Shantivanam Ashram, Trichy
Shantivanam Ashram was founded in 1950 by two French monks, Jules Monchanin and Henri le Saux. Le Saux (who took for himself the Indian name Abhishiktananda) was captivated by his interactions with Hindu mysticism, and wrote a number of books in which he wrestled with the fact of Advaitic (non-dualist) mystical experience. I had been reading through two of these, Hindu-Christian Meeting Point and Saccidananda, and they were very interesting: he is trying to be faithful to his Catholic faith, and yet is also convinced that “if Christianity should prove incapable of assimilating Hindu spiritual experience from within, Christians would thereby at once lose the right to claim that theirs is the universal way of salvation”. His attempts to remain true to Catholic doctrine while working in thoroughly Hindu concepts are impressive. In 1968 Bede Griffiths replaced Abhishiktanda as the guru of the ashram. I had read a little of his Return to the Centre. Griffiths is much less concerned with staying faithful to the content of Christian orthodoxy, but does dress his monism in the language of Christian theology.
Shantivanam is situated just outside the town of Trichy, Tamil Nadu, two days by train from Delhi. Being able to read Hindi means that I can quite capably get around in North India – in South India however the swirls and curls of the Tamil script leave me as bewildered as any tourist just arrived in the country. Nevertheless, I was able to find my way to Shantivanam, thanks in part to the fact that it is this place that is primarily responsible for drawing bewildered tourists to this particular part of rural India: when I approached a rickshaw driver for the last leg of my journey, he knew where I would be headed before I had even said a word. The location is beautiful: coconut palms reaching up towards the open skies, local villagers bathing at the banks of the wide and winding river Kaveri – and I glimpsed a pair of red-crested woodpeckers traversing through the trees.
A typical day at Shantivanam begins and ends with Namajapa: chanting of the divine name, a common event in any ashram, but here the name is Yeshu Khrist. Then, thrice daily there are the daily prayers: a mixture of Catholic liturgy, Sanskrit mantras (that have been deemed compatible with Christian theology), and a selection of Psalms purged by Griffiths of anything imprecatory or iconoclastic. At the end of the prayers aarti is done toward the eucharist. Then each person marks their forehead – in the morning with sandalwood, “a symbol of the unconditional love of God as it gives its fragrance even to the axe that cuts it”; at midday with purple kunkumum powder, for wisdom; at evening with ashes, for purification. After prayers we head to the dining hall, where we sit silently facing each other in cross-legged rows and eat the simple vegetarian fare.
In the afternoons of the week I was there, a series of short talks were given by Brother Martin, a Tamilian who had been training for the Catholic priesthood until he realised that his theological views were incompatible with such a vocation. He has succeeded Griffiths as the guru of the ashram. In his talks – mainly directed at a group of novitiate nuns taking part in a ten-day ‘ashram experience’ – he outlined his views on Hinduism and Christianity, arguing that, contrary to the consensus, their essential messages were identical. First, the philosophies of Hinduism were reduced to the first verse of the Isha Upanishad – which he translated “God encompasses everything: therefore renounce, and enjoy”. Then the proclamation of Jesus – “the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe” – was aligned with this, by a denial that ‘repent’ referred to a repentance from sin, and a declaration that ‘the Kingdom of God is near’ meant ‘God encompasses everything’. Jesus was then presented as an exemplar of the Hindu mystical experience – so “I am the way, the truth, and the life” is taken not to mean that Jesus himself is any way uniquely “the way, ….” but rather as what any one might say who has achieved moksha and attained the experience of the divine ‘Self’.