Witness to the Fullness of Light: The Vision and Relevance of the Benedictine Monk Swami Abhishiktananda
William Skudlarek, O.S.B., Bettina Bäumer
Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux OSB) was a French Benedictine monk who went to India in 1948 and devoted his life to becoming a bridge between East and West, between Hinduism and Christianity. To mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of this great pioneer of interreligious dialogue, Monastic Interreligious Dialogue sponsored a symposium in January 2010 at Shantivanam, the ashram Abhishiktananda and Abbé Jules Monchanin founded in 1950. The forty participants from India, Australia, Europe, and the United States who came together for this symposium were drawn not so much by Abhishiktananda’s intellectual or institutional importance, but by his saintly and radical life and the message it continues to offer the world today, thirty-seven years after his samādhi.
If Abhishiktananda had thought that the year 2010 would see so many celebrations and seminars to honor his memory, he would undoubtedly have felt embarrassed and done his best to draw attention away from himself. But he would also have been happy to know that his solitary life, his struggle, his fidelity to an unusual vocation at the borderline of two spiritual traditions, and his great enlightening experiences did not vanish without leaving a trace, but bore fruit in unexpected and surprising ways.
What characterized Abhishiktananda was precisely this unique combination of total personal humility and a strong conviction of the legitimacy and urgency of the ideas and ideals he stood for. Those who gathered at Shantivanam to remember him, to assess his relevance for our time, and to carry his message forward were inspired by his dedication and self-effacement in the service of the ultimate experience he was striving for and which he achieved in the course of his short life-time.
The symposium at Shantivanam was the first of several events that took place during 2010 to highlight different aspects of Abhishiktananda’s thought and experience. As nothing happens by chance, the time chosen for the inaugural event was sacred to both the Hindu and Christian traditions. January in the Hindu calendar is the sacred month of Māgha. According to Indian astronomy, this month marks an important transitional phase in the year and is therefore observed with various festivals and celebrations, such as Pongal in the South. The symposium began on January 13, the feast of the Baptism of Jesus in the Christian calendar. That event in the life of Jesus was especially significant for Abhishiktananda, because in the Gospel accounts of it he saw a description of Jesus’ enlightenment experience, which was paralleled only by his transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
The purpose of the symposium was twofold: to assess the relevance of Abhishiktananda’s thought and experience for the present, and to present him as a model for moving ahead and transforming tensions into creative encounters. In the years since his departure from the body in 1973, India and the world have undergone tremendous changes. How would he have responded to a highly technological and materialistic India? to a re-emerging of fundamentalism in all quarters? to the unbelievable violence that justifies itself by appealing to religion? Although he did not have to face these acute situations, he foresaw many of them from his contemplative Himalayan heights, and he also offered new visions for humanity at this crucial juncture. According to him, nothing less than a spiritual transformation can contribute to understanding between religions, and to the peace that is the fruit of such understanding.
Nowadays, there is so much talk of inter-cultural or interreligious dialogue that the term has become a cliché. But it is rare that authentic experience accompanies such talk. Abhishiktananda struggled with his "uncomfortable situation of belonging to both sides," of being a bridge between Hinduism and Christianity. He would not have described his situation as one of "double religious belonging," even though many point to him as a model. For him, there was but one belonging, and advaita, non-duality, was applicable to both the Hindu and the Christian religious traditions.
Perhaps even more than in Abhishiktananda’s time, there is need today for his example of depth, authenticity, and fidelity, his readiness to go "beyond"—how he loved that word: au-delà—to overcome "nāmarūpas," names and signs, and the many labels we use to identify ourselves and others, thus cutting ourselves off from the other. The publication of the major presentations made at the Shantivanam Symposium is one way of transmitting the teaching and example of Abhishiktananda to people the world over who are thirsting for an authentic spirituality that can lead us to that state beyond dualities to which we all aspire.
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