Appropriation Wars: The Bede Griffiths Saga

Appropriation Wars: The Bede Griffiths Saga

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Sunday, November 26, 2017 01:56 PM IST
Appropriation Wars: The Bede Griffiths SagaJesus depicted as Dakshinamurthi, with Peter at his feet dressed like a Hindu sadhu: Shantivanam
  • Inside Shantivanam, the various forms of Jesus resembling popular Hindu icons are at an experimental stage.

    They are waiting for the right time of launch of the project to Christianise Hindu institutions and spiritual traditions.

So far:

Suddenly a 'folk' Christianity has exploded prominently in the public conscience of Tamil Nadu. It is claimed that it is a spontaneous movement of the people who are expressing their Christian devotion through local cultural forms. However, an investigation shows that it is more a result of a well-prepared strategy that goes back decades in the past. The church has been working silently and very systematically in creating these Hindu-like 'folk' expressions.

In Tamil Nadu, it started with a French Catholic priest Jules Monchanin (1895-1957), who wanted to ‘kill’ Hinduism while appropriating the key Hindu elements into Christianity. He had observed that the more a Hindu becomes spiritual the more it becomes impossible to convert him to Christianity. He founded the 'Satchitananda Ashram', which is actually a Benedictine monastery. After his death, Henri Le Saux (1910-1973) took over the institution. He undertook fieldwork by visiting Hindu holy places and conducting clandestine Christian masses in the sacred spaces of Hindus. He wanted to create what he called 'Christian Advaita'; he even had a project for creating a 'Catholic Ramana'.

However, before his death he started criticising the exclusive nature of the church and even questioned the necessity of Jesus for a real spiritual pursuit. Nevertheless, he produced some of the most important manuals for appropriation of Hindu culture and dilution of its spirituality. After his death, the appropriation project was taken over by his successor Bede Griffiths.

Bede Griffiths Saga:

Bede Griffiths (1906-1993)
Bede Griffiths (1906-1993)

Griffiths who gave himself the name Swami Dayananda, just like Henri Le Saux, started visiting various Hindu holy places. Wearing saffron robes and donning the Hindu name, which he used less frequently, he made friends with Hindus, who took him into the temple interiors. Witnessing Hindu credulity first hand, he was optimistic that soon Hinduism would die. He wrote :

I am gradually clarifying my views on Hinduism. I feel it is passing away. However strong it may be at the moment, it cannot survive the impact of modern thought which is undermining it on all sides. What is necessary is that its essential holiness should be preserved. … Its mythology – however beautiful cannot stand. It must come to recognize Christ as the unique historic manifestation of God and only then can its essential values be preserved.
Bede Griffiths in his letter dated 5.8.1955 from Adrian B Rance, Falling in love with India: From the letters of Bede Griffiths, Saccidananda Ashram, 2006

Theology Of Colonialism As Christian Love

Griffiths was an apologist for colonialism. His colonialism was theological. In any negative incident he observed in Indian context, he was ready to stereotype and essentialise Indian culture. When a Syrian Catholic inmate was found stealing and having affairs with women, Griffiths blamed it on both Hinduism as well as the general Indian nature:

There was also as I believe you would find in a typical Hindu, a vivid sense of the presence of God in nature and a spontaneous piety. But with all this there goes almost complete absence of moral principle, and I am afraid this is terribly typical of India. I have found that it is almost impossible to trust anyone’s word. Lying, cheating, stealing swindling seems to be in the blood and in his case at least (I don’t know how much of this is general) sexual promiscuity.
Bede Griffiths: letter dated 25.3.1956

The racial and colonial prejudice almost bordering a hatred towards Indians and Hinduism is a constant factor one sees throughout the writings of Griffiths. What is astonishing is that he was able to pen down these views after his own West had seen what such prejudices and hatred could do as in the case of Nazi Germany. However, Griffiths was able to always camouflage his hatred as 'Christian love' which wanted to rectify the innate Hindu deficiency. He explained in a letter in what sense really he loved Indians:

Of course I love these Indians as my brothers.(…) But I assure you I have no illusions about them. I see the virtues of the British very clearly – they are honest, straightforward just and reliable while Indians are lacking in these qualities. Of course India owes almost everything as a modern nation to the British…But the British had a fatal defect – they could not accept the Indians as their equals – they always imagined themselves to be a superior race. There is good reason for this – we are superior in certain ways – but the Indians have qualities of religion and virtue and affection … They need us and (we) can help them and they are deeply thankful for all we have given them – but they could not accept (us) as superiors – that is why we had to go.
Bede Griffiths: letter dated 06.06.1959 [Emphasis not in the original]

The letter is important because in a way Griffiths brings out the mindset of most of the post-colonial Western Indologists as well. As we will see the worldview of Griffiths and his works prefigure the works of Western religious scholars like Wendy Doniger and Jeffrey Kripal studying Hinduism. His colonial prejudice of Indians and his faith in the lack of morality in Indian psyche was so deep-rooted that he treated even Indian Catholics close to him with suspicion. For example, a Gandhian Catholic named Stephen was attracted by this saffron-clad westerner. About him Griffiths writes:

I have been trying to form a group of oblates here …two or three young Indian Catholics. One of these is called Stephen – he has become a very close friend of mine. He calls me his ‘guru’ and I act as his director. He is working in Vinoba Bhave’s Sarvodaya movement. …Stephen is heart and soul in this movement and is doing wonderful work…
Bede Griffiths: letter dated 21.03.1960

The 'guru' was finding the 'Indian' nature of his 'disciple' unpredictable. (“like all Indians he needs watching – you never quite know what they will do next!”) Nevertheless, he was very happy that the "disciple" was "very faithful to us" and "had taken a private vow of obedience”. However, soon Griffiths discovered Stephen‘s behaviour not very satisfactory. So the ‘guru’ blamed the disciple in a letter – it was of course Hinduism which had to be blamed.

But Stephen is a queer mixture. I am afraid that he is very unbalanced. He had wonderful ideas but was quite incapable of carrying them out… All these are of course problems of the unconscious, which is still find it difficult to fathom. …This gives wonderful spontaneity, but it leaves one terribly exposed to the forces of emotions and the imagination. That is why I find people here so unreliable – they are carried away by their feelings and imagination (Stephen is very much this type)  and you can never rely on them. They may also be exposed to the deeper forces of the unconscious – the gods and demons. This is evident in Hinduism generally
Bede Griffiths: letter dated 27.08.1960

As one can see the shallow stereotyped analysis of defects in a human individual as a result of the unconscious forces of his culture and reducing the sacred in another culture to 'deeper forces of unconscious', have all been done already by Griffiths. So when a Wendy Doniger or a Paul Courtright does similar 'analysis' of Hinduism, what is essentially being carried out, intentionally or unknowingly, is a crypto-colonial project which embeds in its core theo-racism.

Coming back to his own project in India, of all the three, Griffiths shows remarkable consistency in his approach to Hinduism. He too was an advocate of fulfillment theology. In 1956, he wrote that India needed the “moral force" of Christianity outlining how to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Bhagavad Gita:

Christ must be seen as the fulfillment of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: Krishna is not sufficient to receive the devotion he asks for, he is not serious enough.
Bede Griffiths : letter dated 8.4.1956

Using Hindu Universalism For Christian Exclusiveness

Griffiths also decided to use one important aspect of Hinduism as an evangelical tool – its universal inclusiveness.

My idea is that Hinduism is valid as far as it goes but it is incomplete and needs Christ to fulfill its true purpose. If a man goes far enough in Hinduism with a sincere desire for truth, he will eventually come to Christ… I find that most of these [Hindu] boys know something of Christ and no Hindu finds any difficulty in acknowledging him as a son of God, an avatar (like the Buddha). But to realize how Christ is the son of God, how he fulfills all religion, how he delivers from sin and incorporate all mankind in himself, how he introduces us into inner life of the Trinity – all this is beyond them at present, and can only come in time.
Bede Griffiths: letter dated 27.5.1956

While he saw the Hindu boys accepting Jesus as one of the avatars like Buddha as a stepping stone towards evangelising them to Christianity, he vehemently opposed any Western/Christian author adopting a similar syncretic inclusive vision of all spiritual traditions. Thus he rejected the thesis of Frithj of Schuon (1907-1998) thus:

I have been reading Schuon’s latest book ‘Sentier de Gnose’ (Footpaths of Gnosis – knowledge). I see more clearly than I have ever done how fundamentally false is his whole position. …Everything he writes of Christianity is false in this sense – it is fundamentally perverted. It is nothing but a form of Gnosticism, the ancient heresy …Schuon is more subtle, because he knows the whole oriental tradition and attempts to assimilate Christianity, a form of Gnosis – an esoteric wisdom which places it on a level with Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam
Bede Griffiths: letter dated 23.06.1957

So what is useful and valid for evangelism in Hindu mindset, when it accepts Jesus as divine similar to an avatar, becomes ‘fundamentally false’ and ‘fundamentally perverted’ when a Christian/Western author tries to place Christianity ‘on a level’ with other religions!

What is important is that these theological studies are not abstract entities residing only in the papers. They get translated into concrete evangelical entities.

In Sandhya Vandhana, the prayer book that is in use in Shantivanam, the popular Hindu bhajans in every major Indian language are distorted to Christianise them. The famous Ragupathi Ragava Raja Ram – used by Mahatma Gandhi declares Hindu universalism and aims to promote communal harmony. In the Hindi section of bhajans present in the ashram handbook, the verses are twisted to proclaim the superior exclusiveness of Jesus and Christianity:

Sab bole Prabhu Yesu nam Patita pavana Yesu nam…. Sab se accha Yesu Nam Papa nivarana Yesu nam [The name of Jesus is better than other names.] (Sandhya Vandana, Saccidananda Ashram, Shantivanam pp. 41-2 )

Fritjof Schunon to Gandhi bhajan, the Hindu universalism becomes a doorway to proclaim Christian exclusiveness.

Hindu Seers - Belittled Inside But Praised Outside

What was true for Hinduism and Indian culture was also true for the great seers of Hinduism. Thus Sri Ramakrishna was no more holy than Ramana Maharishi and could come only just nearer to St Francis of Assisi, and could not even be his equals. To Griffiths the life of Ramakrishna also showed what Hinduism lacked with respect to Christianity. He wrote:

By the way Bernard Kelly sent me the gospel of Ramakrishna. It is the most wonderful book. …I don’t think he is more holy than Ramana Maharishi, but his character is much more rich. His was the way of bhakti and he was carried away in ecstasy of love… He is perhaps nearer to St Francis of Assisi than anyone. …I don’t think that anything gives a better idea of the real heart of Hindu religion. One can also see what it lacks in comparison with Christianity.
Bede Griffiths: letter dated 22.7.1956

Belittling Hindu seers by comparing them to Jesus or Christian saints is another consistent feature of Griffith's writing. Almost a decade after writing the above lines, he wrote again about these two remarkable self-realised saints of recent times:

I mentioned Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharishi with their triumph over pain and their capacity to live in God above the whole state of the body. But I don’t honestly believe that this is the highest state. Christ accepted pain – he really suffered, physically and mentally, as they did not and through his suffering he came to the total surrender to God.
Bede Griffiths: letter dated 12.6.1966

Regarding the disciples of Swami Sivananda addressing him as bhagawan he called that as “a weakness of Hinduism". Though he thought Swami Sivananda as one with great powers and one having done much good, he found the atmosphere “not pleasant”. Swami Sivananda was “very fat and rather sickly man" “conducted to coach and laid out as if in bed by devout females" many of whom were “Germans of a theosophical kind”. ( letter dated 22.04.1964 )

Despite all these reservations and criticism against Hindu saints, which he was free to have as a devout Christian, he would not hesitate to indulge in deception by uttering the names of very same Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharishi as his guides, when confronted by Hindu scholars and seers. When a Hindu sanyasi Swami Devananda questioned the right of a Christian missionary to appropriate aum, he accused the Hindu of being “a sectarian” and wrote:

I am concerned with the universal essence of Hinduism, as found in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita and in modern masters like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Ramana Maharishi and Mahatma Gandhi. These have always been my guides.
Bede Griffiths to Swami Devananda  letter dated 16-10-1987, in Sita Ram Goel, Catholic Ashrams: Sannyasins or Swindlers, Voice of India 1988:1994, p.143

Even before he took over while staying at Shantivanam he took many scouting visits to the great Hindu temples of South India – particularly Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thanjavur and Srirangam: very similar to his predecessor Henri Le Saux. Mixing with Hindus, projecting himself as an admirer of Hinduism and hiding his Christian identity, he could gain access to the inner sanctorum of the temples where only Hindus are allowed. From these visits he conjectured that it was the darkness of the unconscious that the Hindu temples represented and this was their attraction:

The whole effect is very strange – the Brahmin priests naked to the waist wearing the sacred thread and with heads half shaven, the weird primitive music with beating of drums and the scent of incense – the crowds of people. Yet I felt through it all intense appeal to the unconscious. …this great world of unconscious which is the real Hindu temple – architecture, music, sculpture, the shrine half hidden in darkness – all belong to the world of unconscious, and it is this symbolism of the unconscious that draws the millions of India to the temples.
Bede Griffiths: letter dated 22.12.1956
Inner  room of the Chapel in Shantivanam: Purposefully created to confuse Hindus
Inner  room of the Chapel in Shantivanam: Purposefully created to confuse Hindus

After seeing Thanjavur big temple, his visit ended with Srirangam – the greatest of the Vaishnavite shrine. Now he wrote decisively:

I have never seen anything so sublime, not even in Romanesque church. But at the same time one feels the limitation of his [Hindu] religion. It is a religion of nature and never rising above nature. I came away with the sense of oppression. I feel that this is essentially a primitive religion which must be transcended. A time must come when Christ takes the place of all the worship which is offered to these gods of nature. As education grows people will not be content with the myths of Siva and Vishnu; they will want the truth and only Christ can answer this need of the soul.
Bede Griffiths: letter dated 22.12.1956

Like Henri Le Saux , Griffiths also visited Elephanta cave. He also wrote about it later:

When I landed at Bombay I went to see the Elephanta Caves and the great statue of Siva there left a lasting impression on me. Here at the threshold of India I found graven in stone that profound spirit of contemplation which has given inner meaning…
Bede Griffiths, Christ in India: Essays Towards a Hindu-Christian Dialogue, (1967) Bangalore 1984 p.20

In the same book he also makes it clear that Shiva is nothing more than “shadow of the mystery of Christ” (p.100).

Not only Hindus, but all those outside the Catholic church, according to Griffiths, were just making "better use of lesser grace" and "fullness of grace and revelation" being present only within the church, it becomes "our privilege and responsibility" to convert and bring all non-Catholics into the church. Soon he was deconstructing Hindu symbols as well. The Hindu symbols were not only incomplete which had to be fulfilled by Jesus but left to themselves they would become evil and negative he reasoned:

I believe that these symbols, the Golden Flower for instance or the Hindu temple can be a genuine revelation of God. But in so far as they are not redeemed – in other words do not belong to Christthey have a daemonic aspect which can have a devastating power. … I see more and more clearly that Hinduism must be redeemed in order that it may reveal all is hidden power and beauty, otherwise it can devour the soul.
Bede Griffiths : letter dated 23.06.1957 (emphasis not in the original)

Griffiths combined the traditionally implicit Christian anti-Semitism in the replacement theology with a Hindu-hatred in his fulfillment theology drawing parallels:

In the same way in so far as Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita reveals the way to ultimate goal of the Atman, he may be said to be a type of Christ. What Christianity brings is the fulfillment of this cosmic revelation. Christ is infinitely more than Krishna and the Kingdom of Heaven is infinitely (more) than Nirvana. But just as St.Thomas holds that the knowledge of the Trinity and the Incarnation is implicit in primeval revelation, so I would say that the knowledge of Christ and kingdom of heaven is implicit in the experience of the Atman or of Nirvana. …They are the same supernatural reality but it is only in Christ that the fullness of this supernatural mystery is revealed. There is very close analogy with the Old Testament. Noah, Melchisedec and Job (who are pagans) Moses, David and Isaiah, all had true knowledge of God, but their knowledge was incomplete, and their experience therefore imperfect. Christ fulfills at once the Old Testament and the cosmic covenant. In this sense both Hinduism and Buddhism await their fulfillment in Him.
Bede Griffiths in his letter dated 21.03.1960 (emphasis not in the original)

Griffiths often descended into an attack on the Hindu deities declaring that they were 'attractive' but not 'good' and that they lacked morality.

The Infinite holy god of wonder and terror was also the God of infinite justice and moral goodness. In India idea of the holy is still overwhelmingly strong, but it is not particularly moral. Siva (with his lingam) is a holy God, at once terrible and lovely, but he is not particularly good! So also Krishna is holy – an object of worship and love and adoration. But he does not make any great demand on his devotees. I feel that this is what Hinduism lacks and why it needs Christ. He alone is  absolutely holy and absolutely good.
Bede Griffiths : his letter dated 19.10.1958 (emphasis not in the original)

What is remarkable about Griffiths is the way such ideas about Hinduism become so fixed and rigid in his thought process. Despite his claims of "studying Hinduism" and being guided by its universal essence etc. one finds the very same ideas expressed again in almost the very same words almost 17 years late in 1976:

What is more, he (Krishna) is morally ambivalent. He is a symbol of highest divinity, yet as a man he is shown to bea trickster, a deceiver who brings disaster on his people and is finally ignominiously slain…..[Siva] is the symbol of the purest love but this is in terms of gross sexuality. It is the same with Siva. He is the God of love, of infinite beauty and grace, whose nature is being, knowledge and bliss, the Father, the Saviour, the Friend. Yet his symbol is the lingam and like Krishna has many wives.
Bede Griffiths, ‘Return to the Centre’ , Collins U.K., 1976: pp.76-7

To him, Hinduism was nothing but descent into the darkness of unconscious with all its attractions and dangers and that to swim across it unharmed and reach real spiritual liberation one needed Jesus, as Hinduism was deficient:

…how I love Hinduism! Everything is there except Christ. I see more and more clearly that all we have to do is to place Christian the centre of Hinduism. But how to do it? ... I am sure that it is a question of coming to terms with the unconscious (the Hindu lives from the unconscious) …The unconscious is full of demons and daemonic powers which seek to ‘possess’ us as you say…..There is evil in Hinduism and in all Hindu society…I believe that it is Christ alone who can set us free from the unconscious. …For me Hinduism seems to act as a means for regaining contact with the unconscious but it must be Hinduism transformed by Christ. Hinduism by itself will not do.
Bede Griffiths : letter dated 23.07.1960

The depiction of Hinduism as nothing but the unconscious or the 'dark' or 'negative' (as deemed by the Christian values) forces of the unconscious is so pervasive in the works of Griffiths. Today, they are very familiar in the Western academic circles studying Hinduism – particularly in Wendy Doniger – Jeffrey Kripal school. Doniger-Kripal school of course does not speak of Jesus but in the place of Jesus they place the superior Western academic discourse, which, of course, always has been unwittingly an aid for evangelism during both colonial centuries and post-colonial decades.

Despite all his seemingly adoring words to portray Hinduism, a small scratch on the surface – an intelligent criticism over his real motives would bring out torrents of the hatred he harboured against Hinduism. Almost 30 years after he wrote the above lines, in 1990 he wrote scathingly to Sita Ram Goel when he questioned the ethics of the methods and the theology underlying them:

I suggested to Mr. Goel that the Voice of India might well make a special study of the various aspects of Hinduism. I suggest as a beginning the history of human sacrifice and temple prostitution from the earliest times to the present day…. Another institution is the practice of sorcery and magic…. Above all there is the problem of untouchability. Surely one of the greatest crimes in the history of religion…I love Hinduism, not only the Vedas and the Gita and Vedanta but popular Hindu piety and its cultured traditions but I try to get a balanced view of it.
Bede Griffiths in his letter dated 06.04.1990from Sita Ram Goel 1988:1994 pp.171-2

Obsession with marriage syndrome:

The second part of Griffiths’ autobiography is titled: The Marriage of East and West. In this he wrote:

I wanted to experience in my life the marriage of these two dimensions of human existence, the rational and intuitive, the conscious and unconscious, the masculine and feminine. I wanted to find the way to the marriage of East and West.
Bede Griffiths, The Marriage of East and West, Templegate Publisher 1982, p. 8

This marriage notion of Griffiths has been often lauded by his followers as some sort of a deeper spiritual synthesis. A reviewer of a hagiographic video on Griffiths says:

The persistent theme throughout is of the union of opposites: East and West, Christianity and Hinduism (and other religions),right brain/left brain, masculine/feminine, rational/intuitive.
Beatrice Bruteau, Film Review: A Human Search:The Life of Father Bede Griffiths, The Golden String, Bulletin of the Bede Griffiths Trust, Vol.I No.I, Spring 1994, p.7

However, a study of the origin of this theme in its formative stages in the works of Griffiths, reveals more colonial prejudice and personal pathos than any genuine spiritual need for the harmony of deeper opposites. To Griffiths, though Hinduism had “affection and natural grace" it lacked being “honest, straightforward, just and reliable" These qualities of Hinduism, he identified with the feminine and found the British element masculine. He wrote:

I feel in a sense they are our opposites – it is male versus female – conscious versus unconscious, and it is not easy to marry with them. Yet this is what we ought to have done for their own sake …
Bede Griffiths : letter dated 06.06.1959

He would reveal later that in seeking feminine in India he was also resolving a personal crisis:

…I am sure that my problem is that of the anima. At school we were brought up in a totally masculine world. We scarcely even referred to a mother or sister and a mother was known as ‘the mater’. We never saw girls or women (except for the matron). …Unfortunately, there were not many feminine contacts at home either, so altogether I was starved…. That is why people like Cherian and Stephen attract me – and why India attracts me. People here all live from the anima… Hence all the lying and cheating and stealing, and a lack of moral integrity.
Bede Griffiths : letter dated 15.10.1961 (emphasis not in the original)

Repressed sex was also bothering him. After a stroke in the early 1990s he explained:

It is your flesh and your blood that this has to penetrate. It then moves down through the sex region. That is very important too, because that tends to be suppressed. In my own experience it was very much repressed. I am rediscovering the whole sexual dimension of life at the age of eighty-six, really. And that also means discovering the feminine.
Bede Griffiths quoted in Self-Surrender and Self-Realization in Bede Griffiths by Bruno Barnhart, The Golden String Newsletter,Vol. 6  No. 2

One wonders if his attacks on Sri Krishna and Shiva as well as his stereotyping of Hindus and India as lacking moral sense, being dishonest etc. were more the amalgamation of his own repressed sexuality combined with the colonial theology. He wrote that he was starved of the feminine. Was his conversion attempts then elaborate predatory rituals on the nation and culture perceived as the feminine prey? In fact in the current context one has to ask if these innate tendencies of Catholic church are what making the priests turn predatory paedophiles on their own flock?

Is it time for Hindus to reverse the direction and do a fulfillment mission on Christianity? Perhaps what Christianity needs is the replacement of crucified Christ by a dancing Siva or a Krishna whose melody can redeem the church of its repressed sexuality?

Despite Griffiths and his acolytes claiming that the so-called 'Christian Advaita' was deeper than Sankara's Advaita, Cyprian Consiglio another Catholic theologian found him saying in his previous interviews that Griffiths thought Abhishiktananda "went too far”.

Appropriating The Vision Of New Physics:

Meanwhile, new developments were happening in physics which had theological consequences for Christianity. Griffiths was painfully aware that Hinduism even with no institutional mechanism like the church was able to get itself into a constructive dialogue with the philosophical impacts of New Physics. Griffiths was equally aware of the deficiencies of his own Christian theology. He noted:

David Bohm speaks, as a theoretical physicist,of unity and interconnectedness in what he calls the implicate order, prior to the world of separate entities which is our normal experience. The implicate order is constantly unfolding, giving rise to the explicate order of particular forms and structures. This is where the new scientific understanding of the universe meets with the non-dualist traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and so on.
Bede Griffiths, “The New Consciousness,” p.70 quoted in ‘New Age and New Science in Bede’s thought’ by Everado Pedraza, ‘ The Golden String’ Vol.14 No.1, Summer 2007

He was acutely aware of the deficiency of Christianity to incorporate into it the holistic vision provided by New Physics and the parallels pointed out by physicists like Schrodinger, Capra, Bohm etc. between the vision of New Physics and Indic systems of inner science, Quoting Teasdale, Everardo Pedraza, an admiring author of Griffiths writes:

Yet there was still the question of where and how Christianity and its mystical tradition fit into this interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue. Indeed, “Father Bede was aware of this deficiency and sought in numerous lectures to show how Christianity and its mystical tradition fit in, primarily through the intuitions of Trinity, Godhead, and the Incarnation.
Everardo Pedraza, ‘New Age and New Science in Bede’s thought’, 2007

To achieve this, he recruited Rupert Sheldrake – a British biologist advocating questionable pseudo-scientific vitalist theories – who also shared the colonial prejudices of Griffiths including the negative stereotyping of Indic traditions as fatalistic and uncaring towards human suffering.

To make Christian theology presentable as being in sync with the worldview emerging from New Physics, Griffiths did not hesitate to take Hindu darshanas and then give a little Christian 'tweak' to them. How this is done by providing a Christian twist to an originally Hindu concept is unwittingly described by Catholic theologian Brian J Pierce:

From there Fr. Bede makes his usual connections with the new physics, especially the theory of “implicate order” proposed by David Bohm. “The whole physical universe today is understood as a vast field of energies vibrating at different frequencies,” says Fr. Bede. He then likens these varied energy vibrations to whirlpools in a river, concluding that “my body is a particular whirlpool, and yours, and so on...Christ is the new Adam in whom our dis-integrated human family is healed and so made one again (1 Cor15:45ff). In the 1989 satsang he connects this image with the Hindu figure of the Purusha, a theme which he develops further in chapters six and seven of ‘A New Vision of Reality.’
Brian J. Pierce, This Is My Body - This Is That, TheGolden String, Vol.4 No.2, Winter 1997-98

But all these borrowing from Hinduism to compensate the deficiencies of his own religion does not make him acknowledge this fact. Rather he went on pointing to what he perceived as the deficiencies of Hinduism. Apart from the lack of 'moral' compass, Hinduism also lacked social conscience as Advaita made people withdraw from the world. Griffiths wrote:

I feel the danger of Hindu mysticism is to retire into an inner reality of infinite riches and beauty and so on, but it doesn’t relate you to others, and the danger of the sannyasi in India is he is not really concerned with other people. That’s why you can meet people dying in the streets of Calcutta and not worry much about it. It’s part of karma
Bede Griffiths in an interview dated September1992, From the transcript of ‘Exploring the Christian-Hindu Dialogue: A Visit with Bede Griffiths’ Inner Explorations USA

In hindsight, the historical irony is cruel. In reality, it was a British Christian Winston Churchill who engineered one of the severest famines of that century in Bengal and countless people perished in the streets of Calcutta because of the inhuman Hindu-phobic attitude of Churchill to which his Christian upbringing also contributed in no small amount. It was Hindu nationalist Syama Prasad Mukherjee and Hindu volunteers who fought against the famine created by the British. The subsequent post-independent Calcutta scenario too was more because of the colonial impoverishment rather than the stereotyped Hindu apathy.

Shantivanam, Aryan-Dravidian Racism And Evangelism In The field:

While Griffiths was not primarily interested in Aryan-Dravidian race theory, he did use them in his approach to Hinduism. And where he used them, he tried to show Hinduism as an Aryan development that integrated into itself a positive element of non-Aryan tribal tradition.

Thus Krishna worship, tantra, Shiva worship were all originally non-Hindu, tribal (for he considers tribal as non-Hindu and Aryan as Hindu) traditions integrated into Aryan Hinduism. When analysing the historical development of the Krishna worship and devotion in India, he suggested that “Krishna had been a non-Aryan deity absorbed into the Hindu pantheon through his identification with Vishnu”. With regard to Tantra Griffith speculated:

But in the third century C.E., this movement of Tantra came into Hinduism and Buddhism. It was a movement from below and must have come from pre-Aryan people. Its not Aryan which is patriarchal, but pre-Aryan - it comes from the earth
Bede Griffiths with Matthew Fox, The Other Half of My Soul: Bede Griffiths and the Hindu-Christian Dialogue, Quest books,1996,  p.328

In an article that was published in the winter 2004-2005 issue of The Golden String, the bulletin of Bede Griffiths Trust, the writer appreciatively described the Griffiths perspective of grouping Indic spiritual traditions into racial binaries:

Bede marvelously traces how historically the Tantric texts, which first begin to appear in the third century CE, rise up out of the indigenous Dravidian Shaivism of south India, where devotion to God as mother is very strong, so the tendency is to assert the values of nature and of the body, of the senses and of sex. Many things which tended to be suppressed in the Aryan Vishnu tradition came to be reverenced by Tantra.
Cyprian Consiglio, Awaken and Surrender, The Golden String Bulletin of the Bede Griffiths Trust, Vol. 11 No. 2, Winter2004-2005 p.1

Again one can see here the framework that would also be used by David Gordon White – studying tantra through the Brahmin-non-Brahmin ethnic binary.

After assigning such non-Hindu roots to tribal spiritual traditions (which in reality are organically associated with Hindu Goddess traditions) Mary is introduced as the “dark mother of the oppressed”. Here is where the abstract theological conjectures and experimental structures fabricated in Shantivanam slowly enter the political space. Another Shantivanam product, Christian artist Jyoti Sahi, elaborates upon this idea of Griffiths thus:

Some years ago I was asked to make an image of the “Dalit ki Mata”, or the Mother of the Dalits. The word Dalit, coming from Dal, meaning the earth, or that which is broken, crushed, made me think of this image of the cave. Could the Mother of the Dalits, be this primordial figure of the woman in the cave? But then what would this woman look like? Traditionally she has been pictured as dark skinned, as in the figure of the “Black Madonna”who was definitely a representation of “Our Lady of the Rocks”, who perhaps  was in ancient times worshiped in dark caves, where she was associated with the chthonic forces of the underworld.
Jyoti Sahi, The lady and the cave, Reflections on the meaning of the Black Madonna, United Theological College - Women’s Studies Department

Interestingly, this again, the image of Mary as the mother of the oppressed seems to be for Indian evangelical market. Where Catholicism had triumphed as a feminist theologian China Galland witnessed as late as 2000 in Brazil how Catholic priests exhorting people to be like Mary “obedient, reasonable, serene above all obedient”, writes, "Once again I see how the devotion to Mary ... is also used by the Church to control people, especially women.” (The Black Madonna and the Limits of Light: Looking Underneath Christianity, A teaching for Our Time in The fabric of the future: women visionaries of today illuminate the path to tomorrow (ed. M. J. Ryan, Patrice Wynne), Conari, 2000)

Image of Mary seated at the feet of Christian male deity: yet confused with Mariamman – the goddess.
Image of Mary seated at the feet of Christian male deity: yet confused with Mariamman – the goddess.

One can find many icons of Mary clad in Indian dress placed in many areas at Shantivanam. The chapel entrance tower displays a Mary similar to a Hindu goddess donning a vermillion mark and performing abhaya hasta, seated below Jesus. Today, we find in select areas of Tamil Nadu such promotion of Indianised form of Mary – specifically to compete with and replace Mariamman – the mother goddess of the folk tradition, who was popularised during the freedom struggle by Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi. After strategically promoting such designed syncretism the missionary scholars enter, do research and proclaim that there are similarities between worship of Mary and Mariamman. For example, in the book Christian folk traditions : an introductory study published from the Bishop House, Nagercoil in 2007 Brigitte Sebastia had a paper 'Maariyamman –Mariyamman: Catholic practices and image of Virgin in Velankanni'.

Shantivanam chapel itself built in the style of Hindu symbols. For example, generally, Hindu temples of South India have in the four corners of the gopuram, an animal, which is the mount of the deity. In the case of goddess it is lion and in the case of Shiva it is the bull. The Shantivanam chapel features very similar bull, lion, eagle and they actually represent the evangelists Luke, Mark and John. Those recognised by Catholic Church as officially saints are shown in the base tier of the gopuram – in Hindu saffron clothing – like mendicants or siddhas and above them Jesus is depicted in yogic postures. In Shiva temples usually on the southern side of the gopuram, Shiva is depicted as Dakshinamurthi. In the Shantivanam chapel, Jesus is depicted as Dakshinamurthi.

Jesus depicted as Dakshinamurthi, with Peter at his feet dressed like a Hindu sadhu: Shantivanam
Jesus depicted as Dakshinamurthi, with Peter at his feet dressed like a Hindu sadhu: Shantivanam

The inculturation attempt to Christianise Hindu sculptural and temple architectural elements cannot be seen in isolation. In parallel to what Shantivanam is doing, Christian missionaries are developing pseudo-historical narratives that it was the revolution of ancient Christianity brought by St Thomas to India that became all the Saivaite and Vishnu temples in South India, which were later appropriated by Aryan Brahmins. Thus a notorious Dravidianist – Christologist, Deivanayakam and his late daughter Devakala, both of whose works were promoted by Chennai Roman Catholic Diocese, claimed:

Though Saivism and Vaishnavism have nothing to do with the Vedas the Saivite and Vaishnavite figures came to be considered as Brahminical gods and goddesses. ... The pantheon of the Hindu gods were given anthropomorphic form only in the later period. Saivism and Vaishnavism are the offshoots of early Indian Christianity and the sculptures of Saivism and Vaishnavism are actually the visual aids for the doctrine of Trinity, and the doctrine of incarnation or Avatar. ... This triune God is depicted as “three faced Siva” with one body. In Ellora and Elephanta the icons of Siva with three faces in one body are seen in large numbers.
M Deivanayagam & D Devakala, Iconography of Hindu Religion

Griffiths also gives Christian meaning to the most venerated Hindu symbols like the dance of Shiva and instructs Catholic missionaries how to Christianise Nataraja – the presiding deity of Chidambaram. Kim 'Nataraja', an acolyte of Shantivanam project explains:

When Fr Bede visited Sr. Pascaline, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at the Osage Monastery, Forest of Peace, in Oklahoma in 1978. He presented them with a statue of Nataraja, saying that Christians must begin to see Nataraja as the symbol of the risen Christ. It is easy to see why he felt this to be so.
Kim Nataraja, The Dancing Siva, The BedeGriffiths Sangha Newsletter, Volume 2 Issue 3, September 1999

In the 'evangelical manual' given to evangelical workers in Tamil Nadu, question number 193 is about Nataraja. The explanation given is that it in reality symbolises Jesus winning over death but the book claims that these meanings were distorted by the Aryan Brahmins.

Today, many such texts which claim India to be 'a Christian nation' and provide evangelical guidelines based on inculturation and appropriation are available throughout Tamil Nadu in many Christian stores. These books are approved by Roman Catholic Diocese officials.

Both the above books India is a Christian Nation (left) ‘Evangelical manual for India as a Thomas-Christian Nation’ (Tamil) (Right) are endorsed by ‘Rt Rev Dr Lawrence Pius’, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Chennai.
Both the above books India is a Christian Nation (left) ‘Evangelical manual for India as a Thomas-Christian Nation’ (Tamil) (Right) are endorsed by ‘Rt Rev Dr Lawrence Pius’, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Chennai.

Sleeper Cells For Christianising Hinduism:

Inside Shantivanam, one finds thus various forms of Jesus at experimental stage. These forms imitate popular Hindu sacred icons. Jesus sitting in the lotus position like a yogi with four forms of him sitting adjacent to each other in four directions looks typically Hindu. The aim is to increase the Hindu universal acceptance to a point where he or she will accept the Trojan of Jesus-exclusiveness presented in Indian garb.

 Jesus sitting in the lotus position like a yogi
Jesus sitting in the lotus position like a yogi

There is a statue of Jesus in yoga pose under a five-headed serpent. Given the fact that Tamil Nadu waysides and the banks of village water bodies abound in the images of Hindu gods and goddesses seated under such five-headed serpents, eventual installation of such theo-plagiarised Christian statues can create considerable confusion in the minds of people while at the same time fulfilling the mission of the Shantivanam founders to replace the Hindu deities with the Christian deity at the centre of Hindu spiritual traditions.

Jesus under the five-hooded serpent:  the faded image of Griffiths on the slab at the bottom. 
Jesus under the five-hooded serpent: the faded image of Griffiths on the slab at the bottom. 

They are at the experimental stage – waiting for the right time of launch – for Christianising Hindu institutions and spiritual traditions. The Shantivanam movement finds parallel for this kind of operation in the history of the church – when it captured the pagan religious institutions – their celebrations and places of worship.

A commemorative issue in honour of Monchanin, its founder, published by ‘Saccidananda Ashram’ explains:

When St. Gregory the Great sent the monk Augustine to the Angles, he directed him not to deprive them of their places of worship or customary festivities, but to transform their temples into Christian ones and to dedicate to the Saints their religious festivals. The Indian Church at least in the Tamil Nadu made at times wonderful use of these directivesIn short Shantivanam was only an attempt amongst others an effort to recapture a spirit and to prepare this spirit to find in due time its right outcome and Christian expression, in matters of cult, art, etc.

Today, the experiments done in the quite obscure corners of Tamil Nadu are being tested openly by the church. For example, John Samule, a Christian zealot and director of Institute of Asian Studies spearheaded the 'Murugan conferences'. He emphasised that his approach was more to approach Murugan as a historical figure than a deity. Though Saivism categorically states that Murugan has no human birth, this thesis was first put forward in the Murugan conferences.

Thomas an apostle who is supposed to have visited not only Indians in India but also ‘Indians’ in South America according to church-fabricated oral traditions presented like Murugan; Seeman trying to appropriate the ‘Vel’ of Murugan: Religious appropriation merging with ethnic hate-politics.
Thomas an apostle who is supposed to have visited not only Indians in India but also ‘Indians’ in South America according to church-fabricated oral traditions presented like Murugan; Seeman trying to appropriate the ‘Vel’ of Murugan: Religious appropriation merging with ethnic hate-politics.

Later, Seeman, a Christian born Tamil secessionist started vociferously stating that Murugan was just a deified ancestor of Tamils. Soon, St Thomas, who in a historically unattested story martyred in Madras, was presented by the church similar to Murugan with his spear, and his forehead adorned with holy ashes and vermillion in Hindu fashion.

Meanwhile, Shantivanam and many such institutions throughout India and abroad silently carry out their mission and operation, making full use of the Hindu ignorance of the preparations for a ‘war’ against them.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

An Appeal...

Dear Reader,

As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.

Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.

We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.

Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber
Comments ↓
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.