Transcript of an Interview with the Rev. Murray Rogers on Swami Abhishiktananda

Apart from my family whom you know a little part now, they’re very special to me, apart from them, I don’t think there’s anybody who means more to me, really, than old Swamiji. Not as somebody who’s dead and gone, but as somebody who’s very much alive. I hear him especially saying to me: Oh Mourraay, oh Mourraay, Mourraay. When he thought that I was overdoing praise, or overdoing what he meant to me, he would pull me back and say: Mourraay, Mourraay, I’m very ordinary. Don’t try to make me anything special.
Meeting Swamiji
I didn’t know I was meeting him, of course, none of us did. He had written a postcard, and as it had often happened before, the postcard arrived after the person. So it arrived the day after Abhishikt arrived. He came, ah, he was coming up to the hills. And he got off the train in Bareilly station, a junction, which was four or five miles from where we were. I think he came, I think he walked out. I don’t know if he had a rickshaw. As he walked out and carrying his stuff, you know, his rucksack and his khadi stuff,  looking as simple, you would think a crazed man, really. He looked incredible. And he thought he would just find us because we we’d be having lanterns. He felt that we’d be having Compline or something like it, prayers for the end of the day. And when he got out into where we lived which was in a wood, he didn’t find us at all, he wandered around for a good long time and didn’t find any sense, any sound or anything, of the sunset, and everything got dark and he was just sort of packing up when he saw lights gathering and a gong, and, ah, he followed the lights and the gong to our chapel. Of the chapel there is a picture of it hanging on the wall outside. And, ah, decided that must be who he was after. And he came and stood at the chapel door, ah, which we always had the door only to here [he shows a height of maybe one meter], for this we couldn’t stand churches in India always were locked up, and of course temples always open. We could not see why Christ had to be—had to be guarded and locked up, when the symbols for God from the Hindus could be open and left for the public to do what they needed to do. And so he came and followed the lights and at the end of the service we all turned around towards this door—the door that was half a door to keep the dogs out. And as we turned around and gave the peace to the next person with us, you see, and the end to Heather, who is here now, who gave the peace to the village friends who were there in our spirits, but weren’t there physically, we looked out of the door and there was this extraordinary figure. We’d heard of Swami Abhishiktananda once or twice before but hadn’t registered really. But there he was, and he . . . we said “hello” and “welcome” and what are we going to do with the night, so he was going to stay with us, we assured him, and so he said “yes”, and . . . and after the Amen, of course, we decided, we discovered it was entirely new to him. A priest who is married—absolutely out of his mind. He never thought of such a thing really seriously. Ah, and of course, having his wife there, dressed in a sari, paddling around with no shoes and everything, as you know well enough, we were living on the ground. You see, by that time we lived at Sevagram, Gandhiji’s headquarters for fifteen years, the last fifteen years of his life, ah, and so we learned really to live without any furniture, with a mat, with a string bed, chaby [?], ah, and that’s what we gave Swamiji.

And so he felt very comfortable with you and you became friends.
I suppose so. Because, of course, the first time we celebrated—fancy, I laugh at it now, he ah, it was just like St. Peter’s in Rome. We had all the best dressing up, ah, and he had it all shoved down into his, ah, rucksack. Ah, which we pulled out and made a part of what he put on. And I said I would like to be with him when he celebrated. He wasn’t quite so sure about that. But he . . . I said that we do invite our friends to celebrate in whatever way they wish. And he let me. And he said afterwards, of course, Moorraay, which he always called me, Moorraay, I didn’t know really when I first met you. I couldn’t believe it that you were a real priest, and that you prayed and worshipped like we do, really, and that’s why of course I didn’t have you too concelebrate with me. And I did after that the second or third time he came. And he became a regular visitor.

You see. I’ve often wondered what changed Swamiji from an old traditional Breton, French Roman Catholic, very traditional—he must have been awful in the monastery sometimes, because he was ticking people off, you know, when they wouldn’t be quite as they should have been as monks. He was very much . . . very traditional, indeed. Believing all the right things in a way. I see some in Swamiji as being, being, ah, just a man I would not’ve wanted to meet in particular. [Laughter, cough]. And then, so quickly, he could change. And I think he changed vis-à-vis the people who he met. Because he hadn’t met Anglicans, he hadn’t met Quakers, he hadn’t met married priests, he hadn’t met—well, he was meeting heretics all the time. From his point of view, you see. And hadn’t yet meeting them. And I’ve thought, the change, the really radical change was that Swamiji began to see that everybody he met was a sort of gift, a sort of revelation to him. Ah, he was linked up with God, that he found God was speaking words to him about human beings. Before, you see, he knew it all. He knew it all. So Roman Catholic, he knew what they ought to believe. He knew that they ought to have Mass everyday. He knew they ought to go to confession. He knew it all. And when he came to us that night, and the following morning wanted to celebrate Mass and got his robes, all […] crunched up, out of his rucksack in order to celebrate, ah, specially, you know, that Catholic friends, I don’t know whether is now, but would never celebrate Mass without using the relics which were in the cloth sown into a cross in the corner. Now, Swamiji, on one occasion when he, when he lost the relics, or broke the relics, he was terribly upset, terribly upset. He couldn’t celebrate the Mass that day. And then I . . . when I think of the . . . what fun what God was having that I, from my end, you see, was a very fundamentalist Non-Roman-Catholic, very Protestant. And then Swamiji and I found ourselves so quickly, really, really talking to each other’s hearts. That was a wonderful thing.

Inner Struggles, Silence and Talking
I think that we also knew what he called the anguish inside himself. Because when he came to us to Jyotiniketan, ah, it took about a day or two before he really relaxed, before he could really sort of settle down. Because he said what an agony it was because he knew that these two realities were true, and he had to say yes to them. And when he said yes it wasn’t just yes. And then it was yes with the whole of himself. And of course that is what Swamiji to me is, a man who did what he said. You know, most of us do occasionally say what we are, but, ah, it was something about him—he was very honest. Very honest. Even if it was embarrassing for him. That’s what made him say that he was so intolerably French.

And then we discovered he was also a gas-bag. You know the phrase in English, slang expression. Meaning a talkative bag. He had so much going on inside him. And you see, he was so much of a French one that it was quite difficult for him, really. I think that’s why we were lucky that he discovered us as being, well, partly being Anglicans. He’d never met Anglicans before, you see. So he thought we were a little bit queer—we’re not nearly queer enough. And he thought we we’re very abnormal. Anglicans. And he didn’t know what they were. And that [Silence] it was a terrific relief not having any Roman Catholics around, you see, ‘cause then he could be free. He trusted us.

Once when he came to us, we had, it’s in one of those books, ah, two little huts, actually, built in our five and a half acres . . . where we spent a day, each of us, the three of us, four of us, each of us spent a day in silence a week, and of course, Swamiji, when he arrived, there was complete chaos, anything like a community. Silence . . . disappeared because Swamiji just talked. And he was talking all the time. So I said, Swamiji, we, too, have two silent huts here. Would you like to have a silent day? We’ll bring you over the food on a tray and you’ll have something to eat and drink. Would you be quietly by yourself? And he said: Moorraay, what d’you think I come here for? I don’t come here to be silent. I come here to talk. [Laughter] So, it was the greatest difficulty we made him silent. We had to remind him that his vocation was being silent. And he said: Augh. [Lifting shoulders in expression of dismay]. Augh. That’s how I see him now.

Yes, then he had some silence. Ah, when it was convenient, when it was convenient. [Laughter] I remember, d’you remember, I don’t remember the man’s name. A French professor. One day at lunch, ah, there was a . . . somebody said: Koy hain? And we answered in Hindi. And I went out to see who it was. And I found it was a French professor who had arrived from somewhere, and he said, I’m looking for Dom Le Saux everywhere in North India. Not much hope, you see, in North India, and, I think I probably said, I think I could help you. So he said, if you could I’d be very grateful. Because I happen to be on the staff of some University in Paris or something. Ah, very much a man of Teilhard de Chardin, you know of him. And ah, I’m trying to write a book about him, and I feel that Dom Le Saux would help me. So I said: Well, actually, he’s staying here, you see. So (….) quietly. And, ah,  [laughter] Then, I always forget. I put him, the French one, not Henri, Swamiji French one, ah, in the common room which we had. I brought him some tea or something, what we always did for the visitors. And, ah, he had tea and biscuits and whatnot. We were finishing our lunch. So we finished our lunch and I took . . . I came . . . he was sitting there and I said: Swamiji, somebody’s come for you. – Moorraay, you shouldn’t have told him that I was here. You know perfectly well, I’ve not come to talk to people, you see. So I, [laughter] - I still love that – I said to Swamiji: Oh Swamiji, I’m prepared to tell small lies in order to get you out of embarrassment. But I cannot possibly say you’re in Almora, or Nainital, or Delhi, when you’re here, when you’re three yards away from the man just outside. He was talking to me on the step. Ah, Swamiji was very annoyed, he said: Well, you, you’ve got learn, that I’m not here when I come to stay here, I’m by myself. Well, we had a great argument about lying. Ah, and then the end of that story is that after lunch I said: Swamiji, I’m going to introduce you to Professor so-and-so. Ah, and he said: I don’t want to see him, don’t want to see him. Well, I said, it’s not my fault, it’s your fault. You got, you’re getting so famous. People are coming and looking for you. I can’t help it. And [laughter] Swami said: Ough, famous. No, I’m not famous. He didn’t like that at all. And then he started meeting the man. I’d walked him out there and introduced him to these two French ones, to one another. This was about two o’clock in the afternoon. By about five I said: This is enough. Our dear silent Swamiji is now being talking for about three hours. And he can’t stop. So we now got to stop him. Ah, we had a great laugh. Stopping Swamiji from talking was a great difficulty, great drama.

Uttarkashi . . . was absurd. Because you see, I had a permit to be there for a week. How did it work?  I knew we went together to the district superintendent. And we were there for eight days. Well not at the superintendent. But I was there for a full eight days, you see. So we had to make the measurement fit us. We didn’t like the measurement, the time they gave us. So we had to have eight full days. So they allowed us a little more. All worked out by Swamiji because Swamiji . . .  Swamiji was an old rascal, you know. Really. He wouldn’t let anybody stop him. Really. He just, sort of, found another reason. I can’t . . . I always thought that whenever I was with Swamiji with government people—Swamiji was very polite to them of course—but of course he would always take it for granted that they would agree with him. And . . . ah . . . actually really did,  because you see in India, as you know, agreeing with somebody is . . . or disagreeing is really rather rude. So you agree with them even if really you don’t. And Swamiji did that.

Did you have an experience how he was respected by Indian monks, how they reacted to him.
Oh, I think of going for a walk in the evening with him and he’s meeting an old boy who as we approached went like that [lifting his arms]. It was beautiful. And he stood for a second or two and then showing how lovely everything is. You see, beautiful to be alive. And Swamiji would go down to the river, you see, it was the grace of the river, the grace of the Ganga was surrounding them. And then the other men would come and, you know, it was a beautiful smile. And I found that the other man, the other sadhu, had been silent for years, you see, but they’d understood one another.

[Murray has a little stone chalice in a brass container and takes it out.]
Well you see, here, this chalice he bought because we wanted to celebrate the Eucharist at Saptarishi up above Rishikesh. And the corner that is marvellously like as perhaps you know, ah, marvellously like the Egyptian desert fathers, as far as we know. And they are having practically nothing, just the clothes, living there in little huts which were made really of leaves, which would last a year and a half and then would do them down. We were going to have the Eucharist there, as I would they. And we were going there early in the morning and we hadn’t a chalice and paten. So we went to a shop and there we found that chalice and paten which have always been very precious since. It’s very soft stone but it means a lot. But when we got there I remember we sang some of his songs, you know them perhaps, of the Upanishads, ah, which were much loved by him, songs that he sung in the last years at Arunachala. And then we sang them and took off our clothes. It’s fascinating that Indians when they celebrate sacrament, they take off clothes, and we Western people with sacraments put on clothes. There’s quite a lot in that, I think, what we put on and take off. We, so to speak, dress up. They dress down. It’s always like that. And then, of course, forgotten, as Swamiji said, we’ve forgotten the altar. What are we going to have as an altar. You know, it’s all sand by the Ganga. And, ah, he said, I’ll go and get it. And then paddled off, you know he tucked up his dhoti, all the time around his tummy. And so he could paddle into the Ganga, and there he found a stone that felt, because of course it was under the water, he felt it was a little flat. So he brought it out and we had the stone for the altar stone on which we put these two things, the chalice, the paten, and he and I celebrated there. I never forget it. Our top halves bare, as he would be when he celebrated the Indian way. And the simplest, as much silence as would go. So to speak: Go naturally. And it never seemed to me too much. He was all so ordinary and so very special. It took a long time, quite some time, especially up in Gyansu. And I remember our celebrating the Eucharist, and it took four and a half hours. And so we wondered what in the world had happened. And we laughed together, and said we must be more careful in the future, because we mustn’t go on indefinitely, but that was lovely that way. In the attic of the house there was a little window, and you look through onto the Ganga. The dear Ganga, the Gangama, the river, that flooded, after, I still keep on saying Gandhiji, after Swamiji died, the whole house was swept away.

Swamiji was really never very serious about himself. And in a way he was so serious that he could afford to be light. Ah. I mean he was, as I would put it, crazy about God. If he felt God was asking him to do something, nothing in heaven or earth would stop him from trying to do it. Ah. And yet at the same time, he was the first to laugh at himself. You see, he never took himself too seriously. Now I find that is glorious.

Oh, of course we roared with laughter together. Especially, I think that Swamiji would say, nobody should take him too seriously. Ah… They always took him with a pinch of salt, as we say. And, and I’m trying to think of when we laughed most. [Silence]

Cutting vegetables.
Oh yes, that wasn’t laughter, it was deadly serious in a way. Oh dear. You see, after the service, after our Eucharist in the morning we always cut up vegetables for the middle of the day and asked our visitors if they’d join in. And, ah, there was one visitor, who was she? There was one visitor who cut up onions rather quicker than Swamiji could. Swamiji said: She humbles me, she humbles me. She ‘umbles me. Of course his English and his French got hopelessly mixed up. And English spoken with a French accent, and French spoken with an English accent, is much more [unintelligible], much more interesting than the real thing. And I never think of Swamiji with not a twinkle in his eye, you know? It said a whole mouth full about Swamiji. He didn’t, he didn’t sort of . . . well, nobody could think of him as a great man, you know. He had just . . . he had got so many foibles. He had got so many things that he laughed at himself for.

All India Conference  of the Roman Catholic Church in India in Bangalore 1969
I remember an impression. I remember wonderful times of the Eucharist, first thing in the morning, before the people were up. And I remember, his book about prayer had just come out. And I was a sort of salesman for him. We sold about 150 copies at that show. The Bishop of Allahabad, where we lived, you see, at the agricultural college. And, ah, haha, I do remember him, because he said to me, I think on the second or third day, you know: To begin with, Murray—probably called me Father, I don’t know—we Bishops were rather frightened of this meeting. We thought it would be very much against us. But you know it’s been transforming for us. All about the way we are called now, because to begin with we went with, you know, Your Excellency, Your . . . or whatever it is, all the way down, brothers and sisters, sisters and mothers and fathers and . . . to include everybody or addressing. You see. And, ah, and he . . . And some of us felt, it was really—especially the sisters—felt it was so stupid, the way we addressed one another. We would—I remember one of them I can’t  remember the setting—but one of the women, an older lady, she wouldn’t have been there probably, who called out:  Aren’t I a human being, too. You see, expressing the desire that the Church should wake up to the fact that we are all younger and older, with this experience and that, but we are all one in Christ. Whatever we would be at the realm of Bishop and Cardinal or what not. And this Bishop whom I knew particularly well, told me that he . . . that it had been a revelation for a day or two when they’d all behaved properly, and addressed one another properly. You know, Your Holiness, Your . . . –what are they called . . . Bishops?—and it was all frightfully formal. And then, mercifully it had changed to “brothers and sisters,” and it had been a terrific change. That was a wonderful meeting, it was extraordinary. Not because of anything that was decided. Really, it was lovely to sit at meetings with Mother Theresa et cetera, but the change in the people. We’d really woken up to the fact that we rather love one another. You know, what we were supposed to do as Christians. But generally you can’t go to a meeting without all the to do of calling people what they are called. You know as if you were members of the House of Lords. But he was . . . the Bishop was entirely changed by that.

And how did Swamiji experience this meeting?
Oh, he felt wonderfully supported, wonderfully supported. And, on one occasion—we really were . . . had a rather gang. There was always Swamiji who was our spiritual guide, and about four or five of us, people I know now still, who were in the gang with Swamiji, selling the book, and getting Swamiji to speak. Because Swamiji was always a very quiet man. You know, you never know . . . what should you say? Swamiji did talk, of course he talked a lot. Didn’t know quite where to stop. But at the same time he was very backward, nervous. He never, he never . . . you’ll notice the man in the corner because how he was dressed and his hair was all over the place and what not. But you wouldn’t notice him that he was talking like a professor. Not a bit. He was very . . . yes, nervous, I think, is the word. And especially nervous . . . of, of Jesuits. He’d had bad experience of Jesuits sometimes. But he had a great many friends who were Jesuits, too. But that’s how it took him. And I always remember Swamiji . . . Swamiji who was a giant in so many ways in comparison with me. I knew that perfectly well. But Swamiji never made me feel small. And when you failed in many ways as I have, you feel small very quickly with human beings.

Of course there was one absurd occasion at that meeting. Swamiji and I were in the same group with . . . with Mother Teresa for two or three hours in the morning. We had a great time. Ah [laughter], and . . . Swamiji who you never met—you might have been frightened of meeting him a bit because he looked so peculiar, so to speak. But once you’d met him, he would always ask questions. He wouldn’t be a man who would talk to you as if you were a student. You . . . you were being his teacher then, listening, he was listening to what you had to say. . . . A marvellous mixture, I always felt. So experienced in things, and in Christian things, Christian ways. And yet at the same time a listener. A real listener. And, of course, I was going to tell you, one afternoon—I can see him there, he was sitting on my right there – and the Jesuit, young Jesuit, was just there sitting on the outside. And we knew, already, Swamiji had to speak to the whole meeting, to the whole conference. [Repulsing gesture and mimic] Swamiji would always say: No. You see. And then we, we picked him up, more or less. I picked him up on one arm, and the young Jesuit on the other arm. And we launched him into the aisle, and put him there near the microphone. And he held the microphone out there and addressed the microphone, from what we all know, a couple of feet away. We couldn’t hear what he was saying. So this . . . the . . . now I knew . . . it’s in a particular book, the man who was the chairman then. A very dear Jesuit who was a professor at the place in Delhi, Jyoti-something, and the man said: Come nearer, Swamiji. Come nearer, we want to hear what you say. So Swamiji picked up the microphone that was standing there, like this, picked it up and held it on his full length [Murray pointing out the length of his arm] and brought it nearer to the chairman. And everybody roared with laughter because it hadn’t done the trick at all. It just moved everything, so he . . . and some way one called out: Swamiji, he doesn’t mean move, he doesn’t mean move the . . . the microphone, he means: You move nearer to it. You know, Swamiji would do that . . . Swamiji was absolutely . . . sort of guileless. I don’t know what you’d call. He wouldn’t push himself. He had to be pushed. And on that occasion, I remember particularly ’cause he affected really people. I mean, he . . . I don’t know that it was he . . . somebody said, he went to that conference which, of course, was a Catholic conference of all over, yeah . . . not very well known, but he won their hearts. I don’t know why by being such a fathead, if you know what I mean, about the microphone. But it’s those little things, that are sort of unconscious, you know, you can tell what a man has in his heart.

Is there anything but God?
I remember that . . . that question of Swamiji. Left . . . When he probably thought we were talking theology up in the air. And he didn’t trust theology up in the air. He trusted . . . It cost people something. If it meant a difference, it need to a . . . to agree with it, no I don’t think so, but he needed to know that the person who had spoken was . . . was intending to live what he was speaking, and then it was, you see, he suddenly said to me “Moorraay, is there anything but God?” I mean, you could see there, how really at the centre he was very serious. You could see there really the cause of his whole spiritual life, I think. You see, in the convent, in the monastery there was lots but God. But he was wanting to come down to the point where there is saying: There is nothing, Moorraay, but God. But everything I said is such a washout in comparison with the man. [Murray beaming]. You know he was, I think, extraordinary.

On Abhishiktananda’s heart-attack and realization
I think it meant to me that he had really climbed through the separateness of Christianity in terms of religion, that really he no longer believed in . . . your choice between A, B and C, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity. He knew, he really knew deep down, however far he couldn’t persuade the authorities in Rome, he knew that Christ was for every man. Ah, he was free from this perpetual—what shall I say—trying to be right. You know? And he, and he was . . . and indeed, it was part of our privilege, huge privilege, to be there in Jyotiniketan often. When we . . . when we knew that we have made Christ sort of pocket-sized, like one of those little books that goes in when you’re going on a long journey, you’d pop into your pocket. And you . . . a sort of pocket-sized book. We’ve done that really with Christ. And now you see [tears] He’s the Lord. [Long silence] You see, you . . . when you know He’s the Lord . . . you don’t have to, you don’t have to, you don’t have to support him, you don’t have to find out humans for Christ. All you can do [whispering] all you can do is worship. . . . All you can do is worship and in the end be silent before a marvel, before what got us. Sorry.

[Nodding] You see, so often we Christians, we Christians have put a choice between people. Between, to speak, so many articles in the bazaar. There’s Mohammed, there’s Gandhi, there’s the Chinese marvellous people, great gifts of God to us all. And we have asked people to chose between one or the other. [Tears again, whispering:] There’s no choice.

I have a feeling that we are... we are just beginners. Yeah. Even the . . . if all . . . if not we had met them. I see all . . . there’s a world of wonder, a mystery beyond all our poor bits of theology. There’s a . . . a completeness. Purnam adah—it’s dear Swamiji’s favourite mantra really. Fullness. Fullness here, fullness there. When fullness is taken from fullness, fullness remains. There’s a fullness . . . about this world. We come back to Swamiji’s saying what we remembered yesterday: Mourraay, is there anything else but God? And in that distant way that we are hardly capable of approaching it, there’s a . . . there’s a fullness beyond anything we’ve reached yet. Beyond, beyond, you remember how in his writings, and in Shirley’s book, that thought came again and again. Never settle down, never think you got it. There’s always a beyond, a beyond. The mystery of ... of our wholeness which we can hardly conceive of.


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