Man of faiths

Raimon PanikkarLast Thursday, at 4.15pm local time, in the beautiful village of Tavertet in the north of Spain, a great man died. Other theological luminaries have called him ‘a pioneer of inter-religious dialogue', ‘one of the world's most important philosophers of religion', ‘a true spiritual giant of our times'. While the man himself eschewed such epithets, and such descriptions of holy men are often exaggerations, in his case they are patently true.

Raimon Panikkar was born on 3rd November, 1918 into a family of mixed race and religion. His mother was Catholic, from Catalonia, the north-east region of Spain, where he grew up, and his father was Indian Hindu from Kerala in the south of the subcontinent.

It was not only his mixed ethnic and religious background which prepared him for his profound inter-religious journey. He had a formidable intellect and was a polymath. He gained three doctorates: the first in philosophy (1946); the second in science, in chemistry (1958); and the third in theology (1961), with his doctoral thesis becoming his first well known book entitled The Unknown Christ of Hinduism. He spoke some dozen languages, and wrote his many books (around 60 titles) and articles in six of them: in Catalan, Spanish, French, German, Italian and English.

In 1955, as a young Catholic priest, Panikkar went to live in India, not as a missionary, but as a pioneer in the wave of Western Christian academics who went to study Eastern religious traditions. He lived and worked in a number of centres in India, including its holiest city, Varanasi. There he lived at Hanumanghat right on the banks of the Ganges, where his house overlooked the riverside terraces that are used for cremations, and the sacred river itself.

He mastered Sanskrit and Pali, the ancient languages of Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. He embarked on a huge work of commentary and translation of the oldest and most central of these, the Vedas, a task that took ten years. It resulted in an acclaimed book of 1000 pages, highly regarded even by Hindu scholars, called Mantramanjari: The Vedic Experience.

In 1967 he was invited to become Professor of Comparative Theology at the prestigious Harvard University in the USA, and he taught there till 1972. He then moved to the University of California at Santa Barbara where he remained till 1987. During this period, he frequently visited India, and was in demand as guest lecturer at universities in the UK, Europe and Latin America. In 1987, on his retirement, he returned to live in Spain, in Tavertet in the mountains outside Barcelona.

His journey amongst the great world religions was not just an academic exercise. It profoundly affected, and, in turn, was guided by his personal beliefs and spirituality. He may have had the head of a rigorous scholar, but at heart he was a mystic and contemplative. In him, these two modes of being and experiencing the world merged into a harmonious and productive unity.

On his return to Europe after many years absence, when asked about his faith pilgrimage, he answered with this now famous and often quoted reply, ‘I left as a Christian, I found myself a Hindu, and I return a Buddhist, without having ceased to be a Christian.' This statement of his own multiple religious belonging is just one of many challenging insights and ideas that he wrote about with passion and eloquence.

Perhaps his three best known books that express his core theology are The Intra-Religious Dialogue (1978), Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics: Cross-Cultural Studies (1979) and The Cosmotheandric Experience: Emerging Religious Consciousness (1993). Together they describe the emerging pluralistic world in which we live, and provide a cogent framework for dealing with it in a productive way.

A good summary of the significance of Panikkar comes from the late American theologian Ewert Cousins. He argued we are in a period of deep change in religion, and used the term ‘mutation' in history to refer to times when there is a quantum leap forward. He saw the era of globalisation since World War II as bringing about such a mutation into a ‘global matrix of cultures'. He saw Panikkar as being at the forefront of this transformation, that he was already living in this new future.

Among those who have made the transition, some become mediators of the future for the others who can make the passage. These mutational men may return from the future to draw others from the past across the abyss of the present and into the mutational world of the future. I suggest that Panikkar is such a 'mutational man', one in whom the global mutation has already occurred and in whom the new forms of consciousness have been concretised.

I had the privilege to meet Panikkar three times in his latter years. The final occasion was in 2008 when I made a documentary for ABC TV's Compass that followed Aboriginal elder, Joan Hendriks as she attended an inter-religious conference in Venice marking his ninetieth birthday. The film portrays him at home in Tavertet, gives a flavour of what he was like as a person, and shows how he was revered by those who knew and loved him.

Though frail and in his nineties, Raimon Panikkar worked right till the end. His last book, The Rhythm of Being, an updated version of his acclaimed Gifford Lectures that he delivered in 1989, was published just weeks ago. His funeral will take place on Friday, 3rd September, at the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat in the mountains west of Barcelona near his final much loved home in Tavertet.
Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who also produces video content for Eureka Street. The thought of Raimon Panikkar was the subject of his Masters thesis.



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Existing comments

Thank you Peter for reminding us of this wonderful man As you said, he is a truly towering figure and it is only with historical perspective that people will come to realize the importance of Panikkar as we struggle to gain perspective in emerging inter-religious world.

Paul Collins | 01 September 2010  

Bit hard to say how anybody could be a Christian and a Hindu or Buddhist simultaneously given that the former is polytheist and the latter atheist.

Sylvester | 01 September 2010  

A compelling eulogy. I had never heard of Raimon Pannikar. I've just read a 2003 presentation on him by a Gerard Hall SM at His lifetime thought and insights would require some lengthy reflection to understand and share them adequately. Curiously, I have also just been reading Karen Armstrong's description/account of the apophatic tradition in the West in her "The Case for God" so some of the things Gerard explains, such as Pannikar's cosmotheandric vision, are graspable, intellectually if not yet more profoundly. I look forward to reading one of his works in full.

Stephen Kellett | 01 September 2010  

A bit hard for some, Sylvester, if they are caught in rigid categorisations like those you suggest! Particularly if they insist that Hinduism (or was it Christianity?) is polytheistic, which is a shallow characterisation indeed for a religion that includes the sophistication of Vedanta, and that Buddhism is 'atheist'. The latter may be 'technically' correct ('not theistic') but very misleading, suggesting as it does that the views of the Dalai Lama are similar to those of Richard Dawkins! Dig a bit deeper, and you might see things rather differently.

Keith Price | 01 September 2010  

It is gratifying to see a practical example where each expression of Faith, in its cultural context,is not so dischordant from the others that a person cannot bridge the gap. In fact, this seamless transfer to express Faith in different terms should remind us of that which is common to all expressions of Faith... how people can live together in civilisation.

Bob GROVES | 01 September 2010  

Not rigid categorisations, Keith Price, just clear thinking. It makes no sense to affirm at the one and the same time that there is one God, many gods and no God (or gods). Nothing in my comment suggested denial of the sophistication of Hindu philosophy. Nor did I suggest that the Dalai Lama and Richard Dawkins have the same point of view. Atheism is a broad church.

Sylvester | 01 September 2010  

Thank you for a perceptive account of one of the great religious thinkers of our time. Panikkar's background, experience and research led him to see where the human spirit is is being led. That we may follow in wisdom!

Bede Heather | 01 September 2010  

Your clear thinking, Sylvester, has resulted in paradox, citing the notion of one God, many gods and no God (or gods). Does that not suggest or invite application of the practices of Zen Buddhism? Paradox is neither unknown nor insurmountable to Humanity. The competing particle versus wave paradigms for electromagnetic theory is testament to that fact. Rather than striving to bridge the gap with clear thinking, would this resultant paradox not be the opportunity to recognise a paradigm shift, such that efforts to simultaneously bridge the terms of both theologies will always result in logical inconsistencies. It's a wasted effort... like arguing about the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin.

Bob GROVES | 01 September 2010  

Ah, Sylvester, the 'clarity' you claim is heavily dependent on having clear (!) and agreed definitions for terms like 'God'. You would be right that some of the more traditional and rigid versions of Christianity, Hinduism and even Buddhism would have difficulty finding deeper places of agreement. If I understand at all what is being said of Panikkar, he was not that kind of theologian or traditional religionist, but penetrated to the shared sacred reality which the various historic religions have conceptualised in various different ways.

The point is that the conceptualisations are not fixed any more, and there is a growing appreciation that the contradictions are, or can be, actually more apparent than real. As for atheism being a broad church, how broad can you get? Buddhists believe in a basically spiritual reality (however not personal or beyond personal that might be understood to be), but 'scientific materialists' like Dawkins believe the universe to be basically blind, purposeless matter. No dharma there! That gulf is far wider than that between the major religions.

Keith Price | 01 September 2010  

Paradox I can deal with, Bob, but not logical contradiction.

PS - the well-worn comment about angels on a pin head first appears in modern Protestantism as a way of trying to discredit 'useless' scholastic theology. It was not actually a question debated by the scholastics, not in that form anyway. The scholastics did ask some pretty weird questions but always for the purpose of advancing theological understanding. The answer, by the way, is - paradoxically (that word, again!) - that no angel can 'fit' on a pin head or, alternatively, an infinity of them can because angelic nature does not have extension.

Sylvester | 01 September 2010  

My interest in Fr Pannikar's statement about his multi-faith position is not concerned with definitions of God but rather with the internal coherence of propositions. It is a nonsense to hold, as Fr Pannikar appears to, that one can simultaneously affirm (1) that there is only one God (theism - Christianity), (2) that there are many gods (polytheism - Hindusim) and (3) that there is no God or gods (atheism - Buddhism).

Sylvester | 02 September 2010  

Loved the article ,we are all one ,there is only one religion -the religion of love,thank you for the reminder.

Margaret Kelly | 02 September 2010  

Sylvester, I got your point about 'internal coherence of propositions' at once. I don't know how you can separate that objection from the issue of definitions of terms like 'God' in this context, particularly as you want to, in effect, say 'Bah humbug!' to the life work of someone like Panikkar who claims to be able to reconcile the major religions! You can't get to first base on the issue of coherence until you are clear about what you are meaning to assert by the various terms you use.

In your case, I recommend a modicum of that humility which is willing to concede that you may not already know what the answer is, or even what the right question to ask is!

Keith Price | 02 September 2010  

I believe God continues to send angels among us - the difficulty is to recognise them. For me Raimon Panikkar is such an angel - a messenger used by God to prod intellectuals, mainly professional theologians, towards accepting that God does not want to be categorised. God delights in the spiritual quest of all men and women. There are many paths up the holy mountain. Some of us are so intent on our own path with our own company that we do not see or can be bothered to recognise other groups of climbers.
As for climbers on the other side of the mountain - well obviously they are lost in perpetual shadows and darkness - or so we think.

Raimon Panikkar was (and in his writings still is) a Christian guide who, like the Lord he followed, wanted to make the whole of mankind aware of the inexhaustibe incomprehensible and universal magnetism of God'd love.

Uncle Pat | 02 September 2010  

Sylvester, logical contradiction serves as an endpoint that needs consideration and interpretation from various perspectives. [Remember that theologies are passed from generation to generation and may be embellished with logical inconsistencies that will atrophy with time]. Each theology, as a body of logic, may be predominantly consistent internally, but not consistent between each theology. This logical approach should invite deeper investigation of the elements of each theology, as they apply to the culture that perpetuates them, rather than prompting rejection of one or all theologies.

Bob GROVES | 02 September 2010  

'Bah, humbug' is your expression, Keith Price, not mine.

A definition of God that matches the reality is, of course, quite impossible. St Thomas Aquinas, as a child, asked 'WHAT is God?' and soon realised that the answer lies forever beyond the grasp of any created mind, even with the illumination of the beatific vision.

Our seeking knowledge of God, is almost like groping around in the dark, but not quite because revelation and philosophy can tell us some things about what God must be like, even if most of them are negations rather than affirmations.

It is precisely for that reason, that the insights of all religious - and non-religious! - traditions are to be welcomed.

I agree that we need to be clear about what we are meaning to assert by the various terms we use. My initial point was that Father Pannikar's position, as reported by Dr Kirkwood, lacks this clarity. What does HE mean when he says, 'I left as a Christian, I found myself a Hindu, and I return as a Buddhist, without having ceased to be a Christian'? I have no difficulty with a Christian being influenced by Hindu and Buddhist insights, a Hindu being influenced by Christian and Buddhist insights or a Buddhist being influenced by Christian and Hindu insights. But I do have a problem with someone claiming to be, simultaneously, a Christian, a Hindu and a Buddhist. I also have a problem with the simultaneous affirmations that there is one God, there is no God and there are many Gods, if the word 'God' is being used univocally.

Sylvester | 02 September 2010  

Hi Sylvester. Indeed it was, but the feeling behind it was in your declaration that Fr Pannikar seemed to be peddling 'nonsense'. My point might be put as that you don't actually know enough about it to assert that, particularly if you haven't read anything he has written! I am glad to agree substantially with your points about Aquinas, the difficulties of positive knowledge of God and the necessities of learning from all traditions. Indeed, the main sticking point seems to be that you can't imagine how someone can be a Christian, Hindu and Buddhist simultaneously. Maybe you should read what he has to say and find out how he managed it, rather than ruling the possibility out a priori?

Furthermore your 'problem with the simultaneous affirmations that there is one God, there is no God and there are many Gods, if the word 'God' is being used univocally' is one you have brought TO the article, as I can't see where Panikkar asserts this. You are just assumung that he must, based on your understanding of the traditions. Personally I don't see the necessity at all.

Keith Price | 02 September 2010  

Sylvester, I can't imagine what your actual problem or difficulty is, other than you are unable to make sense of a different way of looking at things and feel threatened by it. This is where I think Uncle Pat's comments are pertinent. If what we believe is God is beyond cogent, complete or accurate expression, then it seems a very easy thing to accept that whatever logic, metaphysics or cosmology we have been inculturated with is simply an incomplete, often even misleading system by which we think about such ideas. Mystics and contemplatives often explain that they go beyond customary rationality to reach their insight and experience. Kant's concept of transcendenal idealism whereby our rational minds were only capable of perceiving phenomena, not noumena, seems remarkably consistent with the idea by people like Denys the Areopagite that our contemplation of what we thought was and was not God led to a silence of denial of what we both would affirm or deny. From what I have gleaned so far, Raimon Panikkar's insights led him to be able to say what he said. Your commitment to an inflexible and particular logic may be preventing you from being open to learning newer and potentially richer and more wordless spiritual insights.

Stephen Kellett | 02 September 2010  

Stephen, I praise you for your eloquence. {Thank you for 'noumena']. My personal conceptualisation of this thing we vaguely call 'God' is founded on terminology and methods derived from mathematics, rather than philosophy.

Consider the premise that 'God' is multidimensional [one of which is time] and we are limited in the aspects to which we may perceive.

Consider the premise that Man is made in the image of 'God' [Genesis 1:26]. This could be recognised as another dimension [or set of dimensions].

In this model, a growing Knowledge of 'God' would be gained as the history of Mankind unfolded.

It's just a thought.

Bob GROVES | 03 September 2010  

R.I.P to a great man.

Matthew Howard | 03 September 2010  

Keith - I did not say that Pannikar was 'peddling' anything. You need to check the accuracy of your language. Nor did I say that Pannikar speaks 'nonsense'. What I said is that, if his statement about being a Christian, Hindu and Buddhist is to be taken to mean that one can believe at the one and the same time that there is one God, there is no God and there many Gods, the word 'God' being taken univocally, then such a statement is illogical: the propositions, (1), There is an A, (2) there is not an A and (3) there are many As, cannot coherently be held at the one and the same time. You're right, I can't imagine how one can be a Christian, a Hindu and a Buddhist at the same time if by that is meant that one accepts simultaneously the principal credal elements of all three religions. Some of those elements are mutually exclusive. I have no difficulty with a Christian being profoundly influenced by other religious traditions. Christianity, after all, is itself an offshoot of Judaism.

Stephen - logic comes only in 'particular' systems. There is no such thing as abstract logic. Logic is also, by nature, 'inflexible'. That is why it is certain and reliable. Mathematical systems are also inflexible. Do not forget that theology is a science as well as an art. I think you are mixing up different disciplines within theology - the ascetical (mysticism) and the dogmatic (discursive) I guess now I will be set upon for using the word 'dogmatic'. In its proper sense, a dogma is a truth that we know from divine revelation. Yes, truth, too, is inflexible - 'sharper than any two-edged sword'.

Sylvester | 03 September 2010  

Thank you, Bob. Your thought is indeed "thought-provoking! I don't pretend to much of an understanding of either mathematics or physics, but I am conscious that our tendency to conceive of things as static or fixed and discrete and our inability to grasp, in imaginative terms, non-time or variable time, and nothing, does not square with the sort of mathematical ontology - if that is an appropriate or useful term - both relativity and quantum mechanics describe. I was fortunate to read "The Fabric of the Cosmos" by Brian Greene (Penguin): an eye-opener for a layperson. Your idea of an evolving "knowledge" of God seems to me to fit in very nicely with the expansion of the universe and the fact that, within the parameters of scale and scope of the so far observed physical universe, we humans represent - if I have the proportions roughly right - something of the size of an atom of the Sun. Compared with this, sectarian or inter-religious one-upmanship seems worse than futile. I definitely intend to read Raimon Panikkar!

Stephen Kellett | 03 September 2010  

Raimon Panikkar is well known for his contributions to inter-religious, inter-faith dialogue. I know Panikkar as the theologian whose theological anthropology provided the reference frames for my doctoral dissertation: "A Practical Theology of Mental Health". His limitless embrace of human religious and spiritual experience allowed me to explain that a spiritual experience - mental illness - was being hear and misinterpreted by secular ears.

Panikkar's contribution to the human family as family will, I believe, go on long after his death. He left us a pround legacy.

Emma Pierce PhD | 07 September 2010  

I think Keith is confusing "rigid categorisations" with doctrinal axioms. Christianity is theistic, and Buddhism atheistic, I think Sylvester is right, bit hard to define someone as being both a theist and an atheist at the same time.

sakredkow | 07 September 2010  

Peter, thanks for this balanced, thoughtful reflection. Not everybody writing lately about Panikkar's demise – or, more importantly, his life – has got their third eye quite so open.

Compliments also for Auntie Joan goes to Venice, which I finally caught online. Very nicely done.

Scott Eastham | 08 September 2010  

Emma Pierce, your reference to the spiritual experience of mental illness reminds me of Robert M. PIRSIG and "Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance" (1974) and "Layla: An Inquiry into Morals" (1991). As I understand it, Pirsig was a highly intelligent sufferer who formulated a philosophy from which he gained respect in his expertise. [Pirsig's observations are insightful]. From this has sprung the Metaphysics of Quality.

Bob GROVES | 08 September 2010  

Sylvester, I did not put quote marks around 'peddling', so I am not saying you used that particular word! You said 'It is a nonsense to hold...'. Metaphorically, 'holding an idea' in a publication is equivalent to 'selling' it, or even 'peddling' it. To object to my saying this is what we call 'quibbling'.

As to your more substantive points, the stuff about 'A' and 'not A' etc is not in dispute. Obviously, Panikkar must think that, insofar as 'God' is being used in these different faith contexts, the meanings are not necessarily univocal. And I think he can make a very good case for that. In that context, it seems to me very misleading to talk of the 'principal credal elements' of Hinduism or Buddhism. These are not very 'creedal' religions, particularly Buddhism, which has a very heavy emphasis on experience and verification. Morever, as I noted before, calling Hinduism 'polytheistic' is not correct for Vedanta, and the sense in which Buddhism may be 'atheistic' needs very careful explication.

Can't let your equating of 'ascetical' with 'mysticism' and 'dogmatic' with 'discursive' pass, either. Asserting a truth from revelation is not being 'discursive', and many mystics are not ascetics.

Keith Price | 09 September 2010  

Sakredkow, I am not sure I know what you mean by 'doctrinal axioms' if you don't mean something very like my 'rigid categorisations'. I have already remarked more than once on this site that to call Hinduism 'polytheistic' and Buddhism 'atheistic' are dubious and unclear characterisations. Christian dogma is also capable of many different interpretations, and so harmonising the three cannot be ruled out a priori, as Sylvester wants to do.

Keith Price | 09 September 2010  

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