Volume XIII:2 July - December 2023
Reflections on Abhishiktananda
The Hindu Pilgrim
By 1966 Abhishiktananda had learned how to deal with his many anxieties about the future and the impact of dialogue within the Catholic Church. His tensions of belonging to two different religious families, and many more had not ceased but the middle part of his journey had begun in earnest. From the caves of Arunachala to the banks of the Ganges, Abhishiktananda explored the Absolute presence of God, leaving slowly behind any impediments towards his encounter with the absoluteness of God in silence.
This essay explores the period between his firsts visits to the north of India, in which, ideally, he wanted to spend part of the year and his actual life and ‘awakening’ at his hermitage at Uttar Kashi (established in 1961). It is within this period that Abhishiktananda developed ideas on dialogue that showed not only the advances on dialogue that had taken place thanks to Vatican II but also his sense that Eastern monasticism and ascetism were the key for the renewal of a Church that was still very heavily European in its ways of understanding the world, in its liturgy, and in its perception of the larger world.
On his arrival in India his question had been how to share Christianity with the people of India; by the time of his ‘awakening’ he was concerned with the possibilities that the practices of the Hindu ascetics offered to Christianity in general and to the Catholic Church in particular. At all moments he learned how to favour religious experience about Hinduism rather than intellectual or academic pursuits.
From the Cave to the River
By the end of 1958, Abhishiktananda was debating whether or not to visit the north of India. As s invitations began to arrive in Shantivanam, he wrote to his sister Marie Thérèse to say, “I am invited to go to the Himalayas. Shall I go? I will tell you in my next letter.”[2] On 30 April 1959, Abhishiktananda set off from Kulittalai to the North. He visited Binsar, twenty kilometres beyond Almora in the Kumaon Hills, and on the way he stayed with French Sisters at Indore and visited the village of Kareli near Bareilly, U.P., where he made his first visit to the ecumenical ashram of Jyotiniketan. Those staying at the ashram were Murray and Mary Rogers, Heather Sandeman and John Cole. The Rogers had arrived in India as missionaries in 1946 and in 1954 they established Jyotiniketan. Abhishiktananda’s telegram had not arrived on time, and therefore they were not expecting his visit. Fr. Rogers’ narrative outlines the elements that brought them together later, even to celebrate the Eucharist together at the banks of the river Ganges:
It was a dark night, and the little group of us were in the chapel for our Night Prayers, Compline. At its conclusion we had as usual […] our last corporate act of the day, the Kiss of Peace, passed from one to the other. Having received and given the Peace, we turned to face the open door, and the last one gave the Peace to our neighbours in the two near-by villages who, though not present in their bodies, were always there in our hearts. That night, as [my wife] took a step or two towards the door, we saw in the light of the kerosene lanterns a figure – it was our first glimpse of Swamiji […] there he was – the saffron khadi, the old bag that became so familiar, at least a couple of other bags hanging from his neck, and the smile.[3]
Abhishiktananda was to return many times to Jyotiniketan and became a close friend of Murray Rogers.[4] Murray Rogers was an Anglican priest and provided for Abhishiktananda his first encounter with an Anglican married priest. Before those encounters, Abhishiktananda had not met many reformed Christians (“Protestants,” as Abhishiktananda would have called them),[5] and certainly, coming from France, no Anglican clergy. However, both managed to exchange very personal views on their own life within an ashram, and Abhishiktananda talked for hours with Fr. Rogers about the contribution that Hinduism provided to their lives and their understanding of God. They wrote together a magnificently honest “Letter from India” that addressed many Christians, monks, and nuns who were enchanted by India and wanted Indians and the Indian experience to shape their own Western experience:
Come first among us without anybody knowing who you are, except for a few friends who will help you in the first steps of your pilgrimage. Pray to be simply transparent, open your eyes, open your ears, fill your lungs, let your whole self be stroked by the wind around you […] Let the Spirit capture in you, for you, the riches which he has prepared for you in India, in her scriptures, her traditions, her sages.[6]
Abhishiktananda followed that counsel well. In a movement that was bold and Spirit-filled, he explored the presence of the Absolute from Shantivanam to the banks of the Ganges, where shadus, Hindu ascetics in their thousands, found in silence and penance the consolation and the truth of mama ganga, the river Ganges as their mother. Murray Rogers defined Abhishiktananda as a listener, a person who was always open to listen to others; he asked a question and then he listened.
Abhishiktananda’s experience of the Himalaya started at Almora where he saw the high peaks for the first time and proceeded to walk the mountain road up to Binsar in order to join the pilgrimage to Kedarnath and Badrinath.[7] He walked together with a Panjabi Hindu, a philosophy graduate who had spent two years in London and later had worked as a businessman in Delhi until he decided to spend the rest of his life in solitude and meditation. Abhishiktananda was confronted with the most poignant question by a Hindu pilgrim who could not accept the Church as the only way: “How can one who has realized that ’he is’ once more feel himself bound?” and Abhishiktananda felt touched by a deeply spiritual man who was questioning his own experience.[8] Abhishiktananda‘s answer was clear: “Once more, a proof that only a Christian saint, a contemplative, a mystic, can touch India […] You have to have gone to the heart of India, spiritually as much as literally, to realize it.”[9]
Without a permit to head north, Abhishiktananda stayed for a week at Pithoragarh with Laurie and Kuni Baker (Quakers) and then spent the rest of June 1959 travelling in the Kumaon Hills and on foot following the Pindari River down to its junction with the Alakananda (Ganges) at Karnaprayag. With no permit in sight, he took a bus to Rishikesh and Hardwar, down the Ganges valley. At Hardwar he stayed for the first of many times with Niranjananand, a Bengali sannyasi. He then proceeded to Solan, a hill town on the road to Simla at the invitation of Fr. M.P. Christanand who had taken part in one of the study weeks in which Abhishiktananda and others explored Christianity and Hinduism together.
The trip to the Himalayas brought him to another side of Hinduism, that of endless pilgrimage and bathing in the river, He wrote:
Here there is a ceaseless pilgrimage. Thousands of people coming from every direction to bathe in the sacred river and then to follow the Ganges up into the mountains […] The Himalayas have conquered me! It is beside the Ganges that Shantivanam ought to be. I do not know if that will ever happen, but how splendid it would be![10]
At the same time, he was granted Indian citizenship, a rare gift after Indian independence for a foreign missionary, which made his journeys easier and his heart closer to India.[11] However, the pilgrimage to the Himalayas had triggered the possibility that Abhishiktananda would open a personal hermitage beside the Ganges among the mountains. Permission to do this had been granted by the Bishop of Meerut. His joy was immense as he communicated to his sister: “I am going to come and at least try it out […] I am going to get my Indian nationality without delay. For all this, bless the Lord with me.”[12] Further, Abhishiktananda envisaged his hermitage as an ashram “in the Himalayas to which Protestants and Hindu friends will come.”[13]
Throughout 1960 and within a year during which he remained at Shantivanam, he had a hernia operation and several illnesses. He corresponded extensively with others, and in response to their comments and challenges, he decided to write on the divine presence, even when he found the writing quite difficult. In a letter to the Carmelites at Lisieux that was 60-80 pages long, he wrote, “I have just discovered how God could be present indivisibly everywhere and at the same time could be present differently in the temples of Shiva and in our churches.”[14] However, his personal questions about his actual vocation to live to live in a specific location in India remained. He was convinced that a Christian monk could offer a real way of inter-faith dialogue through a full commitment to meditation and contemplation. In his case, was he to remain at Shantivanam? Was he to move to the north and live there all the time? And within those movements of the spirit, was he to become a solitary hermit? And if so, was he to remain in silence for long periods of his life?
It is clear that on coming to India, he had managed to balance his soul’s desire to remain alone and in solitary contemplation with the pressures that local bishops had put on him to visit and encourage northern Christian communities that were trying to engage with Hinduism. For Abhishiktananda “the work of a monk is interior; it is ‘in solitude’ that the hermit fulfils his diaconia (ministry) in the Church.” Further he wrote that “all I am trying to do is to awaken, here and also in Europe, a few souls to the real contemplative life which India demands.”[15]
By 1965 he was regularly visiting Uttarkashi and felt assured that the Catholic Church was more supportive of his way of life than it had been previously, thanks to Vatican II, which provided a clear statement on the goodness that is to be found in other world religions. On 18 February 1965, the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano carried an article on Shantivanam written by a young Italian woman who had spent Christmas at the ashram.[16]
Swami Abhishiktananda had begun to experiment with the liturgy of the Eucharist, and he also decided to buy the land where his kutiya had been built. The land was purchased under the names of Abhishiktananda and Raimon Panikkar, and the money used for the purchase came from a bequest that Abhishiktananda had received in 1960.[17] He confided to Canon Lemarié that “the fact of shortly becoming the proprietor of my field seems to be a sign, like that of Abraham when he bought the cave of Machpelah.”[18] The reason If he did not journey more frequently was because he still was responsible for Shantivanam and also because he wanted to communicate his experience of dialogue with Hinduism in writing. However, he had to work extremely hard to convince editors and publishers to publish his work. On the one hand, Abhishiktananda did not have the academic credentials of Raimon Panikkar and Bede Griffiths, and on the other, he faced the well-known difficulty of expressing spiritual and mystical experiences in the written word.
After spending time working on galley proofs and editorial correspondence, Abhishiktananda finally headed for the north of India in July 1965 and reached Uttarkashi on July 18. Hehe wrote enthusiastically and poetically to Canon J. Lemarié, “The Ganges is roaring quite close to me here. It sings a ground bass which sets the key for everything. And in its harmonics, all that can be sung is sung. Above all the OM, which has hardly left me since my retreat at Gangotri last year.”[19] During his stay at Uttarkashi Abhishiktananda started experimenting with liturgical adaptations of the Upanishads and was ever more drawn to move to the north. Shantivanam had become a burden with its administration and its locality, and Abhishiktananda was no longer satisfied with its mission and objective. Thus, as soon as he could, Abhishiktananda headed for the north in October, stopping as usual at Murray Rogers’ ashram. There the Anglican Brotherhood urged him to write down his thoughts about and experience of spiritual recollection. Abhishiktananda did so and in the English language. The manuscript was published by the Indian publishing house S.P.C.K. and under the title Prayer, it became his most well-known and popular book. In it he proposed that contemplative prayer was the Christian way forward.
Disciples and Co-Pilgrims
Abhishiktananda did not want to have disciples because of the responsibility and time they required. However, in September 1965 two religious sisters who had been inspired by Abhishiktananda’s life arrived in India. Sr. Thérèse went to stay at the Carmel of Pondicherry, and Abhishiktananda took Sr. Praxedes to the North where she started her immersion in India at a Leprosy Centre in Dehra Dun. By then Abhishiktananda had developed an abscess on his foot and needed treatment at Rajpur. After the initial medical treatment was done, he went to Jyotiniketan to rest and recuperate. There he had the chance to share the reflections with an ecumenical group that was reading Raimon Panikkar’s book The Unknown Christ of Hinduism.
Panikkar who was to become his close friend. While Abhishiktananda suffered enormous moments of anxiety about his search for contemplation in Christianity and Hinduism, Panikkar had never suffered those doubts, having been brought up as a Hindu and as a Christian. In December 1965 Abhishiktananda went to Varanasi to try out some of his liturgical experiments with Panikkar and other friends and remained there until Christmas. Abhishiktananda was curious about the liturgical experimentation that had been approved by Vatican II and about the “new Mass” that had been announced for 1966. His views on liturgical experimentation and translations were strong, and he suggested to Canon Lemarié that “gradually translations are likely to be dropped, like ripe fruits, leaving a liturgy based on Hindu Scriptures, culminating in the Gospel. But that cannot be done in isolation, it needs a group for mutual enrichment.”[20] 
Abhishiktananda remained at Shantivanam from January to August 1966. During this time, he worked on several articles that had been requested and put his heart into a Sanskrit translation of the celebration of the Mass with the help of a pandit at Pondicherry. In February 1966 Abhishiktananda was visited by Fr. Klaus Klostermaier SVD and the French Sister N. Shanta. On their way to a pilgrimage, Sr Shanta spoke to Abhishiktananda about the possibility of founding an Indian monastic community that could continue the aims and values represented by Shantivanam. Later, Fr. Klostermaier published a book describing his two years of residence at the Hindu pilgrimage site of Vrindaban, forty miles north of Agra, an area that represents the “body of Krishna” for the Krishnabhaktas.[21] Both Sr. Shanta and Fr. Klostermaier found Abhishiktananda to be very critical of bishops and clergy who, in his words, ”so rarely have ‘felt’ God, and speak of him as if they were advertising something at the door of a shop!”[22]
Gyansu and the final ascent/awakening (1968-1973)
In 1968, Abhishiktananda moved to Gyansu, a small hamlet a kilometre from Uttarkashi, where he lived in a kutiya that was so small he could barely accommodate a guest. In practice, this move meant that between 1969-1971, he was able to spend six to eight month each in year in solitude.
In late 1972 a young Frenchman, Marc Chaduc, arrived to be his disciple, but given Indian regulations they could only meet outside the border. Marc’s arrival was to prove a turning point in the life of Abhishiktananda. in April 1973 most of Abhishiktananda´s correspondence concerned itself with Marc and his desire to undergo initiation. For Abhishiktananda, the purpose for doing that was to acquire freedom:
I smile when I see you now so interested in giving a form to the formless. That is just what cults, myths, theologies have been doing from the beginning … Ever since the supramundane intuition of the Buddha was given a name, his teaching has been obscured … you will only be truly free, when you no longer have to claim your freedom! … You need a sign in order to possess your freedom![23]
At the end, Swamiji decided that Marc’s initiation would involve a triad: Swamiji, Marc, and  the President of the Divine Life Society, Swami Chidananda Saraswati. The mahavakyas and the insignia, he wrote, “will be a support for you at times when you need to recall it, and will protect you (at least to some extent, I hope) from the misunderstanding of the ‘others.”[24]
The “ecumenical diksha” was fixed for 30 June 1973 at Rishikesh. It was not to convey anything but the public recognition of Marc as a renouncer, and therefore it was agreed that after the diksha he would undergo a period of parivrajya, a period of wandering freely and living on alms.
Swamiji was worried about his future years, as mission stations and a seminary were being planned and he had no interest on either of those enterprises. He corresponded with Panikkar stating,” only one thing matters: the awakening. But unfortunately, the Church is very far from that.”[25]
After the diksha, Swamiji wrote to Murray Rogers, who at that time was in Jerusalem:
Now the most beautiful news. Last Saturday, 30/6, Marc has received sannyas in the Ganga from Chidanandaji and myself. Very simple ceremony, but it was simply too beautiful. The three of us were simply radiant. Deep in the ganga he pronounced the old formula of renunciation. I join him; he plunges into the water; I raise him up, and we sing our favourite mantras to the Purusha. He discards all his clothes in the water, and I receive him as from the maternal womb. We envelop him in the fire-coloured dress. We communicate to him the mahavakyas, and I give him the “envoi”: Go to where there is no return …[26]
Swamiji had a serious heart-attack on 14 July 1973, and he died on 7 December 1973. Marc became a mendicant and returned to his cave. One day he disappeared, in a mystery that has never been solved.
A Plebeian Revolution
There is no doubt that Abhishiktananda was a pioneer of dialogue. The context in which he moved was that of the Catholic Church’s opening to world religions following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Indeed, the “curse” of an interest in Indian spirituality at the time of the Council was the many invitations received by Swamiji to be part of committees, episcopal advisory boards. and post-Vatican II aggiornamento boards.
By 1972 Swamiji was facing controversies because of his writings. However, the main challenge Swamiji faced was not related to the teaching of the Council but rather to relations between a Hindu state and the Catholic Church. Liturgical rites in Sanskrit were being rejected, and some Catholics claimed that the introduction of Hindu elements in the liturgy was compromising Catholic identity. Many of those debates did not reach Swamiji when he moved to the Himalayas, but it was clear that there were Hindus in Uttarkashi who did not regard Swamiji as a contributor to good Christian-Hindu relations but as foreigner from France who was trying to use Hinduism to promote Christianity.
A diachronic approach to the appearance and disappearance of Marc, makes it possible to one can argue that the religious transmission of an inter-faith dialogue revolution was interrupted. Swamiji’s death in 1973 and Marc’s disappearance and the unavailability of his writings have left us with an unfinished revolution.
In her work, Camila Vergara, has outlined the plausibility that through corruption constitutional structures cease to serve the purpose for which they were instituted. The question that she poses in her 2023 religion and politics lecture is pertinent here: Do we speak of alternative societies arising from constitutional change or do we assume that societies can be reimagined by plebeian revolutions.[27] Thus, was the missionary drive in the Himalayas the cause of Swamiji’s heart attack? Were the forces of Hindu nationalism responsible for Marc’s disappearance? In summary, no reimagination was possible and therefore the formation of an alternative ecclesial society was crushed, particularly by the Catholic Bishops of India and later by John Paul II and the absence of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Hinduism.
For it is endemic in the history of religion that connections and links to the Tradition are subsumed within the commentaries on revolutionary moments. His life was not an isolated search for a contemplative need of isolation but a movement towards an interreligious and intrareligious revolution. His was a soul tortured by the plausibility of a crossing over to a time/space that was not Western or Catholic or Christian any longer. He was a tortured human being, a Breton, a man without an exit strategy who was afraid of stating that there was no return.
Here I return to plebeians, Catholics, and vegetarians. Can there be an act of transgression, a moment in which an ontological change takes place? Isa vegetarian ontologically changed by eating meat once, twice, or three times, and if so, is the change for a minute or for eternity? Can an oligarch change into a plebeian, or is an oligarch only a voice that muffles the waves of the eternal sea until crushed by the waves? How many transgressions are needed to affirm that the dictum “I am the way, the truth and the life” finally comes to express semantically the wide universal Christ of Teilhard? Such a universal Christ is inscribed in the finite and universal divine matter rather than in the pale pages of a text that does not have the same meaning as the chanting of the stars, the powers of rivers, and the dance of the universe that was experienced by Abhishiktananda and Marc Chaduc.
In the words of Camila Vergara:
In the case that systemic corruption has taken hold of representative institutions and has undermined the legitimacy of elections to the point that a “new prince” might not be an option for a refounding, the only power with enough authority to lead structural reforms would be the one exerted by the assembled many themselves.
The assembled were Swamiji, Marc Chaduc, and Raimon Panikkar. It was a new beginning through water but three of them were to be dispersed: Abhishiktananda died after his heart attack, Marc disappeared (was he taken by Hindu fundamentalists?), Raimon Panikkar returned to Europe and after years of living in Catalonia died at his home where he had continued to with those who had rejected a “new Prince.” The acts of the plebeian assembly, i.e., the writings by Marc Chaduc, were rescued from the cave in which he lived and given to his family. They never allowed the Panikkar Foundation to publish those diaries, and therefore the semantic truth of a revolution was suppressed.
As I have outlined in The Way of the Hermit (2017), a new revolution arose following Swamiji in the moment when members of my centre of research, the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics (CSRP) of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, bathed on the river in Varanasi together with Muslims, Marxists, and Atheists. Fifty years after his death, Abhishiktananda has made us better human beings, aware of the divine presence in Hindus and Christians, as his life led many to God and to the Absolute in ways that he did not anticipate. In the words of Camila Vergara, and within a world of corruption, Abhishiktananda led a plebeian revolution.[28]
[1] Mario I Aguilar is a hermit at Arunachala Hermitage, Anstruther, Fife, Scotland and a Professor of Religion and Politics at the University of St. Andrews. He has written extensively on Christian-Hindu dialogue, and he is preparing his second volume of Essays in Christian-Hindu Dialogue to be published by Motilal Banarsidass Publishers in New Delhi.
[2]Abhishiktananda to Sr Marie-Thérèse Le Saux 29 December 1958.
[3] C. Murray Rogers, ‘Swamiji – the Friend,’ Religion and Society 23/1, 1976, pp. 76-87, cf. Vandana Mataji, ed. Abhishiktananda: The Man and His Message, Papers read at an Abhishiktananda Week, December 1985, Delhi: ISPCK, 1986, p. 22.
[4] See Swami Abhishiktananda: An interview with Rev. Murray Rogers, 17-18 July 2006, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpQOho3kQAg; accessed on 25 July 2015.
[5] Abhishiktananda became very enthusiastic about his encounters with other Christians and wrote: ‘I have been moved by many people I have met on this trip [his first trip to the Himalayas] – Anglicans, Quakers (I am at present the guest of English Quakers)’ [they were Laurie and Kuni Baker at Pithoragarh, on the border of India and Nepal], Abhishiktananda to Mrs Anne-Marie Stokes, 17 June 1959.
[6] Abhishiktananda with C. Murray Rogers, ‘A Letter from India,’ One in Christ vol. 3, 1967, pp. 196-198, reproduced in Swami Abhishiktananda: Essential Writings, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2006, pp. 88-91 at p. 89.
[7] Finally, he could not join the pilgrims as his permit to do so did not arrive until the end of June. He wrote to his sister, “Next month I shall go higher in the Himalayas […] Those are the great pilgrimages, involving journeys of 200 or 300 kms on foot.” Abhishiktananda to Sr. Marie-Thérèse Le Saux, 16 July 1959. For an account of his first pilgrimage to the Himalayas see Abhishiktananda see Une messe aux sources du Gange, Paris: Le Seuil, 1967; English translation The Mountain of the Lord: Pilgrimage to Gangotri, Bangalore: CISRS, 1966, section 5.
[8] Abhishiktananda to Canon J. Lemarié 3 June 1959.
[9] Abhishiktananda to Canon J. Lemarié 3 June 1959.
[10] Abhishiktananda to Sr Marie-Thérèse Le Saux 16 July 1959.
[11] In order to acquire Indian citizenship, he had to renounce his French citizenship, Abhishiktananda to Canon J. Lemarié 7 October 1959 and 16 June 1960.
[12] Abhishiktananda to Sr Marie-Thérèse Le Saux 30 September 1959.
[13] Abhishiktananda to Canon J. Lemarié 7 October 1959.
[14] Abhishiktananda to Canon J. Lemarié 29 September 1960.
[15] Abhishiktananda to Sr Marie-Thérèse Le Saux 3 July 1966.
[16] C. Conio. ‘Shantivanam: la foresta de la pace,’ Osservatore Romano 18 February 1965 mentioned in Abhishiktananda to Sr Marie-Thérèse Le Saux 13 April 1965. C. Conio became later the organizer of the Centro Inter-religioso Henri Le Saux in Milan.
[17] After Abhishiktananda’s death another sadhu occupied the kutiya but the land was swept away during the flood of 1978.
[18] Abhishiktananda to Canon J. Lemarié 28 August 1965.
[19] Abhishiktananda to Canon J. Lemarié 24 July 1965.
[20] Abhishiktananda to Canon J. Lemarié, 22 December 1965.
[21] Klaus Klostermaier, Hindu & Christian in Vrindaban, London: SCM Press, 1969.
[22] Abhishiktananda to Mother M. Théophane, 17 February 1966.
[23] Abhishiktananda to Marc Chaduc 18 April 1973.
[24] Abhishiktananda to Marc Chaduc 24 April 1973.
[25] Abhishiktananda to Raimon Panikkar 25 June 1973.
[26] Abhishiktananda to Murray Rogers 3 July 1973.
[27] Camila Vergara to Mario I. Aguilar, Wednesday 11 January 2023, Religion and Politics Lecture by Camila Vergara at the University of St. Andrews, 16 March 2023.
[28] Camila Vergara, Systemic Corruption: Constitutional Ideas for an Anti-Oligarchic Republic. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2020.
Home | DIMMID Introduction | DILATATO CORDE
Current issue
Numéro actuel
Previous issues
Numéros précédents
| About/Au sujet de
| News Archive | Abhishiktananda | Monastic/Muslim Dialogue | Links / Liens | Photos | Videos | Contact | Site Map
Powered by Catalis