Raimon Panikkar

by julie swanson

“I left Europe as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.” ~Raimon Panikkar

Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010) was a Roman Catholic theologian who was very influential in encouraging inter-religious dialogue. He was a philosopher, scholar, scientist, teacher, professor, mentor, author, lecturer, poet, mystic… Born in Barcelona to a father who was a Hindu from India and a mother who was a Spanish Roman Catholic, he lived a colorful and important life that lasted almost 92 years.

There’s so much to him that I’ll just summarize the things I’ve learned about him that I found most interesting:

–He was a priest (ordained in 1946) and and a professor of philosophy at the University of Madrid when he traveled to India for the first time in 1954, at age 36. There he studied Indian philosophy and religion at the University of Mysore and Banaras Hindu University, and befriended two Western monks looking for Eastern ways of expressing their Christian beliefs as well. He became fascinated with Hindu scripture and also embraced Buddhism, reconciling many things about those Eastern traditions and Christianity, finding much common ground. It was a spiritually life-changing experience for him, after which he was quoted as saying the above, which I love.

–He earned 3 doctorates, one in philosophy at the University of Madrid in 1946, one in chemistry at the University of Madrid in 1958, and a third in theology, at the Lateran University in Rome in 1961.

–In his dissertation at Lateran, “…Mr. Panikkar argued that Christ, as a universal symbol of the divine and the human intertwined, belonged to the world, not just to Christianity, and could be found under other names in other religions. His dissertation was later published as “The Unknown Christ of Hinduism” (1981).” (taken from a New York Times article/obituary by William Grimes, September 4, 2010; www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/us/05panikkar.html?_r=0)

–He was somewhat paradoxical/controversial in that while he joined the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei in 1940 and was an active member in it for 20 years, he was also a pioneer in suggesting that Christianity ought to open up to other world religions, engage in dialogue, even learn from them. This contradiction did not go unnoticed: while in Jerusalem during 1962, he was called to Rome by Opus Dei founder and director, Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, who expelled him after he was charged with disobedience to the organization.

–In his 70’s he was married in a civil ceremony, at least in part as a protest against the issue of priests and celibacy. The details of the marriage seem to have been kept rather quiet. In what I found on it, no one reveals the full name of the woman or how long they were married. There’s the question of whether they ever actually lived together or only lived together for a short time. One online source refers to it as a “so-called marital relationship” (jesustheliberator.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/obituary-of-prof-raimon-panikkar/). Another (pipaltree.org.in/uploads/Raimundo_Pannikar.pdf) gives his wife’s name as Maria, says she was a novelist who’d suffered from cancer, and that she and Mr. Panikkar adopted a daughter. Though the marriage was known about, he never stopped serving as a priest (it’s said he considered himself a monk) and continued to be a respected Catholic scholar, teacher, speaker, and writer. When asked about the marriage, he supposedly said he felt he’d broken a church rule but not any beliefs of Christianity, though it was said he later considered the marriage an ineffective mistake as far as a protest. But he’d hoped his marriage would be an experiment, a symbol of new possibilities for the priesthood. It sounds like the matter of his marriage was ‘satisfactorily settled’ in Rome, whatever that means (the church annulled it?) and that Raimon Panikkar was happy to have the issue put to rest. I found information on this on three additional websites (ncronline.org/node/20166www.hinduismtoday.com/blogs-news/hindu-press-international/raimon-panikkar–theology-rebel–dies-at-72/10314.html, and www.lifepositive.com/Spirit/Christianity/At_the_cutting_edge_of_Christian_Spirituality72004.asp.)

–Mr. Panikkar became a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School in 1966 and a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1972. From 1966 to 1987 he divided his time between teaching spring semesters in the United States and doing research in India. In 1987 he returned to Spain and and took up residence in the hills north of Barcelona, where he founded the Raimon Panikkar Vivarium Foundation, a center for intercultural studies. There he held courses, seminars, and meetings and continued his studies. Able to converse in many languages and fluent in at least six, he lectured and wrote many books.

–Taken from an National Catholic Reporter article, “Raimon Panikkar, ‘apostle of inter-faith dialogue,’ dies,” by Joseph Prabhu, Aug, 31, 2010, ncronline.org/news/spirituality/raimon-panikkar-apostle-inter-faith-dialogue-dies , I especially like this explanation of his take on inter-faith dialogue:

“…Far from diluting or in any way watering down core Christian beliefs and practices, such dialogue, in addition to fostering inter-religious understanding and harmony provided an indispensable medium for deepening the Christian faith. Such dialogue provides an insight and entry point into other, non-Christian names and manifestations of Christ. This was particularly important for Panikkar because together with other Asian theologians he saw how historical Christianity had attempted, especially during its colonial periods, to convert Christ into an imperial God, with a license to conquer and triumph over other Gods. This for Panikkar is the challenge of the post-colonial period inaugurated in the mid-to-late twentieth century and continuing into our present and the future. In his words, “To the third Christian millennium is reserved the task of overcoming a tribal Christology by a Christophany which allows Christians to see the work of Christ everywhere, without assuming that they have a better grasp or a monopoly of that Mystery, which has been revealed to them in a unique way.”

In 2000, he said, “If the church wishes to live, it should not be afraid of assimilating elements that come from other religious traditions, whose existence it can today no longer ignore.”

I first learned about Raimon Panikkar shortly after he died (August 26, 2010). My mom called and told me she’d heard or read of his passing and that he sounded like someone I’d be interested in and I might want to look him up. When I did, I found his work fascinating. I also found it amazing, and wonderful, that the Catholic church would be liberal enough to continue calling him one of their own.

I checked out his website, www.raimon-panikkar.org/, watched interviews of him on YouTube, and tried to find whatever else I could on him. Turns out he’s written dozens of books I might someday be able to read (they sound pretty scholarly and are written in several different languages). Having him–a well-respected theologian–give validity to so many things I’ve felt and believed but rarely dared to express for fear of the reaction of other Christians, well, it made me think maybe those thoughts weren’t such blasphemous ones after all.

He also believed that we could all get to where we needed to be, spiritually, from whatever religious tradition our origins are rooted in–that questioning and exploring religious beliefs is fine, but that ultimately most people can come back and find what they’re looking for right where they started, that everything can be a path to God, to enlightenment. That’s my take on what I’ve read on him, anyway.

Watching the above YouTube video, you can see was a joyous, energetic, and charismatic person he was. You can see the same video here, anamchara.com/2010/09/03/if-you-be-you-be-and-thats-it/.