It is time to catch the night-train to Benares, another
sacred city on the Ganges, and an ancient seat of Hindu learning.
Asi Ghat is the section where many foreigners live.
I have the address of an American girl who spent years here in austere sadhana
until she met the son of a Government minister. They are now married and have
four sons which has made her popular with her in-laws. But she is away in her
Delhi house, so no Interview from her.
I take an Interview from a French girl instead, but
it hasn’t come off well; I can’t use it. I am now being shown a
hut by the river: it’s bleak and dark and sordid. Two boys live here;
one is supposed to be taking a Ph.D. at the university.
I ask: What are you specializing in?
The other boy says: He left the University of Wales
on a white horse in centurian garb to study life in theUniversity of the World…
The prospective Ph. D. is toasting chapatis over an
open charcoal fire — grabbing the mike, he confirms: That’s the
I tell him his chapati is on fire; he thrusts the mike
into the flames, calling: Tell your story man, tell it as it really is!
The other is saying, threatening: You want to take
a good Interview? — better get your act together and come back tonight…he
don’t speak till dark.
I snatch up my things and crawl out into the light
saying I’ll think about it. But no sooner outside, I have to go back to
rescue my forgotten shaw/blanket which acts in place of an overcoat to keep
me warm. A blond infant is spreading jam over it.
A Japanese boy is now pointing to an old house of much
character and is telling me about a foreign scholar who lives there. Well, why
not? Anything can happen. The scholar is sitting cross-legged on his bed, pandit-style,
surrounded by books and manuscripts. He could pass for a high caste Hindu here in, of all places, Benares.
But when he speaks, there is much music and laughter in his voice, and, yes
— that timbre -- he could almost be Italian…
Well, the first thing I ought to tell you is that
in spite of my Hindu pandit
clothes, I am a priest — a Catholic priest. But everyone just calls me
Giorgio…I suppose it’s easier for them.
But are you really Italian?
Where were you born?
Ah, yes…in Cremona in 1934.
The city of Stradivarius?
Exactly. I received my religious training there in the seminario when I was
11, then in a missionary society in Milan. When I became a priest I was appointed
to teach Greek. After two years — having paid my taxes, so to speak —
I thought I would be sent abroad to work in a mission. But — no! —
I was sent for further study to the Catholic University of Milan — not
far! Well, I thought: My life is lost…I don’t want to study, I want
to go abroad. Anyway, amongst the studies I found there was Sanskrit,
so I got myself interested in it thinking this would take me to India. I was
fascinated with this language, but I was sent — to polish up my German
— to Austria! I thought: If I have to come here for German, why shouldn’t
I go to India for Sanskrit?
No one from our institute had ever gone abroad except
for missionary work, so my superior had to carefully consider my request. After
a week, he agreed, but with this warning: Don’t go to Banaras; it’s
not a place for Catholic priests. He had been in India forty years, but I never
knew what he had against Banaras.
Anyway, in November 1964 I arrived in Delhi —
and now it is important — as soon as I put foot in India I felt I had
come home. Whatever I saw was already known. I wrote in my diary: I don’t
know anyone here, but if they told me I am in a remote place in southern Italy
— a place I had never seen — yet I would know it as my own country.
At the first moment I was writing so.
I went straight to Allahabad, and within days I was
telling my colleagues: Why don’t you speak the language of the people?
— why don’t you eat what they eat? — why don’t you dress
as they dress? — why don’t you bathe in the Ganges? Nobody understood
me, and I remained upset for months until I met Raimon Panikkar, the author
of many books on the dialogue between Hinduism and Christianity. I explained
my feelings to him. He was also a Christian, but he opened my eyes: I could
see I could remain what I had been brought up to be, but could also open myself
up to Hinduism.
After one month in Allahabad I came to Banaras. As
I saw there were Capucines and Jesuits living unafraid, I decided I could also
stay. I was introduced to a professor at the university, and so improved my
This went on for two years. Then I had to return to Italy, but with the idea
that I would certainly come back. Permission was granted, so back I came in
I came back with two ideas…maybe I should call
them problems: first, how to support myself (you see, I wanted to be independent
financially and make my own decisions); and second: how to get a visa? For money
I began to teach Italian in Delhi at the Italian Embassy; to get the visa, I
enrolled at the University of Delhi to study the Puranas. The Puranas are half
way between the Vedas and modern Hinduism. So by studying them I could
get a better understanding of the Vedas as well as modern Hinduism.
After three and a half years study, I discovered
there is a center of Puranic studies in Banaras which publishes a magazine called
Purana. It is run by the Maharaja of Banaras so I asked him if there was a place
for me. He accepted me, and since 1975 I have been assistant editor of the magazine.
We do research work on the Puranas. So this is the external history of how I
come to be here.
Can you say anything
about the internal happenings?
Yes…you see, India chose me, I never chose India — I had a strong
impression from the beginning that I’d come home. My early years were
a preparation for what happened later. At first I wanted to make a dialogue
between Western and Eastern cultures. I dropped this after a while because I
wanted to understand the Hindu culture fully — from the inside, so to
speak. I began by observing, listening, studying, receiving as a child would
— learning, learning, learning, without surprise, without comparing anything
from my own culture and faith.
Would you give an illustration?
All right. With the food, I ate everything without judging it too hot or too
sweet. With dress, I adopted this style as a pandit,
and as a pandit
this allows me to enter the temples. I never tried to compare the Hindu gods.
I said: Hindus enter temples with veneration - it’s enough to trust them.
I did the same thing with sincerity, although I didn’t quite know what
to do, yet I complied with the rituals: I offered water, flowers, I prostrated,
I adored the idols. I did all this as a sincere religious act. Then after a
time I could see this started to weaken my own faith — I could see my
Christian prayers were less frequent. I nevertheless kept on with the study
of Hindu religious books as well as going to the temples.
I had faith that if Christ is really God, He will
make everything clear. In an unsuspecting way He did. It wasn’t the sort
of victory in which he remained and all the other gods were destroyed —
there was no need to destroy them. Slowly I went back to my Christian faith,
but in a broader way…there was no exclusion of the others, rather the
inclusion of them all. I saw I was contacting God through Shiva,
through Vishnu, through the shakti
of the Devi as well as through Christ. This encouraged
me to be more and more sincere in my prayers to the Hindu gods, to understand
them better. I never see them in conflict with Christ or my Christian faith.
My faith deepened.
Did you study any form
Not in the beginning. It is only a recent development. I am not studying it
as a sadhana
with a guru, more from books. As I don’t
have a guru I try to understand — perhaps
from an intellectual point of view — the many ways. I am in no hurry,
so I’m not looking for a sadhana,
one which will change my life completely. When I look at my Hindu neighbours,
they don’t dash about looking for gurus: this all comes at the right time,
no? So I’m taking the same attitude. It will develop naturally.
You are happy going on
Of course. No one is compelling me to do anything. I live here because I love
it. I have no problems with visas as I work for the Maharaja…he sends
a formal letter to the Government office when necessary.
Most of your time must
be taken up with your literary work and studies, but have you travelled much
No. I prefer to stay in one place and go deep. I also have little money and
little time. Recently I wanted to go south to see Father Bede Griffiths —
I have never met him; but I couldn’t go. Have you heard about him?
I wrote asking if I could
Interview him for this book, but the letter was returned: I didn’t have
the right address.
Oh, do go...I shall give you the address!
That will help me very
much. Now as I understand it, you are employed by the Maharaja — how does
this affect your relationship with the Church authorities?
Hmm! When I first came to India to do this special work, no one else had done
this before. Now, of course others are also studying in this field. At first
there were sometimes tensions with the authorities, but I never disobeyed. They
just wanted me to keep them informed of what I was doing. Now they actually
ask me to write articles on the subject. It’s too early for me to do this.
All the years I was in Delhi I was only in contact with my superior, not with
the local authorities. I kept aloof, but there was no break. These days I write
now and then. In Banaras I know the Bishop, but there’s no other contact.
I take it that you are
accepted by the local Hindus.
Living in this sacred
city, do you ever feel the need to keep up with what is going on in the world
I am not cut off. I take myself as if I have been born here, so I live naturally
like my neighbours. I don’t see myself in two worlds, so as I am in this
one, I am more interested in what goes on around me here.
Was there any time when
you couldn’t relate to the usual difficulties of Indian life which sometimes
come hard on those of us brought up in the efficient West?
I would say I feel these things more now than at the beginning. It sounds strange,
Do you eat hot, spicy
I used to. For three years I ate in dark, dirty restaurants. Now I prepare my
own food — it isn’t Eastern or Western…I don’t know
what it is.
You must have seen many
Westerners pass through Banaras over the years.
For many years I kept aloof from all that — purposely I cut off. I didn’t
want to meet the Western community. But last year I met someone who slowly introduced
me to the others. Some smoke and take drugs, but many are serious — very
serious: they are looking for something. One French girl is doing her Ph.D.
at the University on contemporary Indian women ascetics — a very fascinating
theme. Some of the Westerners here are studying Indian classical music, others
are with gurus. Recently a few have started coming
to me to talk about their religious feelings, and I encourage them. I find they
are starting to think about Christianity again.
Have you met anyone who
has become absolutely absorbed in a form of sadhana
or the Hindu rites and rituals?
Yes. There was a Canadian girl living nearby who for seven years did an extremely
— her name was Sita. Extraordinary tapas she did: in summer she meditated
in the full sun surrounded by four fires without taking food since the morning.
As a priest how do you
accept the Hindu doctrine of karma and reincarnation?
They can both be reconciled with Christian faith because the doctrine of reincarnation
as developed in Hinduism, being different from that developed
by Greek philosophy, is not against the individuality of the persons who are
reborn. It is always the same atma reborn, so there is no conflict with the
Christian doctrine that Christ saves each one of us. The karma doctrine presupposes the cycle
continues, whereas in Christianity there is an end. There are some conflicting
points, but not serious ones. If we develop more, understand more, we can still
be Christian and accept the doctrine of reincarnation.
You have so completely
associated yourself with the Hindu way of life, but do you ever miss Western
culture or society?
I don’t. I am at home here. Only recently I have had some proposals to
go back to Italy to teach Sanskrit
and Indology at Milan University — and, well, I’m a bit upset because
I haven’t found a decision. If I were to follow my likings I would remain
in India. But I have some feeling also of duty towards those who have formed
me, helped me. If I agree to go, I will do it only if I can spend six months
in Europe and six months in India…otherwise, I will remain here. I do
not care to give up my life here, you see.
Now I think you have heard enough…are you not
ready for some chai? I’m sure you are, so let us go to the chai shop…they
make good tea.
Padre Giorgio Bonazzoli stayed on in India
for some years but eventually went back to Italy to teach.