Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux)
Henri Le Saux, also known as Swami Abhishiktananda was a French Benedictine monk. He was born on August 30, 1910 at St. Briac in northern Brittany, the eldest child of a large devoutly Catholic, Breton family. It became evident early on in his life that Le Saux was drawn to priesthood and was sent to a seminary in 1921. Despite vehement protests from his parents he decided to become a Benedictine monk and entered the monastery of Kergonan soon after his nineteenth birthday (Stuart 5). Although his friends and family alienated him because of his choice, Le Saux continued on that course and was eventually ordained as a priest in 1935. Even before he had taken his final vows Le Saux heard the call to India. This occurred because Kergonan was unable to fulfil Le Saux’s deepest aspiration, which was to seek God (Stuart 11). He found a way to seek God by reading Indian texts and discovering the perspective of Advaita. As a result, he decided that he wanted to live a monastic life in an Indian church or one of contemplation in a hermitage (Stuart 11). After several years of trying to figure out a way that he could achieve his goal, Le Saux finally found the answer in the priest Jules Monchanin. In Monchanin he discovered a kindred spirit who had a similar desire to study in India. Monchanin had been in India since 1939 and was in charge of the parish at Kulittalai (Stuart 14). After corresponding with each other over the course of several years, Le Saux was finally able to convince his Bishop to let him travel to India and join Monchanin in 1948 (Stuart 21).
Despite being born in France and remaining fiercely devoted to his nationality, Le Saux spent the last twenty-five years of his life in India, dying there in 1973. Although he was master of ceremonies for his monastery and a well respected member of the church Le Saux was overtaken by his passion for India (Du Boulay xv). After years of trying to figure out a way that he could fulfill this passion Le Saux became discouraged. However, after coming into contact with Monchanin his passion was reunited and he fervently set out trying to make it a reality. This passion was finally realized when he left his home in France in 1948, never to return, at the age of thirty-eight and traveled to India; where he spent the remainder of his life (Rodrigues 425). Although he never returned to his home, the family ties that had been created were very strong. This is evidenced by the fact that throughout his twenty-five years in India Le Saux corresponded regularly with his siblings, writing to them almost monthly (Stuart 9). Upon arriving in India he joined Monchanin at Kulittalai and began his Indian initiation on the first day (Stuart 22). The two Catholic men began to prepare for the ashram lifestyle that they hoped to lead while still continuing their Catholicism. Le Saux was enchanted with the Indian lifestyle and as such took up their customs very quickly. Within two months of being in Kulittalai he had adopted the local diet, clothing and various other customs and practices of the area (Stuart 24). Le Saux also put great effort into studying not only the Christian works but Sanskrit and Hindu texts as well.
Swami Abhishiktananda had traveled to India because he had been drawn to the Hindu perspective of Advaita, which means to experience a state of union with God in a mystical union of non-duality (Vattakuzhy xiv). This perspective was so fascinating to Le Saux that he co-founded a Christian ashram in 1950 called Shantivanam (Forest of Peace) and became Swami Abhishiktananda (Bliss of the Anointed One) (Rodrigues 425). The religious experiences that Le Saux had while he was living in India caused him to become one of the great spiritual bridges between Christianity and Hinduism. This is due to one of the most interesting facts about Swami Abhishiktananda. Despite immersing himself in the Hindu culture he never stopped practicing Christianity. In fact he remained devoutly Catholic his entire life and never stopped celebrating Mass (Du Boulay xv). As a result, he was faced with many challenges in trying to harmoniously blend all the religious aspects of his life.
Due to the challenges that he faced while trying to stay true to his religions, Le Saux was in a state of spiritual agony for most of his time in India (Abhishiktananda 2006:150). The main question that led to this was whether or not it was possible to be drawn towards advaita but still remain a Christian (Abhishiktananda 2006:150). One of the ways that Le Saux was able to answer this question was first by gathering a definition of what it meant to be Christian along with several notable examples. Once he had completed this he used it to compare it with the followings of advaita. An answer was found to the question in the form of comparing the followers of the gospel to the sannyasi. Le Saux discovered that in order to be a true follower of the gospel one must complete several paradoxical tasks, many of which are eerily similar to those that the wandering Indian ascetics are required to do (Abhishiktananda 2006:156). Although it was not a perfect answer and he still ran into many problems over the course of his life Le Saux was able to continue his quest of maintaining both his Christianity and advaita.
As part of their initiation into an ashram lifestyle, Monchanin took Le Saux to many of the surrounding ashrams near Kulittalai. While visiting each of these ashrams Le Saux constantly discussed their plans of founding their own ashram to anyone who would listen – in an attempt to find recruits, focusing on the diocesan clergy (Stuart 34). After several months of doing this they decided that it was finally time to begin construction. However, things went very slowly in the beginning and Le Saux was worried about how the ashram would be financially sustained. Fortunately construction was completed and the proprietor of the ashram had provided enough money so that there were no further issues (Stuart 35). Once construction was completed and the ashram was fully functional it served as the home for Le Saux for many years; however, he was often travelling the countryside and he was not always there.
Ultimately Le Saux became a sannyasi, an Indian holy man, and traded the habit of his fellow Christian monks for the saffron robes worn by Hindu ascetics (Du Boulay xv). One of Le Saux’s many features was that he wished to experience everything firsthand (Abhishiktananda 2005:23). In order to personally accomplish this meant that Le Saux couldn’t stay at Shantivanam; he merely used it as his base. While travelling the Indian countryside Le Saux, was able to experience several spiritual enlightenments. One of these was his aspiration to become a true sannyasi and as a result he tried to renounce everything; however, he never totally renounced his roots. In an effort to maintain the renunciation Le Saux refused to go home and visit France, despite his family asking him multiple times. He didn’t want to return home because Le Saux believed that if he simply forgot his past his renunciation would not be complete (Stuart 9). The added challenge of remaining in contact but never being able to see his family was a great burden on Le Saux. It was a constant struggle for him to be so disconnected from them, but he viewed it as a way to strengthen his devotion.
When Le Saux first came to India he had a specific goal in mind. He wanted to firmly establish Indian monasticism along the lines of a well-tested rule – in this case Benedictine monasticism. Basically, he wanted to Christianize India following the Benedictine style that he knew (Abhishiktananda 23). However, after spending only a short amount of time in India he realized that this was not going to happen. It forced his point of view to change quite dramatically. After coming to understand Hinduism from a Christian perspective Le Saux saw that intellectually Hinduism and Christianity were not compatible (Stuart 28). Instead of letting this stop him, Le Saux viewed it as a challenge that he needed to overcome. If he couldn’t unite the two religious traditions in some way the swami decided that his only remaining course of action was to try and discover the truth through the Hindu experience (Stuart 28). At first he had wanted to Christianize the country, which would have reduced the Hindu influence, but several months after staying in India his viewpoint totally changed. The paradigm shift that Le Saux underwent shows the profound effect that being immersed in the Hindu culture had had on him.
The work of swami Abhishiktananda did not stop with his death. After he had died at an Indore nursing home the Abhishiktananda Society was formed. The Society’s Mission is, “to make known the spiritual message of the late Swami Abhishiktananda and to coordinate the efforts of those interested in it and in its further implications” (Yesurathnam 127). Henri Le Saux was simply a man who was searching for God and was willing to do anything he had to in order to complete that search. However, his path led him down a road of many contradictions:
He was a man who longed for silence and yet loved to talk, a man who rejoiced in solitude yet had countless friends; a man who reveled in books and writing, yet preferred the direct teachings of lived experience. Most of all was the contradiction between the irresistible attraction he felt toward advaita, the nondual experience of Hinduism, and his inborn love of his Catholic faith:” (Du Boulay xv).
Le Saux underwent many transformations over the course of his life. His wide-ranging experiences in the spiritual field gave him unusually clear insights into both the Christian and Hindu religions, despite the lack of cohesion between the two traditions. Through his experiences and teachings a bridge between Hindu and Christian spirituality was formed that exists to this day.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Abhishiktananda, Swami (1998) Ascent to the Depth of the Heart. Delhi: ISPCK.
Abhishiktananda, Swami (2006) Swami Abhishiktananda: Essential Writings Selected with an introduction by Shirley Du Boulay. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Du Boulay, Shirley (2005) The Cave of the Heart: the Life of Swami Abhishiktananda. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Oldmeadow, Harry (2008) A Christian Pilgrim in India: the Spiritual Journey of Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux). Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Stuart, James (1989) Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told Through His Letters. Delhi: ISPCK.
Vandana (1986) Swami Abhishiktananda: The Man and His Teaching by Some of His Friends and Disciples. Delhi: ISPCK
Vattakuzhy, Emmanuel (1981) Indian Christian Sannyasa and Swami Abhishiktananda. Bangalore: Theological Publications in India.
Yesurathnam, Regunta (2006) A Christian Dialogical Theology: the Contribution of Swami Abhishiktananda. Kolkata: Punthi Pustak.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Josh Campbell (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.