Recently the Outlook magazine came out with the feature article on inculturation attempts of the Christian denominations in Tamil Nadu particularly by the Catholic Church. “This has emanated from the popular devotion of the faithful”, the article quoted Joe Varghese, a Catholic priest of a famous church of Marian cult in Chennai. Many theologians featured in the article presented the inculturation-evangelical project as “cultural inclusiveness”. Are they merely a spontaneous expression of popular devotion and cultural inclusiveness as claimed by the Christian evangelists or is there more to it than what meets the eye?
Let us start from the article itself. In the article, the Christian appropriation of the name “Periyanayagi” by Constanzo Besci, an eighteenth century Catholic missionary in Tamil Nadu, is explained by a Catholic theologian as “cultural inclusiveness”. In Tamil Hindu tradition, Periyanayagi is the name of the consort of Shiva. She is a goddess in her own right and is part and parcel of the vital aspect of Shiva. She is primordial and independently divine. She is Brahman. On the other hand, Mary in Christian theology is not even part of the Holy Trinity. She is only a saint—a rank well below the male deity in Christianity. Saints in Christian theology are sort of divine brokers between the devotee and the Christian deity seeking the mercy of the deity for the devout. Thus, when the Catholic Church allows the use of the name of a Hindu goddess for Mary, it not only appropriates the name of the deity but also downgrades the name in view of the Christian theological context. It is not inclusive culture. It is theology of aggressive spiritual deceit.
The pattern can be seen continuously in all Christian manoeuvres of the inculturation process and it has a long history. It was the Hindu scholar Sita Ram Goel (1921-2003) who made the first major and systematic study of this Christian phenomenon when he published in 1988 the book Catholic Ashrams. In 1994, an enlarged edition came out. Goel had collected the letters from the promoters and proponents of the inculturation projects as well as its critics—particularly Swami Devananda and Ram Swaroop from the Hindu side and Wayne Teasdale and Fr Bede Griffiths from the other side. This work so far remains the best documented work from the Hindu side on this movement. With the inculturation movement today steadily acquiring a popular and theo-political colour it is time we look deep into the theology that forms the basis of the inculturation movement—particularly in Tamil Nadu.
In 1950, Jules Monchanin, a 40-year-old French Catholic missionary, who had been till then “unexceptionally” working in India, succeeded in persuading his Church superiors to allow him to establish a Christian institution with a Hindu sounding name at the village of Kulithalai near Trichy. In establishing the institution, he had declared that his aim was “nothing less than the assumption into the Church of the age-old Indian sannyasa [life of total renunciation] itself.” The mission plan was stated thus:
We would like to crystallize and transubstantiate the search of the Hindu sannyasi. Advaita and praise of the Trinity are our only aim…. This means that we must grasp the authentic Hindu search for God in order to Christianize it. — (J. G. Weber, In Quest of the Absolute: The Life and Work of Jules Monchanin, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, p.73)
The Hindu label is only for the Indian evangelical market. Within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church it would be listed as a Benedictine monastery. While securing permission from the Church, Monchanin had help from French Benedictine monk, Henri Le Saux. The latter in turn got interested in the project and wrote to Monchanin about active collaboration:
We can begin together. I will initiate into life in India, and you will initiate me into Benedictine life, for I strongly agree with you, that [Saint Benedict,] the Patriarch of the West must also, in the plan of God, become the Patriarch of the East. — (Jules Monchanin quoted in Iona Misquitta, An Ashram in India under the rule of Saint Benedict: Jules Monchanin (1895-1957) as seen from East and West, Vol. II, Saccidananda Ashram/ISPCK, Delhi 2001, p.76)
Monchanin and Henri Le Saux now gave themselves Hindu names. Monchanin became Swami Parama Arubi Anandam (ultimate, formless happiness) and Henri Le Saux, Swami Abhishiktananda (bliss of the anointed one).
The official name of the institution, inaugurated on 21 March 1950, the feast day of Benedict, was Saccidananda Ashram, which they translated as Hermitage of the Most Holy Trinity. James Stuart, the hagiographer of Herni Le Saux explains the well thought strategy behind the adaptation of the name:
Saccidananda i.e. Sat (being), cit (awareness), ananda (bliss) is one of the deepest Hindu insights concerning God, with Trinitarian overtones which are drawn out in Abhishiktananda’s book of the same name. — (James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His life told through his letters, ISPCK, Delhi 2000, p.35)
However, such appropriations of Hindu names—[the hermitage is also known as Shantivanam]—in no way diminished the innate aversion towards Hinduism for the missionary in Monchanin. To him, Indian religion was tainted with errors and made vain attempts for salvation. His aim was humbling of Hinduism before Christianity. Making a comparison between pagan Greece and present day India he wrote:
Unfortunately Indian wisdom is tainted with the erroneous tendencies and looks as if it has not yet found its own equilibrium. So was the Greek wisdom before Greece humbly received the Paschal message of the Risen Christ … we hope that India, once baptized to the fullness of her body and soul, and to the depth of her age-long quest for Brahman will reject her pantheistic tendencies and discovering in the splendors of Holy Ghost, the true mysticism and finding a long last the vainly longed for philosophical and theological equilibrium…. India has to receive humbly from the Church the sound and basic principles of true contemplation, to keep them faithfully, to stamp her own seal, and develop through them along with the other members of the Church. — (Jules Monchanin, Contemplation: The essential vocation of the Church and of India in Swami Parama Arubi Anandam (Fr. J. Monchanin), 1895-1957: A Memorial, Saccidananda Ashram 2007, p.125)
Monchanin simultaneously criticised and tried to appropriate yoga. In 1952, writing on the theme of “Christian yoga”, he underlined four “perils” (in upper case) of yoga—“physiological, psychological, moral and spiritual”. Catholic scholar Thomas Matus details Monchanin’s view of yoga thus:
The greatest dangers are of a moral and spiritual order; in both cases, an underlying “Pelagianism” in the various Hindu and Buddhist schools (Monchanin allows very few exceptions to this blanket judgment) seems to subtract yogi from grace; under the illusion that the isolated ego is the Higher Self, the yogi falls prey to the seduction of a monism that allows no room for agapic love. — (Thomas Matus, Jules Monchanin and Yoga in Jules Monchanin (1895-1957) as seen from East and West, Vol. II, Saccidananda Ashram / ISPCK, Delhi 2001, p.113)
Despite all these “dangers” and “perils”, he does not lose sight of the importance of “Christianising yoga” to the evangelical mission as “(Yoga’s) non-Christianisation would be tantamount to refusing to Christianise India itself”. So to achieve this, Monchanin made a tactful adjustment. Matus explains:
At this point Monchanin makes an important distinction: Yoga does not pertain to the essence of Indian civilization but to its form…. Yoga as a ‘method’ not ‘doctrine’ as ‘form-manifestation’ not ‘essence’ would seem to guarantee considerable freedom in a Christian theologian’s assessment of the Yoga component in the various Indian schools, while also guaranteeing a Christian contemplative’s use of yogic forms of meditation.
According to him yoga in its original form excluded grace. Yet Monchanin hoped:
In spite of this accumulation of obstacles, the need remains urgent: if Yoga is not Christianized, an essential aspect of India … will forever remain outside the pleroma of the Mystical Body.
As the inculturation project progressed, important differences started emerging between him and his collaborator Henri Le Saux. The latter wanted to extend Christianising to Advaitic experience also. Towards this end Henri Le Saux took extensive tours to Hindu places of pilgrimage and started practising meditation. Monchanin strongly disapproved of this and warned against going to Rishikesh, which he said was “a place where sadhus, real or supposedly so (both kinds no doubt) devote themselves to delusive exercises verging on mirage”.
Monchanin dreaded and detested the non-dualist experience more than anything. This hatred reached new heights as his life neared its end. He wrote:
It seems to me more and more doubtful that the essence of Christianity can be found by going through Advaita (the non-dualism of Sankara). Advaita like yoga and more than yoga is an abyss. Whoever dizzily plunges into it cannot know what he will find in its depths. I fear it may be himself rather than the living triune God.
It is for harbouring this Advaitic vision that Hinduism should die:
In this mystery, Hinduism (and especially Advaita) must die to rise up again Christian. Any theory which does not fully take into account this necessity constitutes a lack of loyalty both to Christianity—which we cannot mutilate from its essence—and to Hinduism—from which we cannot hide its fundamental error and its essential divergence from Christianity. Meanwhile our task is to keep all doors open, to wait with patience and theological hope for the hour of the advent of India into the Church…. Hinduism must reject its atman-brahman equation, if it is to enter into Christ. — (Jules Monchanin, quoted in Harry Oldmeadow, A Christian Pilgrim in India: The Spiritual Journey of Swami Abhishiktananda, World Wisdom Inc, 2008)
Harry Oldmeadow, a sympathetic biographer of Henri Le Saux reveals how this drift was creating some bitterness among the crusaders running the appropriation project:
In later years Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux’s Indian alias) himself referred to Monchanin’s skepticism about any reconciliation of Christianity and Vedanta and spoke of Monchanin’s fear that his Christian faith might be overwhelmed by Vedanta as it had nearly been earlier by Greek rationalism. Some hard words on these subjects were exchanged at Shantivanam but their mutual respect and deep affection withstood the strain imposed by these disagreements.
In 1957 Monchanin died and Henri Le Saux took over the “ashram”. Even the burial structure over his dead body serves his mission of appropriation. One finds here a verse from Manikkavacagar a ninth century Saivaite mystic poet and one of the four seers venerated by Tamil Saivism. The verse written on the grave of Monchanin is the verse in which Manikkavacagar speaks of the greatness of Shiva coming as his own guru. The verse when written over the grave of a Christian priest evokes two ambiguous meanings both of which belittle the original Saivaite context.
If one is to take the verse to mean Monchanin himself (by his disciples) then that is a downgrading statement on Shiva to a Christian missionary. If the statement is made as a reference to Jesus then again there is a problem. In Saivism, Siva comes in human form when the disciple has obtained a critical mass of inner preparedness. This human form in which Shiva appears is according to Saivism, is neither an avatar nor does it have a human birth. It is only a form that appears, initiates the disciple and disappears. Hence if the statement of Manikkavacagar is applied to Jesus then it is an intentional distortion of the original verse.
Since his death, his project has been safeguarded and nourished. At times his successors had to gloss over his real motives. Bede Griffiths who was the third head of this Catholic institution, positioned himself often as an eclectic Christian who respected Hinduism genuinely. Nevertheless he was as fanatical and scheming but more deceptive than Monchanin. When a knowledgeable Hindu monk Devananda questioned Bede Griffith’s motives vis-a-vis Monchanin, Griffiths was quick to distance himself and the organisation Monchanin established from the writings of Monchanin:
Thank you for your letter and the enclosure about Father Monchanin. Of course, if I held the same view as Father Monchanin, you would be justified in suspecting me of deception. But you must remember that Father Monchanin was writing forty years ago and immense changes have taken place in the Church since then. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter to Swami Devananda dated 31.8.1987, in Sita Ram Goel, Catholic Ashrams: Sannyasins or Swindlers, Voice of India 1988 &1994, p.135)
One can note that in the letter Griffiths tactfully accepted that Monchanin was indulging in deception. And also one can see that the supposed distancing from the deception of Monchanin was attributed by Griffiths, not to any ethical change of heart but rather changes in the establishment of the Church. Even this statement by Griffiths is not completely true. The mission of Monchanin still remains very much integral to and is at the heart of Shantivanam movement as evidenced by the fact that the Golden String, the bulletin of the Bede Griffiths Trust in its winter 1997-8 issue hailed Monchanin’s quote to “grasp the authentic Hindu search for God in order to Christianize it” as “prophetic”.
Today, the strategy of “Christianisation” of yoga has become even stronger. The seemingly paradoxical stand of Monchanin in outlining the “perils” of yoga while at the same time taking efforts to Christianise it is reflected in the stand taken by the Church at large in India today. Catholic educational institutions do have their own form of yoga curriculum in their schools and campuses. At the same time they oppose any attempt by Indian Government to bring yoga into the school curriculum.
When the present government announced the draft for the National Education Policy in 2016, there was a protest led by Bishop of Coimbatore Diocese L. Thomas Aquinas, Superintendent of Roman Catholic Schools, Coimbatore Diocese, A. Maria Joseph and other high officials of the Catholic Church, teachers, non-teaching staff and members of the management of Christian-run education institutions in and around Coimbatore. Among other things the Catholic priests protested against “promoting yoga”, which they declared “was not a panacea for all ills”. The Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) in its “report of the national education consultation” held on 24 and 25 October 2017 in New Delhi, announced that introduction of yoga as also part of “gradual saffronisation”.
In other words, here we see how the seemingly abstract theological strategy of Monchanin in Christianising yoga taking concrete political steps in the national discourse. With yoga curriculum decoupled from any state support in the educational system and with the huge network of Catholic institutions free to teach their own versions of yoga, they can soon become the only cost-effective channel for an average Indian child to learn yoga—which of course will initially be merely “the form” devoid of the authentic spirit of yoga and later acquire a Christian spirit—or Christian yoga. — Swarajya, 23 November 2017
Henri Le Saux
Catholic missionary J. Monchanin (1895-1957) had established the “Saccidananda Ashram” in 1950 and had started an elaborate mission to “Christianise” Hindu spirituality. He wanted Hinduism to die, shed Vedanta and get resurrected in Christianity. In 1957, he died and was succeeded by another French Catholic missionary Henri Le Saux (1910-1973). Henri Le Saux assumed the Hindu name “Swami” Abhishiktananda as part of his mission strategy.
When Henri Le Saux first came to India, Monchanin took him to Sri Ramakrishna Tapovan so that the former could observe first hand a Hindu ashram. At the same time Monchanin was also observing Henri Le Saux to see what effect the place was having on him. Monchanin made the following observation:
(Henri Le Saux) senses quite independently of me, the human impossibility of the conversion of a Hindu who is truly a Hindu (…): the more spiritual a Hindu becomes, the further in a sense he distances himself from Christianity. — (James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His life told through his letters, ISPCK, Delhi 2000, p.28)
Henri Le Saux hence decided to understand and dismantle the Hindu spirituality so that it could be Christianised. So as part of the project, he started visiting Hindu pilgrim places in South India. Wearing the saffron robes of a Hindu sannyasin he visited the temples of Chidambaram, Kumbakkonam and Thanjavur enjoying the hospitality of gullible Hindus who welcomed him into their temples. He recounts in a letter of this experience in Chidambaram—the great Saivite temple:
… [At Chidambaram] they were very liberal and showed us every thing. They even wanted to give rice and cakes presented to the images. You can understand that all the same our devotion could not go as far as that! — (Henri Le Saux’s letter dated 9.11.1949)
At Srirangam—the great Vaishnavite centre he purportedly violated the explicit notice at the entrance that non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple. He went into the inner corridor. His hagiographer James Stuart admiringly writes how “clad in kavi (saffron robes) he followed a group of children into the inner sanctuary of the temple at Srirangam carefully averting his eyes from the notice which prohibits entry to all non-Hindus.”
Nevertheless, standing right before the sacred statue of Vishnu he refused with derision to accept the aarti. In his words:
… and the priest took up a tray containing camphor, … set it alight, recounted the glories of Sri Rangam Nathar [i.e., Vishnu], and began to offer a puja in my honour. … I have never had such good treatment but, all the same it was nothing doing, for I should have had to make the anjali, prostrate spread my hands over the flame and bring them to my eyes, put the ashes on my forehead etc. … I protested—horror indignation! — (Henri Le Saux’s letter dated 26.02.1950)
One place that particularly interested him was Arunachala—another great Saivite centre where the mountain itself is considered as a form of Shiva. It was also where Sri Ramana Maharishi experienced Advaitic state of the Self. In 1953, in his letter to his family, Henri Le Saux expressed his desire regarding Arunachala, “When will Arunachala be inhabited by Christian monks?”
Sri Ramana Maharishi was having a great influence on the seekers of the West. This had to be countered. Henri Le Saux had a plan. He revealed this to a fellow Catholic priest:
We have to work out a Christian advaita, and you know what that means; we shall not come to that by exploding advaita at the outset on the ground of its incompatibility. We have to strive to be faithful to advaita to the end. Only a heroic fidelity will make it possible in God’s own time to transcend it. … Not mutilation but sublimation. — (Henri Le Saux’s letter dated 12.01.1954)
By 1955, he was grooming a young Christian boy of 20 years to become a Christian Ramana, which however could not materialise (James Stuart, p.79). In 1957, following the death of Monchanin, Henri Le Saux then in charge of Shantivanam, soon developed the “fulfillment theology” to “Christianise” Advaitic experience.
The “fulfillment theology” was one of the prominent and strong weapons in the theological arsenal of Christianity.
Fulfillment theology was prominently employed in the study of Hinduism by a Scottish educational missionary John Nicol Farquhar then working in the YMCA (1902-23). His book Crown of Hinduism published by prestigious Oxford University became popular both in Indology circles as well as with Protestant missionaries. Fulfillment theology in the Hindu context as put forth by Farquhar states:
Christ provides the fulfillment of each of the highest aspirations and aims of Hinduism…. In Him is focused every ray of light that shines in Hinduism. He is the crown of the faith of India. — (John Nicol Farquhar, The Crown of Hinduism, Oxford University Press, 1913, pp.485-6)
Like Roman Catholic Monchanin did decades after him, Protestant Farquhar also declared that Hinduism should die in Christianity: “Hinduism must die in order to live. It must die into Christianity.”
Catholic counterpart of Farquhar was Pierre Johanns a Jesuit missionary. Johanns made the claim that “almost all elements of Christian religion … are to be found among them [the Hindus] in a higher form than they were ever known among the Greeks.” Both Johanns and Farquhar paid special attention to Vedanta. Farquhar wrote:
The Vedanta is not Christian and never will be—simply as Vedanta: but very definite preparation for it…. It is our belief that the living Christ will sanctify and make complete the religious thought of India.
In the 1920s, Johanns was publishing a periodical entitled The Light of the East where he serialised articles under the title “To Christ through the Vedanta” over a period of 20 years. According to Harry Oldmeadow, the biographer of Henri Le Saux, “fulfillment theology” had an abiding presence in the work of both Monchanin and Henri Le Saux.
As the head of the institution, Henri Saux set to work. In 1962 he finished a 100-page draft. Elaborately titled The Experience of Saccidananda: Advaitin Experience and its Trinitarian Fulfillment the text would become an important document in the appropriation project. According to James Stuart the book brought “together Advaitic experience and Christian faith … through the adoption of a ‘theology of fulfillment’”. In the book, Henri Saux explained the need to Christianise Advaitic Vedanta:
… the integration of the advaitic experience into his own faith is for the Christian a necessary task. Christianity presents itself to the world as the supreme message from God to mankind, as possessing the definitive word in which God has revealed all that can be told of the divine life and love. If the Church’s claim is true, then it follows that whatever men have found that is true, beautiful and good, both can and should be integrated into Christian experience. — (Henri Le Saux, Sacchindananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience, ISPCK, Delhi 1974, p.47)
Henri Le Saux wrote that Hinduism belongs to a category called the religions of the “cosmic covenant” which means all religious traditions outside the Biblical revelation. Of these non-Biblical cosmic revelations he called Hinduism in general and Advaita in particular as “the acme of man’s spiritual in the cosmic religions”. However he stressed that though “the cosmic covenant and Christ’s revelation are not opposed to one other”, they are not the same. On the contrary “it is that the first prepares the way for the second”. In the case of Advaita, it is the primeval evil that entered the Garden of Eden that is stopping this fulfillment of Hindu Advaita in Christian Divinity:
There is nothing true, beautiful or good that does not bear the mark of the Spirit. Evil only emerges when what is true, beautiful or good stops short at itself claiming to be the All, the final plenitude, and refuses the role in the history of salvation which is the very purpose of its creation. This was the temptation of the cherub in the Garden of Eden.
Even as he was undertaking these efforts, Henri Le Saux harboured serious doubts whether through fulfillment theology he could really Christianise Advaita. When the draft appeared as the book he had dropped the subtitle “Vedanta to Trinity”. In a letter to Raimundo Panikkar, another fulfillment theologian, he confessed: “… whatever we do is it not a qualified visishta advaita?—and advaita is lost as soon as there is qualification?” Such doubts and confusions never made him lose sight of his ultimate goal which he explained this in one of his letters thus:
“Without this recollection in [Jesus], the Indian Church will never be capable of transforming Hindu India into Christian India.” — (Henri Le Saux’s letter dated 10.10.1963)
In his worldview, the spiritual traditions outside the Church exist only because God conserves them for the Christian to bring them into the Church. After a spiritual tradition is appropriated by the Church it ceases the need to exist outside the Church.
The prayer “for the heathen” ought to turn into a prayer that the Christians may at last gather in the spiritual riches of the Gentiles, so that God might finally have no more need to conserve them outside the Church, precisely in order to prevent these riches from being lost. — (Henri Le Saux’s letter dated 12.04.1965, quoted in James Stuart, 2000, p.171)
Unlike Monchanin who worked mostly within the confines of Shantivanam, Henri Le Saux took the appropriation crusade right into Hindu holy places. He always made it a point to go to the most venerated places of Hindus and conduct a Christian mass while unsuspecting Hindus would take the saffron clad missionary for a Western Hindu sannyasin.
It started as early as 1955 when he visited the Elephanta caves. He claimed it for Jesus by conducting a Mass before the famous Mahadeva statue:
Yesterday evening we came here to Elephanta. Here Hindu temples cut out of the rock, only one well preserved. I was thunderstruck! I am more Hindu than Buddhist. You know the Shiva with three heads, incorrectly called Trimurti.… When I saw it, I simply had to hold on to a pillar for support…. This morning we said our Mass immediately in front of it. There is nothing pagan here. — (Henri Le Saux’s letter dated 18.07.1955)
Later a three-headed Jesus would adorn the entrance of his Catholic monastery at Shantivanam [see image at top of this article].
In January of 1965, he climbed to the summit of Arunachala—the sacred hill worshipped by Hindus and conducted a Christian mass there. While at Uttarkashi, another highly esteemed place of Hindu pilgrimage, while enjoying the hospitality of a Hindu ashram, he went into “the crypt of a small temple besides Ganges” where “sitting cross-legged” he conducted the Christian ritual alone with “the bread and wine after the order and rite of Melchizedech. …” and then “declared this act as ‘a prophetic sign’”. ( James Stuart, 2000, p.172) It was at Uttarkashi, which he visited once again, he started experimenting an Indian liturgy with a Sanskrit base. He wrote:
In the loft fitted up in my hut I offer Masseach morning seated like a brahmin priest, with ceremonies of offering water, incense, fire. I read the gospel in Sanskrit and also sing the Our father in Sanskrit…. My Upanishadic rite takes shape day by day. [Details follow] But all that is very Hindu…. — (Henri Le Saux’s letter dated 29.7.1965 and 28.8.1965)
He now started fashioning his masses based on fulfillment theology. Christmas eve celebrations of 1965 started with the reading of Hindu texts followed by the prophets and then Christian Gospel—thus Hindu texts becoming the preparation for the advent of Christianity. He called mantras as short prayer phrases which could be related to Christian devotion. In his work Prayer he drew parallels between the Hindu Om and Sacchidananda and the Christian Abba, the prayer of Jesus. The mechanism for creating a Christian mantra, which Henri Le Saux called as “mantra sandwich” was later consolidated in Shantivanam. Here a traditional Indic mantra venerated and practised for thousands of years like Om Nama Sivaya or Om Namo Bhagavathe Vasudevaya or Om Mani Padme Hum are taken. Then the Hindu or Buddhist spiritual principle (deity’s name or symbol) is removed and Christian name is slipped in between.
Thus Om Nama Shivaya or Om Namo Narayana becomes Om Namo Christaya, Aum Sri Yesu Bhagavathe Namaha. Om Mani Padme Hum became Om Yesu Christa Hum. Ringu Tulku and Mullen in their paper Buddhist use of Compassionate Imagery (2004) trace the Christian appropriation of Buddhist mantras to the Shantivanam project and justify it through the fulfillment theology: “A strong connection between Om Mani Padme Hum, as a universal expression into human heart and the spirit of Jesus has already been made in Buddhist circles.”
In 1968, Henri Le Saux left Shantivanam handing over the charge to new occupants. On parting, he gave a four-fold advice to a Jesuit priest who had founded a Christian centre for dialogue with Hindus. In that advice, Henri Le Saux suggested that Christians should take up the celebration of Hindu festivals such as Deepavali as a joyful expression of their own faith and also use aarti or deepa puja in Christian churches giving it their own Christian interpretation.
There is an interesting twist in the life story of Henri Le Saux. Leaving Shantivanam and living by the banks of Ganges, there seemed to have happened in him some genuine transformation. According to Wayne Teasdale, a Catholic theologian, Henri Le Saux “seemed to lapse into purely monistic Advaita”. Abhishiktananda declared that it was the Advaitic experience and realisation that is important and everything else need to be dropped:
Jesus may be useful in awakening the soul—as is the guru—but is never essential and, like the guru, he himself must in the end lose all his personal characteristics. No one really needs him. … Whoever, in his personal experience … has discovered the Self, has no need of faith in Christ, of prayer, of the communion of the Church. — (Henri Le Saux’s diary entry dated 10.7.1969, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary (1948-73) of Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom Henri Le Saux), ISPCK 1998, p. 217)
He also got critical about the Church though he offered Mass till his death. He felt the Church’s insistence of Christ was as an obstacle to final spiritual liberation:
Christ’s namarupa necessarily explodes, but the Church wants to keep us virtually at the level of the namarupa. — (Henri Le Saux’s diary entry dated 24.4.1972)
In another diary entry he again criticised the Church—this time quoting a verse from the Upanishad:
Christianity believes that salvation comes from the outside, through thoughts rites, “sacraments”. The level of namarupa. Nothing comes from the outside, nothing that is made, krita, leads to what is un-made, akrita! (MU I:2:12) — (Henri Le Saux’s diary entry dated 28.5.72)
He died on 7 December 1973. Meanwhile, Shantivanam itself had passed into the hands of a more virulent Hindu-phobic theologian who also would become more aggressive in appropriating Hindu spirituality and culture for evangelism. – Swarajya, 24 November 2018
Suddenly a “folk” Christianity has exploded prominently in the public conscience of Tamil Nadu. It is claimed that it is a spontaneous movement of the people who are expressing their Christian devotion through local cultural forms. However, an investigation shows that it is more a result of a well-prepared strategy that goes back decades in the past. The Church has been working silently and very systematically in creating these Hindu-like “folk” expressions.
In Tamil Nadu, it started with a French Catholic priest Jules Monchanin (1895-1957), who wanted to “kill” Hinduism while appropriating the key Hindu elements into Christianity. He had observed that the more a Hindu becomes spiritual the more it becomes impossible to convert him to Christianity. He founded the “Saccidananda Ashram”, which is actually a Benedictine monastery. After his death, Henri Le Saux (1910-1973) took over the institution. He undertook fieldwork by visiting Hindu holy places and conducting clandestine Christian masses in the sacred spaces of Hindus. He wanted to create what he called “Christian Advaita”; he even had a project for creating a “Catholic Ramana”.
However, before his death he started criticising the exclusive nature of the Church and even questioned the necessity of Jesus for a real spiritual pursuit. Nevertheless, he produced some of the most important manuals for appropriation of Hindu culture and dilution of its spirituality. After his death, the appropriation project was taken over by his successor Bede Griffiths.
Griffiths who gave himself the name Swami Dayananda, just like Henri Le Saux, started visiting various Hindu holy places. Wearing saffron robes and donning the Hindu name, which he used less frequently, he made friends with Hindus, who took him into the temple interiors. Witnessing Hindu credulity first hand, he was optimistic that soon Hinduism would die. He wrote:
I am gradually clarifying my views on Hinduism. I feel it is passing away. However strong it may be at the moment, it cannot survive the impact of modern thought which is undermining it on all sides. What is necessary is that its essential holiness should be preserved. … Its mythology – however beautiful cannot stand. It must come to recognize Christ as the unique historic manifestation of God and only then can its essential values be preserved. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 5.8.1955. From Adrian B. Rance, Falling in love with India: From the letters of Bede Griffiths, Saccidananda Ashram, 2006)
Theology of Colonialism as Christian Love
Griffiths was an apologist for colonialism. His colonialism was theological. In any negative incident he observed in Indian context, he was ready to stereotype and essentialise Indian culture. When a Syrian Catholic inmate was found stealing and having affairs with women, Griffiths blamed it on both Hinduism as well as the general Indian nature:
There was also as I believe you would find in a typical Hindu, a vivid sense of the presence of God in nature and a spontaneous piety. But with all this there goes almost complete absence of moral principle, and I am afraid this is terribly typical of India. I have found that it is almost impossible to trust anyone’s word. Lying, cheating, stealing, swindling seems to be in the blood and in his case at least (I don’t know how much of this is general) sexual promiscuity. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 25.3.1956)
The racial and colonial prejudice almost bordering a hatred towards Indians and Hinduism is a constant factor one sees throughout the writings of Griffiths. What is astonishing is that he was able to pen down these views after his own West had seen what such prejudices and hatred could do as in the case of Nazi Germany. However, Griffiths was able to always camouflage his hatred as “Christian love” which wanted to rectify the innate Hindu deficiency. He explained in a letter in what sense really he loved Indians:
Of course I love these Indians as my brothers. … But I assure you I have no illusions about them. I see the virtues of the British very clearly – they are honest, straightforward just and reliable – while Indians are lacking in these qualities. Of course India owes almost everything as a modern nation to the British…. But the British had a fatal defect—they could not accept the Indians as their equals—they always imagined themselves to be a superior race. There is good reason for this—we are superior in certain ways—but the Indians have qualities of religion and virtue and affection. … They need us and (we) can help them and they are deeply thankful for all we have given them—but they could not accept (us) as superiors—that is why we had to go. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 6.6.1959)
The letter is important because in a way Griffiths brings out the mindset of most of the post-colonial Western Indologists as well. As we will see, the world-view of Griffiths and his works prefigure the works of Western religious scholars like Wendy Doniger and Jeffrey Kripal studying Hinduism. His colonial prejudice of Indians and his faith in the lack of morality in Indian psyche was so deep-rooted that he treated even Indian Catholics close to him with suspicion. For example, a Gandhian Catholic named Stephen was attracted by this saffron-clad westerner. About him Griffiths writes:
I have been trying to form a group of oblates here … two or three young Indian Catholics. One of these is called Stephen—he has become a very close friend of mine. He calls me his “guru” and I act as his director. He is working in Vinoba Bhave’s Sarvodaya movement. … Stephen is heart and soul in this movement and is doing wonderful work…. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 21.03.1960)
The “guru” was finding the “Indian” nature of his “disciple” unpredictable. (“Like all Indians he needs watching—you never quite know what they will do next!”) Nevertheless, he was very happy that the “disciple” was “very faithful to us” and “had taken a private vow of obedience”. However, soon Griffiths discovered Stephen‘s behaviour not very satisfactory. So the “guru” blamed the disciple in a letter—it was of course Hinduism which had to be blamed.
But Stephen is a queer mixture. I am afraid that he is very unbalanced. He had wonderful ideas but was quite incapable of carrying them out…. All these are of course problems of the unconscious, which is still find it difficult to fathom. … This gives wonderful spontaneity, but it leaves one terribly exposed to the forces of emotions and the imagination. That is why I find people here so unreliable—they are carried away by their feelings and imagination (Stephen is very much this type) and you can never rely on them. They may also be exposed to the deeper forces of the unconscious – the gods and demons. This is evident in Hinduism generally.… — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 27.08.1960)
As one can see the shallow stereotyped analysis of defects in a human individual as a result of the unconscious forces of his culture and reducing the sacred in another culture to “deeper forces of unconscious”, have all been done already by Griffiths. So when a Wendy Doniger or a Paul Courtright does similar “analysis” of Hinduism, what is essentially being carried out, intentionally or unknowingly, is a crypto-colonial project which embeds in its core theo-racism.
Coming back to his own project in India, of all the three, Griffiths shows remarkable consistency in his approach to Hinduism. He too was an advocate of fulfillment theology. In 1956, he wrote that India needed the “moral force” of Christianity outlining how to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Bhagavad Gita:
Christ must be seen as the fulfillment of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: Krishna is not sufficient to receive the devotion he asks for, he is not serious enough. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 8.4.1956)
Using Hindu Universalism for Christian Exclusiveness
Griffiths also decided to use one important aspect of Hinduism as an evangelical tool—its universal inclusiveness.
My idea is that Hinduism is valid as far as it goes but it is incomplete and needs Christ to fulfill its true purpose. If a man goes far enough in Hinduism with a sincere desire for truth, he will eventually come to Christ…. I find that most of these [Hindu] boys know something of Christ and no Hindu finds any difficulty in acknowledging him as a son of God, an avatar (like the Buddha). But to realize how Christ is the son of God, how he fulfills all religion, how he delivers from sin and incorporate all mankind in himself, how he introduces us into inner life of the Trinity—all this is beyond them at present, and can only come in time. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 27.5.1956)
While he saw the Hindu boys accepting Jesus as one of the avatars like Buddha as a stepping stone towards evangelising them to Christianity, he vehemently opposed any Western / Christian author adopting a similar syncretic inclusive vision of all spiritual traditions. Thus he rejected the thesis of Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) thus:
I have been reading Schuon’s latest book Sentier de Gnose (Footpaths of Gnosis (Knowledge)). I see more clearly than I have ever done how fundamentally false is his whole position. … Everything he writes of Christianity is false in this sense—it is fundamentally perverted. It is nothing but a form of Gnosticism, the ancient heresy. … Schuon is more subtle, because he knows the whole oriental tradition and attempts to assimilate Christianity, a form of Gnosis—an esoteric wisdom which places it on a level with Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam…. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 23.6.1957)
So what is useful and valid for evangelism in Hindu mindset, when it accepts Jesus as divine similar to an avatar, becomes “fundamentally false” and “fundamentally perverted” when a Christian / Western author tries to place Christianity “on a level” with other religions!
What is important is that these theological studies are not abstract entities residing only in the papers. They get translated into concrete evangelical entities.
In Sandhya Vandhana, the prayer book that is in use in Shantivanam, the popular Hindu bhajans in every major Indian language are distorted to Christianise them. The famous Ragupathi Ragava Raja Ram used by Mahatma Gandhi declares Hindu universalism and aims to promote communal harmony. In the Hindi section of bhajans present in the ashram handbook, the verses are twisted to proclaim the superior exclusiveness of Jesus and Christianity:
Sab bole Prabhu Yesu nam Patita pavana Yesu nam. … Sab se accha Yesu Nam Papa nivarana Yesu nam [The name of Jesus is better than other names]. — (Sandhya Vandana, Saccidananda Ashram, Shantivanam, pp. 41:2)
Fritjof Schunon to Gandhi bhajan, the Hindu universalism becomes a doorway to proclaim Christian exclusiveness.
Hindu Seers—Belittled Inside but Praised Outside
What was true for Hinduism and Indian culture was also true for the great seers of Hinduism. Thus Sri Ramakrishna was no more holy than Ramana Maharishi and could come only just nearer to St Francis of Assisi, and could not even be his equals. To Griffiths the life of Ramakrishna also showed what Hinduism lacked with respect to Christianity. He wrote:
By the way Bernard Kelly sent me the Gospel of Ramakrishna. It is the most wonderful book. … I don’t think he is more holy than Ramana Maharishi, but his character is much more rich. His was the way of bhakti and he was carried away in ecstasy of love.… He is perhaps nearer to St Francis of Assisi than anyone. … I don’t think that anything gives a better idea of the real heart of Hindu religion. One can also see what it lacks in comparison with Christianity. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 22.7.1956)
Belittling Hindu seers by comparing them to Jesus or Christian saints is another consistent feature of Griffith’s writing. Almost a decade after writing the above lines, he wrote again about these two remarkable self-realised saints of recent times:
I mentioned Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharishi with their triumph over pain and their capacity to live in God above the whole state of the body. But I don’t honestly believe that this is the highest state. Christ accepted pain—he really suffered, physically and mentally, as they did not and through his suffering he came to the total surrender to God. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 12.6.1966)
Regarding the disciples of Swami Sivananda addressing him as bhagawan, he called that as “a weakness of Hinduism”. Though he thought Swami Sivananda as one with great powers and one having done much good, he found the atmosphere “not pleasant”. Swami Sivananda was “very fat and rather sickly man … conducted to coach and laid out as if in bed by devout females” many of whom were “Germans of a theosophical kind”. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 22.4.1964)
Despite all these reservations and criticism against Hindu saints, which he was free to have as a devout Christian, he would not hesitate to indulge in deception by uttering the names of very same Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharishi as his guides, when confronted by Hindu scholars and seers. When a Hindu sannyasi Swami Devananda questioned the right of a Christian missionary to appropriate Aum, he accused the Hindu of being “a sectarian” and wrote:
I am concerned with the universal essence of Hinduism, as found in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita and in modern masters like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Ramana Maharishi and Mahatma Gandhi. These have always been my guides. — (Bede Griffiths to Swami Devananda, letter dated 16.10.1987, in Sita Ram Goel, Catholic Ashrams: Sannyasins or Swindlers, Voice of India, 1988 & 1994, p.143)
Even before he took over, while staying at Shantivanam, he took many scouting visits to the great Hindu temples of South India—particularly Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thanjavur and Srirangam—very similar to his predecessor Henri Le Saux. Mixing with Hindus, projecting himself as an admirer of Hinduism and hiding his Christian identity, he could gain access to the inner sanctum of the temples where only Hindus are allowed. From these visits he conjectured that it was the darkness of the unconscious that the Hindu temples represented and this was their attraction:
The whole effect is very strange—the Brahmin priests naked to the waist wearing the sacred thread and with heads half shaven, the weird primitive music with beating of drums and the scent of incense—the crowds of people. Yet I felt through it all intense appeal to the unconscious … this great world of unconscious which is the real Hindu temple—architecture, music, sculpture, the shrine half hidden in darkness—all belong to the world of unconscious, and it is this symbolism of the unconscious that draws the millions of India to the temples. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 22.12.1956)
After seeing Thanjavur big temple, his visit ended with Srirangam—the greatest of the Vaishnavite shrines. Now he wrote decisively:
I have never seen anything so sublime, not even in a Romanesque church. But at the same time one feels the limitation of his [Hindu] religion. It is a religion of nature and never rising above nature. I came away with the sense of oppression. I feel that this is essentially a primitive religion which must be transcended. A time must come when Christ takes the place of all the worship which is offered to these gods of nature. As education grows people will not be content with the myths of Siva and Vishnu; they will want the truth and only Christ can answer this need of the soul. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 22.12.1956)
Like Henri Le Saux, Griffiths also visited Elephanta caves. He also wrote about it later:
When I landed at Bombay I went to see the Elephanta caves and the great statue of Siva there left a lasting impression on me. Here at the threshold of India I found graven in stone that profound spirit of contemplation which has given inner meaning…. — (Bede Griffiths, Christ in India: Essays Towards a Hindu-Christian Dialogue, Bangalore 1967 & 1984, p.20)
In the same book he also makes it clear that Shiva is nothing more than “shadow of the mystery of Christ” (p.100).
Not only Hindus, but all those outside the Catholic Church, according to Griffiths, were just making “better use of lesser grace” and “fullness of grace and revelation” being present only within the Church, it becomes “our privilege and responsibility” to convert and bring all non-Catholics into the Church. Soon he was deconstructing Hindu symbols as well. The Hindu symbols were not only incomplete which had to be fulfilled by Jesus but left to themselves they would become evil and negative, he reasoned:
I believe that these symbols, the Golden Flower for instance or the Hindu temple can be a genuine revelation of God. But in so far as they are not redeemed—in other words do not belong to Christ—they have a daemonic aspect which can have a devastating power. … I see more and more clearly that Hinduism must be redeemed in order that it may reveal all is hidden power and beauty, otherwise it can devour the soul. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 23.6.1957)
Griffiths combined the traditionally implicit Christian anti-Semitism in the replacement theology with a Hindu-hatred in his fulfillment theology drawing parallels:
In the same way in so far as Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita reveals the way to ultimate goal of the Atman, he may be said to be a type of Christ. What Christianity brings is the fulfillment of this cosmic revelation. Christ is infinitely more than Krishna and the Kingdom of Heaven is infinitely (more) than Nirvana. But just as St. Thomas [Aquinas] holds that the knowledge of the Trinity and the Incarnation is implicit in primeval revelation, so I would say that the knowledge of Christ and Kingdom of Heaven is implicit in the experience of the Atman or of Nirvana. … They are the same supernatural reality but it is only in Christ that the fullness of this supernatural mystery is revealed. There is very close analogy with the Old Testament. Noah, Melchisedec and Job (who are pagans), Moses, David and Isaiah, all had true knowledge of God, but their knowledge was incomplete, and their experience therefore imperfect. Christ fulfills at once the Old Testament and the cosmic covenant. In this sense both Hinduism and Buddhism await their fulfillment in Him. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 21.3.1960)
Griffiths often descended into an attack on the Hindu deities declaring that they were ‘attractive’ but not ‘good’ and that they lacked morality.
The Infinite holy god of wonder and terror was also the God of infinite justice and moral goodness. In India idea of the holy is still overwhelmingly strong, but it is not particularly moral. Siva (with his lingam) is a holy God, at once terrible and lovely, but he is not particularly good! So also Krishna is holy—an object of worship and love and adoration. But he does not make any great demand on his devotees. I feel that this is what Hinduism lacks and why it needs Christ. He alone is absolutely holy and absolutely good. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 19.10.1958)
What is remarkable about Griffiths is the way such ideas about Hinduism become so fixed and rigid in his thought process. Despite his claims of “studying Hinduism” and being guided by its universal essence, etc. one finds the very same ideas expressed again in almost the very same words almost 17 years late in 1976:
What is more, he (Krishna) is morally ambivalent. He is a symbol of highest divinity, yet as a man he is shown to be a trickster, a deceiver who brings disaster on his people and is finally ignominiously slain…. [Siva] is the symbol of the purest love but this is in terms of gross sexuality. It is the same with Siva. He is the God of love, of infinite beauty and grace, whose nature is being, knowledge and bliss, the Father, the Saviour, the Friend. Yet his symbol is the lingam and like Krishna has many wives. — (Bede Griffiths, Return to the Centre, Collins, U.K. 1976, pp.76-7)
To him, Hinduism was nothing but descent into the darkness of unconscious with all its attractions and dangers and that to swim across it unharmed and reach real spiritual liberation one needed Jesus, as Hinduism was deficient:
…how I love Hinduism! Everything is there except Christ. I see more and more clearly that all we have to do is to place Christ in the centre of Hinduism. But how to do it? … I am sure that it is a question of coming to terms with the unconscious (the Hindu lives from the unconscious), … The unconscious is full of demons and daemonic powers which seek to ‘possess’ us as you say. … There is evil in Hinduism and in all Hindu society. … I believe that it is Christ alone who can set us free from the unconscious. … For me Hinduism seems to act as a means for regaining contact with the unconscious but it must be Hinduism transformed by Christ. Hinduism by itself will not do. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 23.7.1960)
The depiction of Hinduism as nothing but the unconscious or the “dark” or “negative” (as deemed by the Christian values) forces of the unconscious is so pervasive in the works of Griffiths. Today, they are very familiar in the Western academic circles studying Hinduism—particularly in Wendy Doniger-Jeffrey Kripal school. Doniger-Kripal school of course does not speak of Jesus but in the place of Jesus they place the superior Western academic discourse, which, of course, always has been unwittingly an aid for evangelism during both colonial centuries and post-colonial decades.
Despite all his seemingly adoring words to portray Hinduism, a small scratch on the surface—an intelligent criticism over his real motives would bring out torrents of the hatred he harboured against Hinduism. Almost 30 years after he wrote the above lines, in 1990 he wrote scathingly to Sita Ram Goel when he questioned the ethics of the methods and the theology underlying them:
I suggested to Mr. Goel that the Voice of India might well make a special study of the various aspects of Hinduism. I suggest as a beginning the history of human sacrifice and temple prostitution from the earliest times to the present day…. Another institution is the practice of sorcery and magic…. Above all there is the problem of untouchability. Surely one of the greatest crimes in the history of religion…. I love Hinduism, not only the Vedas and the Gita and Vedanta but popular Hindu piety and its cultured traditions but I try to get a balanced view of it. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 06.4.1990, from Sita Ram Goel 1988 &1994, pp.171-2)
Obsession with Marriage Syndrome
The second part of Griffiths’ autobiography is titled: The Marriage of East and West. In this he wrote:
I wanted to experience in my life the marriage of these two dimensions of human existence, the rational and intuitive, the conscious and unconscious, the masculine and feminine. I wanted to find the way to the marriage of East and West. — (Bede Griffiths, The Marriage of East and West, Templegate Publisher, 1982, p. 8)
This marriage notion of Griffiths has been often lauded by his followers as some sort of a deeper spiritual synthesis. A reviewer of a hagiographic video on Griffiths says:
The persistent theme throughout is of the union of opposites: East and West, Christianity and Hinduism (and other religions), right brain / left brain, masculine / feminine, rational / intuitive. — (Beatrice Bruteau, Film Review: “A Human Search: The Life of Father Bede Griffiths, The Golden String”, Bulletin of the Bede Griffiths Trust, Vol. I, No. I, Spring 1994, p.7)
However, a study of the origin of this theme in its formative stages in the works of Griffiths, reveals more colonial prejudice and personal pathos than any genuine spiritual need for the harmony of deeper opposites. To Griffiths, though Hinduism had “affection and natural grace” it lacked being “honest, straightforward, just and reliable” These qualities of Hinduism, he identified with the feminine and found the British element masculine. He wrote:
I feel in a sense they are our opposites—it is male versus female—conscious versus unconscious, and it is not easy to marry with them. Yet this is what we ought to have done for their own sake.… — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 6.6.1959)
He would reveal later that in seeking the feminine in India he was also resolving a personal crisis:
…I am sure that my problem is that of the anima. At school we were brought up in a totally masculine world. We scarcely even referred to a mother or sister and a mother was known as ‘the mater’. We never saw girls or women (except for the matron). … Unfortunately, there were not many feminine contacts at home either, so altogether I was starved…. That is why people like Cherian and Stephen attract me—and why India attracts me. People here all live from the anima.… Hence all the lying and cheating and stealing, and a lack of moral integrity. — (Bede Griffiths’ letter dated 15.10.1961)
Repressed sex was also bothering him. After a stroke in the early 1990s he explained:
It is your flesh and your blood that this has to penetrate. It then moves down through the sex region. That is very important too, because that tends to be suppressed. In my own experience it was very much repressed. I am rediscovering the whole sexual dimension of life at the age of eighty-six, really. And that also means discovering the feminine. — (Bede Griffiths quoted in “Self-Surrender and Self-Realization in Bede Griffiths” by Bruno Barnhart, The Golden String Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 2)
One wonders if his attacks on Sri Krishna and Shiva as well as his stereotyping of Hindus and India as lacking moral sense, being dishonest, etc. were more the amalgamation of his own repressed sexuality combined with the colonial theology. He wrote that he was starved of the feminine. Was his conversion attempts then elaborate predatory rituals on the nation and culture perceived as the feminine prey? In fact in the current context one has to ask if these innate tendencies of Catholic Church are what making the priests turn predatory paedophiles on their own flock?
Is it time for Hindus to reverse the direction and do a fulfillment mission on Christianity? Perhaps what Christianity needs is the replacement of a crucified Christ by a dancing Siva or a Krishna whose melody can redeem the Church of its repressed sexuality?
Despite Griffiths and his acolytes claiming that the so-called “Christian Advaita” was deeper than Sankara’s Advaita, Cyprian Consiglio, another Catholic theologian, found him saying in his previous interviews that Griffiths thought Abhishiktananda “went too far”.
Appropriating the Vision of New Physics
Meanwhile, new developments were happening in physics which had theological consequences for Christianity. Griffiths was painfully aware that Hinduism even with no institutional mechanism like the Church was able to get itself into a constructive dialogue with the philosophical impacts of New Physics. Griffiths was equally aware of the deficiencies of his own Christian theology. He noted:
David Bohm speaks as a theoretical physicist, of unity and interconnectedness in what he calls the implicate order, prior to the world of separate entities which is our normal experience. The implicate order is constantly unfolding, giving rise to the explicate order of particular forms and structures. This is where the new scientific understanding of the universe meets with the non-dualist traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and so on. — (Bede Griffiths, “The New Consciousness” quoted in “New Age and New Science in Bede’s thought” by Everado Pedraza, The Golden String, Vol. 14, No. 1, Summer 2007)
He was acutely aware of the deficiency of Christianity to incorporate into it the holistic vision provided by New Physics and the parallels pointed out by physicists like Schrodinger, Capra, Bohm, etc. between the vision of New Physics and Indic systems of inner science. Quoting Teasdale, Everardo Pedraza, an admiring author of Griffiths writes:
Yet there was still the question of where and how Christianity and its mystical tradition fit into this interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue. Indeed, “Father Bede was aware of this deficiency and sought in numerous lectures to show how Christianity and its mystical tradition fit in, primarily through the intuitions of Trinity, Godhead, and the Incarnation.” — (Everardo Pedraza, “New Age and New Science in Bede’s thought” in The Golden String, 2007)
To achieve this, he recruited Rupert Sheldrake—a British biologist advocating questionable pseudo-scientific vitalist theories—who also shared the colonial prejudices of Griffiths including the negative stereotyping of Indic traditions as fatalistic and uncaring towards human suffering.
To make Christian theology presentable as being in sync with the world-view emerging from New Physics, Griffiths did not hesitate to take Hindu darshanas and then give a little Christian tweak to them. How this is done by providing a Christian twist to an originally Hindu concept is unwittingly described by Catholic theologian Brian J. Pierce:
From there Fr. Bede makes his usual connections with the new physics, especially the theory of ‘implicate order’ proposed by David Bohm. ‘The whole physical universe today is understood as a vast field of energies vibrating at different frequencies,’ says Fr. Bede. He then likens these varied energy vibrations to whirlpools in a river, concluding that ‘my body is a particular whirlpool, and yours, and so on…. Christ is the new Adam in whom our dis-integrated human family is healed and so made one again (1 Cor 15:45ff). In the 1989 satsang he connects this image with the Hindu figure of the Purusha, a theme which he develops further in chapters six and seven of A New Vision of Reality. — (Brian J. Pierce, “This Is My Body—This Is That”, The Golden String, Vol. 4 No. 2, Winter 1997-98)
But all these borrowing from Hinduism to compensate the deficiencies of his own religion does not make him acknowledge this fact. Rather he went on pointing to what he perceived as the deficiencies of Hinduism. Apart from the lack of “moral” compass, Hinduism also lacked social conscience as Advaita made people withdraw from the world. Griffiths wrote:
I feel the danger of Hindu mysticism is to retire into an inner reality of infinite riches and beauty and so on, but it doesn’t relate you to others, and the danger of the sannyasi in India is he is not really concerned with other people. That’s why you can meet people dying in the streets of Calcutta and not worry much about it. It’s part of karma. — (Bede Griffiths in an interview dated September 1992, from the transcript of Exploring the Christian-Hindu Dialogue: A Visit with Bede Griffiths, Inner Explorations, USA)
In hindsight, the historical irony is cruel. In reality, it was a British Christian Winston Churchill who engineered one of the severest famines of that century in Bengal and countless people perished in the streets of Calcutta because of the inhuman Hindu-phobic attitude of Churchill to which his Christian upbringing also contributed in no small amount. It was Hindu nationalist Syama Prasad Mukherjee and Hindu volunteers who fought against the famine created by the British. The subsequent post-independent Calcutta scenario too was more because of the colonial impoverishment rather than the stereotyped Hindu apathy.
Shantivanam, Aryan-Dravidian Racism and Evangelism in the Field
While Griffiths was not primarily interested in Aryan-Dravidian race theory, he did use them in his approach to Hinduism. And where he used them, he tried to show Hinduism as an Aryan development that integrated into itself a positive element of non-Aryan tribal tradition.
Thus Krishna worship, tantra, Shiva worship were all originally non-Hindu, tribal (for he considers tribal as non-Hindu and Aryan as Hindu) traditions integrated into Aryan Hinduism. When analysing the historical development of the Krishna worship and devotion in India, he suggested that “Krishna had been a non-Aryan deity absorbed into the Hindu pantheon through his identification with Vishnu”. With regard to tantra, Griffith speculated:
But in the third century C.E., this movement of Tantra came into Hinduism and Buddhism. It was a movement from below and must have come from pre-Aryan people. It’s not Aryan which is patriarchal, but pre-Aryan—it comes from the earth. (Bede Griffiths with Matthew Fox, The Other Half of My Soul: Bede Griffiths and the Hindu-Christian Dialogue, Quest Books, 1996, p.328)
In an article that was published in the winter 2004-2005 issue of The Golden String, the bulletin of Bede Griffiths Trust, the writer appreciatively described the Griffiths perspective of grouping Indic spiritual traditions into racial binaries:
Bede marvelously traces how historically the Tantric texts, which first begin to appear in the third century CE, rise up out of the indigenous Dravidian Shaivism of south India, where devotion to God as mother is very strong, so the tendency is to assert the values of nature and of the body, of the senses and of sex. Many things which tended to be suppressed in the Aryan Vishnu tradition came to be reverenced by Tantra. — (Cyprian Consiglio, “Awaken and Surrender”, The Golden String, Bulletin of the Bede Griffiths Trust, Vol. 11, No. 2, Winter 2004-2005, p.1)
Again one can see here the framework that would also be used by David Gordon White—studying tantra through the Brahmin-non-Brahmin ethnic binary.
After assigning such non-Hindu roots to tribal spiritual traditions (which in reality are organically associated with Hindu Goddess traditions), Mary is introduced as the “dark mother of the oppressed”. Here is where the abstract theological conjectures and experimental structures fabricated in Shantivanam slowly enter the political space. Another Shantivanam product, Christian artist Jyoti Sahi, elaborates upon this idea of Griffiths thus:
Some years ago I was asked to make an image of the ‘Dalit ki Mata’, or the Mother of the Dalits. The word Dalit, coming from Dal, meaning the earth, or that which is broken, crushed, made me think of this image of the cave. Could the Mother of the Dalits be this primordial figure of the woman in the cave? But then what would this woman look like? Traditionally she has been pictured as dark-skinned, as in the figure of the ‘Black Madonna’ who was definitely a representation of ‘Our Lady of the Rocks’, who perhaps was in ancient times worshiped in dark caves, where she was associated with the chthonic forces of the underworld. — (Jyoti Sahi, The Lady and the Cave, Reflections on the Meaning of the Black Madonna, United Theological College, Women’s Studies Department, Bangalore)
Interestingly, this again, the image of Mary as the mother of the oppressed seems to be for Indian evangelical market. Where Catholicism had triumphed, feminist theologian China Galland witnessed as late as 2000 in Brazil how Catholic priests exhorting people to be like Mary “obedient, reasonable, serene above all obedient”, writes:
Once again I see how the devotion to Mary … is also used by the Church to control people, especially women. — (The Black Madonna and the Limits of Light: Looking Underneath Christianity, A Teaching for Our Time in the Fabric of the Future: Women Visionaries of Today illuminate the Path to Tomorrow, ed. M. J. Ryan, Patrice Wynne, Conari, 2000)
One can find many icons of Mary clad in Indian dress placed in many areas at Shantivanam. The chapel entrance tower displays a Mary similar to a Hindu goddess donning a vermillion mark and performing abhaya hasta, seated below Jesus. Today, we find in select areas of Tamil Nadu such promotion of Indianised form of Mary—specifically to compete with and replace Mariamman—the mother goddess of the folk tradition, who was popularised during the freedom struggle by Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi. After strategically promoting such designed syncretism, the missionary scholars enter, do research and proclaim that there are similarities between worship of Mary and Mariamman. For example, in the book Christian Folk Traditions: An introductory study published from the Bishop House, Nagercoil, in 2007, Brigitte Sebastia had a paper “Maariyamman—Mariyamman: Catholic Practices and Image of Virgin in Velankanni”.
Shantivanam chapel itself is built in the style of Hindu symbols. For example, generally, Hindu temples of South India have in the four corners of the gopuram, an animal, which is the mount of the deity. In the case of goddess it is lion and in the case of Shiva it is the bull. The Shantivanam chapel features very similar bull, lion, eagle and they actually represent the evangelists Luke, Mark and John. Those recognised by the Catholic Church as officially saints are shown in the base tier of the gopuram—in Hindu saffron clothing—like mendicants or siddhas and above them Jesus is depicted in yogic postures. In Shiva temples usually on the southern side of the gopuram, Shiva is depicted as Dakshinamurthi. In the Shantivanam chapel, Jesus is depicted as Dakshinamurthi.
The inculturation attempt to Christianise Hindu sculptural and temple architectural elements cannot be seen in isolation. In parallel to what Shantivanam is doing, Christian missionaries are developing pseudo-historical narratives that it was the revolution of ancient Christianity brought by St Thomas to India that became all the Saivaite and Vishnu temples in South India, which were later appropriated by Aryan Brahmins. Thus a notorious Dravidianist—Christologist, Deivanayakam and his late daughter Devakala, both of whose works were promoted by Chennai Roman Catholic Diocese, claimed:
Though Saivism and Vaishnavism have nothing to do with the Vedas the Saivite and Vaishnavite figures came to be considered as Brahminical gods and goddesses. … The pantheon of the Hindu gods were given anthropomorphic form only in the later period. Saivism and Vaishnavism are the offshoots of early Indian Christianity and the sculptures of Saivism and Vaishnavism are actually the visual aids for the doctrine of Trinity, and the doctrine of incarnation or avatar. … This triune God is depicted as “three faced Siva” with one body. In Ellora and Elephanta the icons of Siva with three faces in one body are seen in large numbers. — (M. Deivanayagam & D. Devakala, Iconography of Hindu Religion)
Griffiths also gives Christian meaning to the most venerated Hindu symbols like the dance of Shiva and instructs Catholic missionaries how to Christianise Nataraja, the presiding deity of Chidambaram. Kim “Nataraja”, an acolyte of Shantivanam project explains:
When Fr. Bede visited Sr. Pascaline, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at the Osage Monastery, Forest of Peace, in Oklahoma in 1978. He presented them with a statue of Nataraja, saying that Christians must begin to see Nataraja as the symbol of the risen Christ. It is easy to see why he felt this to be so. — (Kim Nataraja, “The Dancing Siva” in The Bede Griffiths Sangha Newsletter, Vol. 2, Is. 3, September 1999)
In the “evangelical manual” given to evangelical workers in Tamil Nadu, question number 193 is about Nataraja. The explanation given is that it in reality symbolises Jesus winning over death but the book claims that these meanings were distorted by the Aryan Brahmins.
Today, many such texts which claim India to be “a Christian nation” and provide evangelical guidelines based on inculturation and appropriation are available throughout Tamil Nadu in many Christian stores. These books are approved by Roman Catholic Diocese officials.
Sleeper Cells for Christianising Hinduism
Inside Shantivanam, one finds thus various forms of Jesus at experimental stage. These forms imitate popular Hindu sacred icons. Jesus sitting in the lotus position like a yogi with four forms of him sitting adjacent to each other in four directions looks typically Hindu. The aim is to increase the Hindu universal acceptance to a point where he or she will accept the Trojan of Jesus-exclusiveness presented in Indian garb.
There is a statue of Jesus in yoga pose under a five-headed serpent. Given the fact that Tamil Nadu waysides and the banks of village water bodies abound in the images of Hindu gods and goddesses seated under such five-headed serpents, eventual installation of such theo-plagiarised Christian statues can create considerable confusion in the minds of people while at the same time fulfilling the mission of the Shantivanam founders to replace the Hindu deities with the Christian deity at the centre of Hindu spiritual traditions.
They are at the experimental stage—waiting for the right time of launch—for Christianising Hindu institutions and spiritual traditions. The Shantivanam movement finds parallel for this kind of operation in the history of the Church—when it captured the [ancient Greek and Roman] pagan religious institutions, their celebrations and places of worship.
A commemorative issue in honour of Monchanin, its founder, published by Saccidananda Ashram explains:
When St. Gregory the Great sent the monk Augustine to the Angles, he directed him not to deprive them of their places of worship or customary festivities, but to transform their temples into Christian ones and to dedicate to the Saints their religious festivals. The Indian Church at least in the Tamil Nadu made at times wonderful use of these directives…. In short Shantivanam was only an attempt amongst others an effort to recapture a spirit and to prepare this spirit to find in due time its right outcome and Christian expression, in matters of cult, art, etc.
Today, the experiments done in the quite obscure corners of Tamil Nadu are being tested openly by the Church. For example, John Samule, a Christian zealot and director of Institute of Asian Studies spearheaded the “Murugan conferences”. He emphasised that his approach was more to approach Murugan as a historical figure than a deity. Though Saivism categorically states that Murugan has no human birth, this thesis was first put forward in the Murugan conferences.
Later, Seeman, a Christian born Tamil secessionist started vociferously stating that Murugan was just a deified ancestor of Tamils. Soon, St Thomas, who in a historically unattested story [was said to have been] martyred in Madras, was presented by the Church similar to Murugan with his spear, and his forehead adorned with holy ashes and vermillion in Hindu fashion.
Meanwhile, Shantivanam and many such institutions throughout India and abroad silently carry out their mission and operation, making full use of the Hindu ignorance of the preparations for a “war” against them. – Swarajya, 26 November 2017
» Aravindan Neelakandan is an economist, psychologist, author and contributing editor at Swarajya magazine. He is best known for the book Breaking India which he co-authored with Rajiv Malhotra.