Dilatato Corde 2:2
July – December, 2012
The Mauna Mandir at Kumbakonam
The Mauna Mandir at Kumbakonam


Abstract: It is well known that Swami Abhishiktananda’s joint involvement with Advaita and Christianity caused deep tension within him and that in his final years, in the 1970s, he claimed to have transcended the tension through a definitive mystical experience. However, much earlier, in the 1950s, he learned to live with both traditions by critically questioning and moderating his attraction to them. He learned this through a series of three retreats in 1955 and 1956, the culminating one having been at the Mauna Mandir in Kumbakonam. These retreats helped pave the way for his later accomplishments.

Précis : Il est bien connu que l'engagement de Swami Abhishiktânanda dans l'advaita et le christianisme a provoqué en lui de profonde tensions intérieures, et que, dans ses dernières années, c’est à dire les années 1970, il a prétendu avoir dépassé  ces tensions à travers une expérience mystique définitive. Cependant, beaucoup plus tôt, dans les années 1950, il a appris à vivre avec les deux traditions en les critiquant et en modérant son attirance pour chacune d'elles. Il a appris cela à travers une série de trois retraites en 1955 et 1956, le point culminant ayant été la retraite à Mandir Mauna Kumbakonam. Ces retraites ont contribué à ouvrir la voie à ses réalisations ultérieures.

Click here for a .pdf document of this article with notes at the bottom of each page.

Swami Abhishiktananda (1910-1973) is widely considered to be a model of monastic interreligious dialogue.[1] He entered St. Anne’s Abbey in Kergonan, France, in 1929 and there was known as Dom Henri Le Saux. In 1948 he joined Father Jules Monchanin in India to establish Shantivanam, a Benedictine monastery near Trichinopoly. The two men were inspired by the ideal of inculturation, as promulgated by successive popes in the twentieth century, of fusing Christian faith with the cultures of every land, rather than trying to import Western culture with Christianity. Hence, the distinctive goal of Shantivanam was to incorporate the customs of saṃnyāsa, Hindu renunciation, with Benedictine monasticism to whatever degree possible without compromising Christian faith.[2] However, Abhishiktananda’s dialogue with Hinduism would go far beyond these original plans, for he would seek not just to follow the customs of saṃnyāsa, but to immerse himself in the spirituality of the associated school of mysticism and philosophy, Advaita Vedanta. As is well known, Advaita teaches that one’s deepest self, the ātman, is identical to Brahman, the “Immense Being” underlying the manifest world. Abhishiktananda’s immersion into this spirituality led to both deep dialogue and deep tension for him between Advaita and Christianity.

Much of the scholarship on Abhishiktananda focuses on main highlights of his life, such as the establishment of Shantivanam, his major publications, like Saccidānanda and Hindu-Christian Meeting Point, and the peace he found in his final years between Advaita and Christianity. His early efforts, in the early to mid-1950s, to live with both Advaita and Christianity have received less scholarly attention. Deeply committed to Christianity and greatly drawn to Advaita, he found he could lessen the tension between them by questioning his attraction to both traditions and introducing elements of detachment towards them. Although the lessons learned in this period received less scholarly attention than his experiences in his later years, but these early lessons gave Abhishiktananda a practical way of living with both Advaita and Christian faith. They thereby paved the way for his later accomplishments. This study is primarily a historical one, illustrating Abhishiktananda’s progress with these issues from 1952 to 1956.    

Abhishiktananda learned to critically evaluate his attractions to Christianity and Advaita through a series of three retreats over a sixteen month period, from July 1955 to December 1956. The first retreat was approximately two weeks long and was led by Dinshaw Mehta, a Parsi medical doctor with some innovative spiritual ideas who founded the Society of Friends of God in Mumbai. The second was a two-week retreat led by Swami Gnanananda, who was a spiritual master living near Tiruvannamalai. Although deceased, he continues to be highly regarded in the area today. The retreat at the Mauna Mandir in Kumbakonam was completely solitary, lasting over a month. There Abhishiktananda would be significantly affected by a point adopted, indirectly, from Zen Buddhism. (For a personal reflection on my experience of visiting the Mauna Mandir see Ulrich [2012], in this issue of Dilatato Corde.)

The Mandir in Kumbakonam is one of a series of Mauna Mandirs or “Temples of Silence” that had been established by the Gujarati spiritual master, Shri Pujya Mota, as places of complete isolation. The minimum length of a stay is seven days. The Mandir in Kumbakonam is owned by the Mehta family, which had come from Gujarat and settled in Kumbakonam in the early twentieth century and which claims Pujya Mota as the family guru. At the retreat’s end Abhishiktananda referred to it as a “milestone in my life” (1998, 195 [12.7.56]).[3] Sadly, there were two recent deaths in the Mehta family, Mr. Hari Gopaldas on January 20, 2011, and Mr. Hasmukhlal Gopaldas on July 28, 2011. These men remembered Abhishiktananda fondly, and this paper commemorates the role their family played in Abhishiktananda’s life by hosting him in the Mandir.[4]

Initiation into Advaita and Exposure to Zen

During his first years in India Abhishiktananda’s assessment of Hinduism underwent profound changes. He had long admired Indian lifestyles of renunciation, but had considered these as expressing a mere yearning for God, not a deep communion with God (Monchanin and Le Saux 1964: 27). That accorded well with the Catholic theology of his time, which had maintained that a “natural” knowledge of God is available to all people through the use of reason but that the “supernatural” presence of God is available only through Jesus Christ and the mediation of his grace through the Church. However, Abhishiktananda went beyond this framework to consider Advaita to be a genuine experience of God.

Key to his changing views of Hinduism was his contact with the Advaitic adept, Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). By the time Abhishiktananda met him, Ramana was a well-known sage around whom a monastery, Sri Ramanasram had sprung up at the base of the holy mountain, Arunachala, in Tiruvannamalai. Abhishiktananda met him in the closing years of his life, when crowds were coming to the ashram to sit silently in his presence to gain the darśan or “sight” of him. Ramana’s biographer, Arthur Osborne, states that at age sixteen Ramana had had a sudden fear of death, that he had resolved to face the fear by imagining the body dying, and that he had thus been overwhelmed by a sense of sheer awareness, of an “I” underlying his ordinary consciousness. According to Osborne, Ramana had thereby become enlightened, that he had lost all interest in his ordinary life, and that he had run away from home to the temple at Tiruvannamalai, later coming to reside at the nearby mountain (Osborne 1954, 18-24). Osborne’s biography is the standard account of Ramana’s life, but Glenn Friesen’s comparison with other sources on his life makes it appear that Osborne exaggerated the significance of this experience. Further, it appears that Ramana’s enlightenment was not so sudden (Friesen 2006, 13-19). In any case, by the time of Abhishiktananda’s meeting with him, he was highly regarded as an enlightened sage.

Ramana had taught the Advaitic belief that consciousness belongs to Brahman, the “Immense Being,” but that the individual ego, the ahamkāra, claims consciousness for himself/herself. The spiritual goal is to separate consciousness from the ahamkāra. To that end Ramana had taught a spiritual praxis, ātmavicāra, in which one continuously asks in meditation the question, “Who am I,” rejecting all the answers that occur to one. Thereby pure consciousness may come to shine forth: “If in this manner the mind becomes absorbed in the Heart, the ego or ‘I’, which is the centre of the multitude of thoughts, finally vanishes and pure Consciousness or Self, which subsists during all the states of the mind, alone remains resplendent. . . . It is this state, where there is not the slightest trace of the ‘I’-thought, that is the true Being of oneself. ” (Ramana 1959, 42). In this way one realizes the teachings of the sacred texts, the Upanishads, that one’s true self, the ātman, is the Brahman or “Immense Being” that underlies all existence.

Abhishiktananda traveled to Ramana’s ashram at Tiruvannamalai in 1949, within a year of his arrival in India, eager to meet this exemplar of Hindu renunciation. Sitting in his presence at the ashram during a public session, Abhishiktananda was captivated by the charisma which had enchanted so many other people, both Indians and Europeans. He wrote,

the invisible halo of this Sage had been perceived by something in me deeper than any words. . . . I discerned the unique Sage of the eternal India, . . . ; it was as if the very soul of India penetrated to the very depths of my own soul and held mysterious communion with it. . . . My dreams also included attempts—always in vain—to incorporate in my previous mental structures without shattering them, these powerful new experiences which my contact with the Maharishi had brought to birth; new as they were, their hold on me was already too strong for it ever to be possible for me to disown them (Abhishiktananda 1979, 8-9).

James Stuart, Abhishiktananda’s main biographer, states that these “mental structures” were the “traditional understanding and expression of the Christian faith in which he had been brought up” (Stuart 1989, 34). Indeed, in Benedictine Ashram he had utilized the ideas common at that time in Catholic theology by referring to India’s ascetical traditions as expressing a “yearning” for God, but in the years following his encounter with Ramana he would move beyond this to write of a profound experience of God in Advaita.[5]

That was the first of many visits to Tiruvannamalai that Abhishiktananda would make over the next few years.[6] Some of these visits lasted for months and involved stays in the caves on the sacred mountain of Arunachala, which lay behind Ramana’s ashram, where Hindu ascetics lived. While maintaining his identities as a Catholic priest and a Benedictine monk he lived like a Hindu ascetic, formed friendships with a wide variety of Hindus and Western devotees of Ramana, spent time at the temple and at Sri Ramanasram, and learned the Hindu customs and practices of the city of Tiruvannamalai. No longer content simply to follow the customs of saṃnyāsa, which had been his original plan, he immersed himself in Advaitic meditation while staying in the caves. This is evident from various diary entries, such as the following: “Dive down into myself, to the greatest depth of myself. Forget my own ‘aham’ [I], lose myself in the ‘aham’ of the divine Ᾱtman who is at the origin of my being, of my consciousness of being. And in this unique—or primordial—Aham feel all beings to be oneself” (Abhishiktananda 1998, 35 [4.5.1952]).

Not only was Abhishiktananda pursuing Advaitic contemplation while staying at Arunachala in 1952, but he also became intrigued by Zen Buddhism. The clearest historical founder of this tradition is Bodhidharma, a monk from India who had established Chan or “Meditation” in China in the sixth century, which would later take root in Japan as Zen, also meaning “Meditation.” The Chan or Zen tradition teaches that Buddha’s highest message had been a “mind-to-mind” transmission of a state of consciousness beyond words to a key disciple, Mahakashyapa, who had passed it on to others. This had resulted in a long lineage, in which Bodhidharma is considered a key link. Zen emphasizes meditation in the context of a master-disciple relationship which perpetuates the original, “mind-to-mind” transmission from the Buddha to Mahakashyapa (Hershock 2005, 66-93).

Zen is associated with the Lankavatara Sutra and the Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy, both of which had originated in India. The Sutra and the Yogacara school examine how subject-object experiences arise from a unitary field of consciousness. In that way, they have affinities with Advaita. Yet, in spite of apparent similarities, many argue that Advaita and the Lankavatara Sutra are fundamentally at odds. As Florin Sutton explains, the unitary ground of consciousness in Yogacara “does not represent a metaphysical ‘substance,’ or ‘substratum’ underlying the universe, as Ᾱtman does, but rather it is to be understood as a merely metaphysical construct, without ontological validity per se, devised by the Master as a didactic tool for the benefit of those who cannot yet grasp the terrifying truth of the ego-lessness of all things” (Sutton 1991, 289).

The man who had shaped Western views of Zen for much of the twentieth century was D. T. Suzuki. Abhishiktananda was exposed to his writings through a European woman staying at Tiruvannamalai in 1952, and he read him “with the greatest interest.” Brief references to Zen began appearing in his writings (Abhishiktananda 1979, 42).[7] Alan Watts had also played a role in popularizing Zen in the West. Abhishiktananda read his Behold the Spirit in 1952, also “with the greatest interest” (Le Saux 1999, 58).[8] Given the apparent similarities between Advaita and Zen, and given the latter’s historical roots in India, Abhishiktananda considered Zen to be an “admirable Chinese and Japanese adaptation of Indian advaita” (1979, 42). This is a historically and philosophically naïve statement, but it shows that Abhishiktananda considered Zen to be essentially congruent with the Advaitic spirituality he was immersed in at Sri Ramanasram.[9]

When Abhishiktananda would later stay at Kumbakonam, a theme in Watt’s writings would have an impact on him. This theme is the abandonment of the desire for enlightenment. The classic figure, Bodhidharma, had advocated such abandonment, for to desire enlightenment, nirvāṇa,is to treat it as something separate from oneself. To do that is to enter into subject-object relationships, but what nirvāṇa precisely involves is going beyond that duality (Hershock 2005, 88-89). Watts had been intrigued by that doctrine and wrote about it in Behold the Spirit: “There is no method, nor formal technique, for attaining the mystical state. . . . a method is an attempt to possess, and has its origin in pride and fear. . . . the Reality which we term union with God simply IS, whether we realize it or not, whether we are doing something about it or nothing about it” (Watts 1947, 98).

Although Watts’ statement had been influenced by Zen, it is important to realize that Watts had not been a strict interpreter of Zen. Rather, in Behold the Spirit he was trying to speak in very broad terms of all mystical experiences. Further, rather than understanding Zen in a manner consistent with the Lankavatara Sutra, as explained above by Sutton, he had interpreted Zen in terms somewhat similar to Advaita, but even more similar to Western Romantic yearnings for union with all things. As an example, “Zen is an immediate contact with life, a joining of ‘self’ and ‘life’ into so close a unity and rhythm that the distinction between the two is forgotten. . . . The isolated ‘self’ no longer wishes to grasp at the things which flow by in the stream of events, for it goes forward with the stream and becomes one with it, realizing that all things are but waves in this stream” (1936, 131).

Abhishiktananda was exposed not only to Zen but also to ideas from the oldest collection of Buddhist scriptural texts, the Tipitaka. Buddha’s concern had been the elimination of suffering, and he had considered the cause of suffering to be desire. The Tipitaka counsels detachment not only towards the material world but also towards spiritual experiences. This can be seen in the Sallekha Sutta, which describes five jhānas or meditative states, each of which must be renounced. For instance, the second jhāna is characterized by joy, but this must be abandoned for the third jhāna, which involves equanimity, and so on (Majjhima Nikaya 8.5-6). Likewise, Abhishiktananda wrote while staying at Arunachala in 1952, “‘My’ joy cannot be full. Only ‘the’ joy is full, that joy which transcends all feeling, all experience, and thus all attribution even to myself. Passing beyond joy is one of the degrees of Buddhist meditation” (1998, 48 [7.15.52]).[10] 

Advaita and Christianity

There had been an initial harmony in Abhishiktananda’s life between Christianity and Advaita. To begin, it had been Christianity itself that had motivated him to become involved with Indian spirituality, for he had come to India to enact the ideal of inculturation. Furthermore, Abhishiktananda had long admired Indian ascetical traditions and he had been hoping to live in India a more intense form of monasticism than that at St. Anne’s (Stuart 1989, 12-13; Monchanin and Le Saux 1964, 24-27). Further, Advaita and Benedictine monasticism both attempt to discipline one’s self-will. Thus, a month before his departure to live in a cave at Arunachala for the first time, Abhishiktananda had written to a friend, “Deep contacts with Hindu thought, books and people. Even before I came here, they had already made a mark on me. A hidden spiritual sympathy, this sense of Unity, of the ONE, of God at the source of my being, of the fading out of this ‘ego’ as soon as you penetrate into the interior of yourself so as to reach the unique ‘I’” (Stuart 1989, 59 [2.10.52]).[11]

However, tension with Christianity was inevitable. In spite of the overlap between Benedictine monasticism and Advaita, the former assumes an ongoing relationship between oneself as an individual and the divine, whereas the latter involves going beyond dual relationships to a unity, extinguishing one’s sense of individual identity in that unity. The first report of tension in Abhishiktananda’s published diary entries was in September 1952, after spending three months in the caves of Arunachala. He contrasted the solitariness beyond dual relationships with the concrete roles of his priestly identity:

Total solitariness [kevala] is agonizing for anyone who has experienced it. He has felt that truth is only found at the summit–or, if you will, in the depths–, where the subject and the object of knowledge, love, enjoyment, are transcended. But he cannot remain in this. . . . His own mind, and still more his body pull him constantly downwards, into the midst of the “dispensation”. And his Christian “role”, his role as priest also; his Mass, especially his breviary, so involved in the world of appearance, of māyā (Abhishiktananda 1998: 55 [9.14.52]).[12]

This tension can be clarified. Ramana Maharshi had taught aspirants to identify with a consciousness free of content. For instance, “I am not this physical body, . . . , nor am I even the thinking mind. . . . pure Awareness is what I am” (Ramana 1959: 39-40). However, Abhishiktananda’s Christian duties called him to maintain distinct identities–those of a priest and a monk. Abhishiktananda could not, therefore, give himself wholly to Advaita. Thus, in spite of having had reported an initial harmony between Advaita and Christianity in 1952, as shown above, conflict between the two traditions emerged in his life.

A year later, in September 1953, after having further experiences at Arunachala and a deeper immersion into Advaita, the tension continued to mount; Advaita and Christianity were posing serious issues to Abhishiktananda.[13] In fact, he questioned his own vocation in the Church. On the one hand, the Church appeared to him to be an obstacle on the path, the final barrier keeping him from Advaita: “What does it mean, this agony of having found one’s peace far from the place and form of one’s original commitments, at the very frontiers of Holy Church? What does it mean, to feel that the only obstacle to final peace and ānanda is one’s attachment to that place, that form; to that mythos?” (1998, 73 [9.19.53]). On the other hand, he considered that the peace and bliss of Advaita might not be divine in origin and might be simply a form of self-absorption. Further, to leave the Church for the sake of that bliss was, according to Catholic doctrine, to leave the one true path to salvation:

What gnaws away at my body as well as my mind is this: after having found in advaita a peace and a bliss never experienced before, to live with the dread that perhaps, that most probably, all that my latent Christianity suggests to me is nonetheless true, and that therefore advaita must be sacrificed to it. . . . In committing myself totally to advaita, if Christianity is true, I risk committing myself to a false path for eternity. All my customary explanations of hell and the rest are powerless against a reality that exists in a way unknown to me. . . . Supposing in advaita I was only finding myself and not God? (1998, 73-74 [9.25.53]).[14]

Confronted with serious questions from both Christianity and Advaita, Abhishiktananda felt as though he was at “the final boundary where the two oceans (Hinduism and Christianity) mix their waters dangerously and disturbingly together” (1998, 75 [9.27.53]).[15]

These spiritual and intellectual conflicts were reflected in the concrete circumstances of Abhishiktananda’s life. As a monk he had made a vow of stability to St. Anne’s Abbey but had received an “indult of exclaustration,” giving him permission to reside in India. In 1953 it was necessary for Abhishiktananda to renew this indult. Tension mounted over this issue, and his abbot at St. Anne’s indicated (perhaps sarcastically) that he should go to Rome to argue his case. At that same time he was planning his fourth stay at Arunachala and considered the possibility of renouncing the complications of Church membership by residing permanently at Arunachala as a saṃnyāsin: “What use would it be to go to Europe? . . . when shall I dare to renounce what is at once a help and a hindrance, and then, naked within as well as without, plunge into this Self which already engulfs me? A trip to Rome is very complicated. How much simpler it would be to go up to Arunachala and never come down again” (1998, 73 [9.19.53]).

Pushed by the issue of the indult towards making a decisive choice for Christianity or Advaita, Abhishiktananda showed some penetrating self-analysis in his diary in September 1953, by questioning his motives. He realized that his motives for both options were not completely sincere or spiritual, but had “human” components.[16] In particular, he realized that he was attracted to Advaita because it appeared exotic and exceptional: “Am I not more or less attached in a human way to advaita, to my experience of advaita? Attached because it is exotic, daring, rare, etc.” (1998, 75 [9.27.53]).[17] At the same time, he considered that his dedication to Christianity was in part a mask or shield, an excuse to avoid the complete renunciation of the world that Advaita involves: “How much of the human is surely present also in my attachment to Christianity? And could it not be said that this human attachment is what keeps me from taking the definitive step of liberation?” (1998, 75 [9.27.53]).[18]

With time the crisis passed, and no matter what his motivations were, Abhishiktananda chose both to remain in the Church and continue his visits to Arunachala.[19] Persisting with both, Abhishiktananda composed an essay, “Le mystère de l’avyakta et du vyakta,” around the end of 1953, which attempts to theologically reconcile Advaita and Christianity. He wrote this as a section of “Guhantara,” a series of theological essays he had begun composing earlier in 1952.[20] The main point of “Le mystère” is that “there is no incompatibility between the mystery of the vyakta [manifest] and that of the avyakta [unmanifest], both aspects of the One and ineffable Reality, inseparable the one from the other” (Le Saux 1982, 121).[21]

It was though the doctrine of the Trinity that Abhishiktananda argued the compatibility of the manifest and unmanifest orders. For all eternity the Father and Son have been in a dynamic relationship, and the universe is the expression in time of an aspect of that eternal relationship: “In being in eternity he makes the Father be; in being in time he makes men be: ‘Firstborn of all creatures’, primogenitus omnis creaturae; ‘all subsists in him,’ in ipso omnia constant (Col. 1,15,17)” (Le Saux 1982, 124).[22] Thus, there is no incompatibility between the manifest and unmanifest orders. This implies, further, that there is no incompatibility between Christianity and Advaita.

The resolution in “Le mystère” addresses the theological and metaphysical issues which Advaita and Christianity pose to each other. However, in the coming years Abhishiktananda would continue to experience great tension between Advaita and Christianity, and he would become dissatisfied with “Le mystère.” What he would find helpful in the coming years was not the theological approach of this essay but a psychological approach to the seemingly opposing pulls in his life, Advaita and Christianity. This psychological approach would be an extension of his critical self-questioning in 1953 of the nature of his commitments to Advaita and the Church. This is not to say that his problem was not theological, it was theological in that it was rooted in the contradiction between two different belief systems, but he would find a psychological approach more effective than a theological in terms of living with both traditions on a day-to-day basis. 

A Retreat with Dinshaw Mehta

Abhishiktananda first met Dr. Mehta when he was in Mumbai to meet Father Francis Mahieu in 1955, who was newly arriving in India and would later found Kurisumala Ashram in Kerala. Mehta had been a personal doctor of Mahatma Gandhi and was well connected in society. Spiritually he was an unusual man, standing between differing religious worlds. He was a Parsi, accepted certain Advaitic ideas, and, on the basis of esoteric communications which he claimed he was receiving from Jesus Christ he ran “The Society of Servants of God.” Abhishiktananda shared his struggles with Mehta and found him to be a sympathetic listener. He therefore returned to Mumbai, staying there from around July 27 to August 8, 1955, to make a retreat directed by Mehta (Abhishiktananda 1998, 106-14; Panikkar 1998, 990-100; Stuart 1989, 91-94; Hackbarth-Johnson 2003, 328-44).[23]

Standing somewhat outside of mainstream religious traditions, Mehta pushed Abhishiktananda both to leave the Church and to drop the belief system of the Advaitic tradition. He wanted Abhishiktananda to leave the Church in order, in latter’s words, to “follow” Christ “in his separate person” (Abhishiktananda 1998, 110 [7.29.55]). Further, as Abhishiktananda stated, Mehta wanted him to “purify” his Advaita by stripping it of its conceptual framework, “by liberating it from and ‘surrendering’ its Hindu underpinnings” (1998, 122 [9.3.55]).Abhishiktananda also expressed this point by stating, “The relinquishing of my very Hinduism, of my ‘conception’ of advaita” (1998, 114 [8.3.55]).[24]

Mehta tried to bring Abhishiktananda to a consciousness beyond thought by directing him surrender to a nameless presence beyond the specificities of both the Advaitic and Christian traditions. In Abhishiktananda’s words, “In order to enter into the state of waking sleep, a radical ‘total surrender’ is the condition sine qua non. Only to the extent that you are not attached to any thought, to any point of view, to anything at all, that you do not desire or fear anything . . . only so can the void be created in your intellect. . . . I must have absolute faith in this mystery of the beyond into which I throw myself. Whether I call it Christ, Shiva, Paramātman does not matter. Total acceptance that someone is there to receive me, to take complete charge of me, or rather that in the end I will find myself set free from all my present limitations” (1998, 106-107 [7.27.55]).

Abhishiktananda did not leave the Advaitic and Christian traditions as Mehta wished him to, but Mehta’s guidance did help him to move past the opposition he felt between them.[25] Consistent with earlier reflections of his, Abhishiktananda concluded that to drop Christianity for the sake of Advaita would not be a true renunciation but simply the trading of attachments; it would be a matter of becoming attached to a new lifestyle and mental system, rather than exhibiting true detachment of mind and heart. As he wrote in his diary, “One thinks one is naked” in adopting features of Advaita but one later “discovers that one is decked out in a veritable parody of evening dress. Nakedness and poverty set one free from the ‘shackles’ of comfort but draw one into other ‘shackles’” (1998, 114 [8.3.55]). Five months after the retreat he expressed this in other terms, stating that “if the reason for separation from the institutional Church is ahamkāra [the ego], then separation is sinful. It is only the supreme act… when no trace of ahamkāra is mixed with it… To oppose the Church in the name of an advaitin system is a sign of ahamkāra” (1998, 140 [1.15.56]).[26]  

Consequently, Abhishiktananda did not leave the Church as he had been considering and as Mehta had encouraged him to. Rather, in a creative move he renounced both without abandoning them. To begin, he renounced his desire for Advaita by remaining within the Church; his renunciation became that of remaining rather than leaving. At the same time that he retained Church membership he renounced it, in a certain sense, by playing his Christian roles with detachment: “I think that now the total ‘surrender’ has been effected of everything that made up and now still makes up my life, including my priesthood, my monastic life and my belonging to the Church. It is a little like the lands handed over to Vinoba by their owners, which they continue to cultivate on Vinoba’s behalf until the day when he actually asks for them” (1998, 115-16 [8.14.55]).[27] He summarized this dual renunciation a month after the retreat by stating, “‘Surrender’ both my desire to remain a Christian, born of an instinctive fear, and my desire to live completely as the advaitin Hindu which I often think I am. In total surrender to the mystery. Free and naked at the heart of the abyss, hanging there” (1998, 124 [9.5.55]).[28]

This way of coordinating his Christian identity with the Advaitic quest was sparked by Mehta’s guidance, but Abhishiktananda was also influenced in this matter by the Bhagavad Gita, Ramana Maharshi, and Benedictine spirituality. To begin, the Gita, concerned about the societal chaos which would emerge if large numbers of people renounced the world, directs people to practice karma yoga, that is, to remain fixed on realizing the ātman by performing one’s societal duties with detachment(Bhagavad Gita 3.4-35). Thus Abhishiktananda wrote, “The answer to my ritual problems is to be found, I think, in the Gita. . . . What is important is to perform nothing with attachment or in the expectation of results. To perform Christian ritual actions with attachment, looking to them for spiritual consolation would be false and an obstacle on the way of the Spirit. . . . Let me not be attached to my Mass and let me not desire to be freed from it. All attachment and all desire impede the manifestation of the Spirit” (Abhishiktananda 1998, 126 [9.18.55]).[29]     

Further, just as the Gita counsels people to pursue the ātman in the midst of their societal duties, rather than renouncing, Ramana had discouraged householders from renouncing the world. He had stated that saṃnyāsa is often simply a new attachment: “Whether you continue in the household or renounce it and go to live in the forest, your mind haunts you. . . . If you renounce, it will only substitute the thought of renunciation for that of the family and the environment of the forest for that of the household” (Ramana 1965, 94).Hence, one should remain fixed on the ātman in the midst of their duties in the world (Ramana 1965, 97).[30] Likewise, Abhishiktananda realized that his attraction to Advaita and saṃnyāsa were simply new attachments and attractions, so he resolved to remain in the Church and to remain fixed on Advaita in the midst of his duties as a Christian.

Finally, perhaps unexpectedly, this aspect of Ramana’s teaching mirrors an aspect of the spirituality of Saint Benedict’s Rule. Ramana had taught householders fidelity to their domestic lifestyle, and likewise Benedict had taught fidelity or stability to a monastery, a lifelong commitment to the same place (Benedict Rule 58.17). Further, just as Ramana had believed that switching to the lifestyle of saṃnyāsa can simply be a new form of attachment, Benedict had believed that the wish to switch from one monastery to another can be prompted by base desires (Benedict Rule 1.10-11). It is only through commitment to a particular place that one can cultivate virtue. Further, as a twentieth century commentator on the Rule stated, one might believe that another monastery is more ideal for spiritual progress, but it is through commitment to one’s current monastery, with all its shortcomings and imperfections, that true progress is made (Van Zeller 1958, 372). Likewise, Abhishiktananda resolved that remaining in the Church membership would be his act of renunciation, not abandoning it for the sake of living the lifestyle at Arunachala to which he was drawn.

In 1952 tension had emerged in Abhishiktananda’s life between Advaita and Christianity, and in 1953 it had risen to the point of making him feel compelled to decide for one versus the other. However, influenced by Mehta, Ramana, the Bhagavad Gita, and Benedictine spirituality, Abhishiktananda resolved to remain committed to both Advaita and Christianity, but also to surrender his desire for them. Some Christian readers may be dissatisfied with this resolution. To begin, although it gave him a practical way of pursuing Advaita while remaining Christian it did not address the metaphysical and theological contradictions lying between the two traditions, as Abhishiktananda had done in the essay, “Le mystère.” Further, it might appear that his considerations give renunciation and monasticism the highest priority, not an explicitly Christian confession of faith.[31] Further, it might seem that he was subordinating Christianity to Advaita by inserting his Christian identity and practices into the framework of the Bhagavad Gita, and that his detached performance of his Christian duties was a diminished dedication to the Christian faith. However, whatever the limitations of Abhishiktananda’s resolution were, it gave him a way of living with Christianity and Advaita side by side in his life.[32]

 A Retreat with Swami Gnanananda

Abhishiktananda met Swami Gnanananda at the end of 1955. He was again staying at Tiruvannamalai, his last stay of length. He was there to introduce two newcomers at Shantivanam to the spirituality of Arunachala. Abhishiktananda had a friend at Tiruvannamalai, Harold Rose, through whom he heard of Gnanananda. Gnanananda had and continues to have a strong reputation in the locale, although he is deceased. Curious, Rose and Abhishiktananda went to meet Gnanananda at his ashram at Tapovanam, about an hour’s drive from Tiruvannamalai (Abhishiktananda 1990, 3-4; Stuart 1989, 96-97).

Sitting in Gnanananda’s presence, Rose and Abhishiktananda were impressed with him. Writing of himself in the third person in Guru and Disciple, Abhishiktananda stated, “He had come here out of curiosity, but found that the few words which this old man had said to him had gone home directly to his heart. There they seemed to have opened abysses of which till then he had no idea, to have released in his heart a spring of living water of incomparable sweetness. . . . He had learned nothing new at the level of words or ideas. But it was just that it had been repeated in such a way that a communication beyond words was established between the master and himself at the deepest level in each of them” (Abhishiktananda 1990, 9).

Gnanananda invited Abhishiktananda to return for a period of silent meditation. Abhishiktananda came for two weeks, staying at the ashram from February 28 to March 15, 1956 (Stuart 1989, 99-102; Panikkar 1998, 134). As Mehta had done earlier, Gnanananda had Abhishiktananda abandon reading and general conversation, devoting himself to “meditation without thoughts” (Stuart 1989, 100 [3.14.56]). The reason for this meditation was that Gnanananda believed that one can know the true self only by isolating it from everything external:

The I is first of all perceived in its relationship to the world outside, to what is not-myself. So long as anyone only knows himself in this fashion, that is, by means of outward things and with reference to them, it cannot be said that he really knows himself. At that stage, what I call “myself” simply consists of the ceaseless reactions, sensory and mental, of that biological and psychological centre which I am, in response to external stimuli. . . . Whoever wishes to know himself once for all and to arrive at his true being, should aim at reaching his “I” in its unchangeable identity and sovereign freedom (Abhishiktananda 1990, 77-78).

Some particular words of Gnanananda’s had an impact on Abhishiktananda. Gnanananda frequently recited verses from a Tamil poem that states “enter into yourself to the place where there is nothing” (Abhishiktananda 1990, 65). A visitor suggested that Gnanananda use “void” or śūnyatā, rather than “nothing,” in translating the verses. Gnanananda objected, stating that “as soon as you give a name to not-being, that which is not, you automatically make it into some thing. As soon as you give the place where there is nothing the name of ‘void’, you are putting some thing there—and so you have to start all over again” (Abhishiktananda 1990, 67).         

Although Gnanananda was an Advaitin, not a Buddhist, Abhishiktananda wrote that these words sparked in him a better appreciation of Buddhism. First of all, he claimed that it helped him gain a better grasp of the importance of renouncing the jhānas or meditative states, as counseled by the Tipitaka. Second, merged with his discussion of the jhānas, Abhishiktananda discussed śūnyatā, “voidness,” as conceived by Madhyamika philosophy.[33] Madhyamika teaches codependent origination, namely, that there is a reciprocal dependence of beings on each other for existence, and that hence all things are śūnyatā, “void” of their own existence. To recognize all things as void is to end suffering and gain enlightenment. Although the goal is to realize the void, one should not speculate on it, for that is to treat the void as an object, a thing. Abhishiktananda wrote that in recalling Gnanananda’s words about śūnyatā he came to appreciate this aspect of Buddhism. Referring to himself as “Vanya” to protect his identity, he wrote,

Later on, when Vanya recalled this conversation, he admitted that he had never previously understood as he then did, the Buddha’s teaching about the need for our meditation to be successively purified. We have to leave behind the place of thinking, then that of joy, then that of peace; next, in more advanced meditations, we have to leave behind in their turn all the negations which have acted as supports in leaving behind one stage after another, until we have passed beyond every affirmation and equally every negation, and have entered the total silence (Abhishiktananda 1990, 67).

Abhishiktananda applied this message of detachment to his dilemma of standing between Christianity and Advaita. Just as one should move past affirmation to negation, and past negation itself to a complete silence, one should move past the deliberation itself over the question whether to remain in the Church. True renunciation, as he had concluded after the retreat with Mehta, should consist for him not of a departure from the Church but continued membership. During his stay at Tapovanam he went further than his resolution to remain in the Church by going beyond the sense of individuality that makes the decision to stay or not stay. 

The desire to be here, to be free of Shantivanam, to be a hermit near this village [agrahāram], to be a wandering sannyāsī, etc.—all these are thoughts, desires, and therefore “of/for something”, which distract me from the essential and hold me back. . . . As long as there is any thought of oneself, even though it be of what is best, it means that what has to disappear so that the undivided light [akhanda jyoti] may rise in the depth of the heart. . . .
       Renounce my joy, which does not mean renouncing joy.
       Renounce my peace, which does not mean renouncing peace.
       Renounce my renunciation (1998, 147 [3.8.56]).[34]    

 This led Abhishiktananda to an important conclusion. The above considerations, although influenced by Madhyamika, helped lead Abhishiktananda to believe that the tension between Christianity and Advaita could be transcended through an Advaitic realization. The decision to leave or not leave the Church, and the tension involved with this question, lie at the level of individual consciousness. If one moves past this level then one also moves past the question and the tension. Hence, Abhishiktananda wrote, “The answer to everything is in the space [ākāśa] of the heart [hridaya]. Once arrived there, I will have the solution about Gospel-Advaita” (Abhishiktananda 1998, 146 [3.6.56]).[35] Also, as he would write nine months later while on retreat at Kumbakonam, he would hope that “enlightenment . . . would solve the problem by transcending it” (1998, 194 [12.6.56]).[36]

Abhishiktananda felt he was on the brink of such enlightenment. While at Tapovanam he wrote, “The birds are already singing, and my heart is already singing. Await with joy the appearance of the wonderful orb” (1998, 147 [3.7.56]).[37] Also, as he wrote in an essay, “Esseulement,” meaning “Isolation,” composed about a month after the retreat, “The interior mystery calls with lacerating force, and no being from outside can help me to penetrate it” (1956, 8).[38] Further, “Everyone in the depth of himself has a thirst for the Absolute-in-itself. And once this depth in himself is revealed, then it is all up with every satisfaction on which he relied; no comfort is any longer possible” (1956, 6).[39]

Abhishiktananda’s movement beyond the level of individual identity reinforced the existential resolution of Advaita and Christianity which he had developed after the retreat with Mehta, but in another way it carried him even further from Christianity. Thought can be irrelevant at the Advaitic level of consciousness because the individual unit, which deliberates and reflects, is left behind. This is a potential problem for Christian faith, for faith is generally seated in concepts and ideas. Hence, Abhishiktananda reported in “Esseulement” that Christian doctrine was losing its compelling grip over him: “The most essential elements of the faith lose the flavour of truth. Even the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation can no longer speak to the soul. The soul is absolutely compelled to lose the Triune God and the God-Man as it has conceived them, and to allow itself to be swallowed up in the abyss of Being, of the Godhead beyond all conceiving, which attracts it irresistibly. For it there is no question of wanting or not wanting this; it has no choice in the matter. This loss is unavoidable, whether or not it is pleasing to the soul” (1956, 1-2).[40]

Further, the theological synthesis of “Le mystère” was incapable of stabilizing Christian belief for Abhishiktananda. He had argued therein that the world of manifestation has enduring significance by arguing that creation is an expression in time of the Son’s eternal generation from the Father. However, this is a circular argument, relying on concepts to ground the conceptual order itself. This argument might satisfy the Christian, but the doctrine of the Trinity would be ruled out from the start by the Advaitin, who would be unmoved by the argument. Thus, in “Esseulement,” Abhishiktananda wrote that “it is totally impossible for him to hold on to the elements of the magnificent synthesis [of Christianity and Advaita] in which he had hitherto delighted, or which people now suggest to him from outside” (1956, 2).[41] Also, “The most beautiful arguments concerning creation which might be proposed to him are incapable of touching him” (1956, 3).[42]  

A Retreat at Kumbakonam

Feeling closer than ever to Advaitic realization and believing that through it the dilemma of Advaita and Christianity would be solved, Abhishiktananda underwent a thirty-three day solitary retreat, from November 5 to December 8. This was at the Mauna Mandir in Kumbakonam. The Mandir consists of a single room with a bed and an attached bathroom. Fitting his high aims, the retreat was very intensive, for Abhishiktananda stayed at the Mandir for thirty-three days without stepping outside it[43] He spent the time with the door closed, the windows shuttered, and receiving his food through a small, revolving entrance (Stuart 1989: 111).

Abhishiktananda’s previous retreats in India had involved guidance from Mehta and Gnanananda, and from various Hindus at Tiruvannamalai. At Kumbakonam, he had only a few tangible guides. These included the New Testament, the Upanishads, the rosary, which he recited daily, a correspondence with Pujya Mota, who had originally founded the Mauna Mandirs, and the Mass, which it appears he was celebrating daily (Abhishiktananda 1998, 170 [11.22.1956], 194-95 [12.7.56]; Stuart 1989, 111). Being isolated for so long was very taxing; Abhishiktananda stated that “the slightest shock sends it [the mind and body] flying. In fact, this silence and this solitude is a dangerous experience (not to mention the lack of fresh air plus the damp and cold) which is to a large extent the cause of being physically unwell” (Abhishiktananda 1998, 188 [11.30.56]).[44]

As seen, Gnanananda believed that one’s true self is known only through a complete isolation from all external things ( 1990, 77-78). Abhishiktananda attempted this isolation by meditating and living within the confines of the Mandir: “Living alone with oneself, not with one’s books, not with one’s thoughts, not with one’s daydreams, not with the emanations of one’s subconscious, but alone with oneself, in the nakedness, ‘as it were,’ of one’s spiritual substance” (1998, 184 [11.29.56]). Also, “As I hasten towards You, I leave behind all my skins, all my shells, everything I had, everything I thought I was, everything I identified with–all this falls away, for the hole I must pass through gets narrower and narrower. And as I run in pursuit of You who are slipping away, I slip away from myself” (Abhishiktananda 1998, 161 [11.13.56]).[45]

In spite of this deep mental ascesis a definitive Advaitic experience did not dawn. At the retreat’s end Abhishiktananda reported that “nothing extraordinary happened here. . . . No decisive enlightenment. No definitive direction given for my life. Felt my psychic and physical limits” (1998, 195 [12.7.56]).[46] It appears that the reason a definitive realization did not dawn was that his ahamkāra, his ego, was too resilient. In Abhishiktananda’s words, “The ahamkāra struggles in the waves of this ocean. It refuses to take the plunge, to sink, it wants to live, to live what it calls life. But it is being eaten away at its heart, a fire is burning it and allows it no respite. (...) It is on fire, and everything in it gradually slips away; burnt up. But it still refuses to vanish” (1998, 169 [11.22.56]). [47]

Abhishiktananda reflected on the resilience of the ahamkāra. Although he had questioned his attraction to Advaita in the past, he went beyond prior reflections by concluding that the yearning itself for Advaita was an expression of the ahamkāra and was hence, ironically, inhibiting the dawning of Advaitic realization. This yearning yielded a restless questing that kept him from true introspection and recollection:

All this passion in prayer, in trying to solve the problem, in seeking anubhava [experience], is false. It is artificial, māyā; it is not something real, sat. It has nothing to do with the presence. On the contrary, it is an escape from the Presence. It is a withdrawal pretending to be an advance, a sinking into the subconscious regions of the “ego”, an obstacle to the awakening to Being. For Being is only attained in actually Being. Because being cannot really be reached, it simply is, there is only being [sad evam asti]. Every movement toward Being is a flight from being (1998, 158-59 [11.10.56]).[48]

Fretting about not yet having obtained brahmavidyā [knowledge of Brahman] after all these years of trying and particularly in these days. What nonsense! . . . I only desire “to be” as long as I do not yet know that I am. And my desire to be misleads me into looking for being everywhere except where it really is. So it is with the self that looks for the Self within the self, as if it was something distinct from itself. Realize that I AM (1998, 167-68 [11.21.56]).[49]

Abhishiktananda was influenced in this matter by Alan Watts. As discussed earlier in this paper, a key theme in Zen Buddhism is the abandonment of the desire for enlightenment; questing for enlightenment is believed to actually inhibit its dawning. Abhishiktananda had been reading Watt’s Behold the Spirit four years earlier, and there are two passages in it which, although not expressing a strict Zen perspective, express this theme. Further, they are similar to those of Abhishiktananda’s cited above, particularly in their use of arguments concerning being; existence simply is, and so one must simply be: “Union does not have to be attained but realized, because it is a present reality from the very beginning. . . . the divine state simply IS, here and now, and does not have to be attained” (Watts 1947, 78). Also, “There is no method, no formal technique, for attaining the mystical state. . . . a method is an attempt to possess, and has its origin in pride and fear. . . . The Reality which we term union with God simply IS, whether we realize it or not, whether we are doing something about it or nothing about it” (Watts 1947, 98).[50]

This lesson was the culmination of a three year process of learning. In 1953 Abhishiktananda had critically examined his desire for Advaita, realizing that to some degree it was simply a desire for the exotic. Two years later he had realized that his attraction to Advaitic beliefs and lifestyle was a new set of attachments, and had concluded that remaining in the Church, rather than leaving, constituted true renunciation for him. In the following year he had moved further past the oppositional pulls he felt between Advaita and Christianity by moving into levels of consciousness beyond individual identity. Further, he had come to believe that the resolution of Christianity and Advaita lay at those levels. However, that movement actually increased the opposition he had experienced between Christianity and Advaita, for at those levels of consciousness Christian doctrine appeared meaningless to him. Hence, at the Mandir he learned to further manage the tension by calming the desire for the Advaitic level of consciousness, rather than by striving to attain it.

The problem was that Christianity and Advaita were pulling him in opposing directions, one to the world of manifestation and the other beyond all thought. Abhishiktananda’s attempted in “Le mystère” to construct a theological bridge across the two traditions, attempting to reconcile the manifest realm with the unmanifest. However, this effort was fruitless, for Christianity and Advaita have widely varying foundational claims, so Abhishiktananda was not able to develop an intellectual bridge between the two.[51] What helped Abhishiktananda resolve the issues was the discernment and critical self-analysis he learned at Mumbai, Tapovanam, and Kumbakonam. These helped him to moderate the opposing pulls of Advaita and Christianity. Although he turned to psychological solutions, that does not mean that his problems were not theological; they were theological in that they were due to the contradictions between two very different belief systems. Not being able to craft an effective theological solution, he found psychological solutions enabling him to live with the two traditions on a day-to-day basis. These practical lessons might have been what he had in mind at the end of the retreat in the Mauna Mandir in writing that it was a “milestone in my life” (Abhishiktananda 1998, 195 [12.7.56]).[52]         

There was fittingness in Abhishiktananda’s appropriation of the Zen emphasis on abandoning the desire for enlightenment. The Buddha’s goal had been to end suffering, and he had believed that to end suffering one must end desire. Zen was a later development, but one can see the Buddha’s emphasis on ending desire in the theme of abandoning the desire for enlightenment. Abhishiktananda was suffering, and this suffering was caused by his strong attraction to Advaita. By moderating this desire he could potentially reduce his turmoil. However, using an insight derived from Zen was, in a certain sense inconsistent, for Zen entails Yogacara philosophy, which contradicts Advaita. Yet, from another perspective this was a highly appropriate adaptation from Zen, for the Buddha’s third “Noble Truth” is that to end suffering one must end desire, and by reducing his desire for Advaita Abhishiktananda could reduce his turmoil.


 In 1957, the year after the retreat, Abhishiktananda’s life began to change rapidly.[53] The prior years had been quiet years centered on Shantivanam and Tiruvannamalai, with Abhishiktananda meditating, living as a samṇyāsin, and writing essays grappling with these experiences. However, there was a lot of tension between Abhishiktananda and Monchanin, who was his cofounder at Shantivanam, especially over the former’s involvement in Advaita. (Stuart 1989, 58, 75, 80-81, 88, 97-99, 105, 107, 113). Hence, in 1957 Abhishiktananda traveled to north India with the purpose of establishing roots there, and he would indeed eventually settle there (Stuart 1989, 113 [1.27.57]). During his 1957 trip he formed friendships with a wide variety of Catholics sympathetic to his aims, including the scholar of Hindu-Christian dialogue, Raimundo Panikkar (Panikkar 1998, 197-98; Stuart 1989, 114-19). Panikkar describes the effect of these friendships on Abhishiktananda: “His agony, having become almost chronic, was less of a torment. This may be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that he had begun to meet kindred spirits with whom he could sincerely share his ideals” (Panikkar 1998, 211). Yet, clearly, further reasons for the diminished torment were the lessons learned at Kumbakonam and elsewhere.

 In the 1960s Abhishiktananda’s leadership roles continued to expand as many Christians sought him for guidance in the spiritual life. They especially sought him out for advice on how to be appropriately Christian in India, incorporating Hindu contemplative approaches into their Christian identity. He also resumed his efforts at theological synthesis, publishing two staples of Hindu-Christian dialogue. These were Sagesse hindoue, mystique chrétienne in 1965 (which was later republished as Saccidānanda: A Christian approach to Advaitic experience) and Hindu-Christian meeting point in 1969. In 1969, three years before his death, he had an impact on the Catholic Church’s “All-India Seminar” in Bangalore. At the seminar bishops, priests, and others wrestled, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, with how to shepherd the Church in India, adopting some Hindu ways and values in order to become more Indian.[54] Finally, in 1973, his final year of life, Abhishiktananda claimed to have escaped the tension between Advaita and Christianity by transcending the historical expressions of the two traditions in a mystical experience of the kind he had hoped for in 1956 at the Mandir (Stuart 1989, 348-49 [9.2.73]).[55]

 Abhishiktananda’s accomplishments in the final decade of his life receive attention and praise among enthusiasts of Hindu-Christian dialogue. Yet, behind these accomplishments were the lessons he learned in the 1950s at Mumbai, Tapovanam, and Kumbakonam. Through these retreats he learned to move past some of the oppositional force he experienced between Advaita and Christianity, thereby helping him to maintain a strong dual commitment. This dual commitment made him distinctive, neither shunning non-Christian religions as so many Christians did and do so today, nor shunning Christianity as many Westerners enamored with Asian religions did and also do so today.

 A variety of influences mingled in Abhishiktananda through these retreats, including the Bhagavad Gita, Ramana Maharshi, Zen Buddhism, and Benedictine spirituality.This might appear to be an eclectic mix, but stability is a theme running through all of these influences. The Bhagavad Gita instructs one to be faithful in the execution of one’s societal duties in the midst of the quest for the ātman. Ramana taught fidelity to the state of being a householder, in spite of an aspirant’s hankering for samṇyāsa. Benedictine spirituality requires one to remain faithful to one’s original monastic commitments, in spite of the limitations one might perceive in one’s situation. Zen teaches that questing for enlightenment actually inhibits it from dawning. These influences helped Abhishiktananda gain the stability he needed in the midst of the great personal turbulence caused by his involvement in two very different traditions.

Having seen Abhishiktananda’s journey from 1953 to 1956, one might wonder what practical lessons are to be learned from his series of retreats. One lesson is the importance of addressing the issue of religious diversity not just on an intellectual level but on a psychological level. For instance, much ink has been spent by Christian theologians in the past few decades, trying to reconcile on an intellectual level the tension between affirming the primacy of Christ and affirming the value of non-Christian religions. Likewise, Abhishiktananda attempted to find a theological resolution of the tension between his Christian identity and his Advaitic longings in the essay, “Le mystère.” However, while that approach did very little to eradicate his personal struggles, he was greatly helped by the psychological approaches he learned through his retreats.  

In a similar manner, Christians exploring the issue of religious diversity could learn to examine their motivations critically and to moderate them. For instance, Abhishiktananda realized that his attraction to Christianity was, to a significant degree, due to his need for security in the world, while his attraction to Advaita was, in large part, an expression of his fascination with the foreign and the seemingly exotic. Learning from this, the Christian who emphasizes the primacy of Christ could ask herself if her attachment to Christ expresses a need for emotional security and allows her to feel complete and self-satisfied, even proud. Similarly, one who denies the ultimacy of Christ could ask himself if this denial is motivated by the allure of the seemingly exotic, by resentment against mainstream Christianity, and by a restlessness that keeps him from making a definite spiritual commitment. Through such questions one’s commitment to Christ and one’s concern with dialogue could undergo important purifications.


Abhishiktananda. 1956. “Total Isolation, Solitude (Esseulement).” Trans. James Stuart. Abhishiktananda Archives, Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi.

 ----. 1965. Sagesse hindoue mystique chrétienne: du Védanta à la Trinité. Paris: Éditions du Centurion.

 ----. 1976. Hindu-Christian Meeting Point: Within the Cave of the Heart. Trans. Sara Grant. Rev. ed. New Delhi: ISPCK.

 ----. 1984. Saccidānanda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience. Rev. ed. Delhi: ISPCK.

 ----. 1979. The Secret of Arunāchala: A Christian Hermit on Shiva’s Holy Mountain. Delhi: ISPCK.

 ----. 1990. Guru and Disciple: An Encounter with Srī Gnānānanda, a Contemporary Spiritual Master. Delhi: ISPCK.

 ----. 1998. Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary (1948-1973) of Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom H.Le Saux). Ed. Raimon Panikkar, trans. David Fleming and James Stuart. Delhi: ISPCK.

Bäumer, Bettina. 2010. “The challenge of Hindu-Christian Experience.” In God’s Harp String: The Life and Legacy of the Benedictine Monk Swami Abhishiktananda, ed. William Skudlarek, 51-65. New York: Lantern.

Bhagavad Gita. 1986. The “Bhagavad-Gita”: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. Trans. Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Bantam.

Clooney, Francis. 1996. “Peering into the Mouth of God: Reflections on the Dangerous Possibility of Really Taking Religions Seriously.” The Santa Clara Lectures, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA. January 22.

Friesen, John Glenn. 2001. Abhishiktānanda’s Non-monistic Advaitic Experience. PhD diss., University of South Africa. http://members.shaw.ca/abhishiktananda/Abhi.thesis.pdf  [accessed March 13, 2012].

 ----. 2006. Ramaṇa Maharshi: Hindu and non-Hindu interpretations of a jīvanmukta. http://www.members.shaw.ca/abhishiktananda/jivanmukti.pdf [accessed March 13, 2012].

Gispert-Sauch, G. 1993. “The spirituality of Swami Abhishiktananda.” In Swami Abhishiktānanda: The Man and His Message, ed. Vandana, 70-79. 2nd, rev. ed. Delhi: ISPCK.

Grant, Sara. 1974. “Swamiji–The Man.” Clergy Monthly 37, no. 11 (December): 487-95.

Hackbarth-Johnson, Christian. 2003. Interreligiöse Existenz: Spirituelle Erfahrung und Identität bei Henri Le Saux (O.S.B.)/Swami Abhishiktānanda (1910-1973). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Hershock, Peter D. 2005. Chan Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Le Saux, Henri. 1982. Intériorité et révélation: Essais théologiques. Sisteron: Presence.

----. 1999. Lettres d’un sannyāsī chrétien à Joseph Lemarié. Paris: Éditions du Cerf.

Majjhima Nikaya. 1995. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the   “Majjhima Nikāya”. Trans. Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi. Boston: Wisdom Publications in association with the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.

Monchanin, J. and Henri Le Saux. 1964. A Benedictine Ashram. Rev. ed. Isle of Man: Times Press.

Osborne, Arthur. 1954. Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-knowledge. London: Rider.

Panikkar, Raimundo. 1982. “Letter to Abhishiktananda on Eastern-Western Monasticism.” Studies in Formative Spirituality 3, no. 3 (November): 427-51.

----. 1998. Editorial notes to Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary (1948-1973) of Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom H. Le Saux), ed. Raimon Panikkar, trans. David Fleming and James Stuart. Delhi: ISPCK.

Ramana Maharshi. 1959. The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi. Ed. Arthur Osborne. London: Rider.

----. 1965. The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi in His Own Words. Ed. Arthur Osborne. 2nd ed. Tiruvannamalai: T. N. Venkataraman.

----. Sadguru Gnanananda: His Life, Personality, and Teachings. 1979. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Stuart, James. 1989. Swāmī Abhishiktānanda: His Life Told through his Letters. Delhi: ISPCK, 1989.

Sutton, Florin Giripescu. 1991. Existence and Enlightenment in the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra: A Study in the Ontology and Epistemology of the Yogācāra School of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ulrich, Edward T. 2012. Reflections on the Simplicity of the Ashrams: A Visit to Shantivanam and the Mauna Mandir. Dilatato Corde 2, no. 2 (July).

Van Zeller, Hubert. 1958. The Holy Rule: Notes on St. Benedict’s Legislation for Monks. New York: Sheed and Ward.

Watts, Alan W. 1936. The spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work and Art in the Far East. London: John Murray.

----. 1947. Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion. New York: Pantheon.

[1]This study is indebted to Glenn Friesen’s dissertation. Although not the main point of his dissertation, he shows the different ways Abhishiktananda was exposed to Buddhist ideas, shedding light on an area that has not received much scholarly attention (Friesen 2001, 111-117). I am grateful to Glenn Friesen, Christian Hackbarth-Johnson, and Michael Stoeber for their feedback. I am also grateful to Swami Nityananda Giri for correcting my portrayal of Swami Gnanananda.

[2]The most thorough biography of Abhishiktananda is Stuart (1989). For an extensive account of the original plans for Shantivanam see Monchanin and Le Saux (1964). For an example of a papal endorsement of inculturation see Pius XII, Evangelii Praecones, 56-60.

[3]The italics are in the original.

[4]For references in Abhishiktananda’s writings to Pujya Mota and to Hasmukhlal Gopaldas’s father, Gopaldas, see Abhishiktananda 1998, 195-96 (12.7.56, 12.8.56, 12.12.56).

[5]See, for instance, Abhishiktananda (1998, 35 [4.5.1952]).

[6]In depth accounts of his visits to this town are in Abhishiktananda (1979).

[7]For references to Zen or related to Zen in these early years see Abhishiktananda (1982, 43, 46, 50; 1998, 48-50 [7.15.52, 7.17.52, 7.19.52, 7.21.52] ). Regarding the dates of the former source see Stuart (1989, 64nn23-24, 68n) and Abhishiktananda (1982, 39).  Most of the references in this note were taken from Friesen (2001, 111-15).

[8]“Avec un intérêt extrême.”

[9]For instance, Shankara, who is considered the great philosopher of Advaita, came long after Yogacara and argued against its ideas. See Shankara (Brahma-Sutra-Bhashya 2.2.28-32).

[10]See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 81 [12.5.1953])  and Majjhima Nikaya (1.50).

[11]See also Stuart (1989, 68-69 [4.29.53]).

[12]The interpolation is the editor’s.

[13]Abhishiktananda had stayed in the caves a third time in March 1953, for a month (Panikkar 1998, 57).

[14]The ellipses and italics are in the original.  

[15]The interpolation is in the original. See also Abhishiktananda (1998: 91 [4.24.54]).         

[16]In these reflections the former monk of Kergonan showed the influence of John of the Cross, who encouraged aspirants to critically question their spiritual longings. For instance, he wrote that some who are enthusiastic about religious practices are not attracted to God himself but to the sweetness of spiritual experiences (John of the Cross The Dark Night 1.6).

[17]The italics are in the original. See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 143 [2.5.56]).

[18]The italics are in the original. Also, “Is it not, more than anything else, fear for my ‘human comfort’ that keeps me from responding to the call of the abyss from on high? Is it not sociological, material, and psychological reasons that I dignify with the fine name of fidelity? Fidelity and courage? or rather cowardice and insincerity?” (Abhishiktananda 1998, 152 [7.21.56]).

Although Advaita held an irresistible pull over Abhishiktananda, the continued importance which Christianity held for him can be seen in his letters and diary. For instance, after critiquing his dual attractions to Christianity and Advaita in the passage quoted above, he went on to state, that “beneath the human wrapping there is something very much deeper in both of these attachments which torment me and tear me apart” (1998, 75 [9.27.53]). See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 118 [8.27.55], 170 [11.22.56], 204-205 [4.15.57], 221 [8.19.59]) and Stuart (1989, 85 [11.7.54]).

[19]See also Panikkar’s assessment of Abhishiktananda during this time period (1982, 445-46; 1998, 57).

[20]Le mystère” appears in Le Saux (1982, 118-26). For a discussion of its date see Stuart (1989, 76n33) and Le Saux (1982, 139). (“Le mystère” is a section of a larger essay titled “L’Epiphanie de Dieu,” to which Stuart refers.) For a discussion of when Abhishiktananda began composing “Guhantara” see Stuart (1989, 64).

[21]“Il n’est pas d’incompatibilité entre le mystère du vyakta, et celui de l’avyakta, aspects tous deux de l’Unique et ineffable Réalité, inséparables l’un de l’autre.”

[22]“En étant dans l’éternité, il fait être le Père ; en étant dans le temps, il fait être les hommes : << Premier-né de toute créature >>, primogenitus omnis creaturae ; << tout subsiste en lui >>, in ipso omnia constant (Col. 1,15,17).”

[23]Abhishiktananda went on a second retreat, directed by Mehta, in 1957 (Abhishiktananda 1998, 202-205; Panikkar 1998, 197-98; Stuart 1989, 114-15).

[24]See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 114 [8.8.55]). 

[25]Abhishiktananda was suspicious of Mehta’s nontraditional approach to Advaita and the idea that one would find Christ apart from the Church. See Abhishiktananda (1998, 110-11 [7.29.55]) and Stuart (1989, 114-15 [3.30.57], 217 [8.27.67], 252 [2.24.70]).

[26]The two ellipses are given as they appear in the original.

[27]The italics are in the original. The editor explains that this is “a reference to the Bhūdān (land-gift) Movement started by Vinobe Bhāve, the disciple of Mahatma Gandhi” (Abhishiktananda 1998, 116n23).  See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 118 [8.27.55], 130 [11.16.55], 136 [1.6.56], 147 [9.8.56]).

[28]The italics are in the original. See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 114 [8.8.55], 122 [9.3.55]).

[29]Clooney has some similar reflections, based on the Gita: “The Gita invites us first to examine our commitments, habits of mind and heart, to reflect on how we have integrated our lives or not—before we turn our attention to the possibilities and challenges posed to us by religious pluralism. We need first to clarify our Christian self, letting go of anger and fear and animosity, learning to live within our own Christian tradition without being attached to anything in it. If we are not free as Christians, how can we be free in our meetings with people of other traditions? With Christian commitment and freedom as a starting point and not a conclusion, we are enabled to act intelligently and freely in relation to religions” (1990, 6).

[30]See also Ramana (1965, 102).

[31]In a memorial letter addressed to Abhishiktananda, Panikkar wrote, “Central to you was your monastic commitment. You doubted whether, out of loyalty to yourself, you should quit the Church; you hesitated to give yourself fully to Advaita, but you never for a moment questioned your monastic consecration, your way of life” (1982, 446).

[32]Stuart’s analysis is that “the emphasis on total ‘surrender’ which Dr Mehta pressed on him, was truly enlightening and helped Abhishiktananda to understand himself more deeply and to find at least a measure of peace in the coming months. . . . Though he was no nearer to a definitive solution of his problems, he had at least gained a better understanding of himself and heard the call to a deeper surrender” (Stuart 1989, 93).

[33]I am mixing Pali and Sanskrit terms, using whichever language the original texts were in. 

[34]The italics and interpolations are in the original. See also (1998, 48 [7.15.1952], 145-46 [3.5.56],  146 [3.6.56]). Cf. “Having directly known Nibbāna as Nibbāna, . . . , he should not conceive Nibbāna to be ‘mine,’ he should not delight in Nibbāna”  (Majjhima Nikaya 1.50). See also (Majjhima Nikaya 8.4-11). Abhishiktananda’s reflections also evoke verses from the Bhagavad Gita. Just as Abhishiktananda was considering leaving the Church, Arjuna was considering leaving the battlefield. Krishna counseled Arjuna, among other things, to move past the sense of being an agent who makes decisions: “Actions are all effected by the qualities of nature; but deluded by individuality, the self thinks, ‘I am the actor.’ When he can discriminate the actions of nature’s qualities and think, ‘The qualities depend on other qualities,’ he is detached” (Bhagavad Gita 3.27-28). Also, “Your resolve is futile if a sense of individuality makes you think, ‘I shall not fight’—nature will compel you to” (Bhagavad Gita 18.59). (These passages were taken out of verse form for insertion into this text.) However, these verses probably did not directly influence Abhishiktananda in this matter, as his diary entries are void of the Sankhya philosophy that undergirds these verses. Also, see the reference to the struggle of the Gita in Panikkar’s description of Abhishiktananda’s struggles (1982, 446).  

[35]The interpolations are the editor’s. It appears that this type of idea was first planted in Abhishiktananda’s mind by Dinshaw Mehta: “It was said to me [by Dr M.] that the solution of all my problems would be found in ‘interiorization’, at that point where I am as it were ‘awaited’. His whole role in my regard is to help me to find my way to that point” (1998, 130 [11.16.55]). The interpolation is the editor’s.

[36]See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 162 [11.15.1956]).

[37]See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 145 [3.5.56]).

[38]See also Le Saux (1982, 136). The references given in the text are to an English translation of “Esseulement” which is available at the Abhishiktananda Archives. The references given in the footnotes are to the original, French version which appears in Le Saux (1982). For a discussion of the essay and its date see Stuart (1989, 103).

[39]See also Le Saux (1982, 134).

[40]See also Le Saux (1982, 128).

[41]See also Le Saux (1982, 128).

[42]See also Le Saux (1982, 129).

[43]Abhishiktananda was in the Mandir for thirty-three calendar days, but the total time spent was closer to thirty-two days. Hence, Panikkar refers to the stay as having been for thirty-two days (1998, 132).

[44]There are many similar passages in the diary.

[45]See also Abhishiktananda 1998 (170 [11.22.56], 185-86 [11.30.56]).

[46]See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 194 [12.6.56]).

[47]The interpolation is the editor’s. See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 161 [11.13.56].

[48]The interpolations are the editor’s.

[49]The interpolation is mine. See also Abhishiktananda (1998, 191 [12.1.56]) and Panikkar (1982, 433-34).

[50]For resonances of this theme in Advaitic literature see Ramana (1965, 109), Sadguru (1979, 168), and Shankara (Brahma-Sutra-Bhashya 1.1.4). It appears that Gopaldas Mehta, the owner of the Mandir, reinforced this message. At the close of the retreat the two men spent time together and Abhishiktananda wrote, “Gopaldas requests me to sit and to be. Christians urge me to run and to do. That makes the whole difference” (1998, 196 [12.12.56]). (The selection is italicized in the original.) See also (1998, 195 [12.8.56]).

It is notable that it was through disappointment, disappointment that the Advaitic experience did not dawn, that Abhishiktananda came to realize the point about stilling his desire, for John of the Cross wrote about a purification of one’s spiritual desires through disappointment. He explained that aspirants may enter the spiritual life with high expectations, looking forward to the delights of spiritual consolations. However, God may withhold those delights, and in the resulting desolation, referred to as a “Dark Night of the Senses,” one matures and grows, moving past one’s self-centered love of God (John The Dark Night 1.1.2). Abhishiktananda explicitly referred to John’s teachings on this matter in describing his experience in the Mandir: “The agony of the ego, and this dislocation, those nights spoken of by John of the Cross. . . . the ego hangs on to everything, to everything in itself that is most subtle, most high, most pure. . . . It gives up everything, all that in spiritual verbiage we call ‘created things,’ the things of this world, and that is easy. But as for eternal things, how could it let go of them?” (1998, 169 [11.22.56]).

For other examples of Buddhist influence during Abhishiktananda’s stay in the Mandir see Abhishiktananda (1998, 155-56 [11.6.56], 156 [11.7.56], 156-57 [11.8.56], 169-70 [11.22.56], 179 [11.27.56]. Also, there are further similarities between Watt’s approach and Abhishiktananda’s reflections in the Mandir. Compare Watts (1947, 99, 101) with Abhishiktananda (1998, 156 [11.7.56]).  For a comparison of aspects of Abhishiktananda’s thought with aspects of Buddhism see Friesen (2001, 239-43, 271-73, 281-83, 481-83).

[51]Abhishiktananda would continue to attempt to forge theological syntheses, but would conclude in the final years of his life that such syntheses are impossible. See Abhishiktananda (1998, 333 [12.11.71], 335 [12.21.71]), Stuart (Stuart 1989, 268 [5.12.70]), and Panikkar (1998, xviii).

[52]The italics are in the original. Cf. Stuart’s analysis: “Even if the retreat did not lead him as far as he had hoped (he was still expecting a definitive ‘experience’!), it was an important step in his pilgrimage and he saw some things more clearly, especially concerning the need to transcend his ahamkāra” (Stuart 1989, 111).

[53]For examples of how Abhishiktananda was continuing to integrate the lessons detailed herein in the coming years see  (1998, 201 [3.30.57],  202-203 [4.8.57], 203 [4.11.57], 204 [4.13.57], 205 [4.16.57], 212 [2.20.58], 213-14 [5.16.58], 214-15 [5.17.58], 246 [11.5.62], 246-47 [11.13.62], 257 [4.15.63], 260-61 [8.31.63]. 

[54]For discussions of Abhishiktananda’s influence on the Church in India see Gispert-Sauch (1993, 71) and Grant (1974, 491-92).

[55]See also Bäumer (2010, 56-60) and Panikkar (1982, 447-48).

Home | DIMMID Introduction | DILATATO CORDE
Current issue
Numéro actuel
Previous issues
Numéros précédents
| About/Au sujet de
| News Archive | Abhishiktananda | Monastic/Muslim Dialogue | Links / Liens | Photos | Videos | Contact | Site Map
Powered by Catalis