The Spirit of the Founders of Shantivanam

My dear friends and fellow Oblates,

We are here this morning to reflect and share together the spirit and legacy bequeathed to us by the three founders of Saccidananda Ashram, Shantivanam namely: Fr. Jules Monchanin (Parama Arubi Ananda), Fr. Henri Le Saux (Swami Abhishiktananda) and Fr. Bede Griffiths (Swami Dayananda). We want to get an understanding of the spirit that motivated and animated them in leaving their countries of origin and coming to India to begin an entirely radical way of living their Christian and religious life. They founded Shantivanam as an expression of their call to live a contemplative life modeled on the spirit of India. Our purpose today in recounting the tenor of their lives is not possibly to found other ashrams but rather to get a grasp of the ideals and values they cherished for the purpose of realizing the core purpose of their life which was to be united with God.

The core founders of the Shantivanam were Fr. Monchanin and Fr. Henri Le Saux or Swami Abhishiktananda. Both Monchanin and Le Saux, though hailing from the same country, France, were unknown to each other before they came together at Kulitalai in 1948. But through the mysterious designs of Providence they were brought together to begin a life of contemplation with the framework of Indian spirituality. It was a pioneering effort that was meant to open the eyes of the Church in India even before the Second Vatican Council proposed greater openness towards other religions. They founded Saccidananda ashram, Shantivanam in March 1950 with the blessing of the bishop of Tiruchirappally having the sole aim of “being simply in the presence of God” in line with Christian monasticism and Indian Sannyasa. Ideologically they were in perfect harmony as both of them were drawn by India and its spirituality. It was, however, in working out their practical life at Shantivanam that differences surfaced between Monchanin and Abhishiktananda. Monchanin had belonged to the intellectual class among the clergy of Lyon in France and was given much to deep thinking and reflection. Besides, the streak of contemplation that marked his life right from childhood, made him less suited to the nitty-gritty of practical life in laying the foundations of an ashram. In this respect his colleague, Fr. Le Saux, was better qualified with his long experience as a Benedictine monk at Kergonan monastery in France. Secondly, Monchanin had to deal with acute health problems which had dogged him from childhood. The asthmatic attacks got aggravated while living in Shantivanam and before long doctors diagnosed a tumor that was dangerously becoming cancerous. Finally in 1957 he had to be taken to Paris to undergo surgery at the earliest. It was while being treated in Paris that he succumbed to his ailment and breathed his last on 10th October 1957. It was a most untimely ending of a visionary whose vision was now left in the hands of Abhishiktananda to fulfill. But unfortunately, he was disheartened by the poor response the local Church gave to the efforts the two French monks had been making to present a life of contemplation after the manner of Indian Sannyasa. The local Church in Tamil Nadu, on the other hand,  was in no mood to adopt the out of the way style of the Swamis of Shantivanam whom most Catholics, priests and nuns failed to see as living the Indian heritage but instead considered them to be compromising with Hinduism. They had got so used to the Western model of Christianity that any move towards a dialogue with Hinduism could not be accepted by them.

After being absent from Shantivanam for long periods during which Abhishiktananda made deep inroads into Hindu spirituality through advaita, he finally asked Fr. Francis Achariya of Kurisumala to take over Shantivanam and left for the Himalayas, never to return. It was then in 1968 that Fr. Bede Griffiths came to Shantivanam and took into his hands the legacy left there by the two founders. Under his guidance and inspiration, the new venture into Indian spirituality by Christians came to be known all over the world. Truly, it was Fr. Bede who played a vital role in passing on the message of the two pioneers who preceded him at Shantivanam and enhanced it with his own unique stamp on it. Fr. Bede Griffiths is, therefore, considered as the third founder in view of the extraordinary contribution he made in diffusing the spirit of Shantivanam to the world.

Raymondo Panikkar saw the leadership of Shantivanam as Trinitarian: “Jules Monchanin as founder, Swami Abhishiktananda as transformer and Bede Griffiths as reformer. The three were so different that the friends of the first were rather critical of the second and the followers of the second were not tuned in to the third. And yet the three were great and holy. As a friend of the three I can vouch for this.” From what unfolded at Shantivanam over the years that followed, we know that each of the founders of Shantivanam played a unique role in laying down a legacy for the ashram movement to be taken up by monks or nuns or Oblates anywhere in the world.

An unquenchable thirst for God is what characterizes each of the founders in the foundation of Shantivanam and its ashram life style. It was undoubtedly the most predominant motivation that urged them to let go of familiar surroundings and cultural moorings to come to India and adopt a style of life totally unheard of for Catholic priests in Europe at that time. Each of them had set their hearts on India and surmounting enormous obstacles by the grace of God they had come to occupy the Promised Land of their dreams. Christianity in the West had by then lost the spirit of mysticism and had reduced itself to defined dogmas, rituals, pious practices as well as charitable services. But it was sadly lacking in genuine God experience. This was the very reason that prompted the mystics of old to withdraw themselves to the desert to contemplate God. Our founders found their desert in India where there prevailed an attitude of search for the ultimate reality beyond everything known. Monchanin’s temperament, intellect and education had prepared him to open himself to grace and enter into the contemplative tradition of India which is at the root of the most fundamental institutions here. Writing to his mother he said: God has transplanted me. I want to sink myself into this silence, to be only adoration and praise. I have said goodbye to the West and have come to an unknown land. I am filled with praise for this land that God has chosen for me. How I wish that from my life and from my death a contemplative life in the Trinity be born which will assume, purify and transform all the thought, all the art and all the millennia of India’s experience…! And Fr. Bede Griffiths writes on Monchanin: “His was essentially the vocation of a silent, solitary contemplative, a little like one may say that of Charles de Foucauld.”

We see something similar taking place in the life of Swami Abhishiktananada too. Although he was absolutely loyal to his monastery of Kergonan and very committed to it as a monk, he admitted to his distaste for the monastery and disenchantment with the Church at that time. Despite all the discipline and regularity of monastic life, life in the monastery did not fulfill him. He laid bare his thoughts to his sister Louisette: “It was in my deep dissatisfaction that my desire to come to India was born.” His earnest desire was to establish the contemplative monastic life in India in a completely Indian form, failing which, to live a contemplative life in India as a hermit.

Abhishiktananda writing to his friend in 1952 said: “My ideal would be to have an ashram Hindu in form where Hindus and Christians, each in his cell, would hold silent communion in the quest of the unique.” His own deepest prayer was: “Beyond, always beyond! It is not your gifts, Lord, that I desire but yourself.” Writing to his sister Louisette, Swamiji writes: “One is not on earth to enjoy oneself. We are on earth to love the good Lord, to respond a little to the love that He has offered us.”

Going through the life of Fr. Bede Griffiths too we see in him a man who was a on a search for truth right from his young days. He came to possess a deep love for nature and sensed the Transcendent Mystery in it even as a young man. It awakened in him the sense of the sacred and the sacramentality of everything. He speaks explicitly of it in his first book, ‘The Golden String’: “I felt the presence of the Spirit in nature…Every form and aspect of nature spoke to me of an invisible presence, something undefined and mysterious which was reflected in the faces of the flowers and the movements of the birds and animals, in the sunlight falling through the leaves and in the sound of running water, in the wind blowing in the hills and the wide expanse of the earth and sky.” (G.S. 28) Then one day the words of St. John struck him deeply: “Not that we loved God, but that He loved us” (1Jn.4:10). He experienced waves of love flow through him and he stayed in that state for hours. It did not take him long to discern that God had something in mind for him. Before long he felt drawn to the Catholic Church and embraced Catholicism at Prinknash monastery and it was followed by his entrance into it as a full-fledged monk. According to the designs of Providence he met a Benedictine monk from India, Fr. Benedict Alappatt, who had an earnest desire to begin a Benedictine monastery in India. He had already been desirous of exploring the prospects that lay in India for his spirituality. He felt that his journey to India would open up a new horizon in his search for self realization. Hence he joined Fr. Benedict and traveled to India in March 1955. On his arrival, Bede felt at one with the Indian people and began to discover the dimension he had found missing in the West, ‘the other half of his soul.’

The foundation of a Benedictine monastery could not be materialized owing to canonical problems which led Fr. Bede to Fr. Francis Achariya in Kerala and founded Kurisumala Ashram in 1958. Fr. Bede Griffiths came to be well known to many in Kerala for his affability and wisdom. I remember my own uncle speaking about having met Fr. Bede at Kurisumala and the good impression he had made on him way back in early 1960s. I never imagined that I would come personally under his magnetic influence in 1989. Anyone who knew Fr. Bede felt the aura of God in him. It was sufficient to have a brief conversation with him to experience that. His very appearance gave him away as someone special – a holy man, a man of God. Russel Paul towards whom Fr. Bede had developed a father-son relationship, was struck by his praying and testified to this saying: “It really fascinated me, because I was so much aware of his deep communion with nature and with God. Every time he moved away from people I sensed that deep communion with God, with reality, whatever. It was really then that I began to feel a kind of awe about him, his presence as a person. I realized I was in the presence of an extraordinary being; somebody who had become not just the Abbot of a monastery or somebody who had become a spiritual father to me, but somebody who was far more than that.” It is obviously clear from what has been said so far, that intense thirst for the Absolute and holiness of life are indispensable qualities for anyone desiring to trace the path of the founders of Shantivanam.

The founders named their ashram “Ashram of the Holy Trinity” Saccidananda Ashram. Contemplation for Monchanin was not any kind of contemplation. It was first and foremost the contemplation of the Trinity. The doctrine of Trinity speaks of unity of essence and distinction of persons. Looking at the lives of the founders of Shantivanam we can observe how they reflect the Holy Trinity in the distinction that exists between them as persons and the unity of purpose they possessed. The aim of the ashram was primarily the contemplation of Saccidananda. They sought God not only as an absolute transcendent being but also as immanent through the incarnation in Jesus Christ. In this effort Monchanin was uncompromising and firm in his opinion. “Christian mysticism is Trinitarian”, he says “or it is nothing. Hindu thought, so profoundly centered on the uniqueness of the One, could not be sublimated into Trinitarian thought without a crucifying dark night of the soul.” Monchanin defines the relationship existing in the Trinity as ‘esse ad alterum’ (being for the other). The notion of person in the Trinity is being for the other Persons of the Trinity. We see Monchanin’s thought in stark contrast with Hindu thought which is the thought of the One in its uniqueness whereas Trinitarian theology thinks of the One as communion. Monchanin believed that only the Trinity can fulfill the expectations of India.  India,” he says, “has always oscillated between monotheism and polytheism, as between a personal God and a Divine impersonal. India must come to know the mystery of the Trinity with all its implications. We have the great Christian revelation that will teach the Indian that God is a gift, God has a life. God is essentially communication of self to self. God is not impersonal but tri-personal; God is Father, Word and Spirit.” The greatest drawback of advaita according to Monchanin is that it cannot take love into account because the language of love is unity-in-distinction. For him, in the love that circulates among the three persons, there is indeed unity of nature, the divine essence, but also distinction of Persons and in this sense the love between the Father and the Son cannot be said to be non-dual (advaita). Incidentally, Swami Vivekananda is said to have remarked that Shankara the proponent of Advaita was wanting in compassion.

Cardinal Henri de Lubac who was an intimate friend of Monchanin wrote as his homage to him on his passing: “God granted us the opportunity to see to what a point the Spirit of God possessed him; to what a point he lived in truth that mystery of the Trinity that was the object of his so acute reflection…” However it may be said that in his Trinitarian view, Monchanin gave central place to Christ the Word Incarnate. He aligned himself to the teaching of St. Paul in 1Cor.15:28: “When everything will have been subjected to him, the Son himself will submit to him who subjects everything. From then on, Christ will be all in all. Monchanin called it Panchristism which is the recapitulation of the cosmos and history in Christ and their culmination in submission of all in Christ and of Christ to God. Quite naturally he had great difficulty in dealing with the One and the Many in Hinduism.

Swami Abhishiktananada, on the other hand, was enamored of Advaita after his initial breakthrough experience at Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai. We have in him Trinity vis-à-vis Advaita in practice. He defined Advaita thus: “It means precisely this: neither God alone, nor the creature alone, nor God plus the creature but an indefinable non-duality which transcends at once all separation and all confusion. In reality advaita is already present at the root of Christian experience. It is simply the mystery that God and the world are not two.” He complained that Christianity had lost the streak of Advaita in its core teaching and turned aside to rituals and practices of devotion only. He lamented: “Western Christianity has always been in defiance and in fear of the beyond, the interior beyond all. What richness Christianity could bring to mankind if the Upanishadic texts could be enlightened by the light of Christ!”

Swami Abhishiktananda was endorsed in his spiritual path by his Guru Swami Gnanananda from Tirukoilur. Finally, compelled by his desire for solitude to pursue the Hindu-Christian meeting point he had arrived at, coupled with the failure he experienced at Shantivanam in developing the ashram according to his expectations, Abhishiktananda left South India for the solitude of the Himalayas. He sought always to go deeper into his experience of Advaita until it exploded in him in the form of a heart attack at Rishikesh on July 12, 1973. He had arrived at true enlightenment by then. He struggled for 25 years seeking the unifying point between Christianity and advaita. He saw it as “the specific, if not the only way by which the Church may survive its appalling crisis.” It was a tension that he had to hold for long between Hinduism and Christianity. But he felt that his pain had value for others if he was to be a bridge between the two religions. He writes: “If, to be a Hindu with Hindus I had become a complete sannyasi, I would have been unable to communicate either the Hindu message to Christians or the Christian message to Hindus”. He took it upon himself as his mission in India to communicate the Hindu message to Christians. “We have to be among Hindus, both physically and spiritually, so as to gather the honey for the Church and to pass it on, while awaiting the hour when Christians as a whole will be capable of gathering it themselves.” Although agonizing over the struggle he was experiencing between his Christianity and Hinduism, he never once wavered in his love for Christ. In 1972 he was able to write: “The Christian experience is truly the advaitic experience lived in the human communion.” Abhishiktananda’s spirituality centers on his experience of non-duality. The seriousness of his struggle with the traditions of Christianity and of Hinduism is what characterizes it. He saw the Hindu tradition not only as something good in itself but as an expression of the manifold and mysterious revelation of God to humanity, a means whereby he and other Christians no less than his Hindu brethren, would discover the absolute mystery which alone gives meaning to human life.

Fr. Bede too arrived at the conclusion that he had become an advaitin. However, he did not share Abhishiktananda’s attitude to the reconciliation of advaita with Christianity. Bede, according to his biographer, Sherly Du Boulay, could not accept a concept of advaita which denies the reality of the world, the differences disappearing into a formless, undifferentiated, void. For him advaita meant not losing the differences but transcending them. He had earlier written to his friend Nigel Bruce as follows: “It seems to me that we have ultimately to go beyond all forms of thought, even beyond the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, etc….Truth itself is beyond all forms of thought. All meditation should lead into silence, into the world of non-duality when all the differences and conflicts in this world are transcended – not that they are simply annulled but they are taken up into a deeper unity of being in which all conflicts are resolved.” But we notice a shift in his position about advaita in his letter to Russel Paul later: “The lived experience of the mysteries of faith is the way to the final reality and not the Hindu advaita. This is not to say that many may not come to final reality through Hindu advaita or Budhist sunyata but for a Christian the way is through Christ and the Church. I should add that for me there is a Christian Advaita in which the mysteries of faith are not lost but finally realized.”

Our founders, therefore, are inviting us is to make our lives a contemplation of the Trinity. Perhaps not many among us may share the experience of Advaita like Sri Ramana Maharshi or Swami Abhishiktananda. But certainly the majority of us are called to draw closer to the mystery of the Holy Trinity and find ourselves being overwhelmed by the love that engulfs us from the Divine persons. Like Christ our Lord descended from the Mountain of his Transfiguration, we ought to embrace the ordinariness of daily life and see the presence of God in it and manifest Christ the Incarnate God to those who come within our range of influence. This is eminently brought out in the lives of Monchanin and Bede Griffiths who were easily accessible to all and descended to the level of the common man in bringing the Trinitarian presence to them. By no means should we allow ourselves to pursue an abstract, impersonal God with whom we cannot relate. The Trinity manifests the essence of Godhead as relationship. We can allow divine love to flow only through a contemplative consciousness. This is the transformed mind that allows us to see God in everything. Mystical moments are those experiences that overcome the gap between you and other people, events or objects or even God where the illusion of separation disappears. Spirituality consists in looking with a different pair of non-dual eyes beyond what Thomas Merton calls “the shadow and disguise” of things until we can see them in their connectedness. God becomes in a real sense just a synonym for everything. We recall the words of the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “The earth is crammed with heaven, every common bush afire with God. He who sees takes off his shoes. Others sit around it and pluck black berries.”

The second legacy left to us by the founders is their simplicity of life. It is an undisputed fact that the Western evangelizers of India brought to it a version of Christianity that was nothing but a replica of it from the Western lands they came from. In other words, they clothed Christianity with the Western dress. It was Brahmabandhav Upadhyay who was a convert from Hinduism to Catholicism at the early part of the twentieth century who first tried to meet the need for an Indian interpretation of Christianity. Unfortunately, it was met with stiff resistance by the then Church leaders in India and hence had to be abandoned. In this context the founding of Saccidananda ashram, Shantivanam in 1950 was the fulfillment of that aspiration. We can see in it a definitive move towards adaptation to local cultures that would be set in motion by the Vatican Council which would follow shortly. Monchanin and Abhishiktananda grasped the ideal of Indian spirituality and Sannyasa to be the way of asceticism and simplicity. Being authentic to the core in all respects, from the very outset of their life in Shantivanam they adopted simplicity in living to the letter: living in plain huts made from coconut leaves; they wore the plain kavi dress worn by sannyasis, ate with their hands from banana leaves and slept on mats on the floor. All the three, including Bede Griffiths, believed that monks should live as simply as their neighbors if they are to claim to be men of self-denial and asceticism. History tells us that the way of simplicity and poverty has been the typical characteristic of all men and women of true spirituality from time immemorial. The Divine Master had declared in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” All God seekers in all religions have been following the path of simplicity down the centuries. It was specially highlighted and brought to the fore by St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century. And it has ever remained the accepted norm of life for any truth seeker in India at all times.

Fr. Bede Griffiths too adopted the way of asceticism and simplicity right from his young days as a student. We read of it in his autobiography, ‘The Golden String’. Hence when he entered the Benedictine order he was least surprised by the simplicity he found in the monastery and welcomed it whole heartedly. Bro. George who collaborated with Fr. Bede from the early years of the ashram and now lives a retired life at Shantivanam testifies how particular Fr. Bede was in maintaining poverty and simplicity in the structures he put up at the ashram. Fr. Bede would not permit him to set up a ceiling fan in his room despite the scorching heat saying that the villagers did not have such a comfort in their homes. Nor would he allow replacement of coconut leaves as roof with tiles unless it was found to be economically feasible after prolonged study.

Another feature of their spirit in which all the three founders concurred was concerning the aim of the ashram, namely to lead a form of contemplative life based on the traditions of Christian monasticism and Hindu Sannyasa; renunciation of the world in order to seek God. They sought not only to establish a contemplative life at Shantivanam but wanted it to be a place of meeting between Hindus and Christians, between people of all religions or of none, between all people who are seeking God. This characteristic of openness to all religions and being engaged in dialogue with them existed right from the beginning of the ashram. Those of us who lived with Fr. Bede know how he went out of his way in opening the ashram to people from all walks of life, including those at the margins of society. He longed also to bring Indian spirituality, with its emphasis on interiority to Christian life and to contribute to the development of a genuine Indian Christian liturgy and theology. It was not about conversion or triumphalism but about exchange, respect, giving and sharing. Fr. Bede was convinced that one religious tradition should never be considered better than another but simply a different way to God. The lifestyle of Shantivanam was established by 1970 and it has continued to remain essentially the same since then.

The simplicity of life the Founders embraced paved the way for the experience of interiority that is intrinsic to a life of contemplation in India. The experience of Advaita which played a vital role in the lives of each of them was primarily an experience of interiority. Confronted with the strong wave of activism in Christian Europe they came to the East, to India, seeking to withdraw to what is most inward within oneself – “the cave of the heart” as the Upanishads call it, where God dwells as the living source of one’s being. The manner in which Monchanin, Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths lived out their search for God in the context of Indian spirituality forms the bedrock of our life as Monks or Oblates of Shantivanam today. Each of them sought to contextualize their Christian faith in the light of Hinduism that dominates Indian spirituality. The Upanishadic experience has nothing to do with any religion, even less is it confined to one cultural or philosophical background. It is beyond all that, the ultimate awakening of the human spirit. Whether we live in India or in any other part of the world our utmost concern ought to be to seek God with all our heart in simplicity and utmost sincerity. In this task we shall require a good blending of the East and the West in arriving at a balanced spirituality. There are many who are disappointed with Christianity in the West and come to India to search for what is missing in it. In actual fact what they miss in Christianity is the experience of Christ. If coming into touch with the spirituality of India can help to give that experience to them, it would definitely serve the purpose. Unfortunately many get latched on to the theory of advaita under one guru or another and never arrive at the experience of it because that presupposes grace and real longing for God.

Fr. Monchanin and Swami Abhishiktananda realized right from the outset of setting up Shantivanam that the ultimate ground of meeting between the Church and Hinduism must take place not in the realm of thought but in that of contemplation. Behind all the Hindu philosophy, behind its entire search to know God, there is a still more profound impulse to experience the reality of God, to participate in the very reality of God. Unless the Church can answer this desire, unless she can show not merely that she possesses the true knowledge of God but also that she can lead a soul to the experience of truth, to that wisdom that surpasses all understanding, she can never reach the soul of India. This was the ideal upheld loftily by Shantivanam. It was a school of contemplative life in India which would correspond with the most profound aspirations of the Indian soul in order to lead India to the fulfillment of its quest for the experience of God by showing that it could be found in Christ.

Fr. Bede admitted that this initiative in the contemplative life met with practically no response from Indian Christian society. “Indian Catholicism appears to be still too deeply rooted in the fear of Hinduism, a fear based on ignorance, to be able to make this contact with Hindu tradition at its deepest level. Only when the contemplative life has taken root and begun to grow in this way may we hope for that contact with the living sources of Hindu spirituality by which the Church may ultimately be enriched. India must find the answer to her own quest for God in Christ and she must find it her own way. It must come as the fulfillment of her own tradition, the end to which God has been leading her by secret ways from the beginning of history.”

A Tamil priest friend of Fr. Monchanin once remarked: “What we have against your ashram is that it has been necessary for you who are Europeans to come and show us by your life what we Tamilians should have realized 50 years ago.” We have just been studying the lives of three European priests who left aside their Western culture and Western ways of life and made themselves one with India and its culture to the extent they were capable of. For both Indians and friends from the West as well, there is a message from the Founders of Shantivanam. Saccidananda ashram, Shantivanam is not merely a geographical space but rather it goes beyond space and time. It stands for a way of life that is proper of true human beings who are awake to reality. The founders modeled their lives to obtain the best outcome of being in union with God. That ultimate purpose remains the same for all of us in every walk of life, wherever we may live and that is to live in the awareness of that Great Presence. True contemplation is to trust, to surrender and delight in that Presence. Hence to seek God with every fiber of our being, to adopt a simple form of life that is part and parcel of a serious quest for God and to recognize the ultimate reality of God’s presence as a Trinitarian one is to follow the trail of the founders, even though it may not correspond materially to the way they lived it. It is up to each of us who honor their memory and cherish the relationship we had with them either through their books or personally with Fr. Bede as some of us here were privileged, to sincerely adopt a life style that will lead us to the destiny the founders realized in their lives.



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