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Robert Zaehner

1913 to 1974

Robert Charles Zaehner (1913–1974) was a British academic and specialist in Eastern religions. Born and educated in Kent, he was intellectual gifted, particularly with languages from a young age. He attended Christ Church, Oxford, studying Greek and Latin as well as Ancient Persian. From 1936—37 he studied the ancient Iranian language Pahlavi with Sir Harold Bailey at Cambridge. Throughout his career Zaehner was incredibly gifted with languages, able to read Sanskrit, Pali and Arabic as well as other Middle Eastern languages and dialects, both ancient and contemporary.

During World War Two, from 1943 Zaehner served as a British intelligence officer at the Embassy in Tehran, specialising in counter-intelligence and frequently operating behind enemy lines, using his language skills and local knowledge to great effect, remaining as an MI6 officer until 1947. A witty, urbane and popular sophisticate, accustomed to moving in the world of politics, Zaehner was also a keen researcher and popular lecturer, particularly on Zoroastrianism and the philology of ancient languages. In 1952, he was elected as Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, succeeding the celebrated Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. This would be a position he would occupy until his death in 1974.

In 1967—69 he was asked to give the Gifford Lectures at the University of St Andrews, choosing to lecture on the complex and inter-related history of world religions, which was published as Concordant Discord: The Interdependence of faiths in 1970. Whilst fascinated with comparative religion, Zaehner never accepted the idea of a straightforward universalism of world religions. Such a position, he believed, was unable to bring divergent ideas together, as such a synthesis must be based on true understanding. The prevailing academic opinions of the day tended towards ecumenicalism, but Zaehner consistently emphasized the differences between faiths. Rather than follow the naïve syncretism of his peers, he argued that the interactions between faith traditions had been both relatively cross-cultivating as well as fiercely contested.

His reputation rests principally upon his landmark studies of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and mysticism, the last of which he tried to enhance by, like Aldous Huxley, taking mescalin. In addition, his work also featured translations of Hindu scriptures, as well as the mystic tradition in both Catholicism and Hinduism. A Roman-Catholic, he turned to faith during his time in Iran but throughout his work deliberately sought an objective rather than evangelistic tone. In Christianity, Zaehner saw the potential for a kind of mystical union between man and an attentive creator and throughout his life he remained confident and optimistic of greater inter-faith dialogue.


  • Jon Greenaway, Manchester Metropolitan University