HENRI LE SAUX - Abhishiktananda, Monk, Mystic, Bridge-builder
Colloquium at Shantivanam, 10th-15th January, 2010
Br Daniel Pont, OSB, Monk of En-Calcat, France
The ashram ‘Saccidanando’ of Shantivanam, founded jointly by P. Jules Monchanin and P. Henri le Saux, was the obvious place to host the Colloquium, held sixty years after its foundation and organized by the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, for the centenary year of the birth of P. Henri le Saux. Located in the State of Tamil Nadu, near the town of Kulitalai, it is today the home of ten monks attached to the Camaldolese Order. In a luxuriant natural setting, under coconut-trees and banana-plants, a group of pavilions roofed with tiles or palmbranches preserves the enchanting character of the place. Discretely dispersed over the domain are the present temporary church, the unfinished church, rooms for conferences or meditation, the farm, hermitages and guest-rooms. A twinned community of three sisters lives in one part of the domain in its own, quite distinct, way. Nearby, the river Kavery, known as the ‘Ganges of the South’ has occasionally overflowed its ample bed, but it ensures a relatively silent area for the ashram, at least on one side. The village, a short distance away, makes its presence noisily known to the inhabitants of the ashram, especially on the many days of festival, when a powerful sound-system diffuses highly unliturgical music from 5am onwards! A four-lane highway runs the length of the enclosure at 50m from the porter’s lodge. Nevertheless, the brothers have devised various strategies to mitigate this supplementary nuisance, where a western community would probably have voted to leave.
Half the forty participants in the Colloquium were Indian, and the others came from every continent. Some of them had known Swami Abhishiktandanda personally, others had studied his writings, three of them had written a thesis on him, all were sure of the fruitfulness of this life consecrated to the encounter of Hinduism and Christianity. Three Hindu delegates brought their own light to bear on the practice of Hinduism which P. Le Saux had encountered. This is also the place to congratulate Bettina Bäumer, who was the work-horse of the Colloquium. The fact that she had been and remains a disciple of the Swamiji, whom she met frequently and at length, made her the ideal animator of the Colloquium as both a university teacher and a witness.
Exile and Quest
When he left for India to bring Christ there by living the spiritual and mystical dimension of Christianity in the monastic life, Dom Henri Le Saux soon discovered that Christ had got there before him, to the very heart of Hinduism, in some unexpected forms. His voluntary exile and his quest (themes developed by Fabrice Blé) were for him a return to himself. Nevertheless, he continued to be interiorly torn apart right to the end; this drew him towards an ever more distant exile. P. Monanchin used to say of him, ‘Le Saux went further than I did; I remained too Greek’. Swamiji (a diminutive used by his friends) went further in the ‘sacred hospitality’ which characterizes the meeting of religions. He wanted to be received at the heart of Hinduism, which he identified with the advaita (non-duality), which he considered the jewel of India. This path, which demands a commitment ever more radical, is less exclusive than inclusive. It is a view which goes beyond forms and concepts, to the point where the unity between God and the living person becomes indistinct. Between doubt and dénouement Le Saux made deep advances in this experience, even to being destabilized to his very roots.(1) ‘I have tasted the advaita too much to be able to taste the “Gregorian” peace of a Christian monk. I have tasted the “Gregorian” peace too much not to be distressed to the root of my advaita.’ (Diary, 27th September, 1953, p. 99). This distress, which led him to write, ‘What if I found in my advaita only myself and not God?’ (Diary, 27th September, 1953, p. 99), remained with him until the final years of his life, when a ray of light at last appeared, thanks to the presence of his disciple Mark, thanks also to the fruit of his ascetic of self-abnegation, in the faith which he never abandoned, thanks also to his celebration of the Eucharist till his last day. In the Eucharist he heard all the cosmic resonances with which India is familiar, and celebrated the ‘passage to being’, very slowly, with long silences punctuated by ‘OM’, in a liturgy which he celebrated all alone or in the presence of rare guests. His notes on the Eucharist attest his profound attachment to this sacrament.
The great sages whom he met, eminent witnesses who incarnated the way of the advaita, fascinated Le Saux and attracted him merely by the force of their influence and by the witness which the number of their disciples bore to them. Ramana Maharshi greatly impressed him, to the point of his wishing to make himself ‘a Christian Ramana’. But it was above all Swami Gnanananda, with whom he long associated and whom he called his guru, that brought him up short and invited him to make the great leap of going beyond any form of religious adherence, a leap which he never completely realized, so far as one can judge at a distance. ‘Some dive straight in from a rock into the deep water; others go gradually down the slope and advance only step by step into the water which beckons them. Blessed are they when a wave comes and swallows them up!’ (2) His long periods as a hermit in the caves of the holy mountain Arunachala, then at the sources of the Ganges, marked him for ever. His assiduous reading of the sacred texts, the Upanishads, a collection of the writings of the great rishis, masters of ancient India, shaped his thought and his spiritual trajectory on the way of the advaita, until he could write in his diary, ‘The experience of the Upanishads is true, I am convinced!’ (Diary, 11th May, 1972).
A stimulating Challenge for Theologians
For Michael Amaladoss, SJ, Swami Abhishiktananda was not a professional systematic theologian but a lucid narrator of his spiritual quest, of his meetings and his pilgrimages. In his diary and in the letters he wrote for himself and for his friends, to clarify his thought, his thought was always evolving, full of tensions. Formed in the framework of Thomistic thought, which he had totally espoused, his progressive departure from scholastic patterns was painful (3). As often happens in the meeting of great cultures and religious traditions, his speculative schemas burst open in the radiant presence of living witnesses, and were silenced by a desire to share an experience rather than by an intellectual dialogue with the different Hindu philosophical and theological schools. His approach led him not to a comparative study but to a meditation on the Upanishads, joined to the prayer of the psalms, on pilgrimage to the Hindu holy places without omitting the celebration of the Eucharist en route. He did not attempt to integrate elements of Hinduism into his Christianity, nor vice versa. He sought to transcend all names and all forms without abandoning them, remaining rooted and finding his spiritual expression in the two traditions, Hindu and Christian. This experience and the reflections which he gives us are a real challenge for theologians. Paolo Trianni (4) will say that he posed some crucial questions to open the debate. The positive approach to another religion in a constantly reflexive and criss-crossing quest for the experience of God, the constant effort to liberate himself from Greek categories of thought when the advaita was imperiously resounding within him, his immersion in the life of sannyasa – all have had an impact on the way of doing theology in India.
Fr George Gispert, SJ, who has lived and taught all his life in India, met Swami Abhishiktananda several times. Knowing the reading available in the Abbey of Kergonan, Fr Gispert recalled several probable early influences on Dom Henri Le Saux (5) in his discovery of India and the East. In 1922 an article of Dom Edouard Neut (6) mentioned the existence of a monastery built in China by a Lutheran fraternity called ‘Reichelt’ for Buddhist monks, where Buddhist rites could be ‘baptized’ and become Christian rites. Fr Gispert then considered the influence of the Swami on the theology of Jacques Dupuis, essentially through the importance of experience and through the approach to advaita. But the theologian also encouraged the monk to clarify his ‘slightly romantic’ ideas, to articulate them better in the perspective of putting them into practice. P. Dupuis granted that the experience of Jesus must be the starting-point of theology. This experience is always formulated and conceptualized in the framework of a given culture. Thus he questioned our Swami on his transposition into the conceptual milieu of the advaita of the term ‘Abba’ used by Jesus in his relationship to the Father, a figure shaped by Jewish and then Christian tradition. Similarly, could the ‘ego eimi’ of Jesus be compared without a change of perspective to the ‘I am Brahman’ of the Upanishads? According to Dupuis, even if Swami Abhishiktananda did not resolve these theological antinomies (and it was not his vocation to do so) his merit was to have lived from the inside, in a wholly authentic way, a symbiosis between two great religious traditions, without ever depreciating one by comparison to the other.
The Wheel of Existence
Awakening, a specifically Indian category, was the heart of the theological reflection of Henri Le Saux. In putting the question, ‘Who am I?’ the oriental genius shows that the source of life is, in a certain way, latent and hidden in personal existence, in the way a tree is present in the seed. To awaken is to rejoin the interior Kingdom of God, an undivided source. Swamiji sought a Christological foundation for awakening in the saying of Jesus, ‘I come from the Father and return to the Father’ (John 17.1-13) (7). This coming and return outline the wheel of existence which is always in creative evolution. The subtle meditation by Fr Anthony Kalliath, secretary of the Commission of Indian Theologians, author of a thesis on Swami Abhishiktananda (8) illustrated the theological extensions which a life of ardent search and of immersion in Hinduism could inspire.
The Eucharist, Sacrament of Awakening (studied by P. Fausto Gianfredo, SJ)
The theological reflections of Abhishiktananda on the Eucharist for some are altogether classic, for others are marked by his inculturation. For him the Eucharistic sacrament is the centre of the life of the Church and of cosmic life. Creation reaches its completion in the Eucharistic transsubstantiation of the creature into the Son of God. This constitutes the Passover, the ‘passage’ from non-being to being, a process which he calls ‘universal transfinalization’. In his eyes a Christian impregnated with the advaita is all the readier to understand the dimension of nonduality which the celebration of the Eucharist realizes. This sacrament is the perfect expression of the experience of being. In consummating the Eucharist we are led to the centre of our being, where we realize our sonship by the Son, who is our awakening. By this awakening the whole universe arrives at its plenitude. By the Eucharist we participate in the divine eternity, which is the eternal essence of the present, source of the breath of life in us. At this level of consciousness, our own breath reveals itself as Eucharistic, and the celebration of the Mass becomes the expression of the fullness of our interior life.
The Eucharist is the sign of total gift. In communicating with the gift of Christ we recognize that everything we are has been given to us, and we enter into the dynamic of the gift of ourselves, from which flows communion, and the fraternal love which is its heart and the condition of the faith. For Henri Le Saux the full accomplishment of cosmic evolution, anticipated by the Eucharist, is already present in the Upanishads, for ‘it is the sign of the non-duality (advaita) of being’. The Eucharistic nourishment is the realization of the revelation of Jesus, the non-duality between the Father and the Son. Although Abhishiktananda says that the presence of Jesus is not confined to the Eucharistic food, he insists that for him the Eucharist is the sole means of experiencing this presence.
The Movement of Christian Ashrams
In another conference Sr Tureeya Mataji, a hermit at Rishikesh, showed the influence exerted by Henri Le Saux on the movement of Christian ashrams: ‘Swamiji considered that the most urgent mission of the Church was to embrace and integrate all that the Spirit accomplished in each tradition and culture of humanity across the ages.’ His own effort at inculturation in his land of adoption remains a fruitful example which should be prolonged today.
He wrote, ‘The catholicity of the Church demands that the Church should not appear foreign in any of the cultures of the world. From the ground itself where it is sown, the human and religious milieu, it must draw the elements of its growth, its thought, its life and its praise’ (Aikiya Alayam, p. 20). No Christian can restrict their interest or their thoughts to their own tradition or denomination.
Liturgical practice, by espousing Hindu forms, should show that we have rediscovered in the depths of our own hearts the devotional attitude of bhakti which is in it, and that we have integrated into our psyche the symbolism of the words and gestures which we practise (ibidem, p. 22). Neither Hinduism nor Christianity are collections of conceptual formulae and practices to be observed. Both are experiences of life. When Hindus and Christians come together for dialogue they should anchor in themselves the awareness that in the inner mystery they are already together. Their work should be the expression of a silence of communion (ibidem, p. 25).
The movement of Christian ashrams has remained an isolated experiment in a Church globally occidentalized. It is often perceived by Hindus as a superfluous organization, with obscure aims, tainted by colonialism. The condition and length of the existence of an ashram is the presence of a guru, which is difficult to integrate into the Christian framework.
In the Light of the Upanishads and the Shivaism of Kashmir
Swami Abhishiktananda lived constantly the fruitfulness in himself of the two traditions which resonated in his unique experience like two instruments playing the same note. Each note played evokes another by sympathy. ‘I am not reducible either to Christianity or to the Vedanta, which both think in me: “Must I be the only one?”’, he wrote (Diary, 9th May, 1970, p. 383).
Mme Bettina Bäumer magnificently deciphered, in the light of the Upanishads and the Shivaism of Kashmir, what was going through Swamiji’s head at the evocation of the terms Purusha (the archetypal, primordial man, the inner man) and Sakti (divine power, the creative energy of God). Purusha unites the human and divine, but also the cosmic. For our Swami this theandric nature has a clear Christological resonance. In a captivating phrase, ‘the kenosis of Shiva’ (Diary, 7th March, 1968), he links the kenosis of Christ to the ‘contraction’ and the ‘descent’ of Shiva into the limits of human nature to liberate its grace, as the Shivaism of Kashmir professes. ‘The Sakti is the Spirit, the evolutive force of the universe in its kenosis, a force which leads everything back to the Son and the Father in its very being. The mystery of the Virgin, Sakti in whom the universe begets the Son’ (Diary, 5th December, 1953). ‘I reach God (and myself, my goal) by completing myself. I go fully to my eschaton. I have in myself the power to become son, the sakti. This Sakti is my depth, this capacity for depth, at once in myself and in God’ (Diary, 18th October, 1968, p. 367f.).
Such dizzying depths will surprise a westerner immersed in his own culture alone. In India, among the friends of God who know God by other names, they spontaneously think of themselves as one who wishes to honour the tradition and the culture of their neighbour. We must not forget that these quotations are drawn from the Intimate Diary, which was written for himself, not to be thrown out and trampled upon by those who hold strict orthodoxy, either Hindu or Christian.
A poem at the end of his life says again what elementary spiritual wisdom teaches always and everywhere:
You have seen the lightning –
keep your secret!
The lightning has torn open the clouds
and opened to you the depths.
The lightning had torn open the heavens
which you had found in your own heart.
The lightning has torn open the firmament
and you no more have a roof.
The lightning has torn open your self
and has never returned.
But you know you are beyond the darkness.
Keep your secret.
One who has not seen the lightning
thinks you mean an earthly fire.
Keep your secret.
A man asks your secret and cannot understand you.
He condemns you.
He cannot understand that the heaven was torn open for you
and that you are no longer this side of the firmament.
Live joyfully and laughing in this world,
Heaven was torn open for Jesus at his baptism,
he heard the inner voice.
In the heaven torn open
there is only prayer in truth.
As long as the heaven of your heart is not torn open
in the lightning of Sinai, the storm of Pentecost,
you know nothing of God.
You call this firmament God,
the limit of your thought.
Two Hindu Voices
A Colloquium on Henri Le Saux could never forget to listen to Hindu voices. A young Brahman, Nochur Venkataraman, a fine scholar of the life and teaching of Ramana Maharshi and his disciple, a well-known speaker, conquered our audience by introducing it to the school of the advaita, with themes of great wisdom and penetration, set in examples of the life of the master. He spoke as a disciple, with depth and warmth, thereby communicating to us something of what a Hindu audience would experience at the feet of the master. ‘Do not identify yourself with your thoughts, which are like monkeys crossing the road. Ask who is the ‘I’ who speaks.’ ‘The question, “Who are you?” is irrelevant. Only the question, “Who am I?” makes it possible to attain the One, the Only.’ References to St Francis of Assisi or to the burning bush where Moses heard the ‘I Am He Who Is’ opportunely reminded us that Christian teaching is far more familiar to Hindus than is Hinduism to Christians. Ramana Maharshi attended the American College of Madurai before his definitive spiritual experience. The affirmation, ‘The monkey is the true sanyasi, naked in the trees, without roof or store-house’, could not but remind us of the obedience which Swami Abhishiktananda would have wished to attain if ‘his’ guru Gnanananda had told him to set off naked on the road.
Swami Nityananda, himself a disciple of Gnanananda, in too short a presentation, was able only to evoke the teachings of his master.
Dr Shivacharya Mahaswamiji remained very discretely among the participants of the Colloquium from beginning to end. A former student of Bettina Bäumer at the Hindu University of Benares, he is now Superior of a Congregation (Math) founded by a saint, Marulasiddha, in the twelfth century, which today counts tens of thousands of members in the Virasalva movement. Strong in its 172 establishments, which range from schools for mothers to colleges and schools for engineers, with 32,000 pupils (6,000 non-paying), this Congregation has had a wide influence on religious culture in the State of Karnataka for eight centuries. The dimension at once spiritual and charitable of Hinduism, lived on a grand scale for generations, thanks to an extremely elaborate organisation, was a happy discovery for many of us. This Swami doctor is above all a spiritual guide, a guru, for the faithful of his tradition. He plays an assiduous part in interreligious dialogue, and communicates his convictions to his disciples.
It is out of the question to mention here all the papers read. (The Acts of the Colloquium will be published.) The criss-crossing approach of the spiritual trajectory of Swami Abhishiktananda underlines the fiery character of the man, incidentally most attractive – all the witnesses agreed on this (9) – who went so far towards the encounter with The Other. His burning zeal to find a way of ensuring that Christ should not be perceived in India as a stranger, but also his thirst to receive from a tradition in which he never ceased to discover the truth which the one God had revealed there, makes him an emblematic figure who will long remain an inspiration in interreligious dialogue.
(1) ‘Under the human envelope there is something far more profound in one or other of the attachments which tear me apart, at the extreme boundary where the two oceans (Hinduism and Christianity) mingle their waters in a way both dangerous and upsetting’ (La montée au fond du Coeur, le journal intime du moine chrétien-sannyasi hindou 1948-1973, ed. O.E.I.L. 1986. Journal 25th September, 1953, p. 101).
(2) Souvenirs d’Arunachala, ed Epi, p. 33.
(3) ‘Henri Le Saux uses a vulgarized Neo-Thomist theology which is neither western theology nor the thought of St Thomas’. Ghislain Lafont, Dieu, le temps et l’être (Ed. Cerf, cogitatio fidei 139, note p. 306).
(4)‘Abhishiktananda’s Contribution to the Present Theological Hindu-Christian Research’ (to be published in the Acts of the Colloquium).
(5) The researches of Shirley du Boulay (La Grotte du Coeur – La Vie de Swami Abishiktananda Henri Le Saux (Ed. Cerf, Paris, 2007) have made clear that the periodical Xaveriana was one of his sources of information.
(6) ‘Moines et apôtres’, Xaveriana, 1926, p. 28.
(7) Diary, 30th March, 1953, p. 93.
(8) The Word in the Cave: the Experiential Journey of Swami Abhishiktananda to the Point of Hindu-Christian Meeting (Intercultural Publications, New Delhi, 1996).
(9) A religious sister who had just read his recently published book on prayer Awakening to self, Awakening to God: An Essay on Prayer congratulated him and asked when he was going to write more on prayer, detailing how to pray. Swamiji looked fixedly at her, stupefied, and said, ‘You have read the book and you ask me how to pray?’. He began to tap his hands violently, dancing and twirling around. Then he said to her, ‘You, you, a child of God, ask me to tell you how to speak to the Father! Speak, speak to your Father, speak to him! If this is the only effect my book produces on my readers, I shall never write another word on the subject.’