He was born in Greifswald, Germany. Zimmer began studying Sanskrit and linguistics at the University of Berlin in 1909. He earned his doctorate in 1914 with a thesis entitled Studien zur Geschichte der Gotras and directed by Heinrich Lüders.
Between 1920-24 he lectured at the University of Greifswald, moving to Heidelberg University to fill the Chair of Indian Philology (1924-1938).
In 1938 he was dismissed by the Nazis, and he emigrated to England where between 1939-40 he taught at Balliol College, Oxford. In 1940 he moved to New Rochelle, New York where he eventually accepted a Visiting Lecturer position in Philosophy at Columbia University. Here, Joseph Campbell, who was then working on his first book, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944) attended his lectures. The two men became good friends.
Zimmer died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 1943, two years after his arrival in the United States. According to Joseph Campbell, "Zimmer was at the opening of what would have been the most productive period of his career. . . hardly had he begun to find his stride, however, when, suddenly stricken, he passed from full career to his death within seven days." After Zimmer's death, Campbell was given the task of editing and posthumously publishing Zimmer's papers, which he did over the next 12 years, turning Zimmer’s lecture notes into four books, in the Bollingen Series: Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Philosophies of India, The Art of Indian Asia, and The King and the Corpse, which in turn became Zimmer's lasting legacy.
Zimmer's method was to examine religious images using their sacred significance as a key to their psychic transformation. His use of (Indian) philosophy and religious history to interpret art was at odds with traditional scholarship. His vast knowledge of Hindu mythology and philosophy (particularly Puranic and Tantric works) gave him insights into the art, insights that were appreciated by Joseph Campbell among others. Campbell edited many of Zimmer's writings after his death. In the foreword to Zimmer’s book, Artistic Form and Yoga in the Sacred Images of India, Campbell makes reference to a memorial to Heinrich Zimmer, which was read at the New York Oriental Club meeting in the spring of 1949: “Dr. Zimmer stood alone, forming a class by himself, not only for the wide range of subjects he was proficient in, but also for his unique genius of interpretation. . . Zimmer strove to understand both Eastern and Western ideas from Universal conceptions lying at the root of spiritual and psychological developments everywhere." The psychiatrist Carl Jung also developed a long-standing relationship with Zimmer, and incidentally edited a volume of Zimmer's entitled Der Weg zum Selbst (The Way to the Self). The two men first met in 1932, after which Zimmer, along with Richard Wilhelm, became one of the few male friends of Jung.
Zimmer is credited by many for the popularizing of South Asian art in the West, as he was the first to identify the radical difference between Western classical and Indian art.
In 1929 he married Christiane, daughter of Austrian novelist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Zimmer died of pneumonia in New Rochelle, New York, on March 20, 1943.
On all levels there are rituals capable of transforming man. But it is everywhere the tradition and trend to rank the spiritual, sublime practices above the sensual and magical ones, since the general course of cultural development has favored the spiritual element over the material and feminine. This development has taken place under the predominance of the male principle. But with the cult of the Great Goddess in late Hinduism, the archaic heritage of sensual earth-bound rites rises once again overwhelmingly to the zenith."Kunstform und Yoga im Indischen Kultbild (Artistic Form and Yoga in the Sacred Images of India ;Translated and edited by Gerald Chapple, James B. Lawson and J. Michael McKnight )
Maya: Der Indische Mythos. (1936)
Der Weg zum Selbst (The Way to the Self) (1944)
Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Edited by Joseph Campbell. (1946)
Hindu Medicine.Edited by Ludwig Edelstein.(1948)
The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul's Conquest of Evil. Edited by Joseph Campbell. (1948)
Philosophies of India. Edited by Joseph Campbell. (1953). ISBN 0-691-01758-1.
The Art of Indian Asia, its Mythology and Transformations. Completed and edited by Joseph Campbell. (1955)
Heinrich Zimmer : Coming Into His Own. Edited by Margaret H Case. (1994)