I have allowed too much time for catching the morning
bus to Tiruchirapalli (I’m a whole hour too early). But at seven we are
off — not in a de luxe express bus this time but a local stop-everywhere
When travelling in India we do not carry books or magazines
to read; we are expected to talk to everyone. You have to listen to a lot of
questions, you are asked a lot of questions: Where is your wife how many children
do you have why not? In defence you also ask questions; I have become slightly
better at asking personal questions. But I see this is rather un-Western; Westerners
living in India are fascinating objects who are an eternal wonderment, especially
if we are not tourists and have forsaken the glories of Western life, wear simple
cotton Indian clothes, and appear at home in Mother India.
By 4 o’clock – 9 hours after take-off and
after many bumps, many stops and many questions, I am arriving at Shantivanam
hot, tired and speechless. Saccidananda Ashram is off the main road, set in
a maze of fields and banana trees hugging the banks of the River Cavery. This
Ashram is described as a unique prayer-centre where people of different religious
traditions meet to grow together in the unity which is implicite in all religions.
The Brother in charge of accommodation gives me a simple
room in a row of about fifteen. Everything is rustic and basic and free from
concrete improvement; most Ashrams start life this way…
Father Bede Griffiths is coming out to greet me; I am
surprised to see he is wearing pale ochre sadhu
clothes. He is the author of “The Golden String” and “Return
to the Centre” in which he has made a synthesis between Hinduism and Christianity. He tells me
I am just in time for his lecture on the Upanishads. I am no longer surprised.
He is very practical for as I have told him I wish to travel on to the Ashram
of Ramana Maharshi tomorrow, he says: If you are to reach there before dark,
you will have to take the early morning bus — (again?) — so we better
have the Interview after my talk; will that suit you?
There’s just time for a quick wash, a glass of
water, and I am sitting cross-legged in an open compound in front of Father
Bede who is turning the pages of the Sanskrit
scriptures and about to start. An hour later he is leading me to his simple
hut — a bed, a table, two chairs, an unpainted cupboard made out of a
packing case (stenciled instructions are still visible — Fragile. Handle
With Care). He is concerned about my comfort as he knows I have been travelling
since daybreak: he offers me the best chair.
Could I start, Father, by asking how you came
to embrace Hindu philosophy and religion?
First I came to Christianity, then to Catholicism, then after a short transition,
to a Benedictine monastery in Gloucester, England. There I was professed as
a monk and there I was ordained a priest. When I was still seeking, I read the
Bhagavad Gita, then the Dhammapada and
books like that. This interest in Indian thought revived when I met a remarkable
woman in London — Toni Sussman. She’d been one of Jung’s first
disciples; she was a psychologist and had studied yoga under a Hindu yogi in Berlin… she was German
by birth. She had many books on oriental thought, yoga and Vedanta, and this opened a new world
When was all that happening
and how old were you?
It was in the 1940s, and I must have been in my thirties… yes, I’m
over 70 now.
What actually brought
you to India?
This is my twenty-sixth year here, and I came through an Indian Benedictine
monk to start a monastery in India. After some difficulty I got permission to
join him. We started a small Ashram-monastery in Bangalore; it didn’t
work for various reasons. I then met another monk so together we started an
Ashram in Kerala. We lived in Indian style and studied Indian scriptures but
the Ashram was still Christian in its set-up. In 1968 I moved on to this Ashram
which has an interesting history.
It was founded by two French Fathers in 1950, both
were men of genius. They had the vision of Christian life lived totally in the
context of Indian life and thought. That was their plan. Father Monshanin was
a holy man and scholar but he only lived another seven years; he left before
anything was accomplished. His companion, Father Le Saux, took the name Abhishiktananda
but after some time went to live in the Himalayas. He completed a whole series
of wonderful books — they are getting rather well known now: a book on
Prayer, one called Saccidananda… a masterly book; and Hindu-Christian
Meeting Point. The idea is to find a meeting point in the cave of the heart
— how the two traditions can meet in the inner heart, the center of the
being. In 1968 he invited us to take over this Ashram, so we have been gradually
building it up and trying to follow this path of Christian life and prayer into
the context of Indian life, Indian spirituality.
From the attendance at
your talk, I could see the majority were Westerners. Does this mean the meeting
point of the two traditions is not so attractive to Hindus?
Many do come from the West, but in recent years more and more are coming from
India. In fact, fourteen Sisters from a religious congregation were here for
ten days. The church in India is very Western, but gradually is discovering
its Indian traditions. In the holidays we have more Indians than Westerners.
Can you explain, Father,
the significance of your wearing the orange robe?
Yes… that was a definite choice. You see, we were monks in England, and
we feel the same as sannyasis
in India — both have fundamentally renounced the world to seek God. In
India the ochre robe is the sign of sannyas,
renunciation. We feel this signifies our life; it is the sacred color —
it has a meaning in India whereas our Western dress has no meaning.
How is all this taken
by the Church authorities?
We have been fortunate; we have had the support of the bishops. And since the
Vatican Council, this understanding — they call it “enculturation”,
Christian life should be acculturated, should adopt the culture of the country
— is now accepted everywhere. So on the whole we get good support.
When I was entering the
meditation hall, I saw a sign saying there is no entry unless one is initiated.
Can you explain what this means?
Yes… that is rather particular. One of the Brothers here gives courses
in meditation — usually five or ten days — and he doesn’t
like people wandering in… people should take the whole course and be initiated
into his method of meditation. Normally everybody is welcome.
Does that mean the Brothers
take on disciples and are regarded as gurus as in the Indian tradition?
Yes… this Brother in particular. He comes from a traditional Catholic
family but since he came here has learned yoga and is now a master of yoga. He has written a good book: Yoga and Contemplation… he has
developed a method of yogic meditation using the Prayer of Jesus in the Eastern
Church as the base. He has disciples from here and abroad.
Father, during your talk
you spoke of the positive aspect of incidents which are usually regarded as
As the whole world comes from God-Brahman, He is present in every particle
of matter, in every living thing, in every human situation. But we judge things
from a limited point of view so sometimes it seems to us this is an accident,
this a disaster… if we could see everything in the light of Brahman, the Eternal Reality, we would
see everything has a positive meaning. The art of life is to see that which
appears to be bad or evil as in fact something positive working. This understanding
can bring a transformation in one’s life.
Is this approach taught
in the Christian tradition also?
Yes, I would say so. What has come to me gradually is the belief that the Hindu
tradition in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita particularly is fundamentally
the same as the Christian tradition. There are different ways of expression,
but behind it all I discern the same fundamental doctrine. I also explained
that some think Hinduism pantheistic, some monistic,
and some politheistic. All those elements are present. But if you go deep enough
you discover something beyond that which I express in the terms Total Immanence
and Total Transcendence. That is both Christian and Hindu.
Another point was your
interpretation of the Hindu rite attached to taking food.
In the Hindu tradition every action should be a sacrifice. Sacrifice is the
center of the universe; everything comes from above, we receive it, and it has
to return. That is called turning the wheel of the law, the dharmachakra. Sin is when we appropriate something
and say we can do what we like… This is how we separate ourselves from
the cosmic order. Sacrifice preserves the cosmic order. That concept should
be present in everything: when we build a house, undertake a journey, take a
bath, eat food — we always relate to the Transcendent Reality. That’s
why I explained that normally a devout Hindu has his food served on a banana
leaf — it’s very simple, very beautiful — then he pours water
round it and purifies the space. Then the food is offered to God, eaten, and
in consuming it, it’s burned in the fire within, making it an offering
to God. So every meal should be a conscious sacrifice: we receive it and return
In all the years you
have lived in India, Father, you must have seen many Westerners looking for
a way out of the darkness.
Yes… we certainly get a great many here. Most are in search, very seriously,
I think. Many have Christian backgrounds but have been to Ashrams. I have seen
people who have not been to Mass or practiced any religion for years. But they
are seeking God, they are seeking some inner experience. When they find meditation
and the search for God within a Christian context, quite spontaneously they
come back to it.
Father, how much importance
do you put on having a living guru? In India it’s part of the
tradition, whereas in the West it is not.
We have in the West the tradition of the spiritual Father, and in the early
days of the monks of the desert, the abba, the spiritual Father. He was like
the guru; it was the norm to go to him. It
has remained a tradition in the Church but not to the same extent as it is here.
We rely more on the tradition of the Church, the sacraments, the Biblical teaching
and so on. We may have one who interprets it for us, but not necessarily. For
Hindus, in seems you need a particular guru to teach you, to help you gain enlightenment.
What do you consider
I explain it like this. There are three levels of reality: the physical world
in which we are involved, the psychological world – the world of the soul,
mind, thought, will, desire: but that reality is constituted by this body-soul,
the mind and matter. But in the Oriental and ancient Christian tradition there
is a sphere beyond body and mind. That is called
atman in Sanskrit
and pneuma by St. Paul – the spirit. For me enlightenment is to go beyond
the body, the senses, the mind, and to awaken to the inner spirit — the
atman within. That is the goal of humanity.
Have you been influenced
by any of the great Indian sadhus
I have seen some of the living teachers but those who influenced me most deeply
all died before I came here. One was Sri
Aurobindo. For many years I studied his writings — they have a profound
influence. I found him nearer to the Christian idea than any other Hindu writer,
and so his doctrine became almost part of my own thinking. I was also greatly
influenced by Sri
Ramana Maharshi. I regard him as the most authentic Hindu saint, a man of utter
purity who had realized Brahman. I visited his Ashram and the
Aurobindo Ashram; both have had a considerable influence on me. There’s
Ramdas of Anandashram near Mangalore, and there also I have stayed. He was a
pure bhakta, wonderfully simple. And I found the atmosphere in his Ashram more
devotional certainly than at any other Ashram I know. Those three Ashrams, which
are all in measurable distance from here, have a considerable place in my heart.
Many people come to our Ashram from them, and we go to them… there’s
a kind of circulation.
Father, I can’t help wondering if you have
delegated any of your work so that the Ashram can go on should anything happen
Yes, yes! Things have developed in the twelve years we‘ve been here. There
are three members of the community fully trained; they could take over from
me, you know. Maybe I ought to live a little longer…(big smile).
Well, of course we hope
you do. I was thinking of all the problems that bubble up when an Ashram is
left without a spiritual dynamo.
I am rather aware of that, so I have tried to bring the others up so that they
can take over and I should not be the one person. I am not very attached to
the idea of the guru. I don’t like it centering
on one person. The work should be diffused.
Could you say what you
consider man’s worst enemy?
The ego. It’s the false self, you see, and it creates the persona, this
mask. It grows up partly from heredity in childhood and gets rooted in us. How
to get beyond the ego? — we are all governed by the ego. This causes conflict
in the world — the conflict of ego. To get beyond it is, to me, dying
with Christ: you die to your ego and awake to the resurrection, the new life.
The Hindu, the Buddhist, all ancient traditions are also concerned with freeing
oneself from the ego.
Father, when I started
these Interviews, I met an Italian woman who told me there was no purpose to
It depends on what she meant. She might have been a Zen Buddhist. They don’t
like the idea of a purpose: it’s simply to be. I would speak in terms
more of enlightenment and inner transformation or to be one with God. That would
be my goal.
Do you keep up with what
is going on in the world or do you not think it important?
One of the first things I did when I came here was to take out a subscription
to Time magazine. I always read that. You shouldn’t get isolated. I don’t
spend too much time on it but to get every week the main news of what is happening
in the world of politics and the world of science and art.
Could you describe the
Ashram’s day-to-day schedule?
We rise at 5: we have two hours of meditation daily — 5.30 to 6.30 and
6 to 7 in the evening… they are the poles of the day. We meditate on our
own. Some go by the river, some in the church, some in their own room —
just as we like. We meet three times for prayer together and you’ll see
the prayer is diversified: Sanskrit
chanting, scriptures, psalms. We have bhajan singing in the different Indian
languages. We always end with
arati, the waving of lights before the sacrament… a typical Hindu
form of worship. In the morning we give time to work and study. Basically it’s
the Benedictine tradition: prayer, study, work. An important aspect is receiving
guests, also part of the Benedictine tradition. An Ashram is an open community;
we try to keep an atmosphere to which visitors can come whether for an hour,
a day, a week, a year.
What sort of food is
served in the langar?
It’s strictly vegetarian, not even eggs. We find this important. I mentioned
this in the talk just now: sattvic
food is necessary for the life of prayer. Tamasic food makes you heavy and dull;
rajasic food makes too much energy and can cause violence. The sattvic
diet of fruit, vegetables and milk products is considered pure. For Hindus,
would be considered to be living the right life if he ate meat. There’s
also no smoking or alcohol here… it’s part of the Indian tradition,
As you know, there has
been a turning away in the West from materialistic values. Could you give some
advice to those wishing to break free from that life?
It’s not easy. People come here searching but have to go back. I always
tell them to establish the habit of meditation — it may be half an hour
a day — but apart from the daily routine, some time should be given to
recollection. That establishes a centre for your life. Once you have that you
can manage the world, otherwise you get carried away by it.
You have established
yourself in an idyllic setting with peahens strolling about the jungly gardens,
but could you say something about the inner benefits you have found in this
I think it is the integration of one’s personality and one’s whole
life — and a right relation with nature — the world around. As you
say, we are very blessed, we have this idyllic setting, the river Cavery, a
climate where the sun shines almost all the year. Yes, it’s marvelous
that way. But there is also an integration in one’s personal relationships
— we have people coming from all over the world whom we meet and share
with and become enriched. And finally, and fundamentally, the relation to nature
and people is integrated in the experience of God. And that is what I came to
India for, and that is what is continually enriched. Here one can become more
and more aware of what God is now and how He is present everywhere, in everybody,
in everything. Like that, one’s whole life comes to a unity.
In 1993 Father Bede Griffiths died aged 86 in his simple hut at the
Ashram where he had lived for the last 25 years of his long life. His
last 3 books were, “A Marriage of East and West” (1982,) which
was followed by, “A New Vision of Reality” (1990), and lastly,
“A New Creation in Christ” (1992). He left further inspired
writings which were to be published after his death.
His fame and teachings have spread all over the world through Sangha
Centers (in England alone there are over 20) and through the Bede Griffiths