Abhishiktananda’s Contemplative Vocation and Contemporary India
by Judson B. Trapnell
The College Theology Society, Annual Meeting, World Religions Section
May 31, 2002 in Jamaica, New York
The following paper represents part of a longer, book-length project on Swami Abhishiktananda currently in process and funded by the Infinity Foundation. I have presumed to change the published title of the paper to “Abhishiktananda’s Contemplative Vocation and Contemporary India” – not only for the sake of simplicity but also to broaden the angle of inquiry from the closed question implied by the original title to a more open one about his vocation and influence.
A brief outline: Assuming no familiarity with Abhishiktananda, I will use the first part of the paper to survey his life and to prompt your own reflection upon its relevance (or lack of it) for contemporary India. Next, I will describe my research methodology and some of the results yielded by it. And finally, I will raise some issues concerning Abhishiktananda’s legacy, the contemplative vocation in general, and the Christian study of other religions.
Abhishiktananda was born as Henri Le Saux in 1910 in France. After studies in minor and major seminaries, he entered the Benedictine Abbey of Sainte Anne de Kergonan at age 19, where he would remain a monk until his departure for India nineteen years later. He first felt a call to India around the age of 24, specifically a call to establish a contemplative foundation in the Indian Church or at least to live as a contemplative there. It would be fourteen years before this call would be answered, a period during which he steeped himself in Indian scriptures and began study of Sanskrit, Tamil, and English. Finally in 1948, Le Saux received permission to travel to India, where he joined another French priest, Jules Monchanin, in founding a contemplative community that they envisioned as both fully Indian and fully Christian. This is Saccidananda Ashram or the Hermitage of the Most Holy Trinity at Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu.
Le Saux and Monchanin began the project of Indianizing their contemplative life in earnest. They assumed the lifestyle of the Hindu renunciate or sannyasin, by shedding most European trappings and attempting to live as simply as the nearby villagers, by wearing the saffron-colored kavi, by eating a strictly vegetarian diet, by devoting most of their time to meditation, worship, and study of the scriptures, and even by assuming new names – Le Saux’s being Abhishikteshvarananda or “Bliss of the Anointed One, the Lord,” later shortened to Abhishiktananda – a name by which he would be known for the rest of his life. During his first years in India, Abhishiktananda also learned of the Indian contemplative ideal firsthand by extended visits to Hindu ashrams, especially those of his two foremost teachers, Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Gnanananda, who inspired him to seek the experience behind their nondualist or advaitin philosophy. In his spiritual diary, Abhishiktananda recorded the agonizing interior dialogue sparked by these depth encounters with Hindu spirituality. Here is an example from 1953, written in one of the caves near Ramana Maharshi’s ashram: “From now on I have tasted too much of advaita to be able to recover the ‘Gregorian’ peace of a Christian monk. Long ago I tasted too much of that ‘Gregorian’ peace not to be anguished in the midst of my advaita” (Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary (1948-1973) of Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom H. Le Saux), ed. by Raimon Panikkar, trans. by David Fleming and James Stuart [Delhi: ISPCK, 1998], p. 74). One can hear in this passage the internal conflicts evoked by what both Raimon Panikkar and Michael Amaladoss have called Abhishiktananda’s “double belongingness” (Michael Amaladoss, S.J., “Double Belongingness,” Vidyajyoti [forthcoming]; and Raimon Panikkar, Introduction to Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart, p. xviii).
Although accompanying Abhishiktananda on some of his travels, Monchanin nonetheless was far more cautious in his immersion in Hindu spiritual contexts and in his theological reflections in response to them. This difference between their approaches to the dialogue with Hinduism eventually raised tensions that weakened their attempts to establish the ashram. By the time of Monchanin’s death in 1957, seven years after its founding, the ashram’s future was in doubt and would remain so for at least the next eleven years. When English Benedictine Bede Griffiths (1906-1993) assumed responsibility for Saccidananda Ashram in 1968, Abhishiktananda moved to a hermitage in the north near Uttarkashi along the Ganges, from where he would continue to travel throughout India until the end of his life.
While his commitment to a contemplative vocation did not wane, Abhishiktananda was in increasing demand as a partner in dialogue, a retreat leader, and a spokesperson for liturgical reform in the Indian Church. In the decade before Vatican II and Nostra Aetate he organized and participated in a number of groups, primarily with other Christians, that explored the potential dialogue with Hindu spiritualities, bringing him into contact with younger theologians whose lives and thought he would influence – some of whom were interviewed for this paper. In 1969, he played an influential role in the Catholic Church’s All-India Seminar in Bangalore, contributing a book-length memorandum on how the Indian Church should be renewed through contact with Hindu sources, through liturgical reform (inculturation), and through contemplation. Among the many Hindus with whom he interacted, most notable were Swami Chidananda of Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, and Hindu nationalist, Sita Ram Goel.
Chronological study of Abhishiktananda’s writings suggests that he underwent a spiritual and theological transformation during his twenty-five years in India: He arrived a Benedictine, scrupulous in his observance and intent on Christianizing India. Through his early powerful meditative experiences in the caves of Arunachala and at Gnanananda’s feet, he probed the mystical depths of both Hinduism and Christianity. By the mid-1960s he had articulated a theological synthesis based in these experiences in his Sagesse hindoue mystique chretienne, a text profoundly open to Hindu sources yet framed by an inclusivist or “fulfillment” theology of religions. However, most interpreters, drawing from his letters and spiritual diary, discern an additional transformation sparked by his deepening meditation on the Upanishads and by his heart attack in July 1973. As a result of this spiritual awakening, the agonizing tensions of earlier years seem to have finally relaxed, and he lived at peace with his “double belongingness” and with a non-comparative approach to the religions. He died at Indore in December 1973 of heart failure.
Method: Questions of Context, Vocation, Legacy, and Relevance
How one now takes the further step of evaluating Abhishiktananda’s life in the light of contemporary India will obviously depend upon one’s point of view. My method was simple but did evoke a range of responses: I sent the following three questions to eighteen Christians and two Hindus in South Asia, Europe, and North America who were familiar with Abhishiktananda through meeting him and/or through reading:
- How would you describe the present religious situation in India and Christianity’s role (actual and potential) in addressing that situation?
- How would you now portray Swami Abhishiktananda’s vocation and legacy, almost 30 years after his death?
- In what ways are his vocation and legacy relevant and not relevant to a) India’s current religious climate, and b) contemporary Christian understanding of other religions in South Asia and elsewhere?
What did the respondents say?
Responses to the Questions
You would not be surprised by the answers to the first question, regarding the current religious climate in India. My correspondence took place during months marked by events in Ayodhya (the ongoing legal and popular attempts to gain control of Rama’s supposed birthsite) and in Gujarat (where Hindu extremists set fire to a train of Muslims). The mostly Christian respondents presented an India that is beset by the politicization of religion, especially since the current ruling party, the BJP, with its ties to the Hindu right, came to power. Conflicts between conservative Hindus and the religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, seem to have escalated, heightening mutual suspicions and communalist rhetoric. One respondent described the situation as “complex, divisive and challenging,” another as “very explosive” (Sr. Vandana Mataji, letter to the author, April 21, 2002; Br. John Martin Sahajananda, email correspondence to the author, March 26, 2002). Several suggested a mediatory role for Christians in the especially heated tensions between Muslims and Hindus.
Vocation and Legacy
In reponse to the second question on the nature of Abhishiktananda’s vocation and legacy, the correspondents suggest several contributions. Klaus Klostermaier, who came to know Abhishiktananda in India during the 1960s and who participated in some of the early dialogue sessions noted above, describes Abhishiktananda’s vocation and legacy as “timeless”:
A represented a “spiritual elitism” (in my eyes a good thing) which will always be the concern of only a few. On the other side – this very “spiritual elitism” will be a very important element in a Hindu-Christian dialogue today. Among the charges of Hindus
against Christianity are its worldliness, its superficial religiosity and its “Western-ness.” A’s endeavours would go a long way to prove that Christianity is spiritual, deep and universal (also “Eastern”).
Succinctly summarizing a first element of Abhishiktananda’s legacy, Klostermaier concludes, “What I find important in his attempts is precisely his trans-sectarian and trans-cultural understanding of spirituality” (email correspondence to the author, March 13, 2002). Brother John Martin Sahajananda, the Indian Catholic who now leads the ashram founded by Monchanin and Le Saux, portrays Abhishiktananda’s legacy in this way:
In Abhishiktananda Christianity grew from being a dualistic religion into a religion of Non-duality, Advaita. In that sense the vocation of Swamiji is a call for every Christian in the future. He is very far, maybe 100 years ahead….Swami Abhishiktananda can be a good model for the Christians in India that they should not think of converting Hindus but learning from the Hindu experience of God and enriching the message of Christ and his experience (email correspondence to the author, March 26, 2002).
Here, then, are two further and related contributions: Abhishiktananda experienced a nondual relation between the self and God via Hinduism that is latent yet at the heart of Christianity, and he thereby embodied a style of encounter with another religion that offers a different model of missions, one that seeks to learn from and with non-Christians, rather than convert them.
Those close to Abhishiktananda acknowledge that neither his gift nor his legacy was primarily theological. Murray Rogers, an Anglican priest who founded the ecumenical Jyotiniketan Ashram in Uttar Pradesh in 1954, one frequently visited by Abhishiktananda, describes the nature of the latter’s writings in this way:
More than once he used to say that all his writing was autobiographical, not intellectual thought or theology but personal experience. It is not therefore any new theology for which he will be remembered but the lived experience of a new life, a new way of being human, a new way of relationships between cultures, religions and peoples (letter to the author, April 12, 2002).
Although Abhishiktananda may not have himself produced a definitive theology emerging from interreligious experience, he has clearly influenced some who have, though these remain a tiny minority of Christians. George Gispert-Sauch, SJ, of Vidyajyoti, a Jesuit theological college in Delhi where Abhishiktananda’s archives are preserved, comments:
[T]here is a small significant group that finds in him a very important source of theological insight and encouragement to “cross frontiers” to Hindu forms of spirituality…. Whether it will extend beyond this small circle remains to be seen (email correspondence to the author, March 21, 2002).
If one may say, then, that Abhishiktananda’s legacy includes a contribution to theology, it is primarily through his experiential witness to a depth beyond theological formulations rather than a particular formulation – a witness that others have drawn upon in their own theologies.
Several correspondents observed that Abhishiktananda’s life and work are primarily valued within the Christian ashram movement. Sr. Vandana, formerly Sr. Gool Mary Dhalla, an Indian convert and Sister of the Sacred Heart who has been a leader in the Christian ashram movement since the 1960s, characterizes Abhishiktananda’s specific legacy to this movement and the Indian church in general as follows:
Abhishiktanandaji challenged the Christian church of his day to be more contemplative…. Already a very few chosen souls among our Christian priests and nuns, and even lay-people, have taken up this very challenging vocation – inspired by the life and teachings of this great sage. His legacy is also beginning to be seen in the slowly but gradually emerging development of Christian Ashrams (letter to the author, April 21, 2002).
Sri Mariananda, Secretary of Ashram Aikya, an association of such communities in India, writes:
Swami Abhishiktananda paved the way for us Indian Christian ashramites and eventually to all other Christians to learn the richness contained in the Indian Scriptures. …[W]e used to hate the non-christian people and their scriptures. Now that…situation is being changed, although our Hindu friends take it as another guise played by Christians for conversion of people into Christianity (letter to the author, April 12, 2002).
We may note that such ashrams, inspired by the traditional Hindu model and Abhishiktananda’s appropriation of it, value the contemplative vocation in a way that has been challenged by the more activist model suggested by Gandhi and by liberation trends in Catholic theology.
How would Hindus who knew Abhishiktananda assess his legacy and vocation? This is a significant question, given the inter-, and not simply intra-religious nature of his life’s work. Unfortunately, there is little data from which to draw conclusions. Two contrasting examples: Sita Ram Goel, author of numerous books critical of communism and Christianity, after meeting Abhishiktananda in 1959 was impressed enough with his apparent openness to Hinduism to remain his friend and eventually become the Treasurer of the Abhishiktananda Society in Delhi. In 1988, however, he would write the following deeply disillusioned assessment of Abhishiktananda’s lifelong attempt to understand Hinduism:
His obstinate obsession with Jesus and the Church prevented him from breaking the barrier…. He remained chained to the Church to the end of his days. He never learnt the elementary truth that Advaita must remain a mere word for those who refuse to rise above their mental fixations (Sita Ram Goel, Catholic Ashrams: Sannyasins or Swindlers?, 2nd ed. [New Delhi: Voice of India, 1994], p. 64).
Goel remained convinced that Abhishiktananda was involved in a deceptive missionary strategy to convert Hindus by appearing to embrace Indian ideals such as sannyasa.
It is an important lesson to see how radically different Abhishiktananda appears within a different framework of meaning. Nevertheless, one must not conclude that most Hindus looked upon his vocation and legacy with such suspicious eyes. Swami Chidananda of Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh developed a close relationship of mutual respect with Abhishiktananda, culminating in 1973 when they collaborated on and celebrated a “double monastic initiation” of a Christian disciple into sannyasa. Chidananda paid Abhishiktananda perhaps the greatest compliment by having the latter’s essay on “Sannyasa” published serially in seven issues of Sivananda Ashram’s The Divine Life, beginning in September 1973 – an essay that became required reading for all novices in that Ashram (George Gispert-Sauch, S.J., “The Spirituality of Swami Abhishiktananda,” in Swami Abhishiktananda: The Man and His Teachings, ed. by Vandana [Delhi: ISPCK, 1986], p. 78-79).
Relevance for the Contemporary Indian Context
To summarize: According to the voices heard so far, Abhishiktananda pursued a contemplative calling that led him to experience the depths of both Christianity and Hinduism in a way that sheds light upon the nonsectarian nature of spirituality, the dialogical thrust of missions, the provisional character of theology, the unique witness of the ashram movement, and even perhaps upon the nature of Hindu sannyasa. But let us press the skeptical question, at least from a Christian standpoint. What possible relevance could this mid-20th century, Western, primarily contemplative monk have for early 21st century India and the “explosive” religious climate described briefly above?
The respondents to my three questions clearly wrestled with this problem. Theologian Gavin D’Costa of the University of Bristol, answered the third question in this way:
Swami A is potentially irrelevant in India’s troubled climate today. He developed and practiced a type of ‘spirituality’ which was quite asocial, though not necessarily so, and which fails to address many of India’s contemporary problems.
When asked to clarify what he meant by “potentially irrelevant,” D’Costa detailed the social and political issues that currently preoccupy the Roman Catholic Church in India and concluded that
A’s project seems to bypass all this, and offer answers or resolutions that fail to operate/relate to this social context…. In other words, Indian liberation theologians might well see him as part of an idealised, internalising, ahistorical liberation praxis.
For D’Costa, Abhishiktananda might also be seen as “potentially irrelevant” because he fails to articulate the vital connection between contemplation and social action as effectively as other modern representatives of the same vocation have, such as Thomas Merton (email correspondence to the author, March 12, 2002).
When one turns, in fact, to the writings of Indian liberation theologians, such as the essays collected by Felix Wilfred in Leave the Temple: Indian Paths to Human Liberation (1992), one finds no mention of Abhishiktananda and only very little discussion of the contemplative path or the interreligious immersion he exemplified (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992). One contributor to that volume, Michael Amaladoss, SJ, current director of Aikiya Alayam, a center for interreligious dialogue in Madras, is starkly realistic regarding the irrelevance of Abhishiktananda’s life experiment for the current religious climate in India:
Most people, even among Christians, would be interested in inter-religious peace, not necessarily in inter-religious dialogue. Dialogue remains the interest of a very few. The kind of inter-religious encounter that Abhishiktananda had interests very, very few, if any one at all, at the moment. Most people tend to be bhaktas, not advaitins. Very few talk about or read Abhishiktananda in India.
Nevertheless, Amaladoss concludes that
Abhishiktananda’s experience seems crucial to the contemporary Christian understanding of other religions in India and elsewhere. It shows that there can be an authentic experience of God that is simply different from and irreconcilable with the
Christian one. One can no longer pretend that Christianity fulfills Hinduism or other religions (email correspondence to the author, March 13, 2002).
Similarly, Sri Lankan liberation theologian Aloysius Pieris, SJ, praises Abhishiktananda’s ability to move beyond a mere assimilation of a non-Christian worldview to a full participation in it:
He and the memory he has left behind remains to this day the sole explanation of what he did for the sake of a church which has refused for centuries to be baptized in the Jordan of Asia’s spirituality. Thus he still lingers in our memory as a “type” of a church that is yet to be conceived in the womb of Asia…. But those who find him irrelevant today from the point of view of the crying needs of the Indian masses, could still learn from him the art of plunging into the social reality of the poor with the same faith and hope which made him plunge into the abyss of non-self, and which silenced him to an eloquent life of witness (email correspondence to the author, April 24 and May 6, 2002).
As a means for grounding reflections upon the relevance of Abhishiktananda in some tangible evidence, Klaus Klostermaier recommended a survey of seminaries to determine to what degree Abhishiktananda remains an influence upon Indian Christianity. Here are a couple of responses. Antony Kalliath, CMI, who is Dean of Faculty at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram in Bangalore and who has written a book-length study of Abhishiktananda, documents that while there are no specific courses on this Christian sannyasin there, he is discussed in courses on the theology of religions, the theology of missions, and Indian Christian spirituality. In contrast, George Gispert-Sauch of Vidyajyoti in Delhi, writes: “Few students here feel attracted to the kind of contemplative life lived by Swamiji. Some because they react to him as representing the dialogue with the ‘Brahminic’ and not the popular and Dalit Hinduism, and this is enough to condemn him!” (email correspondence to the author, March 21, 2002).
Clearly, more data from seminaries is needed before drawing conclusions. However, both of these correspondents believe that Abhishiktananda remains an important influence for Indian Christianity. Kalliath, for example, writes:
In this turbulent and fluid situation the paradigm of Abhishiktananda’s witness acquires greater importance and relevance. Today people are more interested in meditation which cuts across all religious presuppositions and boundaries. A spirituality without any religious, cultural and political baggage is getting more currency and relevance in the present cultural and political context (email correspondence to the author, April 9, 2002).
Note that while some commentators may judge Abhishiktananda’s spirituality as irrelevant to the present needs of India because it presumes to transcend social and political concerns, others may find it for the same reason especially relevant for a politically charged environment.
Here we face the more general question that underlies any assessment of Abhishiktananda in the context of contemporary India: Does the contemplative vocation bear a social value, especially for a country experiencing religious tensions? Only an outline of his own answer can be sketched here: First, Abhishiktananda affirmed the complementarity of vocations: “Besides those who silently point to [God’s] transcendence, others are needed to affirm his immanence and to apply their whole energy to working out the divine plan for the development of the universe….” Second, however, he asserted that all are called to contemplation, including those engaged in active ministries, in order that all become “entirely available to the Spirit” and so free of egoism in their intentions (Abhishiktananda, Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience, rev. ed. [Delhi: ISPCK, 1984], p. 151). Finally, and perhaps most controversially, he upheld the legitimacy and value of an acosmic or asocial vocation for some, both as a witness to the Church’s call to be everpresent to God and as a “counterbalance” to “western activism” that is particularly important for modern India (Abhishiktananda, The Eyes of Light, ed. by Joseph Lemarie and Andre Gozier [Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1983], pp. 137-38).
In conclusion, the question of relevance that we have directed toward Abhishiktananda and toward the contemplative vocation in general can be reframed in relation to us here: Does Abhishiktananda bear a special relevance to those of us who are Christian but who have dedicated our professional energies (and for some of us our personal attention as well) to the study of non-Christian religions? Raimon Panikkar, himself an exemplar of belonging to more than one tradition and a close friend of Abhishiktananda’s, speaks to this question:
To live at the meeting point of several traditions is the destiny of a large portion of the human race. For very many people it is hardly possible any longer to feel at home in a single culture…. This [is] where Abhishiktananda’s experience seems to me to be of great importance. I do not say that he offers us a model to be copied uncritically, but I think he symbolizes a life lived in depth in the midst of a world that has fallen apart (Introduction to Ascent to the Depth of the Heart, pp. xvi-xvii).
Jacques Dupuis, who met and corresponded with Abhishiktananda in the final years of his life, may speak to us as well:
[Abhishiktananda’s greatness] consists in having lived within himself the symbiosis of two traditions, the Hindu and the Christian, in so real a way that both became part of himself, without ever being able to reject or disown either. His stubborn fidelity to his two faiths – or better, as he wrote one day, to the “two forms of a single ‘faith'” – make of him a prophetic figure in a time when the “marriage of East and West”… – in full respect of their differences and without lurking ambiguity – is felt as an urgent need. His experience opens an important avenue toward a Christian theology of religious traditions that would be based on an existential encounter with these traditions in interreligious dialogue (Jacques Dupuis, Jesus Christ at the Encounter of World Religions, tr. by Robert R. Barr [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991], p. 90).