Volume XIII:2 July - December 2023

The Pursuit of God in India

India is always been a profoundly religious country. It is an ancient land with a blend of spiritual and cultural diversity. The uniqueness of the Indian tradition is unity and diversity. The whole world is astonished by the existence of this diversity in India. 
One of the major differences from other religions or cultures is that the Indian tradition often sees God as the creator and a true source of life rather than as a controller. This vision of God has led to the emergence of vario philosophical and religious views, and the beauty of Indian culture is that it embraces everything.
It was India’s privilege and her glory that she pursued her spiritual and philosophical quest for Being to its ultimate depths. In so doing she made man aware of his own deepest centre, beyond what in other cultures is termed "mind’, ‘soul’, or even ‘sprit’. At this transcendent point her sages discovered God, or rather, the divine mystery, beyond all its actual or even possible manifestations, beyond every sign which claims to represent it, beyond all formulations, names, concepts or myths. At the same time they discovered their own true self to be likewise beyond everything that signifies it, whether it be body or mind, sense-perception or thought, or that which is normally called consciousness”.[1] 
Today, India is a vast country, filled with incredible people and a fascinating diversity of traditions and religions. The profoundly divine nature of Indian culture can be found everywhere, from beautiful temples to tiny houses. Indians have an ancient philosophical culture, and for many of our indigenous people, religions are not just religions – they’re a way of life. 
Visitors and seekers have been drawn to India for many centuries in their pursuit of holy wisdom and gems of spiritual clarity. Swami Abhishiktananda was no exception. 
The life journey of Swami Abhishiktananda
Swami Abhishiktananda, the name adopted by Henri Le Saux, was born on 30 August 1910 in Brittany, France. At a young age he felt called to the priesthood and entered the seminary at Rennes in 1926. In 1929, at the age of 19, he wrote to the novice master of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Anne de Kergonan seeking entrance and was accepted. However, he gradually found that life at the abbey did not satisfy his desire for a profound experience God . He longed for even deeper experience of monastic life.
By 1934, he concluded that his life's vocation was to go to India. It appears that Le Saux was convinced that India would help him lead a life of greater simplicity and allow for a greater degree of renunciation. He began preparing himself by studying Hindu texts that he believed would help him to communicate more effectively with members of the Hindu faith. During these years he also wrote a text for his mother, entitled Amour et Sagesse [Love and wisdom],  a meditation on the Trinity, which he considered the noblest mystery of the faith and in which he refers to God as being beyond thought.
In spite of his longing to go to India, Le Saux was not granted permission to explore this option until 1945. He remained at Kergonan until 1948 looking for ways to realize his dream and serving  as the abbey's librarian, a position that gave him more opportunity to read the works of the Fathers of the Church, in particular the Desert and Greek Fathers, from whom he learned the apophatic way of mysticism. Between 1946 and 1948, he was also assigned to teach novices at the abbey.
In 1947, Le Saux wrote to Bishop Mendonsa of Tiruchirapalli in India, enquiring about the possibility of coming to India. In his letter, he indicated that he wanted to lead a contemplative life, in the absolute simplicity of early Christian monasticism and at the same time in the closest possible way with traditional values of Indian sannyasa. Fr. Monchanin, who responded to his letter on behalf of the Bishop, also shared a similar vision of an Indian Christianity. Le Saux had come to know about Fr. Monchanin through articles he had written, and Fr. Monchanin saw Le Saux's desire to come to India as an answer to his prayers and therefore encouraged him to make the journey. Le Saux left France for India in 1948, with the aspiration of starting a Christian ashram that would make possible the establishment of a true Indian Christianity. Together with Fr. Monchanin, he founded the ashram on the banks of the Cavery river at Tannirpalli. The ashram was officially called 'Saccidananda Ashram' or Hermitage of the Most Holy Trinity, but it was commonly known by the name 'Shantivanam' (Forest of Peace).[2]
The Rule of St. Benedict was chosen for the ashram, but many Hindu traditions were integrated, including dressing as Hindu sannyasis. Bishop, Mendonsa supported the ashram from its initiation. He believed that the approach taken by Fr. Monchanin and Dom Le Saux would allow the Indian Church to be as fully Indian as possible, adopting Indian customs and ways of thought to communicate with the people of India just as in previous eras the Church communicated the Gospel by making use of Greek and Roman thought and philosophy.
Between 1949 and 1955, Le Saux spent time in the foothills of Arunachala and in its various caves. Later, he met other teachers in the tradition of non-dualism, among them Gnanananda Giri of Tapovanam Ashram, whom he considered his guru. During this time he adopted the name Abhishiktananda (Bliss of the anointed). 
In 1968 Swami Abhishiktananda left Shantivanam to live the life of a hermit in the Himalayas near Uttarkashi[3]. He spent his last months in a state of profound realization of the Truth beyond all religions. He took mahasamadhi (Transcending physical body and being liberated into oneness with God) on 7 December 1973 in Indore. 
Hindu Christian Meeting
The greatness of Swami Abhishiktananda consists in his having lived within himself the symbiosis of two traditions, the Hindu and the Christian, in so real a way that both became part of him, without his ever being able to reject or disown either. Swami Abhishiktananda's experience, which he called Advaitatita, is an experience of Unity and Trinity.  He once wrote that his relentless fidelity to his two traditions - to the "two forms of a single 'faith'" – made of him a prophetic figure in a time when the "Marriage of East and West," in full respect of their differences and without lurking ambiguity, is felt as an urgent need. His experience constituted an important entrance to a Christian theology of religious traditions that would be grounded in an existential encounter with these traditions.[4] 
The Second Vatican Council's declaration Nostra Aetate gives clear indications that inspire the Church for its interreligious dialogue. They are mainly: respect for one's personal conscience, rejecting all forms of coercion or discrimination with regard to faith, freedom to practice one's religion and give witness to it, as well as appreciation and esteem for all genuine religious traditions.[5]
To break new ground in the way of inter-spirituality, Swami Abhishiktananda went into the depths of profound wisdom and found the riches of the Spirit in his encounter with Hinduism. As he tells us in his book, the The Further Shore, for the one who has discovered his true Self: there is no longer forest or town, clothing or nakedness, doing or not-doing. He has the freedom of the Spirit and through him the Spirit works as he wills in this world, using equally his silence and his speech, his solitude and his presence in society.
In the modern age, one can see the degree to which religious differences have brought about disharmony among all of humanity, sometimes doing so in the name of one God. This disharmony indicates that the theologies and practices of modern religions are no longer spiritually effective in promoting world peace and human spiritual evolution. The witness of Swami Abhishiktananda is especially important for dialogue between culture, tradition and religions today. We need to discover the God consciousness that unites everything and cultivate the gospel values peace and love. Swami Abhishiktananda says that everything in the world is sacramental because everything points to God. There is "nothing in creation that eludes the divine presence," and everything in it is filled with grace and sacredness. Everything is a manifestation of God, but in its own unique way:
When once you have reached the heart of the sign, you realize that everything is essentially an epiphany, a manifestation of the Lord. Thereafter what is important are not the differences and disparities between the manifold manifestations, but the quality common to all of them-and to each of them in a unique manner-of being a sign of God. This extends from yourself to every conscious being that has ever existed or will exist, from the atom or the smallest living creature to the galaxies. In everything now the heart has been discovered-the heart in which all is discovered, all is seen, all is known. There is nowhere anything but God in himself. Only then can the taste of Being be appreciated. And thereafter that taste - that, and no other - is recognized in every being. [6]
Swami Abhishiktananda went to the extreme depth of sannyasa. He realized a Sannyāsī is one who renounces the world to seek God, but his renunciation went far beyond what is ordinarily understood by the world. 
A Sannyāsī renounces the whole world of “signs,” of appearances. . . . The Church also  belongs to the world of “signs.” The doctrines and sacraments of the Church are . . . signs of the divine reality. . . . The Sannyasi is called to go beyond all religion, beyond every human institution, beyond every scripture and creed, till he comes to that which every religion and scripture signifies but can never name. Yet when we say that the Sannyasi goes beyond religion this does not mean that he rejects any religion. I have not felt called to reject anything that I have learned of God or of Christ or of the Church. To go beyond the sign is not to reject the sign, but to reach the thing signified. . . . As long as we remain in the world we need these signs, and the world today cannot survive unless it rediscovers the signs of faith, the “Myth,” the “Symbol,” in which the knowledge of reality is enshrined. But equally fatal is to stop at the sign, to mistake the sign for the ultimate reality. . . . This is essentially idolatry. . . . The Sannyasi is one who is called to witness to this Truth of the reality beyond the signs, to be a sign of that which is beyond signs”.[7]
Swami Abhishiktananda was a pioneer who dared to break boundaries and generate a path that inspires and illumines people today. Fifty hears after his his death. his life has still not ended. His life witness inspires many people, even today. One of the best reasons for hope in the crisis through which the world is now passing is certainly the growing interest of Westerners for Eastern spirituality. Westerners have much to learn from the spiritual and cultural world of the East, which has evolved in ways very different from their own. Perhaps it is only from the East that they will discover that inwardness they so patently lack and will recover the identity that seems to have escaped them – but this time they will discover an identity that will reveal the very depth of their own being[8].
Swami Abhishiktananda’s life inspires us to seek God constantly, to devote our lives to an unending quest for God. Today, the church needs to open up a way of being in dialogue with mystical knowledge and experience, rather than placing so much emphasis on questions of doctrine and ritual. We need genuine dialogue, rooted in a profound experience of God, religions, and traditions, a dialogue marked by openness, a dialogue without fear. This is the kind of dialogue needed in our time so that the church can spread the genuine spirit of Christ peacefully and with understanding of and respect for different cultures and religions.
[1]Abhishiktananda, The Further Shore  (ISPCK,1975) 1.
[2] James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda His life told through his letters (ISPCK, 2000) 1-10.
[6] Abhishiktananda, Guru and Disciple (ISPCK,1990) 169.
[7]Bede Griffiths, The Marriage of East and West (Templegate, 1982) 42,43.
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