Bede Griffiths was a contemplative Benedictine Monk who was led to India by spiritual means to explore the depths of the incarnation within the heart of the human person. He first went to Kurisumala Monastery, Kerala and then to Shantivanam – a Christian Monastery and Ashram in Tamil Nadu. Seeking the meeting point of the divine incarnation of Christ the Son of God in Indian spiritual tradition, Bede Griffiths and the Shantivanam Ashram became a beacon for Christians seeking inner renewal, world-wide.
Alan Griffiths was born in 1906 into an Anglican family and attended local schools. Due the loss of business by his father, the family fell on somewhat impoverished times in his youth. He was enrolled in a college for the poor, (Christ’s College) and later studied at Magdalen College in Oxford. He was well learned in the Classics and one of his tutors was C.S. Lewis of the Narnia trilogy fame. Bede Griffiths and C.S. Lewis were to become lifelong friends.
Conversion and entry into the monastic life
After family hardship and a small experiment in communal living with frugality and poverty, Griffiths discovered the Church and his faith in a small Cotswold college which he and his companions called Eastington. When this experiment concluded, Griffiths returned to London and took up part time tutoring. Thereafter, he sought solitude and prayer and took himself off to another cottage in the Cotswolds. Experiences there were to lead him to the local Catholic church, where the resident priest took him along to the local Abbey; this was a Benedictine foundation of enclosed monks, known as the Subiaco Order of Benedictines.
Shortly after being received into the Catholic Church, Alan Griffiths became a postulant in the abbey of Prinknash and after a brief flirtation with Cistercians, settled down. He passed the ritual scrutinies and in January of 1934, took simple profession and became a choir monk. Solemn profession came three years later, and in March of 1940, he was ordained to the priesthood. Alan Griffiths was no more; he was given the monastic name of Bede, after Bede the Venerable.
Guestmaster, Teacher, Prior
Father Bede was first given the task of Guestmaster at Prinknash Abbey, and some years later, was appointed Prior of Farnborough Abbey, a French foundation which had become depleted in numbers and finances. He was also the Master of Studies, Superior and had to attend to the day-to-day running of the Abbey. It was here that he first read the Upanishads, and a translation of the Bhagavad Gita. He began to explore English literature, Buddhism, Hinduism and the writings of Lao Tze. After some years, Fr. Bede was sent to Pluscarden, another foundation of Prinknash Abbey in Scotland.
At Pluscarden, Fr Bede was Master of Studies and Novice Master, when the first novices entered in 1953. The monastery had been a ruin for over 400 years and required much labour. Fr Bede was busy gardening, composting and pushing wheelbarrows around. He also took up writing in a major way, contributing to PAX, the internal newsletter of his congregation, Life of the Spirit, Blackfriars (an international Benedictine publication), the American magazine Commonweal and the international Catholic weekly, The Tablet. He also completed his autobiography, The Golden String, which was published in 1954. Shortly thereafter, he met Fr Benedict Alapatt, an Indian Benedictine who wanted to introduce the monastic life to the Church in India. Early January 1955, Fr Bede received his indult of exclaustration from Rome, which allowed him to leave the monastery and live outside. In March of 1955, he set sail with Fr Benedict and travelled to Bombay.
1955 – Arrival in India
The two Benedictine priests travelled to Bangalore and lived in a clergy house until their own monastery was built; it was called Nirmalashram, Monastery of the Immaculate. This was in a village called Kangeri, located some ten miles from Bangalore. Within six months of his arrival, Bede had met with Fr Raimundo Pannikar, the Spanish Jesuit who had a Catholic mother and a Hindu father and was learned in both traditions. Together they learned Sanskrit and soon Bede was reading the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana in their original language, albeit slowly. During his travels he visited Mysore, and there attended a temple which was one of the important Jain pilgrimage sites, Sravan Beloga, where the statue of the Monk on top of the Hill stuck him as the prim?al man.
Bede Griffiths was not a missionary priest; he was a contemplative monk, and thus his vision and reflections on India come from that perspective and not that of evangelisation nor inculturation of the Church in India. At that time there was only a population of 5 million Christians in India, and most were found in Goa and in Kerala, in the south. Bede and Father Alapatt applied to start a new Benedictine foundation. This was rejected by Rome in September 1956. Bede then met with Fr Francis, Cistercian monk who was going to found a monastery in Trivandum, and was given permission by Rome to fulfil his five year indult of exclaustration with this activity.
At that time, Bede was not writing overly much, and was still finding his feet, so to speak, having been plunged into a country where the perennial philosophy was evident in everyday life. He began to see this perennial philosophy as the evidence that the one transcendental reality was behind all religions:
… beneath the immense profusion of Hindu philosophy there is to be discerned a continuous metaphysical tradition of a most remarkable character. It is no longer possible to speak of ‘pantheism’ or ‘Monism’ or ‘idealism’ in regard to this philosophy … this Hindu philosophy is a genuine part of the ‘perennial philosophy’, which came to us in the West through Plato and Aristotle and Plotinus and was incorporated in Catholic theology by St Thomas.
Bede Griffiths was to develop this further when he attended the All-India Study Week in Madras. Here, in a talk given, he tried to relate Hinduism to Christianity and in particular to the Church and her rituals. In reaching his conclusions, Bede again touched on the perennial philosophy:
It seems to me to be of incalculable importance, when we are discussing the relation of Hinduism or any other form of religion to Christianity, that we should recognise that these religions are not simply ‘false’ religions to be rejected as a whole; but that on the contrary they are in all their different ways forms of the one true religion, which has been made known to man from the beginning of the world, though they are all in their different ways corrupted or distorted. What we have to do is not simply to condemn the ‘errors’ of these religions, but to study them humbly and sincerely and with deep sympathy, recognising them as divine in their origin and seeking to discover the pattern of that original divine truth in their present shape.
Kurisumala Monastery, Kerala
Fr. Francis, the Cistercian, and Fr. Bede travelled to Kerala, and were offered an abandoned area of 100 acres on a Tea plantation on the Western Ghats. The land was called Kurisumala (the hill in the shape of a Cross) and formerly a place of pilgrimage. After they had been living there for two weeks, they discovered a cross which had been erected in honour of St Benedict and two medals of the saint were buried beneath it. They established a monastery there and after some time, received postulants and novices. Fr Bede took the Indian name of Dayananda, the embodiment of compassion.
It was monsoon country, with torrential rain from May to November every year. They established a farm and dairy, and were reaping pineapples from their plantations and slowly became self-sufficient. Bede Griffiths was travelling and giving talks at this time, and as the numbers of students rose, they began to play Fr Bede and his guidance against Fr. Francis, and this caused some friction. The Prior took a one year sabbatical, and told Bede that he had to decide his future when the Prior returned from leave.
After the Prior (Fr. Francis) returned from his sabbatical he received a letter asking him to take over an ashram on the Cauvery River in Tamil Nadu. This was a French Benedictine foundation by two monks, who were trying an experiment in complete inculturation of the monastic life into India. Fr. Monchanin had recently passed away, and Fr. Henri Le Saux (Swami Abhishiktananada) wanted to retire to the Himalayas. Fr. Francis persuaded Bede to go to Tamil Nadu to take up this foundation. On 15 August 1968, after ten years in Kerala, Bede Griffiths set off for Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu, nearby Trichy (Tiruchi).
Shantivanam Monastery, Tamil Nadu
Fr. Bede travelled to Shantivanam and found it was little more than huts and a small chapel in a forest scrub. He set about clearing land, planting trees and bringing some small amenities from civilisation to the ashram: electricity and toilets with plumbing. Two young persons accompanied him, and one left after studying a course in theology, to marry. Initially, Fr Bede had a lonely time and struggled to build the ashram amid turbulent and constantly changing ashram members and visitors. The aim of the ashram founders, Fr Monchanin and Fr Le Saux, was a deep meeting point between Hinduism and Christianity. They were ahead of their time, and spiritual giants of their own kind, in the field of inculturation and inter-religious encounter. Fr Bede set out to take up their vision and establish a form of contemplative life based on the traditions of Christian monasticism and the Hindu sanyasa; incorporating the similar tradition of renouncing the world and seeking God. He sought not only to establish a contemplative life, but for Shantivanam to be a meeting place between Hindus and Christians, between people of all religions and people of none. He also longed to bring Indian spirituality with its emphasis on interiority to Christian life and to contribute to the development of a genuine Indian Christian liturgy.
By the middle of the 1970’s Shantivanam was becoming famous, drawing people from all over the world, and Fr Griffiths, who would never claim to be reaping what others had sown was becoming a sort of an International Guru, flying to various places around the world and giving talks. Publication of his book Return to the Centre and the Ashram’s silver jubilee in 1975 drew both acclaim and criticism. Return to the Centre brought mixed reception and criticism. It consists of a series of meditations on detachment, the nature of the true self, sin and redemption, the mystery of love and the one spirit in all religion. “We have to discover these different aspects of Truth and unite them in ourselves. I have to be a Hindu, Buddhist, a Jain, a Parsee, a Sikh, a Muslim, and a Jew as well as a Christian, if I am to know the Truth and to find the point of reconciliation in all religion.” Bede Griffiths saw the different religions as distinct manifestations of the one underlying reality:
What is this transcendent mystery, this ultimate truth, this universal law? These are words we use to express the inexpressible. This is the whole problem of life, which continually baffles our reason. The ultimate meaning and purpose of life cannot be expressed, cannot properly be thought. It is present everywhere, in everything , yet it always escapes our grasp. It is the ‘Ground’ of all existence, that from which all things come, to which all things return but which never appears. It is within all things, above all things, beyond all things, but it cannot be identified with anything. Without it nothing could exist, without it nothing can be known, yet it itself is unknown. It is that by which everything is known yet which by itself remains unknown.
The Union of Opposites
Bede Griffiths was very much taken by Carl Jung’s theory that man is a union of contrasting opposites, a marriage of masculine and feminine. It was in his own life that he was to experience this union in an overpowering fashion. On the morning of 25 January 1990 Bede Griffiths was meditating when he felt a force like a hammer hit the side of his head. He lay unconscious for some time, and a medical diagnosis found heart failure and a slight stroke to be the causes. Bede himself when he was well said it was not a mystical experience but an empty experience, a negative experience. When asked to express this experience in images, Bede Griffiths came back with the words “Black Madonna”; the dark feminine which is cruel and destructive but also deeply nourishing, loving and protecting.
Late in February of the same year, Bede Griffiths was to again have a similar experience. This time, he felt the inspiration, “Surrender to the Mother, surrender to the Mother”. He then had an experience of overwhelming love; “Waves of love sort of flowed into me”. Again, Bede Griffiths was reluctant to call this a mystical experience, instead, explaining the experience on three levels:
“On the physical level it was apparently a stroke, a bursting of a blood vessel due to lack of oxygen in the brain. On the psychological level it was a ‘death of the mind’ – a breakdown of the left-brain rational mind and an awakening of the feminine intuitive mind. But on the spiritual level it certainly left an impression of advaita – a transcendence of all limitations and an awakening to the non-dual reality. This has left an indelible impression on me. I am seeing everything in a new light.”
In May of 1993 Bede Griffiths had a third and more debilitating stroke, for which he received some six weeks of Ayurvedic treatment, before he returned to Shantivanam for the last time. It is said in the Bhagavad Gita that the most crucial moment in the life of a devotee of the Lord is the final moments before death. There, the fullness of spirituality, the training of the mind, the force of habit (or lack thereof) determines where the soul goes at the moment of death. It is a most precious gift to utter the name of the Lord at the moment of death, for if your mind is focussed on God, you go to God.
Bede Griffiths was back in his hut in Shantivanam. Those around him were offering prayers for him, and he had received the last sacrament, the anointing of the body. He became weaker, ate seldom, and hardly spoke. Late on the afternoon of Thursday 13th of May, Bede Griffiths said, “God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, I surrender to you“. Then he slept.
So it was that a life of singular graciousness came to an end, with a great grace from the Lord, the God of Angel Hosts.
I know that the Great Person of the brightness of the Sun beyond the darkness. Only by knowing him one goes beyond death. There is no other way to go.
Bede Griffiths was a trailblazer, bringing the fusion of spiritual experience and discipline to those who were labouring in the darkness of rituals, prayers and an inner thirst to move beyond form and external observances to the inner reality of the Divine. By choosing to be an exclaustrated monk, by living an example in a Christian Ashram which had elements of rituals from both Hinduism and Christianity, by seeking the Christ who dwells in the cave of the heart, he held aloft a torch on the path to the inner experience for modern man to follow.
As you know, all the major religious and spiritual leaders assembled in Chicago for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in late summer 1993. Bede Griffiths who passed away on 13th May 1993 was expected to be one of the key-note speakers. Instead we organized a memorial service on 31st August in the “Monroe Ballroom” of the “Palmer House Hilton Hotel”.
The poster which we brought from Germany was signed by the following persons (from top left to right bottom):
His Holiness the XIV. Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual leader and head of state of Tibet, awarded with the “Nobel PriZe for Peace”
His Eminence Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorius, Metropolitan of Delhi and the North Syrian Orthodox Church of India, former president of the World Council of Churches
Professor Raimon Panikkar, distinguished theologian, universal scholar and world thinker, leading figure in the field of inter-religious and cross-cultural dialogues
Timothy Kelly O.S.B., Benedictine abbot of St. John’s Monastery, Collegeville/Minnesota, the largest single Benedictine monastery in the world with over 250 monks
Professor Ewart Cousins, Professor of theology, Fordham University, New York, general editor of the great series of “The Classics of Western Spirituality”, former consultant to the Vatican Secretariat on Inter-Religious Dialogue
Douglas Conlan, secular priest in Perth/West Australia, representing the Bede Griffiths Trust in Australia at “Christ by the River Hermitage”, teacher of contemplation, lecturer
James Connor O.C.S.O., Trappist monk, Abbey of Gethsemani/Kentucky, where Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) was his fellow-monk and personal friend
Hindu Swami Jyotirmayananda, an outstanding expert of the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and
Vivekananda and author of the most comprehensive study on Vivekananda, which carries the message of hope for an inner transformation and to pave the way for
universal peace and prosperity.
Dr. Karan Singh, president of “Temple of Understanding”, former Indian ambassador to the United States; former Minister of Health, New Delhi; active in environmental and global consciousness movements and in interfaith dialogue
Samdhong Rinpoche, Director of the “Institute of Higher Tibetan Buddhist Studies”, Varanasi (Benares), India; scholar and spiritual master
Brother David Steindl-Rast O.S.B., Benedictine monk and spiritual leader, advisor to MID (Monastic Interreligious Dialogue) lecturer, author and leader in interfaith dialogue
Al Huang, Tai-Chi-Master, internationally recognised lecturer, author of “Thinking
Body, Dancing Mind”.
Sister Pascaline Coff O.S.B., Benedictine nun, founder and director of “Osage Monastery, Forest of Peace”, Sand Springs/Oklahoma. Since 1976 actively involved in East-West interreligious and intermonastic dialogues, teacher of contemplation, lecturer; a close friend of the Dalai Lama and Bede Griffiths; she lived a full year in Shantivanam under the spiritual guidance of Dom Bede; Sister Pascaline was the first person who brought the Dalai Lama to the United States of America
Roland R. Ropers Obl.O.S.B., managing director of a private hospital in the Upper Bavarian Mountains/Germany. Benedictine Oblate of Sat-Chit-Ananda Ashram, Shantivanam/India;
This page last updated 20 August 2019
This page first updated 3 November 2008