Volume XIII:2 July - December 2023
Love and Advaita
Like many others who have been intrigued by the life and writings of Abhishiktananda, I have benefitted very much from Shirley du Boulay’s book The Cave of the Heart:  The Life of Swami Abhishiktananda.[1]  As is known by everyone familiar with his life, Abhishiktananda’s original intent upon leaving his Benedictine monastery in Brittany was to establish a Christian contemplative way of life in India and in that way to help bring the Gospel to the Hindu people.  But not long after his arrival in that country in 1948 he visited the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a visit that led to a radical change in Abhishiktananda’s understanding of Hinduism.  It was not anything in particular that he learned of Ramana Maharshi’s teaching but rather the radiance of his face, especially his eyes, that deeply affected the Christian monk, along with the beauty of the Vedic chants sung each morning and evening in the ashram. As he later wrote, he had experienced “a call which pierced through everything, rent it in pieces and opened a mighty abyss…. New as [these experiences] were, their hold on me was already too strong for it ever to be possible for me to disown them.”[2]  That irresistible hold on him led to a lifelong attempt to show the compatibility between Christianity and the advaitic (“non-dual”) teaching found especially in the Upanishads.
Not surprisingly, his attempts to express this compatibility were not welcome in some Christian circles, especially in those years before the Second Vatican Council and its groundbreaking declaration Nostra Aetate on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions (1965). For example, he had sent the manuscript of an early attempt to reconcile Christian and advaitic experience to a friend in France to be typed and then given to the Paris censor, only to learn in November 1954 that the censor’s report was “totally damning, attacking the book on every conceivable ground.”[3]  
There were, however, Christian friends of his in India who were generally well disposed to what he was trying to do. Dr. Jacques-Albert Cuttat, the Swiss ambassador to India, became a good friend and organized a series of meetings at which Abhishiktananda had a leading role. The first of these was held in the hill station of Almora in 1961 on the subject of Vedantic and Christian experience. Abhishiktananda and Cuttat had agreed that the participants would all be Christians, and the meeting of the ten who gathered at Almora was so successful that a second meeting, with somewhat more participants, was held the next year in Rajpur, at the foot of the Himalayas, with a third being held in the city of Nagpur after Christmas 1963. Up to that point, Abhishiktananda felt at ease with persons who seemed to agree that advaita did not go beyond Christian experience but was its very foundation. 
However, one particular comment by Dr. Cuttat himself at that third meeting hurt Abhishiktananda so deeply that he never attended another meeting of the group. Exactly what Cuttat said has never been revealed, but it may very well have been along the lines of what he wrote some years later in a letter in which he commented on Abhishiktananda’s account of his meeting with the Hindu guru Gnananda. Here Cuttat expressed what he considered altogether unacceptable; his criticism goes to the very heart of the matter and so deserves being quoted at some length:
My first impression was outstandingly excellent. Dear Swamiji Abhishiktananda-ji explains the most difficult and subtle things in a remarkably simple and clear way. I felt surrounded again with the deeply contemplative atmosphere of India….
After several days of contemplating in this line of Shri Gnananda-ji, I felt a strange sadness. Suddenly I realized that something essential was lacking in this jnanic way to the Supreme. Everything whatsoever was pervaded with joy and bliss centered in my own Self, the whole reality was luminous and transparent, yet all this happiness was without love. There is in this way neither love for God nor love to the other; both are not loved as others. Swami Abhish. lives in a happy world of sacred solitude.
I hoped first, reading the book, that something of Christ’s love to God would appear towards the end. In vain. The Christian reader is cut off from every Thou, divine or human, and assembles all felicity within himself….
I became incapable to follow again the way of Swami Abhish. I only can pray for him, for the moment of death when he will be face to face with Christ.[4]
There is absolutely no reason to think that Abhishiktananda even knew of this letter, written about a year and a half before his death, but the issue it raises had surely come to his attention far earlier, for he deals with it in his major work, Sagesse hindoue, mystique chrétienne, published in 1965, with the first English edition, titled Saccidānanda, appearing nine years later. This and his other works were attempts to put into words the experience he had during long periods of meditation in caves on Mount Arunachala and during his lengthy reflections on the Vedantic teaching of the Upanishads. Having been raised as a Christian, he well knew the centrality of the New Testament’s teaching about love of God and neighbor, which Jesus had called the two great commandments (Matt. 22:34-40), as well as Jesus’s “new commandment” that his followers love one another as he had loved them (John 13:34).
Abhishiktananda realized that references to love were not frequent in the Upanishads: “It must be admitted that love of the neighbour as such is scarcely ever directly enjoined in the Hindu Scriptures, and that one would search in vain for anything like the ‘new commandment’ of the Gospel.”[5] That, however, did not at all mean that the reality of love was missing in those scriptures.When one becomes aware, as did Ramana Maharshi and Abhishiktananda himself, that at the deepest level one’s Self is the ātman and is accordingly one with the Absolute that those scriptures call Brahman, then
in the light of that Self he cannot experience, or even think of, himself as separate from others…. When he loves anyone, it is really the Self alone that he is loving—himself no doubt, but infinitely more than himself. Indeed there is nothing in the created universe that is outside his love, because the self-love inherent in every human personality has become for him the love of the Self, the love of all in the unique Self…. Admittedly it is not identical with the evangelical principle of loving your neighbour as yourself, since all feeling of otherness has been transcended, and yet in the end does it not come to the same thing?[6]
Someone like Jacques-Albert Cuttat might have replied that it did not come to “the same thing” and that persons like Ramana Maharshi and Abhishiktananda were so drawn to what Cuttat called “sacred solitude” that their way of life was far removed from Christian teaching about love of neighbor. However, the way they lived would belie such an objection. To be sure, both men felt called to much more solitude than most of us, but Sri Ramana regarded giving darshan (a devotional seeing sought by a devotee visiting a holy man, temple, or sacred place) as “his task in life.” Although he would normally not speak with visitors who seemed to be merely inquisitive, he insisted even during his final illness that those who appeared to be sincere should have an opportunity to speak with him.
Along the same lines, Abhishiktananda lived very frugally. For some time he allowed himself a half liter of milk each day to go along with his vegetarian diet, but he later gave that up in order to save the money and send it to some poor people he had helped support for many years. All such behavior could rightly be characterized as acts of love; for the Christian monk it was one way of fulfilling the Gospel call to “give food to the hungry” (Matt. 25:35).
In addition, both the Hindu sadhu and the Christian monk recognized that there are many different callings in life, and that some persons are called to be much more active in serving others than are those whose vocation is more eremetical. Of the Sadhu, Abhishiktananda wrote: 
Śri Ramana Maharshi never persuaded anyone to leave the world and withdraw into solitude or into an ashram.  He held that if anyone felt called to such a life, he should be free to obey; but he insisted that this has nothing to do with perfection…. He simply advised his disciples to practice the ‘search for self’ while occupied with their daily tasks, even the most commonplace.”[7] 
Abhishiktananda gave the same advice: 
God is always and in all circumstances one and the same,… The teaching or nursing sister who waits impatiently for the bell to ring, so that once again she can be ‘with God’ in the chapel, has not yet understood her vocation.  God is wholly present in the children she has to teach or in the sick to whom she has to minister—as Jesus taught in the clearest possible terms.  Far from inhibiting activity, as is sometimes maintained, the sense of the universal presence of God, which is the heart of Indian spirituality, is actually the greatest possible incentive to good work.[8] 
Or more concisely:  “Work done in the Spirit is done for love’s sake.  It is ultimately for the sake of his brother that the jñānī [a sage; one who has awakened to reality] works by his side at improving the conditions of life in the world.”[9]
It is indeed the case that Abhishiktananda’s thought, pioneering as it was, went beyond the fulfillment theology advocated by the Church in his day and still in ours, a theology that certainly recognizes rays of truth in other religious traditions but affirms that these are fulfilled only in the Catholic Church. But whatever be the ways in which his thought may reflect what Bede Griffiths sensed as going “too far” in his exploration of advaita,[10] at the very least we can recognize that at the end of his life Abhishiktananda had personally come to the reconciliation over which he had agonized for many years. 
Those who were with him in the days before his death spoke of a radiance in his face that paralleled what he had found in Sri Ramana two decades earlier.  He felt fully “awakened” and wished the same for every human being. As he wrote to his friend Murray Rogers three months before his death,
I can only aim at awakening people to what ‘they are.’  Anything about God or the Word in any religion which is not based on the deep I-experience is bound to be simply ‘notion,’ not existential.  From the awakening to self comes the awakening to God—and we discover marvelously that Christ is simply this awakening on a degree of purity rarely if ever reached by man.[11]
[1] Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005.
[2] Abhishiktananda, The Secret of Arunāchala:  A Christian Hermit on Shiva’s Holy Mountain, rev. ed. (Delhi: ISPCK, 1997), 9-10.  
[3] James Stuart, Swāmi Abhishiktānanda: His life told through his letters (Delhi: ISPCK, 1989), 83.
[4] Jacques Cuttat to Ilse Friedeberg and Rev. Murray Rogers, July 8, 1972, quoted by Shirley du Boulay, The Cave of the Heart, 183-84.
[5] Abhishiktananda, Saccidānanda:  A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience, rev. ed. (Delhi: ISPCK, 1984), 158.
[6] Ibid., 158-59.
[7] Ibid., 153.
[8] Ibid., 154.
[9] Ibid., 158.
[10] du Boulay, The Cave of the Heart, 154.
[11] Abhishktananda to Murray Rogers, Sept. 2, 1973, quoted by du Boulay, The Cave of the Heart, 237.
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