In his extraordinary book Guru and Disciple, Swami Abhishiktananda gives a vivid and magnificent account of his meeting with Sri Gnanananda Giri, an Advaitic sage whom he met at his ashram in Tamil Nadu. He regarded this encounter as one of the high points of his life in India, for it was at that time that he recognized Sri Gnanananda as his guru. He spoke of his retreat with his as days of grace, “days of peace and fulfillment. When one was conscious of living at a spiritual depth in which the whole world of outward appearance has been left behind and one has come close to what is Real.” Indeed, he received from his guru the purest teaching of a jnani – which was none other than the timeless message of the Upanishads: Behind the appearance of the phenomenal ego is the Ultimate Reality, the eternal Self of All, which can be directly realized.
Guru and Disciple has been praised by many as a classic and as being one of the most remarkable introductions in recent times to the importance of meditation—dhyana—and the essential nature of the spiritual master – the guru tattva—of which Sri Gnananada Giri was the perfect embodiment.
It is as unusual to meet real disciple as it is to meet a real guru. When the disciple is ready, the guru spontaneously appears, and only those who are not yet worthy of it spend their time in running after gurus.
The guru is one who in the first place has himself attained to the Real and who knows by personal experience the path that leads there; one who is capable of giving the disciple the essential introduction to this path, and causing the immediate and ineffable experience, which he himself has, to spring up directly from and in the disciple’s heart—the lucid and transparent awareness that he is.
To come face to face with the guru is to come face to face with the Self at that level of oneself that is at once real and most hidden. The meeting with the guru is the essential meeting, the decisive turning point in a person’s life.
Advaita remains for ever incomprehensible to anyone who has not first lived it existentially in his meeting with the guru.
Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux, 1910-1973) was one of the most fascinating spiritual figures of the twentieth century and a bridge-builder between East and West. Born in France in 1910, he entered the Benedictine Monastery of Kargonam in South Brittany, and after nineteen years as a contemplative in the Western monastic tradition, he received permission from his about in 1948 to go to India. Two years later, he co-founded an ashram (Shantivanam) on the banks of the Kaveri river in Tamil Nadu. There, he took samnyasa and immersed himself in traditional Indian philosophy and spirituality.
A Very decisive event was his meeting with Sri Ramana Maharshi in 1949 in Tiruvannamalai. Subsequently, he spent several weeks and months between 1952 and 1954 in the caves of the Holy Mountain Arunachala, in deep meditation. In 1955 he met another realized sage, Sri Gnanananda Giri a Tirukoyilur and became his disciple. Through the intense upadesa (teaching) and unreserved grace of his guru, Swami Abhishiktananda was led closer to the heart of Advaita.
In 1959 he started travelling to the Himalayas and felt more and more attracted, such that in 1968 he settled for good in his hermitage on the banks of Ganges, near Uttarkashi. He met his principal disciple, Marc Chaduc, in 1971 and over time experienced a deepening spiritual relationship with him. In July 1973 two weeks after the samnyasa diksa of Mare, who came to be known afterwards as ‘Swami Ajatananda Sarasvati, he suffered a heart attack on the road in Rishikesh. This brought him to his final Awakening and the direct experience of the Reality pointed to by the Upanishads.
Swami Abhishiktananda took mahasamadhi on 7th December 1973 at Indore, but his life and message continue to inspire many who seek the Truth and try to live an authentic spirituality beyond religious barriers.
Guru And Disciple describes the encounter of the French Benedictine monk Henri Le Saux O.S.B. (Swami Abhishiktananda) with Sadguru Sri Gnanananda Giri Swami at his ashram, Gnanananda Tapovanam, in the second week of December 1955 and his fortnight-long retreat with him in February-March 1956. The book presents a vivid, beautiful and moving picture of the sage and brings out the essence of his teaching.
Sri Gnanananda was a legend in his own lifetime. His glorious spiritual ministry is believed to have been phenomenally long, lasting well over a century-none knows for certain how long. Many were curious to know about his age and the secret of his longevity. But Sri Gnanananda never spoke about his birth and parentage. He discouraged queries about his age, saying with a gentle smile: "Ask about the immortal Atman within and not about the perishable body." The core of his philosophy was negation of the ego and all that is non-Self, i.e. body and mind, etc. All achievements, spiritual and temporal, belong to the realm of the ego. So, Sri Gnanananda never made references to his sadhana or his spiritual attainments, which were obviously extraordinary, or even about the disciples who had received his guidance.
Sri Gnanananda was always truly established in the transcendental Advaitic awareness, a jivanmukta in sahaja samadhi, living from moment to moment. He was always talking at the level of the Atman, the Self, which alone is Real. He was in sarvatmabhava, one with the Self of all beings of all times, past and present.
It was the sage's way of instructing those who came to him. He reminded them that they are the immortal Self and they should not identify themselves with the mortal physical body.
Sri Swami Gnanananda's life is therefore shrouded in mystery. But what is there to be seen on the surface of the life-story of any sage? In Indian spiritual tradition, no great importance is attached to the historical aspect. Not much is known even about the date of the great philosopher-saint Adi Shankaracharya or about his later successor in the Advaita tradition, Sri Vidyaranya, who helped in founding the great Vijayanagara Empire. However, there are legends about their life that excite our devotion to them. It is their teaching with its timeless value that is important. It is therefore with this attitude that we have to approach the scanty details of Sri Gnanananda's life, which have been gleaned from his occasional references or remarks.
At a very early age, Sri: Gnanananda was taken over by his guru Sri: Swami Shivaratna Giri of Jyotir Math, whom he met at Pandharpur, the well-known centre of Maharashtra mysticism. The pontiff took the young disciple to his spiritual seat at Srinagar in Kashmir and trained him in various spiritual disciplines and initiated him into samnyasa.
After the mahasamadhi of his guru, Sri Gnanananda renounced his title to the pontificate of his guru's math" and retired to the higher altitudes of the Himalayas for severe austerities. How long he remained there and how long he traversed the entire length and breadth of India, Nepal, Burma and Sri Lanka could only be a matter of conjecture. He had met many spiritual luminaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like Saint Ramalinga, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo.
Sri Gnanananda belongs to the lineage of the Jyotir Math, in the tradition of Adi Shankaracharya. He was a psrsmahsmse psrivrsjeks acarya, a wandering monk teacher par excellence. He was the embodiment of the true spirit of samnyasa with a spontaneous love for total insecurity and anonymity, desiring no foothold in this world.
It was in the concluding phase of a phenomenally long life of glorious spiritual ministry that he settled down in a quiet spot on the northern bank of the river Pennar in Tamil Nadu. Gradually, the ashram 'Gnanananda Tapovanam' grew around His presence. According to tradition, this region has been associated with great saints through centuries. It is situated at about three kms from the temple town of Tirukoyilar within the spiritual aura of Arunachala, the hill of the holy beacon, beckoning to seekers of Knowledge.
Sri Gnanananda was a mahayogi and jnanasiddha. In the scriptures it is said that the eight-fold yogic siddhi-s (extraordinary accomplishments or powers) attend on one who has realized the Self. Extraordinary events took place in the presence of Sri Gnanananda. Many were the miracles reported by his devotees. The greatest miracle was the total spiritual transformation of the one who was devoted to him. In a verse offering his blessings for a book written by Karai Siddhar, a siddha, Sri Gnanananda says:
But the sage reviled the miracles. He warned spiritual aspirants against seeking such powers ... However, from the record of his teachings, we would see that he was a kundalini yogi. He had extraordinary yogic siddhi-s-he could dismember the limbs of his body and reassemble them! We have grounds to believe that he might have belonged as much to the Naths tradition of siddha-s in North India as he did to the Tamil Siddha tradition in the South=-Srl Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. He had contact with Siddharadha Swami' in Hubli and Swami Nityananda" of Ganeshpuri. He often used to quote from the songs of Tamil siddhs-s. He himself has created ex tempore compositions similar to them.
A true siddha is also like a Zen master. By abrupt and sudden paradoxical statements, he shakes the mind of the disciple and makes him transcend it.
It was a few days after a brahmacari had joined Sri Gnanananda. When he was walking behind the sage in the veranda, the master suddenly turned and shouted in a loud voice, "There is a dense wild forest with tall trees. What shall we do?" The brahmacari was bewildered. He could not understand the question. Now the master turned back, looked at him and said in his loud voice, "Yes, we shall set fire to it!"
One of The Best Reasons for hope in the crisis through which at present the world is passing is certainly the growing interest shown by western people in the East. Western man has in fact much to learn from the spiritual and cultural world of the East, which has evolved in ways very different from his own. Perhaps too it is only there that he will discover that inwardness which he so patently lacks and will recover that identity which seems to have escaped him- but this time an identity which will reveal to him the very depth of his own being.
This does not, however, mean that absolutely any contact with the East will enable the Westerner to have access to its true riches; and it would be even more untrue to suppose that this contact would act as a panacea which would cure all the evils from which present day society is suffering. Besides, East and West are complementary; both alike have much to learn from the other, in a great many different spheres. But this exchange will only be fully beneficial if it takes place at the right level-the only level at which it is possible to discover the East in its true character. At other levels an unbalanced exchange runs the risk of producing dangerous traumas on both sides. One only needs to think of the havoc caused by the sudden introduction of western techniques, however admirable they may be, in environments which are not ready for them. No exchange can be wholly beneficial unless it takes place in the context of a meeting of hearts at the deepest level of our being. Only at this depth, proper to each individual and yet in which all may mysteriously share, can those who come from different cultures and traditions truly meet and recognize each other; only here can each discover his most personal identity and at the same time accept the wonderful variety of individuals and cultures, thanks to which each finds in the other the possibility of his own growth and self-transcendence.
The sad thing is that when Westerners come to ask the East for its secret, they too often set about it in the wrong way. Sometimes even today though this is becoming increasingly rare-Westerners approach the East with the same pride and sense of racial and cultural superiority as marked the colonial period. That obviously makes impossible any true meeting of minds or exchange.
Even when the Westerner comes to sit at the feet of the East with every appearance of humility and sincerity, this is still too often done with a mistakenly passive attitude. This causes him to expect, if not demand, an immediate answer to his problems, and not only that, but an answer which must fit into the framework of his own categories.
It is indeed this quest, wrongly understood and wrongly undertaken, that in these days launches so many people, young and not so young, "on the road to Kathmandu", in search of the sages and gurus of Rishikesh, Benares and elsewhere. Alas, their quest seldom meets with success, and only too often ends in disappointment and frustration, with these unfortunate people then blaming India bitterly for not conforming with their preconceived ideas of it.
Most of these seekers, in fact, forget in the first place to empty the mind of all that is useless and irrelevant, and to open it up to its true depths- only there is it possible to hear the message of India. This message is diffused on every side in India, from its temples and holy places, and above all from truly spiritual people, of whom there is no lack, whatever people may say; but you have to know how to hear the message and how to recognize the true masters. The truth is that there are right and wrong forms of passivity. One kind is entirely open and receptive, all set to hear, like a perfectly tuned radio, free from "interference", which at once picks up the waves from the transmitter. But there is another kind of passivity which is unfortunately more common; this refuses to make any attempt at assimilation and is not in the least concerned to rid the mind of its prejudices and preoccupations-but, if you do not take the trouble at least to open the shutters, how can you expect even the midday sun to penetrate into your room?
Some people, the intellectuals, ask India for ideas. Ever since Plato, and especially since Aristotle, the Mediterranean world has lived under the domination of the eidos, that is, of thought and concepts. It only knows things by means of the concepts which it has fashioned of them. But, as has been so clearly shown both by psycho-analysis and by modem structuralism, all concepts, however abstract, as well as the value-judgments which accompany them, are inevitably marked by the basic structures which underlie our thinking-our archetypes, our habits of speech, in short, our whole conditioning through heredity and environment-apart from which, of course, no one can live or grow humanly or spiritually.
India's grace is precisely that it makes us aware, at the deepest level, of this conditioning-those "knots of the heart", as they are called in the Upanishads—by casting over the whole mental process the "shadow", so to speak of the Unconditioned, which each of us bears at the very centre of one's being.
Indian logic certainly has no cause to feel inferior to medieval scholasticism when it comes to splitting hairs, and the speculative discussions between different schools in India yield nothing to those of European theologians. However, as soon as one looks a little closer, one realizes that these discussions do not touch what is essential and that the conflict of ideas is always like the waves which play on the surface of the sea; underneath are the depths, supporting everything, beyond all discussion, beyond the reach of any words, unaffected by anything, and yet the foundation of all. In India the umbilical cord has never been cut, which links the experience of depth, one and unique, with the multiplicity of forms in which it is reflected at the various levels of the mind.
So long as Westerners are intent on asking India for ideas, their expectations are bound to be disappointed. Of ideas India has enough and to spare, just like the West. For nearly three thousand years her philosophers have been examining the mystery of their inner experience in the light of Scripture and tradition. But these ideas, however different they may be from those of western philosophers, are all produced at the same mental level. They are never more than means of introduction to the mystery; and in that lies the whole secret of the guru's teaching. Conceptual structures can never either contain or enclose the true, as Westerners too often tend to think. Whoever stops short at ideas, misses their message. The True can never be an object either to be possessed or to be made use of.
The real message of the East—Vedanta, Buddhism or Taoism- is on a different plane. It is vitally important that this should be realized, so that dialogue and communication may become possible between the very different cultural and spiritual worlds which coexist on this earth. But now the moment for this seems to have come, and this is one of the most valuable aspects of our kairos Just as Christianity has existed for the last two thousand years within the closed world of Mediterranean culture, both shaping it and being shaped by it, so the cultural and spiritual world of the Far East has also developed in similar isolation. The moment has at last come, both for Christianity and for Eastern wisdom, to pass beyond their cultural frontiers, no longer simply in the persons of individual initiates or converts, but in a far fuller and deeper fashion. They will have to accept the fact that this universalizing, or catholicizing, process challenges the forms in which the original intuitions were expressed in the various particular and therefore limited cultures.
The real message of India, as we have just said, is concerned with setting mankind free from the "knots of the heart", from that false identification which causes us to confuse with our real self one or other of the forms in which our personality manifests itself at the mental or social level. India's contribution to the world is first of all that it enables us to lay hold of the profound and ineffable mystery of our own being, the mystery of the "unique and non-dual' Self, which even so is revealed in the multiplicity of conscious beings.
But once again, as soon as India says this, the Westerner at once begins to speculate about what this Self is, about the meaning of the void, the nothingness, the fullness, to which the Scriptures constantly refer. But then the fullness which is conceived is no longer fullness; nor does nothingness or the void have anything to do with what abstract thought seeks to lay hold of.
In the same way the Self that is thought about is no longer the Self; for if there is someone else thinking about it, what is left of its inalienable being?
The Westerner however does not accept defeat. He tries to hold on to the thought of the non-thought of emptiness. He goes on talking and trying to understand. He cannot make up his mind simply to be, he is not prepared simply to look, to accept in himself that which simply is. He defends himself by referring to the speculations of Eastern commentators, forgetting that for them speculation never has any other object than to prepare for the awakening, to bring to birth in the soul the desire for deliverance, for salvation, mumuksutva, which in the end is the only thing that matters in this world.
He is like the man who would refuse to breathe until he had broken down the air into oxygen and nitrogen, or like the geometrician who would refuse to see a circle in its perfect simplicity but would only be willing to come to it and construct it by means of ever more complex polygons.
This is why studies made by Westerners on, for example, Vedantic wisdom are often disappointing. However learned and theoretically perfect may be their presentation, they remain almost inevitably at the academic and speculative level. They always lack something- often a "nothing" which cannot be defined. But it is precisely this "nothing" that opens the way to the source at the very point where it gushes forth.
In India there is no knowledge apart from saving knowledge. But this salvation through knowledge is not a form of gnosis; it is the bringing back of the soul through ascetic practice into its own real depth. Consequently the message of India can never be “heard” aright by anyone who is not possessed in his heart of hearts by this thirst for salvation, mumuksutva; for this is the only way to find the true knowledge.
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