I. Myth and reality
During the time that Westerners were going to the Far East on pilgrimage and Asians were coming to the West spreading their ancient wisdom there appeared a man who seemed to incarnate the synthesis between the East and the West. His name was Raimon Panikkar. When humanity realized more and more the irreducible multiplicity and diversity of religions and cultures one had the impression that he knew how to dwell in all of them and to demonstrate that pluralism can exist peacefully without losing its own identity. During the time when science and religion were in conflict, this man, who had degrees in chemistry and theology, was looking for a possible creative synthesis between these two disciplines. During the time when the sacred was disappearing and religious institutions were in crisis, this particular cosmic priest, with his teaching and his life, was pointing out a new way: that of “sacred secularity”. Outstanding scholar, tireless traveler who has been in all the continents, fascinating speaker, ecstatic celebrant, fecund writer, he went beyond scripture and spoke of the silence of the word. He was always serene and smiling, fresh and lucid up to the end. A man who knew the great of his time and yet wasn’t the disciple of anyone. A “prophet of the day-after-tomorrow” (Raffaele Luise), an “artist of dialogue” (Achille Rossi). A handsome and enchanting man, light yet robust, delicate yet sturdy.
These are the fragments of which the “Panikkar legend” is composed, which his friends repeat and spread when they meet, that scholars multiply in symposia and in their publications, each time more elaborate, which can be seen on You Tube or on DVD available for sale, and which emerge from Panikkar’s work itself composed of his writings and his life.
In Panikkar’s case legend is almost inevitable. In part he himself generated it, becoming at the same time creator and victim. Then, all who knew him expanded, reinforced and spread it. A legend, as the etymology of the word indicates, is something that must be read. This “must” has a double meaning. On one hand, it indicates that reading the life and work of Panikkar inevitably creates the legend and on the other hand, despite the fact that his legend must be read, keeping that in mind, it must be unlocked, re-dimensioned, interpreted and absorbed. The legend of Panikkar is an enigma that needs to be deciphered. Certainly, Panikkar himself would immediately say that such an operation can only create a new legend. Therefore, if that is the result, perhaps it is not worth taking on such a task. We are aware that an “objective biography” doesn’t exist. But this conclusion doesn’t exclude engaging in a dialogue with the life and work of Panikkar. If it is right to see the boundary of every venture, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be undertaken. If Panikkar had been prisoner of this reasoning, he would never have written “The fullness of Man. A Christophany”, or “Cosmotheandric Reality. God-Man-World”.
The legend is a glimpse from afar, has its strength and beauty but its fascination can be also seductive. Panikkar presented himself and was seen in such a way. He was a meteor, a comet, a bolt of lightning. He always arrived from afar and then disappeared leaving people with the perfume of his lectures, in which his smile resounded for a long time. He arrived in Italy from India or the United States, he arrived in India from Europe or America, In America he arrived from India and from Europe. And when he was finally established in Tavertet in Catalonia, he came from a past enriched by all the lands he had traversed and by all the knowledge he had accumulated, and he proceeded toward mystery, enigma, silence.
Panikkar was made legend during his life. The legend amplified and spread with the passage of time and with the disappearance of that thinker, the intensity of generating the legend increases, putting in motion the very strong and multi-colored hagiographic mechanisms that concern his life and work. It is an inevitable and understandable process. More and more numerous celebratory books in which the life of Panikkar the friend or master teacher is related, therefore, are beginning to appear, and an attempt is being made to present his thought in an accessible and attractive manner. An initiative is appearing, which is important but not lacking in difficulty: to publish his complete work. Conferences are being organized, films made, books written. All this is good, but I find dangerous, if not in bad taste, the selective, censorious, idealizing and not always professional approach which characterizes this activity up to now.
I maintain that it is already necessary to take a close look at this legend, to take hold of its elements and to analyze them, paying attention to the concrete and not fleeing from difficulties. It is necessary to observe the places where Panikkar lived, to take in hand his things, to chew on his words, traverse his paths. I think the role of Panikkar in itself needs this operation, otherwise only his legend will remain, and a legend, however pleasing and indispensable, in the final analysis is sterile because it is without a link to reality. Isolated from life, it cannot generate life.
It is precisely because I observe with perplexity the growing hagiographic and legendary tendency which envelopes and swallows Panikkar and his work that I am undertaking this work of mine, which is voyage, reflection and writing. I am doing it for Panikkar, for myself and for others.
I didn’t know Panikkar personally. This is a disadvantage, but also an advantage, which I will discuss in other places. Instead I will say that since my first reading of his texts I have wanted to know about the life of this man because I needed to. With this desire I almost immediately ran into a wall but very soon the obstacles were transformed by challenges and creative inspirations. It felt like being thrown down from a horse and I could have given up or reacquired the will to remount. As you see, I have chosen the second possibility.
My first experience was similar to that of a beginner, who, as is the custom today, wanting to know something about someone he intends to study, conducts research in books or on the Internet. In Panikkar’s case, however, this isn’t an easy venture. I quickly ascertained how sparse the encyclopedic information was, and how the same framework was repeated everywhere. Until I finally found, in some remote corner of the Internet that he had been a member of Opus Dei, that he was a Roman Catholic priest who later married, and then I attempted to go deeper into the subject. Very soon, however, I realized that some facts about his life were simply censured. Why? And by whom? I remember that at some point, somewhere, a rather complete biography had appeared and was happy about that. A short time later, moreover, this renowned biography had been removed and replaced by an “approved” biography. I found the same tendency in the edition of his complete works. I felt deceived by the similar hagiographic style. Thus I decided to mistrust it.
The second experience goes back to when I read the book, “Raimon Panikkar. Prophet of the Day After Tomorrow,” by Raffaele Luise, the Italian journalist and Vatican specialist, in which I understood the intention of communicating to readers the “perfume” that pervaded his persona and his work. Considering the complexity of Panikkar’s life, even though it seems an intelligent and fascinating solution, nevertheless I found it somewhat unsatisfactory: the image of a wise man retired in a mountainous environment, of an old teacher in his house full of books, visited by a young disciple, was too romantic. I didn’t find the book deceitful, just insufficient. In other words, I had in hand a text from which could be taken some points of departure.
The third experience goes back to Madrid, where I had gone to meet a friend of Panikkar. At the beginning it was going well, everything was beautiful and serene: I was leafing through an album containing photos of Panikkar with his friend; I was shown a cross which the friend had received from the philosopher of Tavertet and edifying episodes were narrated to me. But when I began to ask concrete questions the climate became glacial and all the responses were limited to diplomatic if not enigmatic phrases, such as: “I am not able to talk about that”, “Concerning this topic, even if I knew anything about it, I wouldn’t be able to say anything”, “Concerning this matter I am obliged to remain silent”. And when I asked what could be said about Panikkar’s personal archive remaining in Tavertet, the response was abrupt: “I know this archive well and nothing can be found in it which might reveal anything more about the true Panikkar”.
Some of the commentators I met and with whom I spoke during my draft of this text openly affirmed: “But why bother with his life? Write a nice book about his thought and his work. There is no need to confuse the message with the messenger! The finger is not the moon, it only points to it. Panikkar should be dealt with as one would deal with Aristotle, by reading his work and not by delving into his life. There is no need to investigate and speak about his private life or his relationship with people he met, otherwise it will harm Panikkar and his work”. I, on the other hand, saw everything from a different perspective. It was Panikkar’s work that referred me to his life, and his life was and remains for me the keystone to understanding his work.
In general, there are three themes that a hagiography radically falsifies: politics, money and sex - a fatal trinity. But a person’s life is also composed of these themes and Panikkar is not an exception: his relationships with ecclesiastical institutions were marked by political tensions; to live as he lived, he had to confront everyday concrete economic questions which must be known in order to be understood; in addition to the fact that he married at a rather mature age, throughout all his life he had profound friendships with many people. The commentators didn’t want to reflect or speak about similar essential components of the life of every human being. And I said to myself: well, how can one understand his work, in which the fullness of life is one of the crucial themes?
Some people want to make Panikkar a saint and instead they turn him into a mere holy card; others consider him merely an “actor” (that’s how some of his acquaintances spoke about him “in jest”) or a “mermaid” (as his friend Ernesto Balducci, smiling, called him). But then only an honest account of his life can offer the interpretive key to his work. And if that is complex, grandiose, beautiful and interesting, his life is perhaps even grander, more complex, more beautiful and more interesting,
In 1964 a Roman bookbinder sewed together into a greenish-brown hardcover 48 articles of various lengths in order to obtain a volume or bound book of about 300 pages. The formats of these short papers varied, the quality of the paper, today in part already yellowed, differed. The philosophical and theological articles were in Spanish, French, English and German. There is no logical, thematic or chronological order in the collection. The oldest texts go back to 1949 and the others are from successive years up to 1963. The collection was composed to be presented to “La Sapienza” University in Rome and would serve to obtain the vacant lecturing post in philosophy. Some of the articles are long, elaborate and rather scientific; others, very short, random and instructive, resemble leaflets. The geographical provenance of these texts is surprising: Madrid, Pamplona, Navarra, Barcelona, Benares (Varanasi), Toulouse, Mysore, Stuttgart,
San Jose (Costa Rica), Bhubaneswar, Rome, Venice, Monaco, Madras. The articles are signed Raimundo, Raimoundo, Raymond or Raymound. Similarly, the surname changes from Paniker, to Panikker, and to Panikkar. In just this one bound volume we are thus dealing with an author who is presenting some fifty articles written over a period of fourteen years, published in some fifteen different places in four languages and signed with four given names and three different surnames. The two-word name Raimon Panikkar, known today by all, with which currently his collected works are currently signed in Italy, Catalonia, France and possibly in Germany and the United States, never appears in this survey. Starting merely from this volume, from his history and the variety it represents, one might speak of the long history of a rather accommodating person. From Raimundo Santiago Carlos Paniker, as inscribed in the baptismal records, to Raimon Panikkar, with which he signs his collected works, a long road is delineated which reveals one, or rather, two tendencies of his personality. The first demonstrates that we are dealing with an individual consciously ready to create his destiny even by changing his given name and surname. Panikkar wasn’t content to be simply who is was, but always tried to model his existence and his persona. The name change is a symbol of that. Reflecting on the direction toward which this took place we must say that we are dealing with a return to origins, making oneself original, correcting the reality that is merely hereditary. And this is the second tendency: by correcting his given name from Raimundo to Raimon he wanted to purify his image from the Castilian tinge, and make it appear much more Catalonian. Meanwhile, by correcting his surname from Paniker to Panikkar, he wanted to purify it from its European and Portuguese colonialist deformation, and make it closer to the Malayalam original. It’s an ambiguous movement because if it on one hand tends toward origins, on the other hand it distances him from what was his family heritage. The change from Abram to Abraham in the Old Testament, from Simon to Peter in the New, from Sigismund to Sigmund (Freud), from Henri Le Saux to Abhishiktananda were significant – Panikkar would say “symbolic” – and the same holds for him.
In Panikkar there were many Panikkars, a veritable multitude: a philosopher and a theologian, a Christian and a Buddhist, a Hindu and an “a-theist”, a Catalan and an Indian, a priest and a writer, a preacher and a lecturer, a son and a brother, a friend and a husband, a traveler and a father, an old man and a young man. It would suffice to examine part of the photographs in which he appears at different ages and the different expressions, the different clothes and environments. The boy with short dark hair and the old man with long white hair, the well-shaved professor wearing a tie and the bearded sadhu in a wide-sleeved shirt, the priest wearing ornate Tridentine vestments and the noble Indian wearing an expensive silk dhoti. Panikkar smiling and Panikkar anguished, joyous and serious, playful and preoccupied, unrestrained and tranquil, intrusive and attentive. The same holds for the multi-colored and polymorphous thought instilled in his writings.
The history of literature is well acquainted with authors who have acted similarly. In Dostoevski’s case one speaks of the “symphonic novel” and it is known that each of the Karamazov brothers is one of the masks of the author. Perhaps yet more radical is the example furnished by Fernando Pessoa, for which was created the concept of “heteronomy” (from the Greek heteronymia, or heteros, ‘diverse’ and onoma, ‘name’), that is to say heteronyms, or diverse characters, like Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, Bernardo Soares, in addition to a dozen less well known, which are the extension of the same author: they have their own names, write their own works and even possess their own biographies, but everything is created by Pessoa and in a certain manner is Pessoa. The Portuguese writer has Alvaro de Campos write a poem,”Passagem das horas” (“The Passage of Time”), in which this plural mystery is somewhat explained. The poet’s words are adaptable in an extraordinary manner to the mystery of ‘the plural Panikkar’.
“Multipliquei-me, para me sentir,
Para me sentir, precisei sentir tudo,
Transbordei, não fiz senão extravasar-me,
E há em cada canto da minha alma um altar a um deus diferente.”
(“I had myself multiplied to feel
To feel myself, I had to feel everything,
I flooded over, I have done nothing but pour myself out,
I have undressed, I have betrayed myself,
And in every corner of my soul there is an altar to a different god.”)
Whoever got near him understood Panikkar’s multiplicity, mysteriously unified, solid and unique and was justly fascinated by it. He himself was able to be diverse with different people, but was always himself. He could be different for every person and everyone could understand him in a diverse way from others. Up to here everything is find. Problems could appear, when, at a certain point confrontation arose, and could result in dispute if “my Panikkar” didn’t correspond with “yours”. Not everyone understood his idea of harmony, which went beyond the rigid “either-or”. But truth be told, to harmonize all the Panikkars from Panikkar is not an easy, obvious and automatic matter. It turns out to be even more difficult to harmonize the diverse visions of Panikkar created by people who knew and loved him. Almost all have erected their own little altar to him. Each person has his unique view, his own portrayal, which is within the range of the proper understanding of Panikkar.
I think he himself would have been rather indulgent with this variety and these apparent contradictions. He allowed everyone the freedom to understand one of his aspects, which was special and entire for each person. He allowed himself to be labeled because he understood that’s the way the world works, but on the other hand he always emphasized that no identification (mask), with which one plays in society, exhausts the mystery and uniqueness of the persona, which must remain as such. It’s a similar operation to attempt relating the event of his life, because just by speaking one does not exhaust the richness of the persona and does not reduce his mystery to a biographical account. Conscious of that we can proceed tranquilly, without restraint and without fear of censuring anything.
Concluding a dialogue-interview with the philosopher Gwendoline Jarczyk, which later became a book, Panikkar says: “my responses were directed to you, therefore subject to relative truth. […] Another person would have brought me to a much different environment, and I would have given very different responses”. Rather, with another person Panikkar would have appeared and would have shown himself in a very different manner. And that’s the way it actually was. It is a disconcerting thing with which I have very often been confronted when speaking about him, especially when I approached people who had known him well or while I read their testimony, Unfortunately, almost everyone has “his” Panikkar and each one sees him in a manner slightly different from the way others see him. This could also be explained by the principle of subjectivity at the base of which the very same thing or person is perceived in a manner differing from individual to individual. That’s the way the same tree is seen; that’s the way the same street incident is seen and then related by different eye witnesses; the same book is understood differently by different readers. Optimists of pluralistic theories would maintain that one could approach truth by treating each reflection as complimentary to the others. Thus, it would suffice to meet the greatest number possible of people who had known Panikkar in order to construct, on the basis of their accounts, the thinker’s “true” image. On the other hand, pessimists would immediately rebut that, even by joining one reflection to another, truth is not the sum of the reflections, and anyway it is not in fact attainable because their number is potentially infinite. In other words, it is not enough to speak with all who knew Panikkar in order to describe him correctly. Of course, there are the doubts and the typical reflections of the portrait painter and the historian.
Now and then, while speaking with people who have known Panikkar, I have had the impression that they not only wanted to hide or preserve something secret about their relationship with him, but that they also wanted to protect the image they had created from the images of others which might conflict with their own, diminishing or tarnishing it.
Panikkar lived for some time in diverse environments, undergoing various transformations. There is the Panikkar of Barcelona enveloped in his family, the German Panikkar, the Panikkar of Opus Dei, the priest and the academician, the Panikkar of India and the Panikkar of the United States, the Panikkar of Tavertet. All these Panikkars which are presented to the scholar, are not necessarily easily reconcilable. This causes a methodological problem, which needs to be transformed into a creative vehicle of creativity, otherwise one ends up mired in a dead end.
Thus we are dealing with a certain vision (or myth) of Panikkar produced by the same Panikkar that is being related, possesses a selective memory, has a linguistic strength, emanates a myth of itself and enchants others. It is necessary to add, however, that especially while proceeding through time, there often exists a certain distance between what Panikkar refers to about himself and his life and what really happened. Then there exist, as referred to previously, visions of Panikkar which others have made of him.
If one intends to relate and write, but also to listen and read, about Panikkar’s life, one must renounce the desire to deal with “classical biography” in which everything is flattened by the law of coherence and narration flows in chronological order. In his case, very often a biographical date can be related, interpreted or judged in very different ways by different persons, and a question receives contrasting answers, even though they can be read as complimentary. This is the great lesson of his life: existence is not only chronological, but polyphonic, therefore the art of life is not exclusively in coherence, but in harmony. Panikkar is a multiple man, as perhaps every man is. His existence has been decidedly extraordinary, therefore the account of his life can only be a challenge to the literary genre of biography.
I. 6. This Book
The idea of writing a book on Panikkar, as I have said, was born spontaneously while reading his texts. I began to investigate intellectually and set off on a trip. I visited several places tied to him, Catalonia, Italy and India, convinced that a man thinks in accordance with the places where he lives. Simply for economical reasons, I didn’t succeed in going to the United States or Germany. I contacted and frequently even met with people close to him, relatives, friends, acquaintances and collaborators. Some were very sympathetic toward my project and generous to offer their memories; others were less welcoming, but I learned from all and am in debt even to the latter, who responded with silence. I have had the fortune to make several truly revealing discoveries, which enriched my understanding of Panikkar and make up veritable treasures of my narrative.
Still I must admit that this is not a biography of Panikkar: it’s only a narrative about a man and his thought. I acknowledge at least three fundamental limitations to my work: firstly, I have not had access to Panikkar’s personal archive left in Tavertet, nor to the documents held by those close to him, by Opus Dei and by the Vatican; secondly, I have not been able to either know or say “everything” because some facts would inevitably have violated the privacy of persons still alive; thirdly, given the length of Panikkar’s life and the immensity of his literary work, a “complete” work would have required at least ten years, whereas a monograph would be perhaps five times more conspicuous. I believe that some day someone surely will attempt to complete the venture. While working on the draft I have often proposed writing a “biographical portrait”, in which dates of this man’s life, his works and his thoughts would be merged into a chronological path, but where the portrait painter’s brush strokes would also appear. I didn’t want to hide behind the mask of pure objectivity, which as we know is impossible. Writing this essay has been a fascinating adventure for me and I hope that in some way it will be the same for the reader. Knowing rather well the richness of Panikkar’s life and the immensity of his work, I have no difficulty admitting that I have not said “everything”. Even if I had done research for more years and had written twice as much as I have actually written, there would still remain much to explore and narrate. This conviction, which I had from the very beginning, has permitted me to work tranquilly and has left me with a serene heart when I pressed the final period.
This book would not have been written without the help and presence of many people. Some of them have been present from the beginning to the end, others only at certain moments; some helped me a lot, immensely, others less, even if often in an essential way. I could almost write another book narrating my visits to Panikkar’s friends, acquaintances, relatives and residences. My work is permeated with the presence of many who I hope will see themselves between the lines. Not wishing to create a merit hierarchy I simply place their names in alphabetical order: Bettina Bäumer, Patrizia Bertoni, Daniela Bevilacqua, Maria Bidoli, Enrico Bistazzoni, Federica Bonarelli, Carlo Brutti, Rita Brutti, José Cabezón, Juan E. Campo, Roberta Cappellini, John B. Carman, Enrico Castelli Gattinara Jr., Rodolfo Castelli Gattinara, Francis X. Clooney, Pascaline Coff, David Compte, Fran O’Donnell, Mark Dyczkowski, Scott Eastham, Elido Fazi, Olivia Flaim, Joan E. Geller, William A. Graham, José Luis Illanes, Françoise Jacquin, Raffaele Luise, Vito Mancuso, Bruno Mastroianni, Carlo Mercuri, Paul Odyniec, Mauro Onorati, Maria del Mar Palomo, Agustin Pániker, Mercedes Pániker (†), Jordi Pigem, Paola Pisani, Achille Rossi, Nicoletta Sereggi, Ancochea German Soto, Patric D’Souza, Benoit Standaert, Francis Tiso, Paolo Trianni, Purnananda Zenoni. To each, always personally, and to all together: thank you.
Panikkar. The Man and His Thought
(fragments in english)