Swami Abhishiktananda The Call to India
The Secret of Arunachala
Initiation of the True Disciple
The Awakening
A Place beside the Ganges

“Everything has become clear. There is only the Awakening. All that is notional – myths and concepts – is only its expression. There is neither heaven nor earth, there is only Purusha [1], which I am… ”
Swami Abhishiktananda, Spiritual Diary, 1973 [2]

The Call to India

Swami Abhishiktananda (1910-1973) was born Henri Le Saux, in France, on 30th August, 1910. In 1929 he decided to become a monk and entered the Benedictine Monastery of St. Anne de Kergonan (Plouharnel). His attraction to India and its spirituality started as early as 1934, triggered by a search for a radical form of spiritual life. In 1947, he came in contact with a fellow French contemplative, Jules Monchanin (1895-1957), who had already been living in southern India for eight years and who was dreaming of a contemplative life in the way of Indian asceticism. In summer 1948, after nineteen years as a contemplative of the Western monastic tradition, Le Saux, with the permission of his abbot, left his country and arrived in India to meet with Monchanin. Le Saux hoped to work with him to establish a monastic ashram according to the Indian tradition of sannyasa. He adopted the name ‘Swami Abhishiktananda’ (‘the Bliss of the Anointed One’), and immersed himself totally in the sadhu way of life.

In 1950, together with Monchanin, Le Saux established the Shantivanam Ashram near the river Cavery, at village Tannirpalli, in Tamil Nadu. The two men shared the vision that Shantivanam be a monastic ashram which would see monks of different traditions living together in “silent communion in the quest of the Unique” [3].

The Secret of Arunachala

In January 1949, within six months of arriving in India, Swami Abhishiktananda and Monchanin (Swami Parama Arubi Anandam) visited the ashram of one of the greatest sages of modern India, Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), at the base of Arunachala Mountain at Tiruvannamalai (Tamil Nadu).

Swamiji Abhishiktananda’s meeting with the sage was to have a profound effect on his own life and spirituality. He made several lengthy visits to Arunachala between 1949 and 1955. The encounters and experiences during his time at Arunachala, including months spent living in silence and solitude in the caves of the mountain, became the basis of his book The Secret of Arunachala (published posthumously in 1975).

Two particularly significant meetings took place for Swami Abhishiktananda at Arunachala. The first meeting was in 1953 with Harilal, a jnani also known as Sri Poonja or Papaji [4] and this was to be the beginning of a long association between the two. The other was in 1955 with Swami Gnanananda Giri, a great contemporary Vedantic sage who was based at nearby Tirukoilur in Tamil Nadu [5].

The relationship between Swamiji and Sri Gnanananda is beautifully expressed by Swamiji in Guru and Disciple (1970). As described in the book, the core teaching of Sri Gnanananda was the essential practice of dhyana [meditation] [6]:

Return within,
To the place where there is nothing.
And take care that nothing comes in.
Penetrate to the depth of yourself,
To the place where thought no longer exists
And take care that no thought raises its head!

There where nothing exists
Is Fullness!
There where nothing is seen
Is the Vision of Being!
There where nothing appears any longer
Is the sudden appearing of the Self!
Dhyana, it is this.
Swami Abhishiktananda’s relationship with the Sage Gnanananda was to be invaluable in later years when Swamiji himself was to take the role of guru and lead another (his disciple Swami Ajatananda) in the way of dhyana.

After his periods of retreat at Arunachala, Swami Abhishiktananda increasingly undertook pilgrimages to the North. Eventually, Swamiji departed Shantivanam permanently in 1968 to live an eremitical life in the Himalayas, near Uttarkashi, 150 kilometres further upstream of Rishikesh. Shantivanam was then taken over by Bede Griffiths (1906-1993), who focused on the complementarities of religions and through whose presence the ashram gained world-wide renown.

Initiation of the True Disciple

Go, my son, in the freedom of the Spirit,
Across the infinite space of the heart:
Go to the Source, go to the Father,
Go to the Unborn, yourself unborn
To the Brahma-loka
Which you yourself have found
And from which there is no returning.
Swami Abhishiktananda, 1975 [7]

The first meeting between Marc Chaduc (later to be Swami Ajatananda) and Swami Abhishiktananda was in October 1971. Marc, then 26 years of age, met with Swamiji in Delhi after a two-year correspondence. Very quickly, the profound nature of the relationship of guru and disciple was evident.

Swami Abhishiktananda’s relationship with his true disciple was to recall to him the ideal of sannyasa. Swamiji’s writings increasingly expressed his conviction that the Truth lies beyond concepts, myths and symbols. As he wrote to Swami Ajatananda: “We have to descend into the ultimate depths to recognise that there is no common denominator at the level of namarupa (name and form). So we should accept namarupa of the most varied kinds…No comparisons, but we should penetrate the depth of each one’s mystery…Take off from each of them, as from a springboard, towards the bottomless ocean.” (Swami Abhishiktananda, 1973) [8].

Much of Swamiji’s vision for monastic life and his insight into sannyasa are shown in his last writings, The Further Shore, which were completed just a few months before his mahasamadhi in December 1973. These writings were largely inspired by the many months he spent in shared study and intense meditation with his disciple in preparation for the latter’s sannyasa diksha, on June 30, 1973. Marc received his new monastic name ‘Ajatananda’, meaning the “Bliss of the Unborn”.

It is partly through such insights, that the foundation of Ajatananda Ashram was inspired over thirty years later:

“It is… perfectly natural that monks of every dharma should recognise each other as brothers across the frontiers of their respective dharmas. This follows from that very transcendence of all signs to which all of them bear witness. There is indeed a ‘monastic order’ which is universal and includes them all – not of course any kind of ‘order’ that might seek to ‘organise’ them, for this would simply destroy the essential charisma of the monastic life, which is to be an unquenchable desire for the Absolute…Despite all differences in observance, language and cultural background, they perceive in each other’s eyes that depth which the One Spirit has opened in their own hearts. They sense the bliss, the light, the ineffable peace which emanates from it ; and when they embrace each other…it is a sign that they have felt and recognised their innate ‘non-duality’, for in truth in the sphere of the ajata, the unborn, there is no ‘otherness’. (Swami Abhishiktananda, 1975) [9].

As Swami Ajatananda wrote in the Foreword to The Further Shore: “Truly nothing that Swamiji wrote had not been lived by him, realized in himself. This is the beauty of his written work, which was the fruit of his silence.” (Swami Ajatananda, 1975) [10].

The Awakening

“The Awakening…is precisely to lose oneself, to forget oneself. The Awakening is the shining out of the splendour – in splendour – of the non-awakening, of the eternal unborn.” Swami Abhishiktananda, 1973 [11]

On 14 July, just two weeks after Swami Ajatananda’s sannyasa diksha, Swamiji’s body was struck by the heart attack which would lead to the departure from the body on 7 December 1973.

Swamiji described the experience of the heart attack as a great “spiritual adventure”, a “state beyond life and death”, an “Awakening”. In the months following the initial heart attack and preceding the physical death, Swamiji was committed to communicating the great Awakening he had experienced.

“…I have found the Grail… The quest for the Grail is basically nothing else than the quest for the Self…It is yourself that you are seeking through everything. And in this quest you run about everywhere, whereas the Grail is here, close at hand, you only have to open your eyes…There is only the Awakening…” (Swami Abhishiktananda, 1973) [12]

Swamiji took mahasamadhi [13] on 7 December 1973 at Indore.

A Place beside the Ganges

In the later stages of his life, Swami Abhishiktananda became increasingly keen to create a place in the North for spiritual seekers who similarly looked for a life of solitude and silence. As early as in 1959, Swami Abhishiktananda was struck by the power of the Ganges as a place of spiritual sadhana and as the ideal place to establish an ashram:

“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!” Swami Abhishiktananda, 1959 [14]

In late 1973, a few weeks before leaving the body, Swamiji wrote the following words to Swami Ajatananda:

“Everything has to spring up anew from the depths…It is for those [who long to realize such depths] that I should like to have a place beside the Ganges to receive them.” Swami Abhishiktananda, 1973 [15]

Whilst the ashram Swamiji had dreamt of in the North never materialised during his lifetime, the vision remained alive through the inspiration of his life and writings and through the unreserved grace and blessings of his true and enlightened disciple, Swami Ajatananda.

Swami Abhishiktananda wrote of him: “The one who was after me has gone ahead, and I can no longer join him (…). And yet wherever you flee, it is into me that you come! To that depth of myself out of which I have mysteriously called you (…). He is calling me there where he is. There where I have shown him the path…” (Swami Abhishiktananda, 1973) [16]

Swami Abhishiktananda is the author of many books. Some of them have become spiritual classics: Prayer, Delhi, 1967, 1989², reprint 2001; revised and enlarged edition: Prayer: Exploring Contemplative Prayer through Eastern and Western Spirituality, edit. by Swami Atmananda Udasin, foreword by Rev. Dr. James Stuart, Delhi (ISPCK), 2015; The Further Shore [Essays on sannyasa along with other essays on the Upanishads], Delhi, 1975, 1984, reprint 1997; The Secret of Arunachala, Delhi, 1979, 1997²; Guru and Disciple: an Encounter with Sri Gnanananda, a Contemporary Spiritual Master, London (SPCK), 1974, revised edition, Delhi (ISPCK), 1990, reprinted in 2000, new and enlarged edit. by Swami Atmananda Udasin, pref. by Swami Nityananda Giri, Chennai (Samata Books), 2012; Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary of Swami Abhishiktananda (1948-1973), Delhi, 1998. A new forthcoming title is under preparation: A Journey of Ultimate Understanding: Selected Essays in Hindu-Christian Spirituality (transl. from the original French: Intériorité et Révélation).

His life has been narrated in two remarkable biographies: James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told through his Letters, Delhi, 1989, 1995², 2000, and Shirley du Boulay, The Cave of the Heart: The Life of Swami Abhishiktananda, Maryknoll, 2005.

To know more about Swami Abhishiktananda, please visit the website of the Abhishiktananda Centre for Interreligious Dialogue

To know more about Sadguru Sri Gnanananda Giri, please visit the website of Sri Gnanananda Niketan

[1] The pure contentless Consciousness according to the Samkhya philosophical system. In the early Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, it is used to mean the transcendental Self, generally called Atman in the Vedanta tradition.
[2] Swami Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart, op.cit. (September 11, 1973).
[3] Letter dated, 18 March 1952 (James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life…op.cit., p.54).
[4] Harilal was a pseudonym given by Swami Abhishiktananda to Sri H. W. L. Poonja (also known in his later years as Papaji) who became one of the most influential spiritual masters of modern times. To read of Swami Abhishiktananda’s meeting with Harilal, see The Secret of Arunachala, op.cit., chap. 4.
[5] See Sadguru Gnanananda: His Life, Personality and Teachings, Bombay, 1993.
[6] Swami Abhishiktananda, Guru and Disciple, op.cit., p.65.
[7] Swami Abhishiktananda, The Further Shore, op. cit., pp.60-61.
[8] Letter dated, 21 September 1973 (J. Stuart, op.cit., p.284).
[9] Swami Abhishiktananda, The Further Shore, op. cit., p.28.
[10] Swami Ajatananda, Foreword to The Further Shore, op.cit., p. xii.
[11] Swami Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart, op.cit. (12 September, 1973).
[12] Swami Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart, op.cit. (11 September, 1973).
[13] Physical death of a yogi or realized soul who is consciously leaving his body.
[14] Letter dated, 16 July 1959 (J. Stuart, op.cit., p.120).
[15] Letter dated, 26 October 1973 (J. Stuart, op.cit., p. 318).
[16] Swami Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart, op.cit., (3 July, 1973).