Desjardins, Arnaud

Desjardins, Arnaud
(1925– )
   founder of Hauteville Ashram
   Arnaud Desjardins is a French teacher of ADVAITA VEDANTA. After a successful career making docu-mentaries about Indian and other Eastern reli-gious leaders and traditions, Desjardins eventually founded the first ASHRAM in France. He is the most popular and influential spiritual teacher in the francophone world.
   Arnaud Guerin-Desjardins (he later dropped Guerin) was born on June 18, 1925, into a devout French Protestant family. His father, Jacques Guerin-Desjardins, was a hero in both world wars, and a prominent figure in Protestant circles. Close to Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouting movement, to whom Arnaud was introduced as a young boy, Guerin-Desjardins wrote books, gave lectures, and gave his two sons and one daughter a strict religious education. He earned a middle-class living as an executive for Peugeot, while his wife, Antoinette, also a devout Protestant, cared for the children at home.
   As a young boy, Arnaud, although afraid of his father, was very interested in religious sub-jects, but was also tormented by questions rather uncommon for most children of his age, such as What about Catholics? Could they really be so wrong? If he had been born a Catholic, would not he be convinced that the truth lay in the Catholic Church? At the end of his teens, having seen plays given at the Comédie Française in Paris as part of his cultural education, Arnaud developed a pas-sion for theater and acting, learning whole plays by heart. His parents very reluctantly consented for him to attend the Cours Simon, at the time the most reputed drama school in France. He eventu-ally studied law and political science, but his heart was with the Cours Simon, which opened a whole new world for him. There, he met young men and women, many of whom were to become famous actors, who lived in a different, more relaxed and open world than the one in which he had grown up. His ambition was to join the Comédie Fran-çaise as an actor, yet, when he passed the first part of the exams at the national drama school, the Conservatoire, his parents put tremendous emotional pressure on him to renounce the the-ater. The young man finally gave in but became depressed.
   The future seemed grim when he joined a bank but became bright when he fell in love with a young Protestant woman, to whom he was soon engaged. That beautiful dream came to an abrupt end when Arnaud, age 24, was struck with tuberculosis. His prospective father-in-law broke the engagement and Arnaud was sent to a sanatorium, never to see his fiancée again. Feel-ing abandoned and betrayed, he read voraciously and discovered the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky and learned about Hindu gurus through Jean Herbert’s Spiritualité Hindoue, in which the author recounted his meetings with ANANDAMAYI MA, Sri AUROBINDO, RAMANA MAHARSHI, and Swami RAMDAS.
   After his recovery from tuberculosis, Desjar-dins returned to Paris, where he joined a Gurdjieff group in the early 1950s and started working as an assistant for the embryonic French television system. In the Gurdjieff group, he met Denise, an impressive young woman a few years his senior who was an artist of growing reputation. They were married in 1957.
   In 1959, having become a television director and filmmaker, Arnaud went through a difficult time in his professional life. His projects were refused one after the other, and he then decided to travel to India by car, to see for himself whether those masters he had read about lived up to Jean Herbert’s description; he planned to film them with a 16-millimeter camera.
   In 1959 he traveled to India, where he met and filmed Swami SHIVANANDA SARASWATI of Rishikesh, Swami Ramdas, and Anandamayi Ma. Back in France, his finished documentary was shown on national television and very well received by the public as well as critics. He then specialized in documentaries on living spiri-tual traditions, filming with his 16-millimeter camera, assisted only by his wife. They traveled for extensive periods, taking their two children with them. In 1965, Desjardins produced several documentaries on the Tibetans, became close to the Dalaï Lama, and went on to produce films on Zen Buddhism in Japan and Sufi brotherhoods in Afghanistan. Those films, available today on DVD and videotapes, are considered unique documents. The expeditions enabled Desjardins to spend a lot of time in close contact with some of the greatest teachers of the East and to pursue his spiritual quest while developing a growing reputation in France as a filmmaker and lecturer.
   In 1965, feeling that despite his devotion to Anandamayi Ma, he could not really consider himself as her student, he went, with her blessing, to meet a swami he had only heard about, who lived a reclusive life, away from spiritual curiosity seekers, in the heart of Bengal. Sri Swami Praj-napad, while immersed in Hindu tradition, was a very unorthodox teacher. He advocated a path rooted in non-duality (advaïta) that takes modern psychology into account. Swami Prajnapad was an ardent admirer of Freud, whose works he had studied as early as the 1920s, and had developed an approach through which students could open to their unconscious through private interviews, which he offered every day to one or two students. In that remote ashram, where the teacher was very accessible, spoke fluent English, and had an understanding of Western culture, Desjardins felt he had found his spiritual path. He then embarked on a very intense process with Swami Prajnapad, visiting him every year for one to three months and applying his teaching in daily life.
   In 1971, after going through a crisis in his personal life, Desjardins went to Swami Prajnapad and experienced a deep shift of inner perspec-tive. Now aspiring to a quieter life, he planned to end his professional career as an administrator in French Television, but Swami Prajnapad saw a different future for his student. The guru plainly told him that his true calling lay in passing on the teaching, even if only to a few people. Since a group of people who had seen his films and read his books wanted to embark on the path with him as their guide, Desjardins started planning the opening of what was to be the first French ash-ram, examining it in detail with Swami Prajnapad. Having bought Le Bost, a large but modest house hidden in the heart of Auvergne, Arnaud retired from television and, in 1974, started welcoming a few students, whom he trained in the spirit of what he himself had experienced with Swami Praj-napad. A few weeks after Le Bost opened, Swami Prajnapad passed away in India.
   The ashram was not open to visitors or adver-tised. Nevertheless, word of mouth spread and Desjardins was soon faced with an ever more demanding schedule. Nine years after he had opened Le Bost, after having experienced serious signs of utter exhaustion, he decided to rest for a few months and then open a new, more open ash-ram in the south of France. That was Font d’Isière, which also lasted nine years. Despite the lack of publicity, Arnaud’s reputation as teacher kept growing. In 1987, he and Denise parted ways as husband and wife, although their friendship and collaboration in the work continue to this day. In 1995, at the age of 70, Desjardins embarked on a daring adventure—the foundation of a large ashram under his leadership where others could teach as well, and where many people could study and practice at different levels.
   Surrounding himself with a few senior stu-dents and staff, Desjardins founded Hauteville, in the Ardèche, a place dedicated to traditional SADHANA (spiritual discipline), interreligious dia-logue, and sanctuary for spiritual aspirants. Des-jardins has become the best-known and most respected Hindu teacher in the French-speaking world. Seekers from all over the world travel to Hauteville for retreats where they meet not only Desjardins himself, who still is available, but also his senior students. In 1996, Desjardins married Veronique Loiseleur, one of his long-term col-laborators.
   Today the words of Desjardins are published by Hauteville’s publishing house, La Table Ronde, in Paris. Desjardins travels widely, especially to Quebec, where he has a thriving ashram. Only two of his numerous books have been published in English. He regularly participates in inter-religious dialogue at Karma Ling in the Savoie region of France with Lama Denis Teundroup, a Frenchman given the title of lama in the Tibetan tradition.
   Further reading: Arnaud Desjardins, The Message of the Tibetans. Translated from the French by R. H. Ward and Vega Stewart (London: Stuart and Watkins, 1969); ———, Toward the Fullness of Life: The Fullness of Love (Putney, Vt.: Threshold Books, 1990); ———, Yoga et Spiritualité, l’hindouism et nous (Paris: La Palatine, 1969); Gilles Farcet, Arnaud Desjardins, ou, L’adventure de la Sagesse (Paris: Table Ronde, 1987); ———, The Anti-Wisdom Manual: A Practical Guide to Spiritual Bankruptcy (Prescott, Ariz.: Hohm Press, 2005).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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