Christian Ashrams, Hindu Caves, and Sacred Rivers

Christian-Hindu Monastic Dialogue in India, 1950-1993

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Mario I. Aguilar
Studies in Religion and Theology
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    Jessica Kingsley Publishing, Ltd.
    , July
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Christian Ashrams, Mario I. Aguilar highlights the significant contributions made by five pioneers of interreligious dialogue. He presents, for the first time in a collective study, the works and lives of Jules Monchanin, Henri Le Saux, Bede Griffiths, Francis Mahieu, and Raimon Panikkar. Written from a theological point of view and for a general audience, this book outlines their different positions about Hindu-Christian dialogue, and how these pioneers influenced the recognition of the sacredness of Hinduism within the Catholic Church before Vatican II (1962-1965).

The major contribution of this monograph is presenting five figures who were not just advocating interreligious dialogue, but directly lived it—some of them even becoming practitioners themselves of both religions. In their own attempts to bridge the Eastern and Western practices of Christianity, some of them became closer to Hinduism and lived as holy men of Hinduism, while others established new monastic foundations in India. Aguilar clearly reveals the diversity of personal dialogic theologies of these pioneers, describing Griffiths’s warm hospitality and Le Saux’s energetic exploration. Despite an effective presentation, there are a few leaps in Aguilar’s account. For instance, in the introduction, there is no mention of the Syriac-Malabar Church despite how essential this is for the comprehension of the case of Francis Mahieu (chap 5). There is also a typo about Indian independence’s date (27), and some historic imprecisions on Hinduism not being a missionary religion (28) or Sri Ramana Maharshi’s interest on western culture (48).

In chapter 1, the idea and practice of a Christian ashram is explored. In 1950—before Vatican II—Jules Monchanin (Swāmi Paramārūbyānanda) and Henri Le Saux (Swāmi Abhishiktananda) founded Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu. Aguilar agues that, at a time when the Roman Rite of the Eucharist was performed in Latin, ashrams represented the possibilities of a non-European and inculturated form of Christianity. These two Catholic monks endured a certain amount of criticism from the Indian clergy because they wore the saffron robes of Hindu saṃnyāsin. However, the pair made significant contributions to the experimentation, and later implementation, of the vernacular rites and the theology of inculturation.

Chapters 2 and 3 are a more personal account of Le Saux’s journey. He went off to India with the goal of evangelizing, but was transformed as he went deeper and deeper into his practice and understanding of advaita vedānta, the Hindu doctrine of non-duality. Looking for a way to conciliate Christ and advaita vedānta, Le Saux struggled with the fear of not fitting into a dual religious life. We follow Le Saux’s itinerary—from Shantivanam to his encounter with Sri Ramana Maharishi and on to his pilgrimage to the Himalayas—to show how this personal experience laid the foundations for a Christian-Hindu dialogue based on philosophical principles of contemplation.

 In chapter 4, the figure and life of Bede Griffiths (Swāmi Dhayananda) presents a profile different from the other monks given his previous orientalist studies (86). Griffiths also embraced the life of a saṃnyāsin and became the superior of Shantivanam for 25 years during which he was an influential advocate of interreligious dialogue between Hinduism and Christianity. Under Le Saux’s guidance, Shantivanam became a place where many Westerners interested in Hinduism stopped to pursue their spiritual search and, as a result, were able to renew their faith and “to see the Church in a new light“ (98).

Chapter 5 deals with Francis Mahieu and the foundation of Syro-Malabar monasticism. In 1958, this monk had the difficult task of creating Kurisumala, an inculturated Cistercian monastery in Kerala. Aguilar shows the novelty of reconstructing an Eastern monastic life within the Indian context. Mahieu had to travel in the Middle East to compile original sources. A great importance is given to the problems and challenges of Mahieu’s authoritarian model of leadership as well as to his interaction with Griffiths and Le Saux. The case of Mahieu is significant to the history of the liturgical dialogue in the Syro-Malabar Church.

Chapters 6 and 7 outline the life and writings of the fifth pioneer, Raimon Panikkar, who was raised a Roman Catholic but was Hindu by cultural upbringing. This theologian and professor of comparative philosophy of religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara became a major actor in interfaith dialogue. Throughout his life he published sixty books and 1,500 articles, making the religious traditions of India accessible to a Western audience, and fostering the ideas of mysticism. Aguilar describes his close friendship and connected journey with Le Saux, and Panikkar's notion of the monk as the archetype of a spiritual search for the Absolute.

To conclude this historical-theological exploration, Aguilar looks into the context of the postcolonial world of India and the significance of Indian Christian monasticism dialogue for today. Aguilar argues that many Christians were inspired by the five pionniers mentioned in this book in their search for spirituality and that it challenges the notions of secularism with an absence of God so prevalent in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s (167). This argument is just sketched, leaving the reader hungry for a deeper discussion—for example, on the impact on Shantivanam on Western visitors—and more generally, the influence these pioneers have had on later generations of spiritual seekers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Fanny Guex is a doctoral student in the history of religion at the University of Lausanne.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mario I. Aguilar is professor at the School of Divinity, St. Andrew's University.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.