Observations of a pilgrim in search of a ‘Christian ashram’: Part 1

This report begins some weeks after the writer’s arrival in India. He has already spent four weeks studying Hindi. He has been staying, and praying, and enjoying fascinating dinner-table conversations with the Delhi Brotherhood. He now sets out to investigate something of the nature of ‘the Christian ashram’.

Varanasi

Varanasi, the holy city beside the river of life – or at least so it is in the Hindu imagination. I had visited two years previously, and spent the time sipping chai in the alleyways. Corpses would be rushed past toward the burning ghats, flanked by impatient motorcycles; occasionally also you would see a group of disenchanted tourists – showing no more patience than the motorcycles, and little more life than the corpses. This time I was here in search of Christian ashrams. I had been given the names of two, but my attempts at getting in touch before arriving in Varanasi had failed.

First, I went in search of ‘The Ashram’, the address of which I had been given by a pastor in Delhi. This turned out to be nothing very much. A man from Hong Kong came out to meet me. He listened to where I was from and invited me to the Sunday morning fellowship which met there. That, it seemed, was all the ashram activity there was. He was looking after the ashram until the end of the month when it would be handed over to another Christian group, who were renaming it ‘Jesus ashram’ and planning to reach out to foreign hippies come to Varanasi to seek [spiritual/chemical/…] enlightenment. It seemed that whatever ‘The Ashram’ had been doing had failed.

Next, I made my way to Mukta Anant (which, being translated, means ‘Endless Salvation’) Ashram. I was helped to find a doorway with the corresponding name painted over the entrance, and so went up a flight of stairs, where I met a discouraging set of locked doors.
– Hello? I asked the empty space.
A door opened.
– Mukta Anant?
A man in a dhoti pointed me towards a different door. I knocked. some rattlings. It opened. Another man in a dhoti. I succeeded in communicating what I was looking for; he succeeded in communicating that this was indeed the place.
– Was he a Yeshu bhakta?
He was, and he invited me in. It turned out the swami was away, and so nothing at all was happening at the moment: he would be back in a few days, but only after I had gone, and this man was looking after the place until then. A pause, and then he beckoned me towards a laptop, a brief glimmer of the twenty-first century in a stone-walled room that could have been from any era in the last few thousand years. He showed me a couple of videos, promotional material for a ‘Discipleship Training School’ for Christians seeking to engage more deeply with Hindu culture: there were brief clips of sadhus talking about the Bible, a multi-cultural mixture of people worshipping to the sound of sitars, some yoga.
Then he told me a bit about himself (in our broken mixture of English and Hindi): how he had become a Christian, to the consternation of his family – and then come into contact with the swami and been told that he could be a ‘Yeshu bhakta’ and continue to be faithful to Christ without turning his back on the entire culture of his family. He showed me pictures of his wedding: ‘Hindu style’.
– Was his wife also a Yeshu bhakta?
– No.
He showed me around the building: there was an impressive view of the river and the surrounding rooftops from the top of the building. Inside there was also a sort of altar-place with a Bible, a few objects: wooden sandals, a lamp, a shell. He assured me these were symbolic reminders of aspects of Christ’s ministry, and not anything else. I had noticed that the alcoves in the walls of the building’s rooms – where usually would sit the house idol, with offerings of food and flowers – were conspicuously empty. The Bible, it turned out, was in Sanskrit, ‘because people like the sound of Sanskrit’. Did he understand Sanskrit? No. There was a small library: mostly the Vedas, some Christian literature.

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