Decades before interfaith studies and dialogue became all the rage, Raimon Panikkar set the Catholic world astir by insisting that Christianity could learn from Eastern religions. The diminutive Roman Catholic priest and scholar, son of an Indian Hindu father and a Spanish Catholic mother, was an unlikely theological troublemaker. But Panikkar, who died Aug. 26 at 91, did as much to prepare his church for the globalization of Christianity as any Pope.
Educated by Jesuits during a childhood in Spain, he earned the first of three doctorates (in philosophy) before joining the priesthood in 1946. A decade later, Panikkar took his first journey to India. He left deeply changed by the spiritual wisdom he found there. "I left Europe [for India] as a Christian," he wrote. "I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be a Christian."
From teaching posts at Harvard and the University of California at Santa Barbara, Panikkar argued that non-Western religions could provide insights into Christian beliefs. He spent most of his life drawing connections between religious traditions and downplaying their differences. Some Catholics saw that work as dangerously radical. But to his students and many admirers, Panikkar was a prophet whose teachings helped Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the non-Western world.