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Griffiths, Bede

GRIFFITHS, BEDE

Benedictine monk, writer; b. Walton-on-Thames, England, 1906; d. Shantivanam Ashram, Tamil Nadu, India, May 13, 1993. In 1932 Bede Griffiths entered the Roman Catholic Church; a few months later, he joined the Benedictine Abbey of Prinknash. For 15 years he hardly left the cloister and relished the order and peace of monastic life. However, his study of Indian religion and philosophy stirred another level of his search for wholeness, and, in 1955, he left for India "to find the other half of my soul." There he learned Sanskrit and in 1968 took over direction of the Benedictine ashram of Shantivanam, which had been founded by the two great pioneers of an Indianized Christianity, Jules Monchanin and Henri le Saux (Abhishiktananda).

In India Griffiths formed a small, fragile community of great international influence that symbolized his deepest

beliefs and intuitions. Among these were the need for a truly Asian Christianity reexpressing its faith through the terms of its own philosophy and scriptures. He saw modern Christianity at a crossroads comparable to that faced in the primitive Church when a Jewish framework of ideas and symbols struggled with those of the Gentile world. In his early days in India he met with official and semi-official opposition to his ideas and to his new form of ashramic-monastic life, but toward the end of his life he received official approval. He was always quick to confront and debate the reactionary forces of a eurocentric Christianity, either in India or in the West, and to point out what he saw as general inherent tendencies of all Semitic religions. For him these were the centrality of the dualistic model of seeing God, the domination of male symbolism and leadership, and the intolerance of exclusive claims to truth and salvation. In this spirit, for example, his revision of the psalter for ashram worship excised curses and denunciatory verses.

An anthology of world scriptures published posthumously illustrated Griffiths's belief that all religions originate in an intuition or experience of advaita or nonduality. They then decline into excessive rationalism, with its consequent rigidities of dualism and exclusivism, before ascending back through their contemplative traditions to a vision of simplicity and universalism. This latter belief underlies the importance he attributed to the influence of his fellow Benedictine John Main in restoring a method of contemplative meditation to Christianity from within the Christian monastic tradition. Griffiths's last book, The New Creation in Christ, takes Main's ideas on contemplation and the modern pursuit of community and personal wholeness as its inspiration for affirming a renewed tradition of lay monasticism. This book dispels any idea that Griffiths's universalist vision of religion resulted in any ultimate syncretism or dilution of Christian specificity.

With characteristic lucidity and elegance of literary style, Bede Griffiths wrote on Indian Christianity, modern Church controversies, Indian scripture, the meeting of East and West, and the encounter of modern science and religious mysticism. Despite his prophetic contemporaneity and inclusivity of vision, Griffiths harbored a deep distrust of modern technological civilization. He believed in the evolutionary movement toward global unity but saw irreconcilable self-contradictions at the core of modern society. He lived and taught from this tension without personal dogmatism and with a growing sweetness of nature that touched the hearts of his listeners around the world during the extensive travels of his last years.

After his stroke in 1990, Griffiths described a personal transformation and affective liberation that he attributed to the awakening of the muladara chakra. At Oxford he had struggled through an intellectual journey that took him from fin de siècle aestheticism to twentieth century Romanticism. In this he was accompanied by C.S. Lewis, a friend for 40 years, who described him as "one of the toughest dialecticians of my acquaintance." Yet, it was only after a battle with religious faith and an experiment with utopian living that he accepted the fully spiritual context of his pursuit for truth and wholeness.

Bede Griffiths, in his life and teaching, symbolized the meeting between Christianity and the other world religions, which he considered the most significant event of the twentieth century. As such a symbol (don and sannyasi), he and his writings have continued to inspire the interfaith movement since his death.

Bibliography: Griffiths was the author of a number of books, more than 300 articles, and several audio and video recordings. His books include an autobiography entitled The Golden String (London 1954); Christian Ashram (London 1966); Vedanta and Christian Faith (London 1973); Return to the Centre (London 1978); The Marriage of East and West (London 1982); The Cosmic Revelation (London 1983); The River of Compassion (Warwick NY 1987); A New Vision of Reality (London 1991); The New Creation in Christ (London 1992); Psalms for Christian Prayer (Shantivanam 1993); Pathways to the Supreme (Shantivanam 1994); Universal Wisdom (London 1994). s. du boulay, Beyond the Darkness: A Biography of Bede Griffiths (New York 1998).

[l. freeman]

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