I would guess that more than a few readers of the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue and likely several readers of SoF are familiar with the name Raimon Panikkar. Panikkar passed away in August of this year at the age of 91 (NYTimes obit and a tribute by Francis Clooney). His biography is nothing short of remarkable: born to Hindu father and a Catholic mother, he held three doctorates (Chemistry, Philosophy, Theology), published more than 50 books and thousands of journal articles, he wrote in 5 languages and was fluent in several more including Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. His writing is well summed up in his often-quoted one sentence biography:
“I left Europe as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.”
It is tempting to write more about Panikkar and the immeasurable influence his work has had on me personally. But a better tribute would be to post a parable penned by Panikkar in Varanasi on the Ganges and published in his 1977 Vedic anthology entitled The Vedic Experience: Mantramañjarī. I am also tempted to reflect on this parable here, for it is one that shakes me to the core each time that I return to it. Instead, though, I invite you to reflect upon it, to take the situation it describes seriously, recognizing that it is much more than allegorical:
"What would you save from a blazing house? A precious, irreplaceable manuscript containing a message of salvation for mankind, or a little group of people menaced by the same fire? The situation is real and not for this writer alone: How can you be just an ‘intellectual’, concerned with truth, or just a ‘spiritual’, busy with goodness, when [people] desperately cry for food and justice? How can you follow a contemplative, philosophical, or even religious path when the world shouts for action, engagement, and politics? And, conversely, how can you agitate for a better world or for the necessary revolution when what is most needed is serene insight and right evaluation? That the burning house is not my private property should be clear to all my neighbors on this earth of ours… If I am not ready to save the manuscript from the fire, that is, if I do not take my intellectual vocation seriously, putting it before everything else even at the risk of appearing inhuman, then I am also incapable of helping people in more concrete and proximate ways. Conversely, if I am not alert and ready to save people from a conflagration, that is to say, if I do not take my spiritual calling in all earnestness, sacrificing to it all else, even my own life, then I shall be unable to help in rescuing the manuscript. If I do not involve myself in the concrete issues of my time, and if I do not open my house to all the winds of the world, then anything I may produce from an ivory tower will be barren and cursed. Yet if I do not shut the doors and windows in order to concentrate on my work, then I will not be able to offer anything of value to my neighbors.
"Indeed, the manuscript may emerge charred and the people may emerge blistered, but the intensity of the one concern has helped me in the other… In a word, reality is not a matter of either-or, spirit or matter, contemplation or action, written message or living people, East or West, theory or praxis or, for that matter, the divine or the human… there is no essence without existence, no existence without an essence." (Panikkar, Mantramañjarī, xxxv-xxxvi.)
Again, I invite you to reflect and to share your thoughts. The situation described above is not a hypothetical thought experiment – it is not a question of what you would do if the library were on fire. Rather, it is a recognition that we live in a world filled with violence, injustice, inequality, and hunger – that our house is burning and people are dying, even as we – as I – sit and read and write. For me, this parable provides me with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. If I choose the text, struggling to change the hearts and minds of those who fan the flames of the fires, and working to inspire those who might join the effort, then it must be worth it – I must be successful. But what if I am not?