Zaehner, R. C.

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ZAEHNER, R. C. (19131974), was an English Orientalist and historian of religions. Robert Charles Zaehner, born April 8, 1913, began studies in Persian while on a scholarship in classics at Oxford and received a master's degree in Oriental languages. After leaving his position as research lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1939, he entered government service and was attached to the British embassy in Tehran during World War II. He accepted appointment as lecturer in Persian at Oxford in 1950; and, after serving briefly as acting counselor in the British embassy in Tehran, he was designated to succeed Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford in 1952, a professorship he held until his death on November 24, 1974.

At the least, Zaehner was a controversial figure during his remarkably productive two-decade career as Spalding Professor, and an altogether equitable assessment of his substantial publications on mysticism, the religions of India, Islam, and the comparative study of religions is difficult. If a historian of religion should be thoroughly grounded as a specialist in at least one major religious tradition, then Zaehner's credentials, in this respect, can scarcely be criticized: His primary research on Zoroastrianism, especially evident in his invaluable Zurvan (1955), unquestionably demonstrated his specialist's knowledge. If, too, a historian of religions may be expected to learn the original language or languages of primary sources in traditions that have special significance for his research, then Zaehner's study of Sanskrit in order to read classical Hindu sources again adds to his credentials. And, if an unwavering concern to allow source materials to speak in their own voices is essential to the prospering of serious primary and comparative investigations of religions, then Zaehner served his field of study well.

But if it is supposed that proper comparative history of religions must be so conducted as almost to render invisible the interpreter's presence, then Zaehner poses a problem. He is neither bland nor unobtrusive. In an age of increasingly "objective" and almost anonymous scholarship, Zaehner seldom left his readers uncertain of his position. He lauded, lamented, scolded, praised, and condemned. Unquestionably, he took seriously the materials he studied. Above all, he seems to have wanted the sources to present themselves fully and authentically and not partially or tendentiously. What Zaehner himself took to be authentic, of course, was disputed on more than one occasion. Thus, for example, Zaehner's struggle with the specter of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan's happy Neo-Hindu universalism provoked counter-assertions from Zaehner about the theistic dimension of Hindu thought that have been found extreme by many specialists.

For Zaehner, his source documents and what they represented were alive and not safely dead or distant. Misunderstood, his attitude could appear to be no more than a throwback to apologetic comparative studies of an earlier day. And it often was misunderstood. But in fact it seems thathis conversion to Roman Catholicism in the mid-1940s notwithstandingZaehner conceived his own "mission" to be the pursuit of comparative religious studies in ways that would not violate the uniqueness and integrity of the individual religions he studied. Unshakably convinced of the authenticity of his own youthful mystical experiences and the truth of his conversion (as he was certain that chemically induced altered states of consciousness were worse than bogus mysticism), Zaehner was altogether ready to take religious documents completely seriously. And, believing himself to be a religious man, he had no difficulty accepting the existence and (occasionally wrongheaded) sincerity of other religious men.


Zaehner's command of Zoroastrian material is indisputably documented in Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma (Oxford, 1955) and his more accessible and wide-ranging The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (London, 1961). Among the latter's several strengths not the least is its thorough and unusually entertaining bibliography. Zaehner's Hinduism (London, 1962) is among the most helpful overviews; and his The Bhagavad-Gita, a translation and commentary (Oxford, 1969), is one of the most significant scholarly encounters with this text. Vigorous and insightful also are Zaehner's Jordan Lectures, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (London, 1960) and his Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (Oxford, 1957). The complex range of Zaehner's thought and style is nowhere better illustrated than in his stimulating and controversial Gifford Lectures, Concordant Discord (Oxford, 1970). Possibly the most engaging introduction to Zaehner's work, however, may be the eight late essays published posthumously as The City within the Heart (London, 1980), which is introduced by philosopher Michael Dummett's warm tribute.

G. R. Welbon (1987)