Printer Friendly

Panikkar, Abhishiktananda, and the distinction between relativism and relativity in interreligious discourse.

One who knows several mental (or religious or spiritual) languages is incapable of absolutizing any formulation whatever--of the gospel, of the Upanishads, of Buddhism, etc. He can only bear witness to an experience--about which he can only stammer ...

Swami Abhishiktananda (April 30, 1973) (1)

Consider two statements: Nothing is absolute. There is an absolute. Are these the mutually exclusive assumptions of two opposing thought-worlds, relativism and nonrelativist systems, or are they premises that in their interaction give rise to a pluralist conclusion about the relationship among all such systems? Or, do these statements serve as imprecise theoretical correlates for an experience of self-transcendence that arises in response to encountering more than one tradition at its depth? Much debate in philosophy, theology, and comparative-religion studies in particular has been generated from these interpretations.

At stake for some interpreters is the integrity of modern experience: Once we have been true to the Enlightenment's dismantling of myths, is there still warrant for belief in an unchanging reality? For others, the authority of revealed scripture informs the question of what is absolute: Is it not possible for word or at least Word to be true for all times and places? For yet others, fidelity to interreligious exigencies must be maintained: Given historical and contemporary conflicts between religions, can we afford to accept any other metaphysic than one that affirms both absolute ground and the rough parity of its relative expressions?

There is another option chosen by those who attempt to take seriously all three of the above positions toward the question of what is absolute, embracing modern secular a-theism, word-centered theism, and theocentric pluralism. Just as the above interpretive frameworks find one another unacceptable because of being dismissive of what each believes to be unquestionable assumptions, so together they are likely to assess the fourth option as unintelligible in its inclusiveness and unreasonable in its resistance to theoretical closure. From the perspective of this fourth option, the other three are not inadequate because of being lower in a hierarchy of knowledge; rather, they are partial, as any viewpoint is, including itself once expressed. What distinguishes the fourth option from the other three is its capacity for self-transcendence, its ability to affirm both an absolute and its many relative expressions, not as a dogma but as an approximation to mystery, specifically the mystery communicated by the absolute to itself, glimpsed as though from within by the graced spirit.

Raimon Panikkar (b. 1918) and Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux; 1910-73), at least in their mature years, take their stance in this fourth option, wherein the two statements above are not premises leading to a conclusion but are, rather, the axes upon which their experience positions itself, sometimes closer to one axis than the other, sometimes distant from the crossing point of integration, but ever willing to live at whatever cost within this fluid topography. For both writers, if either axis (either statement) is forgotten, the range of one's thought-world is radically simplified either as relativism or as dogmatism (a kind of doctrinal idolatry). This essay will focus specifically upon the distinction between relativism and relativity as a key grammatical tool for orientation within this topography.

After a brief introduction to Abhishiktananda, Panikkar, their friendship, and their complementary vocations, the essay develops how the distinction between relativity and relativism arises for both writers within the praxis of interreligious dialogue as an inevitably imperfect but appropriately provocative attempt to ground that experience theoretically. Objections to those imperfections and the clarifications they prompt are then explored. The essay concludes with some reflections upon the challenge to the field of religious studies raised by Panikkar's and Abhishiktananda" implicit claim to special, multireligious experience.

I. Interpenetrating Biographies, Complementary Vocations

Henri Le Saux, O.S.B., first met Raimundo Panikkar in 1957. By that time, Le Saux had been in India nine years, having immigrated after nearly twenty years in a Benedictine monastery in France and having settled in the southern state of Tamil Nadu to found a Benedictine ashram with Fr. Jules Monchanin. During those nine years he had studied Sanskrit, Tamil, and English (adding to his knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin); had encountered several masters of Advaita Vedanta (the two most significant being Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Gnanananda); had plunged himself into a nontheistic contemplative practice taught by these masters; and had adopted the Indian monastic ideal of sannyasa (signified in the name Abhishiktananda, or "Bliss of the Anointed One [Christ]"--all the while remaining a practicing Roman Catholic priest and Benedictine monk.

By 1957, Panikkar had reestablished connection with his father's homeland and Hinduism, while still identifying with his Spanish mother's Roman Catholicism as a priest and theologian. In the course of his multidisciplinary education (culminating in doctorates in philosophy, chemistry, and theology), he had studied Sariskrit, Pali, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and he had begun to publish in German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English. Beginning in 1967, he would assume teaching responsibilities in the United States, but not before experiencing by his own account conversions not only to Hinduism but also to Buddhism and later to secularism, all the while maintaining his Christian roles and identity. (2)

From 1957 until Abhishiktananda's death sixteen years later, the two friends shared in "multireligious experience" and in the attempts to reconcile the multiple, sometimes conflicting spiritual commitments that such experience demanded. (3) A reading of their respective published works, as well as their correspondence, reveals how interdependent their intrareligious processes were during these years before and after the changes wrought by Vatican II (1962-65). They would eventually come to recognize and deeply respect the complementarity of their vocations: Abhishiktananda the "acosmic" author-monk convinced that silence changes the world more effectively than words; Panikkar, the priest and theologian committed to transforming the world through words born from silence. (4) A sense of their enduring interdependence is conveyed in Panikkar's introduction to his friend's spiritual diary, the editing of which he undertook "in token of my friendship with Swamiji, and perhaps also to confirm in my own life the dimension which he represented." (5) As will be apparent in this essay, this interdependence also provides an important key to understanding their mutual call for a relativization of religious forms and their mutual claim that this call need not lead to the acknowledged danger of relativism.

II. Relativity/Relativism and Definition of Terms

For the relationship between relativity and relativism, five questions are addressed: What is meant by each term, and how does the distinction between them situate an approach to diverse viewpoints on ultimate questions? What is the experiential ground for this distinction? What is the metaphysical (theological) basis for it? What are the implications of this theoretical construct, derived from multireligious experience, for subsequent dialogue with other traditions? Finally, what issues have been raised by fellow Christians in response to Panikkar's explicit and Abhishiktananda's implicit use of this distinction?

We will rely upon Panikkar in stipulating the terms in this distinction, while suggesting that Abhishiktananda's less frequent and less systematic usage was similar. By "relativism," Panikkar means the claim that all thoughts, statements, truth-claims, and thus viewpoints are relative, a position that undercuts any affirmation of an absolute reality or any universal truth--including, as is axiomatically declared of this position, its own self-presentation as a valid theory. In his accounts of relativism, Panikkar frequently appends the adjective "agnostic," suggesting that either a lazy or a rigorous theoretical reluctance to claim certain knowledge of an absolute is often integral to relativism. He thus seems to imply that, if there is a "not-knowing" involved in declaring that "nothing is absolute," it is more mystical than theoretical, grounded in the self-corroborating experience that "there is an absolute" to a degree that undercuts relativism but leaves room for relativity.

It is the experience of an absolute, in addition to "multireligious experience," that forces recognition of relativity as the abiding nature of reality, both human and divine. Panikkar defines relativity by contrasting it with relativism: "Relativism destroys itself when affirming that all is relative and thus also the very affirmation of relativism. Relativity, on the other hand, asserts that any human affirmation, and thus any truth, is relative to its very own parameters and that there can be no absolute truth, for truth is essentially relational." (6) Key to the distinction is the preposition "to" added to "relative," shifting the statement that "there can be no absolute truth" from a metaphysical assertion to an epistemological observation that truth never stands independent of a particular relationship between knower and known; it is "essentially relational" in the sense that truth is always dependent upon and thus specific to the relationship from which it emerges. This strong sense of relativity, however, does not require the metaphysical conclusion that "there is no absolute." Hence, Panikkar would uphold the living, noncontradictory connection between the two statements with which this essay began.

The distinction between relativity and relativism is thus employed as a theoretical tool for approaching multiple, contrasting viewpoints on ultimate questions, such as different religious traditions. It serves to establish a stance toward that multiplicity that is not merely tolerant but responsive, not merely agnostic but attentive, not merely inclusivist but pluralist. (7) Rather than simply dismissing all truth-claims as idiosyncratic, one who stands within the viewpoint defined by this distinction is aware of all that conditions the truth of one's own claims and of the various creative tensions evoked by listening to the contrasting claims of others. Panikkar uses the image of Scylla and Charybdis to illustrate this stance between agnosticism and dogmatism and to warn that it is not without dangers. In response to these perils, he evokes the distinction we are examining, perhaps as a kind of navigational aid: "Here, I would distinguish between relativism and relativity, between an agnostic attitude which is intellectually paralyzed due to a fear of error and a relational awareness which understands that because all knowledge and even all being is inter- and intra-related, nothing has meaning independent of a delimited context." (8) In the grammar of Panikkar's interreligious discourse, the distinction between relativity and relativism thus functions as a principle for relating the bewildering diversity of contexts and languages to the almost unspeakable whole (totum) heard through that diversity. (9)

III. Experiential Ground

Whereas the distinction between relativity and relativism as positions toward diverse viewpoints on ultimate questions is not, to my knowledge, used explicitly in Abhishiktananda's writings, it is implicitly operative there as a strategy for making sense of his multireligious encounters--and operative in a way that is suggestive of the experiences that Panikkar implies are the basis for his own reflections. (10) Both also take the step toward relativity not only in response to interreligious experience but also as a result of their respective intuitions of the divine.

Recall the 1973 statement from Abhishiktananda's spiritual diary given above as an epigraph. In the previous section of the essay, I noted the various "languages" that both friends learned--not only in a linguistic sense, but in a theological and spiritual sense as well. Common to both is the resulting inability to absolutize any of these languages or formulations, even those of Christianity. Knowledge of multiple languages shifted their self-understanding and self-representation; both came to identify themselves as somehow not only Christian but Hindu as well--a dual characterization that the relativity/relativism distinction again facilitates. (11) (As already noted, Panikkar would add Buddhist and secularist as well.) The existential, even agonizing struggle caused by this knowledge of and fidelity toward multiple religious languages is admittedly more apparent in Abhishiktananda. Nevertheless, a sense of the cost of such exploration is also clear in Panikkar. (12)

The final sentence of the epigraph suggests that more than multireligious experience grounds Abhishiktananda's account that he and others like him will have difficulty "absolutizing any formulation whatever." Whereas one may in fact "stammer" before the richness of interpersonal communication when diverse "languages" are involved, it is apparent from the context of his statements that he is referring as well to divine-human encounters. That the relative nature of formulations such as Jesus' Abba and the mahavakyas (literally, "great sayings," intended to spark realization) of the Upanishads was more than a theoretical postulate for Abhishiktananda is apparent from his personal records of his experiences of using both Hindu and Christian spiritual practices. (13)

In 1956, a year before he met Panikkar, Abhishiktananda composed an essay that explored the principle of relativity in experiential terms. Significantly, "Esseulement" was written shortly after a powerful three-week retreat with a Hindu guru, Sri Gnanananda, during which Abhishiktananda did not say mass or even read but only engaged in nondiscursive meditation and experienced the darshan of "the first man before whom I have been willing to prostrate." (14) This essay sheds clear light upon how Abhishiktananda sought to integrate his intensifying experiences of nonduality (advaita) into his life as a Christian priest and contemplative phenomenologically rather than theologically.

He began by describing what happens to one, presumably like himself, who commits to the unremitting practice of discriminating between the real and the unreal, between the unchanging and the ever-changing--a practice at the heart of what Hinduism names jnana marga, or "the way of knowledge" (in the fullest sense of gnosis). One engaged in this practice cannot avoid experiencing a radical isolation or solitude (esseulement) and a pervasive "disenchantment with all that is not the Absolute" that necessarily affects one's responses to religious doctrines and practices:
 Their relativity as regards time, space, human beings, etc.,
 appears in such a bright light that the intelligence, athirst
 for absolute truth, can no longer find satisfaction in them, nor
 can desire, athirst for absolute good, take any pleasure in them.
 The most essential elements of the faith lose their flavour of
 truth. Even the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation can no
 longer speak to the soul. The soul is absolutely compelled to lose
 the triune God and the God-Man as it has conceived them, and to
 allow itself to be swallowed up in the abyss of Being, of the
 Godhead beyond all conceiving, which attracts it irresistibly. (15)


Abhishiktananda's maturing knowledge of the divine through nondiscursive meditation seems to have provided an unchanging reference point in relation to which all conceptualizations of God and Christ have been relativized and become unsatisfying. Nevertheless, one should not gain the impression from "Esseulement" that Abhishiktananda dropped all use of doctrinal or liturgical forms because of being disenchanted with their radical contingency, nor that he encouraged others to do so. He remained committed to his vocation as a priest and to his further calling as one who takes his "stammerings" about the divine quite seriously.

The particular charism and cross that Abhishiktananda exemplified was to experience his Christian formation from decades of monastic discipline and sacramental ministry become relativized before the mystery of the divine--the divine as encountered in contemplation and eventually in a spiritual awakening associated with a heart attack in July, 1973. Yet, even in the months prior to that attack, he intuited the death that his own habits of formulating, based upon the "myths" (in the most positive sense) of his tradition, must undergo. In February, 1973, he wrote:
 ... The myth of the Church is left behind, as is the myth of Christ.
 They have been marvelous guidelines, but by being turned in on
 themselves they have lost their elemental force as myths "appealing
 to the depths of the human heart." And the myth can no longer be
 recovered. The christie and ecclesial myths are now exploding into
 symbols that are more powerful, more universal (though still
 mythical) in their deep insertion and rootedness in the cosmos, and
 yet often less remote from the invisible archetypes and more
 meaningful to modern hearts.

 ... In these days evolution is tending towards an awakening at the
 level of the archetypes themselves. But who is capable of an
 awakening beyond symbols? (16)


Intriguingly, one may read the above passage as an account both of what was happening in Abhishiktananda's own spiritual life and of what he perceived as evolving in the church. The final question is also prophetic in that he referred to the realization after his heart attack as an awakening, one in which all Christian coloration, all symbols and myths, exploded. (17)

Whereas Panikkar is less forthcoming about the details of experience that grounds his reflection upon relativity, one may discern a similar "awakening" from the years of his own intense engagement in India simultaneous with Abhishiktananda's. He has acknowledged that this experiential dimension is concealed under the "clothing" of his philosophy, as the following section suggests. (18)

IV. Metaphysical Foundation

In Panikkar's "return" to India from the mid-1950's on, he became immersed not only in the language and world of his father's Hinduism (the primary fruit of which is his monumental text on the Vedas, The Vedic Experience) but also in the language and philosophy of Buddhism (as he expressed in The Silence of God). (19) This encounter with, even conversion to, Buddhism is perhaps a key factor distinguishing Panikkar and Abhishiktananda, the latter remaining in dialogue more exclusively with advaitic Hinduism via various teachers and the Upanishads. Especially relevant for consideration here is Panikkar's focus upon the principle of pratityasamutpada, which he characterizes, following the Buddha himself, as "the central focus of all Buddhism" and develops as the principle or "radical relativity." (20)

In Buddhism's reflections upon its founder's experience of pratityasamutpada, Panikkar discovered a language rooted in spiritual practice that apparently resonated with and advanced his own efforts to "stammer" about "an experience" of reality, both divine and human. His "translation" of this language into the terms of his own philosophical exploration sounds like this: "What the Buddha sees is not so much the celebrated Buddhistic impermanence, as the radical, constitutive relativity of everything--the universal concatenation of all things, and accordingly their mutual essential relationship, given that they perdure only in virtue of being found in the flux or becoming, or samsara." (21) Here, for Panikkar, is an eminently perceptive account of "pure contingency," with "no outside support," meaning no objectifiable, substantial foundation that transcends contingency. The effect of this realization is purifying, yet "devastating ... for it leaves no escape in the form of some 'projected' transcendence." (22) Here is the "explosion" of which Abhishiktananda wrote as well.

How does Panikkar, following the Buddha, avoid the Charybdis of relativism in affirming the insight of pratityasamutpada, or radical relativity?
 The key notion here is that of the constitutive relationship of
 everything with everything else. This approach must by no means
 be confused with a pure and simple relativism, which would be
 tantamount to a mere agnosticism, a premature renunciation of any
 attempt to make valid assertions. Relativism is pessimistic. It
 surrenders all possibility of arriving at any criteria of truth.
 Relativity, on the other hand, refusing to absolutize such criteria,
 recognizes them as legitimate. (23)


Here is an experience of contingency that prompts neither a withdrawal from the search for truth nor spurs an escape into universals. Instead, realization of the thoroughgoing relatedness of all realities sparks a deeper plunge into them, somehow assured that partial truths disclose Truth and that within, even identified with, contingency (samsara) is that which is not contingent (nirvana)--a challenging variation of the nonduality both Panikkar and Abhishiktananda received from Hinduism. (24)

It is not surprising that Panikkar makes the daring proposal that God is not, in traditional Judeo-Christian-Muslim fashion, separable from an inherently contingent "world" as its transcendent, holy, and absolute creator. Rather, God is characterized by radical relativity and relationship or, more precisely, is not a particular "thing" to which all realities are related but is instead constituted by relationship, present in reality as relatedness, as inseparably as the grammar of "nirvana is samsara" suggests. "What I am proposing is that relativity as applicable to God means that God is not considered as Being, as Substance, as the more or less transcendent Absolute, but as 'genitival' Relationship. Radical relativity regards God as the Genitive of reality, the Reality of reality, the Truth of truth." (25) Panikkar, drawing upon the vocation of silence he shared with Abhishiktananda, acknowledges in the tradition of apophatic or negative theology that a God that is "not a 'thing,'" not a substance, cannot be grasped by thought, and thus is best presented by silence.

Once again, however, Panikkar, given his roots and his scholarly vocation, could not help but seek a verbal, conceptual bridge between the Buddha's compelling account of relativity and the language of Christianity or between the Buddha's silence and that of Christian mystics. If "radical relativity" as a principle descriptive of all reality (subsuming the distinction between divine and human) is true to experience (not only the Buddha's but also Panikkar's?) and not just a tradition-specific interpretation a posteriori, then may a Christian recognize this principle and articulate it as integral to a Christian metaphysic? The symbol that bridges Buddhist and Christian languages and silences on this point for Panikkar is the Trinity. Drawing upon the mystical logic of this symbol and its doctrinal explication, he not only conveys how a Christian might "read" radical relativity but also illumines how a Christian can understand the diversity of religious viewpoints in more than a theoretical sense wedded to particular systems or models.

"[T]he Trinity is radical relativity par excellence." (26) As the early councils of Christianity discerned, the persons of the Trinity are neither three beings nor three manifestations of a single being. Instead, the three names (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) suggest "subsistent relations" constitutive of God: "[E]ach consists entirely in a relativity with respect to the others, in such wise that each reciprocally implies and embraces the other two without thereby being those others." (27) This interdependence and intimate relatedness is radical again in the sense that it characterizes not only God but also the created universe:
 God's radical relativity ad extra is a mirror image of the
 same radicality ad intra: that is to say, the whole universe, as
 image or "vestige" of the Trinity, is endowed with the trinitarian
 character of radical relativity. Things "are" in the measure that
 they cease to be in order to give themselves to other things
 .... [T]o the intratrinitarian circumincessio corresponds an
 extratrinitarian perichoresis. (28)


The function of the Trinity as a model for the relativity or constitutive interrelatedness inherent in God and universe is foundational to both Panikkar's and Abhishiktananda's interreligious explorations. (29)

How does this same intuition of relativity affect their practice of and reflection upon dialogue?

V. Implications for Dialogue

The fourth question to be examined--What are the implications of the distinction between relativity and relativism for interreligious dialogue?--may suggest that this construct is brought to the conversation between differing religious viewpoints rather than discovered in the experience of that conversation. In interpreting the writings of Abhishiktananda and Panikkar, one must take into account the simultaneous maturing of experience and reflection (praxis and theory) in both authors. For both it is misleading in particular to read their views of other religions in early works as setting a norm to which they conformed throughout their lives. As the official position of the Roman Catholic Church on this issue shifted in the middle of the twentieth century, so their positions also changed, though in both cases perhaps beyond the letter of the conciliar documents.

The simultaneous development in Panikkar's and Abhishiktananda's views of Hinduism is effectively illustrated by the introductions they wrote for second editions of key early works. Panikkar's The Unknown Christ of Hinduism was originally published in 1964 and thus reflects in its first edition the exploration of Christianity in relation to Hinduism that he shared with Abhishiktananda during the late 1950's and early 1960's. As Panikkar himself acknowledges, his viewpoint in the first edition also reflects that of the Roman Catholic Church as it began to formulate its response to a quickly changing world in Vatican II. In his 1981 preface and introduction to the revised and enlarged edition, Panikkar emphasizes that he has refrained from completely revising the text to fit his current vision in order to illustrate "the continuity of my path in spite of the mutation that has taken place both in me and in our world." (30) He would now be "much more radical in his approach," he writes, but seeks nonetheless "to preserve intermediate steps"--again both his own and those of the church. (31) The "old skins" into which he poured the wine of his early experiences of Hinduism as a Christian did not suit, but no more appropriate language was available. Even as he revised the work, "new skins," that is, "new forms of human consciousness," were still being created. (32) One may conjecture that the distinction we are examining is one ingredient of the new skins, forms more suitable, he believes, for holding the new wine of interreligious experience so that others may also drink of it.

It is intriguing that similar caveats appear in Abhishiktananda's introduction to the revised edition of his most sustained and systematic reflection upon the experience of Hindu-Christian dialogue. This text was originally published in 1965 as Sagesse Hindoue Mystique Chretienne: Du Vedanta a la Trinite, a work he had begun in 1962. However, the request in 1971 to publish an English translation (33) also afforded the opportunity to revise a text whose main thesis he no longer accepted--a revision that would demand significant attention during his final three years. In the end, he, like Panikkar, decided that a thorough updating of the original was not possible, due both to the limitations of his own command of English and to the confines of "the whole world of thought within which and through which the understanding of the Christian faith has developed in the first two millennia of the Church's existence"--a world of thought that was directly questioned at Vatican II. (34) In particular, he despaired of removing from the first edition a theology of religions that he could no longer uphold.

Abhishiktananda, in his 1971 introduction to the English translation, significantly retitled Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience, states that "the theology of 'fulfilment'" that shaped the earlier edition "is unable to do justice to all the facts of religious pluralism," nor is any other theoretical resolution of the problem raised by these "facts." (35) Implied is his apparent dissatisfaction with the steps taken on this issue at Vatican II, given that its documents, although dramatically more open to the inherent value of non-Christian religions than previous pronouncements, take a position similar to a fulfillment theology (for example, Nostra aetate, Lumen gentium, Unitatis red-integratio). Although he cannot find a theoretical solution to the problem of religious pluralism, he does propose a practical one, to engage in dialogue with other religions, both external and internal.

Perhaps echoing a distinction central to Panikkar's writings on interreligious dialogue, Abhishiktananda in the same 1971 introduction to Saccidananda discusses the mutual learning and spiritual communion that can take place through actual meetings with non-Christians as well as the "silent interior dialogue, continuing within the soul of each of the participants." Through both dimensions of dialogue one may experience "the Centre" that holds diversity together at the depth as well as recognize that the different ways the traditions express them selves are "only partial approxtmauons." (36) However one might conceptualize the shift away from the theology of fulfillment that Abhishiktananda is proposing, it is clear that some relativizing of linguistic expressions (doctrines, rituals, theologies) is involved. In a 1973 letter he wrote about attempts to compare or order the various religious traditions as follows:
 We have to descend into the ultimate depths to recognize that there
 is no common denominator at the level of namarupa [names and
 forms]. So we should accept namarupa of the most varied kinds.... No
 comparisons, but we should penetrate to the depth of each one's
 mystery, and accept the relativity of all formulations. Take off
 from each of them, as from a springboard, towards the bottomless
 ocean. (37)


Again, this affirmation of relativity appears to result from the conscious interplay of theory and praxis.

With Panikkar, the intimations of theory suggested by Abhishiktananda's practice of dialogue become more systematically developed. The essays in Panikkar's much-cited work, The Intrareligious Dialogue, were also written in this period of the late 1960's and early 1970's. One passage will suffice to illustrate both the similarity in their views of dialogue and the place of relativity in the rationale for it:
 [I]f interreligious dialogue is to be real dialogue, an
 intrareligious dialogue must accompany it, i.e., it must begin with
 my questioning myself and the relativity of my beliefs (which does
 not mean their relativism), accepting the challenge of a change, a
 conversion and the risk of upsetting my traditional patterns.
 Quaestio mihi factus sum, "I have made a question of myself," said
 that great African Augustine. One simply cannot enter the arena of
 genuine religious dialogue without such a self-critical attitude.
 (38)


The distinction between relativity and relativism thus functions within the practice of dialogue as a grammatical principle that itself emerged for both Panikkar and Abhishiktananda not only in their encounters with Hindus but also from the conversation between viewpoints within and perhaps between themselves. Discovery of the relativity of viewpoints through one's interior dialogue prompts a similar strategy for conversation with and interpretation of the religious "other."

VI. Christian Critiques

Not surprisingly, fellow Christians have objected that the qualification of the truth-bearing finality of Christian doctrine implied by the principle of relativity contradicts the gospel, vitiates faith, compromises missions, and undercuts any advocacy for justice. As Panikkar and Abhishiktananda underwent their mutual experiences of India and translated them into texts (at times in implicit dialogue with each other), each anticipated and responded to these objections. Thus, in their respective use of the distinction between relativity and relativism one finds a strategy not only for processing their multireligious experience but also for answering their critics.

A. Abhishiktananda

Abhishiktananda received strong objections from Catholic readers to some of his more speculative early essays. (39) One may at times glimpse the content of these critiques, as well as his frequent self-criticism, in his correspondence. Specific to the distinction being discussed, his letters record the challenge he faced in experiencing and expressing the relativization of religious forms:
 The moment in history in which we are living calls us to a stern
 purification of all our means--institutional, intellectual, etc. To
 recognize the essential beyond all the forms in which it repeatedly
 embodies itself.... But then, in allowing the forms to yield their
 place, not to lose anything of the essential. The motives for
 abandoning forms are so mixed--just as mixed as those for keeping
 them intact. Who will be able to recognize the Spirit in all its
 purity? Who will be willing always to want nothing but the
 Spirit? (40)


As compelling as the call to relativize religious forms in relation to "the essential" was for him at this point in history (1966), he nonetheless understood how easily misconstrued such a call might be, given the mixed motives for affirming or resisting such a project. His critics would likely read into his words, especially his more daring expressions of earlier works, an irresponsible dismissal of church doctrine and ritual forms motivated by an uncritical appropriation of Advaita Vedanta, especially its teaching that all realities other than Brahman are namarupa (literally, "names and forms") that must be transcended in order for Brahman to be realized. The questions at the close of the above quotation also indicate his recognition of how difficult such a purification of forms that embody the Spirit would be for himself spiritually, as well as for his church.

Years after the 1966 letter quoted above and perhaps in response to the reluctance of publishers in France to accept some of his writings, Abhishiktananda still wrestled with the apparent difficulty for his readers to interpret accurately his approach to religious forms. Even his major work, Sagesse (Saccidananda), did not go far enough, he believed, in conveying what his experience in India as a Christian was calling him to say. "To come back to writing--nowadays it is too difficult, the problems are more and more fundamental. Sagesse only went half way. In this surge of protest I hesitate to speak, for the reader would only gather that forms are relative, but would not pay, attention to the experience of the mystery, which alone gives value to that which is beyond forms." (41) Abhishiktananda clearly anticipates here the criticism that his call to relativize necessarily results in relativism. Without the direct experience of that which grounds all such forms ("the mystery"), how could one conclude otherwise? Nevertheless, his critics, some of whom are quite sympathetic to his vocation as a contemplative in India, believe that his way of expressing the call to relativize all religious forms is unbalanced.

J. Glenn Friesen has examined Abhishiktananda's claim that no tradition's formulations, including Christianity's and Advaita Vedanta's, are absolute, and that they are all on a similar level of namarupa, names and forms of what is absolute. Focusing in particular upon Abhishiktananda's diary, correspondence, and posthumously published writings, Friesen concluded that Abhishiktananda nevertheless believed that the formulations of Vedanta are superior to, and can be used to purify, those of Christianity, which in comparison are less universal in scope and more bound to their historical context. Friesen's thesis is that, from the early 1950's on, advaitic experience became the authoritative reference point for Abhishiktananda, requiring him to find verbal ways to reconcile Christian beliefs with that experience, rather than upholding those beliefs as the standard of authenticity. (42) For our purposes, the interesting question is thereby .raised of whether or not the relativization of religious forms as namarupa represents a shift in epistemological viewpoint grounded in multireligious experience or a mystical realization of the absolute. Perhaps Abhishiktananda's call to recognize the relativity of all religious forms is instead symptomatic of his growing conviction about the superiority of a different system of thought and language for making sense of his experience, rather than a transcending of all such systems. Has Advaita Vedanta, with its teaching on the provisional and nonultimate character of all namarupa, become the dominant philosophical framework that he uncritically and unsuccessfully (hence his almost continuous anguish in India) appropriated to reconcile his intensifying experiences of nonduality as a Christian?

James Wiseman, in an essay that generally affirmed his fellow Benedictine's contribution to monastic and interreligious witness, commented upon the theological implications of Abhishiktananda's relativizing of religious formulations as namarupa. Whereas strong apophatic tendencies may also be identified in recognized authorities of the Christian church (for example, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, and John of the Cross), Wiseman found on balance that Abhishiktananda's approach was "simplistic" in advising a return to direct spiritual experience beyond forms as the necessary ground for all theology and excessive in its criticism of the Greek foundations for much Western Christian thought. More fundamentally, Wiseman questioned the value of "the very sharp dichotomy Abhishiktananda drew between experience and conceptualization"--of strategy central to the project relativization. (43) The result of this highly skeptical attitude toward the finality of Christian (and any other tradition's) doctrines is that "prominent features of Abhishiktananda's theology are heterodox." (44) The important question is thus raised of whether Abhishiktananda's assertion of the relativity of religious formulations runs so counter to basic Christian assumptions that it is irreconcilable with his own tradition's self-understanding, thus distancing him from his most likely audience. In particular, is Abhishiktananda's call for thoroughgoing relativization commensurable with incarnational and sacramental theologies, or do his later writings sever the living connection between divine source and religious forms essential to Christian theology and practice?

Similar criticism of Abhishiktananda's call for relativization comes from his successor at Saccidananda Ashram, Bede Griffiths, O.S.B. Cam. (1906-93). Although he was deeply impressed by Abhishiktananda's presentation of the stages of Christian advaitic realization in Sagesse (Saccidananda), Griffiths was highly critical of the direction taken by his French predecessor in the early 1970's, including the author's qualified repudiation of this text. The issue involved is not Abhishiktananda's rejection of a fulfillment theology of religions, because Griffiths himself had made a similar move. What troubled Griffiths was the extreme degree of relativization in response to an intensifying experience of nonduality expressed in Abhishiktananda's final writings, especially in his correspondence:
 Towards the end of his life, I get the impression the world had
 become too much an illusion for him. He was just leaving it behind
 and centering on the one reality alone. And I think that's not the
 fullness. I think in each tradition you have to go beyond the
 dualities and open up to the one beyond, and then you have to
 reintegrate the whole of humanity and the human experience into
 that unitive vision. (45)


Griffiths' point is that Abhishiktananda plunged headlong into the realization of nonduality, of that which is beyond all names and forms, but did not experience the further step of "reintegration," of recognizing that within the nondual Godhead are found transformed all that constitutes the human world, including names and forms, such that one now reperceives that world as itself a sacrament of the divine.

Whether Griffiths is correct or not in his assessment of Abhishiktananda's spiritual maturity, it is clear that the Frenchman would agree thoroughly with this principle of reintegration, not only in his earlier writings but in his later ones as well. In a 1973 letter to his student Marc Chaduc, Abhishiktananda cautioned him about hastily dismissing all religious forms:
 In the dazzling light of the vision of Being, you have perhaps
 been overstrict in rejecting all the namarupas. And yet, in the
 sariram [the body] that we bear, it is in the experience of these
 namarupas itself that we discover advaita ... If we set them in
 opposition, we have lost our way....

 And then rites recover their value, and the man who is "realized"
 cheerfully takes part in the rite without inhibitions. (46)


Whereas Griffiths may have objected to Abhishiktananda's way of expressing himself, a principle of reintegration may be found in both Abhishiktananda's published and unpublished writings that clarifies his sense of the relativity of all religious forms. Limited by their historical and religious contexts, these forms may nonetheless mediate the experience of what is absolute and eventually may be recognized as themselves re-presenting that absolute. (47)

All three of the critics cited above thus raise the practical question of how one may experience simultaneously the relativity and the sacramentality of religious forms, affirming respectively the two statements, "Nothing is absolute" and "There is an absolute," within a single, consistent worldview. Friesen, Wiseman, and Griffiths further seem to agree that Abhishiktananda has fallen short in the other necessary task of expressing the principle of relativity in a way that is intelligible to Christians and sufficiently consistent with Christian doctrine and spirituality. At best, this shortcoming may be explained as resulting from the urgency of his apophatic, even prophetic vocation; at worst, as "muddled thinking," even neuroticism. (48) Panikkar has suggested that his friend's writings are often more mystical than theological, describing him as "a man of orthopraxy, rather than orthodoxy." (49) Panikkar's responses to similar criticisms of his own writings shed light upon how one more comfortable with the scholarly vocation might address the issues raised by relativity.

B. Panikkar

Central to Panikkar's anticipation of the kind of objections raised by Abhishiktananda's critics as well as his own is the "pars pro toto effect"--a theoretical tool emergent from the praxis of dialogue that further explains the experience underlying the relativity/relativism distinction. As a result of interreligious conversation, according to Panikkar, we may realize that, like the partner in dialogue, we, too, experience reality through a particular "window" whose shape and glass correspond to our specific conditioning. We further may recognize that both of us see "the panorama," the whole, through our respective windows (totum per pattern), yet we cannot see that whole as the other sees it. We may conclude that our partner mistakes his or her limited view for the entire panorama and his or her part for the whole (pars pro toto); we may also learn that she or he reaches the same conclusion about us. Each believes that the whole is experienced through one's own window (totum per partem) but resists agreeing that this is possible through the other's--a resistance that multireligious experience and interreligious dialogue may weaken. (50)

In Panikkar's account of the pars pro toto effect, one finds an epistemological ground, based in a theory of perception, for the distinction between relativity and relativism that complements the metaphysical foundation discussed above. To affirm relativity is to acknowledge that each person can see (which does not mean that she or he does see) the whole, but always from a particular perspective (through a specific window). To uphold relativism, one must declare that no such whole exists or, in the form of agnosticism, that one can never know that it is the whole that one is seeing. Multireligious experience, in both its intra- and interreligious dimensions, affords the opportunity to glimpse the totum through another window, thereby confirming the validity of more than one viewpoint and upholding the value of differences between religious worldviews.

Nonetheless, Panikkar has been criticized, as has Abhishiktananda, for being inconsistent in his reflection upon the relativity of diverse religious forms and of religious worldviews. While provocatively declaring that reality itself is plural and thus irreducible to a universal theory from a single point of view, Panikkar, according to John Milbank, "exhibits a residual wish to affirm such a pluralist ontology independently of any tradition or any time-bound vantage-point" (51)--a wish that neither Panikkar nor any other theorist can successfully fulfill. This failing is illustrated for Milbank in Panikkar's attempt "to fuse neo Vedantic pluralism with Christian Trinitarianism," (52) a possible interpretation of Abhishiktananda's work with advaita and the Trinity as well. For Milbank, the problem here is that Panikkar is neglecting how diverse the realities of Western and Eastern religious worldviews actually are; modern Indian pluralism and the Christian model of the Trinity present fundamentally different approaches to plurality. Only by means of "imperializing reclassifications" can one construct a "dialogue" between the two worldviews that avoids disclosing the antagonism between them. (53)

Approaching pluralism as a theory subject to logical principles, Gerald James Larson has found Panikkar's account generally accurate but ultimately equivocating in its sense of truth and self-defeating in its attempt to make assertions. Accepting the relativity of all religious formulations can lead one to refrain from adjudicating the truth-claims of the various religions and further to turn this restraint itself into an assertion of truth, presupposing that its contrary is false. Larson argued that Panikkar's metaphysical position that reality itself is pluralistic prompts him to make the self-contradictory assertion that the pluralist conviction that different standpoints are neither true nor false is itself true:
 If my position reaches a point at which I can no longer make
 assertions, I cannot then assert that my position is true. I can
 only assert that my position is neither true nor false in terms of
 a two-valued logic. Put another way, I cannot say that "true" equals
 "neither true nor false" without falling into contradiction,
 because, in fact, I am then committed to saying that it is true that
 the set of things we call religions are neither true nor false but
 that each one severally (or taken serially) is perfectly true in
 terms of internal consistency and external coherence! (54)


The problem with formulating a consistent theoretical pluralism is that one must in the process attempt to transpose a position valid within a three-valued logic into a two-valued one, and this cannot be done without equivocation. Larson's conclusion that "there is no such thing as a theoretical pluralist position," set alongside his high praise for Panikkar's position, prompts one to consider again the disjunction between theory and praxis, (55) but what kind of praxis does the principle of relativity support?

As both Panikkar and Abhishiktananda have recognized, it is easy to misinterpret the relativity of religious forms as a type of conceptual relativism--the belief that what concepts we employ to convey truth ultimately do not matter because they are all inadequate due to limitations of historical context. A related and more serious danger for most critics of contemporary culture and of pluralist theories is moral relativism--the unwillingness to affirm moral absolutes in the name of respecting cultural diversity.

Paul Knitter has argued, for example, that Panikkar's radical pluralism and the relativizing of religious viewpoints that it assumes have potentially dangerous consequences. Not that Panikkar is insensitive to these dangers, according to Knitter, but that concern has not been translated adequately into theory:
 In order to show how his position is one of "relativity" and not of
 "relativism," he must make clearer how he can come to discern
 between what is "true and false," "good and evil." ... More
 specifically, it does not seem that Panikkar has sufficiently laid
 out the criteria--or the procedure--by which he can confront and
 oppose what seem to be the intolerables that are present within our
 contemporary world. (56)


Unless such criteria and procedures are made explicit within the conversation between religions, the injustices prevalent in the world are tacitly condoned. Ignoring "the intolerables" and the means for identifying and confronting them renders the dialogue "immoral"--even "an ideological weapon" for maintaining an unjust status quo. Whereas Panikkar has affirmed the importance of concern for the poor as a cross-cultural attitude, Knitter believes that this concern remains irresponsibly abstract and mystically grounded in a "cosmic confidence" that is insufficient for addressing concrete situations of oppression. (57) Panikkar has addressed the theoretical objections of Milbank and Larson and the more practical concerns of Knitter. Together, these may be distilled to three issues: the reduction of religious differences, the compromising of religious truth-claims, and the weakening of moral commitment. Panikkar's responses, useful also in clarifying Abhishiktananda's project, address these issues by describing three essential activities: (1) comparison, (2) assertion, and (3) social action.

(1) Milbank criticized Panikkar for attempting to assume a supratraditional position as a basis for comparing principles in different religions and, specifically, for trying to "fuse" such principles from incommensurable worldviews. What are Panikkar and Abhishiktananda doing in their respective efforts, for example, to explore the cross-cultural implications of the Trinity and advaita? Are they distorting either principle by reading it through a different tradition? Are they neglecting significant differences that lie latent in the principles due to their original context in divergent religious systems?

Panikkar emphatically affirms that the integrity of the differences between traditions is essential to his pluralistic view of reality. Nevertheless, his radical plurality also gives the proper scope, he believes, for the identification of similarities without which no common language for interreligious understanding and thus no fruitful dialogue can take place. (58) Such similarities are called variously "functional" or "homeomorphic equivalents" or "homologous correlations" or simply "homologies," as distinguished from either identities or analogies. (59)

Panikkar has explored many examples of homologies in his writings. After developing the homological relationship (as well as the important differences) between Brahman and Yahweh, he emphasizes the fact that the guidelines for such an exercise within two traditions must emerge afresh from the actual dialogue, not from the preconceived assumptions of either tradition: "There is neither a common given nor an accepted basis, revelation, event or even tradition. Both the very subject matter and the method are to be determined in the encounter itself." (60) This identification of homologies and any subsequent attempts to compare religions thus depend upon multireligious experience, upon being able to live within or be converted to the traditions being examined, the results of which must, nevertheless, be submitted to the criticism of members of the traditions involved in the comparison. (61) It is likely, then, that Panikkar would take issue with the description of his work with the Trinity and advaita as a "fusing" of these two concepts, given that this image suggests the loss of the integrity of either or both. (62)

(2) There is a sense in which Panikkar both decries and assumes a universalizing stance toward the plurality of religions--a tension less apparent in Abhishiktananda, who intentionally limited the range of his theorizing and was not engaged in academic debates. It is this tension with which Larson also takes issue, claiming that Panikkar's position self-destructs logically in its attempts to assert the universal nonuniversalistically. As discussed above, by Panikkar's own admission, his relativity escapes the pitfalls of relativism only because it can coherently assert the existence of an unchanging reality, an absolute, as more than a solipsistic conclusion. He acknowledges this apparent problem as follows: "Am I not contradicting myself criticizing universalism, i.e., acknowledging the factual incommensurability of ultimate rational systems, and at the same time offering a pattern which seems to claim universal validity?" (63)

In answer to this problem, he evokes "[o]ur universalistic instinct ... so embedded in our psyche" and the inevitability of the pars pro toto effect, and so he acknowledges that his method "is a non-universal way of approaching from our particular perspective the universality we all intend." (64) In short, what appears to his critics to be a presumption to universality is understood by him as an attempt within the limits of his own horizon to intend the Being that all subjects can only express in part, totum in parte: "[T]he subjective aspect of any affirmation with the claim to universal validity does not encompass the totality of all human beings. It will always remain our affirmation. If at all, only an a posteriori statement could claim universal validity within a particular horizon offered by a given myth in a limited field in time and space." (65) The relativity of viewpoint is thus inescapable, even for the most universalizing of statements, though this does not equate with the denial of an absolute that is characteristic of relativism. Panikkar thus embraces John Cobb's notion of self-relativization. (66)

Pluralism and the principle of relativity escape the self-defeating logic of relativism because they do indeed emphatically intend a truth that is true for all, but with the understanding that all such intentions of the whole are through a part, totum per partem. (67) The "relativistically self-referential" character of truth within a pluralistic attitude may not be fully adaptable to logical categories, but it does fit and serve to explain "the unforeseen and insoluble problems" presented by the praxis of interreligious encounter. (68)

(3) There remains, however, the serious charge that the relativizing of religious formulations and truth-statements potentially leads to moral relativism or at least to a compromising of moral commitment. In response, Panikkar affirms, along with Knitter and other liberation theologians, the primacy of praxis over theory. He thus illustrates his rejection of moral relativism with accounts of his own experience with persons and communities that are poor or oppressed. (69) At the basis of this response to Knitter is again an experiential claim--that it is possible to realize the relativity of one's own stance on a given topic and yet remain committed to combating what one perceives as injustice through social action. (70)

However, Knitter's critique focuses upon what he believes is an inadequate theory for confronting an unjust status quo. As Panikkar's response suggests, it is only on the basis of a nondualistic and trinitarian account of cosmic-divine-human reality, and the "cosmic confidence" it elicits, that the moral seriousness of such a pluralist stance appears coherent or convincing. As a representative of one of three dimensions of reality, each human's responsibility for the whole is immense: "The dynamism between the 'three' is free, not preconceived, or pre-directed (by whom?).... Here lies our dignity and responsibility ... To be Man is not just to be a small piece of intelligent matter crawling in the universe or a great individual walking on earth. Man is a conscious agent in the very destiny of the universe." (71) The "option for the poor" that is central to Knitter and liberation theologians is, for Panikkar, based in praxis but also in the "confidence" or intentionality of the cosmos itself--a factor that theory can elucidate. Nevertheless, this preference of the needs of the poor and oppressed is an option, admittedly "an imperative option," but one that, as a theological formulation, should not be absolutized. (72) To recognize the relativity of one's moral criteria is not to succumb to relativism or apathy, for Panikkar, but to acknowledge the staggering responsibility of re-presenting the intention of cosmotheandric reality in the ever-changing circumstances of history.

Having lived longer through the creative theological turmoil left in the wake of Vatican II and identifying more with the priest's calling to work in the world than with the traditional monk's vocation to withdraw from it, Panikkar feels the urgency of this issue of moral relativism more acutely than Abhishiktananda did, the latter being attracted more consistently to the life of the "acosmic" who changes the world through silence. (73)

VII. Conclusion

The above accounts of relativity as an interpretive stance distinct from relativism and of the objections it raises for some Christians may be summarized as follows: Within the Roman Catholic Church's pre- and post-Vatican II ethos of self-reflection, two foreign-born priests encountered and immersed themselves in the thought-worlds of non-Christian traditions in post-Independence India through the reading of sacred texts, through studying with gurus and acharyas, through engaging in spiritual practices, and through discussion with each other and with fellow Christians. This engagement with other religious "languages" through intra- and interreligious dialogue and the consequent and often painful process of self-relativization shifted their respective orientations for the consideration of ultimate questions from a unitraditional position to a dual- or multi-traditional one.

On the basis of the multireligious experience of perceiving common human challenges through more than one traditional "window," each strove to explain the consequences of this shift in orientation, primarily for Christian audiences. In these efforts to move from praxis to theory, the principle of relativity served as a grammatical tool that both approximated their new perspective and connected to Western philosophical discourse. At pains to do justice both to their experience and to that of the larger Christian community, they sought to negotiate the relationship between the religions and the divine, between the world and its source, between the many and the one, in a way that preserved the nondual quality of that relationship--the many are neither identified with nor utterly distinct from the one, but they constitute its intra- and interrelatedness.

This altered position, once articulated, inevitably provoked objections from others who did not perceive the world of the many in relation to its source according to the same framework of meaning: Does the position of relativity enhance respect for and preserve the integrity of religious differences, or, rather, does it reduce those differences to culturally conditioned artifacts that are ultimately imperfect and expendable in relation to a common essence or absolute? Does the interior process of self-relativization and its theoretical explanation represent a true shift in epistemological horizon based upon a fresh, multitraditional perspective or mystical experience, or, rather, are they symptomatic of an uncritical appropriation of an Indian thought-world that is ultimately incompatible with Christianity's? Is it possible to experience both the relativity of religious forms or symbols (their nonabsolute, because historically conditioned, character) and their sacramental power for mediating and re-presenting what is absolute, or must one inevitably slip into either relativism or dogmatism in the process? Is the questioning of the primacy of reason and logic as final arbiters of our beliefs and commitments a productive response to modernity (a kind of second naivete) or a misguided regression that lifts up "experience" as authoritative and thereby reduces God to a personal or traditional idiosyncrasy? Finally, however well-intentioned the attempt to affirm the relativity of one's own viewpoint and the possible validity of others', does this position motivate respectful dialogue and (when necessary) mutual confrontation, or does it abdicate both intellectual and ethical responsibility to stand for truth and justice by promoting, however unintentionally, conceptual and moral relativism?

How does one arbitrate between the alternative interpretations found in each of these questions? No matter how rigorously the theorist wedded to a principle of relativity might investigate the options, and however convinced the theorist might be that one option is true, ultimately he or she must conclude that one's answers will be relative to one's point of view. This conclusion cannot help but be unsatisfying, even troubling, for those who do not share this theorist's framework of meaning. Also unsatisfying will be the likely rejoinder by the theorist that his or her perspective derives from a horizon of inquiry that has been stretched, even transformed, by multireligious and mystical experience--a factor that both Abhishiktananda's and Panikkar's responses to their critics assume.

Whereas such a claim to special experience in support of relativity may easily sound elitist, one can argue (and I think both of these Christian theorists would) that there are some "laboratory conditions" that can be replicated from their own experiments, even without traveling to India or another foreign context, and that render multireligious experience, at least in principle, intersubjectively verifiable. Each of us can immerse oneself in a viewpoint, religious or otherwise, that differs from our own, prompting both intra- and interpersonal reflection on the differences. Each of us can test whether "the pars pro toto effect" applies to our varied reactions to such an immersion and what happens when and if this forum is indeed seen through a second or third "window."

However, perhaps the assumptions behind such an experiment in "diatopical hermeneutics" (to use Panikkar's term) are already unacceptable to many: Why would one seek such an immersion in another's viewpoint unless one were already unconvinced that one's own (or at least one's tradition's) is finally authoritative? Yet, are not such an immersion and self-relativization essential to the "laboratory conditions" of the common and unspecial experience of friendship?

Consider a final "conversation" between the two friends whose relationship has served as the context for the theoretical considerations of this essay. Two years after Abhishiktananda's death, Panikkar wrote the following in a "last letter" to him: "Not only did you live your life with us, giving it away so beautifully, but you also lived your experience for us. The internal contradictions and rending conflicts ("dechirements" you called them) that beset you for decades helped us to see and to discern far more than any cheap synthesis or stubborn refusal could possibly have done." (74) Relativity is essential not only to the grammar of interreligious discourse for Panikkar but more fundamentally to the art of friendship. To relativize one's own engagement with reality is to open oneself to learning from how others live (including and particularly their dechirements) and thereby "to see and to discern" differently, perhaps even to glimpse what is absolute through another's window.

As though in response, writing about the apparent conflict between Christianity and Advaitic Hinduism--a conflict that the two friends debated at length--Abhishiktananda defined truth in a way that could be applied equally to the experience of these two friends: "[T]ruth does not reside in an impossible synthesis of both but in a surpassing [depassement] where both remain totally themselves." (75) In other words, to live in relationship the truth that "nothing is absolute" was itself their path to depassement and to the realization about which they could only stammer, "There is an absolute."

(1) Abhishiktananda, Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary (1948-1973) of Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom H. Le Saux), ed., intro., notes Raimon Panikkar, tr. David Fleming and James Stuart (Delhi: ISPCK, 1998 [orig.: La montee au fond du coeur (Paris: OEIL, 1986)]), p. 380.

(2) R[aimundo] Panikkar, The Intrareligious Dialogue (New York and Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 2. For a later self-account, see Raimon Panikkar, "A Self-Critical Dialogue," in Joseph Prabhu, e.d., The Intercultural Challenge of Raimon Panikkar, Faith Meets Faith Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), pp. 262-266.

(3) The following description of "multireligious experience" could be applied to both its author and Abhishiktananda: "He starts by making a real, heartfelt, unselfish effort--a bold and hazardous one--to understand the belief, the world, the archetypes, the culture, the mythical and conceptual background, the emotional and historical associations of his fellows from the inside. In short, he seriously attempts an existential incarnation of himself into another world--which obviously involves prayer, initiation, study and worship. He does this not by way of trial but rather with a spirit of faith in a truth that transcends us and a goodness that upholds us when we truly love our neighbor. ... It is not experimentation but a genuine experience undergone within one's own faith" (Panikkar, Intrareligious Dialogue, p. 12).

(4) This distinction between their vocations derives from Abhishiktananda's account of their conversations while on pilgrimage together to the source of the Ganges, in Abhishiktananda, The Mountain of the Lord: Pilgrimage to Gangotri (Delhi: ISPCK, 1990), pp. 39-57.

(5) Raimon Panikkar, introduction to Abhishiktananda, Ascent, p. xxxi.

(6) Raimundo Panikkar, "The Invisible Harmony: A Universal Theory of Religion or a Cosmic Confidence in Reality?" in Leonard Swidler, ed., Toward a Universal Theology of Religion, Faith Meets Faith Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), p. 127. Panikkar is drawing upon the Latin roots of the term "absolute," which suggest "freedom or disengagement from," followed by a series of objects (free or disengaged from imperfection, relation, dependence, condition)--all of which contradict his notion of what truth is (see the O.E.D.).

(7) Panikkar's particular understanding of pluralism is unconventional, hence the contrast to the usual sense of the term implied in the opening paragraphs of this article. See the following writings of Raimundo Panikkar: "The Myth of Pluralism: The Tower of Babel--A Meditation on Non-Violence," Cross Currents 29 (Summer, 1979): 197-230; "Religious Pluralism: The Metaphysical Challenge," in Leroy S. Rouner, ed., Religious Pluralism (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 97-115; "The Jordan, the Tiber, and the Ganges: Three Kairological Moments in Christie Self-Consciousness," in John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, eds., The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), pp. 89-116; and, most recently, "Self-Critical Dialogue," pp. 247-262.

(8) Raimon Panikkar, The Cosmotheandric Experience: Emerging Religious Consciousness, ed. and intro. Scott Eastham (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), p. 15, emphasis in original. See also idem, Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics: Cross Cultural Studies (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 102, 316, 359, and 428; and idem, Intrareligious Dialogue, pp. 5, 21, and 40.

(9) See Panikkar, "Invisible Harmony," pp. 139-140.

(10) As examples of where Panikkar hints that such experiences underlie his theoretical accounts, see his Intrareligious Dialogue, pp. 5-6; idem, The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha, tr. Robert R. Barr, Faith Meets Faith Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989 [orig.: El Silencio del Dios (Madrid: Guadiana De Publicaciones, 1970)]), pp. xv-xxv; and idem, "The Jordan, the Tiber, and the Ganges," p. 114, n. 2.

(11) The numerous statements concerning multiple religious identities by each author include the following: Abhishiktananda, Ascent, pp. 25, 80, and 165-166; and the references for Panikkar in n. 2, above.

(12) E.g., Panikkar, "Self-Critical Dialogue," pp. 266-267. See also Abhishiktananda's recollection of Panikkar's use of a death-and-resurrection analogy for what is demanded of Christians in India, in Abhishiktananda, Mountain of the Lord, p. 39.

(13) Abhishiktananda, Ascent, p. 380.

(14) Quoted in James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told through His Letters (Delhi: ISPCK, 1989), p. 102. Abhishiktananda recounted his experiences on this retreat pseudonymously in his Guru and Disciple: An Encounter with Sri Gnanananda, a Contemporary Spiritual Master (Delhi: ISPCK, 1990).

(15) Abhishiktananda, Interiorite et revelation: Essais theologiques, ed. M.-M. Davy (Sisteron: Presence, 1982), p. 128, emphasis in original (typescript, tr. James Stuart, p. 1). See also idem, Ascent, p. 138. One recognizes here the skepticism regarding all concepts and names for God found in both Christian (e.g., apophatic theology of Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius) and Hindu (e.g., Upanishadic teaching of neti-neti) traditions. For an example of Abhishiktananda's explicit acknowledgment of these sources, see his Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience, rev. ed. (Delhi: ISPCK, 1984 list ed., 1974; orig.: Sagesse Hindoue Mystique Chretienne (Paris: Centurion, 1965)]), pp. 1-15.

(16) Abhishiktananda, Ascent, p. 373.

(17) Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda, pp. 344-351.

(18) Panikkar, Silence of God, p. xiii.

(19) On the experience behind these texts, see Raimundo Panikkar, The Vedic Experience, Man tramanjari: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977), p. xxxvii; and idem, Silence of God, pp. xi-xiv.

(20) Panikkar, Silence of God, pp. 53 and 137 (emphasis in original). Panikkar provides an etymology of this term on p. 196, n. 13. This doctrine is usually translated as "dependent origination" or "conditioned genesis."

(21) Ibid., p. 54.

(22) Ibid., p. 56.

(23) Ibid., p. 134, emphasis in original.

(24) Ibid., p. 57. Whereas the Buddha is traditionally presented as eschewing metaphysical speculation, including the question of whether a God exists, Panikkar as a Christian (as well as a Buddhist) cannot remain silent about the relationship between radical relativity and the divine reality. Nor, he suggests, could the Buddha's followers, though their answers, in particular those of the Madhyamika school, presume a level of experience that may distance them from some metaphysicians. The Mahayana formula that nirvana is samsara undercuts a habitual separation of divine and human realities. The difference between the two is perceptual or experiential rather than ontological; when one awakens from ignorance, one will find that nirvana is not a separate reality but this one finally seen as it is.

(25) Ibid., pp. 134-135, emphasis in original.

(26) Ibid., p. 141.

(27) Ibid.

(28) Ibid., p. 142. On the possibility of comparable languages for this principle, see p. 221, n. 163. "Circumincessio" refers to the movement of the divine persons toward each other and to their mutual indwelling. "Perichoresis," also used in trinitarian theology as a synonym for circummcessio, conveys more of a sense of movement, as in a dance.

(29) Compare Panikkar's account of the Trinity to Abhishiktananda's in Saccidananda, chaps. 9, 10, and 15. See, e.g., p. 130: "The revelation of the Trinity means that there is no distinction between God and his self-manifestation in the mystery of his inner being. Creation is the 'expansion' of his inner self-manifestation."

(30) Raimundo Panikkar, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism: Towards an Ecumenical Christophany, rev. and enlr. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1981[orig.: London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1964]), p. x.

(31) Ibid., p. 30.

(32) Ibid., p. 10.

(33) Abhishiktananda, Saccidananda, pp. ix-x.

(34) Ibid., p. xi. A form of inclusivism, a "fulfillment theology" of religions, presents Christianity as completing and fulfilling in Christ the aspirations of other religions.

(35) Ibid.

(36) Ibid., p. xiii.

(37) Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda, p. 318.

(38) Panikkar, Intrareligious Dialogue, p. 40, emphasis in original; also see p. 12.

(39) Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda, pp. 83-84, 87, and 92.

(40) Ibid., p. 202. Interestingly, these comments were made just after Abhishiktananda led a retreat for a convent on the Upanishads.

(41) Ibid., p. 263. See also: "My long experience of the Indian world more and more convinces me that languages (thought-patterns) differ considerably in different ages and cultures. In the end we have to go back to the experience beyond its always relative formulations" (ibid., p. 313).

(42) J. Glenn Friesen, "Abhishiktananda: Hindu Advaitic Experience and Christian Beliefs," Hindu-Christian Studies Bulletin, vol. 11 (1998), pp. 31-38.

(43) James A. Wiseman, "'Enveloped by Mystery': The Spiritual Journey of Henri Le Saux/Abhishiktananda," Eglise et Theologie, vol. 23, no. 2 (1992), p. 256.

(44) Ibid. Wiseman mentioned Abhishiktanada's tendency to dichotomize between the historical Jesus and the cosmic Christ.

(45) Bede Griffiths, "Plenary Discussions," side 3 of Christian Meditation: The Evolving Tradition, audiotapes of the 1991 John Main Seminar in New Harmony, IN. See also idem, River of Compassion: A Christian Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (New York: Continuum, 1987), pp. 101-102 and 272. See also Judson B. Trapnell, Bede Griffiths: A Life in Dialogue, SUNY Series in Religious Studies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), pp. 179-181; and Judson B. Trapnell, "Two Models of Christian Dialogue with Hinduism: Bede Griffiths and Abhishiktananda," Vidyajyoti 60 (February-April, 1996): 101-110, 183-191, and 243-254. Cf. Panikkar's different assessment of Abhishiktananda's final years in his introduction to Abhishiktananda, Ascent, pp. xxvii-xxviii.

(46) Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda, p. 330; cf. p. 100.

(47) See Abhishiktananda, Saccidananda, chap. 11 ("The Return of the Cosmos"). Note, as well, his experience of sannyasa diksha and the eucharist in idem, The Further Shore (Delhi: ISPCK, 1984), pp. 43 and 52. In these late references, Abhishiktananda was quite close in theory to Rahner's concept of the "real symbol," a concept that also appealed to Griffiths. Cf. Panikkar's account of the symbol in his Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics, pp. 6-8, 301-302.

(48) See Jules Monchanin's concerns about his colleague's thinking process, as quoted in Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda, p. 97. Abhishiktananda's friend and harsh critic Sita Ram Goel concluded that the French missionary died a neurotic. See Sita Ram Goel, Catholic Ashrams: Sannyasins or Swindlers? 2nd ed. (New Delhi: Voice of India, 1994), pp. 62-65.

(49) Raimundo Panikkar, "Letter to Abhishiktananda--On Eastern-Western Monasticism," Studies in Formative Spirituality 3 (November, 1982): 430. "What really worried you was orthodoxy and its proper formulation. The experiential realm which you strove to expound is beyond explanations. One cannot combine the two: the reflective preoccupation with orthodoxy and total spontaneity of heart. Besides what you had at heart was inexpressible" (Panikkar, "Letter," p. 432). For other appreciative assessments of Abhishiktananda's "theology of mystical experience," see Wayne Teas-dale, "Abhishiktananda's Contemplative Theology," Monastic Studies 13 (Autumn, 1982): 179-199; and Michael Stoeber, Theo-Monistic Mysticism: A Hindu-Christian Comparison (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), pp. 103-106.

(50) "We will have to say that the other is right in discovering that we take the pars pro toto (because the outsider sees the window), but that we are also right in seeing the totum per partem (because we see the panorama). It is a totum for us, but per partem, limited to our vision through the one window. We see the totum, but not totaliter one may say (because we do not see through other windows). We see all that we can see. The other may see equally the totum through another window, and thus describe it differently, but both see the totum, although not in toto, but per partem" (Panikkar, "Invisible Harmony," p. 140).

(51) John Milbank, "The End of Dialogue," in Gavin D'Costa, ed., Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, Faith Meets Faith Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), p. 175.

(52) Ibid.

(53) Ibid., p. 189. Note the parallel to Friesen's account of Abhishiktananda discussed above.

(54) Gerald James Larson, "Contra Pluralism," in Prabhu, Intercultural Challenge, p. 86.

(55) Ibid., p. 87, emphasis in original; also see p. 78.

(56) Paul Knitter, "Cosmic Confidence or Preferential Option?" in Prabhu, Intercultural Challenge, p. 184, emphasis in original. See also idem, "Toward a Liberation Theology of Religions," in Hick and Knitter, Myth of Christian Uniqueness, pp. 184-185 and 189. Cf. Lesslie Newbigin, "Religion for the Marketplace," in D'Costa, Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered, pp. 135-148.

(57) Knitter, "Cosmic Confidence," pp. 184, 185, and 188.

(58) Panikkar, Intrareligious Dialogue, pp. xxiii-xxvii; and idem, "Self-Critical Dialogue," p. 244.

(59) Panikkar, Intrareligious Dialogue, pp. 22, 33, and 57; idem, Unknown Christ of Hinduism, p. 4, n. 12; pp. 56 and 69; and David J. Krieger, "Methodological Foundations for Interreligious Dialogue," in Prabhu, Intercultural Challenge, pp. 213 and 218-220.

(60) Panikkar, Intrareligious Dialogue, p. 34.

(61) Ibid., p. xxiii.

(62) See also the related principle of "diatopical hermeneutics" in Panikkar's Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics, pp. 9-10; and in his "Self-Critical Dialogue," pp. 243-247. Also see his distinction between faith and belief in idem, Intrareligious Dialogue, pp. 1-23; and in idem., Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics, pp. 187-229.

(63) Panikkar, "Self-Critical Dialogue," p. 245. See John Cobb's characterization of this same dilemma in his own work in John B. Cobb, Jr., "Metaphysical Pluralism," in Prabhu, Intercultural Challenge, pp. 46-57.

(64) Panikkar, "Self-Critical Dialogue," p. 245.

(65) Ibid., p. 246, emphasis in original.

(66) Ibid., p. 248. See also John B. Cobb, Jr., Transforming Christianity and the World: A Way beyond Absolutism and Relativism, ed. Paul F. Knitter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999).

(67) See Joseph Prabhu's interpretation of Panikkar's position and its avoidance of relativism in his "Lost in Translation: Panikkar's Intercultural Odyssey," the introduction to Prabhu, Intercultural Challenge, pp. 10-14.

(68) Panikkar, "Self-Critical Dialogue," p. 255. Cf. Langdon Gilkey, "Plurality and Its Theological Implications," in Hick and Knitter, Myth of Christian Uniqueness, pp. 37-50, especially the following statement: "The puzzle that to reflection may represent a hopeless contradiction, said John Dewey, can through intelligent practice be fruitfully entered into and successfully resolved" (p. 46).

(69) Panikkar, "Self-Critical Dialogue," p. 279.

(70) See, e.g., Panikkar's recognition of the relativity of his own stance against capitalism, in ibid., p. 254.

(71) Ibid., p. 276. The connection between a cosmotheandric vision and moral responsibility is foundational to Panikkar's more recent writings. See, e.g., his Cosmotheandric Experience.

(72) Panikkar, "Self-Critical Dialogue," pp. 282-283.

(73) Abhishiktananda, Mountain of the Lord, p. 53.

(74) Panikkar, "Letter," p. 430.

(75) The Abhishiktananda diary entry was quoted by Panikkar in "Letter," p. 441. He cited this entry in reference to Abhishiktananda's disagreement with his attempts to harmonize the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body with Advaita Vedanta.

Judson B. Trapnell (Episcopal Church) died in August, 2003, from a malignant melanoma. During the previous year he held a grant position with the Infinity Foundation, Princeton, NJ, after his health forced him to leave a tenure-track position in theology at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Collegeville, MN, after just a year. He was previously a visiting assistant professor in religion at Hampden-Sydney (VA) College, 1997-2000, and in the Theology Dept. of Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 1994-97. He also taught part-time at Catholic University and Trinity College in Washington, DC, and at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore. He attended Brown University, then received a B.A. from Maharishi International University, Fairfield, IA; an M.Div. from Yale University Divinity School, New Haven, CT; and a Ph.D. in religious studies (1993) from the Catholic University of America. His dissertation was "Bede Griffiths' Theory of Religious Symbol and Practice of Dialogue: Toward Interreligious Understanding." His articles have appeared in K.L. Seshagiri, ed., Encyclopedia of Hinduism; and in Beatrice Bruteau, ed., The Other Half of My Soul: Bede Griffiths and the Hindu-Christian Dialogue; as well as in many journals including the American Vedantist, the Hindu-Christian Studies Bulletin, Horizons, the Journal of Hindu Studies, Vidyajyoti, the American Benedictine Review, and J.E.S. (Spring, 1998). He published Bede Griffiths: A Life in Dialogue (SUNY Press) in 2001. He made several presentations at conferences and meetings of Monastic Interfaith Dialogue, the College Theology Society, the Catholic Theology Society of America, and the American Academy of Religion, among others. At the time of his death, he was working on a book on the poetry of Abhishiktananda. He was both a scholar and a contemplative, with a passion for world religions and for teaching.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal of Ecumenical Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Trapnell, Judson B.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Conference news
Date:Jun 22, 2004
Words:12606
Previous Article:Just policing: how war could cease to be a church-dividing issue.
Next Article:Francis Younghusband: founder of the World Congress of Faiths.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters