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Raimon Panikkar

Professor of Comparative Religion and Philosophy of Religion, University of Madrid
1918 to 2010

Raimon Panikkar was a Roman Catholic priest and theologian who, by merging Hindu and Buddhist thought with Christianity, became a leader of interreligious dialogue. His early commitment to Catholicism and his three doctorates and mastery of Hindu texts led to a significant modern audience for his work and the founding of several interfaith organizations.

Panikkar’s father, a Spaniard by birth, was an Indian of Hindu faith; his mother was a Catalan Catholic. He attended Jesuit schools in Spain. Although he was set to study in Germany during the Spanish Civil War, he returned on the eve of the Second World War and earned his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Madrid in 1946.

In 1940 he met Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei, which inspired him to be ordained in 1946 and work with the conservative clergy-lay group for twenty years. Panikkar also earned a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Madrid in 1958 and one in theology at the Lateran University in Rome in 1961.

He made his first trip to India in 1954 and while studying at the University of Mysore and Banaras Hindu University Panikkar became fascinated by the Hindu scriptures. He also met many Christians interested in contemplative traditions of Eastern religions. As he later wrote: ‘I started as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be a Christian.’ After 1961 he lived in India Rome and the United States.

His dissertation on Christianity and Hinduism, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism (1964, 1981), was an important step in the modern interfaith dialogue. He was a visiting professor at Harvard University from 1966 to 1987, and from 1972 was chair of Comparative Religious Philosophy at the University of California in Santa Barbara, where he also was founded the Center for Cross-Cultural Religious Studies. He led several interfaith groups, including the NGO Pax Romana which had consultative status at the United Nations and UNESCO. He returned to his native Catalonia, Spain in 1987. At the hill town of Tavertet in north of Barcelona he founded his Vivarium Foundation, a center for intercultural studies. He died there in 2010.

Panikkar published around fifty books and contributed to major translations of the Vedas, a body of Hindu scriptures. His books include: The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery (2006); Christophany: The Fullness of Man (2004); Intrareligious Dialogue (1999); Invisible Harmony: Essays on Contemplation (1995); The Cosmotheandric Experience: Emerging Religious Consciousness (1993); Pluralism and Oppression: Theology in World Perspective (1991); Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha (1989); Vedic Experience (1977); and The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man (1973).

  • —L. Witham