Dilatato Corde 4:1
January - June, 2014
Sunrise on the Ganges at Rishikesh
Sunrise on the Ganges at Rishikesh

Swami Amritarupananda and
Ma Atmajyoti-Ananda – in Dialogue

Swami Amritarupananda and Ma Atmajyoti-Ananda met at Aranya Kutir,[1] Rishikesh,[2] to share reflections on the path of interspirituality. The meeting took place on 21 January 2014, in recognition of the 40th mahasamadhi of Swami Abhishiktananda (7 December) and the first mahasamadhi of Vandana Mataji[3] (25 February), and during the week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January).

The occasion began with prayer and meditation. There was then a reading of Vandana Mataji’s reflections on the influence of Swami Abhishiktananda as a pioneer of Hindu-Christian dialogue,[4] reflections she had shared on the occasion of Swamiji’s 12th mahasamadhi (1985). This prompted dialogue on personal spiritual experience and understanding, including the contemplation of “I AM” and the influence of the Christian and Indian spiritual traditions on the quest for the Absolute.

“It was Swamiji for instance, who first taught us, me, how the prayer of silence should not only be practiced but known to be India’s great contribution to Christian prayer . . . ” (Vandana Mataji).

Swami Amritarupananda (A): In the prayer room there was something you said that brought to mind a statement from the Old Testament: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). I do not know if my interpretation corresponds to the way this passage has been interpreted in the Jewish and Christian traditions. I have understood it in the light of one of my favourite teachings in the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 14 (verse 21), when Arjuna asks Lord Krishna “What are the marks of a sage?” Lord Krishna says a sage is one who is the same, no matter what his or her experiences, not only those that are outwardly observable, but also those that are present in one’s own mind and emotions. In other words, there is a part in all of us that is not responding, that is unmoving, no matter what our experience is. To me, that is the real stillness. It is not that the mind is quiet or the emotions are quiet (they can be tumultuous). Even so, there is a part that remains still. If there is no reaction to that movement, if one is grounded, if one is totally surrendered, then, even though mind and emotion may be in tumult, there is a part that remains still, at the ground of our being. I call this a dual consciousness.

He who, seated like one unconcerned, is not moved by the qualities, and who, knowing that the qualities are active, is self-centred and moves not. (Bhagavad Gita 14, 23)

Ma Atmajyoti-Ananda (AA): Swami Abhishiktananda saw India as a teacher of that silence and stillness.

Silence in prayer, silence in thanksgiving, prayer and adoration, silence in meditation, silence inside and outside as the most essential preparation for this stillness of the soul in which alone the Spirit can work at his pleasure. (Swami Abhishiktananda).[5]

A: I do feel that it is through living at Sivananda Ashram (Rishikesh) that I learned about being rooted there (in that ground of being). And it can be done in many ways. Even in the midst of all this, one can bring oneself back to the sense of “I AM”; that it is manifest even now.

AA: And being aware of the “I AM” is contemplation.

A: One of the teachings of Swami Chidananda[6] that was probably the most important to me was that everything is That;[7] every thought, every feeling, everything that is seen through the eyes, heard through the ears, is also a manifestation of That. It is like the analogy of gold and ornaments: pure gold is the same, but the forms it takes are different, and these forms may be very, very different.

AA: We are unique, yet one.

A: Yes; you can be fully out in the world, but the moment you recognise everything is That or my own Self, then it puts you back into the ground of being. . . .

AA: I am reminded of the commentary we read today on a verse of the Katha Upanishad[8] that Swami Abhishiktananda loved very much: that first there has to be the intellectual conviction that “God is.”

Not by speech, not by mind, not by sight can He be apprehended. How can he be comprehended except by him who says, ‘He is’? (Katha Up., II. 3.12).

A: Yes, that reading from the Upanishads is what brought me back to this thought. When I first came to India, I took the Yoga Vedanta Academy course at Sivananda Ashram, way back in 1981 or 1982. A Christian priest was teaching a course on the rishis of ancient times. I really remember only one thing from that whole course, and it came to mind when you read that passage today. He said, “When the great rishis asked the question, ‘Is there anything beyond time and space?’ and they started to investigate it, the first thing they discovered was that ‘God is’; they acknowledged God.” Those words went through me like a sword because I realised, “I am not acknowledging God at all.” I thought, “You can leave everything for God, you can talk about God, you can meditate on God, you can do all of these things, study the scriptures, and not really acknowledge God, not really believe It.” Many people have had that same shock. [We can live as though] “this is all about me, it’s my calling; God is not really real to me”.

Swamiji’s call to us . . . is simply this: to find that pearl which each one has in the depth of his or her own heart. This seeking is “the secret of India, the call within, always more and more within.”  (Vandana Mataji)

AA: I find that many of the foreign seekers who come to Rishikesh often do so at a point in their lives when they are focused on themselves. They have not yet arrived at the stage where we realize that we have to acknowledge that “God is,” where we realize that this is about moving towards God. They have moved away from a life that they know is not satisfying and gone in quest of spiritual fulfilment, but they are not quite sure yet what it is that they are moving towards.

A: Swami Chidananda said that it took him years to realise that it was the Self realising the Self. As he said, the whole call of the spiritual life, the reason any one of us is here [in the spiritual life], is because of the God in us. That calling or that longing is the God in us. It has nothing to do with us as an individual. In fact, Its [the God in us] only concern is to get rid of us [our ego-consciousness]. It’s amazing how much I thought it was all about me. We think the calling is about me; I am here, and God is somewhere, and it is my search. . . .

AA: But no, it is God calling out to God. It is the story of the prodigal son, of going back, of returning to the Source. Rishikesh—being in the Himalayas and close to the source of the Ganga—was so significant for Swami Abhishiktananda. This environment of pilgrimage and place of sadhus symbolised returning to the Source. He walked to Gangotri(the Source of the Ganges) and wrote a little book about his pilgrimage. In it he described this whole movement towards the Source, “towards the silence in which everything began.” Indoing so, he said, I have to “go against everything in me that wanted to run towards externals”[9] and wanted to hold on to those externals. Wanting to reach out to externals happens at the functional level of dual consciousness, and it is that level of consciousness that wants to survive.

A: : Yes, it puts up quite a fight! I asked Swami Chidananda once why it is that so many people get sick when they visit this area. He said despite all the commercialization, there is a powerful inner pull or inward movement within us that comes from the effect of the deep meditation and spiritual realisation of the great rishis who lived here [in this place where we are right now] for eons. However, even if we are consciously happy to be here, there is something within us that resists that pull, which can manifest itself as illness.

AA: And so there is a reaching out to externals—restaurants, shops, internet cafes. . . .

A: The sense of resistance can even be the experience of feeling the ego resisting its own death. There is something about this [geographical] area that is so conducive to the spiritual life. The vibration of this area is so sustaining.

AA: I believe that is one of the factors that brought Swami Abhishiktananda here and helped him to have his awakening here. The environment here was conducive to experiencing the silence that he felt was core. The stillness, the solitude, the simplicity, and the whole way of life of the rishis was based on the rock of knowing that silence. The words from Swami Abhishiktananda we read today in prayer were "India primarily speaks through silence,” and that silence does not necessary mean quiet, but rather the silence at the base of the wisdom of the scriptures. That wisdom only  comes about through someone who sits for a long time and listens; and it comes through the Indian knowledge of ways of searching for God—of yoga,[10] sadhana,[11] ashrama,[12] mauna,[13] sannyasa[14] and the ashram way of life; these have all developed through an awareness of silence. By going deeply into Indian scriptures and sannyasa, Swami Abhishiktananda encountered that silence. He could sense it through the wisdom of the scriptures and it resonated with something within himself.

“It was he who first encouraged and initiated us . . . how to use the treasures of the Upanishads and the (Bhagavad) Gita. . . .” (Vandana Mataji)

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. For silence is above all the language through which India reveals herself . . . and imparts her essential message, the message of interiority, of that which is Within.[15]

A: It is quite possible if, as a Christian, one came and studied Indian spirituality, it would make you understand that the teaching is already present in Christianity and vice versa. I expect that these great truths, even of non-duality, are in all of them [the main religions], but sometimes, because of how we are brought up, we might not be able to recognise them within our own religion until we come somewhere else “Ah, that is what Jesus meant,” or “That is what Krishna meant.”

“. . . it took a French monk to awaken us—and now Christians of the West too—to the value of Eastern spiritual experience and thence to this Inner Reality which is One-without-a-second, Saccidananda, the Three-in-One.” (Vandana Mataji)

A: True respect comes when we recognise that our own existence is God’s existence; as Lord Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). All human beings are united because every human being has this “I am,” and that is the ground of what we are, no matter who we are, and no matter what forms it takes. In all aspects of life, whether it is our intellect or emotional life, or what we are “accomplishing” by our intellectual work, our service, or whatever it might be, it is the one Self that is present and evolving spiritually. There is no room for feeling superior or inferior. This is the basis for mutual respect. I really feel that when that human dignity is recognized, the flowering will be respect, love, forgiveness, and compassion. That is something every human being longs for. What really needs to happen is to go back to that sense of “I am” where there is no gender, no religion, no age, no race, where there are none of the things that divide. There is simply that oneness, and we can rest there, respecting and standing in our own dignity.

I really believe that the revelation of the AHAM (I am) is perhaps the central point of the Upanishads. And that is what gives access to everything; the “knowing” that reveals all the “knowings.” God is not known, Jesus is not known, nothing is known, outside the terribly “solid” AHAM that I am. (Swami Abhishiktananda, Letter, October 20-21, 1973).

AA: I think there are two ways that respect can happen. One is when there is already some understanding and experience of that “I am” reality, some awakening to it, or even a very strong intuitive conviction. Pure Being then overflows. There is no choice but for it to happen; the love, the truth will flow. The other way is if—for whatever reason—the nature of someone’s path is that he or she has not yet received that awakening or conviction. Then, the way is that of living a virtuous life, because by acting in the same way as the person who has had some awakening, one will actually start to be and feel the same way; that is why the virtues are so important. I am convinced that a virtuous life is more important than having spiritual experiences. All the great religions teach the importance of virtues that enable us to live a universal consciousness. The next level of consciousness is a very high level of experience: experiencing the oneness, experiencing that the “I am” is the heart of all. In living a good and virtuous life, there will naturally be an ascent of consciousness to this higher level of understanding.

A: I listened to a progressive Christian scholar who was dismantling a huge amount of the interpretation of Christianity.[16] Finally someone said to him, “Well, who is Jesus Christ then, if your whole way of looking at it, based on 2000 years of interpretation, is now dismantled due to scholarship?” He said something like, “God is the life of all life. Therefore live fully. God is love. Therefore love wastefully. God is the ground of being. Therefore have the courage to be whatever you can be.”

 Amazingly, I was also reading a book that Swami Chidananda (Swamiji) had written about Swami Sivananda (Gurudev), and the way he described him tallied exactly with what this Christian had said. Finally, Swamiji asked, “How could Gurudev live such a magnanimous life?” He replied, “Because Gurudev could not think of himself.”

AA: This story reminds me of Jules Monchanin and Henri le Saux. A similar deconstruction was happening because of their experience of going deeply into Indian spirituality. We especially see this in the Diary of Swami Abhishiktananda, but also in the writings of Abbe Monchanin. This deconstruction is part of the transcendence of self, the complete renunciation of self, to break down even our mental structures and let go of those attachments.

Before le Saux arrived in India, Monchanin gave him three pieces of advice. He said, “You will need unshakeable courage [because you will have disappointments]; complete detachment from the things of the West, and a profound love for India” (Letters, August 7, 1947). Leaving behind the things of the West, specifically attachment to a Western mindset, is part of that deconstruction. Swami Abhishiktananda’s life here was about allowing himself to know God through experience, through openness to the wisdom of another spiritual tradition, and being prepared, where necessary, to deconstruct some of the things he had been taught about how he must view God, or pray, or approach God. This approach seems an essential requirement in our spiritual life. In interreligious dialogue, and certainly, when walking the path of interspirituality, we have to allow ourselves to undergo this painful deconstruction. Living with people of another spiritual tradition or culture helps with that. We cannot be attached, not even to our own philosophies.

A: Recently I attended some meetings organized by women who try to dissipate the tension in areas (such as Kashmir) arising from great religious strife. They came to the conclusion that it could only happen spiritually. Religious leaders also attended these meetings and were sharing the teachings of their religious traditions. That did not touch me very much. What did touch me was the testimony of a woman who was like an ordinary housewife from Delhi. She was very deeply moved by the suffering that was happening because of the religious strife in Kashmir and felt called to go there. She said “I realised that if I was going to be able to contribute anything, I had to shed my identity as a Hindu, as an Indian, as a woman”, and she had to do so until she got back to her pure sense of humanity. (I am sure she meant the “I am”.) That was really touching. There was nothing intellectual about it; it was so beautiful. I’m sure she was incredibly effective. Somehow she knew she had to shed all this before she could actually work and truly connect with the Muslims.

AA: For us to make any movement on this path of interspirituality, which primarily means discovering the True Self, we must be prepared for that deconstruction and not treat religious identity as so important. Too often religion, spirituality, and faith are considered inseparably linked, but that’s not necessarily so. Sometimes we need to loosen the ties to our religion in order to live a truly spiritual and virtuous life. The Lord Jesus healing on the Sabbath is a perfect example of this.

A: There’s a new movement in the evangelic groups in America at the moment, which is being called The Imago Dei Campaign.[17]Some evangelicals are trying to take everything back to the fundamental truth that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, rather than focusing on some of the divisive topics. This practice can be a starting point. If we can acknowledge that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God, that can even prevent wars.

 Finally, it was he who helped us to learn that, at this level of spiritual/ mystical union, one was able to live in deep communion with men and women anywhere in the world, beyond all religions or differences of religion. (Vandana Mataji)


Aranya Kutir was founded in 2010, near Rishikesh. It is an interspiritual contemplative kutir (small ashram) especially for women. It was inspired by the Hermits of Saccidananda - Abbe Jules Monchanin (1895-1957) and Dom Henri le Saux (aka Swami Abhishiktananda, 1910-1973), pioneers of interspirituality.

[2] Rishikesh is a holy Hindu pilgrimage site on the Ganges in northern India. It was in this area that Swami Abhishiktananda was based during the last years of his life (1968-1973). In addition to the many Indian pilgrims, many foreign spiritual seekers also visit Rishikesh.

 [3] Vandana Mataji (1921-2013), was born into a Parsi family in Gujarat, India. She later joined the sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart. She knew Swami Abhishiktananda and was inspired, somewhat by him, to found an ashram in Rishikesh, which she called Jeevan Dhara. She lived there from 1978 and into the 1990’s; including leading the larger Jeevan Dhara Ashram in Jaiharikhal, up in the mountains from Rishikesh. She also had a close spiritual relationship with Swami Chidananda, of the Divine Life Society. She too was a pioneer of interspirituality.

 [4] Vandana Mataji (editor), Swami Abhishiktananda: The Man and His Message, ISPCK, 1986, Delhi, pp.11-13.

 [5] Abhishiktananda: The Further Shore (1975). Three Essays, Delhi (ISPCK) enlarged edition 1984, Reprint 1997, p.129.

 [6] Swami Chidananda (1916-2008) was the disciple of Swami Sivananda and became the President of the Divine Life Society in 1963, on the passing of his guru. Swami Abhishiktananda and Swami Chidananda were close friends and fellow monks.

“It was he (Swami Abhishiktananda) too…who made us realize how to seek to live the theology of Presence… We learnt experientially and slowly that it was precisely this simple ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ that eventually made us [Christians] acceptable in this unique environment. It was precisely this understanding that made Swamiji ‘click’ well with Gurudev Swami Chidanandaji. They loved and understood each other as fellow-monks seeking the Absolute, though coming from different climes, cultures, religions.” (Vandana Mataji)

 [7] “That” refers to the Divine Reality. The great Upanishadic realisation is “I am That!”

 [8]  “The conviction of the reality of that which is sought is the prerequisite.” From S. Radhakrishnan’s commentary on Katha Up., II. 3.12, in The Principal Upanishads (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2006), 17th impression.

 [9] “In this way, I came to where the Source is, having climbed up step by step... I seemed to be going against everything in me that wanted to run away towards externals, against desire and thought itself, continually leaving a little further behind me the world and its allurements, my anxieties and preoccupations, my longing to know, to theorize, to understand things fully – on my way towards the silence in which everything began.” Swami Abhishiktananda, referring to his pilgrimage to the source of the Ganges,Mountain of the Lord, ISPCK, Bangalore, 1966, p.26.

 [10] Yoga refers to the four pathways to realisation: karma (path of good works); bhakti (path of devotion); raja (path of conquering the inner nature), and jnana (path of knowledge). Hatha yoga, commonly practiced in the West, is one limb of raja.

 [11] Sadhana is spiritual practice, specifically as set out by Sri Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 CE).

 [12] Ashramas are the four stages in traditional Hindu life: as a student (brahmacharya), householder (grahastha), forest dweller (vanaprastha), and renunciant (sannyasa).

 [13] Mauna is the spiritual practice of observing silence, including silence of the lips.

 [14] Sannyasa is the Indian monastic life of renunciation and contemplation. One who is committed to sannyasa is a sannyasi (masculine) or sannyasini (feminine).

 [15] Abhishiktananda: The Secret of Arunachala. A Christian Hermit on Shiva's Holy Mountain (1979)Delhi (ISPCK) revised edition 1997, p. viii.

 [16] See the teachings of Bishop John Shelby Spong, of the Episcopal Church, www.JohnShelbySpong.com or www.progessivechristianity.org

[17] See a recent article in Time online (www.swampland.time.com),The Imago Dei Campaign, by Elizabeth Dias, Jan. 20, 2014

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