Abhishiktananda

by Brother Wayne Teasdale

During the pontificate of Pope Paul VI (one of the most misunderstood of popes), Murray Rogers was an Anglican priest who lived with his wife in a small community in India. He had become a close friend of Henri Le Saux, during which time he had an amazing audience with Pope Paul-amazing because the entire duration of the meeting, nearly an hour, was taken up with the subject of this French Benedictine monk who had gone to live India. The pope, who was fluent in French, had read nearly everything Henri Le Saux had written, and was deeply interested in his approach, discerning in it some possible significance for the future of Christianity and Hinduism.

Henri Le Saux, or Abhishiktananda, as he came to be known in India by his sannyasic (monastic) name, was an extraordinary Christian-Hindu mystic-a rare being who lived a totally interior life of mystical inner experience that was not of this world, but the source and basis for it. He was a bridge figure who was able to appropriate both traditions at their deepest wellsprings through contemplation. Abhishiktananda was undoubtedly one of the great pioneers on the frontiers of consciousness in the latter half of the 20th century. His singular achievement was that of being a cross-cultural mystic-sage, spanning the gap experientially, and interiorly, between Advaita (non-duality) and Christian personalism as represented in the trinitarian vision.

He was born on August 30, 1910 in St. Briac on the northern coast of Brittany. His parents, Alfred Le Saux and Louise Sonnefraud named their firstborn, Henri Briac Marie Le Saux. Eventually the family expanded to seven children-five girls and two boys. He grew up in a devoutly Catholic home, and was exposed to folk music and Gregorian chant from a tender age. Henri felt called to the priesthood from the time of his early childhood. In 1921 his parents sent him to the minor seminary (high school) in Chateaugiron, from which he graduated in 1926, and then proceeded to the Major Seminary in Rennes. Though being a very distinguished student, Henri’s inclination was for the monastic life. So, he declined to continue his studies for the diocesan priesthood, and confided in his parents that his desire was to be a Benedictine monk. His parents opposed his decision, but in 1929 he entered the Abbey of Sainte Anne de Kergonan, not far from Plouharnel on the western coast of Brittany. There he remained until his departure for India in 1948.

Henri took to monastic life with zeal, earnestness, and generosity. On May 30, 1935, the Feast of the Ascension, he took his final or solemn vows as a Benedictine monk and was ordained to the priesthood on December 21 of the same year. Le Saux was made librarian, and this afforded him considerable leisure for reading and study. He became quite a patristic theologian, that is, an expert in the mystical theologians of the early Church. Then in 1939 the Second World War intervened, and he briefly served in the military. From 1946 until 1948, Henri was again librarian and professor for the novices and junior monks, teaching them Church history and Canon Law. His mother died in 1944; his father passed on in 1955, after Henri had been in India some seven years.

Call to India
Henri Le Saux had an irresistible call to go to India. He had been corresponding with Father Jules Monchanin, a saintly and brilliant French priest who had earlier gone to India as a missionary. In India, Monchanin encountered a culture and spiritual life so profound and authentic that it changed his approach entirely from an attempt to convert Hindus to one of attempting to understand them, and relate India’s spiritual wisdom to Christian theology and spirituality. Jules Monchanin left France for India in 1939, and before his departure his great friend, the Jesuit theologian and writer, Henri de Lubac, asked him “to rethink everything in the light of theology, and to rethink theology through mysticism.” Father Monchanin had discovered the mystical depth of both the Hindu and Christian traditions and was able, with Henri Le Saux (who joined him in 1948), to express their focus in India, as contemplatives: “Our Advaita ( non-duality) and the praise of the Trinity are our only aim.” Here, he was able to convey where the essential encounter of these two traditions must take place. Jules Monchanin invited Henri Le Saux to join him in founding a Christian monastic outpost in Tamil Nadu, near the town of Trichinopoly.

Before actually establishing their monastic ashram they decided to visit a number of Hindu ashrams. Henri Le Saux had heard much about Sri Ramana Maharshi, the silent sage of Tiruvannamalai, and while still in France had read everything he could by and about him. It was the bishop of Trichinopoly, Bishop Mendonca, who had suggested to the two prospective founders that they go to Tiruvannamalai, spend time there, and especially have the darshan (be in the presence) of Ramana Maharshi. They spent a week there together in January 1949.

Henri Le Saux returned alone to Tiruvannamalai, to the holy mountain of Arunachala and Ramana, in August 1949, the year before the Indian saint’s death. Arunachala had finally gotten hold of him. There, he would spend long periods in meditation in the caves of the mountain, plunged into an incredible vortex of interior depth out of which he never emerged. India had “taken him,” after he had experienced an inner awakening in the presence of Ramana Maharshi. He records in his diary: “My heart is now divided between the sacred river (the Kauvery) and the sacred mountain (Arunachala).”

In 1950, Monchanin and Le Saux founded their community near Kulittalai, not far from Trichinopoly, and called it Satchitananda Ashram. Known by its popular name, Shantivanam, the ashram is situated on the banks of the Kauvery, one of India’s seven sacred rivers, and the site where many saints and sages through the millennia of India’s spiritual history spent time. They decided to acculturate their monastic life to the customs and forms of Indian monastic observance, and so each of them took vows of sannyasa, or renunciation, thereby becoming Christian sannyasis. This meant a life of utter simplicity, poverty, asceticism, and contemplation. They wore the kavi, the orange saffron of a Hindu monk, and both adopted new names as is the tradition when embracing sannyasa. Jules Monchanin became Swami Parama Arubiananda, or “the Bliss of the Supreme Formless One,” while Henri Le Saux assumed the name of Abhishiktananda, that is, “the Bliss of the Anointed One,” a reference to Christ.

They incorporated the Sanskrit and Tamil languages into their public worship and celebrated the Indian rite of the mass which was also expressive of India’s genius for the Spirit. This rite of the mass has elements from the temple puja, the offerings to deities that go on all over the country in the millions of temples and shrines that populate the land. It should be noted that the economic life of the ashram has always approximated that of the poorest village in India. The diet was (and still is) strictly vegetarian and the focus of life is on contemplative meditation.

Abhishiktananda had always experienced a deep anxiety and ambiguity about Shantivanam. Ever since his awakening in the presence of Ramana, he experienced an intense attraction to the Indian approach of mystical contemplation, or meditation, and was drawn more and more to the solitary life of the sannyasi.

Henri was a gregarious renunciate, much like Thomas Merton. In 1957, when Jules Monchanin died, Abhishiktananda was already taking regular trips away from Shantivanam to enter more deeply into meditation and asceticism, and to meet other sannyasis, gurus, and hold retreats and talks. He was also a very prolific writer. Starting in 1958, and for the next ten years, he divided his time between Shantivanam in the south and a hermitage in Uttarkashi, in the Himalayas. He preferred the solitude of the Himalayas, hidden from the world, away from the steady stream of visitors that came to Shantivanam.

In 1968, Abhishiktananda resigned from the leadership of the ashram at Shantivanam, and gave the ashram to Father Francis Mahieu, or Francis Acharya, a Belgian Cistercian monk who, with Father Bede Griffiths, had founded Kurisumala Ashram in the southern state of Kerala, near Vagamon, ten years previously. Francis Acharya sent Father Bede to take charge of Shantivanam that same year, and Bede remained its director until his death in May 1993. Under Bede’s leadership the ashram saw extraordinary growth, becoming an international center of spirituality. Abhishiktananda was now free to pursue his real vocation: to enter more deeply into the advaitic experience, within the cave of the heart. He wanted to “disappear into the Himalayas,” and he did succeed in spending nearly eight months of the year in solitude between 1969 and 1971. At Gyansu, a kilometer from Uttarkashi, he was given a tiny hermitage where he loved passing the time in meditation. Foreign visitors were not allowed into this area of India, so he was left in relative peace. Abhishiktananda had a heart attack on July 14, 1973 in Rishikesh, while running after a bus. He died five months later on December 7, 1973.

Abhishiktananda’s Struggles
Abhishiktananda paid a huge price for his cross-cultural mystical journey. It was at times for him a terrible agony, particularly after experiencing the advaitic or non-dualistic vision. He thought he was losing his faith, and worried about his salvation. He wasn’t sure if he was deceived or not. This inner struggle began when he met Ramana Maharshi in January 1949. Abhishiktananda knew India’s mystical life was true, yet he continued to experience conflict with his simple, but profound Christian faith. Though he came to realize that the truth of advaita and the Trinity were both real, he was trying to reconcile them within his own being. He had a tremendous loyalty to Christ and the Gospel, and celebrated mass and said the rosary every day, but he was also a pure advaitin. The inner awakening at Arunachala made it clear to him that the venture at Shantivanam was only a half-measure; he had to go all the way, and that meant association with other sannyasis in the north who were exploring the depths of advaita in their own solitary habitats.

In one of the last things he wrote-a paper for an east-west monastic conference at Bangalore, in October 1973, a conference he was unable to attend because of health considerations-Abhishiktananda waxes eloquently about the nature of his advaitic experience, and clearly articulates the challenge it poses for Christianity in its implications. He says of advaita:

“In this annihilating experience, the person is no longer able to project in front of himself anything whatsoever, to recognize any other ‘pole’ to which he will refer himself and give the name of God. Once he has reached that innermost center, he is so forcibly seized by the mystery that he can no longer utter either a ‘Thou’ or an ‘I.’ Engulfed in the abyss, he has disappeared to his own eyes, to his own consciousness. The proximity of that mystery which the prophetic traditions name ‘God’ has burnt him so completely that there is no longer any question of discovering it in the depths of himself or himself in the depths of it. In the very engulfing, the gulf itself has vanished. If a cry were still possible-at the moment perhaps of disappearing into the abyss-it would be paradoxically: ‘But there is no abyss, no gulf, no distance.’ There is no face-to-face, for there is only That-which-Is and no other to name It. ‘Advaita!’“1

This description is in some ways rather shocking for a Christian, Muslim, or Jew who is rooted in a simple monotheistic faith. It seems the complete opposite of the theistic experience. Does God have a place in advaita? And what of the Incarnation, that is, of Christ? Does he disappear in the intensity and unity of non-dual awareness? Abhishiktananda says in his description that we disappear even to ourselves, to our own consciousness. He asks very important questions about God, and then identifies God with the Godhead in the utter intimacy of pure mystical intuitive awareness where transcendence is swallowed up into pure immanence. Abhishiktananda puts it:

“Yet where is ‘God’, who is ‘God’, when there is nobody to call him so? Here is the pure silence of the Godhead, without any name to define it, without any personalization which could allow one to invoke it, discovered in the disappearance of one’s self into the depths of the abyss of one’s being.“2

Meister Eckhart himself describes such states of consciousness. He speaks about returning to the abyss, and desert of the Godhead, and that when he returns to the Ground, the Godhead, God passes away! If there is ultimately only God, or the Godhead, how can we speak of God as an Identity to which we are related? The God beyond God is the Godhead, the Source that is personal and transpersonal. It is with these kinds of insights and experiences that Abhishiktananda struggled.

I believe that Abhishiktananda was able to integrate his experiences by coming to a place in his consciousness that is beyond all words, concepts, or any form whatsoever. In this consciousness, Hindu and Christian mysticism became a new species of contemplative understanding that is both and beyond both. He saw, especially after his heart attack in 1973, that life is simply about awakening, or waking up where we are to the reality of being itself, a reality which is beyond the categories of life and death. Life and death are not ultimate; only the awakened state is, and that is our true nature.

Practical Application of Advaita
Abhishiktananda’s incredibly rich appropriation of non-duality is a great challenge to Christian theology and spirituality. It calls the Christian experience to the task of a contemplative deepening in a manner that takes account of and uncovers the non-dual experience at the heart of Christian mystical life, and indeed at the heart of the Gospel itself. We can see this same non-dual awareness, the original state, or eternal consciousness at work in Tibetan Buddhist mysticism, especially in the teachings of Dzogchen, the perfection of the nature of the mind, which is consciousness itself.

Brother Wayne Teasdale is a Christian sannyasi (monk) in the Indian tradition and is an adjunct professor at DePaul University. He is spiritual director, lecturer, and retreat master, and author of Toward Christian Vedanta.