Dilatato Corde 3:1
January - June, 2013
Aranya Kutir garden
Aranya Kutir garden



This reflection outlines the experience of interreligious dialogue in Sri Lanka and the way in which that experience led to a year at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in India, and specifically to the foundation of Aranya Kutir, an interspiritual contemplative community in northern India, inspired by the Hermits of Saccidananda. It outlines how the lives and messages of the Hermits—Father Jules Monchanin and particularly the monastic vision of Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux)—provides a method for those who feel drawn to a contemplative path that draws on the wisdom of both the Christian and Indian traditions. This article is written in recognition of this year as the fortieth maha-samadhi of Swami Abhishiktananda; and written on this 118th jayanthi of Father Monchanin.

A profound experience of interreligious dialogue occurred for me when I lived in Sri Lanka in 2006 as an aid worker involved in recovery projects after the devastating Asian tsunami. My assignment was with an NGO connected to a Theravada Buddhist monastery. A priority of the director of the NGO, who was also the Head Monk and to whom I shall simply refer as “Venerable,” was to assist people across all religions. My work brought me into contact with Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian communities. In between talking about project strategies, Venerable would teach me about the need to renounce everything, including attachment to philosophies and concepts. I raised my eyebrows. “Yes, it is very difficult” he counseled.

During that year I also volunteered at the Catholic Church. The parish priest requested that I speak with people from a range of faith traditions about their experience of the tsunami, to capture not so much the series of events, but rather the stories of the Spirit. One of the first persons I spoke with was Shakila, a young Buddhist woman I worked with. She told me, “I think, after the tsunami, people realized, ‘nothing lasts forever.’ We have to leave the material things behind, without any desire. The tsunami taught me that.”

As a person from the Christian tradition, entering into dialogue with people from various traditions about their spiritual experiences of the tsunami, I was introduced, inspired, and challenged by key aspects of the various traditions that came through in each of the stories of the tsunami. In Shakila’s comment, and that of other Buddhists, I could see commitment to the practice of detachment. In the stories of members of the Muslim community, I witnessed the conviction that the guest—whether me or a homeless person after the disaster—was an opportunity to serve God. As one man who lost his wife and daughter in the tsunami told me, “When people ask for help, we must help them. That is what Islam teaches. We must give help then Allah will help us. I found that, after the tsunami, my tsunami. So that is why my heart is always open, always looking to help the people.”  And in the Christian community, there was the strong sense of mission that evolved: “I think God has saved us for a purpose: to help people.”  There was one key message that came through in all the forty-five or so conversations, and across the spiritual traditions. This message is expressed in the words of one Islamic cleric: “After the tsunami, we didn’t see the religious divisions. Though there were many religions, they came together in peace. The tsunami taught us, in a practical way, how to be united in peace.”[1]

This interreligious dialogue was linked with highly emotional relationships and circumstances. It has had an irreversible effect on my inner spiritual life and path. When all is taken away, something eternal remains. In the words of an elderly parishioner, “Our worldly treasures are fleeting.” I could see the value of a life of renunciation and contemplation in the quest for God, the spiritual beauty of hospitality, the energy of that deep sense of mission, the unity and peace that can be found beyond the divisions of religion. I saw the deep belief evident in followers of all the traditions and the ability of each to discover the Truth by following his or her own spiritual path. I mused over Venerable’s words that all must eventually be left behind, even our attachment to philosophies and concepts. The Absolute/ Truth is beyond all names and forms (nama-rupa). In time, those learnings would be reflected in the four pillars of Aranya Kutir: renunciation, contemplation, hospitality to seekers, and interspirituality.

Prior to going to Sri Lanka, I had made the decision that after my assignment I would renounce home, career, and country, and embrace the contemplative quest for God. The experience of being with the survivors of the tsunami, who had so often met their circumstances with such a positive spirit of renunciation and surrender to the Absolute, naturally reinforced my commitment to that quest: “Nothing (in the world) lasts forever.”

But the second effect of this interreligious dialogue was not expected. Going forward, I wanted to live in a contemplative community, but the effect of hearing the same message told over and over again by Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Moslem alike—that to gain peace we must move beyond religious divisions—meant that I longed to be in a community where the seekers of God were from different religious traditions, not just one. Surely, one of the first places in which interreligious harmony must be witnessed is in communities of individuals dedicated to the spiritual life. I felt drawn to an interspiritual monastic-like community, but could see no such place. And in fact there was no such place that matched my calling. I was seeking something other than the conventional monastic form offered in the Western Christian tradition. I felt drawn to a consecrated life that was more in keeping with the early Christian communities, or even the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and probably with an Eastern orientation. My experience in Sri Lanka stirred within me the possibility of creating a place where my own sense of vocation might be realized. That place is Aranya Kutir.

At the end of that year in Sri Lanka, I did a Google search for “Benedictine monastery Tamil Nadu,” in the hope of finding a place for retreat. “Shantivanam” appeared. I had never heard of the place or the founders, who are referred to as the “Hermits of Saccidananda,” but someone had once suggested that I should read some Bede Griffiths. I arrived on 7 December 2006, the maha-samadhi of Swami Abhishiktananda. By chance, whilst there, the one-hundredth birth anniversary of Father Bede was being celebrated, and the many speakers expanded my mind and heart to the interspiritual tradition of Saccidananda. Also by chance, Dr Bettina Bäumer was visiting and she gave a talk on Swami Abhishiktananda. I wrote in my diary a comment she made, which seems so simple, but really struck me: “We need people who, rooted in their own tradition, are also prepared to go deeply into another tradition.” To which I added a note: “I must learn more about this Abhishiktananda.”

In Swamiji, I met one who lived his message to go beyond, even beyond our “attachment to philosophies and concepts.” I sensed that Venerable, my gentle teacher in Sri Lanka, would have enjoyed Abhishiktananda. I came to learn of the original vision of the Hermits of Saccidananda, which was that contemplatives of different spiritual traditions (and in that context they would primarily be Hindu and Christian) may live together in their quest for God. It was precisely to such an interspiritual path that I felt drawn. It was on that visit that, for the first time, I learnt of sannyasa, and a Christian sannyasa, which reflected aspects of the early Christian communities and the Desert Fathers, and with the Eastern orientation that I found so appealing.

These various factors, and then actually being at Shantivanam at that stage of my personal search for an appropriate “method” to live out my contemplative calling, were all fuel to the flame. I found in the Hermits of Saccidananda a way of life that resonated closely with my own vision and yearning. I ended up staying at Shantivanam and the nearby village of Thannipali for a year to learn more about the vision of these pioneers, to deepen my own contemplative practice, and to gain a greater understanding of Indian spirituality. It was during that year that the vision to create an interspiritual contemplative community grew very strong within me; in fact, it was irresistible.

At the end of that year, 2007, I went to Rishikesh as I was keen to follow Swamiji’s path to the North and to visit the places significant to him in his later years, including the several ashrams that were known to him, as well as those that have since been established, inspired by his message. Attracted to the supportive and sympathetic environment that I anticipated there, and sensing the pulsing spiritual vibration of this ancient Hindu pilgrimage town, I decided on Rishikesh as the place to create an interspiritual community for women.

Aranya Kutir and the Aranya Kutir Trust were established on 30 August 2010, the 100th birth anniversary of Swami Abhishiktananda. The word Aranya is Sanskrit for “forest/ desert /wilderness” and reflects the symbolism of going into solitude and silence in quest of the Absolute, a practice known in all traditions. It is most appropriate to describe Aranya Kutir as interspiritual, rather than interreligious, for the focus is not on religion, but on God, and ultimately on “going beyond religion.” This aspect has been influenced very much by my experiences in Sri Lanka and the tradition of Saccidananda (Ashram). The definition offered by Wayne Teasdale, who refers to
Monchanin, Le Saux, and Griffiths as “masters of interspiritual wisdom,” is appropriate:

Interspirituality is the activity and process of exploring other traditions in more than an academic sense. It presupposes an intense personal interest in these other forms of faith and spirituality. Such a level of interest reflects a commitment that affects one’s spiritual life itself.[2] 

Towards the end of last year (2012) I received sannyasa-diksa at Saccidananda Ashram, six years from the timeI first arrived. I chose this form of sannyasa, rather than any other option, because “Saccidananda” is the tradition and lineage that I feel part of. I am inspired by the saintliness of Monchanin’s life as a remarkable contemplative, and I am drawn to Swamiji’s courageous interspiritual pioneering venture and his vision for an alternative form of monasticism, particularly for those from the Christian tradition who seek to incorporate aspects of Indian spirituality. The distinctive characteristic of this monastic tradition as well as the lineage of Saccidananda is a life of contemplation and renunciation with Lord Jesus as sadguru, lived in the Indian tradition. Through this tradition and lineage one explores, values, and is enriched by the perennial wisdom of Indian spirituality, primarily the Hindu tradition.

Swami Abhishiktananda’s Interspiritual Monastic Vision
“Western monasticism, like all religious institutions, is at present facing a crisis, as it gropingly seeks to find a path forward.” Swamiji wrote these words in the final years of his life, some forty years ago. Of the two hermits, it was Swami Abhishiktananda, in particular, who expressed his belief in the need for a new form of monastic living. He recognized the limitations of the religious institution with its inherent focus on name and form (nama-rupa) and of limiting the spiritual community to members of one religious tradition. God is beyond nama-rupa. God is beyond religion. Religion is a vehicle designed to guide us to the Awakening, but it is the vehicle only.

Swamiji was a visionary and a pioneer who opened the way for others to implement his inspirations. His inclination was not as a founder, as such; his gift was that he gave his life as a bridge for others, opening up a
way of access and expanding the horizon. Only two months before his passing, he wrote:

I do not believe in [the possibility of] developing a real monasticism here by means of institutions. It can only be a matter of charismatic vocation. . . . If [one] feels the call of the “Desert,” he [she] will have to join the unknown hermits of the Himalayas. . . .[3]

Swamiji felt a deep concern for those whose vocation was “the call of the desert,” especially about how and where they could live such a vocation: “How painful it is to see all these young people who come here in crowds, seeking an ‘inner life’ of which practically no one in the West is able to speak to them,” he lamented in 1972.

What mankind needs today is a dimension of depth. The monasteries themselves either remain fixed in the Middle Ages or else are becoming secularized. . . . Where can we send the young people who have had a taste of the deep contemplative life of India, and then have to return to France? What monastery would agree to provide them with a hut in some nearby wood?[4] 

Swami Abhishiktananda felt passionately the need for some form of support for those who felt “the call of the desert.” Revealingly, those words are the subtitle of Swamiji’s essay on Sannyasa. The following passage reads like a siren, the sentiment more pertinent than ever:

Western monasticism, like all religious institutions, is at present facing a crisis, as it gropingly seeks to find a path forward. . . . As has happened in the past, a genuine monastic revival will follow in the wake of a renewed eremitical life . . . it is possible to imagine a kind of blend between the tradition of the Desert . . . and the tradition of sannyasa. . . . This would not mean the foundation of a new Order, for sannyasa is in no sense an “order” and the Spirit does not “found” anything . . . all that is needed is a recognition of the signs of the Spirit’s call and a method whereby those who are called may be enabled to answer their call. Evidently, a sannyasa of this kind would in no way be limited by any forms, and would be open to whoever is called to it, whatever his [her] cultural or religious background might be.[5] 

Personally, I felt “the signs of the Spirit’s call,” but I found no “method” that would enable me to answer that particular call. The method was not found in my observations of traditional orders—the most obvious arena—limited as they were to members of one religion and of a style different from the Indian tradition of sannyasa. It was the restlessness and dissatisfaction inherent in the situation of not finding a “method” to live out my vocation—and born out of the “present crisis”—that served as the major driving force behind the creation of Aranya Kutir over the past six and a half years.

Towards the end of his life, Swamiji outlined his vision for the development of three types of sannyasa, the first type being “pure contemplatives, both men and women, both jnanis and bhaktas, who may be solitaries or living in small groups, preferably in India’s holiest places.”[6] Aranya Kutir reflects this first type. The Kutir has deliberately been designed for such a “small group”; it can accommodate six.

Swamiji left clear indications regarding the environment he envisaged for this alternative
form of contemplative life. His wisdom, born from experience, serves as a guide:

The ashram they want me to set up would be an ashram based on Christian namarupas. I am no longer capable of that. No more could I establish an ashram using Hindu namarupas. I can only agree to have with me one who is ready to go beyond all namarupas.[7]

And elsewhere he wrote:

Beyond all manifestations of the Spirit, beyond the level of namarupa, there is the Spirit itself . . . which can neither be defined nor imprisoned in any system whatever . . . it can only be reached existentially. . . . But in every religion and in every religious experience there is a beyond, and it is precisely this “beyond” that is our goal.[8] 

True to this vision, no communal religious rituals take place at Aranya Kutir, nor are there any representations of the Divine in the communal areas including the prayer and meditation room (e.g. murtis, statues, pictures etc.). Shared prayer is primarily silent, the common spiritual language of seekers of Truth, whilst praise of the Absolute is sung through universal prayers. Swamiji lived and taught the value of such deep silence:

When India and the great mystical traditions speak of silence, it is not a matter merely of a simple outward silence... It is the whole mind that observes silence, that rejects any attempt to name The One. . . . The mystery is then perceived solely in this utter incapacity to fashion a representation.[9]

In his essay Sannyasa and Religion, Swamiji casts additional light on his reference to bringing together aspects of the Western monastic tradition and Indian sannyasaas a means of dealing with the “present crisis.” His interest was in forging a new path of contemplative living and a “method” to meet the call of the desert. Aranya Kutir attempts to be one such “method.”

They [Christian monks] belong to Orders which are highly organized and usually lay much emphasis on common worship (the rite).  A central theme in such monasticism is the life in community under obedience to a superior. On the other hand, the Hindu tradition of sannyasa lays stress on solitude (exterior, if possible, but certainly interior), complete freedom of movement (non-stability), and total independence in every respect – this solitude and freedom being themselves symbolic of the absolute aloneness (kaivalyam) of the Atman. . . . This call to solitude—alone with the Alone, alone with the aloneness of the One who is Alone. . . . Following the great tradition of the desert in the West and of parivrajya (the life of a wandering mendicant) in India, they are needed to remind everyone that there is a Beyond. . . . Their motto might well be that spoken by the angel to the great Arsenius . . . “Flee away; keep silence; be at peace!” India, the world, and the religions need such prophets as never before, for they alone can safeguard the right of every man to be himself.[10]

Om Saccidananda!

[1]  Carrie Lock. Nothing in the World (Colombo: Vijithayapa Publications, 2006).

[2]  Wayne Teasdale, Bede Griffiths: An Introduction to his Interspiritual Thought. (Woodstock VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2003). p. xv.

[3]  Raimon Panikkar, ed., Swami Abhishiktananda: Ascent to the Depth of the Heart. The Spiritual Diary (1948-1973), trans. by David Fleming and James Stuart (Delhi: ISPCK, 1998), p.340 (letter of 6 October 1973).

[4]  James Stuart, ed.,  Swami Abhishiktananda. His Life Told Through His Letters (Delhi: ISPCK, 1989; revised ed., 1995), p.279 (letter of 30 November 1972).

[5]  Swami Abhishiktananda, The Further Shore (Delhi: ISPCK, 1975), pp.51f.

[6]  Swami Abhishiktananda, Towards the Renewal of the Indian Church (Bangalore: Dharmaram College, 1970; Reprint, 1971), p.76.

[7]  Diary, entry of June 18 1972, p.357.

[8]  The Further Shore, p.27.

[9]  Joseph Lemarie and Andre Gozier, eds., The Eyes of Light (Denville NJ: Dimension Books, 1983), p.39.

[10]  The Further Shore, p.30 – 32.

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