It's a common enough tale: European comes to India to make money, finds religion, ends up staying. But not everyone takes this awakened spirituality seriously enough to renounce worldly ties and turn to asceticism. And almost no one runs an internationally successful company after that.

A Frenchman named Christian Fabre came to India 33 years ago as a buyer for a Franco-Belgian company. Today, the Frenchman lives as a sky-clad ascetic in the Kolli Hills, is known as Swami Pranavananda Brahmendra Avadutta, and exports clothes to clients in Europe.

In March, Science & Theology News' Chhavi Sachdev met Pranavananda, the saffron-robed CEO of Fashions International, at his company's head office in Chennai, India.

Excerpted from a longer interview with permission of Science & Theology News.

Your success seems to be in timing and your product. Did luck play a role?

I strongly believe that there is no such thing as luck. First is your actions and then the will of God to show back to you the results of your actions, good or bad. Karma is the result of your actions, good or bad. Fate, no. What is fate? Fate is a Christian terminology. There is always a reason for something.

Were you not raised Christian?

I nearly became a Catholic priest. I escaped because my father, who was a communist in those days, said, "No way, I will not have a child become a priest in my family."

Were you always interested in religion?

It was just a part of life, but I think inside me that interest in the "Who I am" question was always lingering. When you lose a job, you divorce, the company collapses and you are not so young anymore, in a foreign land, in a foreign culture, it's a shake - a tremendous shake in a person. So much that you ask the question, "Why me?"

What about Hinduism?

I started doing yoga, and I had to stop smoking. I could not do both. My yoga teacher was an unusual person. The physical well-being, according to him, will come anyway, but it's not the main subject. The main subject for yoga is to yog. Yog means to connect.
At the same time, my Brahmin neighbor's father gave me a book to read. That was my first spiritual book. It was the gospel of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and that was really the spark. That book was not long enough. When I closed it, I said, "Oh, why is it over?" So I went to other books until one day when my yoga teacher said, "If you want, I will introduce you to my mahant." Do you know what's a mahant? I think mahant is more than a guru; it has a higher connotation than guru.

It was a four-hour bus ride in the month of May. It was so hot, uncomfortable and dusty.

Soon after that, I found myself in front of a person who was radiating a very strong personality, aura. What shocked me about this man, though he had a great smile and a great personality, was that he did not have either hands or feet. So I watched this man and was saying to myself, "Here I am crying to myself when I have a head, two feet and two hands, functioning well. Why am I crying over myself when this man has nothing?" So he must be having a secret, so I wanted to know it - the fire of a guy like this. What I understood from him was that this body has no importance.

It is not that because he has no hands and no feet, he doesn't have any knowledge. He still has the knowledge. He knows that he is not the body, so if he is not the body, then what is he? And I knew then that he was That, with a big T, the Ultimate.

So what happened next?

I kept on visiting him because I could not stay with him. He didn't have the facilities. I had to sleep outside on the ground on a little mat. Mosquitoes, heat, no fan and, of course, language problems because I did not know Tamil to that extent. But talking is not necessary sometimes. His presence was enough because he has such a strong personality.

I understood that this man will be able to show me the way. I also learned that the guru just shows you the way, but eventually the shishya [disciple] has to move, not the guru. And then I moved. So I kept visiting him regularly.

Then one good day, both of them, my yoga guru and he, said, "We think you are ready now for a higher step. Would you be interested to take sannyas [monkhood]?"

I did not think. I just said yes. Then he told me: "Okay, but one thing is very important. You have technical knowledge; you should not drop it and roam around or spend all your life in caves. No, instead of that, you should continue the business you are doing, but you should not own anything. You should not sign any contracts. And likewise, you will be able to give to many people the opportunity to better their life and to earn a good living."

This is what I am doing. So what you see here is not mine: This office is not my office. I don't even own this body, so I cannot own this.

Many people ask me the question that you are surely going to ask me: How can you be at the same time a businessman and a swami, a Hindu monk? I will tell you the answer.

You can be spiritual all the time, and you cannot be a businessman all the time. I am spiritual all the time, and I am a businessman time to time. So I'm like an actor. In the morning, I put my makeup on and I go onstage.

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