Vidyavanam Ashram – An Appreciation
Many Christians who practice yoga have at least heard of Shantivanam, a Christian ashram in Tamil Nadu founded by Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux (Abhishiktananda) and made famous by Bede Griffiths. Although Fr. Bede died in 1993, his life and writings continue to draw pilgrims to Shantivanam. If you are making a trip to India, it is certainly worth the effort to visit Shantivanam.
I more recently discovered Vidyavanam ashram, a Catholic ashram not far from the major city of Bengalaru (Bangalore). It, too, offers much to Christian yoga practitioners, or to anyone who is interested in inter-spiritual dialogue.
Vidyavanam ashram, a work of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, is a place to attend to “the one thing necessary” of which Jesus speaks. That one thing necessary -- the transforming encounter with divine Wisdom -- is the animating purpose of the ashram. Vidyavanam means “Forest of Wisdom.” Its purpose is expressed in a variety of ways, all of which centre on silence and simplicity.
First there is the setting –- Vidyavanam is a large, rural piece of property. While the great city of Bengalaru is not too far distant, Vidyavanam’s setting is marked by birdsong and the movement of the wind through the trees. I visited in mid-March when the weather is dry and hot. Even so, Vidyavanam still enjoys much refreshing greenery.
Vidyavanam aims at simplicity: accommodation is basic but entirely adequate. Meals are delicious, light, and vegetarian, leaving the body nourished but not heavy. Silence is kept in guest quarters. Idle chatter is discouraged. At the centre of the ashram is the beautiful and striking chapel where Mass is celebrated daily. If you are taking part in one of the ashram’s retreats, you will have the opportunity to learn and share teachings on meditation and Indian philosophy with others. The teachings emphasize the complementarities between India’s long experience with meditation and God-consciousness and that of Christianity. Lest this become too abstract, and because this is a forest of wisdom, guests at the ashram are encouraged to take a share in daily work in the gardens, keeping in literal touch with the good earth.
Vidyavanam is a part of the Christian ashram movement in India, a movement concerned to discover the exchange of gifts that is possible between spiritual and cultural traditions. The ashram integrates wisdom traditions from India into its life of silence and simplicity. There is daily asana practice in order to help keep the body healthy and supple. Various pranayams are linked to the venerable Jesus prayer tradition of the Orthodox churches. Common life encourages a deep interiority. Vidyavanam therefore lives out the call to attend to the one thing necessary -- contemplative prayer -- by bringing together the riches of Christianity’s own tradition of contemplative prayer and that of the sages and saints of India.