Monday, October 8, 2007

Ashramas of Jesus

Mary as the Dalit Mother. Oil on Canvas. Methodist Collection, Westminster College, Oxford. U.K.

Theme I Life's Ashramas

Indian Ashramic tradition
The meaning of ashrama is ‘stopping-place’, ‘refuge’ (from a-sram, meaning both ‘effort’ and ‘becoming tired’). Ashrams were quite often found on pilgrimage routes, especially when these passed through remote areas such as forests. More generally they are places for those seeking space in which to reflect, together with others, on life’s true goal, and so to break out of the boundaries set by normal social identities. Part of this process usually means accepting a common sadhana or spiritual discipline, usually led by a teacher whose special insight is crucial to the sought-for ‘breakthrough’.

As well as the countless Hindu ashrams throughout India, there are quite a number of Christian (mainly Catholic) ashrams too. There is more than one life-style by which these loosely formed communities of reflection seek to move on to ways of thinking and living that are liberated from the usual social conformities. For one thing they seek a life-style that is more simple, more clearly integrated into a single Centre, than that which modernity’s multiple seductions draw us into. Some focus almost entirely on the inner world. Others engage in forms of social action too: life together in the ashram serves to intensify social vision and commitment.

Art is the distinctive sadhana at Jyoti’s ‘ashram’ near Bangalore. While social action is not the direct aim, the world of artistic imagination is seen to impinge on the world’s flawed life in many significant ways. And reflective critique of that life, enhanced by images from the Jesus-story, is the backdrop against which the imaginative world is explored.

The Four ‘Stopping-Places’
An ashram, though, as a place of refuge, is also where the traveller or pilgrim finds rest, a resting-point on life’s journey. Indian tradition speaks of various other structures in social life that are ‘ashramas’, stopping-places. For example, ideally the orthodox Hindu was to pass through four stages (prasthanas) on life’s journey, in each of which there is a clearly distinct role.

(1) The freedom of the child, the discipline of the student: As the culmination of childhood’s freedoms there is a period of learning and self-discipline. In formal Hindu law-books the discipline of learning the Vedic tradition is all-important. But childhood itself is highly significant in Indian spirituality. Christians too will recall how Jesus placed a child among his followers as the most potent pointer to the way of God’s new world that was breaking in. Hindu devotion, though in different ways, likewise often focusses on different stages of the childhood of either Krishna or Rama. Recalling the many childish pranks of the divine little one is seen as a way of being a disciple. A few saints (e.g. 19th century Ramakrishna; compare the Cornish tin-mining Methodist preacher, Billy Bray) have acted in exaggeratedly playful and childlike ways themselves. For Krishna-followers similarly, the adventures of the Loved One’s later youthful years - such as Krishna’s times as a pastoral herdsman roaming the countryside along with his friends - become the focus of faith. His lovers seek to follow Krishna in all the changing stages of his life, says the Bhagavad Purana.

In the dominant tradition, initiation (at the age of 8 to 12 years) as a ‘twice-born’ was supposed to mark the transition from the freedom of childhood to the more serious stage of disciplined learning. There is clear recognition here of a degree of tension between child-like freedom and the need for conforming to tradition and its disciplines. More usually, though, the movement is the other way - from ordered engagement to the world-transcending liberation of spirit, as we see in a moment. Similar such ‘tensions’ (creative tensions?) are deep-rooted in Indian cultural life. As Cambridge Indologist Julius Lipner puts it, ‘Hindus have always been alive to the struggle between chaos and order’ (Hindus, Routledge, 1994, p.87).

(2) Duties of home & Family: So, there was then the period of being responsible for home and family - though originally the father in the household was also expected to be the family priest offering the required sacrifices and so on. Later, his role was mainly to see that the proper order of things was maintained in family life. Priestly sacrifice, though, was seen as necessary for keeping much wider structures of the world’s life together. The world’s life was dependent on proper offerings to the gods.

(3) The forest stage: After completing household duties came the ‘forest’ stage, a kind of halfway-house to final self-liberation. Maybe both husband and wife would retire to a forest ashram, there to reflect on the ultimate meaning of life, and so begin to break free from the fetters of life’s binding ‘cycle’ - itself often spoken of as a ‘forest’ in which to be lost, or a ‘sea’ in which to drown. There is a search for a more permanent home.

(4) Renouncing the world: Finally comes the stage of complete breaking with all that binds to this world, including our social and family ties. The dominant tradition held that only this sanyasi mendicant life led to the final freedom of the eternal self within. Often, a monastic order provided the discipline for such final renunciation, and a community of fellow-seekers provided the security of a permanent ‘home’.

A Critical Question
Finding refuge in these four life-stages was not the only form of ashrama taught by orthodoxy. More problematic for many is the fact that the four social castes were also taken as integral to the ashramic ordering of life. It is not easy to discuss this issue without arousing passions, but we cannot begin to grasp even the basics of Indian social and cultural life without some sort of introduction to this historical and present reality. Nor can we understand the ideological tensions which has been the context for Jyoti’s artistic struggle.

India’s social system as a whole was called Catur-varna-ashrama-dharma, or ‘the proper ordering of life into four castes and stopping-places’. Caste identities and groupings derive from that long-ago period when the ‘noble’ warrior-kings and their priests colonised wider and wider regions of India, all the time drawing in new local indigenous communities. Originally each caste grouping was seen as providing safe social togetherness of those with a common status and common life-duties. When, though, caste has set up social boundaries and self-identities based on false notions of purity and pollution, it is no wonder that many Hindu reformers, and certainly non-Hindu critics, have regarded this way of structuring society as dangerously elitist and have aimed at its removal.

This debate has even affected the way Christian ashrams have been regarded. Among Catholics recently, some theologicans have criticised their own Ashrams as being elitist, perhaps ‘Brahmanic’, and inward-looking. It is often forgotten that in earlier ages ashrams could be quite counter-cultural, usually paying little attention to formal caste-status. No doubt some were ‘Brahminic’ - devoted to the traditions of the dominant group. Linked to this forest-based spirituality, however, was the ‘Sramanika’ movement, deliberately different from ‘Brahmanika’ tradition and its basis in priestly ritual.

As we saw above, frequently the Ashrams aimed for liberation from our given social identities. They searched for a new self-identity. Moreover, there was the long tradition of providing ‘refuge’ to any in need - as a kind of hospice. Among today’s Ashrams, many are strongly service-orientated. And in a few cases are even led by a Dalit: and example is Kasala Ratnam - a Telugu Dalit Presbyter in the Dornakal Diocese of the Church of South India, who set up a small Ashram on the banks of the river near Kamareddy. Seekers from various caste-communities would visit expecting spiritual insight and blessing.

Ashramic Pilgrims
Living spiritually on the move, the sense of being on a journey, pressing on to a new stage of awareness, lies at the heart of all Ashram life. The soul’s pilgrimage is central, as it is to virtually all Indian religion - Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Muslim, Tribal - and for all castes. In Tamil Nadu for instance, in early Spring all roads for 60 miles or more leading to Palani become long streams of perhaps hundreds of thousands of barefoot rural people, old and young, men and women, clad in yellow, making the long journey to the hill of Siva’s son Murugan. The roads to Sabari Malai (just in Kerala) are similarly thronged with people in black (mostly young men) making their pilgrimage to Ayyappa, to whom they have dedicated themselves through a forty-day fast marked by a nightly vigil of bhajan-singing. Pilgrimage - once so typical of western religious life too - is still a growing phenomenon in India.

Life itself, then, is seen as a pilgrimage, a series of moves to a new refuge-point, to a new ‘home’. And even during pilgrimage of a few days, there is a sense of breaking out from the constraints of normal social identities. Healing, too, a new wholeness of life, may well be looked-for when the pilgrim enters a new refuge-point. In the Jesus-story also, not only is there constant journeying, the hope of healing is central. The healing and the moving on belong together. It is especially this hope of healing and newness, linked with the self-giving of the Cross, that has appealed so powerfully to many in India.

‘Drowned’ in the Divine Refuge
Along with the very distinctive (even unexpected) aspects of this Jesus-story, much of it has seemed to reflective Hindu people to resonate strongly with the ‘love-drowning’ their own bhakti-saints have experienced. Remember, submerging oneself, drowning one’s old self, in the waters of a sacred centre of pilgrimage is usually one of the main acts to be done on arrival. To the ecstatic devotees of South India, being ‘drowned’ in divine love was the goal.

Being submerged in water - as in the transforming love of the divine Spirit - is such a potent biblical theme. As we shall see, Jyoti returns to this water-theme many times. An early impression had been made by The Oriental Christ, a book written a century before by P.C.Mazoomdar, one of many impressive Hindus intent on a deep reforming of their religious life, and seeing Christ as necessary to that process. His book begins with the ‘Bathing Christ’, then moves on to the ‘Teaching Christ’, the ‘Weeping Christ’, the ‘Pilgriming Christ’, the ‘Healing Christ’, the ‘Dying Christ’.

Bound up with the ashramic pilgrim-way, then, was the bhakti-way. And it was this that increasingly gripped those not privileged by elevated caste status. The freedom felt through an overwhelming sense of divine love led to the conviction that only this loving God is a true Refuge. The passion felt in the many devotional movements throughout India, and stretching over more than a millennium, did not formally break caste boundaries, but to many ‘God-sharanas’ - those taking refuge in God - caste distinctions were an irksome fetter rather than a saving ‘refuge’. For them, the playfulness of the child, leading up to the unrestrained dance of a Krishna or a Nataraj (Lord/King of Dance), is the divine model, rather than the inhibitions of caste and its duties.

Jyoti Sahi’s paintings, woodcuts and other works of art are vibrant with so many of the potent themes and images thrown up by this Indian spiritual tradition. It is, though, the Christ-figure, and the many ‘faces’ of Christ, that provide for Jyoti the most powerful source of inspiration for his ‘transforming vision’.

a. The Mother
b. The Child
c. Shepherd/herdsman.
d. Teacher
e. Pilgrim

No comments: