Volume XIII:2 July - December 2023

Swamiji’s Final Days

On July 14, 1973, the Benedictine monk Henri Le Saux/Swami Abhishiktananda (1910-1973) suffered a heart attack that led to a spiritual experience beyond the bodily states of life and death. He awoke to the dazzling fullness of Presence. Severely weakened, he was first treated at the Tourist Bungalow in Rishikesh. On August 21 he arrived at Roberts’ Nursing Home in Indore, taken there by his disciple Marc Chaduc (Swami Ajatananda), who on June 30 had received his sannyasa diksha (ritual initiation into the life of a renunciant). Abhishiktananda was familiar with the Nursing Home, having gone there regularly since 1957 to be treated by Mother Théophane (1903-1982), a French nun from the Franciscan congregation of Sainte-Marie-des-Anges. Mother Théophane was a contemplative soul to whom Swamiji felt very close.

Over the following months, Mother Théophane did all she could to help Abhishiktananda recover. Over the weeks his condition remained unstable, fluctuating between recovery and decline. He had to cancel his many plans for the future, such as returning to the river banks of the Ganges at Rishikesh, where Ajatananda was staying; moving to the Soso Carmel in Jharkhand to become the sisters’ chaplain; and finally, travelling incognito to the South to enjoy the warmer climate of Pondicherry, a trip that ultimately had to be cancelled because the airline was grounded by a strike

During the month of October various friends came to visit: Odette Baumer and her son Christophe, whose photograph captures the penetrating light in Swamiji’s eyes; Sister Ivane de Feydeau; Ajit Muricker, a young Jesuit from Poona; and Father Dominique Van Rolleghem, a fellow Benedictine who was a long-time confidant.[1] To the very eve of his death, Abhishiktananda was busy proofreading Saccidānanda, the revised English translation of his 1965 work Sagesse hindoue, mystique chrétienne.[2] He also used his remaining strength to write a few missives in which he tried to convey what he had experienced: “Sometimes I feel so low that I want to let go of this ‘old garment’, as the Gita says. But still I must tell the secret of the awakening, which is so simple.”[3]

Henri Le Saux died in Indore on December 7, 1973, the vigil of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. A few weeks later, Mother Théophane recounted her patient’s death in a letter to his sister Marie-Thérèse, who was a Benedictine nun.[4] The simplicity with which Mother Théophane describes Swamiji’s extreme physical fragility makes all the more striking the spiritual depth to which Abhishiktananda had arrived during his final days on earth.

For my part, I need this punishing blow to make me realize that the awakening to the I is beyond all that marvellous poetry with which again and again we naturally clothe it. The awakening is what lies in the depth of what is utterly ordinary! What a purification . . . is this mental helplessness in which I now live.[5] 

*  *

Roberts’ Nursing Home
January 18, 1974

My dear Sister Marie-Thérèse, 

Praised be Jesus Christ!

At last! Forgive me for this long delay, which has bothered me as much as it has you. I can’t tell you how often I thought of you when “our Father” was ill and then after he died. Immediately after his death I wrote a long and detailed letter to Father Dominique in French, telling him to forward it to you. I’m sure the reason he didn’t do so was that he was busy informing others. So it goes.

As you know, Father got much better, thanks to a rich diet that I a.m. sure was not easy for him to accept but that quickly restored his strength. At, at the beginning of December, he told me, “I think I’ve gone through the worst of it now, and with the warm weather in the South, I’ll recover more quickly.” We waited for a plane, but in vain because the airlines still hadn’t settled with the strikers. On the morning of the fifth, he was quite tired because he hadn’t slept. The doctor came and found that his condition was pretty much unchanged, though he was still having trouble breathing. He celebrated Mass around 11:30 a.m. and was pretty much the same for the rest of the day. December 6 was not much better. The doctor returned on the 7th and gave him some medicine, but he still had a hard time breathing. It’s as if there was a weight on his chest. Oxygen was made available to him, but he didn’t like it. All he wanted was a little soup and cooked fruit. Most of the time he remained in bed resting.

At around five o’clock in the afternoon, I was standing at Father’s side when he suddenly started choking. I called for help, but the choking stopped and he felt better, though he was sweating. A visiting doctor looked in on him and said, “He’s fine.” Seeing several of us standing around him, Swamiji said, “What’s going on?” I replied, “Father, you were tired and had a hard time breathing, but now you’re fine.” He lay down on his bed. Then the doctor came back and prescribed a special medication for him if he again had trouble breathing.

We had adoration of the Blessed Sacrament after dinner for an hour. I then came back to his bedside. At 8:30 that evening he had the same kind of attack! I phoned the doctor, and he told me that he should get an injection. That that seemed to calm him down and make him sleepy. He told me, “You’re still here; you need to go and get some rest.”

“The sisters are in the chapel,” I replied; “I’ll say my rosary here, and then we’ll see.” (I had no intention of leaving him alone.) These past few nights, our night nurse had stayed close to his room to keep an eye on him.

All at once, at about ten minutes to eleven, he had the same choking fit. The nurses came immediately and gave him another injection. I called the priests (the parish house is next door to the Nursing Home), and they came immediately. He was quiet but he didn’t seem to be breathing, though he still had a pulse. He received the anointing of the sick and gently departed for the Lord on December 7 at about 11 PM. The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than seven minutes. The Blessed Virgin had come to fetch him because she wanted him in heaven for the feast of her Immaculate Conception (the patronal feast of our little convent here!!!).

The priests then left, but one of them remained to clothe him and help lay him on the bed. Meanwhile, the room was immediately tidied up and made to look like a chapel. The sisters took turns all night, and in the morning, before mass, flowers were placed over his body, as you can see in the photo. He wore an orange tunic and a white stole. He looked marvelous, beautiful in an otherworldly way. He looked like he was just resting and ready to look at you and smile. As early as 7 a.m., people started coming to see him and pray near him (his death had been announced at the parish mass at 6:30). I telephoned all the convents in Indore, and all morning long there was a line of nuns coming to his bedside.

At around 7:30, our Bishop and the Father Superior of the Society of the Divine Word arrived. “What are we going to do?” I asked myself. “Where should he be buried?” The Divine Word Fathers have a cemetery at their formation house in Palda four kilometers from Indore. But perhaps he should be buried at Mihow twelve kilometers from here where other priests and sisters are buried?” When the Bishop asked me, “Where is he going to be buried?” I said, “I don’t know; maybe in Mihow…” The Bishop replied, “That’s very far away!” Then the Father Superior said, “I have no objection to burying him in our cemetery in Palda.”[6] The Bishop said, “That would be better,” and I replied, “I a.m. so grateful, because there he will always be prayed for.” Father Superior said, “I’ll go to Palda and ask the local superior; I’ll phone you as soon as I find out.” A quarter hour later, he gave me an affirmative answer. The novices were already preparing the grave!

The parish priest came, and everything was arranged. There would be a funeral mass at the cathedral at 4 p.m., followed by the burial in Palda. It was a splendid funeral: a Latin high mass concelebrated with the Bishop; wonderful music; a cathedral that was almost full; a homily by Father Gratian,[7] the parish priest, who spoke admirably (in English) of our dear Father, whom he had known for a long time. Then to  Palda for the burial, which was attended by all the men and women religious from Indore. Another talk was given to inform the young postulants about Swamiji’s special vocation. Immediately afterwards, I asked the priest who spoke if we could have a copy of his talk. The bishop said, “There should be an article in all the newspapers.” That was done, but because Christmas was not far off, it came out a little late 

I didn’t have any addresses, not even Marc’s.[8] I found Father Dominique’s in the Catholic Directory and sent him a detailed telegram on the morning of the 8th. I waited for a response, but nothing came. He later wrote me from Bombay, where he was preaching a retreat, to let me know that he had received the message I had sent to Bangalore, but it had been badly translated by his superior. When he wrote, he was under the impression that Father had died in the South. Finally, a few days after he returned home from Bombay, he found my telegram along with a long letter I had written and all of Swamiji’s mail, which I had also sent him. Everything was now clear, but there still no address for Marc. I received a telegram from him, but the return address was illegible.

In the meantime, I wrote to Father Dominique, “If only Marc could come here and have a look at all his things.” Marc finally did arrive on January 7 and stayed for three full days. He took everything with him except for a few things I kept for you and the family.  As for the rest, Marc had to work things out with Father Dominique. Marc has since written to me, saying that Father Dominique requests that everything come to him, except for official documents and materials related to books that are in the process of being published in Dehra-Dun or Delhi. That’s what I was hoping for, because there should be a single place where one will be able to find the necessary documents for a biography that will surely have to be written,[9] as well as all the testimonies that will arrive after his departure to the Lord!

Marc has returned to complete solitude in the North (I gave him your letter); his visa has been renewed for one year. I have an address in case he needs be contacted, but he doesn’t want to be asked to write anything—for this year at least. Yes, our Father loved him very much. Marc believes that now he will help him even more, and so do we, don’t we?

Our Mother General is returning to France at the end of the month; I’ll see if she can take something for you.

Over the last few months, our Swamiji has been constantly praised for his simplicity and complete docility regarding everything that had been suggested to him for his own good and his health. I already asked him last year, when he was already quite worn out, to think about living a less isolated, less austere life. He confessed that this past year was a difficult one for him, that he almost couldn’t pull it off!!!!

The prospect that he would now be limited as to what he could do was hard on him. He wanted to remain in a Hindi-speaking region and wondered where he might be able to do that. He did not want to be too isolated since it would be necessary to have someone with him to take care of his material needs. At the same time, he wanted to be independent enough to receive all those who come to him from all castes and creeds. So that was the problem. As I said to him, “The Good Lord will arrange everything for the best, if that be his will. He is the one who has directed everything so far; He will continue to do so.”  On that we were in complete agreement.

By the beginning of October, he was very weak. He simply couldn’t stand any more of the boiled, unpalatable food he’d been given. He was also looking forward to leaving for the South, where he would be by himself and freer to vary his menu without scandalizing those around him. However, the doctor made him put off his departure for a month and allowed us to vary his diet a little. That very same day he was served fish at noon. I arrived after he had eaten, and his plate was clean. I couldn’t believe it—nor could he—and from that time on he began regaining his strength and putting on weight. He still felt bad about having better food and more of it, but none of his Hindu servants gave it a second thought. The new diet was continued and everything was perfect. As you can see in the photo,[10] he looks like he was in very good physical condition, and he was really looking forward to boarding a plane!

It was in October, when he was very weak, that people came to visit. Even though he liked them a lot, these visits exhausted him. He felt bad that he was not able to be more fully engaged with everyone who came to see him, sometimes from very far away. For me, that was when he became a symbol of the suffering Christ! It was as if he had been smitten by the Lord, unable to read, pray, or do anything. It was a time of total spiritual nakedness and complete physical collapse. A “necessary experience” we both said. We are here and that’s it; everything else comes from Him. It was at this point that, to distract him, I said, “Father, you’re  bogged down.”  “Oh yes, absolutely” he said. “Father, that’s perfect,” I replied. There are many bogged down people on earth and they have no saints who understand them. You’ll be the first saint who’s bogged down. How wonderful!” This amused him greatly, and the next day he recited a litany for bogged down saints. “From getting up early, deliver us, O Lord. From taking a cold bath, deliver us, O Lord. From making an effort, deliver us, O Lord. From eating tasteless food, deliver us, O Lord.” And he couldn’t help laughing.

When some sisters talked to him about taking an airplane to the South, he would picture himself in a wire crate or a chariot of fire as portrayed in the beautiful icon depicting Elijah being taken up into heaven.[11] During the day, I’d often drop in for a quick word with him, and sometimes he was quite amusing! In the evenings, after Compline, I’d stay with him for half an hour, chatting quietly. He’d talk about his favorite topics, or we’d read texts from the Upanishads that were as profound as those of Saint John of the Cross. While taking the medication he was given after his second attack, he said to me, “I think it will always be like this now. Who could have imagined it! As God wills!” He said this with a beautiful smile and a hand gesture that meant “It’s all over, nothing matters anymore.” And then he added, “I’m ready. As God wills.” He also murmured something about Elijah’s chariot. It was as if he knew he was about to leave us.

Father was so perfectly human—so charming and gentle in his manner. Several of our doctors got very close to him during his long weeks here, and they remain very impressed. Priests came to see him. Father Gratian, the pastor of the parish, understood him perfectly. He, the Divine Word Father Superior, and the Bishop are all young and outstanding Indian priests. I knew them as postulants and at the minor seminary. There were also some European priests who came to see him as they passed through Indore. I’ll try to have Father Gratian’s articles duplicated and will send you copies. Father Dominique asks that everything be sent to him. Everyone regrets that he left us so early (we would have liked him to remain with us for another 15 years). We can’t be sad, because we feel that he is still with us, all the more so now that perpetual light shines upon him!

He had almost finished reviewing the final proofs of his books that had been translated into English and will be published shortly. At first, he was not very well understood. He was, after all, twenty years ahead of the Second Vatican Council. Now he is not only accepted and appreciated, he has become the driving force behind this awakening to God and to the spiritual riches of India. He was in demand everywhere but very rarely agreed to go, especially this last year. Travelling made him very tired, and he didn’t want to take the plane.

His mission was to be what he taught. He wanted his life to demonstrate what is essential, namely, that which is taught by true Hindu spirituality—and by Saint John of the Cross (especially the poems) or Saint John the Apostle! Indianization means nothing if it is not first and foremost “awakening to oneself, awakening to God.” Christians in general are too attached to the letter that kills and not to the spirit. This is what repels Hindus, and it is precisely this that our bishops, meeting in Calcutta these days, said: The most urgent thing, the most important thing, is to live God, to live the life that comes from God. If the Hindu senses that we are doing this, he will come to us. Nothing else will attract him. Living  the life that comes from God in real poverty and devotion and service and love of neighbor is exactly what our poor world needs, so let’s help it live that kind of life, each in our own way.

Forgive me for writing this letter in such haste; I could hardly make it out when I looked at it this morning. I wrote whatever came to mind without any order and without thinking it through. Please forgive me. You can improve it by excerpting and rewriting what you think would be of interest to your family. Your sisters have written to me, but it’s been very difficult for me to find the time these past weeks to answer them.

With all my heart, I remain united with you in Him, close to heaven, and I count on your spiritual support. I’ll send you the articles as soon as I can.

Your poor “old” sister in the Lord, seventy years old but with a heart of twenty.

 Sister Marie-Théophane

Translated by William Skudlarek


 [1] Odette Baumer-Despeigne (1913-2002) contacted Henri Le Saux in the 1960s, but they did not meet until October 1973. After Swamiji’s death, she worked tirelessly to make him better known in Europe. Ivane de Feydeau (1919-2012) was a former Sister of the Sacred Heart whom Henri Le Saux had met in Trivandrum. She later settled in Akola, Maharastra. Dominique Van Rolleghem (1904-1995), was a Benedictine monk from the monastery of Saint André in Bruges. After years in China and the Congo, he went to India in 1951 and was one of the founders of Asirvanam, a monastery near Bangalore. He later lived as a hermit in Gujarat.

[2]Henri Le Saux, Sagesse hindoue, mystique chrétienne (Paris: Le Centurion, 1965); Abhishiktānanda, Saccidānanda. A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience (Delhi: ISPCK, 1974).

[3] Letter from Henri Le Saux to Marc Chaduc, October 9, 1973. In James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His life told through his letters  (Delhi: ISPCK, 1995), p. 315.

[4] Marie-Thérèse Le Saux (1930-2002) was a Benedictine nun at Saint Michel de Kergonan Abbey, next door to Sainte Anne de Kergonan Abbey, where Henri Le Saux had lived until his departure for India in 1948. Twenty years separated the brother and sister, who had hardly known each other. Yet a common monastic vocation united them and gave rise to a regular correspondence, published in Vers l’expérience spirituelle. Lettres (1952-1973) (Paris: Lethielleux, 2018).

[5] Letter from Henri Le Saux to Marc Chaduc, October 20-21, 1973. In James Stuart, op. cit., p. 317.

[6] In 1995, part of Swami Abhishiktananda’s remains were transferred to the Shantivanam ashram.

[7] Father Gratian Aroojis was close to Abhishiktananda and understood his spiritual approach. It was he who chose the readings for the funeral mass: Rom 8:14-17; Ps 139 (138); John 17:24-26.

[8] After Swamiji’s death, Marc Chaduc-Swami Ajatananda (1944-1977) established a hermitage at Kaudiyala, on the banks of the Ganges, upstream from Rishikesh. He mysteriously disappeared in April 1977. Cf. Yann Vagneux, “The Ultimate Conqueror of Death,” Indian Portraits. Eight Christian Encounters with Hinduism (New Delhi: Nirala, 2021), pp. 123-166.

[9] Cf. James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda. His life told through his letters (Delhi: ISPCK, 1989); Le bénédictin et le grand éveil (Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1999).

[10] In October, Christophe Baumer took a series of photos of Swamiji, including the particularly moving one that shows his “eyes of light.”

[11] Odette Baumer had given Abhishiktananda an icon of Elijah’s being taken up to heaven, which he contemplated for a long time until his death, as it reminded him of the deeply moving events he had experienced with Marc at the Ranagal temple from July 10 to 14, 1973. Cf. Yann Vagneux, “ The Ultimate Conqueror of Death,“ Indian Portraits, pp. 143-148.


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