Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Adapting Hindu Imagery: A Critical Look at Ritual Experiments in an Indian Catholic Ashram (*)

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Adapting Hindu Imagery: A Critical Look at Ritual Experiments in an Indian Catholic Ashram (*)

Article excerpt


Over the past three decades, the Catholic Church In India has promoted the development of Catholic ashrams that have become fertile grounds for various experiments In adaptation known as "inculturation." In light of a brief historical survey of the critical moments and key figures in the Catholic ashram movement In modern India, this essay critically examines the theoretical and dialogical implications of the Catholic adaptation of Hindu Imagery as exemplified In the lifestyle and worship patterns of an archetypal Catholic ashram in South India.


Over the past three decades, the Catholic Church in India has made more overt efforts to relate the Christian faith to the pluralistic Indian religious landscape. One of the tangible signs of this trend is the renewed interest in the Catholic ashrams (1) that have been a fertile ground for various experiments in adaptation known as "inculturation." (2) Sociologist Helen Ralston describes this new interest in ashrams within Indian Catholicism as the product of a new religious consciousness inspired by Vatican II and galvanized by the 1969 All India Seminar on the Church in India Today, which "called upon all.. . to promote ashrams and an ashram way of life." (3) The Ashram-Aikya, an association of nearly 100 nfluential Indian Catholic theologians committed to ashnunic ideals and lifestyle, has made a sustained theological argument that ashram life and spirituality are the most authentic signs of an inculturated Indian Christianity. (4)

This small group of Catholic clerics and nuns adopting ashramic life may be classified as full-time and marginal ashramites. The former regard the call to ashramic life as a vocation within their religious vocation. More precisely, having fulfilled the "householders' obligations" (grihasthadharma) within the parameters of their religious orders and having become disillusioned with them, these have chosen, through a second naivete as it were, to opt for the Catholic version of the third and fourth stages of withdrawal (vanaprastha) and renunciation (sannyasadharma) of the brahminical asrama system. Furthermore, theologically, they regard the traditional Catholicism that is GrecoRoman in thought and Mediterranean in expression as foreign and alien. Hence, they seek to inculturate Christian faith in thought, life, and worship in the indigenous religiocultural context. (5) Such well-known ashramites as Amalorpavadoss, Vandana, and Maria Louis belong to this category. For example, after formal religious education in India and abroad, Maria Louis served her religious order for many years in various capacities. Having "renounced" the traditional roles of a Catholic nun, she is now attached to the Saccidananda Ashram, where she heads the women's section.

Distinct from the above are the marginal ashramites. These include those priests and nuns who, despite their appreciation for ashramic ideals, are unwilling--in some cases, unable--to break away from traditional forms of religious life and make a permanent commitment to ashramic life, since its discipline calls for a radical rupture and alteration of lifestyle. The dilemma of competing demands is well articulated in the candid admission of a nun who sought to blend ashram life with her regular music ministry: "It is difficult... to harmonize Ashram life with professionalism." (6) Two specific types of compromises help maintain both affiliation with and distance from ashram life. First, there are periodic excursions into ashram experience in the form of retreats. Second, there is incorporation or accommodation of ashramic patterns (liturgical practices and spiritual discipline) into conventional forms of religious life. In other words, instead of renouncing traditional roles and moving into the ashram, they mo ve the ashram into, for example, the convent. Wearing saffron saris, squatting on the floor during Mass, chanting Sanskrit slokas, and eating with one's hands are visible symbols of participation in ashramic life. …

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