By Jose Kavi
New Delhi: The Indian Church’s mission to reach out to other religions suffered a setback in the sudden death of Jesuit Father Noel Kantilal Sheth.
Father Sheth had “contributed much to inter-religious dialogue especially through his work in various commissions of the Society of Jesus and of the Vatican,” Father George Pattery, head of the Jesuits in South Asia, told Matters India July 10.
Father Sheth died of a heart attack on July 8 while attending a conference in Bogota, capital of the South American country of Columbia. He was 74. Efforts are on to bring his mortal remains to the western Indian city of Mumbai, his base, for people to pay homage, Jesuit sources said.
The Sanskrit scholar attended the conference organized by Catholic University Institutions of Philosophy. On the last day of the conference he felt tired and skipped the final session and the dinner. Later he was found dead near a staircase. Apparently he fell down and got some head injuries.
Retired Salesian Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati also attended the conference.
Father Pattery hailed Father Sheth as “an erudite scholar in Sanskrit literature which enabled him to be thorough in his research. He could authoritatively speak on Hindu literature which won him friends among scholars.”
The Jesuit scholar could speak on Hindu-Buddhist texts that would lend themselves to dialogue. “Besides, his family was quite inter-religious with many mixed marriages among his relations,” Father Pattery added.
Father Sheth’s name is in the Who’s Who of Sanskrit Scholars of India as he was a savant in Sanskrit and Pali, the ancient languages of India.
Father Sheth taught Indian Philosophies and Religions at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth (JDV), Pontifical Institute of Philosophy and Religion, Pune, western India.
Bishop Thomas Dabre of Poona led a requiem Mass at the Papal Seminary on June for its former rector. As many as 15 priests from the JDV campus concelebrated the Mass attended by scores of priests and nuns.
Bishop Dabre had collaborated with Father Sheth to inter-religious dialogue in various parts of India the country. The prelate said the Jesuit scholar contributed greatly to the growth of Poona diocese where he spent more than 35 years.
Papal Seminary rector Jesuit Father Jose Thayil gave a short introduction about Father Sheth at the start of the Mass.
Father Sheth was born on October 31, 1943, in Mumbai and entered the Society of Jesus on June 20, 1960. He was the gold medalist in MA Sanskrit-Pali from the University of Pune. He obtained a doctorate in Sanskrit from Harvard University, United States, where he was awarded a full scholarship. He had studied eleven languages, including Latin and Greek.
He was the president of JDV during 1999-2006 and papal seminary rector from 1991 to 1994. After returning to Mumbai, Father Sheth taught at St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), served its Heras Research Institute.
“He was an excellent administrator, inspiring teacher, perceptive scholar and a fine gentleman,” Father Thayil told Matters India.
The papal seminary rector also recalled that Father Sheth “was a meticulous planner. He took care of all the details in the planning and execution.” This helped the Jesuit to publish scholarly articles in national and international journals.
He was convener of the History of Religion Section of the 14th World Sanskrit Conference held in Kyoto, Japan. He advised the Jesuit General for Inter-religious dialogue with Hinduism and served the order’s international secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relations. “He was known for his willingness to help anyone in need,” Father Thayil said.
He holds a doctorate from Harvard University, is a reputed scholar in Sanskrit and Pali, and his name is in the Who’s Who of Sanskrit Scholars of India. He was the Convener of the History of Religion Section of the 14th World Sanskrit Conference held in Kyoto, Japan. He has been awarded numerous scholarships and prizes. An important award is the “Dr. Sam Higginbottom Award for the Best Principals of India, 2004-2005.”
He has published widely in India and abroad on Sanskrit and Pali exegesis and on comparative philosophy and theology, and has taught different Indian religions and philosophies in many universities in various parts of the world.
He is a member of several national and international learned bodies and international administrative bodies, and is on the Board of Editors of some international journals. He is an adviser to the Jesuit General for interreligious dialogue with Hinduism and a Member of the international Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relations for the worldwide Society of Jesus.