Papaji, Abishiktananda and Christianity

In the 1950s and ’60s many of the foreigners who came to see Papaji had been sent by Swami Abhishiktananda, the French monk whose meetings with Papaji in South India were described in an earlier chapter. Swami Abhishiktananda himself continued to visit Papaji throughout the 1960s, either in Rishikesh or in Lucknow. Meera gives her impression of some of these meetings:

I met him for the first time in the late 1960s when I was staying with Master at Sapt Sarovar Ashram in Hardwar. Abhishiktananda at that time was living in a hut at Uttarkashi, only a few hours away by bus, so he often stopped off to see Master when he was travelling to and from places further south. Master had told me about him before I met him, so I knew all about him even before he arrived. Abhishiktananda found Master to be a fascinating figure, but he was never really a devotee. He had an unwavering allegiance to Christianity and this prevented him from accepting Master’s teachings and from regarding him as a Guru. Even so, he kept coming again and again, always with a long list of spiritual questions to ask.

Satsangs were good fun when he was around because he knew how to provoke Master into giving good answers. Though he was interested in mysticism and meditated a lot, he had a very intellectual approach to Christian theology and Hindu philosophy. He wanted to find some kind of common ground between Christianity and Hinduism and many of his questions were framed with this purpose in mind. Sometimes Master would humour him by discussing philosophy with him, but more often he would try to tell him that all ideas – both Christian and Hindu – had to be dropped. Master told him again and again that his attachment to his Christian ideas was preventing him from discovering the state that he was thinking and writing so much about, but Abhishiktananda could never accept this.

Satsangs around Master were never serious for very long. There would always be a lot of laughing and joking. Abhishiktananda sometimes complained that we were not being serious enough, and that we were laughing for no reason at all. This would just make us laugh even more. One time, when we were in Lucknow with him, Abhishiktananda had some kind of ecstatic experience as a result of something Master said to him. Without being aware of what he was doing, he tripped, fell over and landed with his face in a bowl of flour. We were all sitting in Master’s kitchen at the time. When he emerged he was white all over. Of course, everybody laughed and laughed, so much so that Abhishiktananda got upset.

‘I am not staying here any more!’ he exclaimed angrily. ‘I am going back to Uttarkashi to do some serious meditation. It will probably take me three months of meditation to recover from this one satsang!’

He carried out his threat and didn’t appear again for many weeks.

Master would often have visions of Christ around this period and his descriptions of them fascinated and perplexed Abhishiktananda. He could never understand why Christ was so regularly appearing to this man who was making disparaging remarks about being too much attached to Christianity. I remember one vision particularly well. Master suddenly stopped what he was doing, lay down, pulled a blanket up to his chin and remained absolutely motionless for several hours. I had never seen him do anything like this before. When he came back to normal, he very slowly and deliberately described a cosmic vision of Christ he had just had in which Christ, looking as if he occupied the whole universe, was welcoming him with wide-open arms. I looked at Master’s face as he described his vision and it completely melted as he narrated the story.

This particular vision probably appeared to Papaji in November, 1970, for on the 23rd of that month he sent the following letter to Swami Abhishiktananda:

…I wanted to read Bhagwat, but somehow I couldn’t start. I left it and I saw Lord Christ standing in front of me physically, feet on the ground, but head extending beyond the skies. First his hands were resting on his chest, and then they extended at full length, beyond full length. Then he again folded them, bending them at the elbows. Finally, he moved forward to hold me. This lasted for about one hour. Afterwards I got up and went to the jungle, but the image persisted in my heart. Please explain in your own way.

Swami Abhishiktananda was unable to assimilate this vision into his world view. In his biography, written by Father James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda admitted that this report of the vision bewildered him. He could not understand how and why Christ had appeared to an advaitic Hindu in this cosmic form.

Meera continues:

Abhishiktananda was actually present when Master had a vision of Jesus and Peter by the banks of the Jordan River. Master described what he was seeing while Abhishiktananda gave a kind of commentary and explanation that was based on his knowledge of the Bible and the geography of the area.

Abhishiktananda was impressed enough to send or bring several other Christians to Master. There was a girl called Bettina Baumer who stayed with Master for several years, an Italian woman called Marina who saw him regularly in the 1960s, and a few others. Only one, Enrique Aguilar, was able to give up his Christian past. He came to India as a Benedictine monk, but under Master’s influence, he quickly dropped his Christian ideas.

As Meera reported, Papaji would sometimes encourage Abhishiktananda in his quest to find parallels between Hinduism and Christianity, while at other times he would encourage him to drop all his Christian ideas completely. Here is an example of the former approach, taken from a letter Papaji wrote to him in November, 1970:

I have known quite a few Christian foreigners who came to me seeking Truth and who returned to the natural state in a short time. It shows that they prepared themselves by a Christian way before they came to me. I myself don’t find any difference between a Christian thought and an upanishadic truth. I find an absolute parallel between shlokas from the Upanishads and verses from the Bible. But why even call them parallel? There must be two different things to be parallel. In truth, there is only one Divine thought whether it is Krishna speaking or Christ talking. They both spoke of ONE Father. AUM or AMEN.
With Loving Embrace,
H. W. L. Poonja

A good example of the opposite approach can be found in a story that I have heard Papaji tell on several occasions:

Swami Abhishiktananda and I were sitting by the banks of the Ganga near Rishikesh.

We had been sitting quietly, but suddenly he turned to me and asked, ‘Ram, how far am I away from freedom?’

He always called me Ram, as did a few other people in those days.

I replied, ‘As far away as the sky is from the earth.’

I could see that he was disappointed by the answer.

‘But what’s wrong with me?’ he asked plaintively. ‘I have meditated for many years. I have done intense tapas. I have dedicated my whole life to this pursuit.’

‘If you really want to be free,’ I told him, ‘I can tell you how to do it instantly. Why wait five weeks or five years? You have a bag with you. Throw this bag into the Ganga and I guarantee that you will be instantly free. Why don’t you do it?’

It was a serious offer but he couldn’t accept it. He had his Christian books in his bag, along with the equipment he needed to perform mass. I was telling him to throw his Christianity in the river, but he couldn’t do it.

‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I am committed to Christianity and I will never drop it.’

He must have written about this conversation because I found out years later that it was included in a film documentary of Abhishiktananda’s life. Two actors were engaged to play our roles, and the dialogue was more or less the same one that I have just described.

Abhishiktananda eventually became disenchanted with Papaji and stopped coming to see him. Om Prakash remembers the following exchange that took place in Lucknow in the early 1970s:

I was sitting with both of them in Lucknow when Abhishiktananda said to Papaji, ‘Ram, you are not the same Ram I first saw in 1953. You had so much power in those days. Now you seem to be very much changed.’

Papaji looked at him and answered, ‘It is your spectacles which are seeing this change. You have put on new spectacles so you are seeing differently now. I am the same. I am always the same. If there has been any change, it must only be in the way that you are viewing me.’

Papaji had been telling Abhishiktananda to drop his Christianity for almost twenty years, without success. However, the Christian ideas spontaneously fell away when Abhishiktananda had a heart attack in Rishikesh that left him semi-paralysed on the street. In letters he wrote to his Christian friends soon after the event, he explained how, lying on the road, he had had a direct experience of the Self that demolished all his previous beliefs.

Who can bear the glory of transfiguration, of man’s dying as transfigured; because what Christ is, I AM! One can only speak of it after being awoken from the dead…. It was a remarkable spiritual experience…. While I was waiting on my sidewalk, on the frontier of the two worlds, I was magnificently calm, for I AM no matter what in the world! I have found the GRAIL!…

The more I go on, the less able I would be to present Christ in a way which could still be considered as Christian…. For Christ is first an idea which comes to me from outside. Even more after my ‘beyond life/death experience’ of 14.7.73 I can only aim at awakening people to what ‘they are’. Anything about God or the Word in any religion, which is not based on the deep ‘I’ experience, is bound to be simply ‘notion’, not existential.

Yet I am interested in no Christology at all. I have so little interest in a Word of God which will awaken man within history…. The Word of God comes from/to my own ‘present’; it is that very awakening which is my self awareness. What I discover above all in Christ is his ‘I AM’…. It is this I AM experience which really matters. Christ is the very mystery that ‘I AM’, and in the experience and existential knowledge all Christology has disintegrated….

What would be the meaning of a ‘Christianity-coloured’ awakening? In the process of awakening all this colouration cannot but disappear…. The colouration might vary according to the audience, but the essential goes beyond. The discovery of Christ’s I AM is the ruin of any Christian theology, for all notions are burned within the fire of experience…. I feel too much, more and more, the blazing fire of this I AM in which all notions about Christ’s personality, ontology, history etc. have disappeared.

Excerpt From Nothing Ever Happened Volume Two, pages 83-89
By David Godman