Rearranging the geometry of heaven

Familiar faces can be seen in the photo above which was taken at the recent thanksgiving service for Raimon Panikkar in the Basílica of Montserrat outside Barcelona. Raimon Panikkar, who died on August 26th, 2010, was best known as an authority on comparative religion. But his advocacy of inter-religious dialogue was also an important influence on one of the great visionaries of 21st century classical music, Jordi Savall.

Raimon Panikkar was born in Barcelona in 1918, the son of an Indian Hindu father and a Spanish Catholic. He studied for his three doctorates in Spain, Germany and Italy and his thesis at the Lateran University in Rome titled The Unknown Christ of Hinduism compared the teachings of Thomas Aquinas with those of a canonical Hindu scripture. Panikkar's first visit to India in 1954 started his life-long exploration of how core Christian convictions could be expressed in Hindu and Buddhist forms.

In the early 1940s Raimon Panikkar met Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of the controversial Opus Dei and it was at Balaguer's urging that he was ordained as a Catholoc priest in 1946. Panikkar was a close friend of Balaguer; he did not distance himself from Opus Dei until the early 1960s and later said he did not regret his involvement with the organisation.

After breaking with Opus Dei Raimon Panikkar's advocacy of intercultural dialogue and links with the polytheistic religions was very much at variance with the position of traditionalist Catholics. He held professorships at Harvard Divinity School and the University of California, Santa Barbara and for some years split his time between academic work in the West and research in India. In 1987 he moved to Tavertet near Barcelona, where he founded the Raimon Panikkar Vivarium Foundation for intercultural studies.

He later famously said of his first visit to India:
I left Europe, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.
Raimon Panikkar's path from orthodox Catholicism to inter-religious dialogue is reflected in the music of his fellow Catalan Jordi Savall. From his roots in Catholic Spain and an early album for EMI Reflexe of devotional songs from the manuscripts music from the Abbey of Montserrat, Jordi Savall's music making has progressed to a sequence of multicultural projects that have looked to the East.

First in the sequence in 2007 was Francisco Xavier. There are clear links between this project, which follows in music the journey of a Jesuit missionary east from Rome to India and on to China, and Raimon Panikkar's spiritual path. One of the most moving passages in the live performance we attended in Paris in November 2009 was the raga based on the plainsong O Gloriosa Domina performed by Prabhu Edouart on tabla and Ken Zuckerman on sarod. That is Ken Zuckerman in the header photo flanked by Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall.

Jerusalem, which followed in 2008, was Jordi Savall's next major project. This turned from the polytheistic religions of the Far East to the three great monotheistic faiths of Europe and the Middle East. Then in in 2009 came The Forgotten Kingdom which returns to Jordi Savall's native Catalonia and uses a humanist theme to chronicle how the multi-cultural kingdom of Occitania was destroyed by religous fundametalism.

Parallels with the thinking of Raimon Panikkar can be found in these three great Jordi Savall projects and also in other releases such the bridge-building Diáspora Sefardí (1999) and Orient-Occident (2006). But the most striking evidence of the collabaration between musician and religous scholar comes in the 2007 Le Concert des Nations CD and DVD release of Haydn's Seven Last Words from the Cross. For this Raimon Panikkar provided an accompanying essay which was also one of his last written works.

Raimon Panikkar's thinking permeates this sequence of groundbreaking projects from Jordi Savall and his fellow musicians and their significance should not be underestimated. These great intercultural CD and book projects have created a new and very successful genre, the classical concept album which transcends the single composer classical convention and looks instead to the heydays of the rock LP. Today, Jordi Savall projects are consistent best sellers for beleaguered independent stores and their book and disc format has created an added value package that defies the remorseless shift to downloads. The success of his independent and musician run Alia Vox label is the envy of the men in suits at the corporate labels and the acclaim which greets each new project is much needed confirmation that creative activities are inseparable from everyday life.

The photo below shows Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras with Raimon Panikkar during their collaboration on their Haydn's Seven Last Words from the Cross. Here is their tribute:
The outstanding thinker and philosopher, that great champion of intercultural and humanist dialogue between all forms of spirituality, our Teacher and friend, Raimon Panikkar, has left us. The Memory of his teachings will forever be an inexhaustible source of humanist and spiritual inspiration and an indispensable reference in the apprenticeship of the art of living in harmony and plenitude... Those who had the good fortune to know and receive his teachings now have the privilege and responsibility of keeping alive his witness in favour of understanding, dialogue, harmony, Peace and Justice between peoples of all cultures.
Raimon Panikkar gave the Thomas Merton lecture at Columbia University in 1982. Merton, who was himself a great intercultural champion, uses the phrase 'the geometry of heaven' in his translation of a poem by the Nicaraguan Alfonso Cortés. I am sure Thomas Merton would have approved Raimon Panikkar's efforts to rearrange the geometry of heaven.

* My sincere thanks go to Catalan blogger Neus Pinart for giving permission to use her photo taken in the Basílica of Montserrat seen at the head of this post. Neus has an article on her blog with more photos about the thanksgiving service for Raimon Pannikar. Her blog is in Catalan, there is an online translation tool here.

** My 2008 post about another intercultural pioneer, Bede Griffiths, continues to attract a lot of readers. There are many links between him and Raimon Panikkar. They met when Bede Griffiths stayed with Panikkar in Bangalore on his first visit to India and the two became close friends. Read more in This man is dangerous

*** Thomas Merton's translation of the poem by Alfonso Cortés, When You Point Your Finger, provides the title for this post. It is one of the Merton poems set by John Jacob Niles that is on the exquisite albume by baritone Chad Runyon and pianist Jacqueline Chew titled Sweet Irrational Worship, the Niles-Merton Songs.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All resources mentioned in this post were purchased by me. Lower photo credit is Alia Vox. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Panikkar was simply one of those men who move mountains.His beautiful speaking voice and delightful sense of humor walked confidently with his awesome learning and deep vibrant faith. he was a star on the horizon, and is now one in the firmament .Bless you for all you did,Father Raimondo...and to the ever remarkable Overgrown path, as always thank you for your work.

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