Dilatato Corde 2:2
July – December, 2012
Shantivanam, Library
Shantivanam, Library


In 2001 I defended my doctoral dissertation on Swami Abhishiktananda, the well-known Catholic priest and Benedictine monk, Henri Le Saux (1910-1973), who founded Shantivanam at Kulittalai, near Trichinopoly, with Father Jules Monchanin. Shantivanam was inaugurated as an ashram where the two priests hoped to inculturate Benedictine monasticism in the Indian context, and Abhishiktananda later became a main figure in Hindu-Christian dialogue. Seven years after completing my dissertation, I finally had the opportunity to visit Shantivanam and many other ashrams in different parts of India.

This essay is an account of my reflections at these various sites. It is not a scholarly investigation of these sites or a rigorous analysis of Hindu-Christian issues. Rather, it is an attempt to describe the spirituality of these places from a personal perspective, the perspective being that of a Western Christian who is a scholar of Hinduism. In all cases, a message of simplicity came through very strongly. (For a detailed account of Abhishiktananda's time there see Ulrich "Period of Tempering" in this issue of Dila.) [1]

It is wonderful to visit a site with a strong prior knowledge of the tradition and practices of the place, for this knowledge deepens what one can derive from the experience. Yet, no matter how much one may have read or even written in detail about a place based on extensive reading, the reality is always different from what one has thought or imagined; there is always more to be uncovered, for there is much more at a site than what a single source can cover. Further, words that do not issue from experience can be somewhat artificial.

Shantivanam and the Mauna Mandir

When I visited Shantivanam, I was especially stunned by the abject poverty in which Monchanin and Abhishiktananda lived. I had read, and even written in my dissertation, that they lived in huts, had no furniture, walked barefoot, and ate with their fingers. However, it wasn't until I visited the place that I understood what it means to live like that. For instance, the room I stayed in provided me with a very concrete experience of the type of upsetting guests a thatched roof can invite, and I also learned how impersonal it feels to have a damp cement floor in one's living space. At age thirty-nine Abhishiktananda had abandoned his life at St. Anne's Abbey in Kergonan, France. I had a hard time imagining what it must have been like for him to leave a Western lifestyle, even the austere one at St. Anne's, and to choose one like this for the remainder of his life.

Further, although Abhishiktananda gained his initiation into Advaita at the ancient city of Tiruvannamalai, it seemed to me that the natural environment at Kulittalai must have helped prepare him for that. Advaita teaches the extinguishment of individual identity in the realization of a unity with the ultimate reality. It seemed to me that at Kulittalai one's sense of individuality could feel swallowed up by the wilderness, preparing one for an Advaitic realization. Isolation and quiet reign there, for one is dwarfed by a forest of banyan trees that limit one's sight lines. Leaving the forest, one comes to the bank of the Cauvery' a vast river that dwarfs the individual. I could easily imagine that living in quiet, isolation and oppressive heat lessened Abhishiktananda's sense of connection to the Christian community and his adherence to Christian doctrine, which he found to be obstacles in the Advaitic path. The infinite peace which Advaita promises seems nearly within hand's reachat this site.

However, the quiet isolation I am describing was even truer of Shantivanam in the 1950s than it is today. India's population growth and industrial development are very rapid, so Kulittalai is not nearly as quiet and sheltered as it was when Monchanin and Abhisiktananda arrived to make their foundation. Furthermore, Shantivanam now receives many visitors, especially in the cooler months.

After visiting Shantivanam, I went to the town of Kumbakonam in a different region of Tamil Nadu. There the Mehta family owns and manages a small structure, the Mauna Mandir or "Temple of Silence." In 1956, Abhishiktananda spent thirty-three days there in complete isolation. The windows were kept shuttered and he received his food through a hatch. After arriving at Kumbakonam I met Mr. Hari Mehta in his office at T. S. R. Big Street. He was expecting me and greeted me warmly. After a conversation, his assistant, Mr. Mani Dharmendra, brought me to the family property. There I met Hari's father, Mr. Hasmukhlal Mehta, whose father, Mr. Gopaldas Mehta, had hosted Abhishiktananda fifty years earlier. He was a little off-putting, wondering why I wanted to see the Mandir. Simply seeing the Mandir would do me no good, he told me rather sternly, explaining that if I wanted to understand Abhishiktananda I should be prepared to spend a week in the Mandir. My companion showed him a copy of my dissertation, but Mr. Mehta was dismissive. Many similar books have been written, he said. Books mean nothing; what is important is experience. He then brought me to the Mandir and warmly bade me to sit comfortably for as long as I wished.

I spent three hours in silent meditation, which startled the family. Mr. Hasmukhlal cried “Hari Om! Come out! Please come out!” A small crowd of people was there to congratulate me as I exited. Someone explained to me that Abhishiktananda had stayed for such a long period of time in the Mandir that it had made the family nervous. Since I had come inquiring about Abhishiktananda, and since I stayed in the hut for three hours, Mr. Hasmukhlal was afraid I might become like Abhishiktananda and not come out for days.

The time I spent in the Mandir was pleasant. It is a small building sitting on a corner of the Mehta family property, and the room is plain and simple. There is a bed, a shrine to Ganesha, and a photo of the family guru, Sri Pujya Mota. I was there at twilight, and the soft, grey light spilling through the doorway onto the concrete floor created a sense of peace. The air was filled with the sounds of a village settling down for the night. The mental focus and efficiency of the servant was also beautiful, as he occasionally dropped by to make me feel at home. As the twilight faded the oil lamps at the shrine grew brighter and the sounds of chanting from a nearby temple filled the air.

The idea of the dissolution of one's individual self is a hard ideal to accept, perhaps especially for a Westerner. However, I gained a new appreciation of this ideal. I noticed that the one thing standing between me and the beautiful scene in the Mandir was my own self. It is the self that floods the setting with thoughts, disrupting the quiet. It is the self that grows restless and wonders about the passage of time. It is the "I" that blocks complete immersion in the scene, in the beauty of the fading light and gathering darkness. It is the "I" that strays away from the oil lamps and the chanting of the priests.

I also gained a new understanding of yoga. In the West, yoga is often associated with spas, relaxation, and a comfortable, middle class lifestyle. In the Mandir, however, yoga means a concrete floor, a simple bed, and nothing to occupy the senses but an old shrine with fading paint. It means that one does all the basic activities of life, such as eating and sleeping, in front of the shrine, with no other place to turn. The lack of comfort takes one away from one's routine preoccupations to a different level of consciousness. As Abhishiktananda had written in his diary during his thirty-three day stay, "Living alone with oneself, not with one's books, not with one's thoughts, not with one's daydreams, not with the emanations of one's subconscious, but alone with oneself, in the nakedness." [2] I leave behind all my skins, all my shells, everything I had, everything I thought I was, everything I identified with—all this falls away, for the hole I must pass through gets narrower and narrower.[3]

Reflections at Other Institutions

Later on this trip I visited north India and saw, among other places, Mahatma Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and the mother house of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. At Sabarmati Gandhiji had experimented with a rural lifestyle that he believed would promote the strength and self-sufficiency of India. The Mauna Mandir in Kumbakonam and the Sabarmati Ashram are very different institutions, for the latter had been instituted with an active focus, the goal of developing the nation. Still, there is a link between the two. The Mandir is one of a series of Mauna Mandirs that had been initiated by the Mehta’s family guru, Sri Pujya Mota, and he had spent time at Sabarmati volunteering to help uplift rural people. Indeed, visiting Sabarmati made me think of the words of Mr. Hasmukhlal Mehta.[4]

When Mr. Mehta told me that seeing Mauna Mandir would do me no good and that if I wanted to visit I should plan to stay for a week, I thought that he was merely warding away a potentially frivolous traveler. However, when I visited Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram I came to understand the deeper significance of Mehta's words. One would think that in visiting the ashram of that famous man one would see something striking. However, there was very little to see, mainly bare walls, a concrete floor, and a few personal effects, like his eyeglasses. In fact, there was very little to see at most of the ashrams I visited. An ashram, I began to realize, is not a place to be looked at but a place to be lived in. The concrete floor and bare walls convey an important message: By living in these bare hard rooms, you too can become as simple and uncluttered as they are.

Visiting the mother house of the Missionaries of Charity also brought these lessons home. One might go there as a starry-eyed Westerner, dreaming of the Catholic Church’s great celebrity, expecting to have a warm and inspirational experience. However, there is nothing there for the visitor to see except a simple altar for Mass and the relatively bare tomb of Mother Theresa. In fact, far from being filled with warm sentiment, the starry-eyed Westerner might be a little sobered and shaken by the religious sisters who are so different in lifestyle and character from most Westerners, as well as by the noise and pollution of the big city which permeate the environment. The mother house of the Missionaries of Charity is not a place for sentimentality and warm inspiration.[5] Rather, it is a place for poverty and renunciation; its significance is found not in looking at it but in following the way of life it houses.

The general environment of simplicity at ashrams is evident not only in terms of lifestyle but also in terms of religious environment. For instance, at the Aurobindo Ashram there is very little to see—simply an area to meditate at the tombs of Aurobindo and his spiritual partner, Mira Richards. The only thing to stimulate the senses is a floral arrangement, which is redone daily. Ramana's ashram at Tiruvannamalai, where Abhishiktananda had spent a fair amount of time, has some large, attractive buildings. Originally, though, it was a humble institution and a main spiritual center of the ashram continues to be the small, simple room where Ramana used to sit with devotees. At Gandhi's ashram the place for prayer had been simply a bare, open space outdoors. At Christian ashrams, where worship must necessarily play an important role, one might expect a tantalizing mix of Hinduism and Christianity. However, even when there was some striking Hindu-Christian artwork present, the chapels at the three Christian ashrams I visited tended to be plain and simple in spirit, in contrast to many Christian chapels.

This spiritual simplicity speaks of the simplicity of God. Poverty lies not simply at the material plane; poverty is in the Godhead itself, for in the Godhead there may be nothing to gaze at. As Abhishiktananda wrote six years after his stay at Mauna Mandir: "What makes a solitary life so hard is that it allows for no distraction. . . . The solitary is all alone face to face with himself, all alone face to face with God in the depth of himself, but with a God who draws him beyond all signs, all forms of manifestation, all symbols, all images, all concepts; and in the last resort, there is nothing in which he could ’embrace’ this God, or touch him, or see him."[6]

I was visiting these ashrams as an observer, not as a long-term participant in their lifestyle, but I had enough exposure to feel how the simplicity of the ashrams could shape one's spiritual life. For example, on my last night in India, I dined in an ashram where there was nothing in the surroundings to occupy my mind.[7] With nothing else to focus on I suddenly had a strong awareness of the processes of eating and digesting. Words from the Bhagavad Gita thence came to mind: "Brahman is the offering, brahman is the oblation that is poured into the brahman fire by brahman: he who thus contemplates the act as nothing but brahman must reach brahman" (4.24).[8] These verses are used as a prayer before meals. The process of digestion is considered a sacrifice, like the fire sacrifices of Vedic India, and the action itself of sacrifice is considered divine. Returning home to America I let this affect my outlook on eating, considering it an occasion to commune with the divine, rather than as simply a mechanical act to meet a bodily need, as many Westerners treat it. I am now much more faithful in saying grace before meals.

[1]Edward T. Ulrich, “Swami Abhishiktananda’s Period of Tempering at the Mauna Mandir,” Dilatato Corde 2, no. 2 (July 2012).

[2]Swami Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary (1948-1973) of    Swami    Abhishiktananda (Dom H. Le Saux), ed. Raimon Panikkar, trans. David Fleming and James Stuart, (Delhi: ISPCK, 1998), 184.

[3]Ibid., 161.

[4]See Pujya Mota, Shri Mota’s Narration of Self-Experience: Autobiography, trans. Chhikniwala(Nadiad: Hari Om Ashram, [2009?]), 31-40, 48.

[5]Reflecting these observations, a colleague who had spent time volunteering at the mother house wrote to me, “I . . . concur with the basic difference  . . . between, on the one hand, the sentiment and warm inspiration that one might expect to find and, on the other hand, the poverty and renunciation that one actually encounters upon arrival. . . . I found the poverty and renunciation to open doors to a new level of devotion to God that nourished the soul in a much deeper way than sentiment or warm inspiration ever could.  I am thinking in particular of the liturgical experiences I had there, during which the sisters and volunteers would kneel on concrete floors for extended periods of time and endure intense heat, pollution and noise.  One had to have a desire for renunciation in order to make it through these liturgies, and yet something extraordinary would frequently happen in those settings ‘on the other side’ of that discomfort, so to speak” (Mark McInroy, January 23, 2012, e-mail message to author).

[6]Abhishiktananda, Ascent, 246-47.

[7]This was Sameeksha, in Kalady, Kerala.
[8]J. A. B. van Buitenen, trans., The Bhagavadgītā in the Mahābhārata: Text and Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 89.
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