Abhishiktananda: Solitude and Paradox
When Henri Le Saux (1910-1973) was an adolescent and an excellent student, preparing to enter a seminary to continue his studies, one of his teachers entered a comment on Henri in his files under the category of "Judgment." The comment was: "Good, with a tendency to paradox." Unintentionally prophetic.
Paradox was, indeed, to characterize the life and thought of Henri Le Saux, who spent twenty years as a Benedictine monk in his native France, and the rest of his life in India as a Hindu-inspired sannyasi, hermit, traveler, writer -- and Catholic priest.
The chronology of Henri Le Saux's Western life is easily described. He was born into a pious Breton family, the eldest -- and for eight years the only -- child, with a deep attachment to his household and birthplace. He entered the monastery at Kergonan, famous for the quality of its Gregorian chant, and resided there contentedly for nearly twenty years. After the death of his mother in 1944, he suddenly professed an earnest interest in going to India.
At first his dream of India was private but as he began petitioning and pursuing leads, the first great paradox of Henri's life evidenced itself. He knew no visitor or correspondent concerning India, had read no scriptures, books, or significant articles about India or Hinduism. Scattered references in missionary magazines would have probably been deprecatory in the style of the era and not inspiring.
But when the bishop or Tiruchirapalli and a French priest Jules Monchanin responded to his correspondence with enthusiasm, Henri's path was set. Further correspondence with Monchanin revealed a mutual desire to pursue Hindu religious expression, study of the Tamil and Sanskrit languages, and, most importantly, to adopt the physical lifestyle of the common people. Henri Le Saux reached India in August 1948.
India - Early
Jules Monchanin lived a semi-eremitic life in Bhakti Ashram. Though scholarly, he preferred the quiet life of a parish priest. Henri was charmed by all he encountered, immediately adopting the life of a sannyasi or holy man, wearing robes, eating dahl and rice, learning customs and language with alacrity, and incorporating Hindu chants, prayers, readings, and practices into his daily monastic routines. He still echoed Western missionary rhetoric, however, speaking in terms of a "fulfillment" theology and his desire to help Christianize the Hindus. But this did not last long.
First Henri and Jules visited their Hindu counterparts: monks from the order of Ramakrishna, then attended the darshan or public presentations of Aurobindo, and finally that of Ramana Maharshi at Arunachala, the holy mountain.
At Arunachala were many caves where hermits and holy men dwelt for extended periods. The experience of Ramana's presence, followed by eager reading of Ramana's teachings on advaita or non-dualism, silence, and solitude of self, were nearly overwhelming. Henri Le Saux took up the name of Abhishiktananda and then, for three years, became a wandering sadhu among the caves of Arunachala. To him, advaita revealed a truth more profound than anything he had know n in Christianity.
At the same time, Henri and Jules were engaged in the work of building a Christian ashram. During this time, as commentator Du Boulay notes,
Poverty and simplicity were central to their living conditions as both men were adamant that they did not want to live at a higher standard than their neighbors. ... Each had a hut with walls of bamboo and a roof of coconut leaves. There was no furniture, and the flooring was simply a few bricks to keep the floor dry and to serve as bed, chair, and table. ... One of the huts had a verandah, where they said Mass, and a wooden structure was built for their books, just enough to be called a library.
They replaced the bamboo -- no barrier to snakes, scorpions, and voracious white ants -- with brick walls, and tiled the roof against inquisitive monkeys. At once they turned their attention to constructing an ashram in the style of a Hindu temple, to be called Shantivanam.
But Abhishiktananda discovered that Fr. Jules was not practical. The work of design, contracting, and raising funds fell to Abhishiktananda exclusively. He was to call Fr. Jules a "good companion but a bad partner."
Nor was Fr. Jules willing to accompany Abhishiktananda into more uncharted spiritual adventures such as visits to Arunachala or explorations of advaita.
Abhishiktananda encountered several intriguing personalities who were to shape his thinking in eccentric ways. Harilal was a layman and civil servant with a profound mystic air who prodded Abhishiktananda to renounce Christianity and fully embrace advaita through Ramana's techniques of silence and examination of self-hood.
The dilemma was both spiritual and psychological for Abhishiktananda. While freely acknowledging that the advanced Hindu had nothing to learn or gain from Christian theology, having left behind the dualism of God and human, the identity Abhishiktananda clung to was cultural and personal as much as intellectual. Sometimes he feared betraying all that he was or had been for a leap into what was unknowable.
What does it mean, to feel that the only obstacle to final peace and bliss is one's attachment to that place or that form -- to that mythos? Who is there on either side of the frontier to whom I can cry out my anguish? ... From now on I have tasted too much of advaita to be able to recover the "Gregorian" peace not to be anguished in the midst of my advaita.
Another eccentric influence Abhishiktananda met in his travels to Poona was Dinshaw Mehta, a Farsi doctor who had serviced Mohandas Gandhi. Mehta claimed spirit communications to illuminate his advice. He insisted that Abhishiktananda surrender to a personalized Christ neither Christian nor Hindu. This Christ was problematic to him, but the notion of surrender of self irrefutably resonated with Abhishiktananda, and he thoroughly explored this notion of renunciation, nakedness, and the stripping away of ego and self.
But he remained in the midst of anguishing paradox, longing for the path of advaita but diligently offering the Mass daily. "The hermit in his cave has not yet made the total surrender," Abhishiktananda wrote in his diary. The book that emerged from his thoughts at this time, titled Guhantara, (literally, "one who dwells in a cave") was vigorously denounced by Church censors and never published.
A third influence on Abhishiktananda was the guru Gnanananda of whom he learned in Arunachala and whom he sought out against Fr. Jules' advice. During his weeks at the guru's ashram, Abhishiktananda was absorbed in Hindu ceremony and ritual. Gnanananda taught using simple parables and direct discourses on solitude and self, and through the use of long periods of silence. Abhishiktananda absorbed everything.
Abhishiktananda was to write not only a book on his experiences with Gnanananda but a long essay simply entitled "Esseulement" or "Total Solitude." Here he revealed his newly-discovered methodology for understanding advaita. Following this period, he entered the well-known Chola temple at Tamal Nadu with its Mauna Mandir or Temple of Silence. Du Boulay summarizes:
He was given a large dark room in a separate building in the garden. There was a bathroom attached, and like an enclosed nun, he received his food through a revolving hatch. Apart from that silent human contact, he was in a solitude greater than the solitude he had experienced in the caves of Arunachala.
Abhishiktananda stayed in the temple for over a month, keeping a private diary but writing no communications intended for outside. He reveals in these pages both his anguish and his serenity. He reveals his experiences of solitude and silence, of fear and of nakedness before God. He was clearly at the brink of the advaita experience, of what Abhishiktananda called "awakening." He was willing to pursue it. But he was not expecting the element of fear in losing the self and encountering the unknown that would accompany a final surrender of self. There was also fear before the dogged paradox of clinging to two paths at once, Christianity and Hindu advaita, what he called "Jesus and Arunachala." Abhishiktananda writes
And if to become Christian I had to give you up, O Arunachala, to abandon you, O Ramana, then I would never to able to be Christian again. ... If only I could be completely sure that there is no eternal risk to be run in following Ramana to the end.
But Abhishiktananda realized more deeply that to truly be a sannyasi was to embrace "solitude, total stripping," what he called "Solitude-Silence-Poverty." Solitude meant renunciation of all relationships, all moral and physical support, all expectations. Poverty was not a problem. This solitude was deeper than, the core of solitude was disengagement from the work in order to surrender the self absolutely to non-duality, to go beyond faith, beyond human formulations, beyond doctrines -- to the Absoltude, the Alone. Abhishiktananda composed this poem during the retreat:
In serene solitude, in sovereign solitude,
In serene fullness, in sovereign fullness,
In the solitude of my fullness,
In the fullness of my solitude,
In the solitude of my blessedness,
In the blessedness of my fullness.
This fullness of solitude must rest in being. Not this of that being, nor even Being (noun), but in absolute being (verb), which is being in the Presence, the name Abhishiktananda gives tentatively to this being (verb) "as long as the veil has not yet been torn apart." This was what "I am" means, he concluded -- to realize what one is means to realize everything.
While the paradox of maintaining Christianity and Hinus advaita continued unresolved, other paradoxes dogged Abhishiktananda's life. He had lost interest in Shantivanam, especially after the 1957 death of Jules Monchanin) and now the fifty-year old monk had embarked on incessant travel. He wanted solitude and solince but his travels made new friends and colleagues, including apologist Raimon Panikkar, Bede Griffith (who would inherit Shantivanam in 1968, though with tension between them), and many Hindu sadhus and admirers from Christian European priests and scholars to laypeople. He met representative Taize, Anglican, and Orthodoxy laypeople and a Teilhard de Chardin study group. He attended the 1961 World Council of Churches held in India. Invitations to ecumenical conferences and academic forums tumbled in until Abhishiktananda owned that he had become a "celebrity."
These contacts and meetings revealed a strong degree of interest in Christian-Hindu dialogue, encouraging Abhishiktananda to work on books that were to be published in the mid-1960's: Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Adavaitic Experience; The Mountain of the Lord: Pilgrimage to Gangatri (the outcome of one of his travels), and Hindu-Christian Meeting-Point: Within the Cave of the Heart. Abhishiktananda met Prime Minister Nehru and Jacques-Albert Cuttat, Swiss ambassador to India, in a financial position to facilitate the many conferences of these years. The Second Vatican Council was provoking new interest in Abhishiktananda's long-established themes.
But always dogging his path was the paradoxical call of solitude. Abhishiktananda wanted to build a hut in the Himalayas, near the source of the Ganges. He was convinced that the intersection of Christian and Hindu must be interior. Even though the sixties were years in which Abhishiktananda would work with others to explore an intellectual reconciliation on the issue, he was becoming disaffected with discussions and conferences dominated by heart-felt ecumenists who simply diluted the urgency of truth with their emotions and sentiments. He addressed them as a devote Hindu.
I am afraid that when you call us to dialogue you do not understand spiritual knowledge in the way we do. You want information. You want learned discussions on the phenomenal aspects of religions ranging from rituals and sociological aspects to mythology and doctrinal formulations.
And this intellectualized approach of indefinite research versus actual experience was futile. As he had said more emphatically in Saccinanda:
If Christianity should prove incapable of assimilating Hindu spiritual experience from within, Chrsitians would thereby at once lose the right to claim that it is the universal way of salvation. ... In their claim to be ultimate, Christianity and advaita are mutually exclusive. And yet in its own sphere, the truth of advaita is unassailable. If Christianity is unable to integrate it iin the light of a higher truth, the inference must follow that advaita includes and surpasses the truth of Christianity and that it operates on a higher level than that of Christianity. There is no escape from this dilemma.
Abhishiktananda felt himself to be more firmly persuaded by the solitary path, however difficult, for it was the path of experience taught by all of his Hindu counselors.
The solitary is all alone face to face with himself, all alone face to face with God, in the depth of himself, but with a God who draws him beyond all signs, all forms of manifestations, all symbols, all images, all concept. In the last resort, there is nothing in which he could "embrace" this God, or touch him, or see him, whether he be the one God experienced by the bhakta, or the triune God of the Christian's faith-experience. So it is a solitude in which nothing answers the call, or, rather, in which no response to the call is heard. For in every response, I know that it is from myself that it is welling up. And, in the end, who is talking? Nothing any longer exists but the kevala [the solitude that has no name], the totally blank page in the Ten Pictures of Zen.
Abhishiktananda made a solitary pilgrimage to the source of the Ganges River, about which he wrote in The Mountain of the Lord, as mentioned above. For several weeks he lived in silence, like the munis, the silent sadhus. Eac morning he plunged into the cold Ganges; dressed in saffron dhoti he beged his food, passing the day in his hut or outside if warm, all before the snow-capped mountains of the Himilayas and the thundering river at its source. He composed only one entry in his diary, which sums his experience at Gangotri:
The solitude of the Alone. ... Solitude with God is not solitude. Accept being alon, infinitely alone. Alone in my eternity. ...
In the late sixties, the paradox of solitude and engagement, of Hinduism and Christianity, reasserted itself in Abhishiktananda, the renewed round of conferences and workshops promoted by enthusiastic post-Vatican Council figures. His criticisms of the Catholic Church were sharper but also more distracting from his preference for solitude. Abhishiktananda gave up Shantivanam and settled in his Himalayan hut, where he stayed for half of the year (based on climate) for the rest of his life, planting fruit trees, tending vegetables -- and continuing his dual rituals of Hindu and Christian: saying daily Mass and following the monastic hours, but now a mixture of his own contrivance.
The paradox culminated in Abhishiktananda deciding to take on a guru-disciple relationship with a number of young adherents. He was especially enthusiastic with a French seminarian, Marc Chaduc, with whom he worked closely to share his knowledge and advaita experience. Abhishiktananda described not only a guru-disciple relationship with Marc but a father-son, and initiated the ecstatic young man into the role of wandering sadhu. The whole experience probably occasioned Abhishiktananda to have a heart attack, which, compounded with the many physical and psychological stresses of his life, prompted his death five months later. Abhishiktananda died in 1973.
Abhishiktananda confronted paradox directly, unflinchingly. Once, when the suggestion of returning to Brittany to retire was suggested, he responded forcefully that
It would be a betrayal of all that I stand for, solitude, silence, and monastic poverty. I have no more sought solitude than Amos sought the role of a prophet, but once placed in that position, nothing else remains for me but to be a hermit for god, and not a mere salesman of solitude and monastic life.
Yet this admission of reluctance reveals how his basically extrovert personality and frame of mind exacerbated his dilemma. As Du Boulay notes:
Abhishiktananda had mixed feelings about following the life of the hermit. He was a sociable man, who had many friends and who loved to talk. On the other hand, he was, increasingly, called to the life of the hermit, the solitary. He himself was amazed that "a temperament so little filled as mine for the life of the hermit should have found there a fullness never, never experienced anywhere else."
The dilemma was sharp from the beginning. Abhishiktananda wrote (in 1954):
How agonizing it is to be perched on the knife-edge between the opposite slopes of Hinduism and Christianity.
He could only add, in 1972:
I know what it is to be torn in pieces.
And so solitude emerged as not a chosen but virtually a predestined path for Abhishiktananda, a necessary journey.
Abandoned by men, and abandoned by God
alone with himself
alone, infinitely alone. ...
There [on the further shore] he discovered the aloneness of the Alone,
and the aloneness of Being,
and the joy of BEING, the peace of Being, the freedom of Being.
He awoke; there was no longer an abyss, nor a river, nor any river-banks,
Arunachala had disappeared.
The chief sources in English on Abhishiktananda are Shirley Du Boulay: The Cave of the Heart: The Life of Swami Abhishiktanandaiktananda. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005, and Swami Abhishiktanandaitktananda: Essential Writings, selected with an introduction by Shirley Du Boulay. Maryknoll,, NY: Orbis Books, 2006.