Monday, 18 November 2013

A Visit to an Ashram

Meeting the Masters is mostly about a single year in my life, the year the Masters made contact with me and the first year of my tuition by them. This was also the only year I recorded their messages in a systematic (or relatively systematic) way. During that period Michael and I made a month long visit to India which is described in the book. However shortly after that we returned to India to live, and we stayed there for five years, during which time the Masters continued to talk to me. In fact, part of the reason we went there was that it was easier for them to do so. They also wanted  to separate us out from the world for a spell so that we could devote ourselves to the spiritual quest without distraction. 

We spent the first few months in and around the city of Bangalore before moving up to the hill station of Yercaud in Tamil Nadu where we bought a property which comprised two bungalows. This property was on the side of a hill with the bungalows on different levels of a terraced garden. We lived in the top bungalow and ran the lower one as a guesthouse. It only had three bedrooms and the season was relatively short but it gave us a small income as well as something to do of a practical nature. The Masters always encouraged me to keep myself occupied and not lapse into the sort of over-introspective mysticism which leads only to self-absorption. As they told me shortly after we arrived in Yercaud. 
Work more with your hands so that you keep busy, and do not dwell so much in thought as that will only make you self-centred and inclined to lose yourself in speculation that goes nowhere. You will not gain the knowledge you seek through thought”. They were and are practical mystics and that is what they seek in their disciples. The correct balance between inner and outer is important on the spiritual path, and the Masters were always keen advocates of working with the hands which they saw both as a form of giving, or, to be more accurate, training towards a giving attitude, and as a means of keeping the over-activity of the mind at bay.

You will not gain the knowledge you seek through thought. That's precisely the opposite approach to the modern one. It does not mean that thought is wrong (in its place) but it does tell us that spiritual knowledge is only to be found on a higher plane than the mental one. And really spiritual knowledge (that is, spiritual knowledge not knowledge about spiritual things which is an entirely different matter) is the only sort worth seeking.
Our Bungalow in Yercaud
I regard those five years in India as the most important of my life but didn't include much about them in the book partly for reasons of space, but also because I wanted to focus on the words of the Masters as recorded during that first year. The following piece is something I did originally include but then cut out as not particularly relevant to the main thread of the story. It's not without its interest though, and I hope earns its place as a post in the blog.

'This is not a personal history so, although there are many other things I could write about our time in India, here is not the place to do it. However I might mention a visit we made to the ashram of Bede Griffiths, the Christian monk who had adopted the lifestyle of a Hindu sannyasi. Michael and Bede Griffiths had a mutual acquaintance who had given us a letter of introduction and so, one time when we were travelling in the vicinity of his ashram, we decided to pay him a visit. By one of those little quirks of fate which implies that someone on the other side has a sense of humour, it turned out that Bede Griffiths had that very day gone to Yercaud for the funeral of a fellow Catholic priest. However he was expected back the next day and the people at the ashram kindly said we could stay there. I recall that the ‘bed’ we were offered was basically a slab of concrete jutting out from the wall, resembling a shelf more than something you might want to sleep on. Still, you don’t go to ashrams for the creature comforts. The ashram itself, though, was idyllically situated on the banks of the sacred river Kaveri, the Tamil equivalent of the Ganges, and though the life led by the devotees there seemed simple to the point of austerity, the natural beauty of the place more than compensated.

   Father Bede came back the next day. With his long white hair and beard, barefoot and simply dressed in an ochre robe, he looked every inch the holy man. We talked to him for an hour or so and it was clear that his appearance was a true representation of what he was which is not always the case. However I did have some reservations about his ashram or, more specifically, about the form it took. The church was built along the lines of a southern Indian temple with statues of Jesus and Mary in the form of Hindu deities and frankly looked like something out of an Indian Disneyland. We went to a service which was half Mass and half Puja and, although conducted with obvious sincerity, seemed to both Michael and me to be misconceived. When you mix the outer elements of religious traditions you risk ending up with a hybrid that may preserve something of the externals of both but has nothing of the inner nature of either. Truth is beyond form but form can also express or misrepresent truth, and if you try to blend traditions that have grown completely separately, you lose most of what matters and might even be left with a caricature of both. It is true that religions have borrowed from each other and that, for example, the now unmistakably Eastern form of the Buddha owes much to Greek influence but when a religious iconography and ritual has taken on a settled and defined form, to mix it up with that from another tradition negates its purpose which is to act as a channel from the inner to the outer.

I don’t want to be misunderstood on this point. I am not saying that religions cannot learn from one another or that they do not have the same inner truths behind them, but to seek to combine their outer trappings and forms of worship robs them of their operative value and results in a possibly well-intentioned but effectively confused mish-mash, style without substance. Religions may ultimately be one but a mosque is a mosque, a church is a church and a temple is a temple, and to see a picture of Christ sitting like Siva is likely to reduce them both from powerful images expressing spiritual truths to trite composites which communicate nothing of an inner nature. I understand that Father Bede himself was aware of the dangers of syncretism, and I mean no disrespect to his person in writing of my impression of his ashram like this. He was born in a time when religions were more exclusive than they are now, and it is understandable that he sought to move beyond that, but I think the approach tried at his ashram was a mistaken one even if it was well meaning and sincere. '

My visit to Father Bede's ashram was nearly thirty years ago and it may be completely different today. But that's not the issue. I've included the piece to make the point that a mix and match approach to religion, popular today, doesn't really work. Because there is nothing hidden anymore, and we all have easy access to everything that has ever existed, at least superficially we do, it is tempting to blend traditions and think we are getting the best of all worlds. But that is not necessarily the case, and in this instance greater breadth often means less depth. I am certainly not saying that we cannot learn from other traditions. One of the great boons of living at the present time is that we can do precisely that. But try to blend the outer forms of traditions that spring from different revelations and you risk losing the connection they both might have to the source.

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