LEADERSHIP: Sadhana Centre started by Fr Anthony de Mello not only provided a home for orphans and street children but imparted education on
Anthony de Mello was one of the Jesuit priests who integrated Hindu religious practices with Christianity to creat a fusion of the two religions. Anthony is the founder of the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counselling and has many books to his credit. Among the Jesuit priests who took to active social work was Fr Joseph H. Pereira (Joe)who started the Kripa Centre for Rehabilitation of Drug Addicts and Alcoholics. Fr Joe also practises and teaches yoga asana which he learned from doyen of yoga gurus, the late B.K.S Iyengar.
By Aravindan Neelakandan
Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit priest who founded the ‘Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counselling’ at Pune. After having worked as a ‘retreat master and spiritual director’ for Christian retreats, he published his book: Sadhana – A Way to God with the subtitle: ‘Christian Exercises in Eastern Form in 1978
The book, though mainly meant for the Christian clergy, became immensely popular with all seekers of the ‘80s cutting across religions.
At the outset, given the constant appropriation attempts and strategies designed by the Church, the book may look suspiciously like another similar attempt. But it was not so.
De Mello openly acknowledged the sources and their distinct spiritual greatness with gratitude. In the introduction to the book, he wrote:
A Jesuit friend once told me that he approached a Hindu guru for initiation in the art of prayer. The guru said to him, “Concentrate on your breathing.” My friend proceeded to do just that for about five minutes. Then the guru said, “The air you breathe is God. You are breathing God in and out. Become aware of that, and stay with that awareness.”… The exercises I propose in this book are very much in line with the approach of that Hindu guru, whom I have never met or heard of since.
Sadhana: A way to God: Christian Exercises in Eastern Form: Complete and Unabridged, Image: Doubleday 1984, pp.7-8
Inside the book we find this:
To silence the mind is an extremely difficult task. … Our Hindu masters in India have a saying: one thorn is removed by another. By this they mean that you will be wise to use one thought to rid yourself of all the other thoughts that crowd into your mind. One thought, one image, one phrase or sentence or word that your mind can be made to fasten on. … The mind must have something to occupy it. Well, then, give it something with which to occupy itself but just one thing. An image of the Saviour that you gaze on lovingly and to which you return each time you are distracted; an ejaculation that you keep repeating ceaselessly to prevent the mind from wandering. A time will come, hopefully, when the image will disappear from consciousness, when the word will be taken out of your mouth and your discursive mind will be perfectly stilled and your Heart will be given free scope to gaze, unimpeded, into the Darkness!
In his book The Song of the Bird (1984) de Mello wrote about the Dancing God:
Hindu India developed a magnificent image to describe God’s relationship with Creation. God ‘dances’ Creation. He is the Dancer, Creation is his Dance. The dance is different from the dancer, yet it has no existence apart from him. You cannot take it home in a box, if it pleases you. The moment the dancer stops, the dance ceases to be.
Anthony De Mello SJ, The Song of the Bird, The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition: p. 10
Two years later he would elaborate and make both Jesus and Judas complementary movements of this vast cosmic dance of the Divine.
… I see Jesus Christ and Judas,
I see victims and persecutors,
the killers and the crucified;
one melody in the contrasting notes.
I think of the people who dislike me and attack me
and I see them and me as different,
engaged in one task,
one work of art.
Finally, I stand before the Lord.
I see him as the dancer
and all of this maddening,
that we call life
as his dance. (Wellsprings: A Book of Spiritual Exercises, Image: Doubleday 1986, pp.152-3)
At the same time, he was clear about his religious identity. This he communicated to his readers in no uncertain term—particularly when he wrote for readers of all religions and no religion.
The dedication he wrote for The Song of the Bird reveals his faith and dedication to the Church as his spiritual nourishing mother:
This book has been written for people of every persuasion, religious and nonreligious. I cannot, however, hide from my readers the fact that I am a priest of the Catholic Church. I have wandered freely in mystical traditions that are not Christian and not religious and I have been profoundly influenced by them. It is to my Church, however, that I keep returning, for she is my spiritual home; and while I am acutely, sometimes embarrassingly, conscious of her limitations and narrowness, I also know that it is she who has formed me and made me what I am today. So, it is to her that I gratefully dedicate this book.
In his One Minute Wisdom (1985) the Master he introduced, gets described this way:
The Master in these tales is not a single person. He is a Hindu Guru, a Zen Roshi, a Taoist Sage, a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Monk, a Sufi Mystic. He is Lao Tzu and Socrates. Buddha and Jesus, Zarathustra and Mohammed. His teaching is found in the 7th century B.C. and the 20th century A.D. His wisdom belongs to East and West alike. Do his historical antecedents really matter? History, after all, is the record of appearances, not Reality; of doctrines, not of Silence.
One Minute Wisdom, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1985, p.2
One should observe two important aspects here:
One, the marginalisation of historic-centricity that so characterises, and forms a significant basis of, Christian theology.
Second, the placing of Jesus as not the only but one among the spiritual personalities of the world.
Both are highly significant leaps.
In 1987, Anthony de Mello SJ suffered a heart attack and passed away.
His legacy continues to live like a breeze. And then the Empire struck back.
On 24 June 1998, the day considered as the birth day of John the Baptist, the ‘Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’ (CDF) which was formerly known as the ‘Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition’, issued a ‘notification’ – ‘Concerning the writings of Fr. Anthony De Mello SJ’:When a Catholic priest wants to publish a book concerning religion, the book should have the the Imprimatur (‘Let it be printed’) of the authority from Catholic Church (Bishop or in the case of Jesuits the Provincial of the Order or Congregation).
All the nine books of Anthony de Mello were published after being granted the Imprimatur. Yet, the result of the ‘notification’ though not an official ban, was that Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, the Jesuit publishing house with a secular name, was stopped from printing new editions of the books and they ‘disappeared from the shelves of Catholic bookshops overnight until the controversy was cleared.’ Today the books are allowed to be published with the following note:
The books of Father Anthony de Mello were written in a multi-religious context to help the followers of other religions, agnostics and atheists in their spiritual search, and they were not intended by the author as manuals of instruction of the Catholic faithful in Christian doctrine or dogma.
Bill deMello, ‘Anthony deMello SI, The Happy Wanderer’, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 2012, p.247
The phenomenon of Anthony de Mello and the subsequent response of the Church showcase both the opportunities and problems in the Hindu-Christian encounter.
Mark Tully, the former BBC ‘South Asia’ correspondent wrote in 1996 about an Indian Catholic priest, :
… who once told me that although his family had been Christians for generations and he has been through the full rigours of a Jesuit training he still, in his heart of hearts felt closer to the God Krishna than to Jesus.
Mark Tully, ‘Lives of Jesus’, The Illustrated London News, Christmas Issue, 1996, p.33
The Indian Catholic Jesuit’s closeness to Krishna may mainly be because of the non-rigidity and the accommodative space of theo-diversity Hindu culture has cultivated through and around Sri Krishna.
The entire Anthony de Mello phenomenon then can be considered as showing this feature – at varying levels of dormancy and manifestation, among Indian Christians. Though they might be Christians for generations, the very fact of them being immersed in the inescapable Hindu ocean of theo-diversity with all its colours of festivals and celebrations, rituals and art forms, has created a synthesis. A synthesis which the global Christian community can make use of: to adapt itself to the post-colonial world. A world where the cosmic visions unveiled by science demand a universal religion. A religion which is qualitatively different from a monopolistic expansionist faith and which should even include and recognise atheism as a spiritually valid way of life.
In India, the Church has tried to respond to this challenge by creating a history-centric narrative with ethnic overtones – a Dravidian St. Thomas; Christianity being corrupted by Brahminical Aryan Hinduism. Such pseudo-scientific and racially-inclined narratives are dangerous and can only generate more conflicts.
On the other hand, recognising the flowering of many more Anthony de Mellos and not trying to restrict and control them, can benefit humanity at large beyond the religious boundaries and Church herself.