Christian Sannyasa and Yoga

Jose Mekat (Swami Devatmananda), Christ Church, Calicut

After living at Ganga Darshan for one month, I have gained much, both physically and spiritually. The experience has stimulated a lot of thought in me about sannyasa life in relation to religious communities. Most of the Christian orders were founded in the West, so naturally Western culture has influenced the lifestyle of most Christian groups. Even the societies founded in India had a Western approach, because most of the founders were very much influenced by the West.

Christian 'sannyasa' has two groups: the contemplative and the active. Contemplatives such as cloistered Carmelites, Poor Clares, and Carmaldolese, give themselves to meditation, prayer and the study of scriptures. They live and work in monasteries and have their rhythm of silence, meditation, prayer, chanting, singing and work. They live within the monastery walls and have little contact with people outside.

The active aspirants such as the Missionaries of Charity, Carmelites and Jesuits work mostly at home, cooking and taking care of the house, or outside, teaching in schools and colleges, doing social work, research, running orphanages etc. They also have their rhythm of meditation, chanting, psalms and common prayers.

Both groups seek to experience God and serve in His name. Saint Ignatious Loyola was the first to become inspired to start active religious life. He believed people should be able to see God in all things, and that if they were sufficiently detached, they would develop enough awareness to face conflicts and grow to experience God.

Helping the aspirant to attain the experience of God is the purpose of religious communities. They are making a commitment to seek God's Kingdom. Jesus Christ taught that 'the kingdom of God is within'. For many, however, this journey within seems long and hazardous, and so they prefer to live at the periphery, although at heart, they wish to move into the centre, to experience God.

Obstacles to the experience of God

The greatest block to god-realisation is ego. The Christian masters would call it self-love, self-will, the conscious and unconscious craving for riches, power, position, fame or pleasure. In the earlier days it was not so difficult for a monk or a sannyasin to subdue the ego by devoting himself entirely to God. Nowadays, however, life is very complex at all levels and this also affects the religious communities.

In the last twenty-five years, Christian Sannyasa has undergone many modifications since the cultural and social changes in India, Europe and America have influenced it in different ways. Moreover, modern pluralistic, theological thinking had its impact also. I believe that this has gradually eroded the spiritual standards of religious aspirants.

There are also other external influences, the allurements of modern life which distract the attention and draw it outside. The active religious aspirants are constantly in contact with various groups and individuals within the mass media. It is said that the greatest industries in the world are publicity and entertainment which have subtle and deep influences on us. A lot of money, time and energy are spent by those who manage these industries to find out which advertising makes the deepest impact. Without realising it, we all become brainwashed.

Technology and industry are projecting their values onto society. People get hooked by these allurements, which are communicated regularly through TV, radio and other mass-media, Spiritual values are lost in a community where there is amassing of wealth through exploitation, lack of love and respect, competition, love of luxury, injustice and self-centredness.

Christian sannyasins are constantly exposed to, and work in, large institutional setups. They are rational in their approach. However, without their awareness, these values are imbibed and they manifest themselves in their lifestyle and activities.

Jesus Christ as 'role- model'

According to the Gospels the values of Jesus Christ were quite contrary to the modern high tech culture. Christ showed great respect for the human person. He emphasised the importance of love and sharing. He lived a simple life in poverty and showed preference for the poor and the sinner. Justice was very dear to him. He told the puritanical, powerful pharisees, 'You neglect to obey the important teachings of the law such as justice, mercy and honesty'.

Christ was one with his Father. He prayed, 'You and I are one. May they be one in us just as you are in me and I am in you.' Christ was one with the Father in samadhi. His life was governed by his union with the Father. Though active, he was deeply contemplative. He was led by intuition and he renounced himself totally: 'Not my will, however, but Thy Will be done'.

The values of Christ are clearly found in the ethos of sannyasa in India, and these values are lived even today. Christian leaders, especially the teachers, have therefore become very conscious of the need to learn, understand and imbibe the heritage of India which has been the homeland to all religions since ages past.

Efforts have been made to study Indian philosophy and culture in depth by notable Christian sannyasins such as Fr. Bede Griffiths who lives in an Indian-style ashram on the banks of the Cavery river near Trichy.

Christian sannyasins can learn much from the sannyasins of India. Buddhist Bhikkus, Jain Swetambaras, Digambaras, and the ten orders of Sannyasa, are all examples of renunciation. They live it in its pristine style. They have not been unduly influenced by the changes that are taking place in India and are able to give spiritual light and life to many seekers.

Anyone who thinks seriously about taking up the path of renunciation, needs to know about the lifestyle and the traditions of the Indian sannyasins. There is much to be learned from the experiences of those who live this life and are following various traditions, many of which are thousands of years old.

Ashram insights

I wish to express a few thoughts here from my own experiences while living with the sannyasins of this ashram. First of all, the Bihar School of Yoga is guided by the insight and deep experience of a guru. Those who follow him may think that his directions are unreasonable and all their ideals may be shattered. But the guru has certain methods of helping the disciple to gain insight into his own ego, and thus to drop it. Dropping the ego is an important aspect of spiritual transformation. Yet, if a modern Christian monk were to read the following incident of early monasticism, he would laugh at it: Abbot Pachomius ordered a young monk to water a dry stick every day. The other monks who saw it being done must have laughed, but the young monk did water the dry stick. Gradually the dry stick became alive, sprouted and flowered- The abbot was a man of intuition and so was the disciple. Such methods do produce results in the disciple who obeys his master or guru implicitly.

Such a teaching would sound ridiculous to a modern Christian monk who is governed more by reason than by intuition. His natural tendency would be to question such an order. Here I see the importance of developing the contemplative/intuitive aspect. For this purpose, it is necessary to have a relationship with a guru or guide who has spiritual experience.

A sannyasin needs to be continuously led by his intuition and not become distracted from his goal. It would have been easy for Swami Satyananda to remain in this well-organised ashram. All the disciples and devotees around him would have appreciated it. However, he was governed by his inner voice, and therefore, he has gone on in his path. That is an inspiration which I carry with me. Whatever work or position one holds, a sannyasin needs to have the inner power and viveka not to be allured by self-love or self-will. He needs to develop the freedom to answer the inner call, however difficult it may be.

Sexual Integration

In Christian circles there used to be a tendency towards repression of negative emotion such as anger, jealousy and passion. In the ashram, however, I encountered the idea of acceptance and integration of all emotions and feelings, which is very healthy psychologically. It is not by denying experiences but by facing them that we grow. This concept can be very meaningfully adopted in Christian sannyasa.

In an ashram where male and female sannyasins work and eat together, an atmosphere of acceptance and relaxation is generated which can he]p greatly in the integration of sexuality. The integration of the 'anima' (female aspect of a man) and the 'animus' (male aspect of a woman) is an important aspect of internal integration, according to the psychologist Carl Jung. This is an important aspect of practical brahmacharya.

The benefits of yoga

The importance given to mantra diksha is an aspect I noted with interest. Mantra is an ancient science in India and is used by all groups. There is a rich experience behind it which can be communicated to all seekers. Mantra diksha represents the first step into spiritual life. By mantra meditation an inner link is forged between the guru and the disciple or the aspirant and the divine. After mantra diksha, one becomes eligible for karma sannyasa or sannyasa diksha. However these initiations require more intensive training which is gained by living in the ashram.

Training of the sannyasins in the various aspects of yoga helps them lead healthy and contemplative lives. That in turn makes them a better tool for serving the people. Asana, pranayama, meditation, kriya yoga, tattwa shuddhi, prana vidya, nada yoga are all aids for one to go deeper into contemplation. Very few Christian sannyasins are aware of the use of these methods. However, I believe that anyone who leads a life of renunciation and contemplation should be exposed to these techniques, and master them in order to experience their benefits.

Thus, a marriage between East and West will take place, and there will be real cultural integration. This cultural integration seems necessary to connect the intuitive/contemplative aspect of life that alone will help a Christian sannyasin to reach his goal of union with the Godhead. Through this union he will surely gain immense power to lead a more creative, dynamic and fruitful life.