Beyond the experience of duality

Arrival in India

April 17th 1955 (Archbishops House, Bangalore, India)

My Dear Micheline & Mary

Here I am at Bangalore at last after all these years of waiting.  We arrived this morning at 6.30 a.m.  I think that Fr Benedict told you that before we left England we had a telegram from the Archbishop saying that the foundation was off.  But luckily it was too late to change our plans, so Fr Benedict wrote that we were on our way and would explain when we arrived.  He then wrote another letter saying that we had obtained all the necessary permissions from Rome etc and at Bombay we had a letter from the Archbishop saying that we were very welcome.  This morning he sent his car to meet us and was outside waiting to receive us when we arrived.  He has been most kind and courteous and is a very nice man.  We have not had time to talk to him yet, but I don’t think that there will be any difficulty.  It was merely the last effort of the devil (or the Abbot of St André) to prevent our sailing.  It is astonishing how opposition has been met at every stage and yet we have always got through.  Even that business of getting in without a visa seems to have been amazingly providential.  I have not a shadow of doubt that God is on our side.  My first impressions of Bombay have been confirmed all along.  My love for the people and the country grows daily.  How I wish I could describe it all to you.  It is the encounter of east and west which is most fascinating.  Everywhere you go you see the very latest fashions of the west, the last word in modern architecture, hygiene, schools of engineering, cinemas, radio etc, but at the same time the old life of the east goes on undisturbed.  Everywhere children running about barefoot; sometimes a child will be completely naked, women in their saris, men in turbans or with just a cloth round the waits.  Crowds sit on the ground everywhere on the pavements, on the railway platforms, on walls.  Everywhere you feel man is near the earth.  He puts on a few clothes if necessary, but essentially he is named as nature made him.  He lives in the sun and on the earth as he has done since God created him. He may sometimes put shows on his feet or a shirt on his back or build himself a rough shelter, or he may wear the latest style of western clothing and live in the latest modern flat, but always at heart is remains naked as God made him, between the earth and the sky, a child of nature.  And what grace there is in everything!  The dignity of the human form, the beauty of the women (their saris are still the loveliest things I have seen) the grace of their movements whether they sit or stand; the laughter and the joy and the quiet, easy peaceful ways.  When I see all these poor people (and their standard of life is scarcely above that of an animal), I keep saying to myself ‘blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven’.  If the kingdom of God is in love and peace and joy and kindness and truth, then these people possess it, and all our west civilisation is a mere accident.  I don’t say anything against it.  Let us have the shops and the cinemas and the factories and the rest.  India can take it, and I would like to see the poor little shacks of the villages (scarcely more than rough matting over some poles, or a little hovel, which we would not use for a pigsty) exchanged for simple little cottages such as I say coming into Bangalore.  But let us not imagine that we have anything to teach them about life.  You can imagine our lord going about everywhere here, and taking up one of these little children and saying, ‘of such is the Kingdom of God’.  I simply bow down in spirit before each man and woman and child; I could worship the presence of God in them and kiss their feet.  I know that this was so before, but now my eyes have seen it.  But the problem of making contact with them is still acute.  Our churches are all western, not only in their architecture but in their mentality.  We stayed at the De Nobili College of the Jesuits in Poona.  There are hundreds of students for the priesthood there, mostly Indian.  They are lovely people, magnificently well trained, alive and of fine character; but the whole atmosphere and training is western.  It is a superb modern building, far more impressive than anything I have seen in England, but you feel the European character of it all.  I talked with some of the younger men, though, who are keen on everything Indian, music, painting and philosophy, and I can see that a new spirit is developing.  They were deeply interested in our work and most encouraging.  They say that it is just what India needs. So my picture of India begins to unfold.  I have seen a good deal in a few days and I am sure that it is here that God wants me.  

Poona I found very hot and rather unpleasant.  The British seem to have left their mark on it!  It was also very parched and arid, but I gather that this is the very worst season of the year.  Bombay retained my love to the end, and I didn’t find the heat at all unpleasant, though everyone says it is the worst kind of heat.  I saw an Indian film there called Do Dulhe (Two Daughters).  It was a perfect example of this fusion of east and west.  Technically it was most accomplished: the photography as good as I have ever seen; the acting most impressive.  It was a poor story, almost a farce, but there was some excellent humour and pathos in it.  But what completely transformed the things was the Indian music and dancing.  Suddenly the plot was interrupted and the most wonderful dances were done, sometimes a serenade with moonlight and romance, sometimes something satirical and realistic.  One was a dance of madmen.  It was superb.  It made you see madness as the pure functioning of the unconscious; wild, grotesque, brutal but with a weird fantastic beauty; and the music exactly reflects the feeling of the dance.  Always one comes back to this.  India still lives from the unconscious.  In a sophisticated film they may relegate it to the madhouse, but it cannot be escaped.  It is the heart of India.  I feel this deep communion in the unconscious wherever I go.  I just cease to leave on the conscious level and let my whole being sink into the unconscious, the life of the sun pouring down from the sky and the life surging in these brown bodies, I their eyes and faces and movements and gestures.  Speech seems unnecessary; it takes place on the surface.  Beneath the surface is the vibrant life of the sun, of the blood, of a deep intelligence (everywhere I get the impression of a living intelligence; I have never seen such lively intelligent faces).  I believe that there is also a deep awareness of God, not in the sense of a conscious moral being, but of the Infinite, the eternal,, the One beyond consciousness.  I cannot be sure of this, but this is what I want to learn.  I told you of the priest in Bombay, Fr Mascarenhas, who has written on Hinduism.  He is convinced that the Hindu lives habitually from this profound awareness of God in the light of a primeval tradition and he knows his Hindus well.  He advocates a ‘Catholic Hinduism’.  This is being discussed now.  It is based on the idea that Hinduism is essentially a social system.  At present if a Hindu becomes a Christian, be becomes an outcast.  As a result practically no conversions are being made.  Many are attracted, but scarcely anyone dates to take the step.  We have to make it possible to become a Catholic without ceasing to belong to the Hindu community.  It means accepting all that is not essentially idolatrous in Hinduism, above all, social customs and conventions.  This is definitely the policy of the Holy See, but in practise it is extremely difficult to do anything.  The Hindus are deeply suspicious 9and rightly) and the Catholics are so westernised that they find it difficult to adapt themselves.  Even a picture of our Lady for the Marian Congress in Bombay last year, depicting her as an Indian woman in Indian dress, shocked the people profoundly.  All their statues and pictures are the worst kind of European products; the churches are a nightmare, expensive marble altars, solid heavy, ugly pews, bad stained glass, vile statues; hideous in themselves, but here in India, with al this wild beauty at every turn, just monstrous and grotesque.  To think of these lovely people, with all the grace of their naked bodies and their exquisite saris, who sit on the ground everywhere, being forced into Victorian pews!  And yet the come.  It is a wonderful sight.  They crowd into the churches, children swarming up to the altar rails with bare feet and arms, they press against the windows and doors and black faces meet you on every side as you say mass.  I helped to give communion to three thousand people on Maundy Thursday.  Even at the Jesuit church at De Nobili College among all the students a little barefoot urchin would come up for communion on his own, and receive it so devoutly and run back to his place.

The problem is being tackled and it will all come in time.  We must do something to help it on.  I want all India paintings in our church and monastery if possible: that impression on the eyes is so important.  We were shown a lot of Angelo da Fonseca’s paintings at De Nobili; they are not idea, but they will do for a beginning.  I begin to think too how we could adapt some of the motives of the Hindu temple.  But undoubtedly the most important work is the study of Hindu doctrine.  This has hardly been touched and people are afraid of it.  I will send you that book of Fr Mascarenhas; it is simply magnificent and provides a basis for all we have to do.

Well, I must stop now; this is just a record of my first impressions.  Bangalore seems a beautiful city, very modern but with lovely trees and gardens.  There is a bush of white flowers like a rhododendron outside my window and trees with scarlet flowers called Flame of the Forest.

Thank you so much for your letters, which all reached me here today.  We didn’t stay at St Xavier’s College; I can’t quite make out how your letters came here.  They were enclosed in an envelope addressed by you and apparently sent from Farnborough, but the letters themselves were air-mail letter forms addressed to St Xavier’s College; it was a miracle!

Thank you for thinking of the book for my feast day.  I would quite like it, but I think we shall have to come to an arrangement about personal gifts.  I feel that our needs will be so great that I ought not to accept personal gifts unless they are absolutely necessary.  I think we must put clearly before our minds that everything belongs to God.  He entrusts each of us in or different ways with the use of some of these things and we have to use them purely in his service.  If I need habits and underclothes and a camera for my work I am very happy to receive them from you, and it does not make be less personally grateful to know that they come from God and are given for his service.  I am ready to accept anything in this way, but we must think always what is most necessary for this work which God has given us.  If it is something personal for my use, so much the better, but the common need must always be the first consideration.  You see what I mean don’t you?  I want to have it all quite clear from the beginning.  We shall need many things, books, furniture, food, a house.  I would rather have what is necessary first.  I don’t know what it may be yet.  Perhaps it will really be best if you can send us money for our needs.  I mean a pound or ten shillings for my feast day; remember it will go a long way here.  On a great occasion you might send five pounds.  Then if we need something big (like a house!) we can let you know and see what can be done.  But generally I think money would be better than things, and I would much rather you gave it in instalment.  It will be so much more fun, getting things as the need arises, and I could let you know what we do with everything you send.  What do you think?

By the way, did you hear anything about those shoes which I ought at Barkers in Oxford Street?  They didn’t arrive in time and I asked Fr Illtud to send them on to you to readdress, but he may have sent them on himself.

Fr Benedict has just come in to say that that the Archbishop had seen him and told him that as he has his permissions from Rome and St André, all is well; we can go ahead.  So God has answered our prayers.  I do not think all these masses and prayers were in vain.  Everything has been done to prevent our coming and God has overrule everything.  It is a great responsibility. M We must try and do all that he requires of us.  That is why I am anxious to do what is right about gifts.

There is another matter now.  Father Benedict says we must begin to see about a property now.  The price of land has fallen and the property we wanted would probably not be more than fifty thousand rupees ((£4000).  We have already, with what you have given us, about 10,000 rupees.  Would you be able to advance us any more.  We could pay it back fairly soon, we hope, and in any case could pay interest on it, but the important thing is to be able to but a property and begin.  Both men and money will then come.  Could you let me know what you could do without damage to yourself or Mary?  We met a Mr Umwala in Bombay.  He is a Parsee convert of whom I think we told you, and a very devout Oblate of the Solesmes congregation.  He may be able to advance the money, but I would like to know what you feel you can do first.

There is so much to tell you.  I never told you of our visit to the caves at Elephanta.  It is an island off Bombay with caves hollowed into a Hindu Temple in the ninth century.  We had to rush to get there, as the boat only allowed an hour’s visit and there was a twenty minute walk in the sun to the cave, so we only had twenty minutes there.  But it was worth a journey of a hundred miles to see it for one minute.  The cave has a forest of pillars formed inside it like an Egyptian temple, and as you approach the great figure of Siva with its three heads (representing the Trimurti, or perhaps Siva with his Sakti and his Sakta) looms out of the darkness in a recess in the wall.  It is colossal and overwhelming at first but when you look into the face you see that it is deep in contemplation.  There is absolute peace there, infinitely distance and yet infinitely near, solemn, benign, gentle and majestic. I don’t think I have ever seen the divine so manifested in art.  I shall never forget it, but carry it with me wherever I go.

I don’t think I told you about Fr Mascarenhas.  He is an India priest in Bombay who is an absolute master of the Vedanta and has written a book on the Quintessence of Hinduism. It goes far beyond anything I have seen and practically incorporates the view of René Guérion and Schuon about the metaphysical tradition.  He maintains that Hinduism is Catholicism, if properly understood and given its centre in Christ.  The book has the imprimatur of the Cardinal, but he is quite alone in his attitude and is suspected by the other priests.  It is very said but it gave him great encouragement that we were so enthusiastic about it and we bought about thirty copies.  I am sending you one.  You will find it a wonder I am sure.

I really must bring this to an end.  But first I must tell you something which will horrify and scandalise you and make the doctor in you rise in wrath.  When we were at Elephanta it was very hot (after walking and even running I the sun without a hat; I never wear a hat here; nobody seems to do so) and Fr Benedict asked me if I would like a drink.  I was so absorbed in Siva that I said no, but then when I had gazed my fill, I thought I would like a drink, so I went along and found a boy doling out water.  He simply dipped a bucket in a great pool of water and then gave you a drink from a common cup.  I noticed the boy in from of me drank Hindu fashion without letting his lips touch the cup, so I attempted to do likewise.  But it was only as I was coming away that I realised what I had done.  Just exactly what everybody said you must never do.  The water looked green, but to be honest I think it was a spring from the rock.  Anyway I spent the journey back imagining that I had cholera, typhus and paratyphus, enteric dysentery and malaria, but as no ill effects developed, I have decided that I can’t have done.

I think things have changed a good deal.  The priests here live in very fine clean houses.  There are no flies or insects about and the good all seems clean and good.  I had my first mango at St Stephen’s in Bombay and eat it putting the skin in my mouth in the approved fashion, and again with no ill effects.  But of course outside these civilised areas one would have to be careful, though the people strike me as very clean.  Baths are a joy.  Most people have one twice a day.  You just step under a shower and get a delicious cool bath with no fuss or bother.  There are also Indian lavatories, but I won’t describe them.  There are usually lavatories with seats for Europeans as well.  The Hindus think lavatory seats are unhygienic; perhaps they are right.

I hope you don’t mind a typed letter, but it is easier and I rather enjoy it.  I will write the envelope for you in any case I find it difficult top type it respectably.

I liked what Mary said about suffering.  I think it is the only kind of suffering I am capable of bearing, because it is the kind which Christ bears in us.  But still it is the sense of the kingdom of God which overwhelmed me here.  I feel that this is the message of the gospel here: just ‘the kingdom of God has come’. What you have been seeking all through your history, that which your scriptures speak of, what you look for in your daily lives, that is here in your midst.  Christ is here already; we have only to make him known; not as a new thing but as the oldest thing in the world, the true life, the Brahma. The Atma, reality, truth.

There is just one more thing.  Fr Mascarenhas mixes will all sorts of people, Hindus, Parsees, Muslims, etc (no other priest does) and he took me on Sunday to a meeting in Malabar Hill at the house of a Parsee, who had a remarkable conversion (from agnosticism) and has started a society of the Servants of God.  They meet on Sundays and someone gives a talk on one of the great world religious leaders.  Father Mascarenhas spoke on Christ one week.  This week there were two sannyasis in the saffron robes from a Hindu Ashram. We all took our shoes off when we went in (most of them only wear sandals and go barefoot otherwise.) and sat cross-legged on the floor.  A woman began to chant in typical Hindu style, then one of the Sannyasi spoke for about an hour on Krishna.  Unfortunately it was all in Hindi, so that I could not follow a word.  But it was an interesting experience, and afterwards I spoke to the Parsee leader.  He spoke perfect English and told me all about his experiences.  He has had visions and revelations for many years and takes down many pages of script which are more less dictated to him.  He struck me as perfectly genuine and the revelations are almost completely Christian character.  The main themes were the Trinity as Love (the revelations are given in the name of Christ and the Father); self surrender, humility, attachment (in the sense of detachment from created things and attachment to the Guide, who is to lead one to truth) faith, fortitude.  He gave me some copies of these revelations as personal gifts.  I don’t think that there is anything really important in it, but he is a sincere man and I feel that we ought to make friends with all who sincerely seek God.

I have been getting on very well with Fr Benedict.  He is really a very good man.  He is liked and respect by all the clergy here.  We have received the most wonderful hospitality everywhere.  The Cardinal arranged for us to stay at St Stephen’s, Cumballa Hill in Bombay and a priest from the cathedral came to meet us on the boat.  The Bishop of Poona arranged for us to stay at the De Nobili Collect and we met with the greatest kindness there.  And no we have been received with open arms by the bishop and clergy here.  We shall be going to stay at the Redemptorist College in a day or two: I will give you the address.

Later: Archbishop’s House will do for my address still.

Much love to you both

Yours ever in Christ

D Bede

This letter was written to Bede’s friends Mary Allen and Mary (Micheline) Dunbar The photograph is of Fr Bede, Mary Allen and Fr Benedict Allapatt