Friday, November 25, 2011

Staff Post: Program Assistant Jonathan Pinckney on our Visit to a Monastery- Ashram

ISP student Adam Freed at the entrance gate at Shantivanam.

 “Christianity, though universal in principle, is in its actual structure a Western religion. It had its origin in the Middle East and grew up in a Semitic culture with a specific Jewish character, but it then moved out into the Greco-Roman world, where it developed a Western structure based on Greek philosophy and Roman Law. All the structures of Christianity today, though they have their roots in the original Jewish tradition, are characteristically Western in their language, their mode of thought and behavior.” 
– Fr. Bede Griffiths, OSB
Om, the sound the universe and all things makes, a traditional Hindu symbol, on a cross outside the chapel.

On the quiet banks of the Caveri River in southern Tamil Nadu a group of Benedictine monks are re-envisioning what Christianity looks like in India.  Inspired by the teachings of Father Bede Griffiths, an English monk who came to India in the 1960s with the dream of contextualizing Christian faith here, the monks have adapted many practices typically thought of as exclusively Hindu and incorporated them into their liturgy and mindset.  The monks wear the saffron robes typical of Hindu holy men, chant in Sanskrit before the Eucharist, and model the architecture of their chapel after a Hindu temple.

The chapel at the ashram with traditional Hindu temple sculpture. The figure in the center, seated between the bull and the lion, is Saint Benedict.

In the spirit of St. Ignatius’ saying that “All truth is God’s truth” the monks of Shantivanam also seek to bring together Eastern and Western modes of thought – melding the ideas of traditional Christian orthodoxy with the highest spiritual principles of India particularly as articulated in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.  They see Hinduism not as a “false religion” to be disproven but rather as a partial revelation of God’s truth.  From their perspective the life and teachings of Jesus, rather than existing in opposition to Hinduism, are the insights which complete Hinduism’s highest spiritual strivings. 

Jesus as Lord of the Cosmos, on the screen in the chapel.
It’s a controversial stance to say the least.  Many Christians describe Shantivanam’s theology as “watering down” of the gospel or even downright heresy, particularly as the monks are reticent to say that Jesus is the only way to salvation or that Jesus has an exclusive claim to divinity, both central tenets of orthodox Christianity.  Many Hindus as well object to the idea that Hinduism is only some sort of “incomplete Christianity” and see the Ashram’s appropriation of Hindu symbols as some sort of trickery to lull unsuspecting Hindus into the church.     

Christ in all four directions, a sculpture in the meditation chapel.
ISP was privileged to visit Shantivanam a couple of weeks ago.  Our students admired deeply the strength of the monks’ conviction and the beautiful simplicity and quiet of their lives but were also challenged by the controversies inherent in the monks’ position between two major faiths.  In discussion afterwards students were encouraged to wrestle with the many questions that arise for Christians in this context. Is Shantivanam’s way of worship appropriate for Christians? To what extent does Christianity need to be freed from its western background and where do you draw the line?  None of these questions have easy answers, but wrestling with them can give us deeper insight into the foundations of our faith and lead us to a deeper and more mature spirituality.   

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