Shantivanam 2

Pilgrims Arrive at Shantivanam
This is the path from the road leading into the ashram flaked by coconut and banana trees.
“The Vedas are known as ‘sruti’…..that which has been heard: they are not merely the product of human ingenuity but of revelation that is an unveiling of the truth. They are also called ‘nitya’, that is eternal signifying that they do not derive from this world of time and change, but are reflections of the Eternal. Finally, they are said to be ‘apanruseya’….without human authorship. They are expressions of the eternal Word, the Vac, and the human authors are rishis, ‘those who have ‘seen’ the truth, and poets, ‘Kavi’, those whose utterance is inspired. This shows how in ancient times,  speech…the word, was said to be Divine, a gift of God, and poets, those who had the gift of speech were inspired by God.” (Marriage of east and West. Vedic Revelation, Bede Griffiths)
It did not take long for me to get used to the morning rituals and chants. Here we chanted the Gayatri every morning. Fr. Bede did a prayer at mass, called the “flower puja” which he chanted in Sanskrit and in which he offered flowers to the Christ. We all had the prayer leaflets so we could follow in English. After mass and breakfast, I offered to do some work and sometimes I helped cut and clean the vegetables or clean the rice, Sometimes I did some work in the garden and sometimes I swept the corridor around the library. There was ample time for reading as they had an excellent library.
At noon there was a reading, mainly from the Vedas and a moment of meditation and a chant.
After lunch it used to be very hot and it was good to take a nap. Around three we had commentary of the Bagavad Gita by Fr. Bede and at 4, there was tea time. Usually Fr. Bede would come for tea and it gave him a time to meet those who wanted to chat with him. He was always so generous and available. There was also a place for Yoga but I cant recall at what time. It was given by Swami Amaldas. He wrote an interesting book and in it he explained how he integrated the philosophy of Yoga into his Christian belief. There was also another disciple called Christodas. Both of them had taken vows of sannyas and like Fr. Bede they wore the orange colored robes.
At times I went to Amaldas’ Yoga class and if I had questions, he loved to go walking. This was very interesting as he would take me out into the village which was really countryside and lots of rice fields. This was a very peaceful part of India where the lives of the rice farmers and those who kept cows and goats for milk, often were on the streets with their cows leading them home to be milked.
There was a little chai shop that also sold sweets and peanuts and sometimes we stopped there. These South Indians, Tamils, were very friendly smiling people. The language was very difficult. It sounded like the constant rolling of the tongue with lots of r’s. I learnt two words which said “I do not speak Tamil”… Tamil Tiriad. (not sure of the spelling) and every time I said it, they obviously laughed.
One day I went for a walk near the river, with a guy from France. we walked for a while then we sat under a tree and were conversing in French and in a short while we had an audience. People going by, stopped and listened. They did not understand one word but mainly because of that, they were curious and had to stop and listen. Sometimes we were engaged in a long conversation when all of a sudden we would see about six people sitting there with their eyes riveted on us. It felt as though we had just dropped by from outer space!I was at the ashram for several months before visiting any other city. it was fr. Bede himself who advised me to go with a student from the village on the bus to visit a huge Shiva Temple in another town. I think it was Trichy. a young lad was sent to accompany me. When we came to the entrance of the sanctuary, a Hindu priest who stood next to a sign which read “Non Hindus not allowed”, he told the boy “You are Christian, You cant enter”.
I was already in the door and he said nothing. I made a sign to the boy to wait and I went inside.

It was my first visit to a Shiva temple and I was very curious as to what was in the sanctuary. These temples are huge and filled with sculptures and intrigue. Here in the West, Christian priests ‘dress up” for ceremonies, but there, Hindu priests are always “top less”. There are lots of bells and conch and incense and waving of lights during the pujas.  I felt a particular energy in there but did not know how to name it except that it felt good and I guessed it must have been caused by all the fervent prayers. I was impressed with the piety of devotees of all ages.
I particularly  remember seeing a young lad, with his eyes closed, palms joined, in deep prayer as he stood before the little inner sanctuary and the priest waved the lights in a circular motion. We could only see a little bit of what was inside. We were lined up, as we could only be a few at a time in front of the open door of the chamber where the deity was. I saw a man squinting as though he dared not stare with wide open eyes at God.
After my visit, I did not want my guide to wait too long and so I came out and found him close to where I left him. This was a huge temple and there was lots to explain. In the days to come I read some of Fr Henri Le Saux’s writings and the respect he had for the worship and temples in India. It is something one has to go about very cautiously so as not to be overwhelmed.  We all have different ways of worship as we learn to move from the form to the formless.
I always remember that Mahatma Ghandi said for himself he did not use any forms, but he worshipped God as Truth. He was indeed a rare soul.
There was going to be an Inter-Religious Conference to be held in a place called Cochin and Fr. Bede  had   invited me to come with him and I was delighted. We had to travel by train, a journey of several hours. He told me when I should come to the gate with my suitcase and we will be travelling to the train station by ox-cart. I arrived on time and got into the cart and we set out. this scene I will never ever forget as he sat there and the rickety old cart plugged along and he said in his strong Oxford accent “Brother, have you ever travelled in an ox-cart before?  It is typically Indian you know”

One of the oldest synagogues in the East, lies in Cochin.
“The prosperous Jewish trading community built the Jewish Synagogue in 1568 whose links with Kerala begin in Kodungallor (Cranganore) in the north of the state. The oldest synagogue in India, it was partially destroyed in the war of 1662 and was rebuilt by the Dutch. In the mid-18th century the clock tower was added and the floors paved with exquisite hand-painted blue willow tiles from China. Two hundred years old, no two tiles are alike. The interior offers more beautiful surprises: a Belgian chandelier, the great scrolls of the Old Testament, and the copper plates on which were recorded the grants of privilege made by the Cochin rulers to the Jewish community in the 4th century. There are also five finely wrought gold and silver crowns gifted to the synagogue by various patrons.The rabbi will normally give visitors a full account of the synagogue and the history of the Jews in Kerala. Although this ancient community of Cochin has now dwindled to a few families, strong elements of their culture and tradition as well as the Hebrew language remain in Jew Town, which is what the area surrounding the Mattancherry Synagogue has come to be called. The by-lanes that wind around Jew Town offer charming sights of houses built in Dutch, Portuguese and British styles.” (Wilkepedia)


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