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The Ashram Movement in the Mission

As in the case of the “pioneers of indigenous Christianity,” historians of the mission have been rummaging through the record in search of some Christian institutions of the past which can be presented now as “pioneers of the Ashram Movement”. The pride of place in this context goes, of course, to the “ashram” of Robert De Nobili and his successors at Madurai. We have already dealt with it in detail. Then there is a long gap till we come to the short-lived ashram which Brahmabandhab set up on the Narmada in the closing years of the nineteenth century. Finally, from 1921 onwards we are presented with some mission stations which styled themselves as ashrams, or are named so now, simply because the inmates wore khadi and ate vegetarian food. The credit for placing the Ashram Movement squarely on the map of the mission goes to P. Chenchiah and company who included a chapter on it in their main thesis, Rethinking Christianity in India, presented to the IMC conference in 1938. It was followed with a full-fledged 326-page treatise, Ashrams: Past and Present, published in 1941.

All Christian historians concur that the need for Christian ashrams was felt when the spread of the gospel became more and more difficult due to the rising tide of resurgent Hinduism. They also agree that the first cues came from ashrams founded by some leaders of the Indian Renaissance-the Bharat Ashram founded by Keshab Chandra Sen in 1872 at Belgharia near Calcutta, the Ramakrishna ashrams which functioned as bases of the Ramakrishna Mission since 1897, the Shantiniketan Ashram founded by Rabindranath Tagore at Bolepur in 1901, and the Satyagraha Ashram which Mahatma Gandhi started at Sabarmati after his return from South Africa in 1915. The names of Ramana Ashram at Tiruvannamalai and Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry are added to the list by some historians. The fashion since Chenchiah’s thesis of 1941 has been to hark back to the Brahmanical ashrams and Buddhist and Jain monasteries, in ancient and medieval times, as providing inspiration for Christian ashrams.

After Brahmabandhab, K.T. Paul, General Secretary of the National Missionary Society (NMS) founded in 1905, was the first to propose formation of Christian ashrams in a meetings of the NMS at New Delhi in 1912. The ashrams were expected “to attract the most spiritual Christian youths” and provide them with “evangelical equipment to meet the best exponents of the non-Christian religions on their own grounds”.1 But the idea did not take shape till 1921. The NMS was an organisation outside the mission proper controlled by foreign missionaries.

The Christian poet from Maharashtra, N.V. Tilak, founded an institution at Satara in 1917 and named it God’s Darbar. He had “a vision of Christ founding Swaraj in man’s heart”. Jesus was hailed as the guru. The inmates of the Darbar were baptised and unbaptised disciples of Tilak. He sometimes preferred to describe his creation as an ashram. “But it is recorded that some missionaries misunderstood and opposed Tilak’s attitude and style.” In any case, the “ashram” collapsed and disappeared when Tilak died two years later. In 1920, G.S. Doraiswamy wrote in the Harvest Field, a mission journal, that a series of ashrams should be set up by the mission. They were to be “theological institutions-for thinking, training, study, research and writing”. The proposal was not welcomed. “In the next two monthly numbers of the journal, foreign missionaries criticised Mr. Doraiswamy’s hopes and suggestions from the point of view of economics and theology.”2 The mission was not sure that native Christians were capable of managing missionary institutions or competent for expounding theological themes.

A foreign missionary had to come forward before the idea of Christian ashrams could find favour with the Mission. That was Dr. E. Forrester Paton of the Scottish Mission. He joined the NMS and roped in a native Christian, Dr. S. Jesudasen of the same organisation, to start in 1921 the Christakula (Family of Christ) Ashram at Tirupattur in the Madras Presidency. It was patterned on Gandhian lines. The inmates were clad in khadi, ate vegetarian food and remained celibate. “Because both the founders were medical doctors, the major social service activity of the ashram was medical care. But village evangelism was a high priority with the ashram and education and agriculture development were systematically offered.” The ashram did make some experiments in Tamil-style church architecture and Tamil Christian hymns. But for the rest, it was a normal mission station and so it has remained till today. In later years, it was given “grants by European funding agencies for health, agriculture and tribal development”.3

Similar Christian ashrams sprang up in different parts of the country in the years following 1921. We shall take up only one more, the Christa Seva Sangha, to show what they have been doing. The Sangha was also founded by a foreign missionary, J.C. Winslow of the British Society for Propagation of the Gospel. He had consulted Dr. Paton before the Sangha was launched at Miri in Ahmadnagar District of Maharashtra on June 11, 1922, the feast day of St. Barnabas. Bishop Palmer in whose diocese Miri was located came and gave his blessings at the time of inauguration. Soon after, the inmates became known for wearing khadi, performing sandhyas in Marathi and Sanskrit, and singing bhajans to the accompaniment of Indian musical instruments. “Most of our time,” reported Fr. Winslow in 1947, “was spent in evangelistic work in the Ahmadnagar villages. Outstanding among our experiences which will always live in our memory was the work at Karanji, a village some twenty miles east of Ahmadnagar… We had a wonderful reception from the people of Karanji itself and soon after, from those of four of the surroundings villages as well. Almost the whole of the Mahar population of these villages were received, at their earnest request, first as catechumens and then as Christians; and Karanji has now become a base of work for extending right out into the Nizam’s Dominions.”4

Fr. Winslow visited England in 1926 and reported the results achieved to influential people in mission circles “with the result that in 1927 and 1928 the Sangha was reinforced by four priests and three laymen (two of whom were afterwards ordained) from England”. Dame Monica Wills, a pious and rich lady, gave him “the munificent gift of £1000 with which we were able to purchase a piece of land near Bhamburda station just outside Poona and in the early months of 1928 to build at last our Ashram and permanent headquarters”.5

More money came. In 1931, the Sangha purchased “a large field adjoining the river at Aundh, four miles to the north of Poona, as a site for establishing a village Ashram from which work might be carried on among villages similar to that of the early days of the C.S.S. and supplementing the work in Poona”.6 By 1934, the Sangha had so much money and manpower that it was bifurcated into two. The new establishment at Aundh retained the old name. The set-up at Poona was rechristened as the Christa Prema Seva Sangha and handed over to another British missionary, W.Q. Lash. He was to become the Bishop of Bombay in 1947.

In subsequent years, the Christa Prema Seva Sangha became more prominent than its parent body. It built a hostel for college students-Hindu, Muslim and Christian-who could spend their holidays there in inter-religious dialogues.7 It became affiliated to the Society of St. Francis in England and provided hospitality to all sorts of missionary organisations, national and international, for holding conferences. It took over the C.S.S. Review, which was first started in 1931, and turned it into The Ashram Review. Before long, Poona became the clearing house for the Ashram Movement of the mission. “The Poona Ashram has been revived in recent years,” writes Dr. Philipos Thomas, “as an ecumenical Ashram in which Roman Catholics and Protestants work together… Inter-Ashram Conferences are held every year and their reports, messages and prayer circulars are sent to every Ashram. This is one way of strengthening the fellowship between Ashrams.”8

A Christian painter at Poona plied his brush and made Jesus a native son of India. His paintings provided frontpieces for The Ashram Review. Hindus could now see Mary, the mother of Jesus, dressed in sari and wearing an elaborate Hindu coiffeur, in scenes such as her own childhood, Nativity of Jesus, Mother of India, Our Lady of India, Annunciation, etc. Hindus could now see Jesus in a Hindu setting, blessing the fishes held up in a plate by a Brahmin boy, meeting and talking to a Hindu woman at Samaria, sitting in padmasana while his feet are anointed by Mary Magdalene dressed as a Hindu damsel, being attended by two Hindu women at Bethany, getting tied to a Hindu-style pillar and scourged by two whip-wielding Hindus, being crucified while two Hindu women stand by the cross with mournful faces, being taken down from the cross by four Hindu women, and so on. The evening at Golgotha became crowded with Hindu men and women. St. Thomas stood attired as a Hindu sannyasin with two similarly dressed Hindu disciples kneeling at his feet. The design for Indian Christian statuary showed Jesus hanging on a cross while a rishi-like figure, riding a GaruDa-like bird, sat on its top and two Hindu women stood on both sides, one praying with folded hands and the other offering incense. Hindus now had no reason to reject Jesus as a Jewish rabbi who lived and died in a distant land; he was very much of a Hindu avatara. Hindus could only wonder at how a historical person who appeared at a particular place and time could be transplanted elsewhere and in another period with such perfect ease. The mission is never tired of saying that Jesus is not a mythological figure like Rama, Krishna and the Buddha of the Mahayana school. Christian theology provides an explanation. Had not Tertullian, the famous Church Father, said long ago that it is true because it is absurd, and that it happened because it was impossible?

The Ashram Movement had gained some momentum by the time the International Missionary Council met at Tambaram in 1938. It was given a firm footing in the mission strategy by S. Jesudasen of the Christukula Ashram in a chapter on Ashrams which he contributed to the joint thesis presented by his group. He prefaced his essay by announcing that “Rishis gave us ashrams and the ashrams gave us rishis in return”.9 What he meant by a rishi was spelled out in a subsequent section. “The first missionaries (especially Roman Catholic missionaries),” he wrote, “were men who saw nothing but evil in Hinduism and looked upon Hindus as people who were debased and corrupt. Thus wrote Francis Xavier, one of the saintliest of R.C. missionaries, to his chief Loyola in one of his letter: ‘The whole race of Hindus is barbarous and will listen to nothing that does not suit its barbarous customs. Regarding the knowledge of what is Godlike and virtuous it cares but little.’ Since his time there have been others, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, who have in a measure shared with Francis Xavier the same attitude towards the religion and people of this land. A change in attitude towards the religion and people of this land came about 1606 when Robert de Nobili and other Jesuits of a high intellectual order, ability, culture and sacrifice Indianised themselves and their methods of Christian work until later they incurred papal condemnation… That this attempt at identification with people was a success is proved at least to me by the history of my own family. My ancestor’s conversion to Christianity from Hinduism was brought about by one of these early Jesuits in AD 1690.”10

We have seen what Robert De Nobili and his successors were doing at Madurai. It is difficult to believe that Dr. Jesudasen did not know the full story. Just because his ancestor was a victim of Jesuit wiles, it does not follow that the Madurai missionaries were not downright crooks, and that what they practised was not a despicable fraud. Holding them up as men of “high intellectual order, ability, culture and sacrifice” reveals the depths to which missionary moral standards can descend.11 Invoking Robert De Nobili as the first inspiration for Christian ashrams tells us the truth about the Ashram Movement, namely, that it is being promoted in order to practise the same fraud.

Coming back to rishis, it is true that they founded and lived in ashrams. But to say that ashrams produced rishis is ridiculous. There is no evidence that Hindus ever accepted a man known as a rishi simply because he lived in an ashram. The rishis known to Hindu religious tradition were first and foremost the living embodiments of a vast spiritual vision evolved and perfected by Sanatana Dharma. The total absence of that vision in Christianity is a guarantee that Christian ashrams will always remain sterile so far as rishis are concerned. At their best the Christian ashrams can produce only hypocrites, at their worst only scheming scoundrels. In fact, the preposterous attempt to produce rishis by the mechanical process of aping Hindu sannyasins proves beyond doubt that Christianity is a vulgar ideology of gross materialism disguised in religious verbiage.

This truth about the nature of Christianity, which has no metaphysics, was confessed by P. Chenchiah’s group in their next book. “The Hindu,” they said, “sees only the commonplace Christianity in us. He does not find anything in Christianity corresponding to the deeper levels of Hindu spiritual experience… Hindu religious experience, mapped out in Yoga, takes men from height to height. Similar heights in Christianity, the Christian himself has not explored. There are certain valued experiences of the Hindu in the pilgrimage of the soul to God. Of parallel experiences in Christianity he is not aware.”12

A review of this book in The Ashram Review confirmed that Christianity not only does not have this wealth of spiritual experience but also does not care for it. The reviewer who remained unnamed drew a line between “the ideal of a stoic or rishi who seeks union with the attributeless Brahman” and the ideal of the Christian “who seeks union with God revealed in Christ Jesus.” He cited an established Christian tradition and warned Christians against the experiences cherished by P. Chenchiah and company. “It is indeed just this note of the cross,” he wrote, “that one misses in the book. The ideal Christian Ashrams will attract ‘Christians anxious to scale higher levels of Christian experience’-and here the ‘higher levels’ seems to be ‘powers and illumination’, ‘to see visions’- although from St. Paul onwards, mindful of the lesson of Transfiguration, the great Christian saints and mystics have unanimously taught that such experiences may be given but not sought, rather feared than clung to, and that the true union with God is at the far deeper level, in the steadfast union of the will with His will.”13 The reviewer was being polite. Christian missionaries, ever since their advent in India, had been dismissing Hindu spiritual experience as delusion inspired by the Devil. In fact, the very word “experience” has been foreign to Christian parlance. Christianity has always aimed at inculcating or imposing blind beliefs, the blinder the belief the better.

The reviewer, however, was looking backwards. In days to come, the mission was going to use the word “experience” with great abandon. The theologians and experts on Indigenisation were getting ready to hold one “spiritual workshop” after another on the subject of “inferiority”. Fr. Henri Le Saux who became Swami Abhishiktananda one fine morning in 1950 simply by putting on the ochre robe of a Hindu sannyasin, will very soon start talking and writing ecstatically about “Christian experience”. It is a different matter that till to-day the mission has not been able to spell out what this “Christian experience” means. The rishis were never so dumb. Hindus have inherited a large literature in which spiritual experience has been described in detail, in prose and poetry, by means of similies and metaphors. Their rishis have continued adding to it till recent times.

This is not the occasion for probing into what the “steadfast union of the will with His will” has meant in human history, particularly to the heathens, in terms of death and destruction. Here we are dealing with the Ashram Movement in the mission. By 1945 there were a score of Christian ashrams spread over the country. The mission had promoted them “as places of experimentation in the working out of the Gospel in the background of Indian thought, bringing about all that is valuable in that heritage under the power of Christ”.14 But the mission was far from satisfied with their performance in the one field which it regarded as the most important. “Many of our Christian ashrams,” observed S.V. Parekh, “are noted for their life of piety and devotion. Some are noted for their medical and social work, while others, are keenly interested in educational work, but it is a sad comment to make that there are hardly any with the exception of a few that are out for evangelism. If I am not mistaken this is one of the reasons why the Church has fought shy of the ashrams. Let the Christian ashrams accept this challenge and throw out a challenge to the youth to rally round the banner of evangelism.”15 The cat was out of the bag - the Christian ashrams were expected to produce converts like the rest of the mission stations. The talk about producing rishis was so much hogwash.

The Ashram Movement, however, kept forging ahead under the impetus for Indigenisation about which the mission became somewhat frantic soon after India attained independence. The Catholic Church had been hostile to ashrams which it regarded as an attempt to infuse Hinduism into Christianity. We have seen how it dealt with Brahmabandhab when he tried to create an ashram in 1899. His Sindhi disciple, Rewachand who styled himself as Swami Animananda, made another attempt by starting a Catholic Ashram in 1940 near the Catholic Seminary at Ranchi. “Most of the Belgian Jesuits in Ranchi,” writes Dr. Taylor, “Whom I talked with in March 1977 and who lived across the street from the Seminary did not know that Animananda had ever lived in Ranchi.” But the Catholic Church became reconciled to the institutional innovation when it caught the fever for Indigenisation. Speaking of the same Belgian Jesuits in 1977, Dr. Taylor adds in a footnote: “But they were very proud of their colleague. Fr. E. De Meulder who had put up gross and petty signs calling the Hazaribagh Church compound an ashram and who now claims that a discussion club he once founded in Ranchi was actually called ashram. Part of the problem with the name ‘ashram’ these days is that too many irresponsible churchmen are willing and eager to apply it to anything and every-thing.”16

The Jesuit father, Henry Heras, the foremost Catholic expert on Indigenisation “contemplated an all-embracing Christian sannyasa in his project of Saccidananda Prema Sangha”.17 Fr. Jules Monchanin, the French missionary, gave the project a practical shape in 1950 when he, along with another French missionary, Fr. Henri Le Saux, founded the Saccidananda Ashram at Tannirpalli in the Tiruchirapalli district of Madras Presidency. “They had clad themselves in Kavi robes, the traditional sign of the great renunciation in the land of India. Round their necks they wore the Benedictine cross and engraved in its centre the pranava, symbol of God the Ineffable and of the Eternal word springing from His Silence, a solemn affirmation that the Christ revealed in history is the very Brahman itself, the object of all the contemplations of the Rishis. They had taken new names. His own, Parama-Arubi-Anandam, bore witness to his special devotion to the Praclete, the Supreme (Parama), Formless (a-rubi). They called their solitude the Shanti Vanam, the wood of peace. Its formal name was Saccidananda Ashram.”18 Fr. Henri Le Saux took the name Swami Abhishikteshwarananda, Bliss of the Lord of the Anointed Ones, that is, Jesus Christ. His friends and followers found the full name too difficult to pronounce. So he cut it short to Abhishiktananda. People who were fond of him shortened the name still further and simply called him Abhishikta.

In a small book authored jointly by the two Catholic “swamis” and published in 1951, they stated their aims and methods. The Bishop of Trichinapoly (now Tiruchirapalli) wrote a Foreword. “The present venture,” said the Bishop, “is but an attempt to reconstruct the ideals of the first missionaries like De Nobili or of their recent prototypes like Father Vincent Lebbe of China.”19 The first missionaries were following the example of St. Paul by “becoming all things to all men that they might save all”.20 The new swamis had the full support of the Catholic Church in their “approach which will in the long run help in assimilation of the ancient Indian culture and in its Christianisation”.21 The Bishop hoped that the new venture will be welcomed “by those who have at heart the speedy ‘illumination’ of this large subcontinent of India, which for all its glorious religious past and its natural, and even violent, sympathy for spiritual values, is still far away from Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life”.22

“But somehow,” writes Dr. Taylor, “the ashram did not really work like an ashram. Some came to visit them but nobody joined them… Monchanin died, much respected in the West and, finally Abhishiktananda wandered off to the Himalayas and became the most exciting Indian spiritual theologian of his generation. Then Dom Bede Griffiths came to Shantivanam to make a new foundation. Dom Bede had been in India for many years at the so-called ashram in Kurisumala where he must have observed how to do and how not to do things. Anyway, it seems to me that Shantivanam is now thriving.”23

So are many other Christian ashrams in India.24 They are attracting the attention of what Dr. Taylor describes as “a new breed of missionary statesmen-cum-funders and a group I shall call the ‘Continental Christian Funding Organisation’“.25 They are no more than normal mission stations hiding behind a false facade. The only additional function they perform is to prevent bewildered people from the West from wandering into Hindu ashrams and coming under the influence of Hindu gurus. “We know very well, of course,” said Henri Le Saux in 1964, “that the word ashram has been terribly devalorised by Christians. In some so-called Christian ashrams, such essential conditions of Hindu sadhana as abstinence from meat and liquor are completely neglected if not deliberately trodden upon. Elsewhere ashrams are simply guest-house and in the States it is even spoken of ‘weekend ashrams’.”26 What else did he expect from fake swamis?

It is useless to tell the missionaries that Hindu sadhana has nothing to do with buying a piece of land, building some stylised houses on it, exhibiting pretentious signboards, putting on a particular type of dress, and performing certain rituals in a particular way. Hindu sadhana has been and remains a far deeper and difficult undertaking. It means being busy with one’s own self rather than with saving others. It means clearing the dirt and dross within one’s own self rather than calling on others to swear by a totem trotted out as the only saviour. It has no place for abominable superstitions like the atoning death of a so-called chirst. Above all, it is not consistent with double-talk-harbouring one motive in the heart and mouthing another. A counterfeit must remain a counterfeit, howsoever loudly and lavishly advertised. It is a sacrilege that those who are out to cheat and deceive should use the word “sadhana” for their evil exercise.


  1. Richard W. Taylor, ‘Christian Ashrams as a Style of Mission in India’, International Review of Missions, July 1979, p. 283. 

  2. Ibid., p. 284 

  3. Ibid., p. 285 

  4. The Ashramn Review, July 1947, p.5. Mahars are a community of depressed class Hindus in Maharastra. 

  5. Ibid., p. 6 

  6. Ibid., p. 7 

  7. What the dialogues were intended for is reported in The Ashram Review of October 1948: “Just now there are two other Hindu friends staying in the Ashram, who have expressed their intention of becoming Christians; one of them has been a Hindu pilgrim for many years” (p. 31). 

  8. Indian Church History Review, December 1977, p. 220 

  9. Rethinking Christianity in India, p. 197 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Full facts about De Nobili’s frauds and forgeries have been known since long. 

  12. P. Chenchiah et al, Ashrama: Past and Present, Madras, 194 1, p. 267 

  13. The Ashram Review, January, 1942, p. 29 

  14. Ibid., April 1945, p. 21 

  15. Ibid., July 1955, p. 17 

  16. Richard W. Taylor. op. cit., p. 286 

  17. Swami Parama Arubi Anandam: A Memorial, Saccidananda Ashram, 1959, p. 79 

  18. Ibid., pp. 16-17 

  19. A Benedictine Ashram. Douglas (England), 1961. p. 1 

  20. Ibid., P. 5 

  21. Ibid., p. 6 

  22. Ibid., p. 7 

  23. Richard, W. Taylor, op. cit. pp. 286-287 

  24. A List of Christian ashrams at present is given in Appendix 1. 

  25. Richard W. Taylor, op. cit., p. 292 

  26. A Bendictine Ashram, p. 2