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Updated: February 22, 2012 01:54 IST

Frits Staal, an influential Indologist, passes away

K. Santhosh
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Frits Staal with Kapra ankaranarayanan, an Akkithiripad. File photo
The Hindu
Frits Staal with Kapra ankaranarayanan, an Akkithiripad. File photo

Apart from several books, he also wrote more than 150 articles on Sanskrit, philosophy of language and history of science

Some of the earliest and rarest recordings of Veda recitation and chant were made by a foreigner, Frits Staal, during a ride he undertook across south India on an old Royal Enfield.

He went on to be one of the most influential Indologists and experts in the Vedas abroad.

Staal, who had been Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and South/Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, died on February 19 at his home in Chiangmai, Thailand.

At Mylapore in Chennai, he studied Panini's Sanskrit grammar under an expert. At Varanasi, he imbibed Navya-Nyaya logic under the guidance of another.

The combination of Panini and logic opened the door to modern linguistics.

Staal argued that ancient Indian grammarians, especially Panini, had completely mastered methods of linguistic theory not discovered again until the 1950s. The Indians had thought about it long before modern mathematical logic was applied to linguistics by Noam Chomsky.

The early methods allowed the construction of discrete, potentially infinite generative systems, experts maintain. The formal basis for Panini's methods involves the use of auxiliary markers, rediscovered in the 1930s by logician Emil Post, whose rewrite systems are currently a standard approach for description of computer languages, experts say.

Staal wrote, “Panini is the Indian Euclid.” The Indologist describes how Panini had expanded the spoken Sanskrit to a formal metalanguage.

In 1975, Staal organised Athirathram, an ancient Vedic ritual involving ‘homas' and chanting, in Kerala and documented it with grants and donations from institutions such as Harvard University, Smithsonian Institution, and the Rock Foundation.

The ceremonies required construction of a fire altar in the shape of a bird, using 1,000 bricks; the participation of 17 priests; libation of Soma juice and oblation of other materials.

Staal recalled the willingness of Namboodiri scholars to share their knowledge. The details that he garnered from his interaction with the scholars went into a two-volume book on Athirathram, ‘Agni – The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar'.

He also studied the application of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy in this complex ritual.

“Over the decades, while I penetrated the riches of their Vedic heritage, I made many Namboodiri friends and came to know them better. I have found them sincere, straightforward and disciplined. After initial reluctance, they are eager to explain the intricacies of their recitations, chants and ceremonies. They never claim knowledge that they do not possess. They will not preach or become pompous. They will express no interest in going to the U.S. Though no longer averse to modernisation, they remain attached to their simple habits,” Staal observed.

In the 1960s, some Namboodiri scholars became concerned about the weakening and possible disappearance of Vedic traditions. “I urged them to perform once more the 12-day Athirathra-Anicayana. It had been performed in 1956. The Namboodiris agreed,” Staal said.

At a seminar in the University of Amsterdam, he was asked to name six persons whose scholarship had impressed him the most. He first mentioned Noam Chomsky. And then Cherumukku Vallabhan Namboodiri (CV to his friends and admirers) and Mammannu Itty Ravi Namboodiri.

Staal had learned the finer points of ‘Somayaga' from CV and Itty Ravi in the 1960s and the 1970s. Staal remembered with great awe Itty Ravi's knowledge of Sama Veda and CV's scholarship of Rig Veda and Yajur Veda.

India's sacred knowledge is contained in the Vedas, the Brahmanas appended to them, and the Aranyakas and the Upanishads that serve as an epilogue or conclusion.

Johan Frederik (Frits) Staal was born on November 3, 1930 in Amsterdam to architect Jan Frederik Staal. He studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. A scholarship instituted by the Government of India brought him to India for three years of studying Indian philosophy at the University of Madras and Banaras Hindu University. He secured a PhD from the University of Madras. He became Professor of General and Comparative Philosophy in Amsterdam (1962–67) and became Professor of Philosophy and South Asian Languages at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968. He retired in 1991 and relocated to Thailand.

Apart from several books, he wrote more than 150 articles on Sanskrit, philosophy of language and history of science. Throughout his life, he campaigned for the preservation of the Vedic culture.

“Shrauta Sutras are concerned with continuity and survival of the Vedic tradition. Substances and people change. But mantras and their syntax do not,” he said on a visit to Panjal, near here, last year to witness Athirathram.

He observed that rituals could not be fully understood by mere access to texts. “Whatever texts may say, language does not explain activity. For the ritualists, action comes first, and action, which includes recitation and chant, is all that counts.”

Staal noted that the survival of Vedic traditions signified the triumph of the human spirit over limitations of matter and the body. His own work on the immortal values of the East marks such a triumph over the mortal.


The Indologist who spanned many fieldsFebruary 22, 2012

Just heard about Frits. A twinge of regret passes through me that I did not make time to meet him again when in Thailand a few years back. So the last time we met was in New York when he delivered a talk on psychotropic plants at a New School seminar, and I loaned him a copy of his grand opus Agni to display. What an accomplished human life shared across civilizations and time.

from:  Stephen Feldman
Posted on: Apr 2, 2012 at 04:15 IST

I am vasudevan, the grand son of the above mentioned CV.I saw him first
at early 1975.I participated in the Athiratram as a "neshtan". prof
Staal came here and call me as the "youngest man", who participated in
that particular Athiratram. I am greatly honour to hear such a word from
Prof Staal. This time i am very sad on the sudden disappearence of the
great Prof Staal, who reminds me the days with this great man.I pray
the Almighty to rest this Great soul in the Eternal Peace.........

from:  vasudevan namboodiri
Posted on: Mar 18, 2012 at 16:02 IST

Prof Staal came to my house in the early sixties for a dinner (since my late father was one of his mentors in the Madras University). We did NOT possess a dining table. He sat cross-legged on the floor and I distinctly remember him taking rasam sadam. He relished the rasam and took two handfulls and drank it as South Indians do. We were astonished to see him doing this with ease.
Of course, this news item sadly reminds us that we are still wedded to the concept that we respect our own heritage only when the white man tells us. We feel more proud to flaunt our English education rather than give equal importance to preserving and pepetuating our ancient knowledge. Perhaps the ideal solution will be a good integration of both for the betterment of humanity. Any takers?

from:  Raman
Posted on: Feb 27, 2012 at 08:04 IST

JSA-- Namboodiris and in general original brahmins were happy to pass the knowledge if you were otherwise sincere, really thirsty for knowledge and soul searching.

as vedic traditions are a very valuable resource, it is understandable that they were cautious for it not to to go into wrong hands or used for materialistic pursuits.

from:  senapathy
Posted on: Feb 23, 2012 at 13:30 IST

I knew Fritz Staal from his days at SOAS, London University. Fresh
from his study of modern Maths. he was facinated with the
Mathematical Logic in the Paninian linguistic system ( c.700 BC..)
Fritz worked on Panini's Ashtadhyayi,(8 sections/chapters, rendered
the Sanskrit sutras (strings) into the logical notations.. That
might have been the beginning of computing science, leading to the
electronic revolution.
He had chosen Saraswati( Goddess of Learning)as life-partner - always
searching new Knowledge. What turned him onto the Vedic Rituals is a
mystery. What made him leave California, and spent his last years -
not in India but in Thailand?

from:  Dhirendra Sharma
Posted on: Feb 22, 2012 at 19:44 IST

I have just come to know of this great personality. Being a foreigner,
his research work towards Sanskrit language vis-a-vis veda recitation
recording indeed a notable contribution. In fact, I feel guilty of not
knowing about him till now... I pray the Almighty to rest this Great
Soul in Eternal Peace...

from:  Devulapalli Srinivasa Murti
Posted on: Feb 22, 2012 at 15:02 IST

It's weird. Once, I myself was a Namboodiri. They were ready to share all their Vedic knowledge with Foreign scholars but not with any native guy of another caste, who was religious and wanted to be a priest or something like that.

from:  JSA
Posted on: Feb 22, 2012 at 11:40 IST

Excellent article. Sanskrit is the most scientific spoken language in the world. Its beauty is that it is spiritual yet musical. The Indian govt. should spend billions of dollars to revive our ancient language and bring it to the forefront of national dialogue.

from:  Ashish
Posted on: Feb 22, 2012 at 05:02 IST

Prof. Staal was a true interpreter of the Vedic knowledge and traditions. His contributions are simply immense and such an organic scholarship is so rare. Om Shanti!

from:  Deepak Kumar
Posted on: Feb 22, 2012 at 02:58 IST

India used to be the world leader in linguistics, grammar and analysis of language.
We have ceded this position to western scholars. Vedas and Panini's works are being
forgotten. It is time India establishes an institute where highly trained grammarians
do some serious research. Unfortunately the upper cream of the intellectually gifted
ones in society are interested in studying finance and electronics. Only drop outs are
being sent to study Panini and the Vedas.

from:  P.N.Shreeniwas
Posted on: Feb 22, 2012 at 02:41 IST
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