'If you don't believe in yourself, you can't believe in God' | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: June 21, 2024

He looks like the stereotypical image of a hermit, but Raimon Panikkar is not that easy to pigeonhole. He is both Hindu and Christian, philosopher and mystic, scientist and priest, Indian and Spaniard. Hardly surprising, Panikkar firmly believes in the importance of cultural and religious differences — but also in peace and acceptance. Tijn Touber visited him far away from the civilized world, hidden in the mountains.

Tijn Touber | April 2004 issue
The road comes to a halt at the foot of the Pyrenees. A green valley extends beyond a classic Spanish mountain village in Catalonia. My rental car creaks and groans as I continue on the bumpy dirt track to Raimon Panikkar’s home, a farm dating from 1717. As if to express a profound faith in God, an ancient church I pass by, stands only a few yards from a yawning abyss. Panikkar once preached here, but he is spending the remaining years of his life writing books. His loyalty does not lie with the church as an institution but as a body of ideas. ‘I distinguish between the church as a living organism and the church as an organization with its council and cardinals,’ he would tell me later on. ‘I am not on the Vatican payroll. I am a priest because it is my calling, not because I am a member of a club. I did not become a priest. I am. It has nothing to do with will power or a decision. You are what you are.’
However, it must have taken a certain measure of will power to acquire a curriculum vitae full of honorary doctorates and distinctions. Panikkar, who was born in Barcelona in 1918 to a Spanish mother and an Indian father, has been associated with universities on almost every continent in the world. He has written about 300 articles and more than 50 books on a wide range of subjects, including Indian culture, metaphysics, interreligious cooperation, philosophy and mysticism. Panikkar studied and worked in Rome, San Francisco and Varanasi, India, before settling down permanently in his isolated Catalonian mountain village some years ago.
When I arrive, I search vainly for a doorbell. Through the windows I see crowded bookcases, a piano, menorahs, an organ, Indian statuettes, two leather armchairs, a fireplace, an old-fashioned typewriter, yellowed manuscripts and a simple bed standing on a rough tiled floor. The bell? A door swings open. Panikkar looks like the stereotypical wise hermit: shoulder-length grey hair, tanned face, intense eyes and simple flowing robes. His shawl completes the picture.
He asks me how I managed to locate him and says with a laugh, ‘I thought I had found a good hiding place for myself.’ Taking me by the arm, he leads me around the house, as if he wants to make sure that now I have discovered him, I won’t lose him. Only when we have reach his study does he let go of my arm. The conversation that ensues reflects his extraordinarily wide range of interests as someone who is both Hindu and Christian, philosopher and mystic, scientist and priest, Indian and Spaniard, and a speaker of seven languages.
The first thing I ask is how he can be a Hindu and a Christian at the same time. Isn’t it difficult to bring conflicting ideas about God and the creation together to form a whole? He regards me with amusement. ‘Why would you join them together into a whole?’ he asks. ‘Wouldn’t that be rather a pity? The nature of our worldly reality is dualistic. There will always be differences, contrasts and friction. Underneath or behind all this there lies a common field. We must allow the differences to exist and learn to look beyond them. You can learn to live in different levels of reality at the same time.’
Panikkar is the living proof of this. He has learned to live with the differences, but he knows that global society has not yet reached this stage and that conflicting schools of thought can have serious consequences, such as religious wars. ‘The world needs to change drastically,’ he says. ‘Reformations imposed by authorities will not work. The age of rules, dogmas and decrees is over because they simply highlight the differences. Nor will revolution have any effect. The time has come for transformation.’
Panikkar believes that the key to this transformation is acceptance. By accepting something, you put an end to inner conflict, and resistance will then change into surrendering to what happens in life. According to Panikkar this acceptance – which is the first step towards transformation – is a female characteristic, and modern civilization needs more of it. His smile is mischievous: ‘We need to have more sexual intercourse – a new marriage between male and female values.’
Is this the proverbial quantum leap in consciousness which many philosophers refer to? ‘The quantum leap is too mathematical, too quantitative for me,’ says Panikkar. ‘What we need is a quality leap. We must find a completely new way of thinking. This is more than simply changing your ideas. It goes even further than changing your mentality. Transformation means transcending the mind – that is, bypassing our rational way of thinking, where contrasts are born. You are no longer guided by your intelligence alone, but you also listen to your heart.’
Panikkar explains that it is only possible to transcend the mind if you realize you are more than your own mind. ‘We must overcome the fatal division between knowledge and love,’ he says. ‘If you go beyond thought, you come into contact with another voice. It is often referred to as “the heart,” but I prefer to speak of “the pure heart.” When you listen to it, you are able to accept everyone and everything. You understand that we are only a part of a wonderful game. Anyone who lives like this makes an optimal contribution to the beauty and happiness of the planet – or, if you prefer, to the whole universe.’
Raimon Panikkar looks forward to this earthly paradise, but I wonder if a good marriage between head and heart is really enough for us to realize this goal. Isn’t disarmament a far more practical and tangible plan? But for Panikkar, there can never be a military disarmament unless it is preceded by a cultural disarmament. ‘If we continue to be inflexible and cling to cultural differences, everyone will constantly feel threatened and the need for military defense will continue to exist,’ he says. ‘Cultural disarmament means a willingness to accept that differences are a part of the game.’
Panikkar sees religion as an important cultural weapon. ‘Religions are languages,’ he says. ‘We can use language to communicate with one another or to wound each other. Many people use language mainly to convince the other person – to win. Others are only prepared to think in their own language and through lack of communication with outsiders impoverish themselves. However, you can also use language to have a real conversation, a dialogue, when you use words to get through to the common spirit.’ Accordingly, he is closely associated with the Parliament of the World’s Religions, an international interreligious organization. ‘It is very important for religions to meet and listen to one another,’ he says. ‘By listening, we learn to speak one another’s language. We must try not to distance ourselves from anything or anyone.’
He is silent for a moment and then adds, ‘Not even from Satan. He is our best ally. He is the first of God’s creatures, the most intelligent of all.’ With a wicked grin, he quotes from Goethe’s Faust: ‘Von Zeit zu Zeit les’ ich den Alten gern’ [DIT MOET NOG NAAR HET ENGELS WORDEN VERTAALD]. The message is clear: Panikkar is not afraid of the devil in any form, including in himself. Instead of rejecting the satanic side of his own character, he fully embraces it and transforms it into an ally. ‘Devils only operate in the dark,’ he says. ‘They are not a threat to people who allow light to touch every part of their soul. It is not the ‘devil’ but fear of the satanic and clinging to a particular ‘truth’ that makes devils of us.’
The tendency of religions, especially those that are monotheistic, to place one truth above all others is ‘a time bomb,’ says Panikkar. ‘By reducing everything and propagating it as the ultimate truth, these institutions become narrow-minded bastions of totalitarianism. When I call out that my God is Absolute, other people are overwhelmed and shut themselves away.’
In the West, Panikkar says, ‘this separatist way of thinking is taken to an extreme. Don’t we love classifications! We have become brilliant at it! We want to define religions, divide them and put them into neat squares, so we label each other as Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or Christian, but this classification creates a clash. If instead we learn to speak each other’s language, we learn to listen to one another. I can only listen to you if I feel sympathy for you. I must like you, trust you and respect you. I must be prepared to enter into your view of the world. A listening attitude – and this is also female – is born of the realization that you cannot have all the answers.’
He falls silent for a while and appears to look right through me to a time in the future. And then, almost beseechingly, he says, ‘Only in this way – through listening – can we achieve world peace. It is not something you can impose, even with the best intentions. You cannot enforce peace. You have to be truly willing to meet and embrace the other person with your whole being.’
Nevertheless, many people appear to have their hands full just coping with themselves. They do not seem able to receive another person with open arms. Even in ‘enlightened’ circles, where people are consciously involved with spiritual growth, there is often an excessive focus on ‘I’: my process, my life, my desires. ‘I have an idea that the West brought a curse upon itself with the advent of individualism,’ Panikkar says. ‘The “I” has been blown up out of all proportions. We use all our strength to enlighten our ego, but that is a disastrous path to follow because there is no such thing as the ego. The ego is an illusion.’
Silently he peers through the window and then continues, almost whispering. ‘Those who think they have no need of God or other people will destroy themselves. Those who look beyond themselves will realize that we are only a part of a larger whole. The wider your field of vision, the more you encompass. A mahatma [great spirit, ed.] encompasses the whole universe. We are not separate; everything is linked. Everything is related. If I do not believe in myself, I cannot believe in anyone else. If I do not believe in myself, I cannot believe in God.’
Panikkar formulates his words carefully. Every word is sampled and savored. He loves words and takes his time finding the one he needs to express precisely what he is feeling at that moment. In his presence words become a little sacred. Every now and then he releases a balloon of thought. It rises and hangs in the air while he leans back to observe it. Sometimes his pronouncements hang somewhat uncomfortably in the air. What does he mean by that, I think to myself. Is there something I have not understood? But when I allow the balloon to float and sink in, I find myself thinking that the process of thinking can be more important than the final answer. My thoughts briefly touch on Krishnamurti, who often allowed a space for thought during a recital. Once, during one of these thought spaces, an overzealous student sprang to his feet with ‘the answer.’ Krishnamurti’s face twisted as he replied, ‘You killed it.’
We allow ourselves too little time for introspection, says Panikkar. ‘We tend to leave the answers to difficult questions about life to the “experts,”’ he explains. ‘But any answer can only help us if we fathom it ourselves. This takes reflection and quiet.’ Panikkar’s prayers begin with stillness, with seeking the emptiness in which he can receive. ‘My prayer is simple; it is like breathing. It is like life itself. I am conscious that I am alive. I open myself and become still. As the Buddhists say, to be still you have to still your desires. You have to purify yourself. I call that self-cultivation. God has given me everything, but I have to cultivate it.’
Self-cultivation finally leads to what Panikkar calls ‘true faith.’ He explains: ‘Faith is an existential openness to the mystery, to the unknown, to silence. It is acknowledging that you do not know all the answers, let alone the questions. It is discovering that you are an unfinished being. Unfinished is very close to infinite, without end.’
In order to express their faith, people clothe it in all sorts of concepts and symbols and with the language available to us on the basis of our culture, which in turn gives rise to systems of faith. ‘Belief is the intellectual articulation of the mystery we call faith,’ says Panikkar. ‘Faith lies at the center of every religion. At this level there are no contradictions, simply because there are no dictions – that is, no words. In the mystic dimension there are no contrasts. We have lost sight of the spiritual dimension of reality and because of this we have no mystic security. We allow ourselves to be ruled by reason, while in fact we are driven by something else: the spirit. We are driven by passion, love and hate. This is quite different from reason. And far more dangerous. These forces need careful cultivation.’
Outside it is starting to get dark. In the mountains we hear the sound of bells as a flock of sheep make their way home to a warm stable. In this village they have probably not noticed, but out there in the world large groups of people have turned their backs on the church in the last few decades. In part, this is because of a liturgy that is sometimes difficult to understand and short-sighted answers from Rome to serious questions concerning life. But many are also disappointed in God. After all, if he is really so almighty, how can he tolerate all this misery? But as far as Panikkar is concerned, a God like this has never existed. ‘It is about time we stopped believing in such a rudimentary God,’ he says. ‘It makes belief impossible. This is also why I am not a monotheist. We ourselves are part of what is divine. We are divine. You don’t have to be a Hindu to claim this. The whole Christian mystery is about just one thing: God who became man in order to make him a god.’
It is for this reason that Panikkar distinguishes between Christ and Jesus. ‘The Christians do not have a monopoly on Christ,’ he says. ‘Christ is the mystery we are all seeking. Christ is the mystery of the alpha and the omega. Jesus was a human being through whom the mystery was able to express itself. I myself was brought to the mystery of Christ through Jesus. But please, let us not reduce and limit Christ to Jesus.’
The idea that the way to God lies only through Jesus is just one of the simplistic, absolutist dogmas the church has dished up for hundreds of years, says Panikkar. The strict division between good and evil and the fixation on sin has created fear and dependence. If we ‘sinful and insignificant creatures’ do wrong, we can only acquire forgiveness by confessing to a clergyman in the same institution that instilled fear in us in the first place – a perfect, diabolical circle.
Panikkar sighs. ‘Christianity has paid a high price for this sort of banality,’ he says. ‘The system of confession is based on false compassion to make the sin bearable – for a so-called good cause, and to reduce suffering. I can fully understand that intelligent people cannot bear to put up with this sort of circularity and turn their backs on the church. The liturgy is separate from life, which is serious. My hope is focused on a cross-pollination of religions, because we need one another. Nobody has a monopoly on anything whatsoever.’
The great affinity Panikkar feels with Jesus expresses itself in his desire to draw everyone into his heart, without exception. Like Jesus, he is a man among men – in the world, but not of the world. ‘Bearing the burden of mankind humbles one,’ he says. ‘It is a sobering experience and is good for you. Otherwise you think, “I am a priest, I am pure, I am superior.” Please, no! We are all in the same boat – all a part of this sinful mankind. I know that sin is a reality, but it is not the highest reality. Feeling guilty or sinful is pointless and an escape. Instead of feeling sinful, we should accept responsibility for things that actually happen, like Auschwitz and Guantanamo Bay.’
Despite his great concern, Panikkar is an optimist, for increasingly, his experience isthat the kingdom of God is truly in us. ‘Over the years I have come to understand more and more what this means,’ he says. ‘The Greek word entos can be translated in three different ways. First, the kingdom of God is within you. This concept has resulted in a focus on what is egocentric. Second, the kingdom of God is among you. This has resulted in crusades and wars aimed at actually establishing this kingdom on earth. Third, the kingdom of God is between you. This means developing relationships, being open, being involved. Not shutting yourself away – not acting as if you are pure. Between you means love and friendship – being with a group of friends, if you like, and sharing the joy of being together.’
Despite Panikkar’s passionate plea for the integration of head and heart, his hope lies mainly with the thinkers or philosopher-priests who rule the world – albeit with a delay of two to three generations, which society needs to embrace and integrate new ideas. ‘Philosophers create the patterns of thought on the basis of which society will evolve further,’ he says. ‘All you need is patience. As Hegel said, truth can wait. There is no need to hurry. Don’t worry or make a fuss. You don’t have to prove the truth. You only have to live it.’
This final balloon of thought continues to hover for a while in the air between us. Then he leans back and offers me a final bit of advice: ‘Be honest with yourself, believe in yourself and love yourself as much as possible. Then you will live in peace. Peace spreads all on its own; you don’t need to do a thing. Every action is colored by it. That is the karma of the saints and creates human solidarity. If I am able to make my life a little work of art, then I make the whole universe beautiful. This is how simple and how difficult it is.’

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