Preliminary Personal Note: I have really enjoyed commenting on this essay, and my comments hardly do justice to the depth and power and scope of this work. They are merely a personal reflection and not meant as exhaustive–but I do hope they lead you to your own extensive perusal of this topic in Abhishiktananda’s words. In my opinion this essay may very well be the most powerful and deepest statement you will find on the monastic charism in ourtime–even though it has to do with the Hindu culture and its manifestations.
So now we come to the fifth and last part of this remarkable essay by Abhishiktananda. Here he steps back a bit from his uncompromising negations of the previous parts, especially of the previous section. But that would be a superficial way of looking at it. There is also an interesting history to this section. Apparently he had written a version, not as rich or as positive as this final one; then he seriously rewrote it after he experienced the so-called “ecumenic diksa” in which his one and only disciple was initiated into sannyasa using both Christian and Hindu elements. This turned out to be a truly eye-opening experience for Abhishiktananda.
So the topic of this section is “sannyasa-diksa–the ceremony of initiation into sannyasa , something like monastic solemn vows. We are here in the realm of manifestation, the world of phenomena. Truly this does look like a “step down” from the heights he had taken us to in the last two sections. But it would be a serious mistake to really think that. He is not abandoning or contradicting the profound negations and renouncements of the last sections; rather here he simply brings us to the “other pole” of the mystery of sannyasa, the one that is discovered in the world that is manifest. Recall the overall structure of his presentation: “on the one hand this is true”; “on the other hand that is true.” He is not vacillating here; he has not changed his mind or become unclear; he is not trying to have it both ways. It is simply that the reality of sannyasa in its essence is lost in the Ultimate Mystery beyond all words and expressions, and so only a discourse clothed in paradox can even hint at it.
Before we plunge into the positive stuff let us revisit the negations–true sannyasa is always “not this, not that”–with some additional material. First I would like to point out that the radical renunciation of the sannyasi, in whatever form it may appear, is close to the radical poverty that Merton speaks of in some of his writings, especially pertaining to solitude and the hermit life and sometimes when he was trying to communicate the inner ambience of a real communion with the Divine. This always takes place in utter spiritual poverty and nakedness–truly the sannyasi is a sacramental image of this reality.
Secondly I would like to point to those words of that great Desert Father, Macarius, who once said, “I am not yet a monk, but I have seen monks….” Well if Macarius is “not yet” a monk, the rest of us are still light years away! The fact is that Macarius is alluding to that same reality that Abhishiktananda is trying to get us to see: the utterly transcendent nature of the sannyasi/monk reality, one that is best indicated by a kind of apophasis or negative identity: as Abhishiktananda would have put it: I am not yet a sannyasi but I have seen sannyasis. Anyone who is too eager to flash his sannyasi “badge” or credentials, has probably not yet awakened yet in any significant way to that transcendent reality.
But having said that we now enter the substance of this section of the essay and enter the world of affirmation and manifestation. It is not that in sannyasa “what you see is what you get”–quite the contrary, what you often see is a kind of religious façade or fakery or imitation of the “real thing.” In true sannyasa, however, what you see is not just a hint of the reality, or a “pointer” but that which also truly participates in that reality. And this is very important and we shall shortly touch on that. But first Abhishiktananda advises us: “For this reason, despite the risk of sclerosis in anything human that becomes an institution, it is none the less good for society to allow a place for monks and publicly to acknowledge their condition as ‘apart’. Further, it is normally through the institution of monasticism that the Spirit reveals himself in making his call heard by those whom he chooses–even if, later on, this very same call thrusts them remorselessly beyond all signs.”
Now in large part this section of the essay seems to fall into two unequal halves. The first one is the longer one and it pretty much discusses what one might call the “theology and phenomenology” of sannyasa-diksa; and the second part is a much shorter description of an actual rite of initiation with Abhishiktananda’s commentary. What makes the first part so effective and so convincing is surprisingly the power of Catholic sacramental theology. This is often overlooked but Catholic sacramental theology (and a very different variant in Orthodox theology) has a depth and a beauty that is not enough appreciated by spiritual seekers, but it was something that Abhishiktananda was very well educated in and this served him well in understanding and interpreting sannyasa- diksa. Another element here that helped him was his more recent acquaintance with the Jungian study of symbolism and the studies of Paul Ricoeur. All this keeps his presentation from being merely an explication of surface signs, a kind of matrix of superficial pointers like in an allegory–this means that, and that means this, etc. Too often all religious ritual gets reduced to that, but Abhishiktananda’s immersion in Catholic Eucharistic theology led him to understand and appreciate how each element of sannyasa-diksa can be seen as already a participation in the Ultimate Reality.
Abhishiktananda: “It would certainly be wrong to regard sannyasa-diksa as an empty sign with no real content. Its rich significance entitles it to be termed a ‘symbol’ rather than a sign (to adopt the widely accepted distinction in contemporary thought, with which is related the recent treatment of the Christian sacraments as symbols.) Sannyasa-diksa in fact carries all the concreteness of a symbol whose roots penetrate to the very source of being itself–so deeply that in some sense it bears within itself the very reality which it signifies.” Now this of course is Catholic sacramental theology applied to sannyasa-diksa, and it is effective as far as it goes. However, there are several “knots to untie.” First of all no matter how deep or beautiful or profound the symbolism concerning sannyasa-diksa it still nevertheless does not mean that this initiation truly effects what it symbolizes–though it can be quite moving as it was for Abhishiktananda during the “ecumenic diksa.” To what extent the outer symbolic matrix corresponds to the inner orientation toward the Transcendent remains unseen. But regardless of which tradition you follow, it must be said that the Transcendent Reality is always Beyond even the deepest symbolism–and this Abhishiktananda has said over and over. The second thing is that the symbolism of each tradition is like a language that leads one on a very particular path and usually it is not coherent to mix the symbols of different traditions. Thus I was very curious how Abhishiktananda accomplished the “ecumenic diksa”; and at least from what I have read, it seems to have been an unusual, an exceptional, but successful blending of both Catholic and Hindu traditions in a very discrete and delicate manner.
Now of course Abhishiktananda recognizes and recommends that the initiation into this “life of renunciation” is best done within the symbolism of the religious tradition in which one has so-to-speak grown up in. This is the natural and normal development–but even here Abhishiktananda has been quick to point out that even if there is no trace of formal sannyasa, the reality of sannyasa should be informing the candidate’s heart and broadening his/her horizons concerning that which they are undertaking. Abhishiktananda: “While it is true that monastic life is transcendent in relation to any dharma, it is perfectly natural for the ‘profession’ or initiation which marks the official entry on monastic life to be performed within the particular religious tradition into which each individual is born and in which he has grown up in the Spirit. As long as we remain at the level of signs, the best signs for us are normally those among which we first awoke as men, and as men devoted to God, even if later on those signs have to be purified and freed from their limitations and particularity.”
The example of the Hindu sannyasi, however, can be so compelling and so attractive that even the Christian monk may be deeply drawn into this total self-surrender to that Absolute Mystery within them and about which their monastic vows hint. For some it is not enough to discover the inner Reality; they feel the need for that outward expression that initiation into sannyasa brings–diksa. It confirms their path in life when a lot of other signs may point in other directions and a lot of other voices are calling them in different directions. The problem is that the symbolism of formal sannyasa is truly the “offspring” of Indian culture and what such symbolism might mean outside that culture is a matter of concern. Abshishiktananda recognizes that problem and he considers the possibility of a “universal ceremony” which of course is not really tenable: “One might dream of investing sannyasa with signs of universal significance, both as regards the rite and in the external appearance of the sannyasi. But by definition all signs are particular, belonging as they must to some given culture and milieu. Once again we are face to face with the paradox…at the heart of sannyasa, that it is at the same time not at home in any world (aloka) and also present to all worlds (sarvaloka), the sign of what is beyond signs. Inevitably we are led back to the original sannyasa described in the ancient texts as ‘without sign’ (alinga), ‘without rules’ (aniyama).” But Abhishiktananda definitely sees the advantage of having the traditional symbolic initiation, both for the individual as a “vehicle of grace” and for the sake of society that it may have this witness within itself of that which always transcends it.
Then ruling out the modern tendency to blur distinct and differentiated symbolism into a kind of “self-contructed” ritual, Abhishiktanda arrives at his own solution that served his purposes quite well–the “ecumenic diksa. Here he is not only dealing on two levels of reality, both the inner and outer; but also with two very distinct traditions, both of which are totally and thoroughly respected by Abhishiktananda in their intergrity : “In this connection it is possible to dream of a kind of ecumenical diksa, a monastic profession to which both a Hindu sannyasi and a Christian monk would be witnesses. The first would transmit to the candidate the initiation which he himself received, and would coopt him into that mystery of sannyasa which has been manifested throughout the centuries by innumerable mahatmas and sadhus, descending from the original rishis who first heard the inner call to the experience of the Self. The other would receive him into the company, no less numerous, of those who have heard the call of Christ to leave all for the sake of the Kingdom, beginning with those giants of the Desert…. Then, beyond that double vamsa, both together, in advaita, will lead him to the one who has called him, to the Spirit, the Inner Light which shines in the heart of all those who are called.” He then proceeds to give an overview of this dual rite of initiation and one can sense the beauty and power of it as it unfolded for his disciple, but whether this is easily repeatable for many other people and in many other circumstances remains an open question. Whenever there is a mixture of symbolism from various traditions, there is always the danger that the connections between the symbolisms is on a purely external, superficial level. Abhishiktananda was able to pull off the “ecumenical diksa” because he himself was deeply immersed in the Mystery which sannyasa evokes.
In conclusion I would like to return to one of Abhishiktananda’s central assertions that lifts the whole phenomenon of sannyasa way beyond any problematic of symbolism: “The ambivalence of sannyasa is such that, in the last resort, when stripped of all rules and outward signs, it can no longer be differentiated from the spontaneous inner renunciation of any awakened man. Nothing external can serve as the sign of the sannyasi, just as there is nothing that could be the sign of a jivan-mukta. He may roam through the world like the kesi of the Rig-Veda, he may hide himself in caves and jungles, and equally he may live in the midst of the multitude and even share in the world’s work without losing his solitude. The unperceptive will never notice him; only the evamvid (the one who knows thus) will recognize him, since he too abides in the depth of the Self. However, anyone who is already in the slightest degree awakened cannot fail to experience something of his radiance — a taste, a touch, a gleam of light–which only the interior sense can perceive, and which leaves behind it a truly wonderful impression.”
Is Abhishiktananda here in these words unconsciously giving a self-portrait!? Like that self-portrait of Van Gogh or of Rembrandt? Not for the sake of self-admiration but only to further confront the Mystery within. Perhaps.
Amen. The End (which is only and always the Beginning).