen not to get directly involved in the commercial world and this fact leaves them with no choice but to rely on donations and the savings accumulated during Ibu Gedong’s lifetime.

“Actually we have eight cottages that function as tourist accommodation in the compound, but since we don’t offer anything but a tranquil atmosphere, tourists rarely pick this place,” he said.

He realized that relying on the savings was not the best choice because the momentum of life at the ashram would flag once it was gone.

“I don’t want to beg for donations simply because Ibu Gedong did not do that,” Sadra said.

Published in The Jakarta Post

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