Here is another reading of one of my translations of Swami Abhishiktananda’s poems. This piece, “Bhairava,” is one of my favorite of Swamiji’s poems. The Sanskrit adjective “bhairava” means “frightful/terrible/etc.” and it is also the name of a deity recognized in Hinduism and various schools of Buddhism, especially associated in Hinduism with Shiva. Bhairava is then a frightful face of Shiva, having to do with dissolution and annihilation. Swamiji composed this poem during his month-long silent retreat at Kumbakonam, a town in Tamil Nadu, India in November of 1955.
Swami Abhishiktananda uses this title of Shiva as a novel way into some well-trodden tropes in the mystical poetic toolkit: abandonment, ravishment, desolation and dissolution, union-as-annihilation-of-the-self. The poem speaks to the terror and lonesomeness of the radically contemplative life and the experience of non-dualism within human consciousness–even as union is experienced, a lingering sense of the individual endures and can cause disturbance.
But beyond the surface of these frightful images and emotional states, one can also see the playful use of such imagery to paradoxically gesture toward profound states of consciousness that simply don’t “come out” in direct expression. Though Swamiji’s imagery here is distraught and painful–even calling his addressee an “Ogre” at one point–it points to a state of unknowing that is “tender and heartrending at once,” heartrending as long as there is some part of the identity that is clung to, at any rate.
In 1948, Dom Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine Monk, left his native Brittany and arrived in Southern India. He intended to establish the contemplative monastic life in the Indian church, a life dedicated to sacred silence in a land imbued with sacred silence.
Though he was sympathetic to Hindu philosophy, especially the ideas and experiences described in the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads, he still assumed that he would be converting others to the Christian way during his time in India. Yet when he encountered the simple faithful and the contemporary sages in his new homeland, he found the Spirit at work there, beyond the borders of institutional Christianity and any Christian faith whatsoever. This led him to dramatically reevaluate his “mission” in India and his very understanding of all R/reality.
This reevaluation was especially spurred by his encounter with the Self-realized sage Shri Ramana Maharshi (shortly before Shri Ramana’s leaving the body in 1950) and the sacred mountain where Shri Ramana lived, Arunachala. In Shri Ramana, Swami Abhishiktananda saw the heights of contemplation and divine union of his own Catholic Christian tradition lived in an authentic way, and he spent several retreats living in the caves of Arunachala and getting to know the hermits who lived there, the members of Shri Ramana’s ashram community, and those who lived in the adjacent town, Tiruvannamalai.
In the caves of Arunachala, Swami Abhishiktananda spent long hours in silence and experienced deep states of meditation. As Swami Atmananda Udasin, the director of the Abhishiktananda Centre for Interreligious Dialogue, says, “there [he] had his first great mystical insights. Later in his life, he would refer to the Mountain as his place of Awakening: ‘But as for myself, like Shri Ramana, it was Arunachala that awakened me. Oh, that Awakening!'”
The larger part of my new book, In the Bosom of the Father: The Collected Poems of a Benedictine Mystic, is comprised of the poems that Swami Abhishiktananda composed in light of his experiences in those first few years in India, especially in his encounter with Arunachala as well as Swami Abhishiktananda’s “renderings” of Shri Ramana’s Tamil poems. The first in the collection, Aruncachala, he described as being “sung to me by Arunachala one night before I went to sleep, and I relit my lamp several times to catch it. Perhaps it will convey some of the spell cast on me by Arunachala.” Below is a reading of my translation of Swami Abhishiktananda’s poem, and Swamiji’s own note for context.
“Arunachala is a holy place of particular veneration in Tamil Nadu in the South of India. The Puranas . . . tell of its origins. There was a quarrel between Brahma and Vishnu, each claiming that he was the First and Greatest. Suddenly, a Column of Fire appeared in the space between them. They decided that whoever first found either the foundation or the summit of this mysterious Column would be accepted by the other as the superior. Brahma dashed to the summit, while Vishnu began to dig into the earth, but both had to admit the vanity of their efforts. It was Shiva who had manifested themselves to them, convincing them of the futility of their former claims, for the greatest and first in Being is Shiva. The Column of Fire later turned into a Mountain of sapphire, and finally a Mountain of stone. Each year during the full moon of the month of Karttikai (15 November-15 December), an immense fire is lit on the summit of the Mountain, which is called the feast of Dipam (“dipa” in Sanskrit; “lamp” in English). The Tamil name for the city there is Tiruvannamalai.” (In the Bosom of the Father, 23.)