Volume XIII:2 July - December 2023
The author on the banks of Ganga, the holy river that Abhishiktananda loved.
The author on the banks of Ganga, the holy river that Abhishiktananda loved.
The Presence of Abhishiktananda
If Swami Abhishiktananda had known how much honour and appreciation would be heaped on him fifty years after his mahāsamādhi (the word one uses in India to refer to the death of a saint), he would have blushed and said (in his French accent), “I am humbled.”
I believe it is safe to say that I am among the very few of his disciples and friends who is still in the body, and therefore I may have the liberty of expressing in more personal terms my homage and infinite gratitude to him who was a light in my life.
During these last fifty years, at the beginning of which Swamiji was largely unknown outside the circle of his close friends and admirers, I tried to help publicize his inspiring life through studies, lectures, seminars, and translations in India and beyond. I can never forget how this activity began. Because postal service was so poor and we lacked other means of communication (telephone etc.), we who were in Varanasi only heard about his leaving the body on Christmas Eve 1973, seventeen days after it had happened! In our age of instant news, such a delay is unthinkable, but Swamiji had transcended time, and to him it did not matter.
Raimon Panikkar was the person who received the news and informed the little student community of Vishnu Bhavan that evening. The moment he opened his mouth, even before he began speaking, I was overwhelmed by an intense fusion of two sentiments, extreme sadness and great joy: sadness at losing a spiritual guide who was my inspiration since I first met him 1963 and, simultaneously, great joy that he had reached the goal, liberation. I experienced what I can only call the presence of an absence.
A few days later Panikkar had to leave Varanasi, and I along with a few others accompanied him to the railway station of Mugal Sarai. His train was five hours late, and that was a blessing in disguise. In the busy and noisy waiting room of the railway station we had time to remember him with love and admiration and to come up with a plan for continuing his legacy, that of a monk-sannyasi who had the courage to go his own way in search of the non-dual unity of two spiritual traditions, Christian-monastic, and Hindu-Upanishadic.
I do not need to repeat what happened in the following years. That has been well-documented in many publications, including SETU, the Bulletin of the Abhishiktananda Society, which I edited for a number of years and which is now archived on the DIM•MID website. My concern is the present, mainly in India, and his continuous presence and relevance.
Swamiji felt that the greatest challenge for Christians in India was to reach a spiritual level that would come close to that of Ramana Maharshi, his ideal of a sage. Christians were known and continue to be recognized for their charitable works and educational institutions, but not for attaining a high level of spirituality. The Church’s dialogue with Hinduism (Swamiji never entered the areas of Islam or Buddhism), remains at the institutional level, with some excursions into the field of theology. Dialogue demands mutual respect, but the Church has by and large remained within the framework of its own tradition and has only rarely yielded to the deeper urge of entering the spirituality of the “other.”
After spending sixty years life in India, I have discovered that Abhishiktananda has been fully recognised as an authentic sannyasi in two spiritual centres of Hinduism. Already during his lifetime, he was fully accepted by Swami Chidananda and the tradition of Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh. They even published his study of Sannyāsa in their Divine Life Bulletin, which the novices or applicants of Sannyāsa of Sivananda Ashram were obliged to study.
I find  it even more astonishing that his was accepted as an authentic spiritual sādhaka in the line of Ramana Maharshi and in the context of hermits and sages who had practiced for centuries in the caves of the sacred Hill Arunachala. His times of practice in the caves were certainly devoid of any physical comfort, and yet in his diary he only speaks of his complete intoxication with Arunachala, doing so in a way that is comparable to Ramana’s own mystical poem “Aksaramanamalai.” I never heard Swamiji complain about the harshness and austerity of his Tapasya, nor did he write anything to that effect. Rather, in page after page of his diary, he speaks only of his ecstasy.
Within the context of the Advaita tradition of Ramana Maharashi, the best sign of the acceptance of Abhishiktananda’s spiritual level can be found in a popular publication by Sri V. Ganesan, the grandnephew of Ramana Maharashi, titled: Meetings with Sages and Saints (Tiruvannamalai, no year). It contains descriptive accounts of the author’s meetings with twenty-four “saints and sages,” beginning with Ramana Maharshi himself. Although I dislike the definition ‘Hindu’ because there are such differences within Hinduism and because some sages, J. Krishnamurti, for example, have transcended any religious classification, Sri V. Ganesan describes his encounters with sixteen Hindus, four Muslims, and one Christian: Abhishiktananda.[1]
The author himself told me on many occasions that Abhishiktananda was the most authentic, sincere, and totally dedicated Christian seeker who came to Ramana and Arunachala. Though he never hid the fact that he was a Catholic priest and Benedictine monk, it was his spiritual experience that impressed the author. As the title of his publication indicates, Abhishiktananda was accepted as a sage or saint, not just a seeker. This designation is all the more significant in that there were any number of Christians of all backgrounds and denominations who were attracted by Ramana. I believe Abhishiktananda’s acceptance as a sage or saint is the greatest proof of his rising to a spiritual level that  transcends ‘dialogue’ and ultimately goes beyond any religious classification.
Swamiji understood his task to be the integration of three elements in his life, his thought, and his experience:
1)    his Christianity
2)   the Hinduism in which he incarnated himself (I prefer ‘incarnation’ to ‘insertion,’ since the latter has a superficial implication)
3)    his spiritual experience
In the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, there are three ways to attain liberation or Awakening (Swamiji’s preferred term):
1)    by the guru
2)    by scripture
3)    by one self (meaning by experience and by grace).
I have applied this scheme to Swamiji’s life:
1)   his guru was Christ (and the Christian tradition)
2)   he plunged himself in the Hindu scriptures, mainly the Upanishads
3)   he integrated everything in his own experience.
The language he uses in his diary can be understood only if one combines these three essential components.
The question about the relevance of Swamiji for our time, fifty years after his leaving the world, can be inferred from the very interest he evokes till now in people from different backgrounds who are in search of an authentic experience that integrates different mystical traditions.
Swamiji’s experience took place in a completely different context. If he had had an inkling of what India would be like fifty years later, he would have wondered if it was the same as the one he knew. And not only India but the world, which has undergone and is still undergoing tremendous transformations. That he remains very much relevant even in such a different world shows that he was not dependent on any historical framework. He plunged forthwith into the depth of consciousness, of the Spirit, all the while taking seriously the two traditions in which he was at home: Christian mysticism and Vedic–Upanishadic non-dualism.
 It is up to scholars and practitioners who are inspired by his experience and who can apply it to our present predicament to show how his relevance transcends any cultural and historical context, just as they have made it possible for us to imbibe the insights of mystics of different ages and contexts.
Through his intense practice and his readiness to learn from the spiritual sources of Hinduism, Abhishiktananda attained a spiritual level that has even been recognised by the living followers of Ramana Maharshi, namely, the level of Advaita, in which there is no ‘other’ and thus transcends dialogue.
 As Abhishiktananda writes in his diary,
The advaitin experience is not an idea, a theory, with which other ideas, for example Christian theology, would eventually have to be harmonized. It is a new consciousness, a new level of consciousness, in which all ideas are seen as if for the first time (Ascent to the Cave of the Heart, p. 326).
[1] The remaining three are: Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi and J. Krishnamurti, because they cannot be put in any category!
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