Robert Charles Zaehner (1913–1974) was a British academic who specialised in Eastern religions. He was also an intelligence officer.

Life[edit | edit source]

Born on 8 April 1913 in Sevenoaks, Kent, the son of Swiss immigrants to England, Zaehner was educated nearby at Tonbridge School. Admitted to Christ Church, Oxford, he studied Greek and Latin, and also ancient Persian including Avestan, gaining first class honours in Oriental Languages. During 1936-37 he studied Pahlavi, another ancient Iranian language, with Sir Harold Bailey at Cambridge. He then began work on his Zurvan, a Zoroastrian Dilemma, a study of the pre-Islamic religion of Iran.[1]

Zaehner enjoyed "a prodigious gift for languages" and later acquired reading knowledge of Sanskrit (for Hindu scriptures), Pali (for Buddhist), and Arabic (for Islamic).[2] In 1939 he acted as research lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford. About this time, apparently after reading the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and Rumi the sufi poet of Iran, as well as the Hindu Upanishads, Zaehner had adopted a "nature mysticism". Yet his spiritual progression led him to convert to Christianity, becoming a Roman Catholic while stationed in Iran.[3]

During World War II starting in 1943, he served as a British intelligence officer at their Embassy in Tehran. Often he was stationed in the field among the mountain tribes of northern Iran. After the war he performed a more diplomatic role at Tehran until 1947.[4][5] Decades later another British intelligence officer, Peter Wright, described his activities:

"I studied Zaehner's Personal File. He was responsible for MI6 counterintelligence in Persia during the war. It was difficult and dangerous work. The railway lines into Russia, carrying vital military supplies, were key targets for German sabotage. Zaehner was perfectly equipped for the job, speaking the local dialects fluently, and much of his time was spent undercover, operating in the murky and cutthroat world of countersabotage. By the end of the war his task was even more fraught. The Russians themselves were trying to gain control of the railway, and Zaehner had to work behind Russian lines, continuously at risk of betrayal and murder by pro-German or pro-Russian... ."[6]

Back in Britain, Zaehner took up again his academic research on Zoroastrianism, while also continuing his work as an MI6 officer. During 1949 he was relocated to Malta where he trained anti-Communist Albanians. In 1950 he secured appointment as Lecturer in Persian at Oxford University. He returned briefly to Iran during 1951 to perform government service.[4]

When in Tehran that year he held the rank of Counsellor. In fact, he continued as an MI6 officer. During the Abadan Crisis he was assigned to prolong the Shah's royal hold on the Throne from the republican challenge led by Mohammed Mossadegh, then the Prime Minister of Iran. Thus Zaehner became engaged in the failed 1951 British effort to topple the government of Iran and return oil production to an entity controlled by the British government, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had been in effect nationalized by Mossadegh.[7] "[T]he plot to overthrow Mossadegh and give the oilfields back to the AIOC was in the hands of a British diplomat called Robin Zaehner, later professor of Eastern religions at Oxford."[8][9]

In the 1960s, MI5 counter-intelligence officer Peter Wright questioned Zaehner about floating allegations that he had doubled as a spy for the Soviet Union, harming British intelligence operations in Iran and Albania during the period following World War II. Zaehner is described as "a small, wiry-looking man, clothed in the distracted charm of erudition." Wright wrote in his 1987 book Spycatcher that Zaehner's humble demeanor and candid denial convinced him that the Oxford don had remained loyal to Britain. Wright notes that "I felt like a heel" for confronting Zaehner.[10]

Back again to his prior home at Oxford University, in 1952 Zaehner was elected Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics to succeed the celebrated professor and Indian statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. His inaugural lecture was unconventional in content, Zaehner delivering a strong yet witty criticism of "universalism" in religion.[11] He served Oxford in this academic chair, while also a fellow at All Souls College, until his death in 1974, and never married. Invited to deliver in Scotland the Gifford Lectures, he did so at the University of St. Andrews during the years 1967-1969,[4] which lectures were later published.[12]

"Zaehner was a scholar who turned into something different, something more important than a scholar," according to Prof. Dummett. With insight and learning (and his war-time experience) Zaehner shed light on key issues in contemporary spiritual life, writing abundantly. "His talent lay in seeing what to ask, rather than in how to answer... ."[13] He died on 24 November 1974. "[A]t the age of sixty-one he fell down dead in the street on his way to Sunday evening Mass."[14]

Academic works[edit | edit source]

Initially his reputation rested for the most part on his studies of Zoroastrianism, notably his book, Zurvan, a Zoroastrian dilemma (1955), an original scholarly discussion of the theological deviation from the stark Zoroastrian dualism promoted by the newly ascendant Sasanian dynasty. Perhaps somewhat analogous to original Zoroastrian doctrine,[15] Zurvanism in its various forms starting in the third century C.E. became very influential throughout the Persian world. Zurvan could be described as divinized time, from which would spring into being both the ethical creator godhead Ahura Mazda, who is worshipped, and his satanic antagonist Angra Mainyu, whom believers fight against. Zaehner also wrote from a wider perspective in his The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (1961), where he explores the era of the founding of the religion by its prophet Zarathushtra (for whom Zaehner gives traditional sixth century BCE dates), and later its decline, when there arose doctrines concerning Zurvan i Akanarak [Infinite Time], and of the savior Saoshyans.[16][17] Facets of his interpretation of Zoroastrian religious history are novel.[18]

Zaehner wrote extensively on comparative religion,[19] as well as on mysticism. Prominent among his contributions, Zaehner criticized on several occasions the simplistic idea of the mystical unity of all religions; he based his contrary ideas and proposals on the historic texts written by well-known mystics of various traditions, which contain descriptions of their experiences, often with their interpretive theology as well.[20] In his innovative book comparing the mystical literature and practice of Hinduism and Islam, he includes this theme of the diversity of mystical phenomena.[21] He introduces here a description and discussion of five different types of mysticism to be found in Indian tradition: "the sacrificial, the Upanishadic, the Yogic, the Buddhistic, and that of bhakti."[22] Zaehner relies on Hindu mystics because of their relative freedom from creed or dogma. He leaves aside the first (of historic interest), and the fourth (due to the definitions of nirvana), so that as exemplars of mystical experience he presents: (a) the Upanishadic "I am this All" which can be subdivided into (i) a theistic interpretaion or (ii) a monistic; (b) the Yogic "unity" outside space and time, either (i) of the eternal monad of the mystic's own individual soul per the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or (ii) of Brahman, the ground of the universe, per the advaita Vedanta of Sankara; and, (c) the bhakti mysticism of love, per the commentary on the Bhagavad Gita by Ramanuja.[23] On these experiential foundations, Zaehner explores the spiritual treasures left to us by the mystics of the Santana Dharma and of Islam.

During the 1940s which he spent in Iran he had returned to the Christian faith, converting to Catholicism. Accordingly, he also published several comparative works expressly from that perspective.[24]

Zaehner gave the Gifford Lectures during the years 1967-1969. In these sessions he presented a grand historical overview of how the different religions have provided a mutuality of nourishment, and also have interpenetrated each other's beliefs. The historically obfuscated result is that neighboring religions might develop the other's theological insights as their own, as well as employ the other's distinctions to accent and explain their own doctrines to themselves. Zaehner also provided a suggestive commentary regarding, e.g., the conjunction of unique and differing faiths. These Lectures were later published as Concordant Discord. The Interdependence of Faiths.[25]

Popular works[edit | edit source]

Like Aldous Huxley he had taken mescalin, but Zaehner came to a different conclusion. In his 1957 book Mysticism. Sacred and Profane. An Inquiry into some Varieties of Praeternatural Experience,[26] he aims to uphold a distinction between an amoral monism on the one hand and theistic mysticism on the other. In part he relies on a personal experience recorded by Martin Buber.[27] Here and elsewhere, he thus sets himself against Huxley's adoption of the Perennial Philosophy.[28][29]

In his later book Our Savage God, especially in his essay "Rot in the Clockwork Orange",[30] Zaehner argued against aspects of an ancient monism which he saw as leading logically to excess, not only of the kind propagated by Timothy Leary, or even earlier by Aleister Crowley, but perhaps eventually, ultimately to the criminal depravity of Charles Manson.[31] Here Zaehner provides a warning how the misuse of theology can result in horror.

Quotations[edit | edit source]

  • There is indeed a sharp division between those religions whose characteristic form of religious experience is prayer and adoration of Pascal’s God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob on the one hand, and religions in which sitting postures designed to find the God within you are thought to be the most appropriate way of approaching the Deity.[32]
  • Aristotle claimed to have known God 'for a short time' only, but that was enough. He was never so immodest as to claim that he had known the Truth, for he knew that this is reserved for God alone.[33]
  • One quite arresting resemblance between Zoroastrianism and Christianity remains to be noticed. This is the Haoma sacrifice and sacrament which seems to foreshadow the Catholic Mass in so strange a way.[34][35]
  • The whole ascetic tradition, whether it be Buddhist, Platonist, Manichaean, Christian or Islamic, springs from that most polluted of all sources, the Satanic sin of pride, the desire to be 'like gods'.[36]
  • Jung has done in the twentieth century A.D. what the Hindus did in perhaps the eighth century B.C.; he has discovered empirically the existence of an immortal soul in man, dwelling outside time and space, which can actually be experienced. This soul Jung, like the Hindus, calls the "self"... [which is] extremely difficult to describe in words. Hence his "self" is as hard to grasp as the Indian atman.[37]
  • True, the human phylum did not split up into separate subspecies as has been the case with other animal species, but it did split up into different religions and cultures, each having its own particular flavor, and each separated from the rest. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit... the scattering of man which is symbolized by the Tower of Babel comes to an end: the Church of Christ is born and the symbol of unity and union is found.[38]

Reference notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Alana Howard, "Gifford Lecture Biography."
  2. Michael Dummett, "Introduction" at xi-xix, xiii, to Zaehner's posthumous The City within the Heart (New York: Crossroad 1981).
  3. Geoffrey Parrinder, "Robert Charles Zaehner (1913-1974)" in History of Religion 16: 66-74, 74 (1976).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Alana Howard, "Gifford Lecture Biography."
  5. Nigel West, At Her Majesty's Secret Service (Naval Institute Press 2006) at 117. Nigel West is the pen name of Rupert Allason.
  6. Peter Wright with Paul Greengrass, Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (New York: Viking Penguin 1987) at 244-245. He was then known as Robin Zaehner.
  7. The 1951 coup staged by Britain alone failed due to Mossadegh's popularity and Iranian nationalism. Later in 1953 a joint American and British coup toppled Mossadegh, returned the Shah to power, and restored the oilfields to Britain, but sowed the seeds of lasting mistrust. Cf., Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Iranian Intellectuals and the West. The tormented triumph of nativism (Syracuse Univ. 1996) at 33, 38-39.
  8. Robert Fisk, "Another Fine Mess". "It was Zaehner who had cultivated the Rashidian brothers, each of whom had worked against German influence in Iran during the Second World War."
  9. During the 1951 attempted overthrow, Zaehner is said to have enlisted the support of politicians, editors, aristocrats, army officers, tribal chiefs, businessmen, and others, including several associates of Mossadegh. N.C.R.I.-F.A.C.
  10. Peter Wright with Paul Greengrass, Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (New York: Viking Penguin 1987) at 245-246. Wright states that, "I felt bitter at the ease with which the accusation had been made," and for his subjecting a loyal colleague to hearing the false charges made against him.
  11. Michael Dummett, "Introduction" at xii-xiii, to Zaehner's posthumous The City within the Heart (1981). Prof. Radhakrishnan had been advancing a more ecumenical viewpoint.
  12. Concordant Discord. The interdependence of faiths.
  13. Michael Dummett, "Introduction" at xi, to Zaehner's posthumous The City within the Heart (1981). Prof. Dummett here refers more to Zaehner's popular works.
  14. Michael Dummett, "Introduction" at xviii, to Zaehner's posthumous The City within the Heart (1981).
  15. Zaehner, Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (New York: Putnam 1961) at 34, 42-46, 178-183, 246-247. Basically, in the original doctrine the benevolent Ahura Mazda created both the Spenta Mainyu (the Holy Spirit) and the Angra Mainyu (the Aggressive Spirit), who chose to turn evil. The two created Mainyus were considered twins, one good, one evil. Over the centuries Ahura Mazda and his "messenger" the good Spenta Mainyu became nearly identified, hence the creator Ahura Mazda began to be mistaken as the twin of the evil Angra Mainyu. In this guise, Zoroastrianism became starkly dualistic. Later Zurvan (Time) was said to have been the cause of both the original creator Ahura Mazda and his creation Angra Mainyu the evil one. However, very different schools of Zurvanism complicate the picture. Also, Ahura Mazda later became known as Ohrmazd, and Angra Mainyu became Ahriman.
  16. Zaehner, Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (New York: Putnam 1961) at 33; 181.
  17. Zaehner, The Comparison of Religions (London: Faber & Faber 1958; reprint Boston: Beacon Press 1962) at 134-153, "Prophets outside Israel".
  18. Sometimes Zaehner will differ with, e.g., Mary Boyce, i.e., Zaehner discounts the Parthian period, as not known to be authentically Zoroastrian. Compare: her Zoroastrians. Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979, 1985) at 80-82; and, his Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (1961) at 22, 175. Boyce also favors an earlier dating (1400 to 1000 B.C.E.) for the prophet Zarathushtra in her A History of Zoroastrianism, volume 1 (Leiden/Köln: E.J.Brill 1975) at 190.
  19. E.g., At Sundry Times (1958); Christianity and other Religions (1962). See Bibliography. Zaehner focused primarily on Hinduism and Islam, yet he demonstrated wide learning across many areas.
  20. E.g., Zaehner, Mysticism. Sacred and Profane (Oxford Univ. 1957, 1961) at 168.
  21. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (Univ.of London 1960, reprint Schocken Books 1969), "Preface" at vii-viii.
  22. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (1960, 1969) at 6-11. Zaehner references S. N. Dasgupta, his A History of Indian Philosophy (Cambridge 1951), and his Hindu Mysticism (Chicago 1927).
  23. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslem Mysticism (1960, 1969) at 19, 6 & 10; (a) 7-9, 17; (b) 9-10, 13, 17; (c) 11, 14-16, 17-18. Zaehner quotes at length from Martin Buber on mystical experience, at 17-18.
  24. See Zaehner bibliography.
  25. Oxford University, 1970.
  26. Oxford University 1957, 1961. Although this book includes descriptions of the author's experience with mescalin, and lengthy discussions of popular culture, its scholarship is not wanting.
  27. Zaehner, Mysticism. Sacred and Profane (1957, 1961) at v of the "Preface".
  28. Zaehner, Our Savage God (New York: Sheed & Ward 1974) at 10-12.
  29. Zaehner, Mysticism. Sacred and Profane (1957, 1961) at 25-26, 27-29.
  30. Zaehner, Our Savage God (1974), at 19-73.
  31. He appears to follow the book by Ed Sanders, The Family (1972), with its theatrical, philosophical view of the murders.
  32. Zaehner, Our Savage God (1974) at 234.
  33. Zaehner, The City within the Heart (New York: Crossroad 1981) at 136.
  34. Zaehner, The Comparison of Religions (London: Faber & Faber 1958) at 152.
  35. Cf., Zeahner, Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (New York: Putnam's Sons 1961) at 85-94, re the Haoma rite.
  36. Zaehner, Our Savage God (1974) at 235.
  37. Zaehner, "A New Buddha and a New Tao" at 402-412, 403, in The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (New York: Hawthorne 1959; reprint by Beacon Press, Boston 1967), edited by Zaehner.
  38. Zaehner, Matter and Spirit (New York: Harper & Row 1963) at 199.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Zaehner's works[edit | edit source]

  • Foolishness to the Greeks. Clarendon Press, Oxford University, 1953. Pamphlet. Reprint: Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1974.
  • Zurvan. A Zoroastrian Dilemma. Clarendon Press, Oxford University, 1955. Reprint: Biblio and Tannen, New York, 1972.
  • The Teachings of the Magi. A compendium of Zoroastrian beliefs. George Allen & Unwin, London, 1956. Reprints: Sheldon Press, London, 1972; Oxford University Press, London, 1976.
  • Mysticism: Sacred and Profane. Clarendon Press, Oxford University, 1957, reprint 1961. Translation:
    • Mystik, religiös und profan. Ernst Klett, Stuttgart, 1957.
  • At Sundry Times. An essay in the comparison of religions. Faber & Faber, London, 1958. Alternate title, and translation:
    • The Comparison of Religions. Beacon Press, Boston, 1962.
    • Inde, Israël, Islam: religions mystiques et révelations prophétiques. Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1965; translated by Eva Meyerovitch.
  • Hindu and Muslim Mysticism. Athlone Press, University of London, 1960. Reprints: Schocken, New York, 1969; Oneworld, Oxford, 1994.
  • The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1961.
  • Hinduism. Oxford University Press, London, 1962. Translations:
    • Der Hinduismus. Seine geschichte und seine lehre. Goldman, München, 1964.
    • L'hindouisme. Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1974; translated by Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch.
  • The Convergent Spirit. Towards a dialectics of Religion. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1963. Alternate title:
    • Matter and Spirit. Their convergence in Eastern Religions, Marx, and Teilhard de Chardin. Harper & Row, New York, 1963.
  • The Catholic Church and World Religions. Burns & Oates, London, 1964. Alternate title:
    • Christianity and other Religions. Hawthorn Books, New York, 1964.
  • Concordant Discord. The Interdependence of Faiths. Clarendon Press, Oxford University, 1970. Translation:
    • Mystik. Harmonie und dissonanz. Walter, Olten/Freiburg, 1980.
  • Dialectical Christianity and Christian Materialism. The Riddell Memorial Lectures. Oxford University Press, London, 1971.
  • Evolution in Religion. A study of Sri Aurobindo and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Clarendon Press, Oxford University, 1971.
  • Drugs, Mysticism and Make-believe. William Collins, London, 1972. Alternate title:
    • Zen, Drugs, and Mysticism. Pantheon Books, New York, 1972.
  • Our Savage God. The Perverse use of Eastern Thought. Sheed & Ward, New York, 1974.
  • The City within the Heart. Crossroad Publishing, New York, 1981. Introduction by Michael Dummett.


  • Hindu Scriptures. Translated and edited by R. C. Zaehner. J. M. Dent, London, 1966.
  • The Bhagavad Gita. With commentary based on the ancient sources. Translated by R. C. Zaehner. Oxford Univ., London, 1969.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths. Edited by R. C. Zaehner. Hawthorn Books, New York, 1959. Three reprints:
    • The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths. Beacon Press, Boston, 1967.
    • The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of Living Faiths. Century Hutchinson, London, 1988.
    • Encyclopedia of the World's Religions. Barnes and Noble, New York, 1997.

Criticism, reviews[edit | edit source]

  • Jeffrey John Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom. University of Chicago, 2001. Chapter III (156-198) on Zaehner.
  • Ann K. S. Lambton, "Obituary: Robert Charles Zaehner" in B.S.O.A.S. 38/3: 623-624 (London 1975).
  • Lloyd Newell, Struggle and Submission: R. C. Zaehner on Mysticisms. University Press of America, Washington DC, 1981.
  • Geoffrey Parrinder, "Robert Charles Zaehner (1913-1974)" in History of Religions 16/1: 66-74 (Univ.of Chicago 1976).

Other material[edit | edit source]

  • Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians. Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1979.
  • Peter Wright with Paul Greengrass, Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer. Stoddart, Toronto, 1987.

External links[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

de:Robert Charles Zaehner fa:رابرت چارلز زنر it:Robert Charles Zaehner tr:Robert Charles Zaehner

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