The Unknown Christ of Christianity

Scripture and Theology in Panikkar's Early Writings

by Enrico Beltramini (Author)
©2020 Monographs XX, 216 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 337


Since its publication in 1964, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism has been singled out for praise as the quintessential example of Raimon Panikkar’s engagement with theology of religions. Controversies over the real meaning of the title and the author’s remark that Christ is unknown to Hindus and a fortiori to Christians have been waged among generations of scholars. Refusing to isolate Panikkar’s concerns with the Hindu-Christian dialogue from much larger theological and biblical debates occurring in the period before and during the Vatican Council II, this book suggests that the unknown Christ of Christianity is the plastic representation of an insufficient degree of universality of the Church. Rejecting traditional interpretations that identify a gulf between the first and the second edition of The Unknown, this book argues for a continuity in Raimon Panikkar’s thought.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Abbreviations
  • Book and Article Titles
  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • Legacy
  • Panikkar’s Unknown Christ
  • A Problem of Interpretation
  • This Study
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter One Methodological Issues
  • A Problem of Sources
  • Contexts
  • In Search of a Criteria
  • Theology and Scripture
  • Further Considerations
  • Terminology
  • Speculative Nature and Structure
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Two Religious Reformer
  • A Countercultural Personality
  • A Catholic Reformer
  • Return to the Source
  • Further Considerations
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Three Christian Unreadiness
  • Christian Unreadiness
  • Panikkar and Abhishiktānanda
  • Ecclesiastical Question
  • Christian Unreadiness (Abhishiktānanda)
  • Christian Unreadiness (Panikkar)
  • Panikkar and Biblical Scholarship
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Four Kingdom
  • Kingdom
  • Angels in Catholicism
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Five Melchizedek
  • Biblical Studies and Qumram
  • Melchizedek
  • Cosmic Priesthood
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Six Priesthood in Spirit and Truth
  • Melchizedek Priesthood
  • Universal Priesthood
  • Cosmic Priesthood
  • All Priests in Spirit and Truth Are Priests
  • Christian and Non-Christian Priesthoods
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Seven Cosmic Sacramentalism
  • The Unknown
  • Christ and Christic Principle
  • Theology of Cosmic Christ
  • Panikkar’s Cosmic Christ
  • Panikkar’s Cosmic Christ in Context
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Eight Theology of the Unknown
  • Pauline Material
  • The Unknown Christ
  • Addendum
  • Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • Panikkar
  • Scripture and Theology
  • Brief Summary
  • On Limits
  • Further Directions
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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It is high time for another monograph devoted to Raimon Panikkar, the extremely influential pioneer of interreligious dialogue who inspired a generation of scholars to think interculturally about life and religion.

Panikkar was hard to pin down because he defied the categories we typically utilize in order to contextualize a person. He was neither a Westerner nor an Easterner: he was both. His mother was Spanish Catholic and his father was Hindu. His mother was intensely spiritual and philosophical. His father was more practical, making a small fortune in business. Raimon was an ordained Roman Catholic priest, yet he was completely absorbed in Hinduism. For nearly thirty years was even married.

Even with something as basic as citizenship, Panikkar defied simple categorization. At various times in his life he was Spanish, British, and Indian, yet he spent significant time in Germany and Italy studying in their universities and could speak both Italian and German fluently. He is probably best known for his years spent at Harvard University and the University of California in Santa Barbara in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. He became a star in the United States theological constellation, challenging students—in English—to think interreligiously about theology, philosophy, and the human condition.

His mind was as fascinatingly complex as his life. He earned three doctorates, in theology, chemistry, and philosophy. But the most important turning point in ←xi | xii→his life was when he traveled to India for the first time while in his mid-thirties. This changed him. The move to India forced him to come to terms with his father’s culture, and with the other half of his own Indian identity. It was in this era that Panikkar was shaped to write his now-classic and best-known work: The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, first published in 1964. This book was a revision of his dissertation researched and written at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

Panikkar lived in Rome in the late 1950s and early 1960s—a period that witnessed the most important event in the modern history of the Roman Catholic Church: the Second Vatican Council. Panikkar knew virtually all of the major players, yet was still drawn to India and eventually relocated there. For many years, Panikkar split his time evenly between Varanasi (Benares) and the West—in the cities of Boston, Santa Barbara, Rome, and Barcelona. His list of publications expanded greatly during this era, but grew exponentially upon his retirement from teaching 1987 to living a life of scholarship in Spain, until his death in 2010.

Enrico Beltramini’s book is a vital contribution to the scholarship on Panikkar, partly because of parallels between his own life course and Panikkar’s. Beltramini shares with Panikkar a cosmopolitan life, three doctoral degrees, and a commitment to the Roman Catholic Church. He is not a Panikkar scholar, and he does not belong to the inner circle of Panikkar’s disciples, thus he remains unhindered by previous literature, and free to pursue unique perspectives into Panikkar’s life. In this book, Beltramini sheds much light on Panikkar’s work by dipping into the biblical background of his theology in order to extract deeper meaning from his position that Christ is unknown to Hindus and Christians alike.

The reader of this book will learn much about Panikkar the man, theologian, philosopher, and Catholic priest. The wide-ranging knowledge displayed in this book is impressive, particularly in the area of biblical scholarship. Beltramini’s investigation of Panikkar explores the fundamental premises that inform The Unknown Christ of Hinduism. The result is a wholly admirable mix of rigorous exegesis, mature theological reflection, and sincere empathy for Panikkar. Beltramini states clearly that his thesis—that Panikkar’s early works are inspired by new biblical insights (e.g., into Acts 17)—is speculative.

One thing is certain: this book demonstrates that Panikkar used the unknown god and high priesthood of Melchizedek as key ideas in expressing his thoughts. Beltramini analyzes in detail Panikkar’s understanding of Melchizedek, and how that archetypal priest from Genesis chapter 14 may have something to say to those engaged in interreligious dialogue today. It is a tantalizing idea to think that God may reach out to non-Christians through some other person or some other means. Panikkar is convinced that the story of Melchizedek in Genesis—and expounded upon in the New Testament Book of Hebrews—has something important to say ←xii | xiii→to Christians today. There can be no doubt that Beltramini has made a case that challenges standard interpretations of the origin of Panikkar’s theology. Panikkar scholars will ultimately determine whether Beltramini has proven his alternative interpretation, or at least made it probable.

For those who are interested in Christian theologies of other religions, or in Panikkar, or in Christian-Hindu relations, this book should be required reading. And if Beltramini is correct, then Panikkar may have discovered something crucial to the understanding of Christ’s interaction with the non-Christian world. It is an idea that is attractive—and bursting with hope—for committed Christians who have opened themselves up to the possibility of the Good Shepherd’s soteriological activity in pastures of which we know not.

Finally, I heartily commend Beltramini for a job well done. This is a powerful book that should be required reading for those engaged in Panikkar’s great corpus on interreligious theology. May this book add fuel to the fires of a new generation of scholars who grapple with the exciting, eclectic, and profound mind of Raimon Panikkar, one of the most passionate and forward-thinking theologians of the 20th century.

Dyron Daughrity
Malibu, California
13 December 2019

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In this book on the early theology of Raimon Panikkar I intentionally avoid the many ongoing debates among scholars about the various and often conflicting assessments of Panikkar’s legacy. I am concerned here with one specific question, which is defined at the end of the Introduction, and with crafting a hypothetical answer to that question which, if well-founded, will deepen the significance of Panikkar’s early theology with regard to themes such as the Melchizedek priesthood and the unknown Christ of Hindus and Christians. In order to deal effectively with this problem, I was compelled to provide a proper context for Panikkar’s early writings. Once this context is conclusively set, the path to understanding his early theology might be clearer.

Since having first read The Unknown Christ of Hinduism I have been pondering the possibility that in order to understand the book in a way that coincides with Panikkar’s own intentions, one must see the thesis of The Unknown Christ of Hinduism—that Christ is unknown to Hindus—as nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. This is the small, noticeable part of the problem, or the part that a reader sees. Below the surface of the text rests a much greater part of the problem, that is, coming to a distinct understanding of the relationship between Christianity and revelation. Panikkar has summarized this relationship through the cryptic phrase that Christ is unknown to Hindus and Christians.

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To unveil the meaning of this phrase is not an easy task. Panikkar notoriously developed a curious and personal approach with regards to the sources of his thought, a philosophy that basically covers rather than reveals these sources. Thus, the task to unveil the meaning of Panikkar’s phrase ‘Christ is unknown to Hindus and Christians’ requires some degree of creativity as far as adopted methodology and a resolve to take some risk. In writing this book, I decided to take seriously Panikkar’s remark about his own life acting as a primary source of his writings; I did the same with regard to Panikkar’s biblical references included in The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, especially Saint Paul’s speech of the unknown god mentioned in the final pages of the book. I adopted Scripture, together with theology, as an approach to building a circumstantial case that would eventually disclose the ultimate meaning of the unknown Christ of Christians. The result, eventually speculative, nevertheless is consistent with Panikkar’s theology as a whole.

In this book, therefore, I seek nothing more or less than to make accessible Panikkar’s ultimate meaning of the Melchizedek priesthood and the unknown Christ of Christianity by reflecting on Panikkar’s life and by investigating the biblical scholarship available to Panikkar in those days. The meaning of the argument at the heart of The Unknown Christ of Hinduism has remained partially veiled as a result of the dominant tendency in scholarship to associate Panikkar’s early writings with the problems of theology of religions rather than with a precise biblical view, or, as a result of predominant ‘theological’ interpretations over ‘biblical’ interpretations. The same can be said of Panikkar’s note on the Melchizedek priesthood. Apart from anything else, the present work is a reminder to scholars and ordinary readers of Panikkar that, at least in his early writings, theology and Scripture are to be read together. In this, I have benefitted from conversations with some scholars and members of the clergy in India, whose familiarity with Panikkar has made them aware of just how necessary it is to consider him not only as a philosopher, theologian, and global thinker, but also as a Roman Catholic priest and a reader of biblical material.


It goes without saying that scholars today are benefitting from a certain blossoming of Panikkarian studies. Apart for the specialized literature I mention in my manuscript, I want to recognize at least two main projects that have been in progress over the last decade. The first is Raimon Panikkar Opera Omnia (The Complete Works), under the editorial direction of Milena Carrara Pavan. The second is the work of Centro Interculturale Raimon Panikkar, which as an institute is dedicated to several themes variously inspired by Panikkar’s thought. Both projects aim to propagate the scheme of thought that he inaugurated and to manage publications that will disseminate his vision of life. Both projects are led by scholars and friends ←xvi | xvii→of Panikkar who met him, became academic disciples and followers of him, and, in the case of a few, accepted him as their master (teacher). They look at Panikkar not merely from the intellectual point of view, but also from the experiential and lifestyle approach which he espoused. While I endorse the immense contribution that these two projects have already offered to readers and scholars of Panikkar, and I look with empathy and eventually envy at whomever had the opportunity to know him in person, I must make it clear that I wrote this book from outside the circle of Panikkar’s immediate disciples.


My reluctance to join scholarly debates hardly means that as an author I owe no debts. To the contrary, I am immensely grateful to the many Panikkar scholars from whose work I have silently drawn. While my debt to others in this project is legion, I would offer special thanks to several people. Dyron Daughrity kindly accepted my invitation to write the Foreword. For this, I owe him immeasurable gratitude. I am greatly indebted to the scholars who have shared with me their ideas on Panikkar; they are, in alphabetic order, Maciej Bielawski, Marianne Delaporte, Leonard Fernando, Ron Highfield, and Varghese Manimala. Professor Highfield reviewed the entire manuscript, offered suggestions, and helped me make the final version stronger. Professor Bielawski reviewed a previous version of the text and provided crucial observations, particularly with reference to the biographical portions of the manuscript. I thank Professor Manimala for helping me seeing the connection between biblical sources and Panikkar’s idea of a Second Council of Jerusalem. With that said, responsibility of the final manuscript is all mine. A special thanks to scholar Leonardo Marcado, who provided insightful details, among other things, on Fons Raimon Panikkar at the Universitat de Girona. My acknowledgments would be incomplete without offering gratitude to several audiences in Northern California, both academic and ecclesial, who listened to my lectures and engaged in lively discussion about Panikkar’s early works. There is no space to list the scores of students at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, who have helped me refine my ideas on Panikkar by taking my course on Catholic Imagination. I owe an especially large debt to Sarah Tyrrell, who has read the manuscript with painstaking and mind-numbing literalism. Not only has she saved me from many factual errors, she has also corrected many misinterpretations, often supplying accurate ones in their stead. I want to thank also the staff of Peter Lang for undertaking the publication of the book and for their patience in waiting several years for me to finish it. My final thanks go to my dear wife, who sees me writing early in the morning and late at night and asks no questions. This book is dedicated to Leonard Fernando, an inspiring scholar, administrator, member of the Society of Jesus, and man of God.

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Book and Article Titles

(For complete citations, see the Bibliography at the end of the volume. Books quoted only occasionally are cited in full in the footnotes.)


XX, 216
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (December)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XX, 216 pp.

Biographical notes

Enrico Beltramini (Author)

Enrico Beltramini is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Notre Dame de Namur University, California. He holds doctoral degrees in theology (Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi), history (Royal Holloway, University of London), and business (Manchester Business School). His research deals with theology of religions, with a special focus on Roman Catholicism and India in the 20th century. His previous book is Passage of India. Abhishiktananda and the Recovery of the Supernatural in Roman Catholicism (2020), and his research has appeared in several academic journals, including Exchange, International Bulletin of Mission Research, Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Mission Studies, Studies in World Christianity, and Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection.


Title: The Unknown Christ of Christianity
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