Dilatato Corde 7:2
July – December, 2017
Mario Aguilar
Christian-Hindu Monastic Dialogue in India 1950-1993
We should not underestimate the influence historical and cultural factors have on the flourishing or diminishing of interreligious dialogue. For example, historical events and trends in the United States that influenced interreligious dialogue could include interest in Asian religions among veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, American cultural optimism regarding pluralism in the 1960s, demographic shifts in religious life, and the promulgation of Church documents on interreligious dialogue.

With regard to India, one could ask what factors account for the earlier and more advanced and influential development of interreligious dialogue in India than in other countries of Asia. One could be that India is the second most populous nation in Asia and the world. A comparison of postcolonial India with Communist China would also demonstrate the effects of contrasting governmental systems on interreligious dialogue.​

In Christian Ashrams, Hindu Caves and Sacred Rivers: Christian-Hindu Monastic Dialogue in India 1950-1993, Mario Aguilar seems to aspire to such an examination of historical context on interreligious dialogue in India, stating in the first paragraph of the introduction, “Within this contextual rather than philosophical approach, history not only becomes the tool to understand changes in the context of dialogue, but it becomes the locus theologicus where any reflections about religious and divine narratives take place” (p. 11). However, a variety of factors prevent this book from accomplishing this worthwhile endeavor.
Aguilar presents five major contributors to Christian-Hindu dialogue in the twentieth century:
  • Jules Monchanin (Swami Paramārūbyānanda) in Chapter One, “Ashrams, Paramārūbyānanda, and Shantivanam”;
  • Henri La Saux (Abhishiktananda) in Chapters Two and Three, “Advaita and Abhishiktananda” and “Abhishiktananda, the Hindu Pilgrim”;
  • Bede Griffiths (Dhayananda) in Chapter Four, “Dhayananda, Hospitality and Dialogue”;
  • Francis Mahieu (Acharya) in Chapter Five, “Francis Mahieu and Syro-Malabar Monasticism”;
  • Raimon Panikkar in Chapters Six and Seven, “Raimon Panikkar and Multiple Belonging” and “Silence, the Pro-Logos and the Monk in Raimon Panikkar.”
Jules Monchanin, a French diocesan priest, was the first of the five to arrive in India. He went there in 1939 to minister in the Diocese of Tiruchirapalli. The first part of Chapter One provides a brief overview of ashrams in India: the first modern ashram, Bharat Ashram, founded in 1872; the first Protestant ashram, Tirupattur, southwest of Madras, founded by members of the National Missionary Society (NMS) in 1921; and the first Catholic ashram, founded by a Catholic sannyási, Swami Animananda, in Ranchi around 1940. This overview provides the background for the founding of Saccidananda Ashram at Shantivanam in 1950 by Monchanin and Henri Le Saux. This chapter concludes with a summary of three major controversies in the ashram movement in the post-Vatican II Church: the place of the Eucharist as the central Catholic sacrament, but a sign of separation for Hindu practitioners; the wearing of the saffron robes of the Hindu sannyási by European Christians; and the following of the advaita vedanta doctrine.
Having dealt with these controversies, Chapter Two commences with the arrival, in 1948, of the French Benedictine, Henri Le Saux, to join Monchanin in his endeavors. Since the founding of Shantivanam had been described in Chapter One, this chapter focuses on influence of the Holy Mountain of Arunachala on Le Saux, who had now adopted the name Abhishiktananda. Aguilar alternates between a historical recounting of Abhishiktananda’s early visits to Arunachala and an explication of the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, the guru who had a powerful influence on him. After recounting Abhishiktananda’s first visit to nearby Tiruvannamalai where he met Maharshi, who died the following year, Aguilar then shifts from historical narrative to a description of central themes in Maharshi’s teachings, articulated in Self-Inquiry, written in 1901, and five hymns to Arunachala composed around 1914 (pp, 53-57) His teachings on breathing as an exercise of self-purification to prepare for an encounter with the Absolute were a major influence on Abhishiktananda, inspiring him to seek the solitary life of a renunciate, a way of life that was not compatible with ashramic life at Shantivanam. The chapter concludes with the death, in 1957, of Monchanin, whose demise left Abhishiktananda with sole responsibility for Shantivanam until the arrival of Bede Griffiths in 1968.
Chapter Three recounts Abhishiktananda’s visits and eventual residence in the north of India. From his first visit to Binsar in 1959, he felt a powerful attraction to the possibilities for spiritual and liturgical development in the north of India. He longed to relocate there as soon as someone could be found to assume his role at Shantivanam. That person was the English monk, Bede Griffiths. The morning following Griffith’s arrival at Saccidananda, Abhishiktananda moved to Gyansu near the Ganges River, which became his home base until his death in 1973.
Chapter Four recounts the life of Bede Griffiths, both his early years in England where he met the Indian Benedictine, Fr. Benedict Alapatt, and his life in India after his arrival in 1955 until his death in 1993. Griffiths’ death bookends the timeframe of this book, yet the 1993 date is quite arbitrary since it does not represent a particularly significant historical moment other than the death of one of the five figures. There is no indication why Griffiths’ death in 1993 should be any more important than that of Mahieu who died in 2002 or that of Panikkar who died in 2010. One can only wonder why the author thought it was significant enough to be included in the title of his book.
Chapter Five describes the contribution of the Trappist monk Francis Mahieu who, like Griffiths, also arrived in India in 1955. After some time with Monchanin and Abhishiktananda at Shantivanam, Mahieu realized he wanted to found a Trappist monastery rather than an ashram. This chapter recounts his founding of the monastery of Kurisumala in Kerala as a Cistercian monastery of the Syriac rite in 1957. Aguilar’s description of Mahieu’s relationship with Griffiths, co-founder of Kurisumala, includes an account of the differences between the two that led to Griffiths’ move to Shantivanam.
Panikkar is the topic of the next two chapters. Chapter Six outlines his life with particular attention to his close friendship with Abhishiktananda from their first meeting in 1957 until Abhishiktananda’s death in 1973 and Chapter Seven describes Panikkar’s insights on silence, embodied in the archetype of the monk, as a foundation for Christian-Hindu dialogue.
One of my intentions in summarizing what the first seven chapters have to say about the five pioneers of Hindu-Christian dialogue is to draw attention to three aspects of this book that that I believe keep it from fulfilling what it had the potential to do.
First, it is not clear if the book is intended as an introduction to the life and work of these men or a book directed to a more advanced readership. The way the book is arranged suggests that the author is content with presenting these five individuals in one concise volume. Such an arrangement suggests that the author intends it to serve as a textbook for an academic course that successively studies each individual. Readers already conversant with these figures will skim over already familiar accounts their early lives. Nonetheless, as I will indicate below, there are sections of the book that lead one to think that the author intended it to be more than introductory text.
Second, the book is historical insofar as it is a collection of five biographies. Yet, at times, the author shifts gears and deals fairly deeply and extensively with theological questions. That is the case, for example, in Chapter Seven, the second chapter on Panikkar, “Silence, the Pro-Logos, and the Monk in Raimon Panikkar.” Here Aguilar summarizes Panikkar’s notion of the monk as archetype and the implications this understanding has for interreligious dialogue. He then “[offers his] own reading of some textual instances in which silence becomes a way and a possibility of encounter” (p. 151). The abrupt change from biography to theology in this chapter threatens to divert the already established historical tone and course of the book.
Third, focusing on five individuals leaves the reader with little sense of how the social and political realities of India affected their understanding and practice of interreligious dialogue. In fact, the dates 1950 and 1993 are not particularly relevant for marking out a significant period of time in India’s history. Saccidananda ashram was founded at Shantivanam in 1950, but Aguilar does not begin the story at this date (nor should he). He rightly reviews the history of the early twentieth century in dealing with the formative years and education of each individual. For example, he describes the pre-1950 negotiations these individuals conducted with their religious superiors, colleagues, and people in India they had contact with in order to receive their superiors’ approval to travel to India in the first place. However, the material presented does little more than provide biographical background. If he had brought this material together in a chapter dealing with developments from the early twentieth century up to independence in 1947, or the founding of Saccidananda in 1950, he would have been able to show what common issues affected these individuals’ negotiations with their religious superiors in Europe to gain their approval to go to India. In the years preceding the Second Vatican Council, the main motive for going to India would have been to engage in missionary work in accord with the example of Francis Xavier and Roberto De Nobili in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Scattered throughout this book are accounts of other events that call for deeper historical analysis, for example, the transfer of leadership of Saccidananda in 1968. The latter appears in the Chapter Two on Abhishiktananda, Chapter Four on Griffiths, and again in Chapter Five on Mahieu (pp. 61, 90, 125). Yet in each instance, the occasion is dealt with simply as a point within the journeys of each individual rather than in relation to the broader context of Hindu-Christian dialogue in post-Vatican II India.
Aguilar’s book is more than an introduction to five major figures in Hindu-Christian dialogue to the extent (which is very limited) that the broader Indian context is alluded to in the Introduction and Chapter Eight, “The Postcolonial God and the Proto-Christ.” The figure who could provide the richest illustration of the influence of Indian politics on interreligious dialogue would be Mahatma Gandhi, but he is only mentioned in passing. Yet these brief references hint at the larger story. In the wake of Indian independence, Hindu-Christian dialogue developed in an atmosphere created by Gandhi’s defiance of British imperialist Christianity and Hindu nationalism (p. 15). Aguilar asserts that among Hindus, Gandhi “remains the greatest example of dialogue and pluralistic inclusion” (pp. 24f), yet he offers little explication of Gandhi’s influence on interreligious dialogue in India during this time period.
Chapter Eight also contains allusions to the socio-political situation in India following independence. This chapter continues along the theological direction initiated in Chapter Seven. Aguilar states, “as these pioneers had to relocate from a colonial Europe to a postcolonial India, their own location of God had also to change” (p. 159). Here Aguilar begins to describe a shift from the colonial Christian God to a postcolonial God that can already been discerned throughout the rich tapestry of Indian religion. Such shifts were discerned by Asian contextual theologians such as Mary Rosario Battung and R.S. Sugirtharajah (pp. 162f). However, in this concluding chapter, it is too late for the author to start elaborating on the personal and ideological connections between these pioneers of Hindu-Christian dialogue and Indian contextual theologians.
In conclusion, let it be said that although this book does little more than suggest how important a detailed portrayal of the historical context would be for understanding the development of interreligious dialogue in India in the late twentieth century, it remains a solid overview of five major figures in this dialogue and also provides the reader with an excellent bibliography for further study of Monchanin, Abhishiktananda, Griffiths, Mahieu, and Panikkar.
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