54 Interviews with Westerners
on their search for spiritual fulfilment in India

Compiled, Edited and Mainly Photographed by
Malcolm Tillis

  1. Vijayananda
  2. Melita Maschman
  3. Brahmachari Gadadhar
  4. Bill Eilers
  5. Simonetta
  6. Swami Jnanananda
  7. Bill Aitken
  8. Bramacharini Atmananda
  9. Jamie Smith
  10. Martha Smith
  11. Radheshwari
  12. Omkara Das Adhikary
  13. Gopi Jai Krishna
  14. Ellen Schector
  15. Paul Ivan Hogguer
  16. Giorgio Bonazzoli
  17. Anil Bhai
  18. Russell Balfour-Clarke
  19. Norma Sastri
  20. John Clarke
  21. Peter Hoffman
  22. Dhruva
  23. Maggi Lidchi
  24. Sz. Regeni
  25. Baruni
  26. Michael Zelnick
  27. David and Sally
  28. Wilhelmina van Vliet
  29. Norman C. Dowsett
  30. Father Bede Griffiths
  31. Matthew and
    Joan Greenblatt
  32. Lucy Cornelssen
  33. Doris Williamson
  34. Lucia Osborne
  35. David Godman
  36. Hamsa Johannus de Reade
  37. Sir
  38. Joachim Peters and
    Uli Steckenreuter
  39. Richard Willis
  40. Chitrakara das Adhikary
  41. Aviva Keller
  42. Ma Prem Leela
  43. Swami Prem Pramod
  44. Ma Amanda Vandana
  45. Swami Anand Bodhisattva
  46. Swami Nadama
  47. Sister Arati
  48. Francis Reck
  49. H.H. Giriraja Swami
  50. Jean Dunn
  51. Raymond and
    Maree Steiner
  52. Bhikshu Ngawang Samten
  53. Ani Tenzin Palmo
  54. Kate Christie



Father Bede Griffiths

Saccidananda Ashram

27th January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

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 contraption.

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.



Interview 30

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 for me.

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 disasters.
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 dharma chakra. 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 it.

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 enlightenment?
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 or mahatmas?
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 another, Swami 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 to you?
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 life.
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, no sannyasi 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, you see.

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 new life?
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 Sangha Newsletter.



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006