R P Goldman
22 February 2012. The worldwide community of Indology scholars, among others, mourn the passing of Professor Johan Frederik Staal, known to his many friends and colleagues simply as ‘Frits.’ He died at his home near Chiangmai in Thailand on Sunday, February 19.
Born in Amsterdam, he studied mathematics, physics and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and took his undergraduate degree in 1954. He moved on to studies in Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit at Banaras Hindu University and the University of Madras. It was in Madras (now Chennai), that he completed his doctorate in 1957.
During his long career, Professor Staal served in a number of notable institutions. He was Lecturer in Sanskrit at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London from 1958 to 1962. He was Assistant and Associate Professor of Indian Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania during 1961-62.
He was Professor of General and Comparative Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam from 1962 to 1967. He served as Visiting Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during 1967-68. He was Professor of Philosophy and South Asian Languages at the University of California at Berkeley from 1968 to 1991.
As a member of Berkeley’s Department of Philosophy, he founded the university’s Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies (originally called the Department of South and Southeast Asian Languages and Literatures) in 1973, and served as its first Chair. He took early retirement from Berkeley in 1991 and served as Visiting Professor in universities around the world.
Professor Staal was an internationally known authority in Sanskrit grammar, mysticism and ritual studies. He was especially highly regarded for his original, if often provocative and even controversial, studies of Vedic rituals. This was exemplified by his magisterial 1983 study of the Vedic agnicayana rite, titled, Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar.
This he published in collaboration with two experts in rituals, C.V. Somayajipad and Itti Ravi Nambudiri. His film, Altar of Fire, on the performance of this rite in 1975 by Nambudiri Brahmins in Kerala, became a widely viewed classic of ethnographic film-making.
Professor Staal was noted for his insistence that the formal disciplinary boundaries of academia were largely artificial. In keeping with this belief, he ranged widely across many fields that are conventionally divided up into the categories of Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences.
Thus, he was equally at home in exploring such areas as Vedic studies, mathematics, philosophy, philately, linguistics, religious studies, ritual studies, mysticism and birdsong. A list of his published works will give a good idea of the range of his interests and scholarly imagination.
Following his retirement from Berkeley, Frits moved to Thailand. There he built a beautiful house on a secluded compound a little outside the northern town of Chiangmai. Here, with the exception of his very active schedule of travel, he lived with his long-time partner, Wangchai.
He is survived by his wife Sarasvati of Berkeley, California, a son and a daughter.
He was a learned, iconoclastic, charming and generous teacher, scholar, and colleague His loss will be felt by his many friends and colleagues. His passing constitutes a serious blow to Indological studies.
(Professor Goldman is with the University of California at Berkeley)