Abhishiktananda Revisited

Time to revisit our old friend! As I have mentioned on several occasions, I believe that Abhishiktananda is one of the most important religious figures of modern Christianity. He died on December 7, 1973, 40 years ago, seems like a whole age ago. His writings are in all the libraries of the seminaries in his beloved India, but as one theologian told me they are sadly largely collecting dust. Most of the younger Indian theology students are more interested in various forms of Indian Liberation Theology or in some conservative reconstruction of the Christian past. Never mind—his influence has gone far beyond India to so many people seeking a deep contemplative life and especially those drawn to the encounter of Christianity with the great Asian religions. Now granted the number of such people is not great compared to all those who follow pop evangelical writers or mainstream Catholic or Protestant voices, but the importance of someone like Abhishiktananda cannot be measured by numbers of any kind.

Over the years there have been quite a few studies done of Abhishiktananda’s thought, theology and spirituality. Some are good and helpful, some are critical, some are superficially critical, and some are superficially laudatory. Whatever be the case, getting even a bit of his insights is most welcome. His written work does present various problems among which is that a lot of it was written very quickly and in a kind of ad hoc way, addressing some pressing problem or issue confronting him, especially in his numerous letters and in his diary—sources of some of his deepest insights. One is left to wonder how he might have developed these kernels of insight into a more refined contemplative/mystical theology—or if he would have even done that. Another possible problem is the narrowness of his interest, his laser-like focus on one thing: the encounter of Christianity with Hinduism, and even with just one path within Hinduism, Advaita. If your interests lie elsewhere, you might easily miss the importance of what he is trying to relate. However, the biggest problem in approaching Abhishiktananda and the biggest obstacle in getting a handle on his thinking is the fact that he develops as time goes by and his thought has some very serious changes. The Abhishiktananda of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s is not quite the Abhishiktananda of the early ‘50s even though he was already sitting in a cave at Aurunachala even then. Some of his strongest supporters claim that he was “already there” even then, but I think there is a real revolution in his thought as he gets into the 1960s.

What I am getting at can be seen in his book Saccidananda, his only book-length theological reflection, which he started composing about 1960 and finally got published by 1965. By the late ‘60s he had so changed his ideas that he considered this book no longer representing his thinking. However, when it was published it became quite popular in certain circles and also received some critical notice. The publisher wanted him to revise it and to republish it in the ‘early’70s but he said that he would now have to totally rewrite it. However he got talked into a revision of sorts and sent it out and this is the copy we have, but it does not truly represent his most developed thought—if that’s what you are looking for. And the revolution in his thinking that this little book begins has to do with how a Christian views the other great world religions. Abhishiktananda was trained in a progressive but traditional Catholic theology that gave rise to the Vatican II Council. The conservative view at that time looked on all other religions as simply being false if not downright leading to hell. The new view was that God was truly known in some way in all the great world religions, but that they were somehow incomplete and Christianity’s coming would be a kind of fulfillment and completetion of what was lacking in them. At least implicitly Christianity was held as “superior” and as the goal toward which all other religions were moving, but they were seen as holding a partial truth not to be demeaned or dismissed. When Abhishiktananda arrived in India in the late ‘40s he was very close to this position, but already you see in him an openness and a willingness to explore and encounter beyond the traditional lines. Well, by the late ‘60s there is a veritable revolution in his thinking. He turns the whole thing upside down! Speaking from his own deep religious/mystical experience of Advaita, he no longer sees this as being “incomplete” in the old sense of that term. In fact it is Christianity which he insists needs the experience of Advaita in order to come into its own fullness. Needless to say this is not going to fly in Rome!

Let’s do some exploring pertaining to these points by looking at some quotes. First let us listen to what may be his most formidable critic, his old monastic companion from his early days in India: Jules Monchanin, a brilliant and deep man of prayer in his own right:

“Serious divergences between us have cast a shadow over these last years; I think he goes too far in his concessions to Hinduism, and it seems to me more and more doubtful that the essence of Christianity can be recovered the other side of Advaita. Advaita, like yoga and more than it, is an abyss. Whoever in an experience of vertigo throws himself into it does not know what he will find at the bottom. I am afraid he may find himself rather than the living Trinitarian God.”

This is not a simple criticism which can easily be brushed off, and it does not come from someone who doesn’t know theology or who is congenitally conservative and not open to a grand encounter. However, the difference between Monchanin (and so many other Christian intellectuals who could not and cannot follow Abhishiktananda ) and Abhishiktananda is that the latter did venture into that abyss and his reports, at least for some of us, point to a profound discovery and realization. As someone put it: Abhishiktananda moved from interpreting Advaita in Christian terms to understanding Christ in the light of his own Advaitic experience. This is a new realization of the Christ-event and it leaves you wondering about the role of the Church in all this.

In relation to this is the general criticism of all contemplative life and mysticism as simply being narcissistic, a pre-occupation with one’s own self, not really in tune with the “Love Commandment” of the Gospel. Abhishiktananda understood this very deeply and confronted such criticsm vigorously(and this is one indicator that his Advaita experience is truly genuine):

“The act of pure love is what awakes. Advaita, non-duality, is not an intellectual discovery, but an attitude of the soul. It is much more the impossibility of saying ‘Two’ than the affirmation of ‘One.’ What is the use of saying ‘One’ in one’s thought, if one says ‘Two’ in one’s life. To say ‘One’ in one’s life: that is Love.”

This kind of statement is of course at the heart of what the New Testament says in so many different ways. And it is interesting that he puts it in “Advaitic” terms as if to say that this brings a new understanding of what the Gospel is saying. As many other times he says that we do not fully see how much the Gospel holds until we see it through the eyes of Advaita (granted this is not everyone’s cup of tea ).

Abhishiktananda is not fooled by general piety and religiosity, a kind of acting out of superficial religion—which is the real enemy of “love of neighbor”:
“Piety is perhaps the most subtle and also the surest way for the ego to escape pursuit and re-establish its status and dignity.” (Dostoiyevsky’s Father Zosima points to a similar insight.)

Here he is in harmony with that other great Hindu Advaitist, Ramana Maharshi:
“He meditates, he thinks he is meditating, he is pleased with the fact that he is meditating; where does that get him, apart from strengthening his ego.”
And this from one of the great Sufi masters, Bistami:
“The thickest veils between man and God are the wise man’s wisdom, the worshipper’s worship and the devotion of the devout.”

Like all the great spiritual masters of all the great traditions, Abhishiktananda focuses on the problem of identity: “who am I?” He summed up the whole spiritual journey in one marvelous expression: “The absolute surrender of the peripheral ego to the inner Mystery.” For Christians the Mystery has a face as the Gospel presents it in the person of Jesus. But Christian mysticism does not seek for you to “imagine” Jesus in your heart. A Christian Advaita, as Abhishiktananda sees it, moves way beyond praying to a God who is solely extrinsic to uis and is contacted exclusively by our own ideas and our own discursive reasoning. It affirms that the Risen Christ, who has no limitations or determinations, is at the core of our being. There is the “placeless place” within us, within our deepest consciousness—which in the Hesychast tradition is termed “the heart.” So God is not an object to be looked at; nor to be petitioned out of one’s own self-centeredness that is so filled with a bias toward oneself. Now for the pure Advaitist that very central Mystery has no face, just a pure Interiority. It is the “I Am” of God spoken in your heart as the ground of your little personal “I am.”

That sense of “I-ness” that every human being has is certainly real in its own right and level but if one only knows the superficial “I” then even the religious life gets warped. In the modern world this “I-ness” is especially exacerbated by mistakingly thinking that what we are is what we own or what we do or some such extrinsic dynamic. Happiness and fulfillment and the whole point of life then seems to consist in aggrandizing and protecting and embellishing all that. Abhishiktananda knew all about the delusion of all that quite early in his spiritual life, but when he has his heart attack toward the end in 1973, when he is no longer able to do anything, when in a sense he even has to give up “being Abhishiktananda,” then he serenely experiences the “deep I” which no longer is a matter of any extrinsic object or activity. From his Diary:

“Seeing myself so helpless, incapable of any thought or movement, I was released from being identified with this “I” which until then had thought, willed, rushed about, was anxious about each and every thing. Disconnection! That whole consciousness in which I habitually lived was no longer mine, but I, I still was.”

In the Christ-event, then, from Abhishiktananda’s viewpoint, what constitutes true personhood, in Christian terms, is that experience of being from the Father and going to the Father—using the language of Jesus. This is what Jesus communicates. This is where some Christians would say that Abhishiktananda gets problematical: the figure and role of Jesus. For Abhishiktananda Jesus is more the “frame of a window” through which we can see who we really are—not so much the “contents of a painting.” When Jesus says that “The Father and I are one,” this is meant to communicate an experience of Advaita in Middle Eastern, Jewish terms and this is a communication of our own identity that Jesus brings to us. And you begin to see some concerns that some might have when you catch the full implications of a statement like this:

“See Jesus in his infinite mystery, without setting him apart, and if he is the very mystery of every person, why refuse to adore him in each one and to recognize his unique glory in that person…and why demand that people should always and everywhere give to this mystery the name that was given to him when he appeared in Israel?”

This kind of statement makes even some very good people uneasy—because it seems to make the dynamic of evangelization in the classic sense unnecessary. Toward the end of his life Abhishiktananda had arrived at that point. For him a lot of the “Christian message” was namarupa, mythology and symbolism for this universal inner mystery of Absolute Presence. For him the Jesus of the Gospels was the window on this reality but that did not mean that would be the case for someone else. Let us listen to some key statements from him:

“Christ is my Sadguru—my true Guru—and he makes himself the singer of the Presence of this inner Mystery which Jesus called the Father, and of the relationship to the very heart of the Mystery which Jesus called the Spirit.”

“Far more than being the ‘head’ of a religion, Jesus is first of all a questioning of every human being. An examination of each one about his relation with God and with his brothers, as actually lived.”

“Jesus the Advaita, the Only Son of the Father, to whom we are not second, but in whom we are all one Son and in whose Spirit we are One with the Father.”

In each of the quotes above there is much more there than meets the casual eye, and one can understand why traditionally trained Christians would be/can be uneasy with such language. Abhishiktananda is quite ready and willing to take you beyond the boundaries of traditional Christian understanding if you let him. And now listen to this—here he is referring to the Eucharist, which he celebrated all the time in his role as priest and which some point to his “relative conservatism” as if he had still a traditional understanding of this sacrament:

“Every act that I perform is a divine act. Every act performed by any creature, every movement of unconscious or inanimate creatures is a divine act as much as the divine generation itself. God is completely and totally present in each of his manifestations (just as Christ is present in every host and in every particle…)”

For Abhishiktananda, the great words of the Eucharist, “This is My Body,” are no longer relegated to a discrete specimen of bread but pronounced as a revelation of the real nature of all that is real as it flows into the Ultimate Reality. The Eucharist is truly a celebration of Reality but not the only one—“Lead me from the unreal to the Real” chants the Hindu prayer!

Let me conclude with one of his last entries in his Diary, just before his death:

“The Trinity cannot be understood apart from the experience of Advaita, of non-duality. Jesus lived with his Father this experience of non-duality, an experience at once lacerating and fulfilling, all transcending, which carries away and leads beyond all; the gift of Wisdom, deep co-naturality, an explosion which whoever experiences it cannot escape.”

To follow Abhishiktananda beyond the boundaries of traditional Christianity may be hazardous, but then again it may be the “one thing necessary” for some of us.

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