Dilatato Corde 5:2
July - December, 2015
Reflections of a Young Layman’s Weeks with Swami Abhishiktananda
Picture this: an American immigrants’ kid of mixed spiritual heritage (Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim in that order) but unchurched, raised free-thinking. At 21, as a restless and inquisitive college undergraduate majoring in world religion, I am for the first time in my life outside my country and cultural skin on a youthful pilgrimage to Banaras Hindu University in North India studying Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and researching the myth of water cosmology celebrated by millions of Hindus in rituals along the banks of the Ganges (Ganga Ma). My personal leanings were Catholic, influenced by the only observant relatives under our extended family roof and the intense Irish Catholic miasma in the suburbs of Boston, where I grew up.
Coming from my background, I certainly did not, as did Swamiji, arrive in India with the white man’s burden of Christian superiority. However, I met Swamiji just months after a breakthrough on a parallel cultural level in my own mind. Raised in a very Germanophile cultural milieu at home, I had to get beyond a kind of Hegelian notion of Western cultural superiority to make the sudden decision to “Journey to the East.” Emblematic of my resistance to Eastern culture was the essay by Hermann Hesse, “The Brothers Karamazov and the Downfall of Europe.” Its argument that Western Europeans becoming enamored of “Eastern” cultures, even Russian culture, would essentially corrupt the Western intellect (the Apollonian pursuit of higher mind) to revel in a kind of slovenly Dionysian bliss had resonated with me. I had for months resisted my professor’s urging to go to Banaras and specialize academically in the dharmic religions. Hesse’s essay, was a kind of symbolic point of reference as I groped to conceptualized a deeper emotional resistance.
Then one morning, I woke up in a sweat at five in the morning and realized that the bubble had burst and that I would go to India. I arrived there on August 28, 1966.
From studying the Upanishads, I had a bias towards experiential rather than purely conceptual theology. Already in Banaras in the weeks before I met Swamiji, an idea I hold to this day arose—that I’d keep my personal spiritual path separate from my academic study of religion. I would develop practice with worthy guides, when I found them. My studies would be of ritual observance in celebration of mythic manifestations, in the spirit of the late scholar Mircea Eliade. That led me to undertake in Banaras an undergraduate thesis on Ganga Puja rather than on the upanishadic or other theological or meta-theological dimensions of Hinduism. My first breakthrough in Banaras was this decision, and I met Swamiji two months later. It seemed as if fate was my guide and that our whole relationship was part of some larger life script, “maktoub” or “written”, as our Muslim brothers and sisters would say.
The initial three months in India turned me around in body and mind. I felt like I had been turned inside out. In mind, it was a further casting off my previous cultural bias. Perhaps most confounding to stereotype, superficially at least, was that the experience of physical India was so unabashedly sensual, the smells, tastes, sounds, and textures opened this young lad from the “materialistic West” to a rich sensuality the likes of which he had never experienced in his relatively straight-laced cerebral New England and Germanic culture of community and home . . . this in “spiritual India.”
My exposure to this “spiritual India” was at the three month point largely academic, confined to classroom, library, and analytical observation of the rites taking place on the majestic steps (ghats) leading down to Mother Ganga. There were also the sybaritic pleasures of food, long walks, and immersion in long evenings of Indian classical music.
One day a notice was posted at the College of Indology that the celebrated Catholic scholar, Father Raimon Panikkar, would be giving a talk. I jumped at the chance to hear him. Afterwards at tea, Father Panikkar engaged me in an intense discussion on the cusp between the study of religion and the spiritual path and calling. I outlined the diverse influences I’d grown up around—a very strong ethical insistence on justice and fair play in family, an inner experience of non-dual states, and the joy that I attached to the Christian narrative and to tagging along to Mass (I unbaptized) with my devout relatives. In addition I outlined for Father Panikkar a strong call to public service rife in the rich Irish-American culture without and my parents’ patriotism and sense of social fulfillment in the America that had taken them in from the chaos and hate of Europe in the late 1930s.
Closing the conversation, he smiled warmly and asked if I had ever attended Mass as it was celebrated in the Syrian rite in India. It was the first week of Advent on the November-December cusp in 1966 and the good father urged me to meet up and come along to Mass with him that same evening. A calm certainty descended on me at that moment that this random encounter and invitation was my first step on a “path” in a personal spiritual sense rather than through the abstraction of study and the pleasurable immersion in India’s sensuality. I said yes.
The rite was beautiful, a combination of a pre-Vatican II style Mass with the priest largely facing the altar and ritually offering fire, incense, and water in a ceremony that invoked the arathi sacrifice to Mother Ganges that I’d been observing as part of my research. The chanting was far more akin to raga scales than Western liturgical music. At the end, staring around randomly, I noticed standing aloof in the rear corner of the sanctuary a sanyasi (a Hindu renunciate). He wore an orange robe, but had a markedly pale complexion. I turned to thank Father Panikkar who was striding back towards me from the front pew. He took my arm and led me to the strange figure I’d taken in out of the corner of my eye and introduced me to Swami Abhishiktananda—a moment of life-changing personal epiphany.
Father Panikkar said, more to Swamiji than me, “You two have a lot in common,” mentioning our mutual fascination with the spirituality surrounding the Ganges and secondarily referring to my studies. “You should talk,” was his admonition. Swamiji and I agreed to meet the next morning.
I remember a fitful night of sleep, since I felt a bit overwhelmed that this obviously respected European renunciate would be devoting a day to me. What did I want and what would he expect of me, a quasi-Catholic, intellectually and, most of all, spiritually?
I was blissfully ignorant of Father Panikkar’s influence and his centrality in the interfaith work of the Church that had been launched under Pope John XXIII leading to the issuance of the Nostra aetate under Pope Paul VI just the year before. I knew nothing about Swamiji prior to that fateful night. (Further testimony to my naiveté, I had a formal audience with the Dalai Lama in Mussouri a few months later and had but only slightly more of an idea of his importance to millions of Tibetan, Chinese, and central Asian Buddhists. I truly was an innocent.)
I had a premonition that my encounter with Swami Abhishiktananda might be a momentous dialogue and was keenly aware that I might not be sufficiently advanced in either my embrace of Jesus' teachings or in my studies of Hinduism to really be worthy of Swamiji’s time. I was near certain that the spiritual side of my youthful quest in coming to India was about to begin. That was an intense and energizing prospect for me.
From Swamiji’s perspective viewed in retrospect after much reading about his life, I have a feeling that in the first hours of what turned out to be three Banaras days together, he might have been scrutinizing me to see if I might be that special disciple he was seeking in those years. Again, reflecting retrospectively, I believe he was intuitive enough to see very quickly that I wasn’t made of that “stuff,” not cut out to be a monk or even a scholar. By the end of those days, that was a fact acknowledged by both of us. He challenged me to live in the world and find a place to lead, all the while informed by a developed spirituality. In other words, I should maintain an ability, through meditation, prayer, and contemplation, to make non-dual consciousness a kind of still point of my turning world and bring that peace and perspective into relationships in the mundane world. In my experience, he was an astute observer of personality and character.
In light of this historical gleaning, his generous gift of time and wisdom on my account—which involved a delayed departure from Banaras—was all the more remarkable with a naïf like me as its object.
I remember little about the backdrop of the three days Swamiji and I spent together wandering the ghats, the steps leading down to Mother Ganges that define Banaras. We spent long hours together; there must have been times for eating and arrangements to meet in the mornings. I remember only one physical setting of these talks, Manikarnaka Ghat, known as the “burning ghat” and one of the most auspicious places for cremation in Hindu spiritual geography, a most dramatic venue. A place symbolizing shedding of the outer skin of the body and mundane states of mind.
His advice to me may be startling to my readers, but it very much reflected both his insight into who I was and what I might become as well as his own struggles between Christ’s Church and advaita. He cautioned me against becoming involved in the Church. While he did not discourage ritual devotion celebrating mythical archetypes, he underlined that this stage was but a rung on the ladder of dualism, and not the highest one at that. He flattered me saying, “You are already beyond the point of needing such a path.” The art of non-dual realization is knowing when to kick away that ladder, he said in almost these exact words. I think he was trying to spare me the underlying tension between “religion” in the sense of commitment to a path of belief and ritual celebration that at times lay in opposition to non-dual states, a tension that so challenged him.
I remonstrated with him, saying that a path, whether meditative or ritual, was important and that I was not so advanced in my inner vision, in the ability to transcend ego and subject-object experience at will. Abhishiktananda then recommended that I focus my personal study on two writers, the Hindu “visishtadvaita” philosopher Ramanuja and the roughly contemporary Catholic renegade, Meister Eckhart. Ironically for a Westerner, I had heard of the former, but not the latter. What they both had in common was a kind of panentheist, non-dualist sensibility and a strong admonition about the limits of dualistic worshipper-worshipped deity-celebration through ritual. I find it curious that in all the reading I’ve done about Swamiji, I’ve never seen these two authors mentioned. It may have been a very individual recommendation.
He perceived most clearly that he was dealing with a person of worldly destiny with perhaps a strong spiritual urge, not a potential sannyasin. He encouraged me with quite a few words about the sacrifice of public service, doing good for others. Wisely taking into account both my mixed personal cultural background and my obvious ease in India, he perceptively suggested a cross-cultural career of bringing people together in endeavor and understanding. The teleology of his words in those three days, after 45 years as a diplomat and social activist, takes my breath away and makes me bow in gratitude to Swamiji to this day.
Both these insights he shared pointedly in the final hours of the time we spent together at Manikarnika Ghat. I can never forget the power of those hours, Swamiji’s generosity and love in guiding me.
But there was another aspect of our dialogue during those three days, one that curiously established a kind of paradigm in my subsequent life. Swami Abhishiktananda readily accepted his “marriage for life” to the Order of Saint Benedict, despite the tensions involved with his aspiration to subsist in “advaita,” non-dual consciousness. However, when he discussed his role as a Christian missionary, he shared a sense of frustration and even a tinge of personal failure at his inability to attract Indian Catholics to meditative retreats where, as Catholics, they could deepen their meditation practice by using Hindu techniques. The charge from Rome to do so weighed most heavily on him. I suspect that the relationship he modeled for me again and again was the reason that over the subsequent decades, especially after entering diplomatic service, my shoulders have been borrowed repeatedly by mentors and bosses to cry on. This is a role I have never consciously aspired to, but people seem to see that invitation in my presence.
Abhishiktananda explained that both the current pope at the time, Paul VI, and his predecessor, Pope John XXIII, were aware of his presence in India and extraordinary path. While I don’t recall him getting too specific, I assumed that in some way Father Panikkar was involved in this papal channel. Panikkar might have been an instigator/advisor, giving the pontiffs a sense of how Abhishiktananda had the potential to build bridges between Christian and Hindu contemplative traditions . Then, perhaps, Panikkar passed on to Swami Abhishiktananda a papal directive to do so by welcoming Indian monks, nuns and priests to contemplative Hindu style retreats. It’s quite possible that Father Panikkar was a mere messenger too. His role, if any, was unclear to me. What was dramatically clear was Swamiji’s frustration at his inability to attract Indian Catholics to this practice.
I sensed from that first mention of his frustration walking along the ghats in Banaras, that the miniscule attendance of the Indian clergy and monastics at Shantivanam in particular weighed heavily on the good Swami—that he was building up a great sense of futility in the exercise. I recall his preference for his life in the Uttarkashi monk’s hut or “kuti” by the Ganges and sensed his inner hope for the elusive connection with a disciple who could follow in his footsteps. Concomitantly, I felt a slight sense of guilt at the certainty that I was not cut out for monastic life and that I would never experience the gift, the spiritual depth, that such a life style, presumably as Swamji’s “chela” or disciple might offer.
Marc Chaduc started writing to Swamiji within eighteen months of my final goodbye to him in the spring of 1967 and from the reading I have done, I believe that Swami Abhishiktananda gave up his convening role at Shantivanam the next year, 1968.
At any rate, those three days in Banaras were to change my life. Meditation practice has become a central part of my life—mindfulness meditation, deity yoga, and then letting go of ego when at that threshold to experience the “aham,” the “allah hu,” or the transcendent light of consciousness in Christian contemplative practice.
Swamiji, without demanding formal initiation of any kind, was my sole life “satguru” and our initiation came in those three days of discursive conversation culminating at Marnikarnika.
Focusing on our mutual fascination with Mother Ganges, he enticed me to trek with him to Gangotri, the source of the venerated river and a sacred space above all others in all senses. He parted for Uttarkashi and I diplomatically expressed the hope of joining him in Shantivanam in spring after my courses at the university had ended. I could not in my mind’s eye see a time block for the Gangotri pilgrimage adventure.
Fate, however, played into our hands. The university went on a seemingly interminable strike around late January. I sent him a postcard announcing that I would seek him out in Uttarkashi in a few days. I embarked without waiting for his reply. He had been so definitive in wanting to do the pilgrimage together.
He was good to his word and received me most warmly. Our spiritual immersion in the Ganges was a common bond, and he seemed to want to do the trip (I believe not his first) in company. After a night or two in the kuti, we set out together on what we anticipated would be a journey of about a week’s duration, if I remember correctly .
It was not to be. Within the first half day of our journey, I was arrested, this for being an American in the aftermath of the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war with the attendant paranoia about lingering spy plots. The arresting officer could not have been more polite—likely because I was in Swamiji’s company—but insisted I could not go on. Swamiji asked if there was a permission I could obtain. The officer doused any hope of that short of a trip to New Delhi. So we retreated back to Uttarkashi where we contemplated largely in silence.
At his initiative we decided to head down to Rishikesh and Haridwar, two tirtha or holy places where pilgrims flocked for in some cases a once in a life-time pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges. I think, quite honestly, he felt bad for me as I tried to deal with the rebuff with ironic humor coating my disappointment and exasperation. He had a monk he wanted to meet there and perceptively realized how rich an experience the trip would be for both my research and my spiritual development, he explained.
I found the social and ritual scene captivating, like Banaras on steroids, and did a number of interviews for my thesis. Swamiji and I bathed in the sacred waters and I vaguely recall discussions on baptism in the parallel Christian cycles of myth surrounding water and ritual immersion. We stayed in a monastery of which I have scant memory.
After a few days, he returned to Uttarkashi, and I ventured on to Allahabad to attend the annual iteration of ritual bathing at Prayag, the confluence of Ganga, Jumna and the heavenly river of the spirit. That was an overwhelmingly powerful instance of the same mythic paradigm and its ritual celebration. As if in perfect synchronization, the day my guilty conscience began to generate thoughts about returning to my student “cave” in Banaras, I either heard on the radio or read in a local paper that the strike at B.H.U. had ended.
Swamiji’s invitation to Shantivanam was good. He reiterated it by mail after my return to Banaras in the weeks after our Uttarkashi adventure. After classes were over and the exams behind me two months later, I set out for the South sleeping in a series of third class train luggage racks to spend a longer period with him.
He, of course, mentioned his hope that this year would be different and that the Indian Catholic community would join us on retreat in significant numbers. So color him frustrated. The weeks I spent at Shantivanam bore his frustration out. One individual showed up the whole time, and not for retreat. The visitor was a Catholic monk bearing a message from Father Bede Griffiths. Otherwise, we had Shantivanam for ourselves much to Swamiji’s expressed chagrin. We agreed that we would pass the days in silence except for the evening meal time, and we did.
We did some “practice” together, silent meditation. It was my first extended monastic or retreat experience. I had a slight distraction during that retreat. For two or three hours each day I worked on a term paper on advaita philosophy for my masters course on the six Hindu schools of thought or "darshanas." So ironically I was engaged in just that world of concept that I aspired to avoid. I also found the silence frustrating at times —maybe what one would expect of an extroverted 21 year old male.
One evening, over dinner, our wide ranging conversation took another turn. Swamiji expressed a different frustration at living around the disparities of life circumstance and abject poverty in India without a handle to directly address these issues in his work. He responded most positively to my sharing that I had worked for Dr. Martin Luther King just three years prior, and that my young life at several points had already compelled me to take stands for racial justice in my own country. This recollected, I don’t recall him confirming in any way that a substantial percentage of Indian converts might be dalit, a fact that fascinated me.
Indian Catholics just did not seem drawn to immersion in the rich Indian tradition of meditative practice. While I speculated that many were untouchables who, in converting to an order that saw them as equal creatures under God, rejected all that emanated from that society that regarded them as half human, Swamiji mentioned that many converts, especially in Kerala, were from a variety of backgrounds. His view was that in converting, these Indian Catholics psychologically embraced the West, and the opportunity to deepen their Catholic practice through immersion in the far more developed Hindu contemplative tradition was, culturally speaking, downright unappealing to them. I think Swamiji took personally the failure to draw good numbers from the leaders of the Indian Church to Shantivanam, especially since he felt he had a papal mandate to do so.
At the end of those weeks we parted kindly and I never communicated with him again. I left India about a month later, not to return until his last weeks in the body. I did not get to see him in time as I was on a work trip in the North and he had been transferred to a hospital in Indore.
Recalling this all is a bit humiliating. I was in many ways a superficial and callow youth, albeit one with noble aspirations and a profound sense of how important venturing out of my own cultural skin would be—as complicated as that cultural skin was and remains.
In addition to discouraging me from full Christian conversion (I finally had myself baptized in the liberal Catholic Church twenty-four years later) and sensing, more than I could at the time, my readiness to kick away the ladder of duality, of ritual celebration of one mythic narrative, he sent me on my life path. When I’ve taken instruction or initiation in various traditions subsequently, I would say it has been motivated by a combination of esthetics and the desire to study in a community.
Another major life lesson I took away from this encounter was in a gray zone between the implicit and the explicit. Maybe it was stated most boldly in his practice in both Catholic and advaita “camps.” It reflected the great German Indologist Max Muller’s dictum that “If you only know one religion, you know none,” that there is much wisdom to be culled by a kind of anthropological, approach to exploring religion, and that since I was not committed like him to Benedictine monasticism, this would be easy for me. Swami Abhishiktananda paraphrased in his own words the oft-quoted surah 49, ayah 13 of the Qur’an that God in his act of creation deliberately made us humans different, dividing us into tribes and nations so that knowing one another would be an edifying human and spiritual exercise.
With this encouragement, I have taken initiation in several paths and am open to the spiritual practice of people I meet in my travels. I do not identify on an ego level with any one tradition; nor do I turn my back on a tradition when I immerse myself in study of a new or different one. I attend Mass and participate in a contemplative Christian community, I study with two Sufi masters and vipassana or insight meditation has been my core practice since Swami Abhishiktananda urged me to learn the technique from an English speaking Burmese monk at the end of our three days in Banaras.
I teach vipassana in local jails, mental hospitals, and at many stops in my diplomatic career, including in Muslim countries.
I bow to the presence of this warm, engaging, perceptive and generous master who somehow gleaned that an unpolished and very secular acolyte was ready for a moment of spiritual inflection. Little did he know that it would be the defining epiphany in a long and rich life lived in the Holy Spirit.
I am forever grateful for his love and wisdom.
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