Emeritus Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology Stanley Insler GRD ’63 passed away on Jan. 5 at the age of 82.
Insler was a distinguished historical linguist who studied Indo-European languages. He is specifically known for his writings about the language and literature of India and Iran as well as his translation of the Gathas, a sacred text of Zoroastrianism.
“I think he was a real connection to the history of the department,” said Robert Frank, chair of the Linguistics department. “His loss really is the loss of one bridge to that history. The other thing we will miss is that he really was a lively and spirited person, so we’ll certainly miss his presence around the department.”
Insler was born in the Bronx, New York on June 23, 1937. At the age of 16, he enrolled in Columbia University on a Ford Foundation Scholarship, graduating with a B.A. in 1957 before receiving his Ph.D. from Yale in 1963.
He remained at the University as a professor until his retirement in 2012. In his nearly 50 years of professorship, he served as chair and director of graduate studies in the linguistics department. He also served as a fellow of Jonathan Edwards College.
Insler was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, the Philological Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Science, along with several others. Additionally, he was a speaker at the Library of Congress’s 300th Anniversary of Zarathustra in 2003. In 2004, the World Zoroastrian Organization named him a fellow — “a signal honor” for someone born outside Iran and India — according to Valerie Hansen, professor of history.
“Yale is the poorer for the loss such a loyal, devoted, yet clear-eyed critic,” said professor emeritus of therapeutic radiology, molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and history of medicine William Summers. “He had a secure sense of his own position and self-worth that gave him the confidence to explore widely and take intellectual chances. He was a teacher and scholar who was an inspiration to all and will be missed by many.”
Insler’s translation of the Gathas allowed many modern Zoroastrians to access the sacred text, and he wrote extensively on the ethics of Zoroastrianism. He also studied Avestan — the languages of Zoroastrian scripture; Sanskrit — an ancient language of India; and Pali — the Indo-Aryan language used in Hindu and Theravada Buddhist texts.
According to Claire Bowern, professor of linguistics, the faculty regarded him as an “excellent teacher” with a strong understanding of the relationship between language and ancient culture.
Colleagues told the News that they remembered Insler not only for his academic contributions but also for the kindness he showed colleagues and students alike.
“When I first came to Yale in 2004 I could not have envisioned a warmer welcome than the one he extended me,” said Phyllis Granoff, professor of religious studies. “He loved Yale and Yale students. My graduate students found in him a generous teacher and mentor.”
According to Granoff, her graduate students worked with him in the American Oriental Society Library and relished the opportunity to hear about the history of the society for which he served as treasurer for four years before assuming the role of president from 1997 to 1998. He “loved to tell stories about the great Sanskritists of yore,” Granoff added.
Many faculty interviewed by the News spoke of Granoff in context to the Elizabethan Club, a social club of Yale, where he often met for tea with peers. Other professors remember Insler for his grand storytelling abilities. Molly Worthen ’03 — an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina who came to know Insler through the Elizabethan Club — said that he fully embodied each character with his stories. She fondly recalls his “side-splitting impression” of actress Tallulah Bankhead.
A graveside service took place on Jan. 8, and a memorial service is planned for the spring of 2019.