in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Swami Sadanand and Swami Abhishiktananda

Dear All,
I have recently submitted two articles to be published by the 'Pastoral Review' and 'Vinayasadhana' concerning these two giants of contemporary Indian spirituality: Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri de Saux) and Swami Sadanand. I had the great privilege to meet the latter earlier this year shortly before he died in April and the encounter made a lasting impression. These articles are part of the fruit of that encounter and I am sure there will be much more to come. I reproduce parts from both here.
I am grateful to conversations with, inter alia, Fr Kurian Perumpallikunnel CMI, Fr Jose Nandhikkara CMI, Fr Anto Vattakuzhy CMI, Fr Saju Chackalackal CMI and Cecilia von Bertrab to help formulate some of the ideas contained here. For more information on Swamiji's life and work see and
The articles are dedicated to his memory:
‘The wellbeing of all creatures is the joy of God; everything in the universe is the gift of God, proclaiming his presence; everything I offer at your feet at every moment; O my God your will is my will’ (Swami Sadanand).



Swami Abhishiktananda

From an early stage of his time in India, Abhishiktananda asked the question: ‘Does Hindu sannyāsa really have an equivalent in Christianity?’ (Diary entry, 7.1.1954, p.88)[1] and it was in exploring this end that much of the rest of his life in India was dedicated (he never returned to his native France). For him, especially after spending time on the sacred mountain of Arunachāla in Southern India, the heart of sannyāsa became a complete stripping, a complete emptying which for him was centred upon silence, solitude and poverty:


          Sannyāsa involves not only withdrawal from society, from the social and    religious framework, from social and religious obligations etc. but also a         fundamental commitment beyond the intellectual framework of one’s          life. (Diary 7.1.54, p.88)


We could argue that Abhishiktananda’s sannyāsa was even more extreme than the Hindu version (certainly more so that Tagore’s). The Hindu tradition involves a ritualised stripping away prescribed for certain castes (and indeed gender) only. What Abhishiktananda was advocating was something far more radical – it was a ‘sannyāsa beyond sannyāsa’ – a stripping away that also included the stripping away of all (what he saw) as unnecessary religion accoutrements. In 1954 he wrote in his Diary that ‘Sannyāsa, in its total renunciation and its total liberation, is incompatible with ecclesial Christianity, which does not admit the possibility of itself being transcended’ (7.1.54, p.88).  In 1954 it was the transcendence of Christianity that preoccupied him. Twenty years later in his last written essay, on sannyāsa, he prescribes it as the ‘renunciation of renunciation’ – it would for him ultimately go beyond every religious form, including Hinduism. The Hindu attempt to make  sannyāsa the fourth stage of life was, he felt, ‘an attempt of Hindu society to win back, and at least to some extent, to reintegrate with itself those who had renounced everything’ (The Further Shore: p.17).[2] No doubt this attitude was inspired by the wild (and possibly psychotic) swamis he met on the banks of the Ganges in his own final period of renunciation. At this stage there is no theology or learning left, such a person has become what he calls a ‘fire sannyasi’ (The Further Shore, p.22) who ‘becomes indifferent, on that very day he should go forth and roam’ (The Further Shore p.22).

          Despite his desire to live this extreme lifestyle this was to prove impossible for him. He had difficulty living in isolation at Gyansu, his little hut on the banks of the Ganges, and spent half the year there and the other half teaching and travelling in the Plains. After his own heart attack in July 1973 he realised he would never live in his ‘cave’ again and died later that year in a nursing home at Indore.


The Possibility of Christian Sannyāsa?

If then the traditional practice was too much for a spiritual titan such as Henri le Saux is the practice one that is defensible or indeed legitimate for Christians? As is often the case, Tagore suggests a possible compromise solution. As a young man, writing in 1892 in his early thirties, he made an interesting remark with reference to sannyāsa:


If by nature I were a sanyasi (sic), then I would have spent my life pondering life’s transcience, and no day would have gone by without a solemn rite to the glory of God. But I am not, and my mind is preoccupied instead by the beauty that disappears from my life each day; I feel I do not appreciate it properly. [3]


And a year later:


There are two aspects to India: the householder and the sanyasi. The first refuses to leave his home hearth, the second is utterly homeless. Inside me both aspects are to be found. [4]


And I think it is in such a ‘creative unity’ as Tagore expressed it that we can find the ‘coincidence of opposites’ that I think could best characterize the ‘Christian sannyāsi’.

          In the Indian tradition the sannyāsi ‘owns no place and no person and has to be by definition a solitary wanderer’ (Thottakara p.561). The Christian, in contrast, by virtue of their consecration to Christ, remains in service to the world even though they do not identify with the world’s goals and aims.[5] Yet, in spite of the differences between the extreme Hindu version of sannyāsa (as attempted to be practised by Abhishiktananda) and the Christian versions of active holiness it is possible to see both Indian sannyāsa and Christian spiritual life as two aspects of the final encounter and relationship with the ultimate goal of human life – our encounter with the limit of human mortality and the embrace of Sister Death. Thottakara calls it ‘the Yoga mind’ that integrates apparently bi-polar realities and he mentions Fr Francis Vineeth CMI, founder of the Vidyavanam ashram near Bangalore, as an example of a modern sadhu ‘who tries to awaken the religious-spiritual consciousness of the sadhakas and develop in them a soul culture that is deeply rooted in the age old principles of Indian spirituality and in the immensely rich Christian spiritual traditions without at the same time negating the positive values of matter, body and this world’ (p.558). At heart what Indian sannyāsa and Christian spiritual life have in common is that for both renunciation, whether of the world or the ego, must be connected with love and surrender to the creator.[6] In this way both Indian and Christian traditions embrace on the threshold of the infinite.

          Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the rich life of Swami Sadanand, a Christian sannyāsi, who died earlier this year. Swamiji, as he was popularly known, had spent his whole life since taking the robe of a sannyāsi, pursuing justice and truth for the poorest and most alienated in India whilst also practising the deep ascetic and meditational life of a sadhu. He famously befriended the murderer of a Catholic nun, Sr Rani Maria, whilst he served his time in prison so that when he was released, and repented his crimes, he was accepted into the late nun’s family. Such was the fame of this reconciliation that Pope Francis invited Swamiji, the nun’s murderer and family to Rome in 2014. I had the great good fortune to meet Swamiji shortly before his death earlier this year and, perhaps more than any argument in this short article, his presence and life are a convincing testimony to the possibility of Christian sannyāsa. To experience his smile, won despite a lifetime of hardship and suffering, was to experience the loving blessing of the Saviour. In loving tribute I dedicate this article to his memory.




[1] Edited by R. Panikkar and published as:  Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary (1948 – 1973) of Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom H. le Saux). Trans. D. Fleming and J. Stuart. Delhi: ISPCK, 1998. Hereafter ‘Diary’.
[2] The Further Shore, Abhishiktananda. New Delhi: ISPCK, 1975.
[3] Letter to his nephew, 15th June 1892 from Shelidah, reprinted in Glimpses of Bengal: Selected Letters by Rabindranath Tagore, ed K. Dutta and A. Robinson, London: Macmillan, 1991.
[4] Letter to his nephew, 7th February 1893, ibid.
[5] Although, as Thottakara notes, in recent years Buddhists, Hindus and Jains have all taken to more communitarian models of sannyāsa imitating in many ways Christian monastic models of service to the world, the poor and downtrodden (p.562).
[6] It is interesting that the entry to the final stage of sannyāsa in Indian tradition is accompanied by a renunciation ceremony. The Christian tradition of consecrated life has no such ‘vow’ or ‘ceremony’ to mark this final phase – perhaps it might be something that should be developed?

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