Raimon Panikkar: A Peripatetic Hindu Hermes

Purushottama Bilimoria, Devasia Muruppath Antony

Purushottama Bilimoria

Ph.D., Distinguished Teaching & Fulbright Research Fellow, Graduate Theological Union & University of California @ Berkeley, USA; School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Address: Center for Dharma Studies, 2400 Ridge Road, Berkeley, CA 94709, USA.

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Devasia Muruppath Antony

M.Phil., Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Hindu College, University of Delhi, India.

Address: Sudhir Bose Marg, Hindu College, University Enclave, Delhi, 110007, India.

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Abstract: This paper is an attempt to map the philosophical and soteriological horizons of the thought-world of Raimon Panikkar who ― we claim in this paper ― is quintessentially and uniquely a Hindu peripatetic philosopher. In trying to locate the ‘Hindu’ character of Panikkar’s philosophical thinking, the focus is on the civilizational matrix called ‘Hinduism’ which is at once metaphysical and mythico-logical, existential and ethical, ecological and ecumenical. In a significant sense this is what prompted Panikkar to develop a hermeneutic of dialogue between the Abrahamic and the Indic, more specifically, the worldviews of the Christian, Buddhist, and the Hindu. A phenomenological analysis of the ‘life-world ’of Christians in South India will attest to this. In this philosophical and soteriological journey, Panikkar identifies various problems encountered in comparative philosophy and religion. He argues for the case of what he calls imparative philosophy which employs diatopical hermeneutics in etching the contours for a meaningful dialogue among the various civilizations, religions and philosophies of the world.

Key words: Raimon Panikkar, Hindu Philosophy, Advaita, Shruti tradition, imparative philosophy, diatopical hermeneutics, dialogue.

Received at February 19, 2019.

How to cite: Bilimoria, Purushottama; Antony, Devasia Muruppath (2019). Raimon Panikkar: A Peripatetic Hindu Hermes. Researcher. European Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences, 3 (2), 9–29.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.32777/r.2019.2.3.1  

Copyright © 2019 Authors retain the copyright of this article. This article is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


What thing I am I do not know.
I wander secluded, burdened by my mind.
When the Firstborn of Truth has come to Me
I receive a share in that selfsame Word[1].

 Ŗg Veda I, 164, 37

The dilemma is not whether to choose the Monastery or the Ballroom, Hardwar (sic) or Chanakyapuri (Vatican or Quirinal), Tradition or Progress, Politics or Academia, Church or State, Justice or Truth. In a word reality is not matter of either-or, spirit or matter, contemplation or action, written message or living people, East or West, theory or praxis or, for that matter, the divine or the human. Indeed, perhaps the fundamental insight <...> is that there is no essence without existence, no existence without an essence.

Raimundo Panikkar (2006 [1977], p. xxxvi)


The aim of this paper[2] is to engage the ‘Hindu’ character of the philosophical thinking that has found its dwelling place in the trajectories of the multifaceted intellectual life embodied by arguably one of twentieth century’s most creative and challenging dāranik-parivrājaka or peripatetic hermes ― Raimon Panikkar. The word ‘Hindu’ is used here in an ecumenical sense: having its roots in the ‘Sindhu’ river signifying the incessant flow of water ― one of the five primal elements of existence, pañca-mahābhūta ― criss-crossing in incessant mutual fecundation and evocatively inviting the inquirer, the jijñāsu, the pilgrim-philosopher to drink deep from the wells of the civilizational matrix called Hinduism. The use of epithet parivrājaka[3] is intended to qualify the uniquely itinerant, wandering or peripatetic and the joyful ascetic monk that Raimon Panikkar as even as he found his habitat in the locus philosophicus of what one might call the l[4] of the womb of generativity and blessed simplicity in a radical philosophy. In his own words (Panikkar 1982, pp. 6, 10):

Since my early youth I have seen myself as a monk, but one without a monastery, or at least without walls other than those of the entire planet. And even these, it seems to me, has to be transcended ― probably by immanence ― without a habit, or at least without vestments other than those worn by the human family. Yet even these vestments had to be discarded because all cultural clothes are only partial revelations of what they conceal; the pure nakedness of total transparency only visible to the simple eye of the pure in heart. <...> By monk, monachos, I understand that person who aspires to reach the ultimate goal of life with all his being by renouncing all that is not necessary to it.

These words of Raimundo Panikkar go a long way to enable the reader to make sense of an otherwise largely incomprehensible narrative to many an outsider, the distinctively choreographed contours of a unique ‘life of mind’ that Raimon Panikkar embodied. Born as a son to Ramunni Panikkar, hailing from an orthodox Hindu Nair family at Mannarkkad, near Palaghat in Kerala, and Carmen, a Roman Catholic woman from Spain, earned three doctorates: in Philosophy (1946) and in Chemistry (1958) from Madrid, and in Theology (1961) from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the Roman Catholic Religious Congregation called ‘Opus Dei’ in 1946; arrived in India in 1954, and was the first incardinated catholic priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh in north India situated on the banks of the river Gaṅgā (Ganges). Later he left the religious congregation ‘Opus Dei’ to immerse himself completely in the Trisangam[5] of Vedānta, especially of the Advaita variety, at the ghāṭs on the river Gaṅgā[6] in Banaras/ Varanasi/ Kashi as well as signing up as a ‘research fellow’ at Banaras Hindu University (under the towering scholars T. R. V. Murti and J. L. Mehta, a Vedāntic-Heideggerean).

He became an Indian citizen, but then left Banaras, his advaita-home, to become a professor in the United States, first at Harvard and then in University of California, Santa Barbara. After his retirement in 1987, he finally moved to an ‘ashram’ ― the Raimon Panikkar Vivarium Foundation ― a centre for inter-cultural studies built on a hilltop at Tavertet in Catalonia, Spain, an act indicative of his intimate living through the fourfold āśrama-stages of life according to the classical Hindu imaginary: brahmacarya, ghastha, vānaprastha and sannyāsa. No mean achiever, he had authored more than 50 books and 900 articles; and, finally, in his own words, he “was the first catalan, the first spaniard, the first Indian, and, with one exception from the Middle East, the first Asian” to have delivered the most celebrated Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1989 (Panikkar 2010, p. xxv).

The Immersion at the Trisangam of Advaita at Mā Gaṅgā and the Cloud of Knowing and Unknowing

The aforesaid remarks should help us locate, I believe, the trajectories of the ‘Hindu’ philosophical character of Panikkar’s intellectual pilgrimage. This becomes very evident when he is reported to have exclaimed not long after he had authored the magnum opus The Vedic Experience: Mantramañjari, “I then discovered my father’s religion, Hinduism” (Carrara Pavan 2014, p. 18).

Here the emphasis would be to delineate the philosophical nuances of Panikkar’s thought-world, the parivrājaka, stoical-peripatetic-hermes, upon having discovered Hinduism. We want to metaphorize such a unique discovery made by Panikkar by terming it as his immersion at the Trisangam of Advaita at Mā Gagā. Such an immersion, we wish to argue, cannot but take the parivrājaka-philosopher to the very womb of the metaphysical, epistemological and ethical vicāra-mārga that has been the very umbilical cord of Hinduism since antiquity. This to our mind can be epitomized in the twofold philosophical inquiry that the Indic-Upaniṣadic mind has engaged in perennially: Ko aham? ― who am I? which constitutes the primal ontological query ― and its logical corollary: Kenesitam? ― by whom? These aphoristic interrogative inquiries are at once metaphysical and epistemological, ethical and existential, soteriological and ecological in nature and they take us to the root of the problematic of knowing from words ― śabda pramāa (more of which shortly) ― which we would like to characterize in the Panikkarian fashion as ‘the cloud of knowing and unknowing’.

Underscoring the importance of Vedas, Upaniṣads, and Advaita for a global revisioning of philosophy, Panikkar (2006 [1977], p. xxxv) in the Vedic Experience makes an attempt to render Śruti in a more contemporary light, as when he ruminates:

What would you save from a blazing house? A precious, irreplaceable manuscript containing a message of salvation from mankind, or a little group of people menaced by the same fire? <...> if I am not ready to save the manuscript from the fire, that is, if I do not take my intellectual vocation seriously, putting it before everything else even at the risk of appearing inhuman, then I am also incapable of helping people in more concrete and proximate ways. Conversely, if I am not alert and ready to save people from a conflagration <...> then I shall be unable to help in rescuing the manuscript.

Our contention is that if the much celebrated magnum opus of Panikkar, namely Vedic Experience: Mantramañjari, could possibly be seen as a testament which echoes the thundering ‘cloud of knowing’ that grew out of his engagement with the Hindu Śruti (directly received) as well as Smti (derivative) traditions during his tapasya (contemplative ascetism) at the Ganges’ ghāts, then his much talked-about Gifford lectures The Rhythm of Being ― which is a product of his dialogical dialogue with the pulsating global spirit of ānvīkikī set in the environs of Vivarium ― possibly incarnates the silent ‘cloud of unknowing’. And one gets an insight into this in his Upaniṣadic epilogue to the book. Here it is significant to note that in the intertwining world of the Upaniṣads, ṛṣi (‘seer’) Yājñavalkya is said to have given this instruction to his wife Maitreyi: ātmā vāre dṛṣṭavya, śrotavyo, mantavyo nididhyāsitavyo, Maitreyi (“The Self, my dear Maitreyi, should be realised, should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon”).

The significant ‘Hindu’ character of Raimon Panikkar’s philosophic quest lies in his attempted life-long response to the philosophical-cum-soteriological challenge advanced by the ṛṣi (seer) Yājñavalkya in the famous Upaniṣadic dialogue. The axiomatic imperative posed by Yajñavalkya encompasses, to our understanding, the soulful symphony of the two allegedly disparate classical philosophical traditions of India: the āstika and nāstika darśanas with the solitary exception in a fundamental sense of the Cārvāka (materialist) school of thought. And Panikkar’s word and world in an embryonic sense was a celebratory response to this philosophical challenge. He wasn’t just another ‘Western kind of Rishi’ as J. L. Mehta had described Martin Heidegger; the true ṛṣi (seer), he averred, has to be discovered; the task of discovering the ṛṣi is still incomplete (Panikkar 1993, p. xv). We may need new ṛṣis-pravarājakas, and they may come from foreign lands, or even from the diaspora to boot.

Hinduism’s Enculturation of Indian Christianity: ‘the Un-known Christ of India’

I ‘left’ Europe [for India] as a christian,
‘found’ myself a hindu, and
 ‘returned’ a buddhist,
without ever having ceased to be a christian.

Raimundo Panikkar (1999, p. 42)

In this part of the article we wish to explore what the discovery of Hinduism ― whether his father’s or from within his own tapasaya-vicāra­ (renunciant thought-process) ― meant in terms of the faith-tradition, i.e. Christianity, the young Raimundo had grown up in the years prior to his arrival at the ashighāṭs (sacrificial banks) of Varanasi. Panikkar was aware of the long-and-winding history of Christianity in the subcontinent, allegedly from the time St. Thomas who is said to have brought Christianity to India, followed by Syriac-Coptics and the Portuguese, not to mention St. Xavier in the early XVI century.

Christianity arrived and flourished in an ambience of a broad-based Hindu Indic culture with an antiquity dating back a few millennia, in the same way as “one religion may shape, fecundate or influence several cultures, [so] one culture can host more than one religion” (Panikkar 1981, p. 41). And while “most cultures have a certain trans-religious validity because they are not necessarily bound up with one particular religion” (Panikkar 1981, p. 41) in the case of India, with the ubiquity and permeation of Hinduism across Indian culture and all that emerged or took shelter within its peripheries, Christianity also became imbued with numerous aspects of Hinduized Indian culture along with certain distinctive tropes of sacredness, forms and places of worship and social structuration. Conversely, the local culture is also to an extent shaped by Christianity (Panikkar 1981, p. 41). Especially “[i]n the South Indian religious context”, both Christians and Hindus “draw from a shared religious worldview, a shared indigenous religious epistemology, a shared ritual data bank, and a shared grammar” (Raj 2017, p. 137).

Through centuries of interactions, there has been a blending of traditions among Christians and Hindus, such that, as the veteran advocate of Hindu-Christian interaction, Dom Bede Griffiths observed: “Christians often tend to adopt Hindu customs and ways of doing things” (Griffiths 1984, p. 105)[7]. At the same time Hindus have also adapted certain Christian practices and devotions. For example, the image of Our Lady of Velankanni is often found in Hindu homes in Tamil Nadu (Sébastia 2008, p. 47). In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Christian, especially Catholic, practices reflect a mixture of unwitting assimilation of Hindu practices into a Christian context, intentional adaptation of Hindu practices to convey Christian messages, incorporation of Hindu practices despite their apparent contradiction to Christian messages, shared practices that convey polyvalent messages, and uniquely Christian practices that are authentically Indian (Shinseki). Over the course of nearly a millennium, there has been “spontaneous and natural incorporation by the Catholic laity of rituals, practices, and customs from popular Hinduism and indigenous tribal heritage into their day-to-day religious life and practice” (Raj 2017, p. 34). As a result, Catholic practice has assimilated “a series of rites that are either simply adopted from popular Hinduism or patterned after Hindu rites, symbols, and practices” (Raj 2017, p. 41).The assimilative process is not a result of a planned process of enculturation, but rather emerges “organically <…> from the lived experience, existential concerns, and human needs of Catholic laity and their Hindu neighbours with whom they live in a daily dialogical relationship” (Raj 2017, p. 41).

For example, while removal of footwear before entering a church or shrine, certain life-cycle customs, and circum-perambulation may have originated in a Hindu context, “Christians continue such practices <…> [in an] unconscious sharing in the customs of the land of their birth” (Collins 2007, p. 141). In this way, Hinduism provides ample means to sacralize what would otherwise be mundane aspects of daily life and where equivalent Christians means are lacking (Diehl 1965, p. 21). “Some Christians <…> go to astrologers and ask about the astrological data and try to live accordingly” (Diehl 1965, p. 21). Such practices reflect “an inner urge towards making use of all securities that life can offer” (Diehl 1965, p. 80). A good instance of this is among the Mukkuvars, for whom “[w]hile the ‘pagan’ gods and goddesses are not worshiped, as powers of evil they can do harm and so they need to be propitiated by various rituals, including the sacrifice of animals” (Amaladoss 2007, p. 24). In Kerala, a Catholic priest will preside over a ceremony for “a baby’s first feeding of a mixture of honey, the herb vayambu, and powdered gold to ensure future prosperity” (Dempsey 2007, p. 197). A similar protection in sought wearing amulets, or in “[h]ouse blessings for both Christians and Hindus commonly involve the pal kaccal, or ‘milk boiling’”, as well use of vastu-shastra rites for setting out divination and ‘protective’ boundaries around the new home (Dempsey 2007, p. 197).

Among Syro-Malabar Catholics, since Vatican II, “a number of Bhajans and Namajapas have been composed and used in liturgical and paraliturgical services” (Nariculam 2007). More recently, in 2005, “newly composed hymns for [Syro-Malabar] Baptism, Confirmation and Marriage [were introduced] in the format of ragas and talas of Karnatic and Hindustani music” (Nariculam 2007). In another instance,

Catholic pilgrims import a series of Hindu rites and ritual idioms into their pilgrimage practices and direct them to the European martyr-saint, investing in him certain indigenous religious ideas, powers, and meanings ― largely derived from village Hinduism ― so that the European saints resemble, in personality, power, and function, the tutelary deities of their Hindu counterparts (Raj 2007, p. 106).

Selva Raj (2007, p. 45) adroitly observes from his voluminous ethnographic work in South India:

A noteworthy feature of this popular Catholicism is that the usual distinctions between the Hindu, Muslim, primeval, and Christian traditions, as well as the normative boundaries between official and popular religion, become significantly blurred. The dynamic of Santal popular Catholic religious life, represented in its lifecycle ceremonies, life-crisis rituals, calendrical festivals, and magico-religious practices, provides a textbook case for this phenomenon of blurred boundaries.

He takes the funerary tradition as one representative sample of the plethora of practices from the Hindu fold that popular Catholicism has allowed itself to be immersed in and informed by.

Hence enculturation is an on-going process with a well-established trajectory as here the Hindu (and sparingly also Indian Muslim or Mopla and tribal) symbols and artefacts, amulets and kapuram (camphor-lamp), rites and practices, etc., as we have discussed, become vehicles for better transmitting the Christian message in the particularized context; yet there is exchange and routes established also for ‘mutual fecundation’. For Indian Christians, the Hinduized Indian cultural ambience “provides a particular lens for making sense of religious experience” (Gaillardetz 2008, p. 228). As Panikkar observes, such a cultural lens is necessary for Christians in any context, whether in South India or in North America, for “there is no religion without a culture nor, in one sense or another, culture without religion ― nor can they be identified” (Panikkar 1981, p. 41).

So we would like to venture an insight into the ethnographic challenges that followed Panikkar’s encounter not just with Hinduism but with Christianity in India (the ‘Unknown Christ of India’ to boot) and his patent astonishment at how radically transformed Christianity had become within the Hindu cultural ambience, that departed in many significant ways and forms from its European sources and Middle Eastern origins. Although the later continued to echo profoundly in the subcontinent in view of the historical genesis of Christianity in India, this may not have had the same resonances in the Catalonian Catholicism that Panikkar had been brought up in. The known and unknown cloud of Hinduism of India is deeply embedded in Indian Christian culture; only that it has lagged behind in the interactive and assimilative inclusivism at the doctrinal and ‘belief’ or creedal areas.

Comparative theology compares similarities and differences without attempting to mould or influence a re-conceptualization of fundamental belief-structures in light of the emergent critique or différence marked between the traditions. There is no real ex-change. And indeed the Parivrājaka Panikkar would assume just this need for intentional change as part of his mantle, and the decisive platform he initiates to champion a more robust form of interreligious dialogical dialogue in the attempt to unearth ‘homeomorphic equivalences’ or functional coordinates across the silent spaces between the respective traditions. It is with Panikkar ― and to an extent his Santa Barbara colleague, Ninian Smart ― but also the Canadian theologian William Cantwell Smith ― that we see a shift in comparative study of religions from the erstwhile typologies of ‘sacrament’, ‘sin’, ‘Incarnation’, ‘resurrection’, ‘salvation’ , and the ‘Word’ towards a more inclusive reference to Indian notions of karma (law of action), jñāna (knowledge), Vāc (speech), bhakti (devotion), dharma (law/order), etc. Likewise, the Buddha’s First Noble Truth on the existential facticity of suffering stands transformed into the axiomatic edict: ‘that there is Evil, only so compounded with Suffering’; this modification of the so-called Problem of Evil, born of dialogic insight, warrants space for Providence, which nontheist and pantheist cosmologies do not allow for[8].

Hence too, his forays into philosophic Advaita and the trajectory to re-articulate the ultimate concerns of Christianity, its foundational philosophical tenets and theological contours as well, particularly in respect of its conception of the Trinity, bringing it closer to the metaphysical and eschatological lens of the Trisangam (tri-confluence) non-dualism of Upaniṣadic nondualism, Śiva-Naṭarāja and the Buddhist pratītyasamutpāda or interdependent origination[9] (Panikkar 1989). As a few among his contemporaries and commentators have observed, it is the infusion of Advaita into the ancient (going back to the Greeks) ideas of Trinity ― and not just the creedal ideal of the Trinity in Christian patristic theo-centrism, though that to as a sophisticated, albeit provocative, response to divergent efforts, such as that of Sabellianism: hence Cosmotheandric Trinitarianism ― that sets Panikkar apart from many a theologian and Christian philosopher of our times[10]. That is the calling of a deeply indigenously Indic Catholic, not one among the run-of-the-mill comparative theologic-dialogist: if anything, an ‘imparative dialogic-dialogist’, as we argue in the next section.

Hermeneutics of Śruti to ‘Imparative Dialogue’

In the beginning was the Word,
the Word was with Meaning,
the Word was Meaning[11].

  1. Śruti

While most researchers in the academy, especially when studying a culture, are encouraged to take an etic (outsider-observer-objectivist) stance ― and feel more at home in this methodological approach ― Panikkar never sighed away from and indeed implored his students to espouse a radically emic (insider-participant-empathic) position. This was a well-thought-out hermeneutical strategy, for without being immersed fully in a tradition ― from as it were ‘the inside’ ― one had little hope of fully understanding and appreciating the essential elements moulding the life of the other. But he was already, as it were, half-way to being a Hindu; so in his own terms he had a particular advantage over certain cut-and-dried social scientists and textualists approaching the same subject matter. Not only that, he took recourse to the hermeneuticists who practiced their form of Verstehen within the tradition to see how they went about understanding their own native tradition. Let me illustrate this with reference to Panikkar’s desire to digest and comprehend ‘Śruti’, which stands as a rather unique Hindu doctrine with a complex set of philosophical and linguistic presuppositions teased out in the darśanic systems of Indian thought, and his close alignment with the Mīmāṃsā-hermeneuts in the tradition[12]. Śruti is freely rendered as ‘revelation,’ but better, ‘authorlessly revealed scripture.’ Panikkar discusses this issue at length in the context of understanding Ṛgvedic mantras on ‘Vāc’, (Speech) and ‘Gāyatrī’ (Meter), that deal with the specific Indian theories of sound and meaning, and the relation between text and rites, where he demonstrated his leanings towards transpersonal revelation.

Firstly, it was no longer adequate as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century orientalists did for Indian texts, to simply redefine the Vedas through to the Bhagavad Gītā, as Śruti, i.e., as ‘Revelation’ (or ‘Revealed Word’), of Bhagavān, Īśvara, or God. Nor was he much enamored of Indologists and historians who have aired doubts about the native hermeneuticians’ (notably of the Mīmāṃsā school), attempt at a blank a-historicization of the Vedas ― a knee-jerk amnesiac reaction (Pollock 1989, pp. 603–610) ― thereby rendering the Veda’s sacredness and revelatory status as being somehow timeless, eternal, non-negotiable in temporal terms, which only helped to serve other ideological ends (power as the defined outcome). While cautious in his approach to scripture in either of these directions, Panikkar found himself being more sympathetic to what he was beginning to understand as ‘transpersonal revelatory texts’.

Secondly, that there is still much that is salvageable in the idea of ‘Śruti’ as the ‘heard word’, the ‘primeval sound’, and ‘the original meaning or intentionality’, based on a philosophical doctrine of an intimate and sui generis relation between word, meaning, and knowledge as analysed in the preeminent thesis of śabda-pramāknowing from words’. This echoed my own heuristic reading of the doctrine in the hands or pens of the Mīmāṃsā stalwarts[13]. And yet the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy in respect to the inviolability of scriptural authenticity reject the conjunct of God and scripture. Instead, they might consider the conjunction of text, ritual, and after-life rewards (in the notion of apūrva ― the automated ‘unseen potency’ ― precursor to the doctrine of karma).

Why not therefore regard the pristine scriptures of each tradition as their version of, what Heidegger called, ‘the House of Being’[14] ― as language speaking truths, rather than truths having to depend upon or supervening on a speaker, even a cognitive agent or re-chronicler of truth? In other words, the relation to be properly explored is the one between the cumulative truth-claims and sacred-making experiences (what Wilfred Cantwell Smith might understand by ‘faith’[15]) as reflected and transmitted in the speech of the community (their vācanas), rather than with the ecclesiastical straight-jacket of a divine founder-revealer and the word dispensed to the community.

Panikkar never embraced the oft-mistaken generalization that ‘Scripture is the Word of God’[16]. God or Gods (in the plural sense in which devas/devatās, ‘gods’ or better ‘light-beings’ are interminably invoked in the Vedas) might be viewed as a derivation from the scripture that otherwise may claim to itself a sui generis epistemic character, i.e. the scripture is a font (storehouse) of valid knowledge that actually embeds a “desire”. And so Panikkar, referring to the traditional Mīmāṃsā notion of apaurueya (which he rendered as “non-authorship”) is happy to pronounce that there is no author, human or divine, of the Word, in the sense that this seemingly counter-intuitive conception actually embeds a “desire to purify our relationship with the text and to avoid any kind of idolatry” (Panikkar 2006 [1977], p. 12). And furthermore (Panikkar 2006 [1977], pp. 12–13):

Any one of us is the author of the Vedas when we read, pray, and understand them. Nobody is the author of living words, <…> and the word is not an instrument of Man but his supreme form of expression[17]. What has no author, according to the apaurueya insight, is the relation between word and its meaning or object. The relationship is not an artificial or extrinsic relation caused by somebody. There is no author to posit this type of relationship which exists between word and its meaning[18]. To do this we would require another relationship and so on ad infinitum. When a word ceases to be a living word, when it ceases to convey meaning, when it is not a word for me, it is not Veda, it does not convey real meaning or saving knowledge.

Panikkar believed indeed that Hindus in India lived in a significantly scriptural relation to their fellows and the world around them, and to their personal destiny. More importantly, it is not the thesis that the “Ṛg-Veda is sounding eternally and self-subsistently” (a phrase I borrow from Smith[19]) that captures the truth (though he did not dismiss the philosophical merits of this imagery[20]), but that in the thesis of the primacy of the Vedas is the recognition that the ṛṣis, seers or sages, had penetrated to considerable depth certain mysteries and spiritual verities, and this transcendental knowledge is then via verbal testimony placed within the reach of some at least (Panikkar 2006 [1977], p. 5). And in acceding to this possibility, my claim in reading especially works such as the Vedic Experience, Panikkar comes close to echoing the Heideggerian mantra of ‘Language as the House of Being’, i.e. spiritual truths have made themselves audible, learnable, and can be appropriated. It is not for the traditional Hindus that words ― certain words ― constitute the Veda, so much as that Veda is word (logos), constituted primarily of meaning and the accompanying ‘vehicles’ (vāhanas, dhvanis), that purvey or convey them. That is why Śruti is the Father of Hermes and the Mother of Hermeneutics (Bilimoria 2008). So in this sense it is the fount of ‘transcendental knowledge’. Panikkar arrives at a new and rather radical understanding of Śruti, within the epistemological framework of truth-bearing ‘prāmāya’, aligned to the a sui generis linguistic structure that enables objective-subjective referencing, rather than cloaked in the theological epistemé of a broader claim to the necessary existence of a higher, transcendent being, that pronounces the words and thereby its authority, too.

  1. ‘Imparative Dialogue’

In his 1982 paper, ‘Aporias in the Comparative Philosophy of Religion’ (Bilimoria 2008), Panikkar raises a host of issues that he believes bedevils the sub-discipline, precisely because of the ambiguities and indeed ‘aporias’ that lurk within the very paradigm of ‘the comparative’, whether in comparative philosophy of religion or comparative religion.

One of the key aporias he points out to is the presumed ‘common ground’ that is needed for comparison, for the very practice of comparing runs into trouble “when the compared religions (with their underlying philosophies) do not share the assumptions of the comparing philosophy” (Bilimoria 2008). In other words, if the scale and standards of comparison are set by the religious or theological tradition against which the supposed parallel ideas or beliefs of another tradition are being compared, this is taking more for granted than might be acceptable to the compared tradition. One might be dredging in a pool of nothingness to find ‘comparable corresponding entities’ by reducing philosophical or religious facts or phenomena to some formalities, even quantifiable ones (as in sociology of religion).

We have become too complacent in the comparative linguists’ belief in the translatability of different philosophical and religious languages. But this might be our problem ― the problematic of ‘translational philosophy’ (Bilimoria 2008). So if to cite an instance Panikkar gives us, the concept expressed linguistically as ‘salvation’ or ‘eschatological liberation’ is thought to be indispensably the ultimate end in tradition A, but is found to be absent in the teachings of tradition B, then there is no ‘common ground’ for comparison, no basis on which translation from A to B could proceed, and the whole enterprise of ‘comparing’ collapses. Thus, taking another example,

…we can compare Semitic religions from the common ground of the Abrahamic ‘faith’ (Monotheism, Reality of this World, Obedience due to the Will of God, etc.). But this is not an adequate basis for including in the comparison, say, Hinduism, Buddhism, or modern Humanism. They stand on another ground (Bilimoria 2008, p. 361).

Panikkar laments that unless some fundamental changes are made in our methods, we would end up with a “shallow philosophy of religion” (Bilimoria 2008, p. 362). The alternative strategy he proposes is what he calls ‘imparative philosophy’. In his “What Is Comparative Philosophy Comparing?” (Panikkar 1988, pp. 116–136) Panikkar further develops this methodology, in a more sophisticated and philosophically-nuanced way, wherein he places emphasis on what he calls the ‘imparative hermeneutic’. ‘Imparative’ is derived from the nonclassical Latin imparare (“I am ready, disposed”; from the verb in + parare, to prepare, furnish, provide (Panikkar 1988, p. 128, footnote 7). He explains that in this method a real space of mutual criticism and fecundation is opened up for genuine encounters between different philosophical and religious traditions. One ‘enters’ into another’s dimensions of intellectual or spiritual ‘meaning’, and allows that to speak to, and reappraise, one’s own convictions in a dialogical situation. One then assumes a more nuanced vantage point from which assessment is made of the comparative worth of the aspects investigated.

Not one for ‘global philosophy’, Panikkar views the larger objective of the Imparative-hermeneutic program to draw into dialogue different perspectives from among the various traditions to address real-life and global issues in such a way that dialogue can become relevant to the human condition, to the problems and crises that face humankind regardless of whether religions are implicated or not. The broader horizons of ‘ecumenism’ are sketched by Panikkar in similar terms. A point that needs to be remembered is that interest in other religions and willingness to enter into dialogue with other religious traditions is very largely a Western and Christian thing. Many non-Western religions see no point in ‘ecumenism’ and ‘dialogue’[21].

But then for a peripatetic-ṛṣi? Why is there need for ‘imparative hermeneutics’? What is this project all about, and what does it have to do Hinduism as such? (Ellis 2017). First, the motivation: because comparative philosophy is problematic for the reason that the self-other encounter will never allow itself the luxury of comparison. As philosophy pretends to the universal itself, it would appear that any neutral point from which to compare philosophies is a fantasy. There is no context-free point of departure: “any effort at comparing philosophies starts consciously or unconsciously from a concrete philosophical position” (Panikkar 1988, p. 127). Panikkar suggests in this regard that we forego the comparative project for the imparative one. Imparative philosophy proposes that “we may learn by being ready to undergo the different philosophical experiences of other people” (Panikkar 1988, p. 127). Associated with such imparative work is the recognition that nothing is nonnegotiable (Panikkar 1988, p. 128). Panikkar (1988, p. 130) suggests that imparative philosophy employs in this regard diatopical hermeneutics:

Diatopical hermeneutics is the required method of interpretation when the distance to overcome, needed for any understanding, is not just a distance within one single culture (morphological hermeneutics), or a temporal one (diachronic hermeneutics), but rather the distance between two (or more) cultures, which have independently developed different spaces (topoi) their own methods of philosophizing and ways of reaching intelligibility along with their proper categories.

Thomas Ellis, picking up on a close analogue with J.L. Mehta’s postcolonial-Hindu hermeneutics, suggests, Panikkar’s diatopical hermeneutics insists on the deconstructability of all traditions, for as Panikkar writes: “we need, further, to be ready to contest our own conclusions” (Panikkar 1988, p. 135). Again, the encounter with the other is not always edifying. From a colonialist’s perspective this may seem misconstrued; from a colonial subject’s position, it is obvious.

In ‘What Is Comparative Philosophy Comparing? (Panikkar 1988, pp. 125–126) Panikkar suggests that there is a phenomenology implicit in this cross-cultural enterprise, and this calls upon the researcher’s conscious engagement with empathy and a preparedness to bracket-out belief in the truth of one or the other position that does not allow for a possible third position suggested in the imparare encounter which takes into account the universal range of human experience in as much as it is possible to do so in any concrete situation. Imparative philosophy as an alternative to comparative philosophy may be the antidote to overing parochialism (‘provincially chauvinist views’), as well as to cultivating tolerance and understanding of the richness of human experience. And here diatopical hermeneutics has a functional role of forging a common universe of discourse (not a common ground through assumed equivalences) in the dialogical dialogue taking place in the very encounter.

So Panikkar basically argues that comparative philosophy should not parade itself as an independent, autonomous, discipline but rather see itself as a “mature ontonomic activity of the human spirit, contrasting everything, learning from everywhere, and radically criticizing the enterprise itself?” (Panikkar 1988, p. 136). But for his time as a ‘Hindu’ in the ghāts of Varanasi, mingling with traditional Mīmāṃsaka and modern-day hermeneuticians such as J. L. Mehta, Panikkar would have easily acquiesced to the temptations of what we would now call classical comparative philosophy and comparative religion (even comparative theology), believing that comparisons happen naturally as in comparative ethnology, without much concerns about methodological niceties, such as of intranslatability across conceptual schemas and the spectre of value-judgments. That was not to be, and he saved himself from himself.


Parivrājaka Panikkar-ji was as much a modern-day Hermes of Hinduism and especially so of the spare deities of the Mīmāṃsa’s homologous svarga (heavenly third space), whose idea of the immanentist-transcendentalism he brilliantly reworked into an Advaitic (non-dual) conception of Trinity. He further brought across for us the message of a quite novel reading of the orthodox Brāhmanic idea of Śruti and how this provocatively suggestive trope of ‘authorless revelation’ might impact on how we ‘listen to’ and understand the contents of scriptures, any scripture. He found Hindu scriptures to be particularly challenging, so much so that he spent a good dozen years if not more on a collaborative project on the banks of the Ganges translating segments of the ṚgVeda that ensued in the massive tome: Mantramañjari: The Vedic Experience. In addition, he was keen to ask how we might continue to place value on the scriptures’ authoritative valence were we even to doubt the veracity of the authors hitherto ascribed as their source or cause, because the facticity of meaning, as the House of Being, might be more important than grounding the word in a personal being, divine or human, or both. Let the Hindu Panikkar speak on in the spirit of Vāc.



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[1] Na vi jānāmi yadivedamasmi niya sanadho manasā carāmi Yadā māgan prathamjā tasyādid vāco anuve bhāgamasyāPanikkar, R. (Ed. & trans.) (2006 [1977]). The Vedic Experience, Mantramañjari: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration. Indian edition reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited. First published in 1977, xxxviii. This opus was compiled and translated with his colleagues in Benaras, Bettina Baumer, et al., from 1964–67, though it took another 10 years before it appeared in print.

[2] The essay is collaboratively written, though we retain on occasions as is the usual practice the first-person singular pronoun, ‘I’, ‘my’ when referencing our views or findings in the main text.

[3] The Sanskrit word parivrājaka comes from the root word parivrāj and it means one who has embraced the life of a wandering, itinerant, peripatetic religious mendicant who has abandoned the world in pursuit of something higher and nobler. Usually this word is found significantly in the Indic nāstika dārsanika traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism. The homological parallel word used in the āstika dārśanika traditions such as Vedānta, Mῑmāṃsā, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, etc., is sannyāsa ― see Monier-Williams, M. (1997). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Indian edition reprint, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, Delhi, 602. First published 1889. In the Western theologico-philosophic tradition, the word ‘monk’ (monachos) comes very close to the Indic term parivrājaka. Parivrājaka may also signify a ‘spiritual master’, as in the title of book by Prabhu, J. (2016). Raimon Panikkar as a Modern Spiritual Master. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

[4] A Sanskrit word having various nuanced meanings in the Indic philosophical narratives. Here it is used in the sense of ‘sportive play’ that gives rise to non-instrumentally caused ānanda enveloping an aura of spontaneity. Parivrājaka may also signify a ‘spiritual master’, as in the title of book by Prabhu, J. (2016). Raimon Panikkar as a Modern Spiritual Master. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

[5] See his ‘Trisangam: Jordan, Tiber, and Ganges’, in: Panikkar, R. (1993). A Dwelling Place for Wisdom. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 109ff.

[6] The name ‘Gaṅgā’ is used here symbolically. In Panikkar’s own words: “The Ganges has many sources, among them one that is invisible. The Ganges disappears in a delta of countless riverbeds, and the Ganges has witnessed the birth of many religions along its banks. What draws me to Mā Ga (apart from a personal affiliation) is its multifaceted origin, the curious delta, and in particular this secret, heavenly source. In Illāhabād <...>, the old city with its Islamic name, not only the waters of the Jamunā and of the Ga lead into the Prayāga but also the invisible and divine Sarasvatī, both river and the Goddess of wisdom. For millennia, millions of people have been testifying to that in the famous Kumbha-Mela by means of pilgrimages that are calculated every twelve years in astrological (and astronomical) fashion” (Panikkar 1993, p. 110).

[7] It is interesting to note that Dom Bede, an Anglican convert to the Benedictine order, had similar experiences and intentions to Panikkar in India, though without the deeply sophisticated grounding that Panikkar had in Hindu philosophy and theology. And the title of work cited here bears a resemblance to Panikkar’s, but without the descriptors ‘Unknown’ and ‘of’; perhaps Dom Bede had ‘Hidden’ in mind.

[8] The Paper on Suffering as the equivalence of Evil was presented in the late 1990s at a Symposium of the Problem of Evil organized at the Satya Nilayam Research Institute, Chennai. See also Panikkar, R. (1980). Aporias of Comparative Philosophy of Religion. Man and the World, no. 13, 357–383.

[9] See also Panikkar, R. (1970). The Trinity and World Religions: icon-person-mystery. Christian Literature Society (Bangalore), Madras: The Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society. This latter work is one of the best and yet understated foundational work that sets down a model for pluralistic dialogue situated within the realm of spirituality rather in dogmatic speculation or metaphysical formulation.

[10] See Prabhu, J. (2017). The Encounter of Religions in a Globalized World: Provocations from Panikkar. In Raimon Panikkar: Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue (pp. 141–155). University of Girona; Panikkar, R. (1993). The Cosmotheandric Experience: Emerging religious consciousness. Edited with introduction by Scott Eastham. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

[11] From Bilimoria, P. (1989). The Idea of Authorless Revelation (Apaurueya). In R. W. Perrett (Ed.). Indian Philosophy of Religion (pp. 143–166). Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff/Kluwer Academic Publishers,

[12] For a more detailed coverage of this dialogic encounter (my personal exchanges with Panikkar on the same questions that I shared), and from which part of the discussion here is drawn see Bilimoria, P. (2013). Śruti-prāmāya (scriptural testimony) and the ‘Imparative Philosophy’ in Raimon Panikkar’s Thinking. In CIRPIT REVIEW, no. 5November 201357–68.

[13] Developed, for example, in Bilimoria, P. (2000). J. N. Mohanty’s Critique of Word as a Means of Knowing and ‘Authorless Tradition’. In B. Gupta (Ed.). The Empirical and the Transcendental: A Fusion of Horizons (pp. 199–218). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

[14] See Bilimoria, P. (2008). Being and Text: Dialogic Fecundation of Western Hermeneutics and Hindu Mīmāṃsā in the Critical Era. In R. Sherma, & A. Sharma (Eds.). Hermeneutics and Hindu Thought toward a Fusion of Horizons (pp. 45–80). Dordrecht: Springer.

[15] See Bilimoria, P. (2017). The Meaningful End of ‘God’ and ‘Scripture’. In E. B. Aitkin, A. Sharma (Ed.). The Legacy of Wilfred Cantwell Smith (pp. 47–64). Albany: SUNY Press; also see Panikkar, R. (1968). Philosophy and Theology, Reason and Faith. In The Concept of Philosophy (pp. 59–63).Varanasi: The Centre of Advanced Study in Philosophy, Benaras Hindu University.

[16] Panikkar does not assume a one single (monotheistic) God being spoken of in the Vedic lore. Vedic Experience, op. cit., 11.

[17] Recall Heidegger’s ‘Language as the House of Being’.

[18] Panikkar here is alluding to the unique Mīmāṃsā theory of autpattika, ‘persistent relation’. See Bilimoria, P. (2004). Autpattika: The Originary Signifier-Signified Relation in Mīmāṃsā and Deconstructive Semiology; Authorless Voice. In R. R. Diwedhi (Ed.). Mandan Mishra Felicitation Volume (pp. 187–203). Delhi: L.B.S. Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapitha.

[19] See Bilimoria, P. The Meaningful End of ‘God’ and ‘Scripture’, loc. cit.

[20] By saying that the Veda as ‘Revelation’ (Śruti) is ‘a living document’ and a discourse whose depths still resound in the heart of modern Man (Panikkar 2006 [1977], pp. 9–10).

[21] The brunt of the argument that is to be found in Panikkar’s ‘Aporias’ paper on which the ‘Comparative Philosophy’ paper is predicated.

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