Beyond Words: A Comparative Analysis of the Symbolic Role of Silence in Two Monastic Communities—Oriental and Occidental

– written by Rukmini Deva, SURF Recipient

Rukmini with Father Kevin in Mepkin Abbey Monastery, SC

Rukmini with Father Kevin in Mepkin Abbey Monastery, SC

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A periodical decree of silence is not a torture, but a blessing.” This summer, I embarked on a quest to understand why “silence is golden” in both eastern and western religious doctrines. Monastic silence is of particular interest to me, since it indicates a lifetime of voluntary commitment to silence and/or “stillness.” In order to explore this topic further, I visited monasteries around the world but selected two monastic communities to study in depth: a Trappist monastery of fourteen Catholic monks in South Carolina, and a Yogoda ashram monastery of Swamis in India. Through an ethnographic characterization of the symbolic role of silence in the spiritual practices of these two groups of monks, I explored how and why silence is used as a vehicle of deeper thought and spiritual experience within their respective communities.

After days of participant observation and interviews*, I understood how meaningful silence is to these monks. Being a medium of thought, exploration and awe, silence is one of the greatest shapers of the monastic experience. Although the techniques of attaining silence differ for occidental Trappist monks and oriental Kriya Yogis, and the understanding of term “silence” differs as well, the ultimate purpose is common: God-contact. Having years of spiritual experience, these monks understand the occasional temptations, spiritual dryness, and distractions which result during silent meditation. Yet, they are adept at maneuvering their minds God-ward despite “inner demons.” They use will-power and persistence to accomplish their highest spiritual aspirations.

I was touched by their eager willingness to verbalize a sacred, inner journey, so honestly with me. One Trappist monk stated, “Monastic silence has not been easy for me. But it’s certainly the most fulfilling, and it allowed my deeper self to come out faster than anything else.”

Rukmini at a Yogoda Ashram Monastery in India (Yogoda Satsanga Society of India)

Rukmini at a Yogoda Ashram Monastery in India (Yogoda Satsanga Society of India)

Each monk I interviewed left me with a different thought to ponder. A Trappist monk, for example, suggested that ideal silence consists of being comfortable with oneself; people often distract themselves with noise so they do not have to face their inner selves. A Kriya Yogi stated that “motion is the death of spirituality.” It is in true stillness that God can be heard and found. Therefore, it is not surprising that the words “silent” and “listen” consist of the same letters!

While silence was not the goal for either community of monks, it was a means to achieve spiritual attainment. The Kriya Yogis understood this silence as mental and physical stillness while the Trappists understood it as a space for contemplative prayer.

These individual monastic narratives have helped me to appreciate silence as something tangible and worth practicing.

*This human participants’ research was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB)

The Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Other Events to Highlight Undergraduate Research

Here in the Office for Undergraduate Research we are busy gearing up for the annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research which will be held on Monday, April 15 as part of National Undergraduate Research Week. If you are planning to present at the Celebration, the deadline to submit your abstract is March 25.

We are fortunate to have additional events taking place on campus in March/April that highlight undergraduate researchers at Carolina. Please join us at the Celebration and also take advantage of these other opportunities to support other students and learn about the wide range of research being conducted by Carolina undergrads:

Undergraduate Research Honors Symposium in Biology with Undergraduate Speakers
Research posters and talks presented by undergraduates. Open to the public.
Date and Time:March 22, 2013, 8:00 AM – 5:15 PM
Poster session in Coker Lobby Noon – 1 PM
Location: Room 215, Coker Hall

Candidates for Biology Honors degree must present and defend their thesis research during the John K. Koeppe Biology Undergraduate Research Symposium. For more information, contact Summer Montgomery [].

PIT Journal conference
Thursday, March 28, 2013
9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
FPG Student Union 3409/3411


Students from several ENGL105 courses will present the results of their research. The keynote address will be given by two Office for Undergraduate Research Ambassadors, Mattis Hennings and Keia Faison. For more information, contact Doreen Thierauf [].








The UNC Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology presents:
The First Annual CEE Student Research Symposium
Saturday, March 23, 2013
9:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
North Carolina Botanical Garden



Lunch and light refreshments provided.  For more information, contact Dennis Tarasi [].









Student Organization for Undergraduate Literature (S.O.U.L) presents:
Friday, April 12, 2013
12:00 – 5:00 p.m.
Donovan Lounge, Greenlaw Hall

Join the Department of English and Comparative Literature and hear from several panels of undergraduate researchers. The event will kick off with a student panel offering “survival tips” for the ENGL and CMPL major. For more information, contact Dr. Hilary Lithgow [].

Asian Studies Senior Honors Colloquium
Thursday, April 18, 2013
6:00 – 9:00 p.m.
New West 219

Our hardest-working soon-to-be graduates will present at our annual Senior Honors Colloquium. These brief but fascinating glimpses into their honors research will be a lot of fun.  Don’t miss it. For more information, contact Dr. Nadia Yaqub [].

Department of Art Undergraduate Honors Symposium
Friday, April 26, 2013
12:30-3:00 p.m.
Location: TBA

The undergraduate honors scholars will be giving presentations of their work from 12:30-3:00. Afterwards there will be a dessert reception celebrating the opening of the Senior Honors Exhibition in the Allcott Gallery of Hanes Art Center. For more information, contact Honors Advisor Tania String at