In Hinduism, any of the four stages of life through which a “twice-born” (see upanayana) Hindu ideally will pass. These stages are: the student, who is devoted and obedient to his teacher; the householder, who supports his family and the priests and fulfills duties to the gods and ancestors; the hermit, who withdraws from society to pursue ascetic and yogic practices; and the homeless mendicant, who renounces all possessions and wanders from place to place begging for food. In English the word has come to mean a place for the pursuit of spiritual or religious disciplines, often under a guru.
An Ashram in ancient India was a Hindu hermitage where sages lived in peace and tranquility amidst nature. Today, the term ashram is usually used to refer to an intentional community formed primarily for spiritual upliftment of its members, often headed by a religious leader or mystic.
Traditionally, ashrams were usually located far from human habitation, in forests or mountainous regions, amidst refreshing natural surroundings conducive to spiritual instruction and meditation. Spiritual and physical exercises, such as the various forms of Yoga, were regularly performed by the residents of an ashram. Other sacrifices and penances, such as Yajnas were also performed. Many Ashrams also served as Gurukuls or residential schools for children. The word ashram is derived from the Sanskrit term “aashraya”, which means protection.
Ashrams have been a powerful symbol throughout Hindu history and theology. Most Hindu kings until the medieval ages are known to have had a sage who would advise the royal family in spiritual matters, or in times of crisis, who was called the rajguru which literally translates to royal teacher. A world-weary emperor going to this guru’s ashram, and finding solace and tranquility, is a recurring motif in many folktales and legends of ancient India.