Frits Staal, a scholar who put Vedic philosophy on world map

From the ancient grammarian Panini to modern linguistics and transposing their insights with all the rigour of modern mathematical logic at his command to the study of Vedic rituals, Frits Staal, the renowned Indologist and philosopher-scholar, who passed away in Thailand at the age of 82 recently, has had very few peers.

It is a huge loss to the contemporary Indian Intellectual landscape in particular, for someone like Staal rooted in the western intellectual tradition, firmly believed that ‘civilisation would return to Asia under the intellectual guidance of India and China.’
Staal, for long had ‘predicted’ the Asia-centric ‘turn’ in the march of human civilisation. He was a professor of philosophy and South Asian languages for 23 long years till 1991 at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, USA. Later upon his retirement he made the forests of Chiang Mai in Thailand his home.

In his prodigious and exacting scholarly career he had lent a distinct touch to ‘comparative philosophy’, having straddled from his student days at the University of Amsterdam (1948-54), a range of academic disciplines from mathematics, astronomy, physics to philosophy, specialising in Greek Philosophy and mathematical logic.
Born in the Netherlands, Staal’s passion for truth took a new turn when he, “halfway through his graduation studies” came to India on a government of India scholarship.

He studied Sanskrit under traditional ‘pundits’ in Madras (now Chennai) and then Benares, even as he plunged into depths of Indian philosophy. In a brief interaction with this correspondent when he was in Chennai in February 2008, Staal said that for many years he had been roaming in the villages of South India ‘recording the Vedic chants.’ Such was his passion for Vedic recitation, chant and ritual.

While Dr Pannerselvam, present head of the department of philosophy at the University of Madras, recalls Staal’s student days at the faculty in the mid-1950s with his unassuming and genial presence, the scholar was known for his unusual clarity of thought and articulation, weaving in the sweeps of Panini and Indian ‘Nyaya’ logic to his perspectives on modern linguistics and philosophy.

‘Advaita and neo-platonism – a critical study in comparative philosophy’ published by the University of Madras in 1961, is particularly remembered by scholars familiar with his work for its remarkable foray into comparative studies on Eastern and Western philosophical traditions. “Staal was also a linguist and he connected the insights from that discipline with the Vedic rituals,” recalled Dr K P Shankar, professor of philosophy at St Stephen’s College, Delhi.

Resourceful scholar

Disclosing that Staal had worked under the late distinguished ‘Adwaita’ scholar, Professor T M P Mahadaven at the University of Madras, Dr Shankar described Staal ‘as an immensely resourceful scholar.’ His ‘contributions to Indic studies and Indology is immense and he was more sophisticated than many other scholars of his time.’

Over the years, even as he moved from one academic assignment to another, from teaching Sanskrit for three years at the School of African and Oriental Studies, London, followed by teaching Indian philosophy at the Universities of Pennsylvania, USA, Amsterdam, to MIT where he taught ‘Indian grammarians’, to finally his long stint with UC at Berkeley, what shot Staal into international fame was his video graphing of the ‘Vedic’ sacrificial ritual performed by the Namboodiri brahmins in Kerala.

It was in 1974 that Staal had gone to Kerala along with another Indic scholar to see the stupendous Vedic ritual of ‘Athirathram,’ when he video-recorded the entire programme for posterity. This task was very difficult in a modern milieu when people moved away from such complex rituals.

What followed was a monumental project by Staal, titled ‘Agni’ which was published in 1983 as a two-volume work. This   work was collaborated with C V Somayajipad and M Itti Ravi Namboodiri. With 130 colour plates, 160 illustrations and diagrams, 6 maps and 2 cassette recordings, this work to this day is a grand testimony to his life and work.

 ‘Agni’ (fire alter) has in its first volume recorded one of the most complicated Vedic rituals in full length performed by the Namboodiri brahmins. The second volume has a complete description of the ritual and detailed studies by various scholars on this very ancient ritual, says Dr Shankar, hailing it as Staal’s most celebrated work.

Apart from his dozens of books, innumerable articles published in various scholarly journals on Indian philosophy, logic and linguistics, the concept of Meta-language and its Indian background, on ‘mantras’, etc., Staal’s ‘A Reader on the Sanskrit Grammarians’, his interview with and review of the works of outstanding linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, virtually redrew the contours of Inter-disciplinary studies.

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