Volume XIII:2 July - December 2023


Swami Abhishiktananda (1910 – 1973) is known as a contemporary Sage  whose life was a living testimony of the Truth beyond religions and persuasions as expressed in various dogmatic and philosophical teachings. 

Researchers have always paid special attention to Abhishiktananda’s role as a bridge between Christianity and Hinduism, as well as to his efforts in furthering Hindu-Christian dialogue, considering him to be one of significant pioneers in this endeavor. However during the final years of his earthly path Swami Abhishiktananda was viewing his own life on phenomenological rather than theological or philosophical levels. What he was searching for  was the Ultimate Experience, and this Ultimate Experience was verbally described as an Awakening or Explosion. In his letter to his sister Marie Thérèse he himself puts it this way: “It was a marvelous spiritual experience. The discovery that the Awakening has nothing to do with any situation, even so-called life or so-called death; one is awake and that is all…” (August, 9, 1973; Stuart 2000: 308).
In his correspondence with Murray Rogers, Raimon Panikkar, and Swami Ajatananda Saraswati (Marc Chaduc), he would elaborate further that theology is something that does not interest him at all any more, because the “teachings” of any religion are only intended to prepare a spiritual seeker for a final leap to the Beyond, after which they should be left behind. If that does not happen, then one is doomed to remain imprisoned in the cage of theological thinking forever. “I am interested in no Christology at all,” he says. “I have so little interest in a Word of God which will awaken men within history. . . . What I discover above all in Christ is ‘I AM’. I sometimes said jokingly that my next book’s cover design would be an atomic mushroom. There remains only the Ah! Of the Kena Upanishad” (September, 02, 1973; ibid 310).
It is interesting to note that a set of Hindu scriptures that fascinated Swami Abhishiktananda apart from the main canonical Upanishads which, no doubt, impacted his vision, were Sannyasa Upanishads, which establish the principles of life for renunciates. He had studied them profoundly while preparing for the “ecumenical diksha” of his disciple Marc Chaduc that eventually took place on June 30, 1973, in Rishikesh. In his last written opus, The Further Shore, Swamiji refers to them on almost every page. The power of Sannyasa Upanishads is not only in their teachings on how a sannyasi should behave but also in the spirit of renunciation emanating from them. Swami Abhishiktananda acutely felt the radical difference between the established Christian monasticism of our days and so the radical and absolute character of the sannyasa.
The sadhu has no obligation towards society in terms of things that can be seen or measured. He is not a priest whose duty is to pray and make offerings on behalf of mankind. He is not a teacher, not even of the scriptures themselves, as has already been said. Still less is he a social worker, for he does not share in the political or economic life of society. He is as dead to society as the man whose corpse is being carried to the burning ghat. It is India’s great distinction that for thousands of years her society has accepted this, and has been ready to supply all the needs of the sannyasi without asking of him anything tangible in return . . . (Abhishiktananda 1977: 14).
Sannyasa is a call for absolute freedom, which Swamiji could not see in the Church, let alone in Western society. Even though they proclaim individual freedoms, they insist that their members exercise this freedom within the institution
In our day such acosmism is not merely questioned, rather it is condemned. Society’s claim in the individual tends to be even more exacting than it was in the time of primitive tribalism when personal existence was barely distinguishable within the consciousness of the group; and this outlook is world-wide, even in the sphere of religion and the churches. The sannyasi is the outward expression of man’s ultimate freedom in his innermost being; his existence and his witness is vitally necessary for human society, whether secular or religious”  (ibid).
In Annapurna Stotram we find this statement ascribed to Sripada Shankaracharya,
My Mother is Goddess Parvati; my Father is Lord Maheshvara,
My family is all devotees of Shiva and my Motherland is all the three worlds.
This thought of existing beyond society is not comforting. The life of a sannyasi is one of uncertainty and insecurity, and such a renunciate is always an object of criticism. Swami Abhishiktananda was also aware of the fact that for a non-Indian such total renunciation as put forth in Sannyasa Upanishads would be more complicated and challenging than that faced by Indian sannyasis. One must have a real urge to achieve the Goal Supreme to set out on such a journey.
Let us analyze a few tenets of Sannyasa Upanishads that could be important for understanding Swamiji’s quest for the Truth. First of all, in Avadhuta Upanishad, there is this definition of one who fully renounces the world of duality and plunges into the Supreme Reality:
He who is always poised in his own Self after having crossed the [barriers of] stages of life and society (ashramas) and the castes (varnas) and has thus gone beyond the varnashramas [distinctions], such a yogin (one who has achieved union with God or the Supreme Reality) is said to be an avadhuta” (verse 3[1]).
Swamiji had admired the position of an avadhuta ever since his silent “initiation” by his Guru Swami Jnanananda Giri, in whom he saw the living incarnation of Advaita. According to Swamiji, an avadhuta is beyond all religions and should not be evaluated and judged by the ordinary criteria of established churches. He writes,  
Sannyasa is beyond all dharma, including all ethical and religious duties whatever. Sannyasa Upanishads never tire of celebrating the glorious freedom of the sannyasi. They apply to him all that the ancient scriptures have to say of the awakened or liberated man, the jivanmukta of later tradition (Abhishiktananda 1977: 19).
Organized religions always pull their adepts back into community life, which they consider to be “normal,” thus suffocating the one who overgrew this “kindergarten of religion” as Swami Vivekananda would put it. Avadhuta Upanishad goes on to teach that
His (an avadhuta’s) unfettered existence (life) in the world consists in his moving about freely (spontaneously, independently), either clad or unclad. For them (the avadhutas), there is nothing righteous or unrighteous; nothing holy or unholy (sacred or profane) . . . (verse 7).
We can say that during his final years Swami Abhishiktananda was striving for this freedom of an avadhuta, a glimpse of which he attained at the moment of his “great Awakening” on July 14, 1973, in Rishikesh when, at the moment of his heart-attack, all the constraints of this material conditioning exploded.
Sometimes laypeople regard an avadhuta’s actions as improper and repulsive since they cannot grasp his inner motives:
His strange, wonderful actions are total, complete [fully changed with his own inner realization]. One should not criticize or condemn him for his free and unrestrained behavior. That is the great vow (mahavrata). He is not tainted [by any of his actions] like the deluded (ignorant) persons (Avadhuta Up., verse 8).
Swamiji insists that “the sannyasi no longer has any obligation whatever, either towards human society, or towards the pitri (the ancestors), or towards the devas, those personification of the divine Mystery on the plane of manifestation” (Abhishiktananda 1977: 20). This absence of obligations towards society is actually the result of a higher call heard by a renunciate: his mere existence will bring more benefit to the world as a reminder of the Beyond often forgotten by mundane people stuck in their everyday affairs.
The absolute character of sannyasa is straightforwardly defined in Jabala Upanishad (6.3):
[The paramahamsa sannyasin] remains unclad [literally, as nude as when he was born of the womb]; is free from the pairs of opposites [like cold-heat and joy-sorrow]; [firmly established in the virtue of] non-receiving of gifts; [remains] well established in the path of the truth of Brahman. . . .
Such sannyasa was, no doubt, a difficult goal to achieve for an itinerant monk of the twentieth century. However this ideal was a guiding star followed by Swamiji. It led him beyond the “pairs of opposites” to the place “in the cave of the heart” where nothing but the true “I” exists.
Curiously enough, Swami Abhishiktananda heard this same message at the very beginning of his Indian experience when he sat at the feet of Sadguru Jnanananda, who used to repeat:
Where there is nothing,
Indeed is everything.
Enter into this secret
And yourself vanish from your own sight;
Then only, in truth, YOU ARE!” (Abhishiktananda: 116).
This ideal of total renunciation molded the spiritual path of Swamiji’s main disciple Swami Ajatananda Saraswati who—probably on a deeper level than his Master—realized its meaning and managed to put it into practice. It was he who, after the above mentioned ecumenical diksha and the Great Departure of Swami Abhishiktananda, left for the Himalayan rocks and jungles to plunge into the real Self unperturbed by social conditions and obstacles.
[Those not entitled to formal sannyasa, may, however, seek liberation, or moksha] in the path of the brave, or fast, or enter into waters, or enter into fire, or undertake the great journey. Then the wandering monk, wearing [ochre-] coloured garment, with head shaven, accepting nothing, being pure, injuring none, living on alms, becomes fit to realize Brahman” (Jabala Upanishad, 5.2).
  • Abhishiktananda 1977 –Abhishiktananda, Swami. The Further Shore. ISPCK 1977.
  • Abhishiktananda 2012 – Abhishiktananda, Swami. Guru and Disciple. Samata Books, 2012
  • Atmapriyananda 2013 – Atmapriyananda, Swami. Sannyasa Upanishads. Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2013.
  • Stuart 2000 – Stuart, James. Swami Abhishiktananda. His Life Told Through His Letters. ISPCK 2000.


[1]Here and in what follows we quote Sannyasa Upanishadas as translated by Swami Atmapriyananda; see the reference at the end of this article.

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