Shantivanam Ashram (also called Shantivanam) is a Benedictine monastery in India. Located in the village of Tannirpalli in the Tiruchirapalli District of Tamil Nadu, on the bank of the River Kavery, it was founded in 1938 by French priest Jules Monchanin, who was later to adopt the name Parma Arupi Anananda, and French Benedictine monk Henri le Saux, who was later to adopt the name Abhishiktananda.
The goal of le Saux and Monchanin was to integrate Benedictine monasticism with the model of an ashram. They took sannyasa and wore kavis. Trappist monk Francis Mahieu joined them in 1953, and was later to go on to found Kurisumala Ashram with Bede Griffiths in 1958.Griffiths himself stayed at Saccidananda Ashram in 1957 and 1958, and was later to return to the monastery in 1968 as its leader. Monchanin had died in 1957, and le Saux preferred more and more to stay in his hermitage in the Himalayas rather than at Saccidananda Ashram.[
The name “Saccidananda” is the name for the Christian Holy Trinity (the nickname “Shantivanam” meaning “forest of peace”). Literally translated as “Being — Consciousness/Knowledge — Bliss” (“Sat — Cit — Anananda”) the name was coined by Keshub Chandra Sen in 1882 as the name for the Trinity. Monchanin’s adopted name (Parma Arupi Anananda) similarly meant “man of the supreme joy of the Spirit” or “supreme formless joy” and le Saux’s adopted name (Abhishiktananda) meant “bliss of Christ” or “he whose joy is the blessing of the Lord”.
The name of the monastery was a reflection of Monchanin’s attempt to blend Christian and Hindu mysticism together; but it was also a reflection of Monchanin’s firm commitment to Christianity. Monchanin, who was more of an intellectual than le Saux, didn’t desire to identify the Advaita concept of the Absolute with the Holy Trinity, stating that “Christian mysticism is Trinitarian or it is nothing”, but he did believe that with a lot of work it was possible to reconcile the two mystical traditions, and this was the principle upon which Saccidananda Ashram was founded. This integration of the Vedanta with Christianity is a point upon which the two founders of Saccidananda Ashram differed. Le Saux was more radical in his thinking than Monchanin. Whilst Monchanin held to the idea of Christianizing other religions, le Saux (who often referred to Monchanin as his “Christian Guru”, although there was no clear master-disciple relationship between the twain) believed that non-Christian religions could transform Christianity itself.[11)(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
This video gives some knowledge of Father Bede and the ashram’s foundation:
As stated in my last blog, on arriving In India in Bombay, I did try to see Nisirgadata before heading to Shantivanam Ashram and it seems that I arrived in the ashram around the middle of October 1981. It was very early and from the bus station I got one of the lads with a bicycle drawn carriage in the back to drive me there. I had very little baggage and so I did not feel too bad as the lad pedaled away. It was really not far a distance and he was happy to have a client. After he left me I entered the front of the ashram and it was around 4:30 am and I met a man who was the one who rang the morning bell and he was just going to do his morning ablutions and I caught him at the right time. He knew about my coming and so he said, “I will give you a room temporarily so that you can rest and after Mass you can see Fr.Bede and he will tell you where you will be staying.”
The bell rang and someone came to show me the way to the chapel. There was a path between hibiscus flowered hedges and coco-nut trees in the background and there was a smell again of sweet flowers and incense and some particular smells from the kitchen fires that softly floated in the air. When we came to the temple I was shown where to leave my sandals and where I could get a small cushion to use for sitting on the floor.
The mass was celebrated in English but there were hymns sung in Sanskrit and some in Tamil. I liked the whole atmosphere and the ritual which was well adapted to India and even the bread used at mass was chapati bread (an unleavened flat bread lite pita bread). After the mass I stayed a while outside to greet some people from the ashram but mostly to have the blessing of Fr. Bede. He was rather tall and soft spoken with a strong Oxford accent. His hair was white and he had blue piercing eyes. He stood outside the front entrance of the temple as some people and some children from the village came to get his blessing and some touched his feet as they do to the Gurus in India. He made a sign to me and welcomed me and invited me to come and see him at his hut, after breakfast.
The chapel where Fr. Bede sat and said mass.
Breakfast was held in the dining room and we all sat on the floor Indian style while we were served. There were some steam-cooked rice cakes called iddlies which were served with a very spicy sauce. At the end we were given some chai. For some reason, I could not just get accustomed to the rice cakes and the gravy that went with it (called samba) and Fr. Bede found out and he had someone bring me a papaya instead which I loved and even writing about it, makes me wish I had some now!
So after breakfast I went to see Fr. Bede at his hut. He lived in this small hut which was far from having luxuries. We sat outside on the veranda on a mat but he was very attentive and asked if I was comfortable or if I needed a small bench or cushion. He also inquired about my trip and about my life in the Franciscan monastery and as to how I came to know about him. When I told him how Dom Tholens was the one who recommended me to him, he smiled and told me how he knew him. He told me that there was a hut on the side of the river which was reserved for me. He said, “Someone will come to take you there. It is quite comfortable and quiet and you will see many creatures but knowing how St Francis loved nature, i am sure you wont be bothered. You must have a torch light to go and come when its dark.” I asked him as to what was the danger of seeing wild animals and he informed me to be careful if i saw a snake. He said “One day I went to the bathroom and there was a cobra all curled up in the corner” “What did you do,?” I asked, and he explained that he waited without moving, till the cobra left. “How long did you wait?” I asked, and he replied: “Oh, about thirty minutes”.
Sometime later in the morning, someone came and took me to my hut. It was a thatched roof one and rather simple with an ‘Indian-type bed’ the mattress of which was just a sort of course- strung twine and supported by the legs and there was also a mosquito net which was very practical especially when evening came and also during the rainy season. I remember getting up during the night and switching on the light and to my horror, the floor was practically covered with a variety of swarming insects. One day also, I was
taking a nap and on awakening, my eyes contemplated the ‘ceiling’ and there was a rat’s face staring at me.! The roof was thatched, made of coconut branches. Sometimes some tropical creatures live there that I would rather not share a space with. There was a Buddhist monk in retreat next door and one night I awoke to hear him making some noise as if he was beating someone. The next day I inquired and he informed me that there was a huge scorpion running across the floor. I was lucky to have never seen any while I was there!
The days began early with meditation and chanting and mass and breakfast. after breakfast I would go for a walk near the river. there was a path leading between eucalyptus trees and on one side was the Kaveri River which was considered like the Ganges of the South. Many a time there were funeral rites carried on and also cremation. I attended my first cremation there and it is quite impressive for a Westerner to witness. The body was placed on a pile of wood and with many chants and prayers it was lit and there was a very particular smell which floated through the air. The wood popped and cracked and with all that and one’s imagination, it was quite a meditation on the passing reality of the human body. After a while I began going more often to sit quietly with my back to one of the trees and to be there in silent reflection until the end.
Svatasvatara Upanishad : “Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree. One of them eats the sweet fruit, the other looks on without eating.”
Explanation: On the same tree, man sits grieving, immersed, bewildered by his own impotence (anisa) but when he sees the other, the worshipful Lord (Isa) in His glory, his grief passes away. The soul is set between the physical world, the world of the senses and the world of spirit. When it inclines to the material world and becomes attached to it, it becomes confused and powerless, but when it looks up and sees the Lord, then its grief passes away. Taken from my notes at Shantivanam