Henri Le Saux wished to dismantle Hindu spirituality so that it could be Christianised. So as part of the project, he visited Hindu pilgrim centres of South India and integrated his experiences into Christianity.
Catholic missionary J Monchanin (1895-1957) had established the 'Saccidananda Ashram' in 1950 and had started an elaborate mission to 'Christianise' Hindu spirituality. He wanted Hinduism to die, shed Vedanta and get resurrected in Christianity. In 1957, he died and was succeeded by another French Catholic missionary Henri Le Saux (1910-1973). Henri Le Saux assumed the Hindu name 'Swami' Abhishiktananda as part of his mission strategy.
When Henri Le Saux first came to India, Monchanin took him to Sri Ramakrishna Tapovan so that the former could observe first hand a Hindu ashram. At the same time Monchanin was also observing Henri Le Saux to see what effect the place was having on him. Monchanin made the following observation:
(Henri Le Saux) senses quite independently of me, the human impossibility of the conversion of a Hindu who is truly a Hindu (…): the more spiritual a Hindu becomes, the further in a sense he distances himself from Christianity.James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda : His life told through his letters, ISPCK Delhi:2000, p.28
Henri Le Saux hence decided to understand and dismantle the Hindu spirituality so that it could be Christianised. So as part of the project, he started visiting Hindu pilgrim places in South India. Wearing the saffron robes of a Hindu sanyasin he visited the temples of Chidambaram, Kumbakkonam and Thanjavur enjoying the hospitality of gullible Hindus who welcomed him into their temples. He recounts in a letter of this experience in Chidambaram – the great Saivite temple:
…[At Chidambaram] they were very liberal and showed us every thing. They even wanted to give rice and cakes presented to the images. You can understand that all the same our devotion could not go as far as that!Henri Le Saux : letter dated 9.11.1949
At Srirangam – the great Vaishnavite centre he purportedly violated the explicit notice at the entrance that non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple. He went into the inner corridor. His hagiographer James Stuart admiringly writes how “clad in Kavi (saffron robes) he followed a group of children into the inner sanctuary of the temple at Srirangam (carefully averting his eyes from the notice which prohibits entry to all non-Hindus.”
Nevertheless, standing right before the sacred statue of Vishnu he refused with derision to accept the aarti . In his words:
…and the priest took up a tray containing camphor(…), set it alight,recounted the glories of Sri Rangam Nathar [i.e., Vishnu], and began to offer a puja in my honour…I have never had such good treatment but, all the same it was nothing doing, for I should have had to make the anjali, prostrate spread my hands over the flame and bring them to my eyes, put the ashes on my forehead etc. ... I protested – horror indignation!Henri Le Saux : letter dated 26.02.1950
One place that particularly interested him was Arunachala – another great Saivite centre where the mountain itself is considered as a form of Shiva. It was also where Sri Ramana Maharishi experienced Advaitic state of the self. In 1953, in his letter to his family, Henri Le Saux expressed his desire regarding Arunachala, "When will Arunachala be inhabited by Christian monks?”
Sri Ramana Maharishi was having a great influence on the seekers of the West. This had to be countered. Henri Le Saux had a plan. He revealed this to a fellow Catholic priest:
We have to work out a Christian advaita, and you know what that means; we shall not come to that by exploding advaita at the outset on the ground of its incompatibility. We have to strive to be faithful to advaita to the end. Only a heroic fidelity will make it possible in God’s own time to transcend it (…). Not mutilation but sublimation.Henri Le Saux: letter dated 12.01.1954
By 1955, he was grooming a young Christian boy of 20 years to become a Christian Ramana, which however could not materialise (James Stuart, p.79). In 1957, following the death of Monchanin, Henri Le Saux then in charge of Shantivanam, soon developed the ‘fulfillment theology’ to ‘Christianise’ Advaitic experience.
The ‘fulfillment theology’ was one of the prominent and strong weapons in the theological arsenal of Christianity.
Fulfillment theology was prominently employed in the study of Hinduism by a Scottish educational missionary John Nicol Farquhar then working in YMCA (1902-23). His book Crown of Hinduism published by prestigious Oxford University became popular both in Indology circles as well as with protestant missionaries. Fulfillment theology in the Hindu context as put forth by Farquhar states:
Christ provides the fulfillment of each of the highest aspirations and aims of Hinduism...In Him is focused every ray of light that shines in Hinduism. He is the crown of the faith of India.John Nicol Farquhar, The crown of Hinduism, Oxford University Press, 1913, pp.485-6
Like Roman Catholic Monchanin did decades after him, Protestant Farquhar also declared that Hinduism should die in Christianity: “Hinduism must die in order to live. It must die into Christianity.”
Catholic counterpart of Farquhar was Pierre Johanns a Jesuit missionary. Johanns made the claim that "almost all elements of Christian religion...are to be found among them [the Hindus] in a higher form than they were ever known among the Greeks." Both Johanns and Farquhar paid special attention to Vedanta. Farquhar wrote:
The Vedanta is not Christian and never will be - simply as Vedanta: but very definite preparation for it....It is our belief that the living Christ will sanctify and make complete the religious thought of India.
In the 1920s, Johanns was publishing a periodical entitled, The light of the east where he serialised articles under the title 'To Christ through the Vedanta' over a period of 20 years. According to Harry Oldmeadow, the biographer of Henri Le Saux, 'fulfillment theology' had an abiding presence in the work of both Monchanin and Henri Le Saux.
As the head of the institution, Henri Saux set to work. In 1962 he finished a 100-page draft. Elaborately titled ‘The Experience of Saccidananda: Advaitin experience and its Trinitarian fulfillment’ the text would become an important document in the appropriation project. According to James Stuart the book brought “together Advaitic experience and Christian faith …through the adoption of a ‘theology of fulfillment’”. In the book, Henri Saux explained the need to Christianise Advaitic Vedanta:
...the integration of the advaitic experience into his own faith is for the Christian a necessary task. Christianity presents itself to the world as the supreme message from God to mankind, as possessing the definitive word in which God has revealed all that can be told of the divine life and love. If Church’s claim is true, then it follows that whatever men have found that is true, beautiful and good, both can and should be integrated into Christian experience.Henri Le Saux, Sacchindananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience, ISPCK Delhi, 1974 p.47
Henri Le Saux wrote that Hinduism belongs to a category called the religions of the ‘Cosmic Covenant’ which means all religious traditions outside the Biblical revelation. Of these non-Biblical cosmic revelations he called Hinduism in general and Advaita in particular as 'the acme of man's spiritual in the cosmic religions'. However he stressed that though 'the cosmic covenant and Christ's revelation are not opposed to one other' they are not the same. On the contrary “it is that the first prepares the way for the second”. In the case of Advaita, it is the primeval evil that entered the Garden of Eden that is stopping this fulfillment of Hindu Advaita in Christian Divinity:
There is nothing true, beautiful or good that does not bear the mark of the Spirit. Evil only emerges when what is true,beautiful or good stops short at itself claiming to be the All, the final plenitude, and refuses the role in the history of salvation which is the very purpose of its creation. This was the temptation of the cherub in the Garden of Eden
Even as he was undertaking these efforts, Henri Le Saux harboured serious doubts whether through fulfillment theology he could really Christianise Advaita. When the draft appeared as the book he had dropped the subtitle ‘Vedanta to Trinity’. In a letter to Raimundo Panikkar, another fulfillment theologian, he confessed : "...whatever we do is it not a qualified visishta advaita? - and advaita is lost as soon as there is qualification?" Such doubts and confusions never made him lose sight of his ultimate goal which he explained this in one of his letters thus: “Without this recollection in [Jesus], the Indian Church will never be capable of transforming Hindu India into Christian India.” (letter dated 10.10.1963)
In his worldview, the spiritual traditions outside the church exist only because god conserves them for the Christian to bring them into the church. After a spiritual tradition is appropriated by the church it ceases the need to exist outside the church.
The prayer ‘for the heathen’ ought to turn into a prayer that the Christians may at last gather in the spiritual riches of the Gentiles, so that God might finally have no more need to conserve them outside the Church, precisely in order to prevent these riches from being lost.Henri Le Saux : letter dated 12.04.1965, James Stuart:2000, p.171
Unlike Monchanin who worked mostly within the confines of Shantivanam, Henri Le Saux took the appropriation crusade right into Hindu holy places. He always made it a point to go to the most venerated places of Hindus and conduct a Christian mass while unsuspecting Hindus would take the saffron clad missionary for a Western Hindu sanyasin.
It started as early as 1955 when he visited the Elephanta caves. He claimed it for Jesus by conducting a mass before the famous Mahadeva statue:
Yesterday evening we came here to Elephanta. Here Hindu temples cut out of the rock, only one well preserved. I was thunderstruck! I am more Hindu than Buddhist. You know the Shiva with three heads, incorrectly called Trimurti…When I saw it, I simply had to hold on to a pillar for support…This morning we said our Mass immediately in front of it. There is nothing pagan here.Henri Le Saux : letter dated 18.07.1955
Later a three headed Jesus would adorn the entrance of his Catholic monastery at Shantivanam.
In January of 1965, he climbed to the summit of Arunachala – the sacred hill worshiped by Hindus and conducted a Christian mass there. While at Uttarkashi, another highly esteemed place of Hindu pilgrimage, while enjoying the hospitality of a Hindu ashram, he went into “the crypt of a small temple besides Ganges' where 'sitting cross-legged' he conducted the Christian ritual alone with 'the bread and wine after the order and rite of Melchizedech (…).” and then 'declared this act as ‘a prophetic sign’”. ( James Stuart:2000, p.172) It was at Uttarkashi, which he visited once again, he started experimenting an Indian liturgy with a Sanskrit base. He wrote:
In the loft fitted up in my hut I offer Masseach morning seated like a brahmin priest, with ceremonies of offering water, incense, fire. I read the gospel in Sanskrit and also sing the Our father in Sanskrit…. My Upanishadic rite takes shape day by day. [Details follow] But all that is very Hindu…Henri Le Saux : letter dated 29.7.1965 and 28.8.1965
He now started fashioning his masses based on fulfillment theology. Christmas eve celebrations of 1965 started with the reading of Hindu texts followed by the prophets and then Christian Gospel – thus Hindu texts becoming the preparation for the advent of Christianity. He called mantras as short prayer phrases which could be related to Christian devotion. In his work 'Prayer' he drew parallels between the Hindu Om and Sachhindananda and the Christian Abba, the prayer of Jesus. The mechanism for creating a Christian mantra, which Henri Le Saux called as 'Mantra Sandwich' was later consolidated in Shantivanam. Here a traditional Indic mantra venerated and practised for thousands of years like Om Nama Sivaya or Om Namo Bhagavathe Vasudevaya or Om Mani Padme Hung are taken. Then the Hindu or Buddhist spiritual principle (deity's name or symbol) is removed and Christian name is slipped in between.
Thus Om Nama Shivaya or Om Namo Narayana becomes Om Namo Christaya, Aum Sri Yesu Bhagavathe Namaha. Om Mani Padme Hung became Om Yesu Christa Hung. Ringu Tulku and Mullen in their paper 'Buddhist use of compassionate imagery' (2004) trace the Christian appropriation of Buddhist mantras to Shantivanam project and justify it through the fulfillment theology: "A strong connection between Om Mani Padme Hung, as a universal expression into human heart and the spirit of Jesus has already been made in Buddhist circles.”
In 1968, Henri Le Saux left Shantivanam handing over the charge to new occupants. On parting, he gave a four-fold advice to a Jesuit priest who had founded a Christian centre for dialogue with Hindus. In that advice, Henri Saux suggested that Christians should take up the celebration of Hindu festivals such as Deepavali as a joyful expression of their own faith and also use aarti or deepa puja in Christian churches giving it their own Christian interpretation.
There is an interesting twist in the life story of Henri Le Saux. Leaving Shantivanam and living by the banks of Ganges, there seemed to have happened in him some genuine transformation. According to Wayne Teasdale, a Catholic theologian, Henri Le Saux “seemed to lapse into purely monistic Advaita”. Abhishiktananda declared that it was the Advaitic experience and realisation that is important and everything else need to be dropped:
Jesus may be useful in awakening the soul – as is the guru – but is never essential and, like the guru, he himself must in the end lose all his personal characteristics. No one really needs him. (…) Whoever, in his personal experience (…) has discovered the Self, has no need of faith in Christ, of prayer, of the communion of the Church.Henri Le Saux, Diary entry dated 10.7.1969,Ascent to the Depth of the Heart. The Spiritual Diary (1948-73) of Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom Henri Le Saux), ISPCK 1998, p. 217
He also got critical about the church though he offered mass till his death. He felt the church’s insistence of Christ was as an obstacle to final spiritual liberation:
Christ’s namarupa necessarily explodes, but the Church wants to keep us virtually at the level of the namarupaHenri Le Saux, Diary entry dated 24.4.1972
In another diary entry he again criticised the church – this time quoting a verse from the Upanishad:
Christianity believes that salvation comes from the outside, through thoughts rites, “sacraments”. The level of namarupa. Nothing comes from the outside, nothing that is made, krita, leads to what is un-made, akrita! (MundU I,2,12)Henri Le Saux , Diary entry dated 28.5.72
He died on 7 December 1973. Meanwhile, Shantivanam itself had passed into the hands of a more virulent Hindu-phobic theologian who also would become more aggressive in appropriating Hindu spirituality and culture for evangelism.