In Italy, Switzerland and France, three ascetic orders hold firmly to their holy heritage
MONASTERIES HAVE HISTORICALLY preserved Hindu dharma through their steadfast discipline and institutional longevity. Ashrams come and go, but monasteries persevere; so it is heartening to find strong, traditional monasteries far from India.
Italy’s Gitananda Ashram lies twelve kilometers inland from Savona on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a remote retreat, a surprising location for such a major Hindu center. Founded in 1984 by Sri Svami Yogananda Giri and named after his spiritual master, the renowned Dr. Svami Gitananda Giri of Ananda Ashram in South India [1907–1993], the monastery is profoundly grounded in spiritual sadhana, temple worship, sannyas and service to the guru, whose prowess might be overlooked given his unpretentious and placid nature, until you encounter his creation.
The center lies on 20 acres, surrounded by dense forests of chestnut trees and accessible only by a one-way, unpaved path that winds five kilometers to the nearest road. This is not an easy place to reach, but it is well worth the effort.
A cluster of two-story buildings provide accommodation for the sannyasins and for retreatants who come for seminars on yoga and Hinduism. The grounds are a lavish display of colorfully painted shrines and murtis—Ganesha, Murugan, Siva and His other half, the merciful Mother Goddess—singing a song of South Indian art and architecture.
Some years ago this Italian monastery brought a team of sthapatis and silpis from Tamil Nadu to build an Agamic, Chola-style temple for the Divine Mother, Sri Lalita Tripurasundari, the main Deity worshiped in the Sri Vidya tradition. Built of concrete and plaster, the temple captures the South Indian tradition in brightly painted splendor. Winters are cold here, with one to three meters of snow—which the monks must sometimes tunnel through, igloo-style, to get from building to building—so this temple is fully enclosed and amply heated.
Gitananda Ashram: a delightful discovery in northern Italy
Serving God and guru: Inside the Sri Lalita Tripurasundari Temple, with its distinctive South Indian art and architecture; Svami Yogananda Giri, founder and spiritual leader of Italy’s Gitananda Ashram, named after his spiritual master, Dr. Svami Gitananda Giri of Ananda Ashram in Pondicherry, South India
The temple is the central focus of worship and sadhana. Svami Yogananda Giri himself performs the noon puja each day. From morning to near midnight the holy sanctum is visited, pujas performed by the monks, offerings of fragrant flowers made (they grow 5,000 rose bushes just for offerings), musical praises proffered, inner quiet discovered.
Twice daily, without fail, they gather to sing the entire Sri Lalita Sahasranama. This began years back when the guru was in the hospital and the community gathered to implore divine intervention on his behalf. When he recovered, they expected this difficult daily discipline would cease, but he urged them to continue—observing that devotees can’t go to the Goddess only when in need. They should always fall at Her feet, whatever life’s circumstances may be. Obediently, they have continued, and the power of their persistent devotion is palpable.
Sri Yogananda Giri has become Italy’s foremost Hindu spiritual figure, and today his temple is a pilgrimage place for all Europeans. As the monastery has almost no parking, thousands of devotees walk the five-kilometer trail on Ganesha Chaturthi, children in tow, singing and carrying offerings of fruit and flowers for the Lord of Obstacles.
Guided by Svami, the sannyasins have recently changed the status of Hinduism under Italian law. For centuries Italy only recognized the Abrahamic religions, treating members of Eastern faiths as second-class citizens. In 1996 Swami set out to change this, and on February 2, 2013, an agreement between the Italian State and the Italian Hindu Union became law, an historic accomplishment that celebrates a pluralistic nation.
Thanks to sixteen years of effort by many—especially Jayendranatha, Svamini Ma Uma Sakti Giri and Svamini Hamsananda Giri—Hinduism and Buddhism are now officially recognized religions with all rights and protections, including acceptance of marriage ceremonies, protection of temples, more support for schools and limited state funding. (See our complete article at bit.ly/ItalianForum).
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY GITANANDA ASHRAM
The ornate, Agamically designed temple to Divine Mother has become a sanctuary for Hindus and seekers throughout Europe.
There is profound emphasis here on sannyas and the strict spirit of renunciation. Each initiated monk is required to surrender the world, to serve obediently, to seek the Self within daily and to live with yogic detachment freed of concerns for “me and mine.” The monks do virtually everything themselves, from carpentry to plumbing, from growing food to splitting wood for the life-sustaining winter fires (100,000 kg are cut and stacked each year).
They teach yoga to hundreds of visitors, hold the major annual festivals, guide the spiritual lives of thousands and still have time to raise a breed of large spaniels and cook fresh pizza twice a month in a wood-fired oven. At Lakshmi, their publishing arm, the monks do their own design and editing, in several languages, on Apple computers. This is a well-honed team guided by an awakened guru, humble as individuals but amazingly adept as an order.
The guru stands proudly with his sannyasins and brahmacharinis, flanked by his two guests, editors of Hinduism Today
Their self-sufficiency is beautifully expressed in dozens of ornate shrines proudly lining the pathways. While the Indian silpis were here for ten months building the temple, the monks took pains to learn the craft. After the silpis left, the monks designed, built, sculpted and painted these delightful Chola-style monuments, each enshrining a Hindu Deity. There are ten forms of the Goddess Sri Lalita Tripurasundari as well as Siva, Ganesha, Valli-Devayanai-Shanmukha, Panchamukha Ganapati, Durga Mahadevi, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Sheshanaga Narayanar, Sri Akara-Ukara-Makara (three murtis representing Pranava Aum). There is even a rare series of 51 enshrined murtis representing the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.
Any Hindu visiting Italy will be blessed to visit the Svami Gitananda Ashram, and doubly blessed to meet the good souls who have given their life to build this spiritual citadel for Europe’s growing Hindu community.
Omkarananda Ashram in Switzerland
COURTESY OMKARANANDA ASHRAM
Winterthur lies 1,400 feet above sea level in northern Switzerland, not far from Zurich. A hilly residential suburb is home to the Omkarananda Ashram and Divine Light Center, a loose cluster of ten unassuming buildings. Here live some 25 monks and nuns, led by initiated renunciates in saffron robes.
To understand the Swiss ashram, one must understand its gifted founder, Paramahamsa Omkarananda Saraswati. Born in 1930 in South India, he was initiated into sannyas by Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh when he was just seventeen. His accomplishments and institutions are legendary in India. From his high-tech ashram on the Ganges, followers run 26 schools and two dance and music academies. (See our full story of his life and work here: bit.ly/OmkaranandaAshram).
In 1966 the young swami was inwardly directed to teach seekers in Europe. He founded his first European center in Switzerland; later he established a major ashram in Austria, with centers in Germany, England and France. Ultimately he initiated nearly 200 sannyasins and sannyasinis, who have faithfully run his centers since his mahasamadhi in Austria in 2000.
The heart of the community is a three-story edifice containing the multi-room temple where Swami’s shrine is honored. This powerful chamber is filled day and night with the compelling voice of Swami Omkarananda chanting the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra. Puja is a central sadhana for the monastics—long, elaborate, devotionally charged rites to Lord Siva, to the Mother Goddess and to Swami. Room after room is filled with murtis, each space devoted to a different divine energy. Sri Rudram is chanted in one shrine while a homa is performed simultaneously in another. Devotional music and dance are offered to God and guru.
In a special glass-enclosed shrine on an upper floor, the monks have kept a remarkable peace vigil. Since 1974 they have taken turns performing an Akhanda-Sarva-Devata havan (fire ceremony). Seated at the havan, the orange-clad renunciates chant and offer wood, ghee and prayers into the holy fire, prayers for “the peace, progress and prosperity of all mankind.” For decades this shanti homa was perpetual, 24 hours a day, but now it is tended during the day as staff permits.
Omkarananda Ashram in the Swiss and Austrian Alps
HINDUISM TODAY; (INSET) OMKARANANDA ASHRAM
A global spiritual and educational network: The swamis of Omkarananda Ashram perform guru puja for their founder, Paramahamsa Omkarananda Saraswati [1930-2000]; (inset) massive Sri Chakra yantra installed at the Austrian ashram.
Outlying buildings hold the computer publishing offices, auditorium, kitchens, residences and classrooms. The ashram runs a dynamic publishing program, which includes two newsletters drawing from a vast archive of Sri Swami Omkarananda’s philosophical discourses. He was a true orator, witty, incisive, poetic, a master at moving the spiritual forces of all in his presence. The lecture hall, library and reading rooms serve a steady stream of seekers and pilgrims who come to learn of yoga and Hinduism as taught by the founder. While most of the monastics are European, visitors to this religious sanctuary are mostly Hindus who have immigrated to the country.
Omkarananda Ashram in Austria
Sri Swami Omkarananda’s Austrian monastery was established in 1985 in the foothills of the Alps, surrounded by forest. Boasting Europe’s largest Meru Sri Chakra and a library of over 40,000 spiritual books, it has 25 sannyasins and brahmacharinis in residence. Pujas and havans are regularly performed in the temple shrines, and Vedic mantras and slokas are recited. As in Winterthur, the sadhakas follow a strict Sri Vidya tradition toward achieving life’s highest goal: Self Realization.
Swami Omkarananda was boldly Hindu. Unlike many, he was unafraid of using the H-word in public. His was a mystical path, strongly founded on mantra yoga, meditation and worship of the Divine. His emphasis on the guru-shishya relationship sustains those who fell at his feet during life. A central teaching was: “Practice the yoga of synthesis. Be a karma yogi, bhakti yogi, raja yogi, mantra yogi, jnana yogi. Love the all-pervading, all-knowing God with all your heart and soul. Experience Him here and now, and distribute the fruits of that experience to all mankind.”
The Vedanta Center in France
Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Vedanta Centers have come up throughout the world and have been known for over a hundred years as enclaves of pure Advaita Vedanta. Their monks receive instruction at any of their facilities around the world, serving three years as a pre-probationer and then two more years as a probationer living at Belur Math in India. If qualified, they take vows of chastity, renunciation and service. A brahmachari who passes the next four years of rigorous training is ordained into sannyas at Belur Math and given the saffron robes of a swami.
Europe has Vedanta centers in Germany, France, Netherlands, England, Switzerland and Russia. Most also serve as small monasteries, headed by one of the order’s 800-plus sannyasins who oversees the religious life of residents and provides teachings and outreach into the local community.
The Centre Védantique monastery in Gretz-Armainvilliers, France, a rural town twenty miles southeast of Paris, was founded in 1948. Since 1990 it has been under the spiritual leadership of Swami Veetamohananda, the resident administrator and primary teacher. Originally from Bengal, Swami was initiated as a monk in 1971 following ten years of training in Chennai and Kolkata. He is a gifted musician, both vocal and instrumental, and a key member of the interfaith movement in France. He writes prolifically and travels often to perform pujas and to speak on Vedanta, especially the Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which he believes encompass the entire Indian religious tradition.
Nearly all of Swami’s followers are French. He notes, “Europeans admire the Hindu ideals of tolerance and calmness and therefore accept Hinduism readily.” The Hindus in and around Paris are mostly from the French Colony of Pondicherry, with a growing Sri Lankan presence, but visitors come from all over Europe for the ceremonies and feasts, for lectures and interfaith gatherings, to see Swami or participate in the Hindu form of communal life.
A three-story mansion houses the monastery’s temple, bookstore, Swami’s quarters, classrooms, kitchen and dining facilities. Newer facilities house residents and guests. The 13-acre property also has cow pastures and four beehives.
Three monks live at the center along with nine spiritual aspirants, five men and four women. Residents share the myriad duties of every spiritual community—the reception of visitors, building and grounds maintenance, housework, cooking, etc. All are committed to a simple life of pujas, meditation, spiritual discourse, daily service and special events for the public. Up to 150 visitors come for major festivals, like Mahasivaratri. The center has little other engagement with the local community, though it responds to calls for assistance.
The day here begins at 6am with fifteen minutes of mantras and 45 minutes of silence. This is followed by sacred singing and readings from the Bhagavad Gita and the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna. Breakfast is at 8:00, followed by the day’s karma yoga. From 11am to noon there is puja, which is optional. A veggie lunch at noon is followed by a short siesta and then afternoon seva. Tea is served at 4:30. An evening meditation and prayer is held from 6:30 to 7:15; dinner is at 7:30. After dinner is a scriptural reading, and by 9:30 all residents are free to retire.
In addition to this daily routine are regular weekly pujas, satsangs and classes. The monastery also offers monthly and seasonal residential learning programs.
This system of community-scaled monasteries, networked together and reaching into major cities around the globe, has proven immensely effective and enduring, all due to the training, sadhana and dedication of the swamis of the Ramakrishna Order.
One rightly expects to find Hindu temples, institutions and ashrams in Europe, and they are there in abundance as our feature stories reveal. That there are also serious monasteries in these Western nations, headed by well-schooled, well-trained spiritual leaders and run by cenobites from many nations is both a surprise and a delight.
Main building of the Centre Védantique Ramakrishna complex near Paris, founded in 1948; Swami Veetamohananda, head of the French center.