VOLUME X, Number 1
January - June 2020

Like Rivers of Living Water
Remembering Vandana Mataji

It was at the end of my first return to India, in the last days of August 2002. Some Jesuit friends in Delhi had arranged for me to come to Rishikesh and given me the address where I was to go. After a night of travelling I arrived at Tapovan where the road branches off to go down to Lakshman Jhula and the Ganges. At the time the place was still like a village in the midst of the rice paddies. Having asked several people where the Isha Mataji was, I arrived on the doorstep of her ashram. I rang the doorbell and Gangadev came to let me in. Several minutes later, I saw an eighty-one-year-old nun come out of her office, majestic in her saffron sari. For quite some time I had heard of her and had desired to meet her as she was one of the few people still alive who had known Henri le Saux (1910-1973). I wanted to interview her to put together some memories of the monk from Brittany who lived some of the most intense moments of his Indian life at Rishikesh. I still had a week before returning to France in order to start my studies at the seminary. Providence had arranged things admirably, but I would never have imagined how much the meeting with Vandana Mataji would remain forever engraved on my memory.
Water and fire

The Jeevan Dhara Sadhana Kutir where Mataji lived took its name from a small stream that emptied into the tumultuous Ganges. In Sanskrit, jīvandhārā means the stream of life. The hermitage was filled with the incessant roar of water crashing on rocks. It was like a basso continuo sustaining the uninterrupted flow of the divine consciousness. Vandana Mataji took me straight up to the terrace and invited me to spend a while in contemplation overlooking the Ganges. The countryside was sumptuous. The sacred river was leaving the Himalayas and charting its way through the foothills. It was the experience of shakti – the divine energy which impregnates the whole world, the goddess under the form of water about which Shankara had sung, as had thousands of devotees every evening:
O Jahnavi! O Ganga !
Your waters flowing through the Himalayas make you even more beautiful.
You are Bhishma’s mother and daughter of the silent sages.
You are saviour of the people fallen from their path,
and so you are revered in all three worlds.
O Alakananda! those who seek happiness worship you.
You are the source of eternal bliss.
Those who reside on your banks are as privileged
as those living in Paradise.[1]
I was captivated by the view of the Ganges and I understood why Mataji never tired of looking out at it at any hour of the day. Furthermore, I found that she had shown real genius by commissioning a painting for her oratory of Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well from the painter Jyothi Sahi. The Saviour was depicted as a Hindu guru, sitting on the edge of the well, with his palms opened up at the level of his heart. At this exact point, the Samaritan woman was thrusting up her hands in adoration. The blue colour of her sari was contrasted with the dominant ochre of the canvas. In this way, the woman herself seemed to have become the wellspring of the overflowing waters, fulfilling Jesus’ promise on which Vandana Mataji had so often commented: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them”(John 7: 37-38). Such was the exact calling of Jeevan Dhara Sadhana Kutir: to hear again in the silence of the heart "the murmur of living water whispering: ‘Come to the Father'’’.[2]
Every evening the Indian sister offered up the camphor flame before the picture of the Samaritan woman. The image of Christ as guru was thus rendered even more striking. She then used to go towards the river to offer the flame in turn to it. She told me that in the Vedic tradition fire is the offspring of the waters. Because of this intimate bond between the two elements, Hindus like to bring them together again in the evening prayer of arati, when the fragile oil lamps are consigned to the flow of the Ganges. Vandana Mataji had an inborn sense of cosmic symbolism. She reminded me of another saying of Christ: "I have come to bring fire on the earth" (Luke 12: 49). She confided to me that since her childhood spent among the followers of Zarathustra, she had adored the divine presence of fire. From that time, "Christ’s Heart on Fire was for [her] the inner meaning of the purifying power [of fire] – the power of Love for which nothing is impossible."[3] Water and Fire symbolised the unity of her life that was moving towards its conclusion.
A sketch of a life
Vandana Mataji (1921-2013) was originally named Gool Dhalla – Gool signifying ‘rose petal’. She was born into a Parsee family in Bombay, a small community that produced several eminent businessmen. Like many girls from her background, she studied at the very elite Sophia College run by the Madames of the Sacred Heart. Early on "she had fallen in love with the Lord Jesus, whom [she] found a fantastic figure of personal integrity and courage born of incomprehensible love"[4] However, she waited until she was 21 before being baptised on September 13, 1942. The event caused quite a stir among the high society of Bombay, all the more so since some other students made the same decision. Sometime later Gool Dhalla departed for England to enter the novitiate of the Madames of the Sacred Heart. In 1948 she made her final vows and added Mary to her name. Since she was one of the first Indian vocations in her congregation, she was able to enjoy a fair amount of freedom, which she took advantage of in order to develop her indomitable personality.
In 1951 she returned to her alma mater as a teacher and was appointed novice mistress in 1968. Very soon, she felt the need to promote the richness of Indian culture among her pupils. An exclusively Christian and Western ambiance seemed to be too artificial for her in an India that was experiencing the enthusiasm of its recent independence. Her wish was encouraged by Klaus Klostermaier, a German priest of the Society of the Divine Word, who had just founded a centre for Indological Studies at Bombay. At that time, people were beginning to talk of inculturation, and the Indian Church received the latest decisions of Vatican II with considerable enthusiasm. Thus, the All India Seminar on the Church in India Today was held at Bangalore from May 1-25, 1969. All the driving forces of Catholicism were represented and among the speakers was an astonishing Benedictine, dressed in the saffron of the Hindu sannyasis. He was coming to be well known by Sanskrit name, Swami Abhishiktananda, which had all but displaced his French name, Henri Le Saux.
At Bangalore 


Abhishiktananda promoted an Indian form of the monastic life based on the model of Hindu ashrams. His call was not in vain because he brought the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, along with the Anglican sisters of Saint Mary the Virgin, to take over the Christ Prema Seva Ashram at Poona, which had been founded in 1927 by the Rev. Jack Winslow (1882-1974). Gool Mary Dhalla, who had recently taken the Sanskrit name of Vandana and adopted the saffron sari, was one of the members of this re-foundation along with her Irish fellow sister Sarah Grant (1922-2002) who was the chair of the philosophy department at Sophia College. To mark the reopening of the ashram Abhishiktananda was invited to be present from March 11-15, 1972, to give some thirty sisters, priests and seminarians a "preparatory seminar for life in the ashram, a life which draws together the culture, acesis and contemplation of Hindu India." Each day the Benedictine led "a contemplative reading of the Upanishads with discreet Christian echoes." There was also a period of "meditation in pure silence" and "a free-form Mass along with readings from the Upanishads." In Abhishiktananda’s words, this seminar was "very interesting and well received."[5] In a letter from this period the monk revealed the aim of his teaching: "I do not want to leave them with ideas to remember, but a new interior meaning, a underlying sense of the presence."[6] Without realising it, Le Saux had stirred his audience, and decades later, Vandana Mataji spoke emotionally to me of the debt she felt to the French Benedictine who had in this way invited her to rediscover her Indian roots beyond the form of her own overly Westernised Christianity.
Among the visitors to the ashram at Poona there were two great names of Hinduism in the 20th Century: Ma Anandamayi (1896-1982) and Swami Chidananda Saraswati (1918-2008). The latter was the president of the Divine Life Society which had been founded at Rishikesh by his guru Swami Shivananda Saraswati (1887-1963). Vandana Mataji was much influenced by her meeting with these spiritual masters and the desire arose within her to join them on the banks of the Ganges to discover their world in greater depth.
In the company of another sister, Ishpriya (Patricia Kinsey), she set off for Rishikesh in 1974 to live for six months of the year alongside Chidananda, who received them with great openness. Admittedly the ashrams of Rishikesh were bursting with foreigners at that time but the presence of two religious sisters dressed in saris did not go unnoticed. Vandana and Ishpriya benefitted from the friendship between Abhishiktananda and Swami Chidananda, thus making the Hindu monk a real interlocutor in the interreligious dialogue organised by the Church. Like many, Vandana was captivated by the aura of the president of the Divine Life Society:
To be genuinely absorbed in God surely means being joyous and compassionate. Swami Chidananda’s is a spirituality of joy, as his sense of humour and ready smile testify. He told us how he and Swami Abhishiktananda just laughed together when they met, through the sheer joy of being united in the Spirit. The compassion of Chidananda’s heart is seen daily by the ashramites as he interviews one or other of the hundreds who call on him asking for help, from poor farmers to foreign drug addicts, needy beggars to lonely lepers. The latter know his love in a special way for in his youth he had served them personally. Now they call him the "St Francis of Rishikesh."[7]
For four years the two sisters divided their time between sojourns at the ashram and trips away to communicate their discovery of the treasures of India through spiritual retreats. Then, even if it seemed an audacious undertaking, they felt called to establish themselves on a more permanent footing at Rishikesh, as Sister Thérèse Lemoine (1925-1976) had tried before them. She was another disciple of Abhishiktananda and had settled a bit further upstream at Brahmapuri before mysteriously disappearing in September 1976. Indeed, Vandana Mataji was one of the last persons to have seen her.
Thanks to the confidence that Chidananda showed in them, in February 1978 the two sisters acquired a small parcel of land near to Lakshman Jhula, one of the bridges that spans the Ganges. It was a very risky enterprise due to the numerous prejudices that surrounded the presence of Catholic nuns in an exclusively Hindu world. However, their good will and the seriousness of their contemplative life brought them acceptance by the villagers and the neighbouring ashrams.
As she took up permanent residence in Rishikesh, Vandana Mataji became a spokesperson for the Indian Church. Her numerous articles were as much anticipated as they were feared, for she was not afraid to criticise the ecclesiastical establishment, which was often tempted to shut itself away. Over the years she published several important books that moved interreligious dialogue forward. One of them, Shabda, Shakti, Sangam,[8]  proved to be a tour de force with its inclusion of articles by both Hindus and Christians. In her commentaries on Scripture – in particular on the Gospel of St John[9] – she brought her feminine sensitivity to bear on the rich Hindu and Christian symbolism that spoke to her so naturally.
Finally, Vandana was one of the pillars of the Christian ashram movement, which at that time were trying to bring about
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman<br>Jyothi Sahi
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
Jyothi Sahi
an inculturated contemplative form of Christian life in India.[10] As more and more people sought out her teaching, she accepted the invitation of the Bishop of Bijnoor to live in the Jaiharikal hills, facing the Himalayas, where in 1984 she founded the Jeevan Dhara Ashram. This splendid location was ideal for silent meditation and transmission of inner experience. Each winter, however, Vandana came back down to Rishikesh where the climate was more clement and where she met up again with Swami Chidananda, whom she regarded as her guru. During its Christmas festivities, the Divine Life Society Ashram invited her to lead the prayers. With the onset of age, Vandana finally returned to the banks of the Ganges in 1996 in the company of Namrata, a fellow sister from New Zealand. Putting an end to the invitations to participate in conferences and lead retreats across India and the entire world, she wanted to live her final years in prayer among her Hindu brothers at the place where she has received so much at the outset of her journey.
The call of Hinduism
My meeting with Vandana Mataji was very powerful. There were almost six decades between us but we shared a veritable communion in our regard for Swami Abhishiktananda. For some years, in fact, I had immersed myself in the spiritual adventure of this Benedictine monk, tracking down some of his friends in India and exploring the places where he had lived. For one week the everyday routine of Jeevan Dhara Sadhana Kutir was a bit disrupted by my desire to know more about this remarkable individual. Vandana very generously shared her memories of Abhishiktananda with me and told me about her own Hindu journey. During the afternoon she drove me into Rishikesh, allowing me to discover the significant places related to the final moments of Abhishiktananda and his disciple Marc Chaduc. Our walks along the Ganges immersed me in the unique atmosphere of that holy city, where I admired the temples, the crowds of pilgrims, and the silent ascetics. I resonated with the Spirit that was so manifest in these places and tried to respond to its inner call.
One face above all struck me, that of Swami Chidananda. For several years he had withdrawn into solitude, and no one could receive his darshan. However, his presence still filled Rishikesh. One evening as I was going through a series of photographic portraits that had been made of him, I found his face so transparent to the Mystery that it was almost unbearable. I had to shut the book and sit in silence on the bank of the Ganges. On my return to the hermitage I asked Vandana Mataji to tell me about her guru. As I listened to her, the holiness of the Swami became so simple:
One of the first things that struck me about Swami Chidananda was his gentle humility. When people tried to bow and touch his feet or prostrate themselves as is the custom before a guru, he would move away or try to touch their feet. Many a "guru" I have seen looks quite haughty or takes it for granted when people touch their feet. Not so with Swamiji. He reminded me of Jesus saying, "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (Mark 10: 43).[11]
On the hermitage walls there were other photos of the Swami, some of them in the company of Vandana Mataji. How beautiful they were, both of them in their saffron livery! And how perfectly the Christian sister reflected what the Church is called to live out through the nobility of dialogue! When looking at the portraits of Vandana Mataji, I am still struck by the unique mixture of great femininity and true spirituality that makes her truly deserve the name that used to be given in France to members of her congregation: "les Dames du Sacré-Coeur," "the Ladies of the Sacred Heart." while in English-speaking countries they were known as "the Madames of the Sacred Heart."
I have often heard it said that Mataji, who was born a Parsee and became Christian when she turned twenty-one, would finally become a Hindu again at the end of her life. This opinion is too simple. Would it not, on the contrary, be necessary to affirm that this Christian sister became exactly what the Church needs to be while present in the Hindu world, holding faithfully to the Saviour, while at the same time recognising the richness of the tradition that now encountered? The great ease with which Mataji lived at Rishikesh came to her from an authentic spiritual life that allowed her to commune from within with the interior journey of her Hindu brothers and sisters:
For the Christian who really desires to enter into the spiritual and mystical tradition of the Hindus, it is not enough to have a superficial acquaintance with India’s religious folklore, or popular religion. Nor is it enough to have a merely intellectual knowledge proceeding from a scientific study of her scriptures, rites and traditions, as in the case with many theologians returning from Rome with Doctorates. What is needed more than anything else is "an inward disposition," what the medieval schoolmen called a "habitus," of recollection and contemplation. This is "knowledge of the heart," of those ultimate depths of the self, the "cave of the heart" where the mystery reveals itself to the attentive soul of the rishis (wise). It is only here in the secret place of the heart, the wellspring or the ‘source’ […] that a true dialogue can begin.[12]
The honour that Vandana was given over the course of time was becoming the Isha Mataji – the Christian Mother – who was recognised by everyone at Rishikesh as a spiritual master, but who maintained her unique Christian identity. How could the Church not rejoice that one of her daughters had been able to dwell within Hinduism with so much respect, love and authority? Personally, I will never forget the villagers of Tapovan coming to touch Vandana Mataji’s feet with great veneration. Nor will I forget the evening when she took me to the chanting of kirtans at the Ashram at Shivananda. She had scarcely entered the prayer hall when numerous Hindu monks stood up and bowed. They had her sit in the front row and invited her to sing a bhajan. She chose Gurukripa, one of her own compositions, extolling the spiritual grace of the guru. I can still hear her voice as it filled the religious atmosphere of the evening, at the hour when the arati bells sound out along the banks of the Ganges.
Many years later, I was delighted to obtain a recording of all Vandana Mataji’s compositions. Her music makes her come alive again so powerfully and shows me the way that led her to such an intimate encounter with Hinduism, overcoming the many  limitations of Christianity, particularly in the artistic domain where it has so much to learn from other religions: ‘Personally, I think that a great deal of emotional content is lost when Scriptures are spoken rather than recited or chanted. It  is not only the chanting of Scriptures that forges bonds. We have learned that music, especially singing and chanting, can speak to us in ways that mere words cannot. Short phrases from the Scriptures, lyrics, refrains, invocations of/to the Name of God repeated rhythmically, a thousand times over, penetrate the mind and heart very powerfully’.[13]
During the unforgettable week I spent with her, Vandana Mataji showed me that  the Church has no other choice in the Hindu world than to be prophetic through genuine contemplation of and a great respect for other religious traditions. She was the silent herald of a Church that opposes no one and gives itself to all in pure generosity, like Mary pouring priceless perfume on the feet of Christ, anointing him before his Passion. I had come to Rishikesh to gather together some memories of Swami Abhishiktananda and I left with a heightened desire to remain at the heart of Hinduism.
At that time, I did not yet know how that call would be accomplished. I simply  had to walk in faith, surrounded by the inspiring example of so many predecessors. However, one event indelibly emphasises the calling that I sensed so strongly at Rishikesh. Every day, morning and  evening Gangadev, a mason from Bihar, who had worked for numerous years in the ashram at Jaiharikal, Namrata, and I met with Vandana Mataji in the hermitage oratory. When she returned to live permanently at Rishikesh, Gangadev asked to remain in her service, busying himself to great effect with all the material tasks about the house. He was a Hindu but participated in the prayers like all members of the community. In the morning he took part in our communal sharing on the Gospel, bringing some very illuminating words to us.
Since we were only able to participate in the Eucharist on a Sunday, we used to received communion with the reserved sacrament. That particular day I saw Gangadev get up at Mataji’s invitation. With great devotion he approached the tabernacle, took the ciborium, and came up to each of us so that we could receive the host. The one who used to prepare our daily food was also giving us our spiritual food, doing so with such humility that he totally disappeared in the gesture. This moment was deeply moving for me; I was receiving the host, not from the hands of a priest, but from the hands of my Hindu brother. I felt the strong passage of the Spirit that is not concerned about all our rubrical boundaries but makes them explode, showering us with an even deeper truth. It was a call that I was unable to resist…
When I left at the end of the week to catch the bus back to the Jesuits in Delhi, Vandana Mataji gave me a friendly reprimand, telling me that I was leaving too early. In truth, I would have liked to remain with her and continue our long conversations along the Ganges. Before bidding me farewell, she offered me a reproduction of the painting of Christ and the Samaritan that I had so much admired in her oratory. For years it accompanied me in my seminary life as if it were a promise that I would finally return to India to spend my priesthood among my Hindu brothers. A year later, in 2003, Vandana Mataji was obliged to leave her hermitage, struck down by Alzheimer’s that for ten years sealed her in an even greater solitude. It was in Benares, where I was living at the time, that I learned of her death in Poona on February 13, 2013.
Over the course of the years I had the chance to return to Rishikesh where everything had changed into a strange and loathsome ambience of a "spiritual marketplace" for Westerners. Except for the Ganges nothing seemed to remain of the world that I had discovered at the end of August 2002. The Jeevan Dhara Sadhana Kutir had been rebuilt by Turiya Mataji, who has lived there since. However, the spiritual strength of the passage of the truth as I had experienced it during that unforgettable week remained deep within me, like a fragrance that has never diminished, like embers that can flare up again by a mere breath of wind. For some time I had wondered what had become of the canvas painted by Jyothi Sahi. One day I came to meet Turiya Mataji. While she was preparing a cup of tea for me I opened the door of the new oratory. At the back, behind the small altar, there was the Christ seated on the edge of the well, revealing his heart to the Samaritan who, in his presence, herself became the source of living water. His is the face of the "fairest of the children of men" (Psalm 45:2), the face of Truth incarnate who was still saying: "Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4: 21, 23-24).
Trans. by Roderick Campbell Guion o.c.d.s


[1] Adi Shankaracarya, Sri Ganga Stotram, 5.10.

[2] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans 7, 2.

[3] Vandana Mataji, Living with Hindus, Delhi, ISPCK, 1999, p. 12.

[4] Vandana Mataji, Living with Hindus,p.14.

[5] Letter from Henri Le Saux to Joseph Lemarié of 30th March 1972. Cf. H. Le Saux, Lettres d’un sannyasi chrétien à Joseph Lemarié, Paris: Le Cerf, 1999, p. 402.

[6] Letter from Henri Le Saux to Marc Chaduc of 7th April 1972. Cf. J. Stuart, Le bénédictin et le grand éveil, Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1999, p. 272.

[7] Vandana Mataji,Gurus, Ashrams and Christians, St Paul Publications-ISPCK, 1978, p. 20.

[8] Vandana Mataji,Shabda, Shakti, Sangam, Rishikesh: Jeevan-Dhara Sadhana Kutir, 1995 ; Id., Nama Japa: The Prayer of the Name, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.

[9] Vandana Mataji,Waters of Fire, Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1989.

[10] To the works Gurus, Ashrams and Christians (1978) and Living with Hindus (1999) previously cited should be added: Christian Ashrams: a Movement with a Future?, Delhi: ISPCK, 1993.

[11] Vandana Mataji,Gurus, Ashrams and Christians, pp. 5-6.

[12] Vandana Mataji, Living with Hindus, pp. 39-40.

[13] Vandana Mataji, Living with Hindus, p. 38.

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