Papaji Meets Abhishiktananda

I was walking up the hill in the direction of Skandashram. I had been told that there was a schoolteacher from Kerala living nearby. I wanted to go and meet her but when I arrived at her place she was meditating and didn’t want to be disturbed.

A passing shepherd who was looking after some grazing goats called out, ‘There is a foreign man living in a cave near here. Why don’t you go and meet him?’

I took his advice, followed his instructions and went looking for this man. I wanted to find out why a foreigner would be living in a cave on Arunachala. The directions were accurate and I found him a few minutes later. As I walked in through the entrance I saw a man squatting on the floor, making preparations to cook a meal.

‘How long have you been living here?’ I asked.

He didn’t answer me. Instead, he covered his face with his palm. When it became clear to him that I didn’t understand the meaning and significance of his gesture, he went to a different part of the cave, found a piece of paper, wrote on it and then handed it to me. It said that he was observing mauna [silence] and didn’t want to speak to anyone.

He was wearing the orange robes of a sannyasin and was doing his best to follow the traditional rules. Though he was cooking his food on the day I arrived, I found out later that he often went begging for his lunch in the streets of Tiruvannamalai. He managed to observe his vow of silence even during his begging trips. Usually, sannyasins stand in front of a house and call out for food. Sometimes they will sing bhajans to attract the attention of the people inside. This man just stood outside and waited for a food offering to come. If nothing was given to him, he would silently move on to another house.

I wasn’t impressed by his forced silence. I told him, ‘You have gone through so much activity just to tell me that you are observing mauna. You put your hand on your mouth; you went off for a piece of paper and a pen; you wrote me a message and gave it to me. Wouldn’t it be simpler for you just to move your tongue a little bit and speak to me? You think that you are keeping silence, but it is only vocal silence. Your mind is still working. You had to use your mind to look for the paper and pen, and you had to use your mind to write that you are keeping silence. Real silence is when you have a silent mind, even when you are speaking.’

He gave up his silence and began to ask me many questions. He wanted to know who I was, how long I was staying in the ashram, and what I thought of the Maharshi. He asked me many questions about the Maharshi and expressed his happiness that I had so much faith in him. He also asked me some questions about Christianity and wanted to know whether or not I had read the Bible. At some point he told me that his name was Swami Abhishiktananda.

Earlier in his life Swami Abhishiktananda had been a cloistered Benedictine monk called Father Henri Le Saux. He had received permission from his order in France to come to India to experiment with different forms of monastic living. In so far as his principal aim was to make Christianity more palatable to Hindus, he was very much a missionary. He wanted India to become a Christian country and to achieve that aim he wanted to find new ways of making Hindus accept the teachings of the Church. He felt that if Christian priests adopted the garb of sannyasins and lived like sadhus, they would be more likely to find acceptance in India. That was why he was wearing orange robes and living in a cave. Though he discussed Christianity at his first meeting with Papaji, he didn’t disclose that he was still an ordained priest, nor did he reveal the missionary agenda that had brought him to India in the first place.

For a Catholic priest, Swami Abhishiktananda was remarkably sympathetic to the Hindu tradition. He studied the Hindu scriptures and experimented with the devotional and meditative practices they recommend. Though he thought that Christianity could learn many things from Hinduism, for most of his life he could not concede that true salvation could be found through it.

During the course of his introductory remarks he mentioned that he had spent some time in North India, on the banks of the Ganga. ‘But nowadays,’ he added, ‘I am spending a lot of time in Kulitalai at a place called Shantivanam Ashram.’

I asked him if he had ever visited the samadhi of a naked saint who had been famous in that area. He hadn’t heard of him, so I passed on the story, as it had been told to me.

One day this saint went to take a bath in the River Kaveri. He disappeared and was not seen again for several months. Six months later some coolies who were digging up sand from the dry river bed found him there, buried alive. He had probably been caught in a flood when he went for his bath.

The man was still alive, even though he had been buried under the ground for six months. He must have used his yogic training to somehow keep his prana [life force] in the body while it was under the ground. When the saint was dug up, he just walked to the river bank, sat down, and resumed his meditation. After his death a few years later, a samadhi was erected over his body and many people came to visit it to seek blessings from the saint. Swami Abhishiktananda said that he had never visited the samadhi shrine, but he promised me that he would make a point of doing so on his next visit to the area.

We became quite good friends and in the years that followed he used to visit me in many of the places that I had been posted to in Karnataka. After I retired, he also came to see me in Delhi and Lucknow.

Abhishiktananda writes on his friendship with Papaji: Later I often met Harilal. We understood each other so well and were so deeply in agreement that we could not fail to use every occasion that was offered of being together and speakjng of those things which were central in our lives, especially as we both found that there were so few people with whom we were able to discuss them.

Excerpt From Nothing Ever Happened Volume One, pages 185-187
By David Godman