Johan Frederik (Frits) Staal (3 November 1930 – 19 February 2012) was the department founder and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and South/Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Staal specialized in the study of Vedic ritual and mantras, and the scientific exploration of ritual and mysticism. He was also a scholar of Greek and Indian logic and philosophy and Sanskrit grammar.
Staal was born in Amsterdam, the son of the architect Jan Frederik Staal, and studied mathematics, physics and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. He continued with Indian philosophy and Sanskrit at Madras and Banaras. Staal was Professor of General and Comparative Philosophy in Amsterdam, 1962–67. He became Professor of Philosophy and South Asian Languages at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968, and he retired in 1991.
Staal argued that the ancient Indian grammarians, especially Pāṇini, had completely mastered methods of linguistic theory not rediscovered again until the 1950s and the applications of modern mathematical logic to linguistics by Noam Chomsky. (Chomsky himself has said that the first generative grammar in the modern sense was Panini's grammar). The early methods allowed the construction of discrete, potentially infinite generative systems. Remarkably, these early linguistic systems were codified orally, though writing was then used to develop them in some way. The formal basis for Panini's methods involved the use of "auxiliary" markers, rediscovered in the 1930s by the logician Emil Post. Post's rewrite systems are now a standard approach for the description of computer languages. The ancient discoveries were motivated by the need to preserve exact Sanskrit pronunciation and expression given the primacy of language in ancient Indian thought.
In 1975, a consortium of scholars, led by Staal, documented the twelve-day performance, in Panjal village, Kerala, of the Vedic Agnicayana ritual. It is available as a documentary titled Altar of Fire. It was thought possible that this would be the last performance of the ritual, but it has since been revived. In Rules without Meaning Staal controversially suggested that mantras "predate language in the development of man in a chronological sense". He pointed out that there is evidence that ritual existed before language, and argued that syntax was influenced by ritual.
His more recent study was concerned with Greek and Vedic geometry. He drew a parallel between geometry and linguistics, writing that, "Panini is the Indian Euclid." Staal's point is that Panini showed how to extend spoken Sanskrit to a formal metalanguage for the language itself.
- Advaita and Neoplatonism, University of Madras, 1961.
- Nambudiri Veda Recitation, The Hague: Mouton, 1961.
- Word Order in Sanskrit and Universal Grammar, Dordrecht: Reidel, 1967.
- A Reader on the Sanskrit Grammarians, Cambridge Mass.: MIT, 1972.
- Exploring Mysticism. A Methodological Essay, Penguin Books; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
- The Science of Ritual, Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1982.
- with C. V. Somayajipad and Itti Ravi Nambudiri, AGNI - The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, Vols. I-II, Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1983.
- The Stamps of Jammu and Kashmir, New York: The Collectors Club, 1983.
- Universals. Studies in Indian Logic and Linguistics, Chicago and London: University of Chicago, 1988.
- Staal, Frits (1996). Ritual and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 9788120814127.
- Concepts of Science in Europe and Asia, Leiden: International Institute of Asian Studies, 1993, 1994.
- Mantras between Fire and Water. Reflections on a Balinese Rite, Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences/North-Holland, 1995.
- "There Is No Religion There." in: The Craft of Religious Studies, ed. Jon R. Stone, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998, 52-75.
- "Artificial Languages across Sciences and Civilizations," Journal of Indian Philosophy 34, 2006, 89-141.
- Discovering the Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights, Penguin Books India, 2008.
- Jouer avec le feu. Pratique et theorie du rituel vedique, Paris: College de France, 1990.
- Over Zin en Onzin, Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1986.
- Een Wijsgeer in het Oosten. Op reis door Java en Kalimantan, Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1988.
- Drie bergen en zeven rivieren: Essays, Amsterdam: Meulenhoff 2004.
- Santhosh, K. (2012-02-20). "Obituary: Indologist Frits Staal of Athirathram fame passes away". The Hindu. Retrieved October 21, 2012.
- "R.I.P. Johan Frederik (Frits) Staal, 1930-2012". University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 19 March 2016.
- "Johan Frederik ('Frits') Staal (1930 - 2012)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
- An event in Kolkata Archived May 10, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, Frontline
- Kadvany, John (2007). "Positional Value and Linguistic Recursion". Journal of Indian Philosophy. 35 (5–6): 487–520. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.565.2083. doi:10.1007/s10781-007-9025-5.
- "Altar of Fire". .der.org. Documentary Educational Resources. Retrieved 10 June 2018.
- "Kerala village hosts 4,000-year-old ritual for world peace". Hindustan Times (New Delhi, India). McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. HighBeam Research (subscription required). 2011. Archived from the original on December 13, 2017. Retrieved October 22, 2012.