Abhishiktananda, a New Book, and Fr. Francis Tiso

In the current issue of Dilatato Corde, the monastic interreligious dialogue journal, there is a very interesting review by Fr. Francis Tiso of a relatively new book on the thought and significance of Abhishiktananda. The title of the book is: Cristo e l’Advaita:
La mistica di Henri Le Saux O.S.B. tra cristianesimo ed induismo.
Ok, the book is all in Italian, so it seems that those of us who can’t read Italian are stuck—but Fr. Tiso has come to our aid in giving such a comprehensive review that the reader of the review feels like he has read the book after reading the review. The book itself is a collection of papers given at a monastic-theological colloquim given in 2010 in Rome, and so it reflects a variety of viewpoints. Fr. Tiso’s review is thorough, cogent, and thought-provoking, and he does not hesitate to interject his own disagreements with the authors—thus inviting our own divergences both from his views and those of the authors. A true dialogue! I would like to point out some critical points of agreement and disagreement because there is actually a lot at stake in one’s interpretation of the life of Abhishiktananda. But I would like to begin with a kind of prolegomena to my comments in 4 parts(all of which will come into play in my critique of certain positions concerning Abhishiktananda):

. Bettina Baumer, the famed indologist and expert on Kashmir Shaivism, relates somewhere the story of her first academic paper she delivered. It was at the University of Vienna and it was on the topic of anUpaya(no-method) in Kashmir Shaivism. In the audience was the eminent Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. After her presentation, he took her aside and said to her,”Wir sind nur Waisenkinder.” Translation: “We are only children, orphans”—that is, compared to what these Indians have realized.
. When Monchanin was first setting out for India in the 1930s, his friend, the eminent Jesuit patristic scholar Henri De Lubac, gave him this advice: “Rethink everything in the light of theology, and rethink theology in terms of mysticism. And keep only what is essential.”
. Dances With Wolves was an award-winning movie from 2 decades ago. For many it was simply a “modern revival of the Western,” but the movie had unsuspected depths that few explored. It tells the story of a civil war soldier, John Dunbar, who is traumatized by his war experience and so he seeks to go as far West as he can to experience the wilderness before civilization gets there. He asks for the furthest out posting and he gets exactly that—he ends up alone in a dilapitated scout post in Lakota territory. While waiting for other soldiers to arrive, he encounters the native Lakota. He encounters them in the deepest sense of the term, not just in terms of an “exchange of views.” Thus begins a story of profound transformation. In the end his whole identity has changed and he is no longer a white soldier but “Dances with Wolves,” the name given him by his Lakota friends. The name change is very important and very significant, pointing to a new reality within him. In one sense he is still John Dunbar, but in another sense he is someone else now due to a new vision of what is real for him. He can never simply go back to the “white society.”
. From “Letter to a Priest” by Simone Weil:
“Every time that a man has, with a pure heart, called upon Osiris, Dionysus, Buddha, the Tao, etc., the Son of God has answered him by sending the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit has acted upon his soul, not by inciting him to abandon his religious tradition, but by bestowing upon him light [-] It is, therefore, useless to send out missions to prevail upon the peoples of Asia, Africa or Oceania to enter the Church. Besides, it is written that the tree shall be known by its fruits. The Church has borne too many evil fruits for there not to have been some mistake at the beginning. Europe has been spiritually uprooted, cut off from that antiquity in which all the elements of our civilization have their origin; and she has gone about uprooting the other continents from the sixteenth century onwards. Missionary zeal has not Christianized Africa, Asia and Oceania, but has brought these territories under the cold, cruel and destructive domination of the white race, which has trodden down everything. It would be strange, indeed, that the word of Christ should have produced such results if it had been properly understood.

I will let the reader “connect the dots” from these four “witnesses” to uncover something that I think is missed by most of these kinds of conferences but which is very hard to put into words. In fact toward the end of his life, Abhishiktananda was not very favorable to such gatherings. Murray Rogers, probably his closest friend in India, tells us that Abhishiktananda was certainly interested in and enjoyed intellectual discussion, but there was one major proviso—he would listen to what any speaker had to say but the speaker’s words had to be backed up by his life. Something of his life had to be invested in those words for them to be taken seriously. Otherwise the effort was merely one of throwing labels and names on things.
Now let me just hit a few sporadic points at random from this book:
1. Fr. Tiso makes the point that no Hindus participated in this conference. Perhaps that is understandable because it was to be a theological-monastic conference looking at Abhishiktananda’s experience and writings from a Christian perspective. More problematic, and Fr. Tiso is right to point this out, is that almost none of the presenters touch on the real thorny issue of the goal and purpose of interreligious dialogue. In some parts of Asia, and in India with conservative Hindus (and in many Moslem countries), the suspicion is that Christians use dialogue as a subterfuge for conversion. The reason we are talking to all these people is that we want to convert them! It’s like when a pair of young Mormon men come to your door—very friendly, courteous, interested in talking to you about your life, your problems, etc.—but eventually it becomes an invite to come to the Mormon Church, read the Book of Mormon, and see that “we really have it together”! Now of course the people “on the ground” doing monastic interreligious dialogue do not engage their dialogue partners in this way or for this purpose(most of the time!), but what about the official Church? That’s another matter. Irregardless of how many documents there are from the Vatican with all that nice language about “appreciating” all these various religious traditions and how the Church values them all, the bottom line is that the Official Church wants them all “in the fold.” The official, theological, doctrinal self-understanding of the Church is that it is “evangelical,” “missionary,” “making disciples of all nations,” 24/7—it is NEVER not this. Even in dialogue. So the Church wants its monks and religious to be “present” within the cultural contexts of all these religious traditions and dialogue with them, but with a view of “informing” the other of the “riches of faith” and inviting them in. Thus, conversion has definitely taken on a different tone from the past, where the Church was trying to “save the lost,” but conversion still is the bottom line. The “official dialogues” can go no further than this in a sense, even though it may be intellectually stimulating, cordial and even inspiring. The “unofficial dialogues,” like Abhishiktananda’s was, is something else altogether. Here encounter can transcend dialogue, and a whole new self-understanding can emerge with profound implications for all parties. That’s where the real “rethinking” takes place!

2. Here’s a problem that I have with this conference/book which Fr. Tiso does not mention: the title. It is all about Henri Le Saux, not Abhishiktananda. This is not a trivial issue but indicative of a whole perspective on this man. Name changes can be superficial and simply “window-dressing,” but in Abhishiktananda’s case it pointed to something very deep in his own self-understanding and his relationship to all else, including the Church. In contrast, Monchanin, who also had a name change when he founded Shantivanam, taking on a certain “Indian flavor” as it were, never had that as his real name. It was a kind of “Indian label.” So to keep referring to Abhishiktananda as Le Saux is in fact a “Eurocentric” bias and indicative that we have not yet discovered the real transformation that has taken place.

3. I think that Fr. Tiso and the author of the first essay are mistaken when they lament the fact that Abhishiktananda and Monchanin did not engage enough the Catholic Christian community that had already been there for centuries. The fact is that these people were not really interested in or even friendly toward “dialogue” or even encounter with their Hindu brethren. This is well-documented in Abhishiktananda’s letters and diary. This is even true today to a large part as even Fr. Tiso alludes to. Progressive Indian Christians are more interested in “theologies of liberation” which address the very real social problems in India, while conservative and official Catholicism keeps Hinduism “at arm’s length.” The sannyasi tradition is increasingly seen as irrelevant to India’s present condition, and the “Advaita thing” is more often an object of study rather than of life. Scholars “talk the talk,” but how many “walk the walk.” Furthermore, certainly “inculturation” has taken place, but this is a tricky word that could be very superficial. Simply dressing like Indians, eating like Indians, etc. and incorporating some cultural forms within the various liturgies is merely scratching a surface. Fr. Tiso alludes to some of this in regard to liturgical inculturation and actual life in some of the Catholic ashrams.
4. Just my opinion but I think it is a serious mistake to view Abhishiktananda through the lens of Husserl and Heidegger. I think what you will then see is an Abhishiktananda of your own construction in a very modern European sense, never really getting to the core of his experience. In fact all those allusions to the “hidden modern European” in Abhishiktananda are a mirage, so is my contention. For example, his whole critique of religion does not come from some European consciousness/philosophy of religion, etc. Certainly he read modern thinkers like Teilhard and Jung and tried to use whatever scraps he could find to build a new Christian paideia that expressed his spiritual experience. This came from a true and profoundly deep encounter with the “other”—here the other was the advaitic experience within Hinduism as exemplified by Ramana Maharshi. In the movie mentioned above, Dances With Wolves has taken off his western clothes as a symbol of entering deep within the Lakota experience and vision. It is not a matter of “bracketing” his identity as some phenomenological experiment, but one of profound encounter and not merely “dialogue” or inculturation. I don’t think the Church is quite ready for that! But also think of some ancient examples. In the time of Jesus there were multiple Judaisms, not just one. In Alexandria the Jewish experience became transformed into something quite else as it encountered in a true sense Platonism and Neoplatonism. In Qumran they were translating Plato into Hebrew, indicating a thought-world foreign to the rabbis. In fact what we have in modern Judaism is a result of Rabbinic Judaism squashing all these other Jewish experiences and “rethinkings.”

5. Here are three relevant quotes from Abhishiktananda himself:
As early as 1953 he is saying: “Shantivanam…henceforth interests me so little. Arunachala has caught me. I have understood silence…. Now sannyasa is no longer a thought, a concept, but an inborn summons, a basic need; the only state that suits the depths into which I have entered….”
There is more than dialogue or inculturation going on here. From here on he will struggle to rethink the Christian message in the light of his Advaitic experience. His “rethinking” will have him still use “Jesus language” and “Church language” but now it will have a radically transformed content and direction. Note this quote:
“Whether I want it or not, I am deeply attached to Christ and the koinonia of the Church…. It was under his image, his symbol, that I came to know God and the world of men…. When I woke in India to new depths within myself this symbol became marvellously expanded. Christian theology had already revealed to me the eternal dimension of Jesus. India showed me…the immeasurable Christ, higher than the heavens and also infinitely close…. Moreover, I recognized this mystery, which I have always adored under the symbol of Christ, in the myths of Shiva, Krishna, Rama. This same mystery. But for me Jesus is my sadguru.”
Finally, very close to his death he has this to say:
“Even more after my beyond life/death experience of 14/7 I can only aim at awakening people to what ‘they are.’ Anything about God or the Word, in any religion, which is not based on the deep I-experience is bound to be simply ‘notion’, not existential. Of course I can make use of Christ experience to lead Christians to ‘I AM’ experience, yet it is this I AM experience which really matters…. Christ is this very mystery ‘that I AM.’ And in this experience and existential knowledge all christology has disintegrated. It is taking to the end the revelation that we are all ‘sons of God’…. If at all I had to give a message it would be the message of ‘wake up’, ‘arise,’ ‘remain aware’ of the Katha Upanishad…. I feel too much, more and more the blazing fire of this I AM in which all notions about Christ’s personality, ontology, history etc. have disappeared, and I find his real mystery shining in every awakening man, in every mythos….”

7. The Church is probably a few centuries away from understanding these words and being able to really and truly “rethink” its self-understanding in the light of the mystical experience of all the great religious traditions. One might also say that Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are also in the same predicament, more or less, and perhaps have even a more difficult path toward transformation. I mean we do have one ancient example: when Indian Buddhism travelled to China and encountered the “Chinese mindset” and Taoism it was transformed in some very significant ways. It was not simply inculturation! Today’s Buddhism in the modern West is having some real problems along that line. So Chrisitianity is not the only one with this problem. And by the way transformation will happen because encounter now is inevitable even in spite of deep and innate conservative forces within each tradition.

8. Yes, most assuredly the Rhineland-Flemish mystics of Medieval Europe do offer a “gold mine” of possibilities to see how a language of Christian non-dualism could emerge. By the way, it is interesting that the Orthodox were not present at this conference either. Although Abhishiktananda did have some contact with Orthodox spiritual figures, Eastern Christian mysticism does not seem to have played any role in his inner dialogue. In a sense that is very understandable considering the attitude of many Orthodox toward the “non-Christians.”
9. There is also the criticism that Abhishiktananda is too narrowly focused on Advaita Vedanta and ignores so much else about Hinduism. The fact is that is where his inner experience first emerges—at Arunachala and with Ramana Maharshi. All else is a development off that. His letters and diary show that he was fully aware of many other facets of Hinduism including the strong bhakti traditions. For him it all pointed to this central reality: the final realization of the non-dual Mystery. To criticize him for that is like taking someone who has had a very deep experience of the Presence of Christ in his heart and in his being and expecting him to give the same weight to this as to the “rosary hour” or “making a novena,” etc. Religious practices can abound and they are all good, more or less, but once the essential has been realized, there is a kind of focus on that wherby other things fade into the background.

10. Speaking of Hinduism, classically speaking there was no such thing. “Hinduism” is an invention of 19th Century Europeans and a wave of westernized Indians at about the same time. Then came this notion of neo-Hinduism, a kind of monolith of all kinds of things patched together in supposedly one religion. And the modern world pretty much sees it that way—Hinduism as a world religion among other world religions. Classically speaking there was only the “sanatana dharma.” In Sanskrit the root “dhr” or dhria means to uphold, to support, to sustain. The word “dharma” has no real equivalent in English but often it is translated as “religion,” “law,” “duty,” “code of conduct,” etc. All really mistaken or very weak renderings. So instead of that very empty word “religion” what we have here is what eternally holds it all together. It is a kind of vision or realization of what is at the basis of all reality, and then this realization is multiplied and multiplied into numerous symbolic forms and practices and myths and ways of life. Certainly there did develop corruptions and distortions but this is inevitable in such a diverse phenomenon. But note, strictly speaking we do not have here “religion”—this word comes from “religio” meaning to bind. So religion means attachment and adherence to doctrine and also a founder. There really is none of that in the Sanatana Dharma—inspite of so-called ultra-orthodox Hindus, who are really more the invention of the 19th Century.
11. Lets give Murray Rogers the last word: “Abhishiktananda found himself reinterpreting what religion was all about. In the end he left it behind. Because he saw that people who were being led nearer to going beyond themselves with the help of the Spirit, those people would express—with many a stumble of course, because words cannot convey the experience—but express what was happening to themselves in whatever language their culture gave to them to use. For European Christians and Jews it would be expressed in terms of a Jewish background. It would be the Bible. But he quite understood that a deep Hindu would express him or herself in different religious and cultural terms. He had to cease to imagine that everybody had to get themselves somehow onto the European Christian pathway, to use the same words or the same scriptures. Every person was given by God, in His love for us human beings, the wherewithal to be able to offer love and worship and to adore the Beyond, within whatever language and bulture by birth, and most of all by silence. It didn’t matter. We still have not caught up with that yet. I mean we still feel that our words or our doctrines matter most.

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