1990-10-22 00:00:00

Among India´s many Christian ashrams, the Christa Prema Seva Ashram (CPS ashram) in Pune, western India, stands out as an experiment in ecumenism.

Most Indian ashrams (residential religious communities) are associated with Hindu religious traditions, where a guru (religious teacher) gathers around himself a community for prayer and asceticism.

Though Catholic initiatives in this line began only in 1965, some Protestants had earlier begun a Christian ashram tradition.

The Christa Prema Seva Ashram (ashram in the loving service of Christ) was founded by Anglican Reverend Jack Winslow in 1927 to develop a fraternal community of Indians and Englishmen living in fellowship and harmony.

Meant to be a meeting point for various traditions and religious experiences, CPS ashram was open to all who wanted to discover and live India´s spiritual genius.

Madhav Harshe, a Brahmin, who has known the ashram from its inception, told UCA News that it has helped remove ignorance about Christianity.

"Seventy years ago brahmins (Hindu priestly castes) and other Hindus were ignorant of Christianity and had misgivings about their religion, community and liturgy due to lack of personal contacts."

Harshe said during the period 1927-1947 Christians were despised as collaborators of the foreign (British) rulers.

Weathering initial opposition, CPS ashram became a place of study and research in spirituality. Retreats, seminars and dialogue sessions on Indian culture and Hinduism conducted at the ashram became popular.

The original ashram community died out after 25 years, but CPS ashram was revived in 1972 by Sacred Heart Sister Vandana with the help of Anglican nuns and other Sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The ashram now has priests and nuns from Catholic and Anglican communities, as well as lay people of different faiths and nationalities.

Prayer sessions at the ashram include chanting of verses from the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita (popular Hindu Scriptures), meditation on verses from the Bible and the singing of "bhajans" (devotional songs) in Sanskrit and other Indian languages.

The ashramites squat on the floor for prayers, meals and meetings and the ashram diet is vegetarian.

"The ashram aims to rediscover the original wisdom experienced by saints and mystics of all religions and clarify them to seekers of the present times," CPS ashram directress Sacred Heart Sister Sara Grant told UCA News.

"We also want to develop a purely indigenous life that is specific to Indian culture," she said, adding that the ashram functions as a center for meditation, prayer, and study of the traditions of major religions in the light of Christian heritage.

"Christ is not one who comes to destroy other faiths ... but to fulfil our inner spiritual quest," asserted Sister Grant, an Indologist, who specializes in the Advaitic philosophy of Shankaracharya, the Indian philosopher-saint.

A day in the ashram begins with silent meditation and morning praises with "arati" (an Indian ritual of worship with lamps and flowers) followed by Mass.

At noon too there is meditation and "arati" and, in the evening, singing of songs and hymns from the poet-saints of Maharashtra, the ashram´s home state. Night prayer includes short scripture reading and intercessory prayers.

Though CPS ashram has no rigid rules and norms, "healthy conventions set the basic norms that make a community alive," Sister Grant said.

Each resident contributes to the daily chores of the ashram "according to each one´s talent and energy," she added.

People from different faiths now meet at CPS ashram to share experiences. The ashram also holds regular courses on yoga and other Indian methods of meditation and prayer.


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