Monday, January 12, 2009

Scholar’s passion for life’s big questions

JOSEPH JORDENS Academic and teacher of comparative religion Born June 28,1925; died December 14.2008

Dr Jos Jordens will be remembered as a scholar of Indian religious thought with a remarkable breadth of understanding and the capacity to reach out to fellow men and women confronting enduring questions of life and death.

He died at 83, still planning in his final year to teach a course in Batemans Bay on The Varieties of Religion: Judaism, Christianity, Hindu and Buddhist Traditions, Confucianism, Taoism and Japanese Shinto. The question he chose: "Is the fear of death the origin of religion?" One of five children, Jordens was born in Belgium in 1925. On leaving school in 1943, he decided to become a Jesuit, to his family ’s surprise, "setting off on a train journey to the novitiate wearing a cassock because, while Germans at that time were conscripting young men as forced labourers, they never conscripted priests".

As a Jesuit in training, Jordens added to Latin the study of Sanskrit in 1947 in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Louvain. In 1953, in his late 20s, he went to India for the first time. He had already defended in Latin his doctoral thesis on the Bhagavadgita in 1952.

He went to India to continue his studies in Sanskrit and in Hindi and began to use English. He practised his Hindi by telling stories to a class of first-graders.

In 1957 he realised he no longer wished to be a priest. "By the late 1950s I had laid the foundations of an academic career in Indian studies [thanks to the Jesuits, one might add], but I knew that there would be few, if any openings in that field in Belgium," he said. "I set my sights on an English-speaking country where universities were beginning to teach about Asia, and in 1957 decided to try my luck in Australia. I found Melbourne University was planning to inaugurate a Department of Indian Studies in the near future. [In 1961 he was appointed, and eight busy and happy years followed.] I taught my students about ancient and traditional Indian culture, its religion and philosophy, its literature and art and published a number of papers in that field." In Melbourne, Jordens met and married Ann-Man, and this loving relationship lasted for the rest of his life.

Committed to his family, he became an Australian citizen early in the 1960s.

In 1970, he accepted a position at the Australian National University to teach modern Indian history, bringing his already developed interest in Hinduism, classical Indian literature and notions about movements of religious and social reform in the 19th and 20th centuries. He taught undergraduates and shared in the supervision of a group of postgraduate students in the South Asian field who came to Canberra from India, Pakistan, the US, Japan and other parts of Australia, and had as colleagues scholars of world renowm Backed by his knowledge of Sanskrit, Hindi, English and more in the coming years, he turned to a study of the Hindu reform movement, the Arya Samaj. His own account of his search for material in India in the 1970s reads like a detective story. His book, Dayananda Sarasvati: i-I is Lije and ideas, was published in Delhi in 1978, republished the following year and again as a paperback in 1997.

The 1980s were his last years at the ANU as scholar, teacher arid administrator. He was dean of the Faculty of Asian Studies for most of that decade, and while the number of South Asia students was declining, colleagues abroad continued to stimulate his research and writing on Mahatma Gandhi. Before his retirement as dean, he had the pleasure of seeing the 1987 Crawford Prize awarded to his student Harjot Singh Oberoi, now professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. Professor Oberoi said, "Dr Jordens was a great mentor to me and certainly shaped my historical scholarship. His smile will always be missed." The end of Jordens ’ time as dean, and his retirement in the 1990s, allowed him to bring to fruition the work for which he had only been able to make preparation while distracted by administrative and other tasks in previous years. The last of the 90 volumes of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi had now been published, and Jordens was ready to add a further title to his earlier three books, 14 contributions to edited volumes and 22 scholarly articles in his opus. This new book, Gandhi ’s Religion: A Homespun Shawl, was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Gandhi ’s assassination on January 31, 1948.

Jordens ’ university colleagues knew him as a fine scholar and family man devoted to Ann-Man and their family. It is fitting he died at home in the loving care of his wife of 46 years and their children.

John Caiger
Canberra Times,
Canberra,Australia

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