On the term śikhara

Rasa Ravi, 2020

Introduction to the topic

How to name a place or institution which houses adepts practicing our Doctrine, who meditate there together or even reside there?

First, we substantiate the reasons why we reject common words from the following list, and then we implement and elucidate, in this context, a new word called ‘śikhara.’

A similar approach is given to the corresponding word ‘śikharin’ in a separate article On the term śikharin.

List of rejected terms

Ashram (āśram, āśrama): Real traditional ashrams, historically speaking, principally functioned as schools for boys (not girls) of the higher castes, some only for the children of brahmins. They were taught here recitation of the holy scriptures, how to read and write, Sanskrit, sciences, poetry, mathematics, etc. In those times spiritual practice was done outside such facilities, mainly in wandering ascetic groups. In other words, ashrams were not the places with which they are now almost exclusively associated with in the Western mind.

On the other hand, from the 20th century on (probably evolving from the late 19th century), we have institutions calling themselves also ashrams, although the main practice here is āsana exercise with some related haṭha techniques. In India they are established primarily for Western yoga-tourists, especially for women. Please note, these modern facilities frequently promote themselves with the connotation ‘traditional ashram’ which is clearly a misinterpretation if not a misuse. It is a ridicule of Indian traditions that sparsely dressed women in tight outfits could enter a real traditional ashram.

Between these two crucially different concepts of ashrams is wedged a third one. It implies residences of gurus where people come for advice or meditation. Such an ashram can be a small modest hut in the countryside or, on the contrary, a luxurious hotel-like complex of buildings in cities. Unfortunately, this third type of ashram-culture is now notoriously associated with doubtful gurus who in reality are not holders of esoteric insights and therefore in their ashrams you cannot learn any deep truths but worship the guru, do karma yoga and sing mantras.

None of these three types of ashrams matches our criterium, although the now disappearing modest hut-like ashram is close enough to our idea, with the modification that we try to establish such a facility as not guru-centered but doctrine-centered.

Monastery/convent/cloister: These words connote Christianity. ‘Cloister’ comes from the Latin ‘claustrum’ which means ‘enclosure, gate-bolt, latched door,’ indicating that monks and nuns were “closed” and secluded from the world. This Christian ideal, including the chastity associated with being a monk or nun, is not a platform we want establish our vision on.

Meditation center: It is self-explanatory and a relatively good designation. However, besides being a longer two-word phrase, it implies that it is a place where people are coming and going for meditation retreats only, but where they do not feel they belong, or reside in. We are trying to find a better and also a one-word representation of our idea.

Maṭha (maṭh, ‘mutt’): It is relatively a lesser-known term in general, and could be an ideal one for our purposes, because it aptly depicts our intention. Unfortunately, it is too tightly associated with the nātha tradition in a similar way as ashrams are (were) primarily associated with vedānta circles and Brahmanic (brāhmaṇa) culture. From this reason we must reject this term as well.

Śikhara

Meanings of ‘śikhara’ in Sanskrit: spike, apex, elevated tip, topknot, mountain-peak, shelter or roof over a simple shrine in nature or a raised superstructure over the inner sanctuary in temple architecture. In essence, this inverted ‘v’-shape structure also designates the common roof of houses in Europe and western countries. And it is this notion we use śikhara for.

Just as a roof shelters people in a house from adverse weather and is a structure under which they can always take refuge, similarly, the Teaching is the ‘peak’ of man’s destiny which ‘shelters’ adepts immersed in meditation in a way that suggests where and when to go or not to go on the path of spirituality, when to wait and repeat once again what we already know before we set out to new territories of sādhanā, as they bring new challenges as well as obstacles.

Śikhara is a place for sādhanā, a building, a physical residence, which is strictly dedicated to spiritual advance only. It cannot be a place where worldly activities are held. The śikharins who attend practice here seek refuge in the Teaching. The best is if the śikhara is situated in nature away from day-to-day mundane bustle. Ideally at least one śikharin lives there, so the place is enlivened by sādhanā on a daily basis. Only śikharas which are consecrated can bear the name śikhara.

Ardhaśikhara

Ardhaśikhara is half-śikhara, śikhara only of an imaginary half (ardha) portion. It is called this for the reason that the building or house, parallel to its spiritual functioning, is also used for worldly activities, mainly that its owner lives there. An ardhaśikhara is established primarily because either a dedicated śikhara is not available or is too far away. An ardhaśikhara must have a dedicated room for meditation only and provide all the additional things needed to host a few guests for a sādhanā lasting several days, i.e. (limited) accommodation, meals, bathroom, etc.

Guhyārdhaśikhara

In a politically or religiously unfavorable country, where an ordinary śikhara and even an ardhaśikhara cannot be established publicly, the way to bypass such restrictions is to establish a guhyārdhaśikhara, i.e. an undisclosed, hidden or secret (guhya) ardhaśikhara. Spiritual practice is concealed here in a way so that common worldly activities to be held here are not only allowed but moreover even advised, so that the real spiritual purpose is outwardly disguised. Depending on the country’s regime, where a house-search could incriminate the owner, a guhyārdhaśikhara need not to dedicate a room for sādhanā. A place to practice can be repeatedly recreated and dissolved. This type of place-arrangement is described as ‘At home on a specific spot’ in the article Sites of sādhanā.

In democracies a guhyārdhaśikhara cannot be established.