The Life of Swami Abhishiktananda

Swami Abhishiktananda (Shantivanam, circa 1950)

“If at all I had to give a message, it would be the message of ‘Wake up, arise, remain aware’ of the Katha Upanishad. The coloration might vary according to the audience, but the essential goes beyond. The discovery of Christ’s ‘I AM’ is the ruin of any Christic “theology”, for all notions are burnt within the fire of experience.”
Swami Abhishiktananda, 1973

Swami Abhishiktananda (1910-1973) was a French monk, who came to India in 1948 in search of contemplative life. After two consecutive meetings with one of the greatest mystic saints of the twentieth century, Sri Ramana Maharshi, and a series of solitary meditations in the caves of the holy mountain Arunachala, he met his guru, Sri Gnanananda Giri, who lead him to the understanding that “the mystery which India reveals is the sole and unique mystery which is revealed and burst forth at the heart of everything….”[2] By the end of his earthly life Swamiji not only became a renowned pioneer of interreligious dialogue in India, but also attained the heights of advaitic (non-dual) experience that culminated in a profound spiritual awakening on 14th July 1973: “I was magnificently calm, for I AM, no matter in what world! I have found the Grail!”[3]

The life of Swami Abhishiktananda is a living witness to the realization of the ultimate Truth beyond all truths as well as beyond all pairs of opposites: “The discovery that the awakening has nothing to do with any situation, even so-called life or so-called death; one is awake and that is all.”[4]

Early Years (1910-1948)

Swami Abhishiktananda was born Henri Le Saux on 30th August, 1910, at St. Briac in Brittany, France. At an early age he felt a calling to the priesthood, and in 1929 decided to enter the contemplative life as a monk of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Anne de Kergonan (Plouharnel). As he wrote: “What has drawn me from the beginning, and what still leads me on, is the hope of finding there the presence of God more immediately than anywhere else.
I have a very ambitious spirit — and this is permissible, is it not? When it is a matter of seeking God — and I hope I shall not be disappointed.”
[5] As a monk he was seeking for a more contemplative way of life and soon (approximately in the early 1930s) he felt the call of India, “the privilege and glory” of which, as he later beautifully put it, is that “she pursued her spiritual and philosophical quest for Being to its ultimate depths. In so doing she made man aware of his own deepest centre, beyond what in other cultures is termed ‘mind’, ‘soul’ or even ‘spirit’.[6] In order to follow his vocation, Le Saux contacted Father Jules Monchanin who had worked in India since 1939 and whose reply was more than welcoming: “Learn as much English as you can. You will have no objection to a purely vegetarian diet (essential for the life of a sannyasi). You will need unshakable courage…complete detachment from the things of the West, and a profound love for India.”[7] Having completed all the necessary formalities in summer 1948, Henri Le Saux set off for India.

Embracing sannyasa

Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi

The future Swami Abhishiktananda reached the coast of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on 14th August 1948 and the Indian coast on 15th August, the first anniversary of India's independence. Two days later he met Monchanin in Kulittalai (Tamil Nadu). It took him several months to become adjusted to his new life and at the end of January 1949, he received a monumental opportunity in an encounter with one of the greatest sages of his times, Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950). He considered his stay in Tiruvannamalai at the foothills of the holy Arunachala (where the Maharshi’s ashram was located) “as a genuine retreat as well as an introduction to Hindu monastic life.”[8] The meeting with the Maharshi left a tremendous impact on Le Saux, who since then, focussed his spiritual search on an even deeper level by starting to realize the truth of advaita: “Ramana’s advaita is my birthplace” as he wrote some years later in his spiritual diary [9]. In The Secret of Arunachala which was published posthumously, he also mentioned: “In the Sage of Arunachala of our own time, I discerned the unique Sage of the eternal India.”[10] During the following summer of 1949, Le Saux and Monchanin had another (and last) darshan of the Sage.

On 21st March 1950 the two monks, following their vocation for contemplative life in accordance with the Indian tradition, started the Shantivanam Ashram on the banks of the Kaveri. At first, the original purpose was the foundation of a kind of Indian Benedictine Ashram, ideally “an ashram, Hindu in form, where Hindus and Christians…would hold silent communion in the quest of the Unique.”[11] The daily routine was based on the three sandhyas (worship sessions at the meeting points of day and night and at midday), during which they chanted Sanskrit and Tamil songs and read extracts from various Scriptures, however, in the very heart of it was contemplation itself. The two monks adopted Indian names (Le Saux became Swami Abhishiktananda — “Bliss of the Anointed One”) as well as kavi robes prescribed for sannyasi-s.  Though already a monk for twenty-one years, Swami Abhishiktananda was not fully aware at that time of the implication of sannyasa as being a sacred Hindu tradition, and that it should be received from a master (guru) through a ritual initiation (sannyasa diksha) within a particular Hindu lineage (sampradaya). In the present religious context of India, such an approach without due authorization, would be considered as a misappropriation of Hindu traditions and, in fact, has drawn over time Hindu criticism (as in the case of Christians who have taken sannyasa without proper initiation). However, Swami Abhishiktananda soon realized his mistake, and later surrendered fully to his guru, Sri Gnanananda Giri, who bestowed on him a spiritual and non-formal initiation (jnana sannyasa) through pure communication of wisdom [*].

Sri Harilal W. L. Poonja (Papaji)

At the same time Arunachala continued attracting Swami Abhishiktananda and in March-April 1952 he moved to its Vanatti cave for a ten-day retreat in complete silence: “I passed the last two weeks in a marvellous dream” — he wrote on 11 April — “I have lived almost totally as a Hindu monk, and no longer as a more or less dilettante sannyasi.”[12] This first experience was followed by further retreats during which, in 1953, he met Sri Harilal W. L. Poonja, a disciple of Sri Ramana Maharshi, who became a prominent teacher of Advaita and was known later as ‘Papaji’. These events are thoroughly described in The Secret of Arunachala as well as in Swamiji’s diary and letters. During his several stays in the caves of Arunachala over a period of three years, Swamiji met a number of people who helped him to immerse himself completely in the teachings of the Maharshi.

In December 1955 Swamiji visited another renowned sage, Sri Gnanananda Giri, at Tirukoyilur, and immediately accepted him as his guru, as mentioned earlier. The sage belonged to the Dashnami order of sannyasa, founded by one of the world’s greatest mystics, Sri Adi Shankaracharya (eight century CE), and at the same time embraced profound spiritual values taught by such Tamil saints as Tirugnana Sambandar and Manikkavacakar. Sri Gnanananda’s philosophy represented the purest form of Vedanta: “He has nothing to do with any cut-price spirituality. The path which he teaches is basically one of total renunciation, whose final result is that no place is left for the ego to show itself.”[13] The only genuine practice that he actually recommended was dhyana, meditation:

Sadguru Sri Gnanananda Giri

Return within,
to the place where there is nothing,
and take care that nothing comes in.
Penetrate to the depths of yourself,
to the place where thought no longer exists,
and take care that no thought arises there!

There where nothing exists,
There where nothing is seen,
the Vision of Being!
There where nothing appears any longer,
the sudden appearing of the Self!

Dhyana is this![14]

Having spent four days with him on his first visit, Swamiji returned to the Sage in February-March 1956, and for the final encounter in spring 1957, the account of which can be found in his famous book, Guru and Disciple: An Encounter with Sri Gnanananda Giri, a Contemporary Spiritual Master. The meeting with Sadguru Gnanananda became a turning point in Swamiji’s life: he started realizing that the Truth is beyond all religions and formulas that can be verbalized: Every dharma is for its followers the supreme vehicle of the claims of Absolute. However behind and beyond the namarupa, the external features such as creed, rite, etc., by which it is recognized and through which it is transmitted, it bears within itself an urgent call to men to pass beyond itself, in as much as its essence is to be a sign of the Absolute.[15]

The call of the Himalayas

Swami Abhishiktananda at his hermitage (Gyansu, circa 1964 )

Feeling more and more attracted to the north of India and the Himalayas, Swami Abhishiktananda undertook several journeys and pilgrimages, of which the first was in 1959. In a letter to his sister he wrote: “The Himalayas have conquered me! It is beside the Ganges that Shantivanam ought to be. I do not know if that will ever happen, but how splendid it would be!”[16] With the departure and passing away of Monchanin in 1957, and with no candidates having joined the ashram, Swamiji finally decided to leave Shantivanam to settle as a hermit in the Himalayas. He also often visited Varanasi (Banaras) where he met like-minded souls, especially Dr. Raimon Panikkar who became his best spiritual friend. In 1968 he handed over Shantivanam to Father Bede Griffiths, a British Benedictine, who had spent ten years at Kurisumala Ashram in Kerala, and then relocated to his hermitage in Gyansu, near Uttarkashi.

In 1969 Swamiji took part in the “All-India Seminar on the Church in India Today” in Bangalore, which was to adapt the outcome of the Vatican II Council to the Indian context. There he was recognized as a pioneer in the effort of the Church at inculturation in the fields of spirituality, liturgy and interreligious dialogue. He also inspired several religious communities, such as the Jyotiniketan ashram at Bareilly led by Rev. C. Murray Rogers, the ecumenical C.P.S. ashram in Poona with Sr. Sara Grant and Sr. Vandana, as well as contemplative carmelite convents. His life as a hermit gave rise to a number of books which were mostly addressed to Christians, in order to assist them to discover the spiritual riches of Indian spirituality (see e.g. Hindu-Christian Meeting Point, Saccidananda and Prayer).

Final Awakening (1968–1973)

Swami Ajatananda Saraswati (1975)

In autumn 1971 after a two year correspondence, Swami Abhishiktananda met a twenty-seven-year-old French student, Marc Chaduc, who soon became his true disciple. Swamiji led Marc to the discovery of the “mystery of India, beyond the sign which India itself is… the sole and unique mystery which is revealed and bursts forth at the heart of everything — that ‘glorious Purusha of the colour of the dawn, aruna, beyond the darkness’.”[17] After his arrival in India, Marc undertook several important pilgrimages (one of which brought him to the foothills of Arunachala where he had a profound advaitic experience), and spent time with Swamiji contemplating and studying the Upanishads. As Swami Magni Ram Shastri, who witnessed their mutual interaction as guru and disciple in Phul Chatti in 1972 later put it, this pair reminded us of Adi Shankaracharya and his times. Though they did not communicate much with the ashram members, their lives were an expression of fellowship and love. Their manner of adaptation to our lifestyle was praiseworthy. They looked as though they were born with the qualities of discernment and equanimity. They set us an example of interreligious fellowship by breaking the boundaries of religion and going beyond them. They silently showed us a path which roots out religious fundamentalism that is often found in religions today.”[18]

Swami Chidananda Saraswati (1971)

On the 30 June 1973, at the Ganga Ghat of Shivananda Ashram (Rishikesh), Swami Chidananda Saraswati, the incumbent President of the Divine Life Society at that time, along with his spiritual friend Swami Abhishiktananda as jnana-guru of his chela, gave sannyasa diksha to Marc, who hence became known as Swami Ajatananda Saraswati. Swamiji remembers: “Last Saturday, 30 June, Marc has received sannyasa in the Ganga from Chidanandaji and myself. Very simple ceremony, but it was simply too beautiful. The three of us were simply radiant….It was made very clear with Swami Chidananda that such sannyasa was above all distinction of dharma….”[19] In Swamiji’s own words sannyasa is not one of the traditional ways of life, but “the recognition of that which is beyond all signs; and paradoxically, it is itself the sign of what for ever lies beyond all possibility of being adequately expressed by rites, creeds or institutions.”[20] Swamiji gives a full account of sannyasa, as seen in early tradition as well as in the medieval Sannyasa Upanishads in his book The Further Shore, the outstanding value of which consists in the fact that “nothing that Swamiji wrote had not been lived by him, realized in himself.”[21]

Early in July 1973 Swami Abhishiktananda and Swami Ajatananda were spending time in a deserted Shiva temple at a place called Ranagal (several kilometres upstream from Rishikesh), where they both had an intense spiritual experience. On the 14th, Swamiji went down to Rishikesh to fetch some provisions and suffered a heart-attack on the road which he survived for five months only. For him though, it was a great “spiritual adventure”, a “state beyond life and death”, an “awakening” in vedantic terms. Later he wrote to Swami Ajatananda: “You were looking for me either among the dead or among the living, in some loka or other, forgetting that simply, I was, I am. The awakening has nothing to do with any situation. The awakening, prabodha, just is.”[22]

Swami Abhishiktananda (Indore, 1973)

In the words of his disciple, Swami Ajatananda: “The ‘adventure’ of the heart-attack, followed by his entry in mahasamadhi, was in truth only the physical expression of his being swallowed up in the great Light, in his Self. Henceforth, as one who was kritakrityah(Naradaparivrajaka Up., 3.86), that is to say, one who had completed all that he had to do and had reached his own fullness, to remain in the body or to leave it ceased to have any importance for him — as is the case with the avadhuta or the man who has found realization (the jivanmukta). In fact he was soon to leave his body — and this is the last detail of which the Sannyasa Upanishads speak in connection with the avadhuta: ‘one day the body is laid aside in some mountain-cave’. It is surely significant that the text of the Naradaparivrajaka Up.(4.38) passes, without the interruption of  a single phrase, from the diksa of the vidvat-sannyasi to the abandonment of his body; thus indicating that, for him who has entered into the mystery of sannyasa, all time and all activity is done away. The avadhuta, the kritakrityah, lives at a different level from that of the body or of external awareness. HE IS. So it was with Swamiji.”[23]

The awakening experience (Atma sakshatkara) was overwhelming. Swamiji spent his last months in a state of profound realization of the Truth beyond all religions. He took mahasamadhi on 7th December 1973 at Indore. As Vandana Mataji beautifully put it, “this is his real genius and his right to be called a ‘guru’ since only the one who is himself awakened can awaken others and help them to remain awake. To this awakened and anointed one I bow. Om Sri Abhishiktanandaya Namah!”[24]

*Note: Taking sannyasa is not merely about wearing saffron robes and adopting a new name. It means a very strict ascetic way of life within a specific Hindu sampradaya (tradition) and guru-parampara (lineage or uninterrupted chain of succession of spiritual teachers). The initiation into sannyasa is bestowed by a guru of the Hindu lineage and tradition to a qualified aspirant (adhikari) after a long monastic training as a brahmachari in the guru’s ashram or gurukula (teacher’s abode). It is a fact that there was no Hindu spiritual lineage in Shantivanam and that, subsequently, Swami Abhishiktananda recognized Sri Gnanananda Giri as his true guru—and he was accepted as an authentic sannyasi and chela (disciple) of this great advaitic sage of our time. Being aware of the traditional rules applying to sannyasa diksha, he himself, later on, requested Sri Swami Chidananda Saraswati to be the diksha guru of his disciple Marc Chaduc who thus entered with full legitimacy into the monastic lineage of Sri Adi Shankaracharya.

  1. Letter to Murray Rogers (September 2, 1973), in J. Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told through his Letters, Delhi (ISPCK), 2000³, pp. 310-311.
  2. Letter to Marc Chaduc (December 6, 1971), in ibid., p. 259.
  3. Letter to Marie-Thérèse Le Saux (August 9, 1973), in ibid., p. 308.
  4. Ibid., p. 308.
  5. Letter to the novice-master, Abbey of St. Anne de Kergonan, (December 4, 1928), in ibid., p. 2.
  6. Abhishiktananda, The Further Shore, Delhi (ISPCK), 1997, p. 1.
  7. J. Stuart, ibid., pp. 14-15.
  8. Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart. The Spiritual Diary (1948-1973) of Swami Abhishiktananda, Delhi (ISPCK), 1998, p. 8 [January 24, 1949].
  9. Spiritual Diary, March 9, 1955 (unpublished).
  10. Abhishiktananda, The Secret of Arunachala, Delhi (ISPCK), 1979, p. 9.
  11. Letter to J. Lemarié (March 18, 1952), in J. Stuart, op. cit., p. 54; see also Letter to J. Monchanin (August 18, 1947), ibid., p. 18.
  12. Letter to A. Le Saux (April 11, 1952), in ibid., p. 55.
  13. Abhishiktananda, Guru and Disciple: An Encounter with Sri Gnanananda Giri, a Contemporary Spiritual Master, new and enlarged edit. by Swami Atmananda Udasin, pref. by Swami Nityananda Giri, Chennai (Samata Books), 2012, p. xliv.
  14. Ibid., p. 75.
  15. Abhishiktananda, The Further Shore, Delhi (ISPCK), 1997, pp. 26-27.
  16. Letter to Marie-Thérèse Le Saux (July 16, 1959), in J. Stuart, op. cit., p. 120.
  17. Letter to Marc Chaduc (December 6, 1971), in ibid., p. 259.
  19. Letter to Murray Rogers (July 3, 1973), in J. Stuart, op. cit., p. 302.
  20. Abhishiktananda, The Further Shore, op. cit., p. 27.
  21. Swami Ajatananda Saraswati, Foreword, ibid. p. xii.
  22. Letter to Swami Ajatananda Saraswati (July 21, 1973), in J. Stuart, op. cit., p. 307.
  23. Swami Ajatananda Saraswati, op. cit., p. xii.
  24. Vandana Mataji (ed.), Swami Abhishiktananda: The Man and His Message, Delhi (ISPCK), 2000², p.