Beyond the experience of duality

Shantivanam: The Forest of Peace

Shantivanam: A Forest of Peace in South India

Bede Griffiths, 0.S.B.

This article, which was first published in The Tablet in January 1969, was written by Fr Bede shortly after his arrival at Shantivanam with a group of monks from Kurisumala Ashram in Kerala, Southern India. It sets out Bede’s vision for the renewal of contemplative Christian monasticism following the ancient Indian traditions of renunciation known as sannyassi. Today this article is a reminder of the universal call to contemplation which must be responded to if humanity is to survive the challenges of the modern era.

Where Hinduism and Christianity can understand each other is in the contemplative life. This was the conviction of a remarkable French priest, Fr. Monchanin, who pioneered in India the Christian adaptation of Hindu tradition. His ideas are now carried on by the author of this article, who with a small band of monks took over his ashram, or monastery, last August.  SHANTIVANAM, which means “forest (or wood) of peace “, is situated on the banks of the river Kavery in the neighbourhood of Tiruchirapalli with its famous temple of Sri Rangam, where Ramanuja, the great Vaishnavite philosopher, lived and taught in the eleventh century. It consists of four thatched huts in a grove of mango trees and palmyra palms, with a small refectory and library, and a chapel in the style of a Dravidian temple. It marks the first attempt in India to establish a form of monastic life following the principles and customs of a Hindu ashram and to adapt the monastic life to the tradition of Hindu Sanyasa, the tradition of renunciation of the world to seek God only, which has been established in India for over two thousand years, and which is still followed in innumerable ashrams scattered all over India today.

The aim of the life is strictly contemplative, that is, to “realise God “, as the Hindus say, by means of prayer and meditation according to the tradition of Hindu Yoga. It is hoped that by this means a dialogue may be initiated with Hindus, not so much on the level of philosophy and academic discussion as on the level of prayer, the level of the realisation of God in the depths of the heart. This was the ideal of Fr. Monchanin and Fr. le Saux, co-founders of Shantivanam, and now, since the Vatican Council, in which the dialogue with Hinduism has suddenly become the concern of the whole Church, it would seem that it is more than ever relevant to the needs of the world today. The name of Fr. Monchanin is still little known in India, or indeed in the rest of the world outside his native France, though there is a Monchanin Centre in Montreal, where a dialogue with other religions, including Hindus, has lately begun to take place. But in his own country Fr. Monchanin has the reputation of being one of the greatest priests of his generation, and his life has recently been made the subject of a memoir by Fr. de Lubac, who was his intimate friend. Entitled Images de l’ Abbé Monchanin, it brings out the full significance of his life and character.

The Wider Ecumenism 

Fr. Monchanin was a man of extraordinary intellectual brilliance as well as of religious depth. Fr. de Lubac recalls how the first time he met him he found him absorbed in the study of Mahayana Buddhism in the Sanskrit texts. This reveals how vast at an early age was the range of his scholarship and how he had already felt the attraction of Eastern thought, which was to lead him eventually to give his life to India. His range of interests was indeed extraordinary. He was a student of poetry, painting and music—for which he retained to the end a passionate love—and an admirer of Picasso and Stravinsky. In philosophy he had already discovered Husserl and Heidegger, and was one of the first—in the 1930s—to take up the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin, whom he met and with whom he corresponded. He was also a friend of the Abbé Couturier, and with him was one of the pioneers of the ecumenical movement, not only among Catholics and Protestants, but also with the Russian Orthodox. But he had already gone beyond Christian ecumenism to the “wider ecumenism “, which embraced Jews and Moslems as well as atheists. All this was for him not merely an academic interest, but a matter of passionate concern, especially among the young students from all parts of the world whom he met in Lyons. There also he met young men from China, Africa and India, and his sense of the world mission of the Church grew from his contact with them.

It was thus that he came to feel his ‘vocation to India, as something corresponding to the deepest needs of his own nature. With all his intellectual brilliance, he was a man of deep religious spirit, with an overwhelming sense of adoration, which Fr. de Lubac recalls as one of the basic traits of his character. Yet for all his attraction to India, it is clear from the beginning how great was the sacrifice which was demanded of him. He had to forsake that world of French intellectualism, in which he had been formed, to become a parish priest among the poorest villagers in India—the people whom Mahatma Gandhi called harijans—” the people of God “. Even when he came to Shantivanam and was able to establish an ashram which corresponded with his own ideals, the sacrifice continued. He led a life of the utmost poverty and abnegation and it was, no doubt, through the neglect of his health that he came to so untimely an end. But even more severe was the spiritual suffering, which arose from his discovery of the gulf which separates the Christian from the Hindu and the crucifixion which must take place before they can effectively come together.

When Fr. Monchanin died, nothing outwardly had been accomplished.  Shantivanam remained the symbol of a dream; and after his death Fr. Le Saux, who in his writings had penetrated more deeply into Hinduism, perhaps, than anyone else in India today, was unable to realise the dream. Yet Shantivanam stands for something of unique value in the Church in India today. It stands for the contemplative mission of the Church, the mission to lead men to the contemplation of the Trinity, in which the ultimate mystery of the Godhead is revealed. Fr. Monchanin lived a “hidden life “, a life in which the contemplation of the Trinity was the one absorbing aim, and for this he gave his life. Shantivanam is the soil in which the seed of this contemplative life in India was planted. In calling it Saccidananda Ashram it was intended to show how the Hindu quest for God as Being, Knowledge and Bliss is a foreshadowing of the mystery of the Trinity, in which Hindu and Christian alike have eventually to find themselves. There was something prophetic in the life of Fr. Monchanin. He was at least twenty-five years before his time, and it seems that like many a pioneer— like Charles de Foucauld, for instance, to whom he has been compared—he had to die that his prophecy might be fulfilled.

The Need for Contemplation 

Yet it may be questioned whether this ideal of a contemplative life has any validity in the world today. Is the contemplation of the Trinity relevant to the needs of the Church today? Is the Church not committed irrevocably to the service of man, to the life of the world? Yes indeed, but does this mean that the world has no need of contemplation? The mistake surely lies in making an opposition between the two dimensions of the Christian life, the vertical and the horizontal, when in reality they are complementary and together form the Cross—that is, the mystery of Christ. If we place Christ at the centre of Christian life, it is obvious that the Christian life must be both contemplative and active. Christ is the image of God. In him we contemplate the Father, the abyss of the Godhead, and through him we receive the gift of the Spirit. There is in him a dual movement of ascent to the Father and of descent in the Spirit. Our life as Christians is therefore essentially Trinitarian, a sharing in the inner life of the Godhead.

But if life in Christ is life in the Trinity, it is equally life in the world. Christ reveals God in his total act of self-giving to the world. To live in Christ is to commit oneself totally to the world. It is to find Christ in all men, in the Jew and the Moslem, the Hindu and the Buddhist, the agnostic and the atheist, as well as in one’s fellow Christians. And to find anyone in Christ is to find the whole man, in all the dimensions of his being, not only religious, but economic, social, cultural and political. We may add that it is to find also the whole creation in Christ, since the whole universe is part of the life of man and everything —” in heaven and on earth”, as St. Paul says—has been taken up in Christ into the life of God.

The Mass in the World. 

 A contemplative life is therefore not turned away from the world. It embraces the whole creation. But it embraces it in depth, in the ultimate dimension or ground of its being. The contemplative is not called to act on the surface of political, social and economic life, though this activity is necessary to the life of the Church. He is called to bring the whole of this cultural life of man to its centre in Christ —that is, in the Trinity. The Mass is the centre of this movement of the return of the whole creation to its Source and the Mass is therefore at the centre of the Church. The contemplative is called to stand at this centre—which is the Cross—and to make the offering of the whole creation in Christ to God. For this he must be sensitive to everything that is going on in the world, to its needs and sufferings and aspirations in every sphere, but at the same time he must be continually turning with this whole burden of aspiring and suffering humanity to the heart of Christ, in which is found the Trinity, the ultimate ground of the life of man and the universe.

The greatest need of the world today is to rediscover this “heart” or “centre”, where the inner drama of human life is concentrated. It is only when we live from this centre that we can reach down to the deepest needs of mankind. People today—even in the “under-developed “countries—do not only need food and clothing, medicine and education. They need God. They need to “realise “God, to find him at the centre of their lives, and it is for this that the contemplative life exists. A monastery or ashram is a “centre “for the realisation of God, where the inner meaning of life, its dimension of depth, can be discovered.

In this return to the “centre“ India has, I believe, a vital part to play. It is in India that this secret of inner life, of the experience of God in the depth of the soul as the ground of all existence, has been most profoundly realised and most consistently preserved; and it is from India that the Western world—and the Church which is so much bound up with that world —has to recover this lost dimension. A contemplative life in India such as Shantivanam stands for should be a meeting-place for this Indian tradition of contemplation and the Church, a “centre“ where the World can be rediscovered and recreated in Christ.

First published in The Tablet February 1969