A Christian Ashram
The Second Vatican Council, in its declaration on “Non-Christian Religions”, said that “the Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” and encouraged Catholics to “recognize, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral values as well as the social and cultural values to be found among them.” Following this direction the All India Seminar in 1969, which was attended by the whole hierarchy and representatives of the whole Catholic Church in India, spoke of the “wealth of truth, goodness and beauty in India’s religious tradition” as “God’s gift to our nation from ancient times.” The seminar showed the need of a liturgy “closely related to the Indian cultural tradition,” and theology “lived and pondered in the vital context of the Indian spiritual tradition.” In particular, the need was expressed to establish authentic forms of monastic life in keeping with the best traditions of the Church and spiritual heritage of India.
Among the gifts given by God to India, the greatest was seen to be that of Interiority: the awareness of the presence of God dwelling in the heart of every human person and every creature, which is fostered by prayer, meditation, contemplative science, the practice of yoga and Sannyasa. “These values” it was said, “belong to Christ and are a positive help to an authentic Christian life.” Consequently it was said, “Ashrams where authentic incarnational Christian spirituality is lived, should be established, which should be open to non-Christians so that they may experience genuine Christian fellowship.” The aim of our ashram, therefore, following these directions of All India Seminar, is to bring into our Christian life the riches of Indian spirituality, to share in that profound experience of God which originated in Vedas, was developed in the Upanishads and Bahagavad Gita, and has come down to us today through a continual succession of sages and holy men and women. From this experience of God lived in the context of an authentic Christian life, it is hoped that we may be able to assist in the growth of a genuine Indian, Christian liturgy and theology.
Saccidananda Ashram, Shanttivanam, the ashram of the Holy Trinity, was founded in 1950 by two French Fathers, Jules Monchanin, who took the name of ParamaArubiAnanda (the bliss of the Supreme Spirit) and Henri Le Saux, who took the name of Abhishiktananda (the bliss of Christ). By taking these names and giving the ashram the name “Saccidananda” “Being, Consciousness and Bliss”a Hindu term for the Godhead used as a symbol of the three persons of the Christian Trinity, they intended anticipating the Second Vatican Council and the All India Seminar, to show that they sought to identify themselves with the Hindu “search for God”, the quest for the Absolute, which has inspired monastic life in India from the earliest times: they also intended to relate this quest to their own experience of God in Christ in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Unfortunately, Father Monchanin died in 1957 before the ashram couldbe properly established, and Swami Abhishiktananda, after remaining for some time alone at Shantivanam, eventually settled as a hermit in the Himalayas, where he died in 1973.
Upon Swami Abhishiktananda’s departure in 1968, the ashram was taken over by a group of monks led by Fr.Bede Griffiths from Kurisumala Ashram in Kerala. Since 1980 Shantivanam has been part of the Benedictine Order as a community of the Camaldoese Benedictine Congregation. On the feast of St.Romuald, 19th June 1985, two Indian Brothers made their solemn monastic profession and one his temporary vows as members of the Order. Fr.Bede Griffiths passed away on 13th May at 04.30 p.m 1993. At present the community consists of ten permanent members, one student, two novices and three postulants.
A PLACE OF PRAYER
The aim of the ashram is to establish a way of contemplative life, based on the traditions of Christian monasticism and of Hindu Sannyasa. Hinduism has a tradition of Sannyasa, renunciation of the world in order to seek God or in Hindu terms ,”liberation” which goes back many centuries before the birth of Christ and continues to the present day. Our aim at Shantivanam is to unite ourselves with this tradition as Christian Sannyasis.
Our life is based on the Rule of St.Benedict, the patriarch of Western Monasticism and on the teaching of the monastic Fathers of the Church, but we also study Hindu Doctrine (Vedanta) and make use of Hindu methods of prayer and meditation (Yoga). In this way, we hope to assist in the meeting of these two great traditions of spiritual life by bringing them together in our own experience of prayer and contemplation.
In externals, the community follows the customs of a Hindu ashram, wearing the saffron colour robe of the sannyasi (Kavi), sitting on the floor and eating with the hand. In this way, we seek to preserve the character of poverty and simplicity which has always been the mark of the sannyasi in India. A distinctive feature of the life is that each monk lives in a small thatched hut which gives him a great opportunity for prayer and meditation and creates an easy atmosphere of solitude and silence. There are two hours specially set apart for meditation, the hours of sunrise and sunset, which are traditional times for prayer and meditation in India. The community meets for prayer three times a day, in the morning after meditation, when the prayer is followed by the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, at midday and in the evening. At our prayer we have readings from the Vedas, the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita as well as from Tamil classics and other Scriptures, together with psalms and readings from the Bible, and we make use of Sanskrit and Tamil songs (Bhajans) accompanied by drums and cymbals. We also make use of “arati” waving of lights before the Blessed Sacrament, and other Indian customs, which are now generally accepted in the Church in India. In this way we hope to assist in the growth of an Indian liturgy according to the mind of theChurch today.
A PLACE OF MEETING
The ashram seeks to be a place of meeting for Hindus and Christians and people of all religions or none, who are genuinely seeking God. For this purpose a guest house has been built, where both men and women can be accommodated for retreat, recollection and for religious dialogue and discussion. There is a good library, which is intended to serve as a study centre. It contains not only books on the Bible and Christian Philosophy and theology but also a representative selection of books on Hinduism, Buddhism, other religions and a general selection on Comparative Religion.We receive many visitors from different parts of India and from all over the world, who are seeking God by way of different religious traditions and we seek to respond to them by providing an atmosphere of calm quiet for study and meditation. No charge is made, but guests can make an offering to cover their expenses.
For those who seek to become permanent members of the community, there are three stages of commitment to the life of the ashram. The first is that of “sadhaka” that is the seeker or aspirant. The second is that of “Brahmachari” that is one who has committed himself to the search for God, who need not remain permanently attached to the ashram. The third is that of “Sannyasi”, that is one who has made a totaland final dedication, when the Kavi dress is given and he is committed for life to the search for God in renunciation of the world, of family ties and of himself, so as to be able to give himself entirely to God. This however need not involve a permanent stay in the ashram but in accordance with Indian traditions the sannyasi is free to wander or go wherever the Spirit may lead him.
The ashram is attentive not only to spiritual seekers but is also conscious of the poor and the needy neighbours in the surrounding villages. Though the ashram’s primary call is to discover “the kingdom of God within”, it is also deeply proactive to the cry of the poor in their milieu through the words of Jesus “whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters that you do unto me.” The ashram runs a Home for the Aged and Destitute; involved in educating the children of the poorest; provides milk to the children, who are below three years to fight the malnutrition; and repairs/builds the houses for the homeless. Thus the ashram gives free boarding and lodging and medical care to 25 aged and the destitute. There are poor and deserving children who receive books, school uniforms and clothes every year. We care for the children below three years of age by providing additional cow’s milk. If you desire to be the part of ashram’s mission to the poor, you may kindly contact the guest master or Superior by email address.
The ashram supports itself partly by cultivating 8 acres of land in its possession; by a dairy farm and from the contributions received from the visitors and well-wishers. In our serious efforts to support ourselves and the poor around, we constantly remind ourselves, the visitors and the poor we serve that the ashram is primarily a place of prayer, where they can experience the presence of God in their lives and know that they were created not merely for this world but for eternal life and where they find God.
SYMBOLS USED IN THE LITURGY
In our prayer, we make use of various symbols drawn from Hindu tradition, in order to adapt our Christian prayer and worship to Indian sacred traditions and customs according to the mind of the church today.
In the Morning Prayer, we use“Sandal paste.” Sandal wood is considered the most precious of all woods, and it is therefore seen as a symbol of Divinity. As it also has a sweet fragrance, it is perceived as a symbol of divine grace. We place it on the forehead or the handsas a way for consecrating the body and its parts to God. It is also a symbol of the unconditional love of God as it gives its fragrance even to the axe that cuts it. We, as we put it on our forehead, are reminded that we too need to thatgive that unconditional love of God to all in our daily living.
At the Midday prayer, we use the purple powder known as “Kumkumum”. This is placed on the space between the eyebrows and is a symbol of the “Third Eye”. The third eye is the eye of wisdom. Our two eyes are the eyes of duality, which see the outer world and the outer self, whereas the third eye is the inner eye which sees the inner light according to the Gospel, “if thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” This single eye is the third eye, which was often marked on Greek icons of Christ, and is thus a universal symbol. In India the red colour is considered to be feminine, the mark of mother goddess. We consider that it symbolises the feminine wisdom which we attribute it Our Lady of Wisdom. It should be observed that Midday prayer is a wisdom prayer consisting of wisdom psalm (118) and a reading from one of the Books of Wisdom.
At the Evening Prayer we use ashes known as “Vibhuti”. The symbolism here is not merely that of Ash Wednesday. “Dust thou art, unto dust thou shalt return”, but has a deeper meaning. Ash is the final product of the matter from which the impurities have been burnt away. Placing the ashes on the forehead signifies that our sins and impurities have been burnt away and we have become the purified self.
At each of the prayers, we offer “Arati” before the Blessed Sacrament.Arati consists in waving of burning flame/ incense in a circular motion before any sacred object or person as a sign of honour worship. The root meaning of arati before the central shrine in the temple seems to be this: The inner sanctuary of a temple is always kept dark to signify that God dwells in “the Cave of the Heart.’ The burning flame waved before the shrine, as it were, reveals the hidden God. We wave theburning flame before the Blessed Sacrament to manifest, as it were, the hidden Christ. After that the flame is brought around and we then take the light of Christ to our eyes by placing the hand over the flame.
At the offertory of the Mass, we make an offering of the four elements: Water, Earth, Air and Fire. Every Hindu puja consists in the offering of the elements to God, as a sign of the offering of the creation to God. In the offertory therefore, we offer the four elements as a sign that the whole creation is being offered to God through Christ as a cosmic sacrifice. The celebrant first sprinkles water round the altar to sanctify it. After that he sprinkles water on the people to purify them. Then finally hetakes a sip of water to purify his inner self. Then he offers the fruits of the earth and work of human hands viz., the Bread and the Wine, and places eight flowers on the “Tali” the sacred plate on which the sacred gifts are offered. These eight flowers, which are offered with Sanskrit chants, represent the eight directions of space and signify that the Mass is offered in the “Centre” of the universe thus relating it to the whole creation. This is followed by anarati with incense representing the air and then with camphor representing fire. Thus the Mass is seen to be a cosmic sacrifice in which the whole creation together with all humanity is offered through Christ to the Father.
In our daily prayer, we make constant use of the sacred syllable “OM.” This word has no specific meaning. It seems to have been originally a form of affirmation rather like the Hebrew “Amen” used as a form of solemn assertion in the Gospel where Jesus says” “Amen I say to you….” Thus it came to be conceived as the primordial sound, the original Word, from which the whole creation came. In this it is a kin to the Word of St. John’s Gospel, of which it is said that it was in the beginning with God and without it nothing was made. In the Upanishads, it came to be identified with the highest Brahman,that is with the Supreme reality. Thus it is said: “I will tell you the Word which all the Vedas glorify, all self-sacrifice expresses, all sacred studies and holy life seek. That is OM, that Word is the everlasting Brahman,that Word is the highest end. When that sacred Word is known, all longings are fulfilled. It is the supreme means of salvation, It is the help supreme. When that great Word is known one is great in the heaven of Brahman. For us Christians, of course, that Word is Christ.
The Church is built in the style of a South Indian temple. At the entrance is a “Gopuram” or gateway on which is shown an image of the Holy Trinity in the form of “Trimurti”, a three headed figure, which according to Hindu tradition represents the three aspects of the Godhead: Creator, Preserver and Destroyer of the universe. This is taken as a symbol of the three Personsin one God of the Christian Trinity. The figure is shown emerging from a cross to show that the mystery of the Trinity is revealed to us through the Cross of Christ.
Between the gopuram and the “Mandapam” or outer court of the temple is a cross enclosed in a circle. The circle represents the cosmic mystery, “the Wheel of the Law(dharma)” of the Hindu and Buddhist tradition. The Cross at the centre of the circle signifies that the cross of Christ is the centre of the universe and human existence. At the Centre of the cross is the word OM which, in Hindu tradition is the Word from which the whole creation comes and through which we come to the knowledge of God, and is thus a fitting symbol of Christ the word of God.
In the mandapam or outer court of the temple, where the congregation assembles, there is a similar cross with the words “Saccidanandanamah” written on it in Sanskrit, that is “worship to Saccidananda.” Saccidananda is the name for Godhead in Hindu tradition as Being, Knowledge and Bliss. This is taken as a symbol of the Christian Trinity as “SAT – absolute being, the source of being in the Godhead and creation; as CIT-absolute “consciousness “ expressed in the word, the image of the Godhead, the self-manifestation of the One; as ANANDA “bliss”, the expression of the Joy of God, the fruit of love.
Over the doors which give access to the inner sanctuary or “Mulasthanam” there is an inscription in Sanskrit taken from the Upanishads: “Paramathstvamevaikonananyostijagatapate” which means “You are alone the Supreme Being; there is no other Lord of the world.” Under this are the words “Kurios Christos” –the Lord of Christ in Greek letters.
The inner sanctuary or “Garbagriha”, is always kept dark, to signify that God dwells in the darkness in the Cave of the Heart. There, is a stone altar with a tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament, the sign of the real presence of Christ is preserved. The Sacrament signifies the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, through which the worshipper is able to pass through death and resurrection and thus experience the new birth to eternal life. Through the resurrection an ascent is made to the “new creation”. This is represented by the “Vimana” above the sanctuary. At the base of the vimana are the figures of the four beasts of the Apocalypse, the Lion, the Ox, the Man and the Eagle. (Rev 4:7), which represent the whole creation redeemed by Christ. Above them are the figures of four saints, representing redeemed humanity, and above them are four figures of Christ in different postures seated on a royal throne “Simhasana” and surrounded by angels. Towards the East is the figure of Christ as King in the royal posture and beneath him is the figure of the Virgin Mary, as Queen of Heaven clothed with the Sun and the Moon and Stars at her feet (Rev.12:1) treading on the Serpent. The serpent has different meanings in the Bible. If it raises its hood, it is the symbol of human consciousness in harmony with God. If it is crawling on the ground, it is the symbol of human consciousness which has fallen from eternity into time. It is the symbol of the Ego. Mother Mary treading the serpent means that a virgin is one who stops this movement of the ego and opens it to the divine consciousness. Towards the North is Christ as Priest in the “Abhaya mudra” taking away fear and conferring grace and beneath him is St. Peter with the keys of the kingdom of heaven. To the South is Christ as Prophet or Teacher of the nations. Finally to the West is Christ as Contemplative in the posture of “Dhyana” of meditation and beneath him St. Benedict, the father of monks and founder of contemplative life in the west.
Above these figures of Christ and the saints is the throne of God, represented by the dome covered with peacock feathers and above this the Lotus, the symbol of purity supporting the “Kalasa” an ancient symbol of the four elements viz., Earth, Water, Air and Fire pointing upwards to the “Akasa” the space, in which God dwells “in inaccessible light.” Thus at the entrance of the temple the mind is directed to the mystery of the Godhead as three persons adored by angels. Then through the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection it is drawn to contemplate on the “new heaven and the new earth” which is the destiny of man, and beyond this the mind is finally turned to the ineffable mystery of the Godhead beyond name and form to which all earthly images are intended to lead us.