My weekday meditations series is currently focusing on some of the words of the Benedictine monk Fr Bede Griffiths, a mystical pioneer who lived much of his life in an Indian Ashram (spiritual community).
Fr Bede, was born Alan Richard Griffiths in 1906. He became a Christian, initially exploring ordination as an Anglican priest, but converted to Catholicism after reading work by John Henry Newman, the poet priest who had also converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, some years before. Griffiths joined the Benedictine order, and upon taking his vows, he was given the name Bede, which means prayer. After a number of years as a Benedictine monk in the UK, he moved to India, and spent the remainder of his life there. He became a key figure in what was known as the Christian Ashram movement, and perhaps more than any one apart from his shorter lived contemporary, Thomas Merton, came to symbolise the quest to engage Christianity with the religious and wisdom traditions of the East. After arriving in India, he took the name Swami Dhayananda which means bliss of prayer. Years later he was took the name Swami Dayananda, which means bliss of compassion.
Dressed in the ochre robes of a Hindu Sanyassi (ascetic/holy man), which symbolise the renunciation of worldly attachments, Bede became a leading figure in Hindu – Christian dialogue, speaking widely, and writing books about Hindu and Christian spirituality.
Bede grew up relatively poor, but his natural intelligence saw him win a scholarship to Oxford University, where he read Philosophy and English Literature. In his third year at Oxford, CS Lewis became his tutor, and the two formed a strong bond of friendship which went beyond the ivory towers of academia, as they journeyed together towards an understanding of the divine. In ‘Surprised by joy’ Lewis wrote of this time in his life: “My chief companion on this stage of the road was Griffiths, with whom I kept up a copious correspondence. Both now believed in God, and were ready to hear more of Him from any source, Pagan or Christian.” As Griffiths turned towards Catholicism though, the friendship grew strained, and although they maintained a correspondence, this move proved difficult for the friendship to bear.
It was after university, but before his shift to Catholicism, that his interest in monasticism began to kick in, and he and two others tried an ‘experiment in common life’, an early new monastic attempt, living lives of self denying rural poverty, as with many such endeavours, this was not long lasting. After a while Bede made an attempt to become an Anglican Priest, but eventually, upon reading some of Newman’s writings, converted to Roman Catholicism, and proceeded to join the Benedictine order. A number of years as a Benedictine in the UK followed, during which time he was given the role of Prior. But during this time another change began to take place, as he grew more engaged with the religion and philosophy of India, following meetings with Indian Catholics, and Jungian psychology.
Bede eventually left for India in 1955, writing that he was going ‘to discover the other half of my soul’, and it was there that he eventually developed the ministry for which he is best known, integrating Christian and Hindu spirituality.
His writings are powerful, and the more so in that they reflect his ‘lived experience’. For all that Merton, his better known contemporary, gained renown for his forays into inter-spirituality, Griffiths lived it in a way that Merton never could.
It is probably no surprise that Griffiths was something of a progressive in his social attitudes, as well as his religious ones. In an article called ‘On Homosexual Love’ he wrote that homosexual love is ‘just as normal and natural as love between people of the opposite sex’. Quite the assertion for a man of his time, for he was no ‘free love’ hippy priest, nor yet an Osho type charismatic guru. Fundamentally Griffiths was just much more interested in love than anything else, advocating the development of interspiritual communities based upon the primacy of love, rather than any one particular creed.
Griffiths was controversial, both within Christianity and Hinduism: It’s true to say that when he first reached India, he exhibited something of a colonialist attitude, making some apparently disparaging remarks about Hindus and Hinduism. But while that was largely put behind him as he grew to understand India and Hinduism better, he continued to face criticism for his adoption of the Sannyasin robes, which are only supposed to be worn by followers of a guru. In Christianity he remains controversial among those who consider his relationship with Hinduism to have been problematically syncretistic.
There may well have been problems with his adoption or appropriation of these symbols, but its important to remember that symbols are just that: symbolic. We all too readily make them sacred. Griffiths was an equal opportunity barrier breaker – upsetting religious Christians as well as sections of Hinduism as he sought a way of being which transcended cultural and religious dividing lines.
In 1993 Griffiths died, as he had lived the majority of his life, in his small hut in Shantivanam ashram. To many of us who are interested in spirituality and the ongoing search for language of the divine, he was a mystical pioneer. For those who recognise the primary importance of love beyond any religious boundaries, he was a prophet. There is lots about his life on the internet, but for a really good read I can recommend Shirley Bourlay’s biography ‘Beyond the darkness’. Shantivanam, and the Bede Griffiths Sangha (community) continue his legacy today.