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Exploring the Christian-Hindu Dialogue with Fr. Bede Griffiths
"Of particular interest are (Fr. Bede's) comments on topics such as the doctrine of the Trinity and his experience of the Advaita, Christian vs. Hindu mysticism, and the difference between an ashram and a monastery... This video demonstrates how one tradition can enrich another and lead to new forms of expression." Hindu-Christian Studies
Bede Griffiths was a Benedictine monk, a pioneer of the Christian-Hindu dialogue, and the head of Shantivanam, a Christian ashram in India. Here he discusses his life in India, his attempts to enrich the Christian contemplative path through Hindu mysticism, and his hope for the formation of small lay contemplative communities in the West.
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Jim. Fr. Bede, how did you first get interested in India?
Bede. Well, it really began, you know, when I was quite young just after Id left Oxford. Id read the Bhagavad-Gita and the Dharmapada in a very simple translation, and that lit a spark in me, you know, and then I joined the monastery, and I didnt attend to that anymore until 1940. I met a very interesting woman, Toni Sussman, who was a Jungian analyst and had come to London where she set up a meditation center and had all these books on Eastern thought. That was my introduction, really, to India, and then in the course of time I got more and more involved, and eventually got permission to come to India and start a monastic foundation there.
Jim. How old were you when you went to India?
Bede. I was already 49 when I went to India, nearly 50, so Ive been there 35 years in India. Im already 85 now.
Jim. Was this a stage in your own development?
Bede. Oh, very definitely, yes. In fact, I wrote to a friend when I was going, "I want to find the other half of my soul." Id had a Western education in the Catholic Church, all Western philosophy and theology, and I felt something was lacking, you know, not really in my understanding, but in my whole personality. We were living too much from the mind and from the outside world, and we hadnt discovered the inner life within. I really came to India to discover that.
Jim. What was your first impression of India?
Bede. Well, I think it was rather romantic, really. I came by boat, incidentally. There were very few planes at that time, and as soon as I reached Bombay I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it, the sheer beauty of the people and the life and the energy and the feeling of life throbbing everywhere. I would express it in Jungian terms: the people lived from the unconscious. In the West we live from our conscious mind. We organize and direct everything. In India they flow with the unconscious. Its very upsetting at times. It can be very harmful at times, but it has a wonderful heart in it, a grace in it, and they are open to the supernatural, the unconscious, they are open to the supernatural, and I felt somehow there was some abiding presence there in India from the beginning. Ive never forgotten it. But I call the presence the sacred, actually.
Jim. Did you have any particular experiences that revealed to you the soul of India?
Bede. Yes, indeed I did. Right from the beginning in Bombay I went to the Elephanta Caves, and there, you know, hollowed out of the caves is a wonderful statue of Shiva. Its a contemplative figure, and you go into the darkness of the cave, and this wonderful face which is absorbed in contemplation, and it showed me right from the start that though it was carved in stone, but it was the contemplative spirit of India. So it made an overwhelming impression on me.
Perhaps you remember that Thomas Merton went to Sri Lanka and saw that wonderful reclining Buddha, and he had a similar experience. So I think that was fundamental in my experience.
Jim. What did you do during your first years in India?
Bede. I was always planning to start an ashram, you know, and I went to Bangalore, and the person who brought me out was an Indian Benedictine monk from Kerala, and we went together t Bangalore and started a small ashram outside Bangalore. It didnt last for various reasons - only a year or two - but that occupied me for the first part. Then I went to Kerala and started the Kurisumala Ashram there which goes on now to the present day.
Jim. How did you envision those ashrams?
Bede. I think we were trying, you know, to live a Christian contemplative life in the context of the Indian tradition, which means the Hindu tradition, and so very soon we adopted this kava, you know, this sacred color of India, the sign of a monk, really, a man dedicated to God. And then we were going barefoot, sitting on the floor both for meals and for prayer, and living a very simple life - vegetarian food - and so we tried to adapt ourselves totally to the culture of India, and yet live a really authentic Christian contemplative life.
Jim. What is the essence of being a Christian sannyasi?
Bede. Sannyasi in India means strictly renunciation of the world to seek for God, or as they would say, for liberation, you see, and so we see the sannyasi as type of the monk in the West, for after all the monk is primarily a person who left the world and devoted his life to, as St. Benedict said, seeking God, so we see the sannyasi in India as the practical equivalent of the monk in the West, so a Christian sannyasi is really a monk living in the traditional way of the Indian monk.
Jim. When did you go to Shantivanam?
Bede. That took place after ten years in Kerala in this Kurisumala Ashram, but incidentally we took the Syrian rite. The majority of Catholics in Kerala belonged to the Syrian church, and so we took the Syrian rite, and it was very meaningful, but then after ten years in 1968 I moved to this ashram Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu, and there, of course, it is a Latin diocese, and we adapted the Latin rite in the normal way, and there I have remained ever since.
Jim. What were the origins of the ashram?
Bede. Well, thats very interesting. It was founded in 1950 by two French fathers, Fr. Monchanin and Fr. Le Saux, and they were both men of genius, actually, great pioneers. It was the first Catholic ashram in India. There was a Protestant ashram before, and they were pioneers who tried for the first time to live the contemplative life following all the normal customs of a Hindu ashram. It raised a good deal of opposition and questioning at the time, but the local bishop was extremely supportive all through, and so it got well established. Unfortunately Fr. Monchanin died after seven years in 1957 before anything was established. He was a very holy man. Hed been a parish priest for several years in Tamilnad, he dearly loved the people, and he was a man of immense humility. He was one of the most holy men Id ever met, actually. But you know hed died without seeing any result. He went to India to start an ashram, had to wait for years before he was joined by Fr. Le Saux, a Benedictine monk from Brittany and France, and then after only seven years he died before anything had been fulfilled. But we all feel he gave his life for the ashram, and we feel his spirit has created a tremendous surge of life that has come into the ashram. Hundreds of people come today, but he didnt see anything of it. I always feel that if you give everything like that, youll get a tremendous reward in time. So I have great love and devotion for Fr Monchanin.
Jim. What was the role that Fr. Le Saux played?
Bede. Well now, that was very different. Fr. Monchanin wanted to found a strictly Christian ashram, and his whole life was centered on that, but at a very early stage Fr. Le Saux went to the ashram of Ramana Maharshi in Tamil Nadu. Its in central Tamilnad about 200 miles away, and there he met this Ramana Maharshi who was one of the great seers of modern India, a very holy man, no doubt, and this had an overwhelming impression on him because Ramana Maharshi was what was called an advaitan. They believe in nonduality. The relation between God and the soul: they are not one, but they are not two. Its an experience of oneness with God, you see. And Abhishiktananda (Fr. Le Saux) lived in a cave on a hill over there for some time, and had this overwhelming experience of total oneness, and all his life in a sense he was trying to reconcile it with the Christian Trinity and reincarnation and redemption, and he was always faithful to the Mass, and his Christian life, but he always felt that the revelation hed received was so fundamental he couldnt give up one or the other. And so to the end of his life he came nearer and nearer, but I dont think it was really resolved. There was always a certain tension in his life. It may be God wanted that of him because he delved deeper into the Hindu tradition more than I think any other modern missionary in India.
Jim. How does the life of the ashram blend the Christian contemplative life with the Hindu?
Bede. Quite simply, you know. We base our life on two periods of meditation, morning and evening, from 5:30-6:30 in the morning, and 6-7 in the evening. Back in India it is considered the best time of meditation between sunrise and sunset. So those I regard as the pillar of the day, that one hour of meditation which should be contemplative, you see, the experience of God. And then after our meditation in the morning we go for prayer and the Mass every day, and the prayer is a very Indian prayer. We use Sanskrit chanting, we read different Scriptures, the Veda, Upanishad, the Buddha, and so on, and then we read the Bible and the Psalms, and we have what we call bajan, very popular chants which you repeat, you know, and the people all pick it up, so its a very Indian prayer, but its basically a Christian prayer, and then we celebrate the Mass in what we call the Indian rite. In 1969 we had an all-India seminar in Bangalore where all the bishops of India came and represented all the religious orders, and they came to bring the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in to the church in India, and they set up a liturgical commission to establish an Indian liturgy, you see, and out of that came what was to be called the Indian rite which is basically the Roman rite with various Indian customs introduced. It doesnt go very far. For instance, the priest sits for the Mass, he doesnt stand. He wears a shawl and not the ordinary vestment, and we use incense in a different way from what is normally done in the West, and we also use flowers which are very important in India, offering of flowers and invoking the name of God. So it is a beautiful rite and we still celebrate it. Its still very limited and we are hoping that eventually we will have an Indian Eucharistic prayer, and in fact told, even since I left India this year, it has been permitted, so that will be the next stage, to have an Indian Eucharistic prayer. So an Indian liturgy is evolving in the church in India today.
Jim. What kind of audience do you see for this marriage of East and West?
Bede. Whether I come to America or Europe, Ive recently been to Australia, everywhere I find people, lay people, deeply interested in a more living kind of prayer. You see, many Catholics today no longer go to Mass. In Europe 10% is considered normal, even in Spain where I was recently. It isnt that they dont want the Masses. They want a more living liturgy, and we feel that the liturgy we are developing in India has a life in it, a vitality and a beauty in it which could revive the liturgy in the West, you know. So we are trying now to see how people in the West could live a contemplative life, not so much in monasteries, as in ashram. An ashram is different from a monastery. It is a place where there is a guru, normally, a teacher who has disciples who gather around him, and share his knowledge of God, his knowledge of the world and of the spiritual life. So it is much more free and open. You have both men and women, you can have married people. You can even have non-Christians, so you are open in a way that monasteries normally are not, and at the same time it has to be firmly rooted in the Christian Catholic tradition with Mass at the center, you see, so that is really what we are working for.
Jim. You spoke of the tension in Fr. Le Sauxs life between advaita and Trinity. Do you think that as people begin to embrace these two contemplative paths they are experiencing the same tension?
Bede. Well, I think not. Personally I have not had the same tension. The crux of the matter is advaita, you see, nonduality, and Fr. Monchanin once said the aim of our life is advaita and the Trinity. And I believe that advaita is not one, and its not two. It is really relationship, and the Trinity to me is the perfect example of nondual relationship. See, the Father is not the Son, the Father and Son are not the Holy Spirit. Its not one. Neither are they two. The Father is not simply separate from the Son. The Father is in the Son, the Son in the Father, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit, so its a nondual relationship which for me is a model of all nonduality. The whole of creation, actually, is this interweaving of beings in relationship, in communion.
You know, Western science, today, says that the whole universe is a field of energies where everything is interrelated and interdependent, and so this kind of relationship is not simply dualistic dividing everything, nor simply monistic, making everything simply one, but all things, and all human beings, are all interrelated, interdependent and woven together, as it were, as a whole, and the Trinity is the model and the principle of the whole. To me nonduality understood in a Christian sense is the answer to theology today. Thats how I would see it. Were only gradually coming to it.
Jim. In your recent book, A New Vision of Reality, you talked about the difference between a Christian mysticism based on love, and a Hindu or Buddhist mysticism based on a transformation of consciousness. Can you comment on that?
Bede. Its a very interesting point. In the Hindu tradition the name for the godhead as far as it can have a name is sat-chit-ananda, being, consciousness, and bliss, and the Hindu aims at reaching that state where you become one with the supreme being through reality in pure consciousness, and that produces a state of absolute bliss, transcendence, but it is not exactly love, so there is no relationship in it. I feel the danger of Hindu mysticism is to retire into an inner reality of infinite riches and beauty and so on, but it doesnt relate you to others, and the danger of the sannyasi in India is he is not really concerned with other people. Thats why you can meet people dying in the streets of Calcutta and not worry much about it. Its part of karma, its part of samsari, the way of the world, and you believe that eventually these people will come to a better state, but you are concerned with this union with the supreme in the depths of your being. Its a wonderful experience, but its not love, you see. I think they teach us much about the inner life of the spirit, and so on, but I think we also can bring this principle that its not simply a communion with God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, in jnana, as they say, its also a communion in love, and a love which goes in and through God, through Christ, to the whole creation, to all humanity. If you do not love your brother who you see, how can you love God whom you have not seen? So I think that is something the Christian tradition can bring. Though mind you, I do feel that they have a depth of God realization which very few Christians in the West have today.
Jim. What would you like to see happen here in the United States as far as setting up a center for spreading this kind of spirituality?
Bede. Well, Im very interested now in lay communities. I find so many people have this call to contemplation, though they may not use that word for their spiritual life, and dont feel called to the traditional monastic or religious life, nor to a simple married life. They want to find a way to dedicate their lives as lay people working in the world to contemplation - the experience of God, the final fulfillment. So what I have in mind is what we call oblate communities. Benedictine monasteries have oblates, people living in the world, lay people, though they can be priests, who have a bond, a spiritual bond, with a monastery, but no juridical bond at all. They are a free community. So I want to see free lay communities coming up with a bond with a monastery or a monastic tradition so they get a guidance, but have the freedom to develop in their own way, and of course at this stage we can only live in a contemplative life today if we integrate aspects of Hindu and Buddhist and Sufi mysticism into our Christian life. So I see them as centers for Christian life open to the world as a whole and different religious traditions.
I would not be keen on a sort of center which would organize on a large scale. I am always adverse to large-scale organizations. I think you start in a small group and develop an authentic contemplative Christian life, and then you form a network. Little groups hive off from it, and the idea spreads, but always rather like monasteries, the Benedictine monasteries, they never formed a congregational order before. Each monastery was separate and independent, but they spread all over Europe like that, each having its own authentic character, but sharing the same way and life, and spreading this way of contemplative life throughout Europe. So my model always remains that, really, small groups, small communities, spreading out in a network.
Jim. Do you see Shantivanam inspiring little groups here in the United States?
Bede. I do, rather. I really have a hope that we will be able to inspire some kind of community here in the U.S. Others are interested in Australia, and others in Europe, so I see its only a faint beginning, but definitely people are moving towards forming small communities of this kind.
Jim. How do the Hindus in India react to this attempt of yours to create this intimate spiritual dialogue?
Bede. From the beginning the relations with Hindus has been extremely good. Mind you, they have a principle, themselves, of almost universal tolerance, and they are always open in that way so that they were really accepting, and when I was in Bangalore I met many professors at the University, and they were all deeply interested, particularly Prof. Mahadevan who was the head of philosophy in Madras. He became quite a close friend, and organized interfaith conferences, which I attended, so I had very good relations. But I must say today the atmosphere is changing. This movement of Hindu fundamentalism, a strong movement and a political party associated with it, which would like to have a Hindu India. They dont want Christians, they dont want Muslims, and they are really aggressive very often. It is rather sad. But the genuine Indian Hindu tradition still remains, and where you meet particularly the older people, they still have this great respect for other religions, and are interested in the unity of religions. Mind you, I think they take it too far. They say all religions are the same, there are no differences, but personally I think there are differences, and they are important, but there is a unity behind them, and that the Hindu is normally willing to recognize.
Jim. On a broader plane, how is Christian spirituality going to renew itself?
Bede. Yes, I think the way I see it is the Gospel came out of Palestine into the Roman Empire, and all our Christian spirituality is the result of this meeting of the Gospel from Jesus and the Apostles with the spiritual tradition of Greece and Rome, particularly Platonism. Nearly all the Fathers, both Greek and Latin, were Platonists, and Plato gave mystical understanding which sort of consolidated the Christian vision, and then Aristotle came later, and St. Thomas Aquinas made his great synthesis using Aristotle, but still, you know, preserving the Platonic Augustinian tradition of mysticism, and particularly Dionysius the Areopagite, the great Christian mystic. So I would say the Christian church, the Catholic church, so far has built up its mystical contemplative tradition on the Gospel interpreted in the light of a Platonic philosophy and experience. And now we are challenged to interpret the Gospel, the same authentic Gospel, in the context of Vedanta, of Mahayana Buddhism, of Sufism, of the whole oriental tradition, and to me thats the work of the next thousand years.
Jim. How did the stroke you had several years ago effect your understanding of India?
Bede. It was an extraordinary experience. You see, Id had the theory of advaita, of nonduality, for a long time, but this stroke which I had sort of knocked down the divisive analytical rational mind and opened up the deeper mind, and instead of theorizing about advaita, I began to experience it. All the divisions seemed to disappear. I felt a oneness with the world around me, oneness with others, and so on, and Ive never lost that sense so that I feel now advaita is not a theory but an experience, but an experience of unity and diversity. You dont lose the diversity. People remain the same with their differences, the world is the same, but they are all contained within a transcendent unity, ultimately the unity of the Godhead, and we would say unity in Christ, but it is the unity which contains the diversity - does not deny it - and the danger of certain forms of advaita is you reject the world. Its all maya, its an illusion, and so you find a unity which I think loses all the richness of diversity which the world really has.
Jim. Can you say something more about advaita and Christian mysticism?
Bede. I think the way I see it is, I take St. Pauls divisions: body, mind and spirit. And beyond the body the physical organism, beyond the psyche, the soul with all its faculties, is this neuma, this spirit, and that is the point where the human spirit touches the divine. St. Paul says the spirit of God bears witness with our spirit, that we are children of God. That is the point of contemplation, and the human spirit opens itself to the Holy Spirit. Now in that experience, that Christian experience, you experience the presence of the Holy Spirit is the spirit of Christ. You come into direct communion in the Holy Spirit with Christ in the whole Christian mystery, you see. You open up on a whole Christian mystery, and the Christian mystery necessarily involves the whole Trinity, so from the spiritual, the Christian mystery, which takes in also the sacraments, and so on, and then you open up into the inner life of the Godhead, with the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
I like Fr. John Main whom I follow in his method of meditation. He once said that meditators share the consciousness of Christ, and that is the experience of the love which flows from the Father to the Son, and the Son to the Father, and is the Holy Spirit. In your Christian contemplation you experience the love of the Father and the Son, the Son and the Father, in your actual experience of the Spirit, and that to me is Christian contemplation in its depth, really.
Jim. What would you say to lay people here in the U.S. who are contemplating beginning that journey that embraces both the Christian and the Hindu contemplative path?
Bede. Well, I think the first advice is you should remain faithful to your own tradition. There is a great danger of synchrotism. You see, some people are carried away by the Hindu and the Buddhist, which are very profound, and then you begin to get a confused state of mind. In fact, when I was in Australia I felt there was a great need to help Christians who were open to Buddhism and Hinduism not to be confused, but to see how you could be authentically Christian, and totally dedicated to God in Christ, and at the same time be able to learn from the Eastern traditions ways of spirituality, particularly ways of meditation and so on, and a whole understanding of life which enriches your Christian faith, but youve always got to discern all the time, not simply to take over something which really disturbs your fundamental faith. We always say in dialogue, unless you are authentic in your own tradition, you are not fit to enter into dialogue.
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