Volume XIII:1 January - June 2023
Turning East: A French Benedictine Monk in Spiritual India
Over the millennia, cultures have dispersed their gifts one to another in a cross-pollination that has intensified with the advent of modern transportation and communications. From the dawn of maritime trade in antiquity to the printing press in the Middle Ages, from telegraphy in the nineteenth century to mass electronic media in the early twenty-first century, cultural diffusion in the digital era travels at high speed in all directions as a growing syntonisation of a globalising human community. The Church has struggled down through the centuries to keep pace with cultural dissemination and technological innovation. As for east-west diffusion, scholars now argue that many of the philosophical and scientific breakthroughs of classical Greece came from the East. The Pythagorean theorem, for example, previously thought to be the invention of the fifth-century Greek mathematician was later discovered in Sanskrit texts predating Pythagoras by five hundred years.[1] The number zero which only appeared in European mathematics in the Middle Ages had been used by Indian mathematicians (and even inscribed on temple walls) in India 1800 years earlier.[2]
In nineteenth-century Europe, the East began to be viewed as a resource for Western spiritual seekers. The lesser-known dimensions of India’s religious culture began to percolate into the mainstream and intrigue theologians and philosophers alike, providing the theoretical basis for modern Western psychology.[3] This trend accelerated in twentieth-century popular culture when increasingly affordable passenger ship service allowed Western pilgrims to journey to India and write about their experiences. Paul Brunton's 1934 bestseller, A Search in Secret India, sold two hundred and fifty thousand copies, an indication that secret India and the eastward turn had gained a purchase in the European psyche. 
Brunton’s book put South India on the map for a generation of seekers such as Arthur Osborne, Ella Maillart, Maurice Frydman, Lewis Thompson, Douglas Harding, S. S. Cohen, Henri Hartung, Ethel Merston, Alan Chadwick, GH Mees and a host of others. Among the luminaries Brunton’s book highlighted was one that Abhishiktananda would become taken with not long after his arrival on the subcontinent, namely, the South Indian sage, Sri Ramana Maharshi.
Brunton’s book inspired W. Somerset Maugham to interview the Maharshi in 1938 and the resulting 1944 novel, The Razor’s Edge was a commercial success and was made into a blockbuster film in 1946 starring Tyrone Power. The novel’s protagonist, Larry Darrell comes to India in search of a guru and finds “Ganesan”, a character Maugham modelled on Sri Ramana Maharshi. While overrated as a writer, Maugham had rightly judged the timing for the idealist Larry who, dissatisfied with Western materialism, gave up a promising career and the prospects of married life to seek the truth in India. However, since Maugham had not been a genuine aspirant in the religious life himself, he came up short in representing Ramana Maharshi simply because he never took the time to learn who Ramana Maharshi was. [4]
It is not known how much the cloistered Abhishiktananda could have known about either of these books, much less the film, but spiritual India was in the ether during the years he was planning his journey to the East. Unlike the Hollywood version of the search, Abhishiktananda’s would be something spectacular.
The year Brunton’s book was released, Abhishiktananda was in his fifth year in the monastery of Sainte-Anne de Kergonan and had begun reading up on India. He worried that his boyhood dream of becoming a deeply spiritual person might not be realized if he did not take a different tack. An irresistible longing to go to India and seek the inner life rose up in him. [5]
On July 26, 1948, after dedicated efforts to overcome canonical hurdles and secure permissions from his superiors, Abhishiktananda boarded a steamer and set sail for the East. Once at sea, he breathed a sigh of relief and simultaneously brimmed with the excitement of being on the brink of something outstanding, something singular in its promise for a new way of living out his monastic vocation. If he wondered what had prompted him to take the radical step of leaving behind his brothers at the abbey to live in a country he had never visited, he intuited that India had the potential to shepherd him down a path he had longed to follow since his youth. As the months and years unfolded, what India could offer the genuine seeker became increasingly apparent. He later reflected:
India’s [great] privilege and her glory [is] that she pursued her spiritual and philosophical quest for Being to its ultimate depths. In so doing she made [humanity] aware of [its] own deepest centre, beyond what cultures termed “mind,” “soul,” or “spirit.” At this transcendent point her sages discovered God, or rather, the divine mystery, beyond all its actual or even possible manifestations, beyond every sign which claimed to represent it, beyond all formulations, names, concepts, or myths. At the same time, they discovered their own true self to be likewise beyond everything that signifies it, whether it be body or mind, sense-perception or thought, or that which is normally called consciousness. It was this awareness that gave rise in India, for the first time in the history of the world, to the phenomenon of monastic renunciation (sannyasa). Men heard the call to total renunciation and abandoned the world and human society to live in mountains and deserts, to wander ceaselessly from place to place, in silence and solitude, stripped of everything.[6]
To what extent Abhishiktananda in 1948 was aware of the deeper reasons he was being drawn eastward is not clear. However, he did not need to know anything more than that his every intuition pointed him toward South India. On August 15, 1948, the first anniversary of India’s Independence,[7] Abhishiktananda disembarked at Colombo:
Yesterday evening we arrived off Colombo. Such joy and emotion! Immediately after supper ... I went up on deck and began Vespers ... my eyes fixed on the East. The sun had already set, and. . . . I saw a sudden gleam of light, the harbour lighthouse of Colombo. One by one other lights appeared beside it, and soon the horizon was twinkling with myriad points of fire, a symbol of all those who are waiting and calling. At about 8 pm we dropped anchor in the harbour. I was glued to the ship’s rail; people tried to talk to me, but I could only answer with difficulty. The crescent moon was reflected in the black water, stars were few and the night was dark. I had been waiting for this moment for fifteen years![8]
Abhishiktananda had grown up during the First World War and witnessed the fracturing of European civilisation born of the stresses of large-scale violence. If the Western project centred on establishing the good life in the spirit of the European enlightenment and its deification of human reason, the Church had extolled unconditional love throughout the ages as the vehicle to a meaningful, salvific life. But now it appeared to Abhishiktananda that something new would have to be brought in, or better said, something old would have to be recovered.
In a century dominated by war and the facile consumerism that followed, Abhishiktananda was astonished to see how the faith traditions of India, unlike those of the West, had managed to keep the contemplative dimension alive and at the centre of their creed and practice right up into the twentieth century. He saw how the Church seemed to have lost its mystical edge, had lost sight of any authentic meeting with the divine from the inner recesses of the heart and was in danger of becoming irrelevant. The reason the Church’s religious truths had been unable to keep pace with history was owing in large part to the fading away and flickering out of the contemplative fire. Where might one go to recover the flame?
India only reveals herself to those who are prepared to be still and over a long period to listen humbly at close quarters to the beating of her heart, only to those who have already entered sufficiently far into themselves, into their own depths, to be able to hear in the inner chamber of the heart that secret which India is ceaselessly whispering to them by means of a silence that transcends words.[9]
Some moral problems could only be resolved through interiority, Abhishiktananda reasoned, and no amount of good intention could assist Christian seekers in fulfilling the categorical imperative of loving unconditionally if they continued to be governed by externalities and narcissistic impulses, ever tracing the mere surfaces of things. But then, how to come free of all this?
Quite apart from grace, which is certainly never lacking to those who are sincere, the experience of the self, as India calls it, is the greatest of human acts, and without it no human development can be regarded as complete. India also, ever since the first beginnings of thought on spiritual matters, has given much attention to the mystery of the heart, the ‘cave’ within, the guha as it is called in the Upanishads. This guha is essentially a hidden, secret place, beyond the reach of sense or thought. It is the “abode of Brahman,” the very place of the atman, our deepest and truest self. From it comes the primordial impulse, which is the source of everything, both in the macrocosm of the universe and in the microcosm of the human person.[10]
If the eastward turn was born of a general cultural trend, for Abhishiktananda it was simultaneously a theological imperative related to a heart yet unfulfilled. The eastward turn just meant for him turning inward. Turning eastward, in this understanding, had taken place at various junctures in Church history, for example, with mystics like Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, John van Ruysbroeck, and Richard Rolle; and earlier, with the Fathers of the Desert in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.
A similar inflection point could be detected in ancient Israel on the day Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well. She commented on the dispute between her people and the Jews:
“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . .  But the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” [11]
This scene from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John is Jesus’s Upanishad, bringing the Hebrews up to speed in the same way Vedanta had served as the “culmination” of Vedic culture. Worshipping would no longer be the exclusive preserve of Levite priests in the temple of Jerusalem but would take place within every human heart. (The Gospels depict this in numerous ways, for example, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove at Jesus’s Baptism, or in the tongues of fire descending on those gathered in the upper room.) Jesus’s worship in spirit and truth is the (re)birth of wisdom and the direct encounter with God by means of the individual human heart.
Tracing back further, we see that the eastward turn appeared very prominently in Upanishadic India a thousand years earlier when the Brahmanical religions began to be amended. Till then orthodox religious rites centred on worship through yagna, the fire-sacrifice of Agni who is the mediator between the earthly and heavenly realms. Like worship in a Levitical setting, it was only the Brahmin priest who could perform any efficacious worship of the Lord and all intercession should go through him. But the emerging trends in Upanishadic India declared that the havan fire which till then was the sole vehicle and portal to the divine, in fact burned just as brightly within the human heart and is just such a portal.
A major innovation in religious thought arose with the advent of the Atman or the Self, a holographic species of the divine dwelling in each person. According to Vedanta, the Atman contains within itself the entire universe. All of one’s body and all visible objects of the external world are but images on the screen of Awareness which indwells the space in the lotus of the heart. We are therefore made in the image and likeness of God, not least of all because the world arises by our beholding it, but when beholding it free of any trace of personal preference, it and we along with it are seen to be nothing but Brahman. This idea was just as revolutionary for Vedic India as Jesus’s worship outside the temple was for ancient Judea. Abhishiktananda writes:
The Church is still at the stage of the Brahmanas. A violent gale of Upanishads and Vedanta, that is what it needs. That is just what Jesus did within Judaism. Being a person filled with the Spirit, he judged everything with the authority of the Spirit—that Spirit which he himself was in the form of Purusha. . . Jesus is no greater if people make him into a “god.” To make Ramana Maharshi into an avatara does not make him any greater. The avatara is illusory. The jnani is not. “He knows the supreme abode of Brahman, established in which the universe shines brightly.” [Sa vedaitat paramam brahmadhama yatra visvam nihitam bhati subhram]. Everything shines with the brightness of Brahman. Everything is with the very being of Brahman. One who has realized “I am Brahman” [aham brahmasmi] has become all [sarvam] (cp. BU I, 4, 10). He is greater than all the devas. He has become the self of all. The jnani is the very atman of Krishna and Rama. The avataras and the devas are only forms, namarupa, mental frameworks applied to the world so as to recognize it. The jnani has found his bearings and recovered everything through the within itself.[12]
To come to this understanding, Abhishiktananda would have to go through his changes. It would take time and no little amount of struggle. His abrupt encounter with Indian spirituality came at the end of January 1949 just a few months after his arrival on the subcontinent. The Bishop of Tiruchirappalli Diocese had sent him along with Fr. Monchanin to Tiruvannamalai to meet Ramana Maharshi. Abhishiktananda describes being overwhelmed by the experience, his body wracked with fever, compelled as he was to process all that was happening to him in short order and with great intensity. When he went before the Maharshi a second time, even though suffering a 40-degree fever, he found that he had not been mistaken in coming to India:
The fever, my sleepiness, a condition that was half dreaming, seemed to release in me zones of para-consciousness in which all that I saw or heard aroused overwhelmingly powerful echoes. Even before my mind was able to recognize the fact, and still less to express it, the invisible halo of this Sage had been perceived by something in me deeper than any words. Unknown harmonies awoke in my heart. A melody made itself felt, and especially an all-embracing ground bass. . . .  In the Sage of Arunachala of our own time I discerned the unique Sage of the eternal India, the unbroken succession of her sages, her ascetics, her seers; it was as if the very soul of India penetrated to the very depths of my own soul and held mysterious communion with it. It was a call which pierced through everything, tore it apart and opened a mighty abyss.[13]
What he may have known beforehand mattered little. Intuition and the grace of God led to this pivotal moment:
There is one fact which determines everything: the religious experience which I had on non-Christian ground with an intensity never even glimpsed until then, but which was in line with all that I had obscurely felt before. Ramana’s advaita is my birthplace, the original womb [mulagarbha]. Against that, all reasoning is shattered. And I have always hesitated to take the decisive step in which I have always felt that final peace and joy would be found. [14]
Abhishiktananda saw that the eastward turn centred on recognising that some spiritual stages could only be gained with the aid of interiority. But the Western mystical language, especially as it related to the “within,” struck him as inadequate, even confusing. He reflects:
To go within by means of the idea of the within is a good way. However, the idea of the within is distinction (bheda). If I distinguish the within from myself who seeks the within, I am not within. He who seeks and that which is sought vanish in the last stage, and there is nothing left but pure light, undivided, self-luminous (jyoti akhanda svaprakasa). The last work to be done is to cut through the final distinction between he who seeks and that which is sought. That is the knot of the heart (hridaya granthi). And Ramana Maharshi was right in recommending the annihilation of the very thought of myself, which is the source of everything else. [15]
For Abhishiktananda, the Holy Church had not been mistaken in her noble undertaking to take up selfless service in a broken world. She had only unwittingly failed to adequately stoke the flame within that granted her the light by which to see. Her mission promised yet to be fulfilled if she might find a way of resolving the age-old problem of the illusory self. After all, it had been self-encapsulation that plagued civilisations throughout human history. If there was a small self at the centre, there could be no selfless service, no Christian love in the truest sense.
Abhishiktananda marvelled at the iconography of the East and the intimations it carried from the distant past about the topography of the heart and what would be required for any genuine religious undertaking. If Abhishiktananda glimpsed the thousand-handed Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, with an eye of wisdom appearing on each hand to symbolise the capacity to help truly by virtue of wise discernment, Abhishiktananda understood that this symbolism spoke to the link between unconditional love and wisdom. Abhishiktananda saw that the Church had all it needed if only it could remove the veils obstructing its own eye of wisdom. In short, unconditional love could only arise when accompanied by wisdom, like two wings of a dove. Said another way, the expanded heart depends upon the integration and unitive coherence of the knowing mind, free of the fragmentation of egoic self-partiality.
For Abhishiktananda, the Church’s path to wisdom hinged on its knowing with fuller and greater clarity the transcendent and having in its midst those who would bear witness to the direct experience of God. This might even include being open to saints from other traditions:
Since the Church cannot, without denying itself, accept the existence within its bosom of people who are beyond formulated dogma, beyond worship and canon law, it is necessary that there should be some of them “outside the Church”—which is perhaps its most fundamental part.[16] . . . What the Church and all the dharmas and the whole of humanity need today is monks, priests and others who are witnesses of the eschaton (the ultimate end).[17]
In the twenty-five years since meeting the Maharshi, Abhishiktananda founded Shantivanam (the Benedictine Ashram in Tamil Nadu), inhabited the primeval caves of Holy Arunachala, dwelt as a hermit in kutirs in Gangotri and Uttara Kasi, and roamed the subcontinent as a peripatetic sannyasin. The literary legacy he left behind, however, born of inner transformation, stands out as his single greatest achievement, nothing less than a fresh Upanishadic moment in religious history.
Abhishiktananda’s books raised eyebrows in the Magisterium. But as Jesus remained his satguru, the Church his spiritual home, and the Eucharist the centrepiece of his sacramental life, Abhishiktananda’s powers of articulating a fierce theological self-scrutiny won over his sceptics. Over time the theological diffusion of his eastward turn would help ignite a renewed longing for contemplation within the Church. Not that the contemplative fire need burn in every nook and cranny of the Church—even just a single illumined corner could enkindle the hearts of Catholics, monastic or lay, who respond to the contemplative call.
If Catholicism is a religion of love and Vedanta a religion of liberation, Abhishiktananda came to see that liberation and love are one and the same thing. Love means selfless love, and liberation means freedom from the self. It is selflessness that Jesus and the Upanishads are calling us to, a viable prospect for every seeker willing to undergo the white-hot smelting born of the fire of inwardness. What is this fire? It is a refiner’s fire that endeavours to burn away all that is not gold within us, leaving in its ashes the sweet residue of love.
[1] See Journey of the Upanishads to the West, Swami Tathagatananda.
[2] Historians of mathematics tell us that zero only made its way to Europe in the thirteenth century via Arab traders to southern Spain.
[3] Freud’s mentor, Arthur Schopenhauer while teaching at Tubingen mastered Sanskirt and Pali, grafting the import of the Buddhist Nikayas for his World as Will and Idea without footnotes, fearing that revealing the work’s theoretical root in Eastern religions would result in its rejection.
[4] Freely adapted from the author’s article appearing in Saranagati, June 2023, pp. 9-12, based on research done by Louis Buss in his unpublished manuscript, The Life and Times of Alan Chadwick. 
[5] Swami Abhishiktananda. James Stuart, ISPCK, Delhi, 1995, pp. 5-10.
[6] The Further Shore, ISPCK, Delhi, 1997, p. 1.
[7] Swami Abhishiktananda. James Stuart, p.10.
[8] Swami Abhishiktananda, James Stuart, p. 21.
[9] The Secret of Arunachala, ISPCK, Delhi, 1988, Introduction, p. viii.
[10] Prayer, ISPCK, Delhi, 2001, pp. 101-102.
[11] John 4: 20-24.
[12] Ascent to the Depths of the Heart, ISPCK, Delhi, 1998, April 24, 1972, p. 344.
[13]The Secret of Arunachala, p. 9.
[14] Ascent to the Depths of the Heart, 4th Sept 1955, p. 122.
[15] Ibid, 6th March 1956, p. 146.
[16]Ibid., 1959 November 24th, p. 225.
[17]Ibid., 1971 July 7, quoted in the introduction on page viii.
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