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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 10:16 GMT 11:16 UK
The holy man businessman
By Ranvir Nayar in Paris

He owns several successful cloth factories - yet he seldom wears any clothes himself.

Holy man with Tamil Nadu hillside
Lush green, rolling hills surround Mr Fabre's retreat

He is a Hindu holy man, who has renounced the material world - yet he is also a business tycoon who employs thousands of people.

It might sound incredible - but a French citizen in India is living proof that it can be done.

Christian Fabre, or Swami Pranavananda Brahmendra Avadhuta as he is now known, was born in the south of France in 1942.

He became a Hindu holy man, or sadhu, some years ago.

Now he runs an ashram, or a hermitage for holy men, in the south-eastern state of Tamil Nadu, roughly 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Madras, the state capital.

Tough going

But this is only half the story - Mr Fabre also operates a number of cloth mills in southern India.

To those who know Hinduism's holy men to be unworldly sages and ascetics, this may seem a bit strange.

But Mr Fabre sees nothing strange in his parallel business interests - rather, he sees them as an extension of his faith.

French sage with student
The good life: Christian Fabre, or Swami Pranavanda, with a disciple

Back in France, he grew up in a family with ties to the garment industry.

He came to work in India in the 1970s, and fell in love with the place.

"I was so powerfully attracted to India's culture, faith and its people that I cannot bear the thought of going back to France," he says.

Mr Fabre and his family moved to India. Although their new life got off to a good start, the going quickly got tough, until one day, almost all his money had run out.

Not long afterwards, his wife and son left him and returned to France.

Mr Fabre remembers sitting with a cigarette in hand, having lost his job and his family, wondering why this had happened to him.

Faith makes business boom

At the time, his house was opposite that of a Brahmin family. His first exposure to Hinduism came at their hands.

A woman from that house introduced him to a Hindu sage, or swami.

Mr Fabre recalls how, on his way to see this holy man, he came across a man suffering from leprosy. Despite his disease, the man was in high spirits.

I do not keep a single penny for myself. I divide all my profit between my workers.
Mr Fabre
He remembers asking himself, "If this man can manage to be happy, then why can't I?"

After this, he discovered a renewed faith in himself. He bought four sewing machines and secured some orders from a major French clothing company.

Slowly, his business began to grow.

Today, his company, Fashion International, has 35 factories which employ 60,000 people.

The clothes they make are exported to Europe and beyond.

Last year, his company exported 30,000 items of clothing, and was taxed 3,700,000 rupees.

And as his business boomed, Mr Fabre's faith grew stronger. He did not stop taking instruction from his teacher, or guru, and continued searching for answers to his questions.

Saffron in the boardroom

His guru eventually invited him to take up the sanyas - renounce all worldly attachments such as family and money, and focus on the search for enlightenment.

Mr Fabre says, "My guru made me swear, that as a condition of taking up the sanyas, I must also maintain my business. He said that I should not leave behind my work."

Mr Fabre now lives in the ashram in the manner of the other sadhus in his holy order - in the nude. When he leaves the ashram, he dresses in the saffron robes typically worn by Hindu holy men.

Villagers in ashram
Local villagers come to the ashram to use the medical clinic

He also wears the sadhu's saffron robes to his business meetings.

For Mr Fabre, there is no opposition between his business interests and his life as a Hindu holy man.

He does not care for money. "I do not keep a single penny for myself. I divide all my profit between my workers."

And his employees are not the only beneficiaries.

This industrialist holy man has been truly industrious - for the villagers living near his ashram, he has provided running water and improved public hygiene facilities.

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