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  • Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010):Life and Legacy
  • J. Abraham Vélez de Cea

The interreligious theologian, intercultural philosopher, and pluralist mystic Raimon Panikkar died in Tavertet, Barcelona, on 26 August 2010. He was ninety-one. A pioneer of interreligious dialogue and comparative theology, Panikkar claimed to be at the same time yet without contradiction a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a secular man.

Panikkar's multiple religious belonging was not a matter of choice and shallow eclecticism but rather a matter of personal experience and profound spiritual growth. His distinction between eclecticism and syncretism might be helpful to understand the complex nature of his religious identity. Eclecticism "is an uncritical mixture of religious traditions and an agreement among them obtained by chopping off all possible discrepancies in favor of an amorphous common denominator." On the contrary, syncretism "is allowing for a possible assimilation of elements by virtue of which these elements cease to be foreign bodies so that organic growth within each tradition is possible, and the mutual fecundation of religious traditions becomes a genuine option."1

Another point I would like to clarify is that Panikkar's multiple religious belonging was not a question of being primarily Christian and secondarily something else, as if truth could be quantified. Panikkar objected to this "modern" way of thinking. I remember a conversation with him about this issue in which he compared these attempts to quantify religious identity to those who try to understand the Trinity as being either one or three. He said that if you begin counting you miss the point, and then he added in a defiant tone: "I am 100 percent Christian, 100 percent Hindu, 100 percent Buddhist, and 100 percent secular." When I insisted and told him that for many people multiple religious belonging is just not possible, Panikkar replied: "Well, it is my experience; I cannot help it."

Panikkar's multiple religious belonging was often misunderstood and cost him the distrust of both Christians and Hindus. For instance, in 1966, Panikkar applied for a chair in Hindu philosophy at the prestigious Banaras Hindu University. Though [End Page 215] everybody agreed he was by far the most competent candidate, he was not offered the position because for many conservative Hindus Panikkar was not Hindu enough.

Similarly, many conservative Catholics today would say that Panikkar went too far with his distinction between Christ and the historical Jesus; for them Panikkar was not Christian enough. However, this would be unfair. As I understand Panikkar, he was not trying to undermine any Christian claim. Quite the contrary, he was challenging what he perceived as a tribal Christology and a reduction of Christianity to a two-thousand-year-old sect. Time will tell, like it did with great thinkers such as Nāgārjuna (ca. 150-250), Śaṅ-kara (788-820), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260-1327), who were also criticized at first by their respective traditions. Perhaps Panikkar was simply ahead of his time, and what today seems controversial to some will become the norm in the future; it would not be the first time.

Panikkar was an embodiment of interreligious dialogue, and his theology was the result of such dialogue. He was born in Barcelona on 3 November 1918. His mother was a Catholic from Catalonia, and his father was a Hindu from Kerala, India. After studying philosophy and natural sciences in Barcelona, Madrid, and Bonn, he joined the recently created Opus Dei in 1940. It should be clarified that in the aftermath of the Spanish civil war and compared to the pre-Vatican II National Catholicism of Franco's regime, Opus Dei was a progressive Catholic organization for laypeople interested in sanctifying their professional work.

Panikkar was ordained a Catholic priest in 1946 and became the chaplain of a student dormitory in Madrid (Colegio Mayor la Moncloa). That very year he earned his first doctorate, in philosophy, with a dissertation titled El concepto de naturaleza: Análisis histórico y metafísico de un concepto (Complutense University of Madrid, 1946, published in 1951). He was offered a position at the Complutense University but decided to continue with his pastoral work in Madrid, Barcelona...


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