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ASHRAMS IN INDIA: CATHOLIC or NEW AGE?
NEW WEBSITE: OCTOBER 2005
NOTE: Information within brackets [ ] is either page number of the book that is being quoted from, or comments of the writer; [See pages 1, 2, 3, 4] in blue indicates references of the pages in this report; the more important of the page references -- that will throw further light on the subject -- in that group, are underlined [See pages 1, 2, 3, 4];
information within brackets ( ) comes along with the material being quoted from by me; bold/other font size or underlining are introduced by the writer as special emphases to engage the attention of the reader.
A Letter to the Vatican. Subject: ‘ New Age ’ in the Catholic Church in India:
In my May 2004 letter with the above title, written in connection with the 3rd February 2003 Vatican Provisional Report “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life, A Christian reflection on the ‘New Age’”, I had also noted: “ASHRAMS, & THE NATIONAL BIBLICAL CATECHETICAL AND LITURGICAL CENTRE [NBCLC]
The Ashram culture was originally meant to be or projected as an Indian Christian way of life and worship that would find mass appeal, and remove the impression that has been created that Christianity is a ‘foreign’ religion, in a country where just over 2% of the population has accepted Jesus Christ as Lord. But the actual history [as seen from the true believer’s point of view] is sadly different, and warrants close scrutiny from Rome. What it is now can be easily seen from the writings of any of the Benedictine or Jesuit priests or RSCJ [Sisters of the Sacred Heart] nuns connected with the ‘Ashram Movement’. It is difficult to see the unique monotheistic dualism of the Bible in the different shades of advaitic monism that colour all their ‘Christian’ writings.
From there it was just a short step to the New Age. One of the pioneers Fr. Bede Griffiths not only ended up as a yogi but also opened his center to New Agers from the West [one of whom wrote his famous New Age thesis in the Ashram]. Bede also traveled to Europe to participate in an international New Age conference. His teachings greatly influenced many people who, along with some of his former disciples, are today influential in the major religious congregations and Church hierarchy and who continue to promote the Hindu-isation of the Catholic Church in India. It is no coincidence that the founder of DHARMA BHARATHI is one of these disciples.
He [Swami Sachidananda Bharathi] met his first New Agers from the West at Bede’s Ashram. They have influenced his beliefs and his vision and he in turn now passes it on to our children [in Catholic educational institutions] through his organization which has the recognition and support of the CBCI. These Ashrams have not brought anyone to a saving knowledge of the Jesus Christ of the Bible. Rather, the use of gross iconology, cross-breeding of sacred religious symbols, yogic exercises, temple-dances and dubious rituals and liturgies of an inculturation gone awry that emerged from the Ashram culture and were disseminated in the Church through the NBCLC [which is located at Bangalore] continues to be one of the major reasons for Catholics leaving the Church.
The Ashram movement is nothing but a Hindu way of life thinly disguised as Christianity. It has opened the door to a multitude of evils which, as in the case of the other issues here already reported on by me, will be the subject of a detailed report from this writer in the near future.”
What follows here, from page number 2 onwards, is that detailed report, made after a December 2004 7-day visit to Saccidananda Ashram, Shantivanam. Certain sections of this write-up had been included in my earlier reports such as the one on Dharma Bharathi. The reader will therefore have to bear with a few repetitions, and also with seemingly irrelevant details which I believe must necessarily be included here so that the wider implications of the issue are not obscured. Copies of the above-referred “A Letter to the Vatican” were posted and/or sent by email to every Bishop, Archbishop and Cardinal listed in the 2004 Directory of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, over 160 in number. While a majority of the Bishops did not respond even to repeated despatches of the Letter, I am pleased to report that I did receive a few dozen encouraging replies from them, several of whom have continued their correspondence with me, and also from one Cardinal. In response to the ‘Letter’, this ministry also received scores of letters expressing support and solidarity from seminarians, priests and simple lay Catholics, from independent Catholic ministries, and from regional, national and international leaders in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Four months after the letter was received by over a dozen dicasteries of the Vatican, I received a rather discouraging response dated 7th September 2004 from Rome. It was from the Undersecretary, Pontifical Council of Culture. My reply dated 1st January 2005 has been circulated to selected readers, and can be made available to anyone who wants it. Meanwhile, this report on the Catholic Ashrams bears witness that the contents of my ‘Letter to the Vatican’ were accurate.
SACCIDANANDA ASHRAM, SHANTIVANAM
I wake up at 5:00 am to the soft chanting of the OM mantra and Hindu bhajans, and I am momentarily disoriented.
Where AM I? Realization dawns. The OM chant is carrying to me from the room of my German neighbour, up early for his meditation session, and the devotional music is from the loudspeaker of the distant village temple. But it may as well have been from the temple of the premises where I am staying. I leap out of bed remembering that I have much to do and learn that day, and in the days ahead. I have just spent my first night, [fighting off a host of spiders and creepy-crawlies that tried to invade my protective mosquito net], in a Catholic ashram.
SACCIDANANDA ASHRAM, which is said to mean ‘Ashram of the Holy Trinity’ in Sanskrit and is popularly known in Tamil as SHANTIVANAM, the ‘Forest of Peace’, is located at Thannirpalli, on the banks of the river Cauvery [Kaveri], a couple of kilometers from Kulithalai village in the Karur district of Tamil Nadu. “The sacred delta” [of the adjacent Kaveri river] “is positioned within a holy triangle whose apexes are marked off by three famous temples held in high regard by local Hindus,” says an American guide book whose authors arrange pilgrimages to the ashram.
The writer will use both names, Saccidananda Ashram as well as Shantivanam, alternatively.
The ashram is situated in the diocese of Tiruchirappalli [Trichy], and is about 30 kilometers from Trichy. It was founded in 1950 [12 years BEFORE Vatican Council II] by two French priests, JULES MONCHANIN, a diocesan priest from Lyon who took the name of Swami PARAMA ARUBI ANANDA[M] [‘the Bliss of the Supreme Spirit’ or ‘he who rejoices in the Formless’] and HENRI LE SAUX, O.S.B., a Benedictine who became SWAMI ABHISHIKTANANDA [a little known fact is that the full form was Abhishikteshvarananda, ‘the Bliss of ...’, or ‘he who rejoices in the Anointed One’, later shortened]. The local villagers called Monchanin ‘Thangkar Swami ’ or ‘Bhakta‘ [the Adorer]. Monchanin is referred to in ashram literature always as Monchanin, whereas Le Saux is almost always referred to as Abhishiktananda. Monchanin came to India in 1939 at the invitation of the indigenous Bishop James Mendonca of Trichy and served as parish priest of Kulithalai for ten years till he was joined in 1948 by Le Saux.
They christened the ashram SACCIDANANDA which literally is ‘Pure Being - Consciousness [Awareness/ Knowledge] - Bliss’ or SAT-CIT-ANANDA. Or, the Absolute Joy that proceeds from the Absolute Self-Realization of Absolute Being. This concept is equated with the Christian understanding of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, [see pages 32, 54, 61, 70, 72] with SAT being the Father, CIT the Logos or Word, and ANANDA the Holy Spirit that proceeds from them.
In naming the ashram as such: “a Hindu term for the godhead used as a symbol of the three persons of the Christian Trinity,” ashram literature explains that “they intended anticipating [!!!] the Second Vatican Council and the All-India Seminar [see below], to show that they sought to identify themselves with the Hindu ‘search for God’… and to relate this quest to their own experience of God in Christ in the mystery of the Holy Trinity.”
Monchanin died aged sixty-two in Paris on October 10, 1957, and Le Saux who left in 1968 to lead the solitary life of a hermit in the Himalayas, lived the days of his last illness and died December 7, 1973 at Yoga Niketan Ashram, Swami Yogeshwaranand’s centre in Uttarkashi, aged sixty-three.
BEDE GRIFFITHS, O.S.B., a Benedictine who had come to India in 1955 in search of “the other half of my soul” [see pages 17-18, 24, 48-49, 59] and co-founded Kurisumala Ashram at Vagamon in Kerala in 1958 [see pages 57, 65] with Francis Mahieu, [‘Francis Acharya’] a Belgian [born 1912] of the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance (Trappist), took over Shantivanam in 1968 [see pages 29, 32, 45-46]. Mahieu had come to India in September 1955.
Even in the ‘30s he had “felt a vocation to go to India, and had been fascinated by Monchanin who had visited his monastery in 1939.” Mahieu himself had, in November 1956, left Shantivanam where he had served with Monchanin and Le Saux, for a year, accused by Monchanin of being “rather a cause of division” between the two. He had received an invitation from a bishop of the Syro-Malankara Church in Kerala to start an ashram in his diocese.
Bede assumed the name of Swami DAYANANDA, [see page 57] the bliss of compassion. But, most interestingly, he is almost always referred to as Fr. Bede. Bede passed away at Shantivanam on 13th May 1993 after a series of strokes. After Bede’s death, “there is no guru in the ashram,” wrote Fr. Dominic, OSB in the golden jubilee  souvenir Saccidanandaya Namah [SN] published only in 2002 [see pages 4, 17, 18, 27, 28, 29, 40, 46, 54].
The tombs of Abhishiktananda, Bede, and his disciple Swami Amaldas, a yoga exponent, are adjacent to the temple.
In April 1955, Stephen, a native of Kulithalai, and in September 1956, a Fr. Dharmanadar sent by Bishop Mendonca joined the ashram. After Monchanin died, he wanted to move the ashram to Trichy. Le Saux objected, and he left. Likewise, Stephen, being attached to Monchanin, left and Le Saux was alone till he too moved out in 1968.
The Ashram was inaugurated on 21st March 1950, the feast of St. Benedict “with the blessing and approval” of Bishop Mendonca who said it was “the beginning of a new era in the history of religious life in India.” [SN]
The ashram brochure states that “The ashram is a community of spiritual seekers and a monastic community is in charge of the ashram. [It] is dedicated for contemplative life in the Benedictine tradition.”
According to the ashram literature, “The Second Vatican Council, in its declaration on non-Christian religions, [Nostra Aetate] declared 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, the direction of the All-India Seminar on the Church in India Today in 1969, [see pages 27, 29, 65, 91] which was attended by the whole of the hierarchy and representatives of the whole Catholic Church in India…. showed the need of a liturgy ‘closely related to the Indian cultural tradition’ and a theology ‘lived and pondered in the 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 the spiritual health of India’.”
This report will establish that Saccidananda Ashram has failed to be faithful to the mandate given to it by the Catholic Church in India. [The same can be said of the entire “ashram movement” in general.] Shantivanam describes itself not as a Catholic ashram but as a Christian ashram. However, if not for the celebration of the daily Mass, a visitor might find it hard put to distinguish it even as a Christian, leave alone a Catholic institution. The spiritual pot-pourri dished out would make one wonder if one was in some centre of religious experimentation, except that no Hindu ashram or other institution would dare to offer such a fare. One has come to expect to encounter such a situation only in a Catholic institution. What you get is syncretism, a whole lot of advaita garnished with New Age ideologies, a railing against all forms of dogmatism and organized religion [read as ‘the Catholic Church’], and a rejection of accepted teaching on Biblical revelation which is itself skillfully re-interpreted, and presented as a “New Vision of Christianity in the Third Millennium.”
This “Christianity” has simply no resemblance to the Christianity of the apostolic or any other tradition. What emerges from the teachings at the ashram is something I would label as ‘Ashram Theology’, since my research has shown that this approach and worldview is not confined to Shantivanam alone, but is adopted and propagated to a greater or lesser extent at the various Catholic ashrams in the country, including the NBCLC [see pages 10, 13, 31, 43, 68-69, 74].
THE AIMS OF THE ASHRAM
Ashram literature continues, “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 of every creature, which is fostered by prayer and meditation, by contemplative silence and the practice of yoga and sannyasa. These values belong to Christ and are a positive help to the 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 this [All India, 1969] Seminar, is to bring into our Christian life the riches of Indian spirituality, to share in that profound experience of God which originated in the Vedas, was developed in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-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… The aim of the ashram is to establish a way of contemplative life based alike on the traditions of Christian monasticism and of Hindu sannyasa, a renunciation of the world in order to seek God or, in Hindu terms, ‘liberation’… 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 …but we also study Hindu doctrine (Vedanta) and make use of Hindu methods of prayer and meditations (Yoga). In this way we hope to assist in the meeting of these two great traditions of spiritual life…”
The printed daily time-table does not list yoga as part of the curriculum though an old, permanent board near the dining-hall does. No one can really explain why. It seems that there is no yoga-knowledgeable person available to instruct the enthusiasts. Bro. John Martin Sahajananda, who is the community member that is most interactive with overseas visitors, and conducts the daily satsangh in the yoga hall, is afflicted with a severe back problem that prevents him from even squatting on the floor, leave alone adopting the postures of the yoga that he so much swears by.
We will observe how the freedom to experiment “in keeping with the best traditions of the Church and the spiritual health of India”, and private interpretations of “the mind of the Church today”, have led to numerous aberrations.
LIFE IN THE ASHRAM
The permanent members “follow the customs of a Hindu ashram, wearing the [kavi] saffron-coloured robe of a sannyasi…” [a dhoti, a seamless cloth wrapped around the waist and a matching shirt or a kurta. The older members wear no shirt but simply drape a cloth over their shoulders]. “Each monk lives in a small thatched hut which gives opportunity for prayer and meditation and creates an atmosphere of solitude and silence. There are two hours specially set apart for meditation, the hours of sunrise and sunset which are traditional times… in India.
“The community meets for common prayer thrice a day, in the morning after meditation when the prayer is followed by celebration of the Holy Eucharist, at midday and in the evening. At our prayer we have readings from the Vedas, the Upanishads and the 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 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 the church today. 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.”
Many of the buildings are ochre-coloured mud huts, indicating the renunciate life, symbolically ‘clothed with the sun’.
But the single-bed guest rooms like the one allotted to me during my stay from 15th to 21st December 2004 are not huts but regular constructions. My room has a dim low-wattage bulb and no fan. A pillow, a mattress placed on a wooden cot draped with a mosquito net, a table and a chair are the sparse furnishings. Toilets [Indian style] and bathing rooms are at the end of the corridor. However, the new guest-houses with double-bed rooms completed in mid-2004 are modern constructions with western bathroom facilities too, I am told. I observe that they are allotted to foreigners who are either regular visitors or are benefactors of Shantivanam and sponsors of its projects.
“No charge is made, but guests can make an offering to cover their expenses” says one brochure. Another booklet suggests that the offering for Indian guests is ‘around’ Rs 100 per day, with ‘around’ Rs. 200 for overseas guests. The ashram boasts a computer [they have email] and fax, none of which are available, to the best of my knowledge, for use by the guests. If one needs to avail of electronic services, one is expected to find their way to the village, or even to Trichy. The lighting in the compound is almost non-existent and one has to use a flashlight, or the light of the moon, to find one’s way around after sundown.
GENERAL ACTIVITIES: Guests may join in “cutting of vegetables after breakfast or in cleaning the temple, or working in the garden.” Smoking and drinking are taboo. One is free to follow the timetable [most do], or not.
The ashram cultivates its eight acres of land and has a small herd of cows which provide milk and are used for ploughing. Bro. George is in charge of the labourers and the farming activity. Ashram literature informs us that Shantivanam runs a tailoring centre for training women in the nearby village and another unit for providing employment to people, a home for the aged and destitute where they are provided free board, lodging and medical care; it distributes free notebooks and uniforms to deserving children, and eggs twice a week to over 450 children.
It reportedly also supports a nursery, builds homes for the poor and provides them free medicare. “But”, the leaflet affirms, the ashram “must above all be a place… where people can find God… and know that they were created not merely for this world but for eternal life.” Visitors are taken to the village to meet the people at the centres run and served by the Ashram. Some people believe that these are showpieces to obtain funds from foreign visitors.
Thomas Matus OSB [writing before Bede’s death] reported that the Ashram “owns a large building” in the village at the base of the Rock of Ayermalai [see page 36], about ten kilometres from the Ashram, and that along the nearby river they have a four-acre field which the Ashram bought the previous year “and on which they have a plan to build a hut for Father Bede. They have planted millet, peanuts and coconut palms.” [SN, 2002, pp. 170, 161]
Another source informs me that huge sums of foreign money are received for their projects, among which is a novitiate that was constructed at a considerable cost but is not put to the use for which it was intended. What is certain is that the local people do NOT go to Shantivanam for their spiritual needs but look at it, and the Church, as a social service organization run by some strange Christians whose religion is not very different from Hinduism.
SANDHYA VANDANA The time table shows the ‘Angelus’ at 5:00 am, 12:00 noon and 6:00 pm, but it is not any Angelus that Catholics are familiar with. For use during the liturgies, copies of a booklet titled ‘Sandhya Vandana‘ are available. Sandhya means ‘meeting point’, vandana means ‘chants of praise and worship’. So “three common acts of worship are held at dawn, noon and sunset, the junctures of the three divisions of the day.”
The manual states that they correspond to the monastic offices of Lauds, Sext and Vespers. “Hence they are based primarily on songs and readings from the Bible, according to the Syrian Christian and Latin Benedictine traditions. But the Christian prayer is always preceded by chanting in Sanskrit, the ancient sacred language of India, and by readings from the Scriptures of Hinduism…
“Sandhya also refers to the religious acts (yajnas) performed by Brahmins and the ‘twice-born’ at these three divisions of the day…. The ritual consists in sipping water and repeated invocations and mantras, especially the Gayatri Mantra [see pages 6, 7, 13, 67]. A connection is often made between sandhya and samadhi (unitive meditation), and in practice the ritual acts are intended to lead the soul into the silent worship of the Spirit within.” [Samadhi is the last of the eightfold stages in the practice of yoga when the self merges with the Self, Brahman].
“… And so our sandhya also means the meeting point of the Church’s liturgy and India’s heritage, of Christ and the rishis (the seers of ancient India), of East and West, in the secret place of the heart at prayer.”
All three times, prayer commences with the gayatri mantra which is always preceded by the OM mantra.
The Sign of the Cross is conspicuous by its complete elimination during any prayer. It is replaced by the OM.
Selected Psalms in English and Tamil are also used and they are printed in the booklet along with bhajans in seven Indian languages. A litany to Our Lady is used in the Wednesday and Saturday midday archanas, with as many OMs as there are invocations to her. There are several bhajans [hymns] too, dedicated to her.
At 5:30 am and again at 9:00 pm one practices ‘namajapa ‘, short ejaculations, probably the only prayers that exclusively use the name of Jesus Christ in praise of Him and are not prefixed with the ubiquitous OM.
For those who seek to become permanent members of the community there are three stages of commitment,
the first being that of sadhaka, seeker or aspirant; the next is the brahmachari who is committed to the search for God but need not be permanently attached to the ashram; and finally the sannyasi who has made a final and total dedication to God by a renunciation of family ties and the world and is given the kavi habit.
This too “need not involve a permanent stay in the ashram, but in accordance with Indian tradition he is free to wander as the spirit may lead him.” The ashram’s “primary call is to discover the kingdom of God within.”
Despite what are claimed to be the ‘aims of ashram life’ [see page 3], the last statement seems to be the closest to the truth, which leading ashram figure Vandana Mataji confirms: “To ‘become what you are’, to realise your true Self, Self-Realization is the unique goal… Finding the ‘Self in all things and all things in the Self’ is the unique goal of the ashram… To enable people to become God by entering into silence, is this not the raison d’etre of an ashram? [Find Your Roots and Take Wing, 1991, pages 57, 68, 70].
MEALS One squats on a mat on the floor in the dining hall under a large framed picture of Ramana Maharshi, [see pages 9, 27, 32, 33, 37, 43, 60, 66, 70, 79] and eats from a stainless steel tali. Food is simple and tasty, pure vegetarian and piping hot, served by the swamis and volunteers from among the visitors. The Grace before meals is a long drawn out chant of the OM mantra. All during the serving of the food, everyone intones OM SHAKTI  OM, PITRU SHAKTI, PUTRA SHAKTI, PARA SHAKTI OM. It is explained that chanting this OM SHAKTI [see pages 48, 58] is praising the energy in our food, the energy of the Father, the Son and “the Great Feminine Force”. There is an alternative Grace extracted from the Rig Veda, and yet another, also in Sanskrit, that proclaims ‘Jesus is the Lord, Christ is the Lord’, both of which I did not find in use during my week-long stay. The mantra after lunch and supper [Grace after meals] is AHAM VAISHVANARO BHUTVA / PRANINAM DEHAMASHRITAH / PRANAPANASAMAYUKTAH / PACCHAMYANNAM CHATURVIDHAM [Becoming the fire of life in the bodies of living creatures, and mingling with the upward and downward flow of breath, I digest the four kinds of food] – Bhagwad Gita 15, 14.
THE ASHRAM LITURGY AND ITS SYMBOLS
The New Leader in a full page article on Bede Griffiths in its ‘Saints for Today’ column, issue December 1-31, 2000, notes, “Bede experimented with yoga, meditation and other Indian spiritual disciplines.”
“In our prayer we make use of various symbols drawn from Hindu tradition in order to adapt our Christian prayer and worship to Indian traditions and customs according to the mind of the church today,” ashram literature states.
“In the morning prayer we use sandal paste. Sandalwood is considered the most precious of all woods and is therefore seen as a symbol of divinity. As it also has a sweet fragrance, it is seen as a symbol of divine grace. We place it on the head and hands as a way of consecrating the body and its members 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 are called to radiate the unconditional love of God in our daily living.
“At the midday prayer, we use the purple powder known as kumkumum. This is placed on the spot between the eyebrows and is a symbol of the ‘third eye’ [see page 49]. The third eye is the eye of wisdom. Whereas the two eyes are the eyes of duality which see the outer world and the outer self, 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*… In India, the red colour is said to be feminine, the mark of the mother goddess. We consider that it symbolizes the feminine wisdom… and apply it to Our Lady of Wisdom…. Midday prayer is a wisdom prayer consisting of wisdom Psalm (118) and a reading from one of the books of Wisdom.”
*The above verse from Matthew 6:22 is one of the most abused by New Agers. All accepted Bible translations say, “If your eye is sound/whole/good…”, but I have not seen a version that uses the word “single”, which is the favourite for those who need it to justify from the Bible the existence of the psychic ‘third eye’. I requested Fr. Paul OSB to show me where “according to the Gospel” they find the quoted verse. He said that he did not know. After a futile look into the Bible, he admitted to me that had believed that the verse was correctly quoted and interpreted.
“At the evening prayer, we use ashes [vibhuti]. The symbol here is not merely that of Ash Wednesday, ‘dust thou art and into dust thou shall return’ but has a deeper meaning. Ash is matter from which impurities have been burnt away. Placing the ashes on the forehead signifies that our sins and impurities have been burnt away and the ashes represent the purified self.
“At each of the prayers we offer ‘arati’ before the Blessed Sacrament. Arati consists in the waving of lights and incense as a sign of honour and worship. It may be done before any sacred thing or person. The root meaning of arati before the central shrine in a 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. When lights are waved before the shrine, it, as it were, reveals the hidden God. We wave lights before the Blessed Sacrament to manifest, as it were, the hidden Christ, and then we take the light of Christ to our eyes by placing the hand over the flame which is passed round to all...
“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. We first sprinkle water round the altar. Then we sprinkle water on the people to purify the people. “The priest then takes a sip of water to purify himself within. We then offer the fruits of the earth as the prayer of the offertory says, the bread and wine, and then eight flowers which are placed around the ‘tali ‘ on which the gifts are offered.’ The 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… We then do arati with incense representing the air, and 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.”
OM, OR AUM [see pp 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 13-14, 18, 21, 28, 32, 37, 42, 44, 45, 47, 51, 61, 66, 68, 69, 73, 75, 79, 80]***
“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 solemn assertion as when in the Gospels 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 akin 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 Word 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. When that great Word is known, one is great in the heaven of Brahman.’ For a Christian of course, that Word is Christ.” So explains the ashram’s literature. But others’ opinions differ.
According to Le Saux’ chapter OM in his book Prayer, OM is the highest mantra among the Hindus dating back to ancient Vedic times. It is the mantra par excellence for sannyasis and those called to deep contemplative prayer.
Monchanin wrote of OM: “The ultimate object of meditation of that which sinks into the ‘Beyond’ and symbol of the ineffable God and the Eternal Word which bursts forth from His silence.” [Ermites du Saccidananda, 179]
The OM mantra is the alpha and the omega, the heart and the soul of ashram life, Hindu or Catholic.
Bro. Martin, the major ideological influence at Shantivanam goes to great pains to explain this mantra [see page 21].
Vandana Mataji, a nun who founded two ashrams, writes on page 50 of Gurus, Ashrams and Christians, “In and around the Hindu ashrams in Rishikesh, often the only greeting one hears exchanged between the sannyasis is AUM. Every prayer begins with ‘AUM’ ands with ‘AUM SHANTI SHANTI SHANTI’. AUM or OM stands for the Logos.”
[There is NO such concept of the Logos, the Word Incarnate, in Hindu thought as there is in Christian theology.]
Quoting Fr. Raimundo Panikkar in Living with Hindus, pages 67, she says, “When Christians borrow OM or the gayatri mantra to chant, they are using a living symbol. They are further saying that the power of that symbol is not foreign to them… Through the gate of OM the Christian enters, as it were, into communion with the Hindu tradition,” she adds, page 68. That is precisely what the Christian believers fear.
In Vandana’s [ed.] Shabda Shakti Sangam, an entire chapter, pages 114-117, is devoted to ‘The Sacred Word OM: The Gateway to the Christian Discovery of India and Indian Discovery of Christ’ by J P Nyayapal, a Dominican priest who teaches Indian Christian Spirituality. After explaining the intricacies of OM in great detail, he quotes Fr. Gispert-Sauch SJ*, as saying that the meaning must be patiently explained to the people, because “There is a lot of controversy in India at present about the fitness of using the syllable OM in a Christian context;” And Bede Griffiths who said, “The word is of such importance as being the most sacred word in Hindu religion and a symbol of the supreme Godhead… which is entirely acceptable from a Christian point of view… to express the Word of God…”
Catholic evangelist Eddie Russell, FMI, [see pages 39, 40, 72] in What’s In A Word? 23 September 1998 writes:
“At a parish prayer retreat held for acolytes and other lay ministers… articles from Newsweek on TM, Yoga, Mantra and other Hindu and Buddhist disciplines were distributed. Clearly presented as an authentic practice for Catholics at the retreat, the whole religious practice is referred to in Newsweek as ‘The science of Yoga’. Of course, if we accept that lie it will be easy to adopt another religion as merely a neutral science, and therefore harmless. The idea of science to our Western Pythagorean objective mind is more acceptable than an intuitive Eastern mind-set. You can call it a science if you will, but it is still the same religious spiritual practice of Hinduism, New Age and Buddhism. Included in this material was the use of the great mantra - Om. I wonder what they meant this to mean if it didn't mean what it really meant in the Sanskrit and religious worship of their Pantheon. *see page 54
stated that the Brahmins of his time [approximately 190 years ago]
tried to keep the real meaning of this sacred word a profound secret.
In fact, many of them did not even understand it themselves. He said
that Om is ‘the symbolic name of the Supreme Being, one and
It is also said that ‘As long as there has been a Hindu Faith, the
power of sound has been recognised in the sacred Word. In that lies
all potencies, for the sacred word expresses the one and latent
Being, every power of
generation, of preservation and of destruction’.
Om is the most solemn of the most powerful class of mantras [magic words] and magical utterances called bijakshara. Every true bijakshara mantra ends with a nasal sound, actually going over in a kind of ‘vibration’. The bijakshara are used to worship the deities, like Shiva, Ganesh, Lakshmi, etc. The brief Mandukya Upanishad is entirely devoted to the mystic syllable Om. "It is compounded of three sounds, a, u, m, representing the three Vedas [Rig [Veda], Yagur [Veda], Sama [Veda], they are the three words, heaven, atmosphere and earth, which are the three deities, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Om embraces all the secrets of the universe, which are, as it were, gathered to a point within it, it is used for invocations, affirmations and blessing and at the commencement and termination of prayer, meditation or work. It is said to be the mystical quintessence of the entire cosmos... the monarch of all sounded things, the mother of vibrations, and the key to eternal wisdom and power. [Vol. II, 103-104]. “It is clear that if any Christian is using this particular Om mantra [amongst other Sanskrit words], then they are calling on this deity and not the True God that they intend. It is also clear that those Christians that dabble with eastern mystical prayer come to embracing the Cosmology of Christ in their attempt at Syncretism as we find underpinning Bede Griffiths, Anthony de Mello and Matthew Fox's [see pages 39-40] 'Creation Spirituality'.”
*OM has been explained at great length in my February 15, 2001 article Inculturation or Hindu-isation? In it, Abbe Dubois’ [see page 65] detailed analysis of OM in his 1906 book Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies is included.
Dubois, a French Catholic missionary, should know. He spent 31 years in India closely associated with its people.
THE ASHRAM TEMPLE AND ITS SYMBOLS
The church building is called the temple or mandir. Ashram literature continues: “The church is built in the style of a South Indian [Shaivaite] temple. At the entrance is a ‘gopuram ’ or gateway on which is shown an image of the Holy Trinity [see pages 2, 19, 32, 54, 61, 70-71, 72] in the form of a ‘trimurti ’, a three-headed figure, which according to Hindu tradition represents the three aspects of the Godhead as Creator, Destroyer and Preserver of the universe. This is taken as the symbol of the three Persons in one God of the Christian Trinity. The figure is shown as 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 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 of human existence. At the centre of the cross is the word OM ***[see pages 27, 35, 65, 70, 79, 80] which in Hindu tradition is the word from which the whole creation comes and through which we came to the knowledge of God, and is thus a fitting symbol of Christ and the Word of God… Over the doors which give access to the inner sanctuary or ‘mulasthanam ’, there is an inscription in Sanskrit taken from the Upanishads…. which means ‘You alone are the Supreme Being; there is no other Lord of the world’. Under this are the words ‘Kurios Christos’, ‘The Lord Christ’ in Greek letters.
“In the inner sanctuary or ‘garbagriha’ which is always kept dark to signify that the Lord dwells in the darkness, 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 to resurrection and experience the new birth to eternal life. 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 (Revelation 4:7) which represent the whole creation redeemed by Christ. Above them are four figures of saints representing redeemed humanity, and above them 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 the figure of the Virgin Mary as Queen of heaven clothed with the sun, and with the moon and the stars at her feet (Revelation 12:1) treading on the serpent. “The serpent has different meanings. 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. A virgin is one who stops this movement of the ego and opens it to the divine consciousness.
[See review of Bro. Martin’s books. The virgin, pages 20, 23. This ‘serpent’ is not the devil, satan pp 20, 25, 48].
“Towards the north is Christ as Priest in the ‘abhaya’ mudra, taking away fear and conferring grace. And beneath him St. Peter with the keys of the kingdom of heaven. To the south is Christ as Prophet or Teacher in the posture of Guru, and beneath him St. Paul as teacher of the nations. Finally, to the west is Christ as Contemplative in the posture of ‘dhyana’ or 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 again the lotus, symbols of purity supporting the ‘kalsa’, an ancient symbol of the four elements… pointing upwards to the ‘akasa ’, the infinite space in which God dwells.
“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 the resurrection it is drawn to contemplate ‘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.”
A circular, pillared, thatched hall, open all around serves as a meditation centre, with a black Christ seated on a lotus at the centre, facing in four directions. This is used for Bro. John Martin Sahajananda’s satsanghs as well as for meditation and yoga sessions, both official as well as private. A smaller closed meditation hall is also available.
Anglo-Indian artist JYOTI SAHI [See pages 8, 10, 15, 28, 33-34, 39, 41, 47, 48, 53, 54, 55, 57, 68], an early member of the Shantivanam community created the architecture of the ashram’s temple.
In my opinion much of the iconography is crude and uninspiring to say the least, or, as my devoutly Catholic friend felt, grotesque and revolting. Maybe we are too much conditioned by Western cultural expressions, but this is too much for us. The explanation given to the symbolism of the serpent and the virgin seems to have no precedent, and is used in Bro. Martin’s teachings to reinterpret the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption.
THE WEEK, in its cover story ‘Mixing Religions- Christian Priests Worship the Hindu Way’, October 20, 1996, says, “Bede introduced more Hindu rituals in the prayer service… Besides these Hindu rituals, the Gayatri Mantra and hymns hailing Shakti are chanted during the prayer service. ‘Gayatri Mantra is the salutation to the God and the word OM is the word of the God’ says [Fr.] Christudas… In the niche is the statue of Jesus with a six-pointed star in the background. ‘It represents both, the six-sided tantrik star and the Star of David… The tantrik symbol represents the union of the male and female forces’ [see pages 17-18, 41, 48-49, 52, 59, 72] explains Christudas.”
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