Interview: John Martin Sahajananda, a spiritual director and a Benedictine monk, tells about how Christian and Hindu traditions merge in the Saccidananda Ashram.
By Peter Graarup Westergaard
Imagine paradise on earth. How would it look like? Warm, quiet and peaceful – maybe even exotic – with a harmonious relationship between people of all races and religious beliefs? Slow living far away from the stressfulness and the pollution of the modern metropolis. Yes, probably that would be some of the features of paradise on earth, most people would agree.
If you go to the very south of India, deep down in the Tamil Nadu province, you will find the Saccidananda Ashram as a near-ideal manifestation of such a heavenly vision. The Saccidananda Ashram is situated in the far-out village of Thannirpalli, on the bank of the River Kaveri, very close to the equator.
The Saccidananda Ashram (it is also called Shantivanam) is a Camaldolese Benedictine monastery, yet it does not resemble any idea you have of a typical Catholic monastery or live up to any dogmatic stereotype of neither an abbey or an ashram. The name “Saccidananda” is both used for the Christian Holy Trinity in a South-Asian context, and “Shantivanam” means the “forest of peace.” But Saccidananda is really Sanskrit सच्चिदानन्द) and is compounded of the Sanskrit words “sat”, “cit” and “ananda”. All three concepts are considered as inseparable from the nature of ultimate reality called Brahman. And this reveals the basic integration of the Vedanta with Christianity that you find in this exceptionally spiritual place on earth.
I have travelled (on a field trip) to this spiritual mirage to ask the question of how east and west meet in philosophy, religion and social practices. I’ve asked John Martin Sahajananda, a Camaldolese Benedictine monk and a spiritual director at the Saccidananda Ashram. He has studied theology at St. Peter’s Seminary, Bangalore, and he has a postgraduate degree in spirituality from the Gregorian University, Rome.
The Original French Founders
The Saccidananda Ashram was originally founded in 1950 by two French priests Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux, tells John Martin Sahajananda.
They founded the ashram as a centre for spiritual research, interreligious dialogue, inculturation and life of contemplation. The ashram was founded before the Second Vatican Council, and at the time the Catholic Church was not yet open to other religions. In that sense, it was a very courageous and pioneering step in the Catholic Church to approve the Saccidananda Ashram. The Bishop of Tiruchirapalli – at that time Bishop Mendonca – was inspired by the Holy Spirit to bless this adventure.
Before Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux came, many missionaries arrived in India with the purpose of converting Indians from Hinduism, according to John Martin, and as such the agenda was that only Christianity has the truth. However, Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux were different. The founders of the Saccidananda Ashram did not believe in conversion, rather they wanted to establish a dialogue between the cultures and religions and the Saccidananda Ashram was founded in the context of that agenda.
– It was a very important step, I would say, that Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux took. No conversion, but dialogue. The Catholic Church has not yet come to that level. I think the present Pope sometimes says: don’t convert people. Yet Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux were working already in the 1950s. They had this very contemporary vision and they realized a profound truth in the Indian wisdom, especially in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, which they have studied intensely, says John Martin Sahajananda Kuvarapu.
Particularly Henri Le Saux realized that the message of Christ and the person of Christ, which Christianity presents, does not do justice to Christ, tells John Martin. Christianity, as an established religious practice, does not present the fullness of Jesus’ message. It was a great discovery, which put him into great crisis also, that Christ is bigger than Christianity.
– Yet the founders of Saccidananda were not immediately accepted in India. The Christians were suspicious of them, thinking they had become Hindus because they were wearing a Hindu religious dress, Kavi dress and going around, and so, “Christians have become Hindus.” The Hindus also were suspicious about them, saying, “These people have taken the Hindu dress to convert the Hindus to Christianity,” says John Martin Sahajananda.
In the beginning, the Saccidananda Ashram was also very small, with only two acres of land. Jules Monchanin died in 1957 after only 7 years, without seeing any fruits. The other co-founder, Henri Le Saux decided to leave the ashram in 1968, permanently. He went to the Himalayas, and he settled down there as a hermit. This meant that the Saccidananda Ashram was fused with another Ashram in Kerala, called the Kurisumala Ashram, where Father Bede was the co-founder.
The British Father Bede
Today the Saccidananda Ashram is mostly known for its later co-founder, Father Bede, whose original name was Alan Richard Griffiths. He was a Benedictine monk from England, and he came to the Saccidananda Ashram in 1968 as Henri Le Saux left.
– Father Bede was a great soul. I’ve always described him as the radiance of unconditional love. He was a very wise man, but also in life he radiated this unconditional love to whoever met him. He was loving and compassionate, very simple and down to earth if you like, with high thinking but simple living. He continued the same spirit of research and dialogue. His dialogue went beyond Hindusim and embraced all great world religions. We see this in his last book: Universal Wisdom. He died in ’93, at the age of 87, tells John Martin Sahajananda.
Father Bede was educated at the University of Oxford where, in 1925, he began his studies in English literature and philosophy at Magdalen College. It was also during his time in Oxford that he met the famous Christian thinker and writer, C. S. Lewis, who became a lifelong friend.
Originally, Alan Richard Griffiths did not grow up in a particularly religious environment and it was only under the influence of the writings of Cardinal Newman and the Oxford movement that he converted to Catholicism and became a monk and priest. He has described his conversion in his famous autobiography The Golden String. This religious development continued in India where he became deeply indebted to Indian philosophy – and until he died in 1993, he lived both as a Benedictine monk and as a sannyasi.
John Martin Sahajananda Himself
John Martin himself came to the Saccidananda Ashram in 1984. And from 1993 to 2018 he was the spiritual director of the ashram and Prior from 2015 to 2018. He chose hermitical life in 2018 and continued being a spiritual director and adviser.
Life at the Saccidananda Ashram is quiet and very orderly, yet relaxed and meditative. But the Saccidananda Ashram is not only an introvert undertaking, it also has some outward-going projects. The ashram has an elderly home in a nearby village. The monks also have projects for the education of children where they help poor children to buy their uniforms and their notebooks and some financial support for their nourishment. Every year around 2000 children are helped through humanitarian projects.
PGW: When did the Saccidananda Ashram open up for westerners?
– I think it was Father Bede who attracted many Europeans because there was a time of crisis in Europe over Christianity and people started to think about spiritual matters. They had so many questions when they came here, the founder, Father Bede was very useful to them. Probably during the time of Father Bede maybe 600 to 800 visitors came each year, tells John Martin.
PGW: What kind of background do you have?
– I am from a Catholic background and my father came from a Catholic background. My mother was from a Hindu background. They were teachers in the same elementary school and they fell in love and so my mother became a Catholic for the sake of the marriage. We were brought up as Catholics. Later because of my mother, I also went very deep into Hinduism. I wanted to understand her religion. I always felt the marriage of my parents as the marriage of two religions within me – if you like, he tells.
PGW: How did you become a monk at the Saccidananda Ashram?
– I joined the seminary in 1978 to be a priest in the Diocese of Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh. And I was sent to the Bangalore Major Seminary to do my philosophical and theological studies. From the beginning, I was a very great seeker. I was searching, I was always questioning. It was not easy for me to just believe things, but I wanted to have a concrete experience — even to prove the existence of God. It’s not easy for me to just believe that God is there, but I wanted to have at least some concrete proof that God exists. I was always questioning everything in my religion and in my belief systems, tells John Martin Sahajananda.
Of course, that put him into a spiritual crisis because the moment when he questioned everything, the answers did not come right away to him. During his seminary days, he read the writings of Father Bede and that was a great revelation and inspiration for him. That made him see Christianity with different eyes. He realized his passion for dialogue between religions, and he wrote a thesis comparing Shankara and Meister Eckhart, the German Christian mystic.
John Martin Sahajananda took Meister Eckhart as a type of Christian tradition, who existed in the 13th century Germany and Shankara, who was an early 8th-century Indian philosopher and theologian who consolidated the Vedanta. And John Martin found an overwhelming amount of similarities between these two great mystics. That gave him a passion for creating a dialogue between religions. Then he realized after his theological studies that he may not be able to function in a diocese as a priest. And so, he decided to leave the diocese and came to the Saccidananda Ashram to be under the guidance of Father Bede and eventually became a monk in the ashram.
Marriage Between East and West
According to John Martin Sahajananda, Hinduism has a profound insight on many aspects which are very close to the vision of Christ. John Martin also recognises a fundamental difference between Christianity as a religious practice and the original vision of Christ. The original vision of Christ is very similar to the Vedic tradition, but different from Christianity as a religion. Jesus never says, “Thus says the Lord.” He says, ” It is written in your Law but I say to you,” and this is very much the style and the wisdom of the Vedic tradition, says John Martin Sahajananda.
– In the Vedic tradition – Hinduism belongs to it – there are four statements called Mahavakyas, great sentences. One is: I am Brahman, I am infinite. The second one: you are Brahman, you are infinite and the third one: Atman is Brahman, Brahman is Atman. The fourth one is Brahman is nondual (Prajna). Jesus makes similar statements like, “I am the light of the world. You are the light of the world. I and the Father are one. (Atman and Brahman are one).” And in Christ’s teachings, God is love. Love means unity. There are not two Gods, but there is only one God and this God is this unity. There are very similar expressions in the Upanishads that we also find in the teaching of Christ. His originality, for me, is that the best in the prophetic religions and the best in the wisdom of religions are brought together. Jesus called his vision the kingdom of God. It is the fullness of the love of God manifesting in the fullness of the love of thy neighbour, says John Martin.
PGW: Can I ask you what does the Catholic Church say to this marriage of east and west and your proposition?
– The Catholic Church still tries to maintain its superiority complex, even though it is extending hands to other religions and Churches. It does bot give an equal position to all religions and Churches. Hence this marriage of east and west may be difficult for the Catholic Church. Our founders Henri Le Saux and Bede Griffiths were seen with suspicion by the official Church. Personally, I have not been confronted very much with the Catholic Church. There was a moment when I was in trouble also with the Catholic Church. Somebody complained– I do not know whether to the Vatican or the Pro-Nuncio in India. The report was sent to the local Bishop here. He had to ask me what I am saying and what I am writing. He wanted to know my ideas. I wrote to him a presentation, I called it “The Way of Jesus is the Way of Unity”. I presented my views in that paper. I also sent him a copy of my open letter to the Christians, which I wrote years ago when there was a Hindu-Christian conflict in India. It is titled. “O Lord, make us instruments of Peace, Mission without Conversion”. I sent these two documents to the Bishop, tells John Martin Sahajananda.
PGW: What did he say?
– After one week, I received a message from the secretary of the Bishop, and he said that the Bishop is blessing your ministry, tells John Martin.
Rediscovering the Eastern Jesus
PGW: When I read your book, “You Are the Light”, it seemed to me that you were expressing a conceptually founded or a philosophically and logically founded theology.
– I am very much influenced by Indian thinkers, and there’s a beautiful prayer that says, “Lead me from the finite to the Infinite, from ignorance (darkness) to Wisdom (light), from death to eternal life.” I tried to integrate this vision into the vision of Christ. Of course, this is also the prayer of Jesus in a way, you know, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” They’re very similar. But at the same time, Jesus had some originality, says John Martin.
– I try, because I’m in India, to confront the Indian thinkers. Sometimes I use the language of the Indian thinkers. My teaching is, of course, also based on a kind of experience which I had myself. The grace of God which touched me when I was in the seminary is also a catalyst, tells John Martin.
– For me, Jesus Christ is the marriage of the wisdom and the prophetic traditions. In him, it all comes together. In the Wisdom tradition, something is missing, especially the aspect of social transformation. In the Prophetic tradition, something is missing, especially the aspect of nondual experience of God. However, Jesus completes what was missing. It’s not syncretism. It is the whole. You see everything from that whole, says John Martin.
PGW: Hence it’s holistic or fullness?
– Yes, he is everything. He’s not taking something from this, and taking something from that, and putting them together. He sees that all the divisions are our projections and artificial. Actually, there are no real divisions. There is only one. There is only one earth. The divisions or national boundaries made on the earth are artificial, man-made, says John Martin.
PGW: You use the concept ‘non-duality’?
– Non-duality means that there are not two independent realities. That is what non-duality means. God and creation, non-dual means not two independent realities. It’s not one, it’s not two. It is a very technical word. If God is one, creation is not another reality like God. Creation is not second. It means that God and creation are not two independent realities. Let us take the analogy of earth and a tree. Earth is like God. The tree is like creation. Earth can exist without the tree, but the tree cannot exist without the earth. God can exist without creation but creation cannot exist without God. Hence God and creation are not two independent realities. This is what nonduality means, explains John Martin.
However, this is only one type of non-duality, according to John Martin. The other type of non-duality is that ultimately one can realize that one is in unity with the Divine, and say, “I and God are one.” Christ also said: The Father and I are one. This is non-dual experience. The Biblical tradition is also one type of nonduality. “God is infinite and creation is finite.” The only difference between the Vedic non-duality and the biblical nonduality is that in the Vedic nonduality there is no ultimate gulf between God and human consciousness and creation, but in the biblical nonduality there is a gulf between God and human consciousness and creation. In Jesus Christ, this gulf disappears. Hence his experience of God is very close to the Vedic tradition, according to John Martin.
– Christ`s experience was nondual because he was able to say, “I and the Father are one.” In the Upanishads, the sages said: Atman is Brahman. Atman is the ground of the human consciousness and Brahman is the ground of the universe. Ultimately, they are one. Christianity is the combination of two positions: Vedic and prophetic. For Christ, it is a Vedic, non-dualistic vision. Jesus Christ is one with God. For Christians, it is prophetic, dualistic vision. Christians are creatures of God, says John Martin.
– From the perspective of the Upanishads, “What is a possibility to Christ, is a possibility for everybody.” Everybody can experience and say what Christ has said. From the Christian perspective, only Christ can say what he said. No Christian can say what Christ said. That is the difference between Upanishadic vision and Christianity, tells John Martin.
– Jesus Christ opened the possibility of a non-dualistic experience of God to everyone but Christianity closed the door, says John Martin Sahajananda.
Reincarnation and Christianity
PGW: Is reincarnation a part of your Christian thinking?
– My last book was “The Ganges and the Jordan Meet – Reincarnation and Christianity”. Reincarnation means continuity. Continuity of the past and connection to the present, moving into the future. This is the reincarnation and this continuity has many, many levels. I am not talking of the individual continuity of the soul and things which we cannot verify. I am rather arguing for the reincarnation of belief systems, tells John Martin and continues:
– Everything that has a beginning has to come to an end. Everything that belongs to time will come to an end. Our body belongs to time so it will come to an end, religions have a beginning, and they come to an end. They cannot go beyond, because time cannot move into eternity. We are both a combination of time and eternity, says John Martin.
– Yet as long as we identify with time and live in time, we go through reincarnation by giving continuity to religious belief systems. If I say I am a Christian it is the reincarnation of Christianity. It is Christianity that lives in me. If I say I am a Hindu, it is the reincarnation of Hinduism. I do not live, but Hinduism lives in me. This is what I call reincarnation of belief systems. It is not a belief, but it is a fact. When we finally discover something timeless within us, there is no more reincarnation. Then it should rather be called “incarnation”. In incarnation, eternity manifests itself now. Not past and not the future. The message of Christ is an invitation from reincarnation to incarnation. Repentance or rebirth to transcend reincarnation (time) and enter into incarnation, eternity, says John Martin.
Revelation of East and West
PGW: Where do you place revelation in the meeting between east and west?
– There are two types of revelations. One type of revelation is called dualistic revelation, where we are told what truth is, what we should do, what we should not do, what will happen in the future et cetera. And this type of revelation belongs to the prophetic tradition. God gave the Ten Commandments through Moses. The prophets always say, “Thus saith the Lord, thus saith the Lord,” In the Old Covenant people will say: The Law is the way, the truth and the life, says John Martin and continues:
– But there is a second type of revelation which is called, “Revelation of Who We Are”. Not telling us what to do, what not to do, but revealing who we are. For example, when Jesus had his experience of God at his baptism, he had this revelation, “You are my beloved Son.” God doesn’t give him commandments about the future or the past, nothing. He says, “You are my beloved Son,” God reveals who Jesus Christ is and this is called self-revelation. Jesus never said: thus says the Lord, but he said: it is written in your Law, but I say to you. This is the experience of the New Covenant where God writes the Law in the heart of every person. In this revelation, every person will be able to say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Jesus invited people to grow from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, says John Martin Sahajananda.
Today there is — tells John Martin — a tremendous need in Christianity to rediscover that original message of Christ, and open the door to all Christians the possibility of the non-dualistic experience of God which Jesus Christ had. This vision breaks down all the boundaries and brings unity and peace in the world. It makes people free. Truth will make you free, said Jesus Christ.
– In simple terms, we have to ask ourselves, what is the identity according to which I’m living my life? Of course, I have an individual identity, I have my individual name. I’m John Martin. This is not enough. What is the second identity which is really guiding me? My religious identity. I’m a Christian. But this identity divides me from others. The moment I say, I’m a Christian that means I’m not a Hindu, I’m not a Muslim, I’m not a Jew, I’m not Buddhist. This identity builds a boundary around me. I need to protect this boundary and I have an ambition to expand my boundary and increase my numbers. Where there is a boundary there is a potential for war. Where there is a need to protect and an ambition to expand, there is inherent and inner violence. With this inner violence we can never become instruments of peace, says John Martin.
PGW: So, what do I have to do?
– You have to go beyond that collective identity and discover the identity “I Am.” This ‘I AM’ is not yet a divine identity. It is the image and likeness of God. This ‘I Am’ is not connected to the body, it is not connected to the religions and this ‘I Am’ is not conditioned by time but beyond time. This ‘I Am’ has no boundary, so it is united with everybody and everything. So, I do not need to protect myself in the sense of religious identity. I have no ambition to expand my religion because I’m already One with everybody. So, I don’t need to convert anybody and that identity gives me a kind of unity and from unity comes inner peace and facilitates external peace, says John Martin.
– It’s a matter of changing the identity and we can’t change it through a process of time, horizontally. This is a kind of vertical change a breakthrough, like a baby that comes out of a womb. It is repentance, rebirth, being born again, says John Martin.
– I have my body, but I’m not just identical with my body. I have my religion, but I’m not just identical with my religion, but I Am. Then I can say I have my body, but again I’m not conditioned by that, I have my religion, but I’m not bound by religion. My religion has a functional aspect, a community aspect, I need it. My identities that belong to time and space are transformed as the vehicles of my identity that is beyond time. It means time is transformed as the vehicle of eternity, tells John Martin.
– When Christ began his ministry, the first statement he made in the gospel of St. Mark was: The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent. It means Time is transformed. It has become the vehicle of eternity. Time is manifesting eternity. Time is freed from the burden of the past and the future. The eternity is here and now. Repent: transform time as the vehicle of eternity or God, ends Br. John Martin Sahajananda.
I thank Br. John Martin Sahajananda for his hospitality and willingness to participate in my interview, and he nods at me with a big generous smile. – I hope you got everything you needed, he says.