Advaita, Christianity and the Third Space

Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths in India

by Jonathan Gordon Smith (Author)
Monographs VIII, 260 Pages


This book examines the space of meeting between two religions that open up when there are honest attempts at interreligious learning. Taking Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths as examplars, and the meeting between Advaita Vedanta and Christianity, the nature of the theological movements within this ‹Third Space› are identified, and the resultant hybridities are assessed for their relevance to each tradition. After brief biographical sketches, the author considers how these two monks related to the Indian space and the background of colonial history, and then proceeds to use comparative theology and postcolonial theory to examine their theology. Third Space Theory provides insights into the process of hybridization that is taking place, leading to an appreciation of the importance and challenge in the modern world of Third Spaces of meeting.
«Jonathan Smith provides important explorations and reflections on a ‹third space› and the contribution of a postcolonial theology to the understanding of Christianity and Hinduism. It is a fresh and new challenging work on Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths.»
Professor Mario I. Aguilar, Director of the Centre for the Study of
Religion and Politics, University of St. Andrews
«This is a deeply learned and skilful exercise in interweaving resources of postcolonial theory and interreligious dialogue which highlights the multiple processes of conjunction, disjunction, opposition, and osmosis that dynamically shape the in-between domains of Hindu-Christian engagements».
Dr Ankur Barua, Lecturer in Hindu Studies, Faculty of Divinity,
University of Cambridge

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths in India
  • Chapter 2 The Space of Meeting
  • Chapter 3 Theology in the Third Space
  • Chapter 4 Analysing the Interreligious Space 1: Comparative Theology
  • Chapter 5 Analysing the Interreligious Space 2: Postcolonial Theory
  • Chapter 6 Analysing the Interreligious Space 3: Homi Bhabha and the Third Space
  • Chapter 7 Space, Tradition and Creation
  • Chapter 8 Supreme Being, Incarnation and Human Beings
  • Chapter 9 The Challenge of the Third Space
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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I would like thank Professor Simon Barker and Dr Stephen Roberts for their guidance, and to thank Stephen for his help at the outset in the development of this project. This book would not have been possible without The Institute of Arts and Humanities at Chichester University, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the staff, particularly Professor Graeme Smith. The extensive theological library at Chichester University was a key resource, as were the staff, particularly Janet Carter. Dr Ankur Barua of the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University, has also provided me with support.

Finally, I would like to thank my wife, Rachel, for her patience with my absence during the many hours of study and revision, and her help with the final text.

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When cultures or religions meet, as happens all the time in the modern world, one can either dismiss the other as inferior or fatally flawed, or one can engage with it and attempt to understand it. The first of these approaches plays a prominent role in the history of Christianity, particularly in settings in which it has met another religion in a colonial setting. In a very real sense that is the end of the story in terms of any cross-fertilization; the other is regarded as having little or no value, and one gains no insights that might be useful for one’s own tradition. However, if one engages seriously with another tradition without abandoning one’s own, then a space opens up in which the two traditions ‘speak’ to each other. Different doctrines and concepts contradict each other, or throw light on each other, or indicate new depths of understanding. Such meetings of religions are quite complex and the conversations are not always easy. They probably will not lead to obvious answers. Such meetings, if engaged with honestly and with faithfulness to one’s own tradition, are very far from any simplistic view that all religions are saying the same thing.

Such meetings are at their most productive when they are between people who have a fairly well-established faith. Such meetings are not for the purposes of inventing new religions, for disproving valued beliefs, or throwing doubt on faith. The boundaries between religions remain, and the other tradition can be valued in its own right. At the same time, however, engagement with another tradition can send one back to one’s own with new insight and the will to dig deeper into that tradition or to find its hidden gems. As religions meet, each faithful to its own tradition, mutual enrichment occurs if there is a genuine openness to truly understand what is different.

This book is an examination of what occurs theologically in the space in which two religions meet with an attitude of interreligious learning. It is not concerned with meetings that take place in the academy, where the study of comparative theology is mainly based, but rather with meetings ←1 | 2→that take place within a situation of religious observance, and in the lives of people of faith. In such meetings, new insights into theology may be found and new theologies developed. My aim is to examine the occurrences and the conceptual movements that take place as these meetings occur. To achieve this, and to see how two theologies are influencing each other, critical theological analysis is necessary, but only as a means of understanding the process that is taking place in the space in which the two religions are meeting.

Plainly, to examine religious meeting with a clear focus, examples of such meeting are required, and preferably meeting that has produced a body of theological thought. The writings of two Benedictine monks, Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths, provide excellent material for such an examination, both producing appreciable bodies of theological reflection. They led, in turn, a Christian ashram in India in which interreligious conversation took place between Christianity and Advaita Vedanta, which is a major tradition of religious non-duality in Hinduism. In studying their writing, I have attempted to understand what was happening in the encounter between the two traditions. To do this, I used methods from comparative theology and postcolonial theory, the latter providing a way of looking at how cultures influence each other.

Obviously, a great deal is going on in a space in which two religious traditions are meeting. There is often anxiety about perceived threats to one’s own tradition, sometimes one tradition will try to import a notion wholesale from another tradition or mimic it, sometimes a middle ground will appear in which some sort of hybrid understanding will present itself, which owes something to both religions but does not quite belong to either. There can be anxiety about maintaining the integrity of one’s own tradition.

The most difficult thing in such meetings is to understand the other tradition in its own terms. The temptation is always to ‘construct the Other’. In terms of the meeting of Christianity and Hinduism, that would be to try to understand Hinduism in terms of Christian theology, rather than in terms of the thousands of years of the tradition itself. Very often, when one hears criticism of others, whether it be individuals, or types of people, or whole cultures or religions, the effort has not sufficiently been made to ←2 | 3→attempt to understand the other in terms of their own story or their own history or their own culture.

The notion of a ‘space’ of meeting is a central theme of this book, and theories developed around the concept of a ‘Third Space’, particularly those of Homi Bhabha, will be deployed, although much re-understood in the context of this study. Third Space theory proposes that when two cultures meet, usually in a colonial or post-colonial setting, there is a space of encounter between the two cultures, a Third Space, in which various processes take place. Probably the most obvious process is the formation of a hybridity which shares elements of both cultures but is distinct from them. This study is proposing that in the meeting between two religions, even in a situation in which vastly unequal institutional power is not a major factor in the meeting, elements of Third Space theory can be used to throw a light on the interplay between two religious systems.

Alongside Third Space theory, and prior to it both in postcolonial theory and in this book, are found theories of Orientalism, originating in the work of Edward Said. This provides another tool that can be used to identify what is happening when cultures (and religions) meet. Again, most writing on Orientalism is concerned with situations in which there is an imbalance in power between a colonial power and a colonized people, but this study maintains that it provides some useful tools, particularly in terms of construction of the Other1 and of oneself that can be used in the context outlined here.

Postcolonial theory, however, does not provide a means of assessing comparisons, similarities, congruences or incongruences that are drawn theologically between two religions. In using it to examine the space in which two religions meet, postcolonial theory is being employed here to show how each is influencing the other, but to do that I needed a way of examining the nature of theological concepts: is a proposed similarity between theologies really so, or is an incongruity being masked; what is the theological stance towards another religion’s beliefs? This study therefore ←3 | 4→also needs to use some of the methods of comparative theology to assess the nature of the occurrences in the Third Space.

The greater the extent to which two traditions are meeting in lives and practice the more applicable an approach which borrows postcolonial theory is likely to be. It is a group of theories about what happens ‘on the ground’, and how personal belief and allegiance are affected, rather than concerning itself only with conceptual expression. Also necessary, however, is a theology emerging out of the meeting which can be analysed to show what movements and processes are taking place.

The work of Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths, and the meeting of Christianity and Advaita in their lives and writings, provide an eminently suitable source of information for such an examination of this Third Space. Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths began their journey as ‘orthodox’ Christians. Advaita, with which they engaged, is considered to be the most prominent Brahminical tradition in Hinduism, and is concerned with the belief in the radical non-dualism existing between the supreme Being, human beings and, arguably, the world. As will become clear in the following pages, religious traditions are hybrid by nature and experience a mix of influences. Advaita is no exception and as seems most appropriate from the work of these two authors I will focus mainly on the ‘classic’ Advaita represented in the work of Śankara, whose thinking is represented throughout Advaita, while recognizing that there are many offshoots which there is not space to deal with in detail.

Abhishiktananda and Griffiths were prominent in the Christian Ashram movement in the second half of the twentieth century. Both were involved in the most well-known Christian ashram, Shantivanam. Their experience of the religion of India was highly immersive – they adopted the clothes of Indian religious, they used ancient Indian scripture in their Christian worship, and adopted aspects of Indian religious imagery. It is because of the depth of their involvement in these two religions and the extent to which they themselves occupied an in-between space which shared aspects of both Christianity and Advaita that their work has been chosen as an example of a Third Space of meeting.

Third party sources which describe their lives, their theology and the life within the ashrams they lived in or led give some indication through ←4 | 5→others’ interpretation of the nature of their in-between space. I will mainly, however, employ their own writing to provide evidence of what is occurring in their interfaith space. In these writings they sought to reconcile Christian and Advaitic beliefs, and to account for areas where reconciliation was impossible for them to find. Their writings therefore give some indications as to how Christianity and Advaita affect each other, how they ‘react’ in each other’s presence. My hypothesis is that these reactions can be usefully examined employing colonial and postcolonial theory, in which two cultures are meeting, supported by analysis drawn from comparative theology. Temporal power play is entirely absent from the stories of Abhishiktananda and Griffiths, and account must be taken of this in using such methods.

Several times in this research I make the assertion that the notion of unequal ‘power’, an account of which a reader might expect in a book which is using postcolonial theories, is largely absent as a factor in the work of Abhishiktananda and Griffiths. This needs an explanation. I do not ignore the history of unequal power, and give a brief account of the historical colonial and post-colonial context in Chapter 5. However, it is clear that these authors had no instrumentality in exercising material power over those Indians they encountered, for example by involvement in post-colonial structures. Nor did they attempt in any way to promote Western ways of living – rather the reverse, in that they were keen to adopt Indian lifestyles. It is true that they were writing in a post-colonial setting, that is in a country that had recently experienced colonization, and were from Western backgrounds. In terms of Edward Said’s analysis in his book Orientalism,2 Western culture, particularly Britain and America, had created the interest in the Orient, of which these authors are an example, and framed the terms of the dialogue between East and West. Their dialogue with Advaita is inevitably influenced by this factor. This is most clearly seen in Abhishiktananda’s and Griffiths’ preference for the Indian Brahminical tradition which hung over from the colonial period.

In terms of actual influence over the lives of the Indian population the results of colonization were present in India during their time there, ←5 | 6→particularly in such institutions as government, law and education to mention only three. Had Abhishiktananda and Griffiths been involved in Indian institutions that reflected past colonial power, it would be appropriate to make more of unequal power structures and colonial history in dealing with their texts, rather than focusing on the power of the Western Orientalist influence on their discourse. However, they engaged with only minor social interventions around their ashram of Shantivanam.

Indian Christianity had also been deeply influenced during the colonial period, and that influence remained in Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions into post-colonial times. Had this book been about Indian Christianity, it would be entirely appropriate to deal more fully with the way in which the colonial period had led to a development of a Western-originated Christianity, distinct from the indigenous Syriac tradition, and how that developed into postcolonial influences upon the culture of India. However, Abhishiktananda and Griffiths almost completely omit the contemporary theology of Indian Christianity from their writing, ignoring, for example, Dalit theology. Their interest in indigenous Christianity is limited to Syriac texts, some of which they used in liturgy.

It is also true that as Benedictine monks they had inherited 2,000 years of Christian tradition – a weight of tradition that deeply influenced their thinking. However, despite the presence of Christianity in India for many centuries before British colonization, there is no literature on the influence of Christianity upon Hinduism,3 though there is literature on nationalist Hinduism’s strong repudiation of any such influence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There is considerable literature on the influence of colonial Christianity on India, particularly centred on Christianity’s conversion efforts and its influence on such institutions as education and healthcare, but none upon changes in Hinduism itself, nor in Advaita, ←6 | 7→resulting from Christianity’s presence in the sub-continent. This goes to show that the ‘power’ of the Christian colonizer, whilst possibly increasing the inclination to convert in some instances, had little effect on core Hindu beliefs even during the colonial period. This lack of effect might be expected in a tradition considerably longer in its history than Christianity, and deeply rooted in the daily practice of the indigenous people.

Biographical notes

Jonathan Gordon Smith (Author)

Following a Christian upbringing, the author joined a group studying Advaita Vedanta and remained a member in his twenties and thirties, though never rejecting Christianity. Returning more formally to the Church, and after training, he went on to become a lay minister (Reader) in the Church of England. He was later awarded an MA in theology, and a PhD by the University of Chichester. His working career has been in the charity sector, in Church-related community work, mental health, carer’s support, and a number of other health-related charities. He continues his work as a Reader in the Diocese of Chichester.


Title: Advaita, Christianity and the Third Space