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Gandhi, Abhishiktananda

Gandhi, Abhishiktananda, and the Challenge of Reperceiving the Religious ‘Other’
by Judson B. Trapnell

The preceding two articles in this series for the website of the Infinity Foundation have focused upon the conditions and the obstacles for clearly perceiving a religion different from our own.   In the first essay, we explored the nature of perception, necessarily shaped by the perceiver’s point of view.   Our experience of and reflection upon another religion are thus subject to the assumptions, beliefs, and commitments we bring to that encounter.   In the second essay, we examined both the experience and the various theoretical understandings of misperception or error.   It was argued that one of the most effective ways of moving beyond such distorted or partial knowledge of another religion or its members is to remain open to new experience that will either confirm or disconfirm our current point of view – a methodology that thus links interreligious dialogue and science, as will be discussed below.

We have also explored the significant resistance that almost any human being, even the most open-minded, will encounter toward changes in viewpoint when responding to the unfamiliar and unexpected.   The tendency to fit fresh experiences of the religious ‘other’ into our existing set of assumptions, beliefs, and commitments without re-visioning that framework itself is very strong, leading some to despair of the possibility of reperception.   To illustrate this resistance to thoroughgoing changes in viewpoint, even in response to new experiences of the religious ‘other’, we again examined the writings of Henri Le Saux or Abhishiktananda (1910-73), a French Roman Catholic monk, priest, and author.   We discussed the intensification of his ambiguity toward Hinduism that resulted from his experiment in immersion, in “passing over” to the Vedantic point of view via retreats on Ramana Maharshi’s sacred mountain and with Sri Gnanananda, as well as his relationships with other exponents of nonduality or advaita.   Briefly we then noted that the theological program through which he attempted to make sense of these experiences set Hinduism in a subordinate relation to Christianity – a “theology of fulfillment” that was simultaneously emerging as the official position of the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1960s.   Recall, however, that for Abhishiktananda the Christianity that fulfills Hindu aspirations is one that has been transformed by its present and future encounters with India and other non-Christian cultures.

That Abhishiktananda, as well as his Hindu critics, might later evaluate his presentation of Vedanta as a misperception is supported by the fact that he eventually questioned the theological legitimacy of what many agree is his most important work, Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience.   As we shall propose in this article, his reconsideration of earlier writings and his rejection of the “theology of fulfillment” signal a reperception of Hinduism, one necessarily more detached from the assumptions, beliefs, and commitments that defined his point of view as a Roman Catholic priest and monk.

To introduce the challenges faced in any reperception of the religious ‘other’ we will begin this essay with an account of Gandhi’s lifelong interactions with Christians and his maturing reflections upon them.   In addition, as in the previous articles we shall briefly explore some of the Western and Indian philosophical theories that offer explanation for the possibility of reperception.   We will conclude by suggesting that Gandhi, the philosophers, and Abhishiktananda affirm the possibility of a shift in viewpoint upon another religion and its members, and that they illustrate a method for such a shift based upon interreligious friendships and mystical praxis.

Gandhi and Christianity

Gandhi’s encounters with Christianity throughout his life have been well documented by himself (e.g., his autobiography) and by others (e.g., Robert Ellsberg, ed., Gandhi on Christianity [Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis, 1991]).   In describing his youth, Gandhi notes that he was raised to tolerate all faiths, with the personal exception of Christianity, in part because he detested missionaries’ and recent converts’ disrespect for Hinduism.   Later, while in England to study law and in South Africa to practice it, Gandhi tested these preconceptions through his own experiment in immersion.   He began by reading most of the Old Testament and all of the New; the latter “went straight to my heart,” reminding him of the Bhagavad Gita (quoted in Ellsberg, p. 5).   He engaged in prolonged discussions and correspondence with Christians, participated in their prayer meetings and for a time regularly attended church services, read suggested books of Christian theology, and attended a convention of Protestants, many of whom were praying for his conversion.   To an even greater degree than Abhishiktananda’s, Gandhi’s experiment was grounded in the practice of friendship with religious ‘others’.   These interpersonal contacts enabled him to balance criticism of Christian doctrine and missions with respect for Jesus’ teachings and for how some Christians lived them.   (On the effects of relationships in an interreligious context, see James L. Fredericks, “Interreligious Friendship:  A New Theological Virtue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35/2 [Spring 1998]:  pp. 159-174.)

Less well known is Gandhi’s devotion to namajapa, a classic Hindu practice that involves continuous repetition of the divine name.   Taught this practice early in his life by a nurse as a remedy for fear, Gandhi eventually claimed the use of Ramanama was his “surest aid” and “the best of all remedies adopted for the practice of truth and non-violence.”   Not exclusive in his zeal for this practice, he acknowledged that Christians and Muslims might find a similar power and solace in repeating the name of Jesus or names of Allah respectively.   During the difficult years of struggling for independence in India he would claim that Rama’s name was in his heart “all the twenty-four hours.”   That this practice was more than mindless repetition was powerfully demonstrated in his gesture of forgiveness toward his assassin and his sighing of Rama’s name as he died (M. K. Gandhi, The Essence of Hinduism, ed. by V. B. Kher [Ahmedabad:  Navajivan Publishing House, 1987], pp. 196-212).   To a lesser degree than Abhishiktananda’s experiment in “passing over” to another viewpoint, Gandhi’s was nonetheless grounded in spiritual, if not mystical, praxis.   It was in part by opening to God through what he affirmed was a divine name “convertible” with those from other religions (“one of the many names of God”) that he could with integrity affirm the ultimate unity of religions, including Christianity (ibid., pp. 203, 212).

A third method for opening oneself to a possible shift in point of view toward the religious ‘other’ that Gandhi exemplified should be noted.   His practice of nonviolent resistance or satyagraha (lit. “truth-force”) both in S. Africa and India, he often said, was based upon a love for the opponent.   In this way he, too, sought the conversion of the religious ‘other’, but not a conversion of religion, rather a turning of the heart toward that same love through one’s own suffering.   In describing the detachment from love of self required for such love of the other, Gandhi states that “a glimpse of the Atma [true Self] that transcends the body” is essential, a teaching he received from the Bhagavad Gita.   In this way one struggles for what one believes is right yet simultaneously surrenders attachment to any particular results; these are left in the hands of God (M. K. Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers [New York:  UNESCO, 1958], pp. 77-84).

Here is the other necessary pole of any experiment in opening to the viewpoint of the religious ‘other’:  Not only must one attempt to understand it from the inside, one must also be willing to criticize and even stand up against the other’s viewpoint when what Gandhi assumed are universalizable standards of justice and truth are violated.   One can understand this balance as the openness requisite for true immersion in tension with conviction about certain principles that transcend the diversity of religions.   Gandhi thus exemplifies how the relativization of one’s viewpoint that may occur as a result of interreligious dialogue does not need to result in relativism; the relativity of points of view may be grounded in the experience of and faith in a common absolute.   (See also Ellsberg, p. 62.)

It was on the basis of these three methods – immersion in the viewpoint of the religious ‘other’ via study and friendships, spiritual praxis, and striving for social justice – that Gandhi was able to make highly synthetic statements like the following:

After long study and experience, I have come to the conclusion that (1) all religions are true; (2) all religions have some error in them; (3) all religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism, inasmuch as all human beings should be as dear to me as one’s own close relatives.   My own veneration for other faiths is the same as that for my own faith (quoted in Ellsberg, p. 69).

Gandhi thereby claims that broadening his experience of the religious ‘other’ through “long study and experience” (both interpersonal and intrapersonal) has indeed resulted in a shift in viewpoint upon Christianity from youthful intolerance to informed respect, even veneration.

Gandhi’s reperception of Christianity affirms that such a change in point of view is possible and illustrates further how one might foster such a change in a balanced fashion, that is, without rejecting one’s starting point.   One might argue that his upbringing as a member of a religiously tolerant family and as a Hindu predisposed him to such flexibility, certainly more than Abhishiktananda’s Roman Catholic family and his conditioning as a Christian with its exclusive view of other religions would have.   Gandhi writes, “Nobody taught me in my childhood to differentiate.   I can pay equal homage to Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, and others that may be named” (quoted in Ellsberg, p. 61).   Abhishiktananda presumably was taught to differentiate, as his struggle to define his role in India with respect to the conversion of Hindus suggests.   Yet the French priest was somehow predisposed to seek and to value the spiritual riches of India and perhaps to hear Gandhi’s invitation:  “I have no desire to dislodge you from the exclusive homage you pay to Jesus.   But I would like you to understand and appreciate the other inclusive position” (ibid.).

To inform further how Abhishiktananda responded to this invitation to greater inclusiveness, we will turn next to philosophical accounts of reperception.

Reperceiving the Religious ‘Other’

Within our use of the term “point of view” lie a few assumptions that should be explicated.   First, it is assumed that every person consciously or unconsciously perceives the world of ‘others’ from a particular standpoint in time and space, further located by age, gender, education, culture, and religion.   Second, we have explored how abiding these factors are and thus how resistant to change each person’s viewpoint is, even in the face of experience that challenges the assumptions, beliefs, and commitments that constitute that viewpoint.   Third, one may link this notion of viewpoint to the inevitable limitations of any human being, to a human condition that is shared with all ‘others’, thus making interpersonal, intercultural, and interreligious conflict almost inevitable.   Finally, this concept of viewpoint, if taken seriously, relativizes the certainty of our knowledge of any person or group.   If there is an absolute, i.e., an unchanging reality that transcends the finite and conditioned nature of human perception, it can only be viewed in limited fashion and described in limited expressions by any human.   These assumptions about human perception thus serve as explanations for error and prompt the following questions regarding the possibility of reperception or seeing the ‘other’ (more) clearly:

Is it possible to shift one’s viewpoint?   Employing the physical analogy of an orientation in time and space, can one actually move to a different standpoint, if only temporarily, in order to see the ‘other’ differently?   Can an experiment in immersion within a different cultural or religious context, or even a personal, local, national, or international crisis such as we have experienced in recent months, catalyze such a change?   Thus, is it possible for a person to detach from their own point of view and engage in dialogue with religious ‘others’ in order to see those ‘others’ as they see themselves?   In assessing the possibility of such shifts in viewpoint and thus of reperception, how do Western and Indian philosophical accounts compare?

The turn in Western philosophy to consider the role of the subject in all perception and knowledge provides grounds for both optimism and skepticism about such changes in viewpoint.   Except for adherents of a deterministic philosophy or a behaviorist psychology, most thinkers assume the possibility of shifts in one’s understanding of the world of ‘others’.   The projects of philosophy, psychology, and other educational disciplines are built upon this optimism.   Nevertheless, even the primary methodology of many such disciplines, the scientific method, reinforces a skeptical attitude toward the subject.   Rarely is any other standard for correct perception or adequate knowledge accepted than intersubjective verifiablity–a principle by which specific individual subjective factors are eliminated as much as possible lest they distort.   Education in the West thus puts greater emphasis upon training the student in such a methodology than upon attempting to cultivate the student’s subjectivity as perceiver or knower.

Relevant for understanding Western perspectives on reperception is 20th c. American philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s influential analysis of how paradigms as theoretical frameworks for scientific research change over time.   Once astronomers came to accept the heliocentric theory for the structure of our immediate universe, for example, the questions they asked and even their way of seeing that universe were irrevocably altered.   Kuhn suggests that this acceptance of the Copernican model illustrates the more general case of “scientific revolutions.”   As scientists struggle to adapt existing theories to an ever-expanding range of data, the increasing burden of contradictions eventually forces some to overcome natural resistance to change and pushes them to reconsider the theories themselves and the worldview that they uphold.   In response to this crisis, a new paradigm or framework of meaning is born, one that more accurately accounts for the range of data and suggests intriguing future lines of research.

Kuhn’s analysis of how scientific paradigms change may be productively applied to how religious worldviews are transformed as well.   Transpose the following statements regarding scientific revolutions to the parallel context of how our society’s perception of religions based upon the “research” of daily interreligious experience and of the academic discipline of religious studies is changing:

[P]aradigm changes do cause scientists to see the world of their research-engagement differently.   In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. [Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1970], p. 111).

As a result of altering the theories through which we interpret the world of facts, our very perception of that world changes as well.   Thus from this Western perspective, reperception, both individual and collective, is certainly possible as a solution to the problem of integrating conflicting data–a problem rendered even more acute by our natural resistance to such changes in point of view.

Compare and contrast this Western perspective with the Indian understanding of darsana (lit. “seeing”).   The term is often used to designate a particular way of seeing and thus is employed to categorize the various systems of Indian philosophy.   Called darsana-s, these philosophies are presented by some not as competing but as complementary viewpoints (though competition among them has indeed been frequent).   While not totally absent from Western thought, the plurality of valid points of view allowed by the traditional Indian framework would make most of those educated in Western countries quite uncomfortable.   (The Jaina philosophical principle of anekantavada [the doctrine that no one viewpoint is to be taken as final] presents an even more challenging model.)   Harvard Indologist Diana Eck characterizes the Indian framework for differing points of view as follows:

Although each [philosophical system] has its own starting point, its own theory of causation, its own accepted enumeration of the means by which one can arrive at valid knowledge, these “ways of seeing” share a common goal – liberation – and they share the understanding that all their rivals are also “orthodox.”   Philosophical discourse, therefore, takes the form of an ongoing dialogue, in which the views of others are explained so that one can counter them with one’s own view.   Any “point of view” implicitly assumes that another point of view is possible (Diana L. Eck, Darsan:  Seeing the Divine Image in India, 2nd rev. edition [Chambersburg, PA:  Anima Books, 1985], p. 25.)

Analogous to the multiple points of view possible upon philosophical truth is Hinduism’s affirmation of multiple perspectives upon the divine–the many gods with whom members of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, including the students described in the preceding essay, have such difficulty.

Intriguingly, there is another important meaning of the same term.   Darsana also refers to seeing and being seen by the divine, through the richly developed imagery of the gods found in the temple or home, or through a living exponent of the divine.   Many, for example, sought Gandhi’s darsana, even if only to see the train on which he travelled.   The assumption is that these experiences of seeing and being seen bless and change the person, with the further conviction that these perceptual acts will, in fact, render one’s own perception more like that of the divine.   Darsana is, then, an exercise in changing point of view, one imbued with significant optimism in the face of the inevitable plurality and limitations of human perspectives.   On the other hand, one might note that Indian philosophy and spirituality assume that this comprehensive transformation of one’s viewpoint will likely take numerous lifetimes–an assumption that many Westerners cannot embrace in order to diminish skepticism about such changes, except in the collective sense of paradigm shifts which often extend over the limits of any one lifetime.

Such a belief in the potential transformation of one’s point of view is grounded in an additional principle found in some Indian systems and paths, most especially Advaita Vedanta.   The divine is believed and experienced to be immanent in the world and especially in the human person to a degree rarely found in Western philosophies and theologies.   Thus the world is maya in both of the senses developed in the preceding article, divine manifestation and veil or illusion.   Each person is not simply created in the image of God in an extrinsic sense, rather the person in her/his most abiding identity is That; Atman is Brahman.   Even in the devotional schools, where distinction between God and the individual spirit is necessarily upheld, the inner presence of the divine is assumed to a degree rarely expressed by Jewish, Christian, or Muslim theologians for each of whom overidentification of the divine with the human is anathema – a point reinforced in history by the blood of many “heretics.”

In the Indian understanding of divine immanence is a further ground for the possibility of human transformation.   Contrast the tendency in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to emphasize God’s transcendence and consequently the radical distinction between the divine and the human, underscored by their common teaching on sin.   At least in theory, Indian philosophy provides greater scope for transforming the subject as perceiver and knower, rather than simply accepting or taking into methodological consideration the limits of the human condition.   Admittedly, there is occasion for either resignation or optimism about transformation in point of view in both the Western and Indian worldviews.   As India becomes increasingly influenced by Western culture in general, and as Indian spirituality continues to seep into the Western mindset, the distinction is becoming more blurred.   Nevertheless, such differences emerge in dialogue with those of religions other than our own and present significant obstacles to interreligious understanding.

What are the implications of the above philosophical analyses for reperception?   If to reperceive is to see the ‘other’ not merely from a different point of view but also thereby to see him or her more comprehensively (because from multiple standpoints), then the ability to detach from one’s own perceptual framework is essential.   Philosophy, whether Western or Indian, may be understood as committed to fostering just such detachment, and so may the spiritualities of their respective religions, ranging from the Christian ideal of the cross to the Indian ideal of sannyasa.   Here is another way of interpreting Gandhi’s methods discussed above.   Interreligious friendships, namajapa,and social action each cultivated a kind of freedom from, though not a complete rejection of, one’s own point of view, through engaging in dialogue with human or divine ‘others’.   The result of this detachment from self through engagement with the ‘other’ was, for Gandhi, a “tolerance” that allowed both the integrity of specific religions and the more comprehensive idea of “Religion” to come into view:

Even as a tree has a single trunk, but many branches and leaves, so is there one true and perfect Religion, but it becomes many, as it passes through the human medium.   The one Religion is beyond all speech.   Imperfect men put it into such languages as they can command, and their words are interpreted by other men equally imperfect.   Whose interpretation is to be held the right one?   Everybody is right from his own standpoint, but it is not impossible that everybody is wrong.   Hence the necessity for tolerance, which does not mean indifference towards one’s own faith, but a more intelligent and purer love for it (quoted in Ellsberg, p. 62).

In Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions a similar “tolerance” of worldviews other than the one that dominates individual or collective consciousness is essential for the reperception required for theoretical development to occur.   The scientist, too, must be both detached from her/his current point of view and engaged in dialogue with other frameworks of meaning, while remaining in touch with the “tradition” of the older paradigm.

For Abhishiktananda, whose viewpoint had been shaped by Western epistemological assumptions and by Christian exclusivism, such a reperception of the religious ‘other’ through detachment and engagement was perhaps more difficult than it was for Gandhi to experience and express.

Abhishiktananda’s Reperception of Hinduism

In the previous two articles we have followed the French priest’s views upon India and Hinduism as they developed in response to new experiences.   His initial ambiguity was heightened through an experiment in immersion or “passing over,” prompting his conviction to remain in the Roman Catholic Church while maintaining an openness to the spiritual wisdom of his adopted country.   In his systematic reflection upon the experience of “coming back” to Christianity with fresh insight, shared in books like Sagesse Hindoue Mystique Chretienne, Abhishiktananda worked with a model for understanding the religious ‘other’ that was simultaneously developing in his church and that, most would agree, remains the dominant model to the present:  the theology of fulfillment.   This model fostered the perception of Hinduism as in need of being crowned and completed by Christianity, though a Christianity not as found in modern churches but as transformed through its encounter with non-Western cultures such as India.   That this model would be rejected as inadequate and this perception of Hinduism as erroneous is supported by Abhishiktananda’s increasingly skeptical assessment of his earlier writings, beginning only five years after the publication of Sagesse.

The possibility of publishing an English edition of his most sustained theological work offered the opportunity to revise the text, a task that he initially took on with some enthusiasm in 1971 and that would occupy him periodically until his death in 1973.   However, the painstaking labor of changing not only the language of the original but its dominant thesis provoked both fatigue and frustration.   He eventually settled for “the patching up of an old wall,” softening the fulfillment framework to some degree; more thoroughgoing revision seemed impossible, given his physical limitations.   Clearly then the English edition, eventually published in 1974, did not represent his final perception of Hinduism in relation to Christianity, a point supported by his repeated criticism of the fulfillment model and of his text’s thesis as “dated,” “outmoded,” and no longer acceptable to him (quoted in James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda:  His Life Told through His Letters [Delhi:  ISPCK, 1989], pp. 312, 318, 321).

This change in his assessment of Sagesse and the implied reperception of Hinduism seem once again to have been prompted by fresh advait-ic experience, especially in his meditation upon the Upanishads, and later in the aftermath of a heart attack.   While in the midst of his first revisions of what would become Saccidananda:  A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience, he wrote:

Sagesse is an attempt, “begging for help”, “agonized”, to recover one’s footing when the waves – the ground-swell of advaita that seizes and bears all away – are carrying one off to the open sea. Why then desire at all costs to recover one’s footing?   The waves – just like the air – surely provide as safe a support as the sand of the shallows! (quoted in R. Panikkar, ed., Ascent to the Depth of the Heart:  The Spiritual Diary [1948-1973] of Swami Abhishik-tananda [Dom H. Le Saux] [Delhi:  ISPCK, 1998], p. 317).

Here is an apparent retrieval and advance of the disequilibrium created by his in-depth encounters with advaita in the 1950s.   He would identify the “footing” he now wants to forsake as not only a particular theological model and perception of Hinduism but also as an attachment to religious forms (namarupa, lit. name and form) and the mental habit of comparison.

True to the dynamics of Christian spirituality as well as Indian, Abhishiktananda interpreted this purging of attachment and misperception as an opportunity to “awaken” and encounter God as well as the religious ‘other’ no longer through the filter of concepts but as they truly are.   The following excerpts from a 1973 diary entry convey his interpretation of how experience of a nondual reality beyond names and forms prevented him from resting in the theological investigations of Sagesse:

My whole thesis in Sagesse has collapsed, and in this total collapse is the awakening.  An awakening that is simply awakening and cannot be defined.   For in the attempt at definition it loses all its essential luminosity.

The radical skepticism here about defining such an experience in words reflects his more general concern about the inadequacy of names and forms to capture the truth.   Even Christian symbols and doctrines limit the scope of what God is doing in Christ throughout the world:

If we want Christ’s saving work to be universal, this saving work cannot be sought in any namarupa:  death, sacrifice, redemption, resurrection….   There is in truth only one act by which Jesus – every human being – goes to the Father (to use biblical terminology): it is the act of awaking.

All such terminology, even the implied connection to Buddhism suggested by “awakening,” becomes at some point in the spiritual journey an obstacle.   In contrast to Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are more sensitive to this limitation of language and of religious myths, and so they are better able to make “the leap” to experience the divine unlimited by such forms.   An important consequence of this transcending of religious names and forms is the relativization of traditional viewpoints, affirming the value yet also the conditioned nature of all of them; only the Absolute is absolute.

Once you have recognized the fundamental truth of the religious myth and of the multiple forms it has taken, you accept the symbolic truth of every formulation, every rite, etc., but you obstinately refuse to give them an absolute value (quoted in Panikkar, p. 369).

A reperception of Hinduism, as well as of other religions, is strongly suggested here in contrast to the fulfillment model of Sagesse.   Closer to what is usually identified as pluralism, Abhishiktananda is implying that Christianity and Hinduism are each “formulations” that express “the fundamental truth” in terms of story (myth), ritual, and doctrine.   Underlying these statements is a theory and experience of symbol (as transparent to truth rather than truth itself) that, once lived, allows the sannyasi to participate meaningfully in religious rituals without needing to absolutize those rites.   Here is the French monk’s justification for continuing to function as a priest engaged in ritual dependent upon external forms (namarupa), even as his experience of nonduality deepened.

Several months after composing the above entry in his diary about awakening, Abhishiktananda suffered a heart attack, collapsing in a busy marketplace in Rishikesh.   Almost by chance, an acquaintance recognized him and arranged for his care.   When he could again write to friends, he would use the same word “awakening” to describe a spiritual transformation that, while sparked by the attack, had been anticipated long before.   Such an experience cannot be easily described, he said, because all “coloration,” meaning all namarupa, all mediating conceptual frameworks, even Christian, “disappear,” burned up in the fire of immediacy.   In this state, he wrote, “all notions about Christ’s personality, ontology, history, etc.” also evaporate, leaving a space within which perception of the religious ‘other’ is radically changed, even if necessarily worded in relation to his “sadguru” (true master) Christ:  “I find his [Christ’s] real mystery shining in every awakening man, in every mythos….” (quoted in Stuart, p. 349).

This awakening, anticipated in the diary and thrust upon him in the heart attack, represents a forceful detachment from his previous viewpoint, a shift anticipated by years of engaging in interreligious friendships and mystical praxis.   The reperception of Hinduism that results is not dependent upon the mental habit of making comparisons between the two traditions; it is a seeing born of a willingness to let the ‘other’ be other, that is, distinct from one’s assumptions, beliefs, and commitments–whether those assumptions be inclusivist (the fulfillment theology) or pluralist.   Months earlier he had written on the topic of how to relate to non-Christian religions, describing an approach quite distinct from that found in his earlier writings:

We have to descend into the ultimate depths to recognize that there is no common denominator [of the religions] at the level of namarupa [names and forms].   So we should accept namarupa of the most varied kinds….   No comparisons, but we should penetrate to the depth of each one’s mystery, and accept the relativity of all formulations.   Take off from each of them, as from a springboard, towards the bottomless ocean (quoted in Stuart, p. 318).

Here is a stance with regard to the religious ‘other’ strongly reminiscent of Gandhi, one based less in the mental habit of comparison than in the encounters of friendship and mystical experience.   It is significant that just as Gandhi continued to identify himself as a Hindu, so Abhishiktananda remained a Christian, continuing to celebrate the Mass, when physically able, to within days of his death.   (For a more thorough account of the development of Abhihiktananda’s thought, see Edward Theodore Ulrich’s unpublished doctoral dissertation entitled “Swami Abhishiktananda’s Interreligious Hermeneutics of the Upanishads” [The Catholic University of America, 2001].)


The life of a French priest, however engaged in India and interested in Hinduism, who died almost three decades ago may seem of little relevance to consideration of the kind of interreligious and intrareligious tensions that have informed political and social development in the subcontinent for over a century.   Abhishiktananda’s specific struggles to reperceive the religious ‘other’ are indeed symptomatic of his Western Christian conditioning.   But was not his “agony” in trying to come to terms with the relationship of two great religious traditions also an Indian and more generally a human problem as well?

While Gandhi may have had an easier time in arriving at a standpoint tolerant of other religions because of his family and religion, he nevertheless struggled not only with interreligious tensions in India that obstructed his campaign for independence but also with tensions in himself.   For this reason he felt the need to submit to rigorous self-discipline through the taking of vows (nonviolence [ahimsa], nonpossessiveness [aparigraha], purity or celebacy [brahmacarya], truthfulness [satya], and nonstealing or poverty [asteya]), lest his rhetoric be compromised by his actions under the threat of violence.   Here again there is creative similarity in the lives of the Mahatma and the comparatively obscure French priest.   Both had to wrestle internal and external resistance in order to remain open to new experiences of the religious ‘other’, experiences that prompted analogous shifts in their points of view.   While such a comparison might be offensive to some Hindus, such as Sita Ram Goel (whose sharp criticisms of Abhishiktananda were briefly discussed in the preceding article), my contention is that both lives point to a general human dynamic presented in these three articles–a dynamic that each of our own lives also illustrates.

What, then, does this French priest teach us about the general human problem of misperception of the religious ‘other’?   He illustrates the value of immersing oneself in the culture and religion of the ‘other’, but also the internal resistance to changing one’s point of view even in response to such broadened experience.   He indicates the virtue of interreligious friendships, but also the often painful dialogue between the living lessons taught in such relationships and the assumptions, beliefs, and commitments that constitute one’s pre-existing standpoint.   In addition, he argues for the deliberate yet grace-filled discipline of mystical praxis as an essential foundation for interreligious encounter, enabling one to detach from one’s viewpoint and then step into the worldview of the divine or religious ‘other’.   Abhishiktananda thus exemplifies the possibility of reperception, but also its cost.

In the language of Kuhn’s analysis of revolutions in science, Abhishiktananda’s life, particularly his final years, provides “data” that contradicts the existing inclusivist or fulfillment paradigm and so increases the pressure for changing it, at least in the West.   His thought, understood as developing throughout his life in response to experience, also offers insights for what “theory” might support a new worldview.   While much less well known than Gandhi’s, Abhishiktananda’s contribution to the work on a new paradigm to support reperception of the religious ‘other’ may be added to that of many others to promote a collective shift in point of view that is needed not only in the West but in South Asia as well, if only as a corrective of previous Western influence.   (On the impact of Western ideas upon Indian understandings of religion, see articles by Arvind Sharma in this same section of the Indic Mandala, “Perspectives from the Indic Religious Traditions,” #8 and 18.)   As these essays have attempted to suggest, the degree of reperception required by contemporary global interreligious tensions demands lives courageously committed both to embodying our own religious ideals and to engaging in dialogue with religious ‘others’.