CHRISTI PANTHI ASHRAM, SIHORA
EASOW MAR TIMOTHEOS MEMORIAL LECTURE- 2013
Revisiting Ashram Movement
Rev. Dr. Ravi Tiwari
I deemed it a great honor bestowed upon me to be invited for the celebration of 71stAshram Day, which is also combined with the 125th anniversary celebration of the formation of Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association (MTEA). I am aware that the Christ Panthi Ashram (CP Ashram)and MTEA cannot be separated from each other. One can only appreciate the zeal, and enthusiasm, with which the founders of the Christ Panthi Ashram, the late respected KT. Thomas Achan, MP. Matthew Achan and Varghese Achan were commissioned by the MTEA, with the blessings of the then Metropolitan, before they commenced their journey to the unknown. It was a journey of faith for the Sihora Trio- like the Serampore-Trio, which saw them moving from Bilaspur to Slimanabad to Sihora-Darshani. It was the journey that took Abraham to the Promised Land, and Carey to his mission field, Serampore.
My association with the Ashram is through the founders- KT Achan, Matthew Achan and Varghese Achan, who were my father’s class-mates, and contemporaries, in Serampore. It was days of studentship with much enthusiasm, idealism and commitment to a cause. I am sure, they were inspired by the life and work of Serampore-Trio- William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward, and their zeal for missionary enterprises in Indian continent. It might have been a contributory factor to their planning, and praying, for the guidance from the above. We cannot forget to acknowledge the support and encouragement, provided by then Registrar of the Senate of Serampore College, Dr. C. E Abraham, a short, humble and genuine scholar of his time. He stood solidly behind his students, in their endeavors, challenges and pitfalls.
Without the constant backing and support of the Mar Thoma Church (MT Church), and its Evangelistic Association, the Ashram would have not survived for such a long time. I, for one among many, truly appreciate, and commend the MT Church for its unflinching faith, and support, to the work and activities of the Ashram. It is without mentioning, the contribution of local Mar Thoma congregation in Jabalpur in particular, and elsewhere in general, that has been immersed and substantial in facilitating the Ashram to take strong hold in the soil.
Churches, associated with the name of St. Thomas, are the earliest entrants into the Indian continent. Apart from their association with the trading Syrian communities, they also claimed to be associated with a few Brahmanic families through their entry into the early Christian faith community. It seemed to me, through no credible historical facts/evidences are available, and only some historical conjunctions can be made, that the flow to the expanding of the new faith was later plugged-in by intense social pressure, and political patronage. Such a hypothesis, perhaps, can explain the absence/lack of interest and enthusiasm, on the part of Syrian Christian communities of Malabar, for missionary endeavor, as we find in late nineteenth century protestant movements, which were more aggressive, sometimes violent and assertive, in nature. This mannerism is obviously noted in the context of Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association and their initiated activities in its later period. In our classes, dealing with the History of Christianity in India, we were never taught that MT Church has missionary activities through Evangelistic Association. It was only when I was challenged by one of the Mar Thoma Achan, a student of mine, at a seminar in Hamburg University that I realized, and informed, the contribution of MT missionaries in strengthening their church in Kerala and elsewhere in India. I could never imagine that MT Church has more than 10.000 Dalit and tribal members, and a few Achan, with full right and privileges. This fact is to be highlighted, and efforts should be made to include this fact in the syllabi of the history of MTChurch under Serampore. Moreover, the information about the result of the missionary activities of the MTC needs to be widely publicized so that ignorant can be enlightened. I am sure, church historian among the Mar Thoma Church, professors of the History of Christian Church in theological colleges and their students will fill-in the necessary information through their research, projects, articles and theses.
As I am invited to pay my homage to our beloved Tirumeni Easow Mar Timotheos, let me be allowed to offer a few random reflections on his life and ashram movements, which is a product of the ashram, and the community, at Darshani and Sihora town-ship.
We, north-Indians, associate Kerala, with the mythical sage, and an avatar of Vishnu, Parshurama, who killed his mother, at the instigation of his father who suspected her fidelity. Once he came to know the truth, he threw his Parshu (Chopping Axe) in the sea. Kerala came out of the ocean in the shape of the Parshu. Bishop Easow Mar Timotheos, known to us, with affection, as KoshyAchan, and to Sihora-Darshani people as KoshyBabu, hails from this state. He was born in Thonniayamal village, near Pathanamthitta town. It was November 25, 1932; as such he would have been 81 years old next month. We may refer, for details of his life, in a book published by Dhram Jyothi Vidya-Peeth, a seminary of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar in Faridabad, near Delhi. It had some useful information about the Bishop. I am sure, the same will be translated into Hindu for the benefit of Hindi knowing people.
It is good to know Sri Scaria Thomas and SrimatiAchamma Thomas, parents of the Bishop. It was they, as his brother Rev. V.T John informs, who dedicated Koshy Babu to the service of God. I am sure from his very childhood; he must have been reminded every now and then that he is special; that he has to prepare himself to the service of the Lord and his church. We are also informed that even at an early age at 15 years, he was conscious that he will go to the north India as a missionary, and began, on his own initiative, to learn Hindi, walking eight miles every day, in the scorching sun, to a center where Hindi was taught. It may not be proper to thrust our conclusions/idea upon a young child, nor the intensions, but one can easily discern some traits which later blooms in the adult attitudes and behavior of the grown up of the same person. His parents certainly watched it happen in the early life of their son, and did not interfere with it. We are told of his early devotional and prayerful life; a life which was later to become the back-bone of his ministry, both as a Sanyasin at Sihora Ashram, and a Bishop at different places.
In the context of the life and work of Tirumeni, there are two aspects are involved in the personal mode of an ashramites-missionary: parental as well as personal commitment.
Parental dedication and commitment, on behalf of their children, cannot be minimized. We often overlook the contribution of the parents in the preparation of a minister/missionary-in-making. It needs a great courage, commitment and faith, on the part of parents, to dedicate their daughters/sons to the ministry of the church. It is an exemplary motive that is devoid of any personal gain that produces self-sacrificing ministers and committed workers in the vineyard of the kingdom of God. We are told the mother and aunties, after the difficult birth of the child, prayed and dedicated the new-born child for missionary work. I am reminded of, once again, AdiShankaracharya, another Malayali, and son of Kaladi in Kerala, who was also dedicated to missionary work of defending and spreading Hindu religious tradition all over India by his mother, to save his life which was threatened by a crocodile at the bank of river Pampa. It is my safe guess that the young Thankachanwas constantly reminded of his solemn promise that was made to God, and he was in process of preparing himself physically, mentally and devotionally. I wish to emphasis the need and encouragement to such a preparation on the part of the parents, and the Church, wherever apparent and recognized. I am, however, aware of the pitfalls which can be observed or anticipated. Any sign of disinterest, shown by the person so committed, needs to be taken seriously. Covet or overt pressures, moral or immoral, should be avoided to change/postpone the resolve of the person/child concerned. Free will, and opportunity, to deicide one-self should be left to play its role.
Individualistic commitment is the continuum of parental dedication. The example of Koshy Babu is one of the excellent examples under this category. He not only grasped the pious intention of his parents but prepared himself, and when time came, he openly declared his willingness to do the needful. At the age of 20, merely passing out secondary school leaving certificate, he responded to the call to join Sihora Ashram. We note a personal mode at work here. We did not have courses in missionary training available to those who were committed to work as a missionary in the past. Many have responded at the spur of moment, and dedicated themselves to the cause. This is personal model of commitment to a cause. Tirumeni was such among them.
Ashram Movement: Three models
When we think of ashram movement in the context of Indian church, we have three models to take note of. One is Fr. Bede Griffith and his ChristKula Ashram; other is Stanley Jones and his Sat Tal Ashram; and then, Christ Panthi Ashram. It is interesting to note the differentiation in names, especially that of Chirst-kula and Christ-Panthi. Both, Christ-kula(Family of Christ) and Christ-Panthi (Followers of the way of Christ), open up their ‘sadhana’ (religious aim/goal of religious practices) through the names they have given to their ashrams; both aspire to be following the way of devotion- Bhakthi-marga- to realize the ever presence of Christ in their midst. Sat Tal Ashram, however, denotes its location only.
Bede Griffith, on the other hand, followed ascetic practices of a yogi and combined it with scriptural studies along with the Upnanishadic line. Much influenced by Raman Maharshi, he tried to move along with the Christian mystics, and his ashram became a center for Christian-Hindu meeting-point which was later carried on by Swami Abhishiktanand.
Christ Panthi Ashram, in contrast, was an indigenous ashram movement, sustained by an Indian Church, with Indian sanyasins. This was a unique experiment which needs proper assessment, and appreciation, including its gradual assimilation into the life, work and witness of Indian Church.
Stanley Jones and his ashram, however, were a bit different. He was Methodist in the mold of Wesley brothers, Charles and John, with a burden to preach the Gospel of Christ; and he adopted ashram system more as a resort where people can come and stay, during summer months, and attend his Bible classes and meditation/sermon sessions. He also toured different parts of India, and had sessions with young students, studying in Christian colleges, many of them being students, following different religiosity than Christianity. It might have been effective, as many young Hindu and Muslims students attended sessions with Dr. Stanley Jones when he visited their colleges and were attracted towards Christ. His interaction with Mahatma Gandhi made him very popular with the college students. My father was one of those young men who got interested to know more about Christ, and later accepted him as his ‘Ishta-deva’, God of personal choice.
Ashram model as developed in Christian traditions in India
We need not to spend much time in explaining this model. As an Indian, irrespective of religious tradition we follow, ashram model isengraved, and enshrined, in us and in our psyche. Two Sanskrit words, ‘Aa’ and ‘Shram’ (well+labour) explain the term and its intrinsic meaning and understanding. It is a place where the labor is well done; a place worthy of staying/establishing a tent. It is associated with a place where a teacher-guru lives and imparts religious/secular knowledge. It is an institution where a preceptor passes on spiritual knowledge as well as professional training to the seeker and assists pupils to live a purposeful life, physical as well economical. Of late, the term is associated with religious functions only.
In understanding this model, in the context of Bishop Easow Mar Timotheos, we have to understand the ethos of Sihora Ashram, which he joined, first as a novice, and then as a full member.
SihoraAshram is product of a prayer group formed by Dr. CE.Abraham, named as Mar ThomaMissionary Prayer Fellowship at his residence in Serampore, with a group of five- Mr.& Mrs.Abraham, KT Thomas, John Varghese and PT Thomas. They affixed their signature to a pledge, binding them together in fellowship and engaged in missionary work in central India. This was is 1942. In order to prepare themselves, they envisaged to involve in village development work (PJ Thomas), health care (John Varghese) and pastoral care (KT Thomas achan). As Mr. PJ Thomas passed away in 1948, MP Mathew, a manager in South Indian Plantations, resigned his job and joined the fellowship.
It was in April 4, 1942 that the Trio, Thomas-Matthew-Varghese, decided to call upon the Church to sanction their plans of going to north and establishing a centre for missionary work. They wanted only blessings from the Church without financial liability upon it. They gained the support and the blessings of the Church at large; the Metropolitan Abraham Mar Thoma blessed and commissioned the three young men; the Evangelistic Association took the mission under their wings.
We can note, and highlight, a few of the characteristics in this model of Ashram, initiated by the Sihora-trio:
a. This movement is the result of a group, and not merely of some individuals.
b. It stated with a desire for taking the Gospel of Christ to the north India, winch was a burden of Dr. CE Abraham. The group was a prayer fellowship a group praying for the time, the epoch, the rapture.
c. The fellowship group-enthusiasm led a group of three students and their guru to form a core-group that committed themselves to the task, later joined by a layman member.
d. Another group, Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association took upon itself the responsibility of the ashram as their own programme.
e. Ultimately it was joined by the bigger group the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar to own the movement and took the ashram under its wings.
f. Institutionalization of Ashram was the natural corollary of the process followed.
We may also not fail to notice two important aspects of this movement. In the natural setting, the centre of Ashram is guru. Obviously this was not the case with the newly formed group. They preferred to call it, Christ Panthi Sangham. I have yet to look into the thinking and discussion that took place on the train to Madurai when the President, Head (sevak) of Sangham and treasurer were elected and the institution was formalized even without formally establishing it. It is interesting to note that they initially used the term, Sangham, which is a Buddhist term for community/society/church. However, it was after six years, in Oct 1948 that a formal constitution was accepted and ‘Sangham’ was changed to ‘ashram’. I greatly appreciate the humility of Dr. CE Abraham, who stepped down as president, and appropriately handed over the patronage to the Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma Church, and through him to the church-at-large. Another important feature of this movement is the submission of the group, and the individuals, to the Church. It implied that the inmates have obedience and surrender as the two guiding principles in ashram life.
This move had far reaching implication in the life of the Ashram and we con not ignore it. It was the sincere and honest intention of the founders that Ashram remains, and becomes, an integral part of the life and mission of the Church and its members beyond Serampore, and of course, of the inmates/members of the ashram. One may contrast this with the ashrams centered upon a charismatic/spiritual/saintly guru. Such an ashram loses its relevance once the guru passes into eternity. The continuity of the CP Ashram was thus assured as it became the mission and witness of the Church, rather than that of an individual. The seventy-first Ashram Day amply proves this fact.
Life and witness of the ashram
It is natural for us to look into the life and witness of the ashram as modified and practiced by its members. Ashram, in its present understanding, is a place where spiritual growth, devotion training and religious culture take place. People look upon it, and its inmates, with such on expectation. This has been true with Sihora-Darshani Ashram. It is normal that prayer and devotion will be center of ashram life. It was during their sojourn in Takhatpur, Bilaspur, five-times-prayer-schedule was integrated into the life of the Ashram. Social involvement too found its place. In the beginning, it was the medical care that was needed the most in the context of our villages. It was this approach that led to the acceptance of the young travelers in Slimanabad near Sihora. Later, they moved into primary education, and then to village development. It is here that any socio-religio-political movement comes into clash with similar organizations for the preservation of their interest and space. Ashrams and ashramites need not to opt for confrontation as their intention is pure and devoid of self interest. We find many a time in its history, Sihora Ashram faced such situations but tide them over with much support and appreciation from the people among whom they live and witness. Making ashram a centre for social services in the mold of non-government agency (NGO) has its own drawbacks; at the same time more opportunities are provided to serve the affected and afflicted masses. Without going into further analysis, I would prefer to refer the matter to the Church and Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association to look into NGO-type of activities as a mission strategy with careful consideration. This deviation is also often discussed in other religion organizations and ashrams belonging to different religious sects.
Understanding ashram and life in ashram
In the traditional Indian understating entire human life is spent in ashrams. The word itself speaks of human involvement, physical mental and spiritual, with pious intention to attain liberation in the entire spheres human endeavor. This involvement is ‘Shram’, the labor/efforts/work which is prefixed by ‘Aa’, denoting good/well/praise worthy/acceptable by fellow humans and society. It is in this context, I tend to look at ashram and the criteria they often subscribe for entry into its membership in order to gain some insights and proper understanding. In the ashram-schema of life-pattern in India society, celibacy is a pre-condition in the first, and optional in the fourth stage; Brhmacharya (stage of childhood and education) and Sanyasa-ashram (stage of renunciation). Gandhiji, being a Grahastha (stage of family-life), followed the same when he took early Sanyasa and established an ashram. In the context of the developing phenomena of decline in celibate clergy in Western Churches, the Indian view may help to rejuvenate the ministry of the Churches, and the ashram movement. Even in such a situation, one cannot ignore the fact that there is an increase of women celibates in almost all the religious orders. Are we witnessing the reversal of roles in our male dominated religious orders! We need to deliberate, maybe at some other time.
It was only in 1948, six years after establishing non-official manual of the fellowship, that the celibacy was accepted as norm for those seeking membership, thus closing the door for the families and the house-holders. We may note that it was from the very beginning, the visionary and initiator of a missionary center, Dr. CE Abraham, committed himself and his wife to the membership of the Ashram though after his retirement from the services of Serampore College. His contribution to the Ashram, in terms of moral, spiritual and financial, cannot be overlooked. Closing the doors for such eligibility is something to be seriously considered.
Let me also bring forth a few of my own observations upon the life in ashram-schema within our tradition. It is continuous, progressive and evolutionary process which subsequently passes, in sequence, through various stages in the life of an individual, culminating into the last, Sanyasa. Sometime Sanyasa is opted as the second, skipping next two, Brahmacharya and Grahastha (childhood-educational and house-holding stage), causing some confusion. This confusion/conflict needs to be resolved and clarified.
Some have tried to resolve the conflict by breaking the vow of celibacy and entering into the life of a householder, a reversal in ashram life. This situation is being faced in the largest association of celibate priests in the churches round the world. Some do not brake the life of celibacy, but prefer a life of activist as a Grahastha (house-holder) rather than accepted norm of detached Sanyasin, a role like Deenabandhu CF Andrews took in politics and society, even at the risk of leaving the order.
I do see another way of resolving the conflict in the life and mission of people like Rt. Rev. Easow Mar TimothosEpiscopa. It was the devotional-spiritual life-pattern that led the young Koshy Babu to the ashram. Prayer and fasting was his relying point in spirituality which he never abandoned, even in the last stages of his life. He even used them as a successful way for conflict-resolution in the church. There are many instances quoted the book published recently where he amply demonstrated the point. Personal devotional life-pattern is the hallmark of Sanyasa ashram which was not lacking in his life even from the childhood.
Sanyasin activism- Involving oneself in the affairs of human mind, especially in the affairs of the oppressed, the poor, and the disadvantaged section of society was clearly seen in the life of the Bishop. There is no doubt that the founders of the Ashram do have developmental and assistance model part of their ashram life-pattern, but their main emphasis was spiritual and missional, I can imagine the conflict and disapproval from some of the senior colleagues within the Ashram on the matter of principles and priorities. I tend to go along with them. On the other hand, Thirumeni had a point: peripheral concern for health, education and people in natural disaster is not the sufficient missional optional; one has to assist to eradicate the cause; therefore the need for specialized service oriented plans and programme with the total involvement of the ashramites. He took specialized training in India and abroad for this purpose. His initiative in taking up poultry farming, cattle rearing, and agriculture within the ashram has a stimulating effect in surrounding areas, which followed the example of Koshy Babu and the ashramites to eradicate the causes of their economical depravity.
Life in an ashram is an open life. It is through this life that the religiosity and spirituality is communicated, witnessed and the Source of that spirituality is proclaimed. This is amply demonstrated by inmates of this Ashram for all these 71 years. Year by year, Ashram welcomes people to celebrate a day or two with them at Ashram Day. This gives many people to have some glimpses in the life of those who stay here. It goes without saying that Bishop Easow Mar Timotheos continued that life in his Aramana, through this he encouraged others to have the same simple life in Grhastha-ashram leading to Vanaprastha.
I firmly believe that the mere presence of an ashram is a missionary motive; one need not preach but to live. In this aspect, Sihora Ashram has exceeded others in witnessing the love, concern and involvement of Christ in the day to day affairs of the people, spiritual as well as material, in this area and other parts of India, within and outside the Church. It has up lifted people up, it has encouraged people, and it has empowered people. I am sure, this will continue to do so in the years to come, as the Ashram has now well established in this places; Sihora-nishtha, we may say.
In my adult and ministerial life as theological education and administrator, I was keenly interested in the life and work of Sihora Ashram. In may initial years though, I had my own reservations with regards to the involvement of Christ Panthi Ashram in the developmental activities, I gradually began to appreciate the way the Ashram moved into the life of the people around it and helped the people to develop themselves. I did appreciate the deep commitment of the Ashram to the mission-motif which was the deep concern of the members of Mar Thoma Prayer Fellowship at Serampore. The missionary efforts of the Ashram, even in the face of obstruction, threat, and persecution of its members and namely adherents is an example for us to emulate, both as an individual, family and the Church. This, in my understating, is the best, effective and appropriate, missionary and evangelistic model. I have seen this being practiced by my own father, the inmates of this ashram, and aptly enumerated in the life, work, and mission of Easow Tirumeni. I have tried to enumerate this myself in my life, and I can vouchsafe that it is the noblest, effective and worthy way of witnessing Christ in Indian setting. I have already acknowledged my personal payment of debt to the Bishop Easow Mar Timotheos, CP Ashram and the persons mentioned, through my efforts in evolving a degree course (Bachelor of Missiology) for the evangelistic and missionary oriented youth, which is now offered by Serampore from this academic year.
When my father retired from the active service as teacher at Bishop’s College, Calcutta in 1979, he came to stay with me in Serampore where I was on the staff. As he was assured of his finances by my elder brother who was in merchant navy, my father expressed his desire to spend at least five years in an ashram. We suggested that he may consider my residence as an ashram and involve himself in helping students in their studies and personal devotional life, working on a commentary on St. John and writing a personal biography for spiritual benefit of its readers. But he preferred to postpone the idea for five years. I wonder if Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association and Christi Panthi Ashram join together in their efforts to integrate ashram life-pattern into the life of their people and community here in Sihora. We have a concrete and successful example of Pondicherry Ashram of Aurobindo, and Sathya Sai Ashram in Whitefield, Bangalore. CPAshram, following them, may encourage people to settle, may be after retirement, and construct their homes nearby, or ashram rent out a few cottages/flats to form an extended Ashram community, which may share the life of the ashramites in their devotional and service-oriented programmes.
It is a fact that a few, among the modern and contemporaneous generation, are interested in leading a life of a celibate/ascetic. Ramakrishna Ashram Movement, with its educational, spiritual and service programmes through ascetic and celibate monks has the same problem that is often faced by the orders that fully depend upon celibate members. The same is true with the Roman Catholic Church. A study in this direction is necessary for the survival of ashram movement.
In adjusting with the current trends, the concern of KT Achan, as well of mine, for spiritual development should not be abandoned. It was mentioned earlier that the traditional understanding and practice within four stages of ashram in the human life-cycle, as enunciated by our sages in India, should not be overlooked, and pure and ultimate Sanyasa can be left for those who either prefer, or are old enough to take a retreat from the other activities of life and would like to concentrate on pure spirituality. This is perfectly normal in the Indian context.
In the present context, we need to enter into a true situation of ecumenism in terms of Indian ideal of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (Humanity as a whole as my house-hold). Mar Thoma Church is a member of the Communion of Churches involving CSI and CNI. It may be helpful to experiment and encourage other constituent members to enter into the community of CPA. It may also look into the possibility to allow a few sympathizers, and common- sojourners from the wider community, following different religiosity and spirituality, for the sake to dialogue and sharing the Christian Sadhana (spiritual practice), into ashram fellowship. A discussion, reflection and action, in this direction, will surely helpful to revive the ashram-movement in India.