Never at a loss for words
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Never at a loss for words

Indologist Frits Staal breathed life into dead languages, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Feb 29, 2012 23:09 IST

Frits Staal, eminent Dutch-born Indologist (1930-2012), passed away on February 19 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He was emeritus professor of philosophy and South/Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, having studied at Amsterdam and Varanasi, with his PhD from the University of Madras as a Government of India scholar.

I first met Frits in Bangkok in late 2009 and he asked me to visit him at his house up in the wooded hills outside Chiang Mai. Frits set great store by Rishi Yajnavalkya and was not best pleased at my levity in calling him “a big show-off” and “a bully”. Only to annoy, I mailed him an old thing I’d written called ‘What Gargi really said’ and he looked forward, he said, to talking about it. I should have run away right then to save myself from certain death-by-inadequacy but though learned, Frits was interested and kind, appreciative of others and so bitingly funny that I said I would love to.

“We will talk all day, eat and walk in the woods,” he mailed.

As a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, Frits was keen on mathematics and philosophy and specialised in mathematical logic. His interest in Indian philosophy was kindled, he said, by two lectures at the 10th International Congress for Philosophy held in Amsterdam in 1948: “One was by LEJ Brouwer, the greatest Dutch mathematician since Christiaan Huygens. Brouwer put a long quotation from the Bhagvad Gita in the middle of a forest of mathematical symbols. The other lecture was by TMP Mahadevan of the University of Madras. He ended his talk by saying: ‘An enlightened person doesn’t become a bondslave of the Veda.’”

Frits went to Madras in 1954 to learn Sanskrit, discovering that it was more alive in India than classical Greek and Latin in Europe. He was influenced by Professor V Raghavan, member of the Government of India Sanskrit Commission whose report recommended the three-language formula and the creation of the Central Institute of Indology. Frits found Raghavan’s outlook “truly universal”, supporting not only Sanskrit but all classical languages and the study of living and popular cultures, of Munda, Dravidian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Central Asian, Chinese and SE-Asian studies, Egyptian, Hittite and Iranian histories.

Raghavan made Frits see that “there was no limit to the interplay between traditions and innovations within a civilisation,” that the classical languages and Panini, whom Frits called India’s Euclid, lit the path to the artificial languages of modern science, for classical languages focus on the transmission of knowledge.

In 1975, Frits had organised the 12-day Vedic sacrifice Atiraatra-Agnicayana with eminences Cherumukku Vaidikan and Itti Ravi Nambudiri in Kerala, supported by prestigious foreign funders. A monumental two volumes on Agni emerged in 1983, which Frits gave me copies of to lug back, inscribed, “For Renuka remembering Feb 13, 2010 from Frits”.

“Do you have one reverent nerve?” he chuckled while I looked at his books and poured myself tea from a pot in a padded basket. My last email from him was in late November 2011, telling me about his new house, “which you have not yet visited so that you cannot really appreciate what its advantages are…So let us keep in close touch and meet asap here or there.” Thank you Frits.

(Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture)

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Feb 29, 2012 23:05 IST