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Man of faiths

  • 01 September 2010
Last 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