world council of churches

Religious Plurality, and its implications for life in an Art Ashram: Story Seeds
Jyoti Sahi

The Seed, symbol of regeneration.

In Indic languages the word for "seed" is "bija" which means to bi-generate, or generate over and over again. Unfortunately increasingly seeds are genetically made not to generate over again, being essentially dead seeds. In that sense the modern hybrid seed is not properly a "bija". The symbol of the seed is a very important symbol of life and rebirth in Indian spirituality. The very form of the seed conveys many fascinating meanings, because the seed is perhaps one of the great triumphs of life. Within the seed life can lie contained, and dormant, for not only centuries-even millennia. There is no other storage system so efficient as the humble seed.

The form of the seed is known in the Greek tradition as the "Mandorla". This word is linked to the English word Almond. I have often played with the idea of comparing the Mandorla to the Eastern concept of the "Mandala." "Mandala" in sanskrit just means "circle", but the geometric concept of a circle is a form which can be drawn by making a line, which is always equidistant from a point, lying at the centre of the circle. The Mandorla, however, has a different principle. This is very close to the way in which life itself evolves. Starting from a point, two lines, which have a curving path, separate like the two branches which grow out of a single stem. But the curving path of these separating directions, have a tendency not only to go further and further apart, but to eventually come back together again, once more discovering a common point of meeting. This movement from unity to diversity, and back again to unity, is the basic principle of all life. It is as though the memory of that initial point from which the branches of life have sprung, remains a hidden principle within all diversity, ultimately drawing all dualities back to re-discover again a unity. Without diversity there can be no growth, no unfolding of creativity. But without unity, there can be no return again to the primary unity, no underlying principle of rest which allows for the recovery, or restoration of energy.

Space and Grace

What we term beauty in our apprehension of space, is not to do with straight lines, but rather with curves. It is curves that give rise to that quality which we call "grace". Simone Weil spoke of Grace as opposing Gravity. The curve is like the bridge, which arches over the constraining forces of the vertical and the horizontal. To dance, is to play with curves. That is as much true of the Gothic arch, as the Muslim dome. In India the mystic shaivite poet of Chidambaram, speaks of lying beneath the curve of the Lord's lifted foot. A whole style of dancing, like that of Odassi in Orissa, has developed out of a deep understanding of what is called the "tri-bhanga", or three-curves which constitute the dynamics of the body in movement, yet having a certain balance or repose.

Living form in nature is full of curves. And it is these curves which indicate the way life flows, creating "waves of bliss". A wave, like the form of the seed, is an essential structure, which gives shape to many bodies that we find in nature. A wave, like the seed, implies a movement which both ascends, but also descends, a rhythm which encompasses both an arching structure which defies gravity, but also a capacity to surrender, to give in, and be hollowed out.

Theology and the curve

Theology which is concerned with rational, discursive ideas, contained or articulated by words, always tries to set limits on concepts, tailoring them to fit within set, or proscribed limits, like the proverbial "straight jacket". In contast to this kind of theology, I would like to present a visual theology which I would term Theography. Such a discipline would be more concerned with the flow of ideas, their interconnectedness, rather than their limitation within rational boundaries. Part of the reason why religious systems of thought have tended to suspect the power of the image, is precisely its lack of rational definition. What does an image mean ? It is impossible to put it down in words. To articulate it in a verbal way, is simply to narrate its possible meanings, to unveil its many layers, by telling stories, which help us to explore its different dimensions. Images, Paul Riccœur once said, are not the product of conscious thought. Rather they give rise to thought.

Theography, as a form of visual theology, is concerned with the functioning of the creative imagination. We are told that when human beings were created by God, they were "made in his image". I do not think that this simply means that God looks like us, physically speaking. What is being suggested here, is much more subtle and profound. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the human being is a capacity to be creative, to have an imagination. We too, are creators like the God to whom we owe our very existence. The power of our imagination even dares at times to create God in our own image: or how we think that he ought to look. No human being has ever seen God, and yet we continue to imagine what God looks like. How do we expect to do that? Surely, only through the creative imagination. And it is this creative imagination, which artists like William Blake called the "Divine Spark", in all of us. It is precisely this creative imagination, which enables the human individual to be playful, to create even the reality in which he or she lives and moves.

If it is true that the imagination has such an important place in what we mean by the term "being human", then we certainly need to understand the imagination in relation to what we mean by a Creator God. Theography, then would be concerned with the way in which we imagine God, and the way in which we participate in the creative Process.

The many sheaths, or layers of the body

Perhaps we could come back here to the image which we began with: that of the Seed. The seed has many layers. It is a principle of life, which is contained, or packaged within the seed. In the Upanishads, a teacher asks a disciple to bring him a fruit. Inside the fruit are many seeds. Inside each seed there is a kernel, covered by an outer shell. Inside the kernel, there is apparently nothing. This nothing, the teacher assures his beloved student, is the meaning of life. This is the Atma.

To seek this Atma through a process of removing layer after layer of covering, is the very essence of that life which we hope to have in an ashram. The ashram is not just an institution. It is not to be equated to belonging to some particular order, or religious denomination. Rather, it is an attitude to life, and to the way life flows. We are constantly discovering, at every stage of life, that the particular stage at which we are is only a covering, a protective shell. Inside there is something else, which is the life principle. Like the serpent, we can only grow spiritually by constantly shedding the skin, which has defined us so far. To be a spiritual person, is to be willing again and again to remove our protective layer, to look for that nakedness, or nothing, which is the essence of our life. It is finally there that we find the Lord whose face we seek.

Spirituality as different from Religion

I think that one of the "layers" which we are called upon to shed, is a kind of Religious identity. If we believe in a power of revelation which lies within the imagination of each individual, we must also believe in a process of discovering the Truth which goes beyond the particular structures which constitute our religious institutions. Some worry about the fact that many are leaving religious congregations---and further, even leaving the institutional Church as we know it. It is in this context that I would like to introduce some of my own reflections concerning the place of the Ashram as another model of Church life. The Ashram has an identity which lies outside the structures of institutionalized religion. In that sense it is committed to a faith expression where a spirituality of diversity is more important than an identity which is founded on theological or religious conformity.

The word Ashram derives from the Sanskrit word Shram, meaning work. Ashram implies a special sort of work, one could say even a vocation. But there is also another idea, which comes from Indian tradition, which sees the life of an individual as being divided into different Ashramas, which are like stages in ones life cycle. These various ashramas help us to understand what an Ashram tries to give. What we might call the vocation of the ashram, is a continuing but unfolding vocation, in which we discover at ever deeper levels, the kind of work which we are called to do. Some people in India have spoken of the Ashram as based on a Sadhana, that is a spiritual search. Work as understood as vocation, is not just a profession; it is a way to discovering who one is, and what one's place within the community requires of one. Without work, we actually cannot enter upon a spiritual journey. Work in that sense is essential for our spiritual life, because it helps us to be engaged to the world in which we live. But finally speaking, the work which we are called to do, is to discover what God intended, when creating each person. So this is the special work of the Ashram: it is the work which makes the ashram into a school of the Lord's service.

Vocation of the Ashram : to foster diversity

This vocation of the Ashram is to affirm plurality, in a society which increasingly tends to want to make individuals into clones, or robots, the duplication of a single mono-person, who can fulfill a task, but has no inner sense of a vocation. The wonder and mystery of creation is somehow contained in its diversity, in the fact that no two creations are the same, that every form is in some way unique, and special. The Ashram does not want to turn out a kind of standard ashramite, a person who simply conforms to a given ideal.

The Ashram is defined in certain ancient texts as a place where the doors are never closed. For this reason, the Ashram is supposed to offer hospitality. But the openness of the Ashram to guests should also mean an openness to other cultures, and spiritualities.

About the time that we started the art ashram, there was a discussion in the Indian Church concerning what one might call "Indian Culture". Inculturation, after the Second Vatican Council, proposed an understanding of mission as a process of bringing into a culture certain basic insights to be found in the Gospels. To begin with, people vaguely spoke of "Indian Culture." But then, India has about 1700 different languages, which are supposed to constitute almost a third of the total number of languages known to exist in the world. Here indeed is a rich diversity-a veritable tower of Babel. From one point of view, each language gives rise to a distinct culture of its own. So India is like an overflowing vessel of cultures.

A "Story Ashram"

Stories, like seeds, provide a vessel in which treasured and living memories are stored. How does an oral tradition store its cultural resources ? Books, after all, are very cumbersome documents. One tribe in the North East of India which only very recently committed its language to a written form (using in fact the Roman script), claims that long ago they did have books. But then the tribe was moving from place to place. Migration, and a nomadic pattern of life, is another common feature of what we call "tribal society". In the process of moving from one place to another, the tribe had to cross many waters, and often people had to swim from one bank to another. They could not carry much with them on such journeys, so they were reduced to carrying their books in their mouths. And then, in the process of swimming over the waters, they even swallowed their books. So, I was told by a member of this tribe "Our books are in our mouths, and further, they are even stored in our bellies".

One of the visitors to our art ashram mentioned that it would be interesting to have a "story ashram". In a story ashram, people would come together to tell their stories. This idea very much appealed to me. I would like our art ashram to be a story ashram. Stories are the main vehicle for conveying a culture. And these stories are not only narrated through words, but with gestures, and even images. We are now speaking of "narrative architecture' (in so far as a built space is a way of telling a story) and also "narrative theology." By narrative theology I would understand what earlier I called Theography.

Stories travel far and wide. There are stories which we find in the Buddhist Jatakas, which travelled to Greece, where Aesop wrote them down. Later they even went to the Americas, carried there by slaves. Even the Jataka tales have not originated in Buddhist culture alone. They were probably stories which Buddha told, in the same way that Jesus used parables, and he may have drawn them from a rich tradition of tribal stories of which he himself was the inheritor.

What we are calling a "city", or civilization, is not just built up stones, mortar or brick. The ingredients from which a city evolves are the many stories which come together when people gather in one place. Each person brings a story, and these stories pile up to create an edifice. The story about Babel is of course a cautionary tale about what happens when stories become too tall. There is a similar story told by the Naga tribes in North East India. Once a tribe tried to make a very high tower reaching to heaven. They tried to make this tower like a ladder, by tying together many bamboo poles, going higher and higher. The trouble was that the people at the top, who were tying the poles, got further and further removed from the people at the bottom who were supplying the bamboos. A time came when the people at the top who were shouting down their orders to the people at the bottom, could no longer be properly heard. And so, the people at the bottom one day misheard a command from those who were at the top, which they interpreted to mean that they had now to start untying the poles at the bottom. The result was that the whole project came tumbling down. Here the story is not so much about the diversity of tongues, but a communication gap between those who are at the top, and those who are at the bottom. Culture often tends to separate an elite, who think they are nearer to heaven, from a labouring community, who in fact supply the building material, and do much of the work. This is what destroys, finally speaking, the whole human edifice which culture tries to erect.

The diversity or plurality of cultures arises out of the diversity and plurality of human beings. In itself this diversity is a rich resource, which like the diversity of genetic material, is a strength rather than a weakness. We know now that mono cultures are far more likely to collapse than cultures which have a built in system of diversification. The danger does not lie in diversity, but rather in hierarchy. That is to say, when cultures produce a privileged elite, who distance themselves from their lowly origins, the confusion begins. That was the nemesis of Babylon, a city built on pride, and cultural domination.

Jyoti Sahi is an artist and writer at the The Indian School of Art for Peace (INSCAPE) in Bangalore, India

Go to Contribution by Krzysztof Skuza
Return to Current Dialogue (34), February 2000

© 2000 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor