Frits Staal, an influential Indologist, passes away

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

Updated - July 24, 2016 01:56 am IST

Published - February 22, 2012 01:53 am IST - THRISSUR

Frits Staal with Kapra ankaranarayanan, an Akkithiripad. File photo

Frits Staal with Kapra ankaranarayanan, an Akkithiripad. File photo

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.

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