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Remembering Raimon Panikkar, Scholar and Interreligious Leader

September 1, 2010

Professor Raimon Panikkar speaks at the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Barcelona

From National Catholic Reporter By Joseph Prabhu Professor Raimon Panikkar, one of the greatest scholars of the 20th century in the areas of comparative religion, theology, and inter-religious dialogue, died at his home in Tavertet, near Barcelona, Spain, Aug. 26. He was 91. Panikkar taught and lived in the United States from 1966-1987 and was known to generations of students here and around the world through both his lectures and his many books. What they heard and read were the arresting reflections of a multi-dimensional person, who was simultaneously a philosopher, theologian, mystic, priest and poet. Panikkar was born the son of an Indian Hindu father and a Spanish Catholic mother Nov. 3, 1918. He received a conventional Catholic education at a Jesuit high school in Barcelona before launching his university studies in the natural sciences, philosophy, and theology, first in Barcelona and then in Madrid. Shortly thereafter, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and Panikkar was able to take advantage of his status as the son of a father who was a British citizen to go to the University of Bonn in Germany to continue his studies. When World War II started in 1939, Panikkar returned to Spain and completed the first of his three doctorates, this one in philosophy, at the University of Madrid in 1946. It was around 1940 that he met Escriva de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei, with whom he had a close relationship. It was at Escriva’s urging that he trained for the Catholic priesthood and was ordained in 1946. Panikkar continued to be associated with Opus Dei for about twenty years, breaking effectively with the organization only in the early 1960s. He was tight-lipped about this period of his life, saying only that he did not regret it. It is clear, however, when one compares the Panikkar of the 1940s and the early 1950s with the later Panikkar better known to the world as a pioneer of inter-religious dialogue, that he had moved a long way from his early roots. In late 1954 when he was already 36, Panikkar visited India, the land of his father, for the first time. It proved to be a watershed, a decisive reorientation of his interests and of his theology. He had entered a dramatically new world, religious and cultural, from the Catholic Europe of his youth. The transformation was aided by his meetings and close friendship with three monks, who like him were attempting to live and to incarnate the Christian life in Indian, predominantly Hindu and Buddhist forms: Jules Monchanin (1895-1957), Henri Le Saux, also know as Swami Abhishiktananda (1910-1973), and Bede Griffiths, the English Benedictine monk (1906-1993). All four of them, in different ways, discovered and cherished the riches and the deep spiritual wisdom of the Indic traditions, and attempted to live out and express their core Christian convictions in Hindu and Buddhist forms. To some extent this multiple belonging was made possible by their embrace of Advaita, the Indic idea of non-dualism, which sees the deep, often hidden, connections between traditions without in any way minimizing the differences between them. One of Panikkar’s many striking sentences looking back on his life’s journey asserts: “I left Europe [for India] as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be a Christian.” … Conversant in a dozen or so languages and fluent in at least six, he traveled tirelessly around the world, lecturing, writing, preaching, and conducting retreats. His famous Easter service in his Santa Barbara days would attract visitors from all corners of the globe. Well before dawn they would climb up the mountain near his home in Montecito, meditate quietly in the darkness once they reached the top, and then salute the sun as it arose over the horizon. Panikkar would bless the elements — air, earth, water and fire — and all the surrounding forms of life — plant, animal, and human — and then celebrate Mass and the Eucharist. It was a profound “cosmotheandric” celebration with the human, cosmic, and divine dimensions of life being affirmed, reverenced, and brought into a deep harmony. The celebration after the formal service at Panikkar’s home resembled in some respects the feast of Pentecost as described in the New Testament, where peoples of many tongues engaged in animated conversation. At the center of these celebrations, retreats, and lectures stood Panikkar himself and his arresting personality. People who heard or encountered him could not help but be struck by this physically small man who packed a punch and who managed to combine the quiet dignity of a sage, the profundity of a scholar, the depth of a contemplative, and the warmth and charm of a friend in his sparkling personality. Click here to read the entire article.