Saccidananda Ashram Shantivanam
“Let noble thoughts come to us from all directions.” “aho abadrah kratavo yantu visvato.”(Rig veda)
All religious point towards one goal - Peace. Yet it is in the name of religion that there has been so much unrest and lack of peace. The world itself is a beautiful creation radiating peace and joy. Let us be together to perpetuate its beauty.
Sacchidanada Ashram, Shanthivanam is an Indian Christian Ashram belonging to the Camaldolese congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict (O.S.B.Cam.). The Ashram was founded by Fr. Jules Monchanin and Fr. Henri Le Saux from France and then established by Fr. Bede Griffiths from England. It was their vision to acculturate western monasticism with Indian Asceticism. They were greatly impressed with the spirituality of the Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islamism, Taoism etc. and the traditions and culture they were based upon. In order to establish this thought process they ventured to raise the Sacchidanada Ashram, as a pioneering attempt at Indian Christian Ashrams. The aim of the Ashram was to initiate a way of contemplative life based on the traditions of Christian monasticism and of Hindu sannayasa. The Christian sannyasis’ life at the ashram is thus based both on the Rule of St. Benedict, the patriarch of western monasticism on the teachings of the monastic fathers of the church rooted in Catholicism and in the study of Hindu doctrine making use of Indian ways of prayers and meditation.
The Second Vatican Council in its declaration Nostra aetate on “Non – Christian Religions” said that the church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions and encouraged Catholics to recognize, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral values as well as the social and cultural values to be found among them. “Following this direction the All India Seminar in 1969 on "Chruch in India Today".Which was attended by the hierarchy and representatives of the entire Catholic Church in India spoke of the “wealth of truth, goodness and beauty in Indian religious traditions.” The seminar showed the need of a liturgy “closely related to the Indian cultural tradition and theology lived and pondered in the vital context of the Indian spiritual tradition.” The term 'interiority' was termed to refer to the awareness of the presence of God dwelling in the heart of every human person which is fostered by prayer, practice of meditation and sannyasa. Consequently it was said “Ashrams where incarnational Christian spirituality is lived should be established which should be open to non –Christians and those seeking the truth so that they may experience genuine Christian fellowship. Thus Sacchidananda Ashram came into existence.
Our Ashram Temple
“IF anyone destroy God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy and you are that temple.” (1Cor-3:17).
Latin word ‘templum’ is a building reserved for religious or spiritual rituals and activities such as prayer and sacrifice. The word ‘ temple’ is commonly used in the tradition of Eastern Christianity while the word ‘church’ is used in Western Christian tradition.
The structure of a temple or mandir is designed symbolically so as to bring man and Gods together. Sacchidananda Ashram is a meeting place of Christians, Hindus and people of all religions or none, who are genuinely seeking the Truth. So the church in the Ashram is built in the style of a South Indian Temple. At the entrance is the Gopuram on which is the image of the Trinity, the Trimurthi representing the Godhead, Creator, Preserver and Destroyer in Hinduism and the three persons in one God: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit of Christianity. In the outer court or Mandapam is the cross of Christ enclosed in a circle, the cosmic mystery or dharma of the Hindu tradition. On this symbol are written the words “om” referring to the Atman (soul) and ‘Sacchidanada namah’ meaning ‘worship to the Trinity’ –SAT-Being; CIT-Knowledge and ANANDA – Bliss. Over the doors leading to the inner sanctuary or Moolasthanam there is an inscription in Sanskrit from the Upanishads: “Paramath stvam evaikonananysti jagatapate” meaning ‘You alone are the Supreme Being; there is no other Lord of the world.’ Under this are the words in Greek “Kurios Christos” meaning ‘the Lord of Christ.’
Sanctum sanctorum or Garbagriha, is in darkness to signify that God dwells in the dark cave of the heart of man. There is a stone altar with a tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament, the sign of the real presence of Christ is preserved. The Vimana or the dome above the sanctuary represents the ‘new creation’ at the base of which are the figures of the 4 beasts of the Apocalypse, the lion, the ox, the human face and the eagle (Rev. 4:7) represents the whole creation redeemed by Christ. Above them are the figures of the 4 beasts representing the redeemed humanity and above them are the four figures of Christ in different postures seated on a royal throne the Simasana and surrounded by angels : towards the East is the royal posture and beneath Him is the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven clothed with the Sun, Moon and stars at her feet treading the serpent (Rev. 12:1); towards the North is Christ as priest in the Abhaya Mudra and beneath him is St.Peter with the keys of the kingdom; to the South is Christ as teacher and to the West in the posture of Dhyana and beneath him is St. Benedict, the patriarch of Western monasticism.
Above all this is the dome or Throne of God covered with peacock feathers, a lotus and the Kalasa representing the 4 elements viz. Earth, Water, Air and Fire pointing the sky, willing the mind to direct upwards to the universe or cosmos.
During prayer and Eucharistic celebration in the temple the monks wear saffron coloured robe of the sannyasi and sit on the floor in front of the small stone altar. Readings of scriptures and songs are from the Bible, Vedas, the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita as well as from Tamil classics and Psalms. Songs are accompanied by musical instruments. Waving of lights or arati and offering of sandalwood paste, kungumum and vibhuti for applying on the forehead is also done as adoption of Indian customs and traditions.
The Three Pioneers
Saccidananda Ashram, Shanthivanam, the ashram of the Holy Trinity, was founded in 1950 by two French Fathers, Jules Monchanin, who took the name of Parama Arubi Ananda (the bliss of the Supreme Spirit) and Henri Le Saux, who took the name of Abhishiktanads (the bliss of Christ). By taking these names and giving the ashram the name “Saccidananda” – “Being, Consciousness and Bliss” a Hindu term for the Godhead used as symbol of the three persons of the Christian Trinity, they intended anticipating the Second Vatican Council and the All India Seminar, to show that they sought to identify themselves with the Hindu “search for God”, the quest for the Absolute, which has inspired monastic life in India from the earliest times. They also intended to relate this quest to their own experience of God in Christ in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Unfortunately, Father Monchanin died in 1957 before the ashram could be properly established, and Swami Abhishiktanands, after remaining for some time alone at Shantivanam, eventually settled as a hermit in the Himalayas. He died in 1973. Upon Swami Abhishiktananda’s departure in 1968, the ashram was taken over by a group of monks led by Fr.Bede Griffiths from Kurishumala Ashram in Kerala. Since 1980 Shantivanam has been part of the Benedictine Order as a community of the Camaldolese Benedictine Congregation. On the feast of St. Romuald, 19th June 1985, two Indian Brothers made their solemn monastic profession and one of his temporary vows as members of the Order. Fr. Bede Griffiths passed away on 13th May 1993. At present, the community consists of eleven permanent members, including three students, two novices and two postulants.
A Place of Meeting
The ashram seeks to be a place of meeting for Hindus and Christians and people of all religions or none, who are genuinely seeking God. For this purpose guest houses have been built, where both men and women can be accommodated for retreat, recollection and for religious dialogue and discussion. There is a good library, which is intended to serve as a study centre. It contains not only books on the Bible and Christian philosophy and theology but also a representative selection of books on Hinduism, Buddhism, other religions and a general selection on Comparative Religions. We receive many visitors from different parts of India and from all over the worlds who are seeking God by way of different religious traditions and we seek to respond to them by providing an atmosphere of calm, quietude.
Guests may kindly contact the Guest master or Superior by email for stay and meditation. No charge is made, but guests can make an offering to cover their expenses.
For those who seek to become permanent members of the community, there are three stages of commitment to the life of the ashram. The first is that of “Sadhaka” that is the seeker or aspirant. The second that of “Brahmachari” that is one who has committed himself in the search for God, who need not remain permanently attached to the ashram. The third is that of “Sannyasi” that is one who has made a total and final dedication, when the Kaavi dress is given and he is committed for life to the search for God in renunciation of the world, of family ties and of himself, so as to be able to give himself entirely to God.
The ashram is attentive not only to spiritual seekers but is also conscious of the poor and needy neighbors in the surrounding villages. Though the ashram’s primary call is to discover “the kingdom of God within”, it is also deeply proactive to the cry of the poor in their milieu through the words of Jesus “whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters that you do unto me.” The ashram runs a Home for the Aged and Destitute; involved in educating the children of the poorest; provides milk to the children, who are below three years to fight malnutrition; repairs/ builds the houses for the homeless. There are more than 1000 children who receive books, school uniforms and clothes every year. We care for the children below three years of age by providing additional cow’s milk. If you desire to be a part of the ashram’s mission to the poor, you may kindly contact the Guest Master or Superior by email address. The ashram supports itself partly by cultivation of 8 acres of land in its possession, by a dairy farm and from the contributions received from the visitors and well-wishers. In our serious efforts to support ourselves and the poor around, we constantly remind ourselves, that the ashram is primarily a place of prayer, where they can experience the presence of God in their lives and know that they were created not merely for this world but for eternal life where they will find God.