VOLUME XI:2 July - December 2021

Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths in India

Johnathan Gordon Smith

Peter Lang

The study of the “space” between two cultures that come into contact with one another in the context of colonization or post-colonization has given rise to what is known as Third Space Theory. In this book, Johnathan Gordon Smith, Reader at St Mary de Haura and The Good Shepherd Shoreham Beach, in the Diocese of Chichester, argues that this theory, as expounded by Homi Bhabha in his book The Location of Culture (1994), offers us a way to come to a better understanding of the Third Space the Benedictine monks Swami Abhishiktānanda (Dom Henri LeSaux) and Dom Bede Griffiths occupied when they immersed themselves in the non-dualistic Indian wisdom tradition known as Advaita and searched for ways to make it compatible with Christian doctrine and practice. To make his case, Smith also draws extensively on studies of Orientalism, postcolonialism, and the construction of the Other and the self, devoting more than half of this 260-page book to an analysis and evaluation of these various theories.
The is a demanding book. The content is often highly technical (more on that later) and the literary style can be quite complex at times.[1] In spite of these difficulties, however, I came to the end of the book with a much better appreciation of the challenges Abhishiktānanda and Griffiths faced in their attempt to bring the spiritual richness they had discovered in Advaita into creative dialogue with the Christian doctrines about God, Jesus Christ, and salvation that they professed. Smith puts it this way:
Both authors, whilst remaining within the disciplines of the Roman Catholic Church believed that a genuine connection with Advaita was possible, sought to understand the other tradition and did the work involved, showed considerable theological imagination in their attempts to integrate new insights, and above all were prepared to countenance the possibility of change in their own tradition (227).
I was less convinced that theories of postcolonialism can provide significant help in understanding the space in which both Abhishiktānanda and Griffiths dwelt as they became more and more immersed in Indian spirituality. Smith himself notes that “the internal evidence of the play of past colonial power is very limited in their writing, and they are far more concerned with the relationship between Christianity and Advaita that was formulated long before British power in India” (p. 127). With regard to the influence of Orientalism on the development of their thought, I think there can be no doubt that both attempted “the Orientalist task of explaining [Advaitic concepts] in Western terms” (172), but I cannot help wondering if that is simply what everyone who occupies the space between two cultures must try to do.
When discussing the attempts of Abhishiktānanda and Griffiths to reconcile the positions of Advaita with particular Christian doctrines, for example saccidananda with Trinity, Smith uses terms such as hybridization, mimicry, resonance, syncretism, and relativism to evaluate their proposals. I would have found it very helpful if the author had provided something like a grid to show, for instance, how a hybridized version of a particular doctrine would differ from one that was syncretistic, or resonant, or characterized by mimicry.
I was surprised by the absence of any reference to the works of Ramon Panikkar, whose writings on intra-religious dialogue are certainly germane to Third Space Theory. Furthermore, Panikkar considered himself Abhishiktānanda’s closest friend and was especially influential in helping Abhishiktānanda maintain his theological equilibrium when he was anguished by the thought that he was drifting away from the essentials of his Christian faith, I was also surprised by the lack of any reference to Benoît Standaert’s L’espace Jésus (Lessius, 2005). The bibliography of Advaita, Christianity and the Third Space consists entirely of works in English, but the section of Standaert’s work dealing with the space created by interreligious dialogue has been translated: Sharing Sacred Space: Interreligious Dialogue as Spiritual Encounter (Liturgical Press, 2009).
Smith writes that both Abhishiktānanda and Griffiths

saw within their faith the potential for taking on the insights that they believed they were discovering. . . . However, in the position in which they placed themselves, immersed in two traditions, it seems unlikely that the measured and cautious judgements of comparative theology were possible for them (p. 233).
I think it could be argued that it was precisely because they were immersed in two traditions that these two monks made a major contribution to the ongoing theological task of understanding how God’s salvific will can be effected through and not in spite of spiritual/religious traditions other than those of Christianity. In other words, it seems to me that Abhishiktānanda and Griffiths are outstanding exemplars of monastic theologians whose goal is not simply or primarily the pursuit of knowledge that can lead to cautious judgments. Rather, what they were seeking in the wisdom and spiritual practices of Advaita was a deep awareness that leads to spiritual growth and worship
While it is not a major theme of the book, I appreciated Smith’s pointing out that Abhishiktānanda and Griffiths adopted the Western ‘Brahminization’ of the religion of India and thus did not involve themselves in an active critique of inequality or oppression. What is more, he claims “there is no evidence that they were aware that this key theme exists in the Christian Gospel” (p. 30).
I was first made aware of this omission at a conference held at Shantivanam in 2010 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abhishiktānanda. One of the presenters at the conference was an Indian theologian who was serving as secretary of the Indian Theological Association. He introduced his talk by noting he had proposed that Abhishiktānanda be the theme of the Association’s annual meeting in 2010. Not one member of the Association supported the idea because in their mind he was too far removed from the real issues facing the Church in India.
Calling attention to this significant lacuna in the witness of these two pioneers of monastic interreligious dialogue in no way lessens the immense contribution they made to the evolution of Catholic Church’s way of regarding, relating to, and learning from other religious traditions. In Smith’s words, while both of them were aware of the shifting and uncertain nature of the encounter they were engaged in,  they
believed that a genuine connection with Advaita was possible, sought to understand the other tradition and did the work involved, showed considerable theological imagination in their attempts to integrate new insights, and above all were prepared to countenance the possibility of change in their own tradition (p. 227).
[1] For instance, “Even given that the view that Vedic knowledge includes secular knowledge can be seen as an Indian nationalist reaction to the colonial period, being the contention that India had this knowledge all the time in its own tradition, the willingness to see knowledge as unified is present in the Vedic tradition” (p. 61). Or “. . . what is generally not accounted for in official pronouncements is the nature of the space in those cultures, and religious cultures, in which negotiation takes place, what is occurring in that space, and quite how competing and quite possibly incompatible beliefs are interacting” (105).
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