Kids Corner

Above: The author with Prof Joe O'Connell.


Prof Joseph OConnell:
A Tribute





My co-mentor, Professor Joseph (Joe) T. O'Connell, professor emeritus of Hinduism at the Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto, and long-time associate of St. Michael’s College, passed away on Sunday, May 6, 2012, at the age of 72, following a brain hemorrhage while in New York.

He was born in Boston in 1940. Joe had taught at the University for more than thirty years.

He is survived by his wife, Kathleen O’Connell, a daughter and two sons.

Joe served as the Academic Director at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies in 1999-2000 and since then was also a Senior Associate Fellow of the Centre. Most recently he was a visiting professor at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he was instrumental in the development of a Department of World Religions - a discipline that is largely non-existent in
South Asia.

He was an exceptional scholar who did much for the study of Gaudiya Vaishnavism since his Ph.D. in 1970 was on the social aspects of the Chaitanya movement. He has published widely on the history of Vaishnavism in Bengal, and on the social and ethical issues in the tradition.

Joe was a strong supporter of Sikh studies in the Western academe. With the financial and moral support of the Sikh community in Toronto, he organized an international conference on “Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century,” held at the University of Toronto, February 13-15, 1987.

I met him for the first time at this conference and during our conversation he encouraged me to apply for the doctoral program in the Centre for Religious Studies, with a focus on Sikh studies.

Indeed, I joined the University of Toronto in September 1987 for my doctoral work at his inspiration. He was quite optimistic that with the support of the Sikh community the University would be able to include Sikh Studies in its graduate and undergraduate

Earlier in 1986, internationally acclaimed Sikh scholar, W. H. (Hew) McLeod, was the Canadian Commonwealth Fellow at the Centre for Religious Studies, when he introduced the study of the Sikh tradition to the North American academic mainstream.

This was the crucial time when, after the outrages of 1984 in India, Sikhs had become the focus of worldwide attention.

Not surprisingly, Hew McLeod was chosen from an international pool of scholars to give the nationwide lectures on the history of religions in 1986 sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies. This was indeed a rare distinction that no other scholar of Sikhism, and few other scholars of South Asian studies, had ever achieved. This was not only an honor for
Hew McLeod, but also an indication that the study of the Sikh tradition had finally achieved its rightful place in the Western academic establishment.

With contributions from, inter alia, Sikh-Canadians, Prof O’Connell and Prof Milton Israel worked out an arrangement in 1988 to bring Hew McLeod for the next five years to teach Sikhism for one semester at the University of Toronto while continuing the other semester in his regular position at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

I completed my Ph.D. in November 1991 under the joint supervision of Professors McLeod and O’Connell.

Joe provided me with stimulating feedback on my research and watched my progress very carefully. He was always generous with his time and shared his intellectual insights with me wholeheartedly. He guided me through every phase of my work with great sensitivity. He patiently read my earlier drafts and offered extensive comments to refine my arguments.

Indeed, I owe to him a particular debt of gratitude and I acknowledge it with warmest thanks.

Most significantly, Joe provided me with unflinching support at a time when my academic freedom was at stake.

After many years I met him last year at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meeting in San Francisco (November 19-22, 2011). It was a wonderful surprise when he suddenly appeared before my eyes and gave me a big hug. We shared most precious moments once again on the Sikh Studies panel and at the dinner in the evening.

I invited him to visit University of California, Riverside, and he promised to attend my next Sikh Studies conference
in Spring 2013. But that promise will not be fulfilled now.

Joe was a kind and generous scholar, and a man of integrity and character. He will be sorely missed.

At this tender moment of loss a flood of beautiful memories has brought tears into my eyes. I pay my humble tribute to him and offer my condolences to Kathy and his wonderful children.


May 11, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Kirpal Singh (Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.A.), May 12, 2012, 8:28 AM.

What a wonderful tribute!

2: Irvinder Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), May 12, 2012, 8:44 AM.

My heartfelt condolences to Prof O'Connell's family. I had interviewed him on several occasions, 1989-1993, when the Sikh seminars were held in several cities and universities in Canada and U.S.A. In that era, O'Connell was frequently quoted on Sikh issues. Prof Pashaura Singh was among the upcoming Sikh scholars, and was defended by him during his trials and tribulations.

3: Himadri Banerjee (Kolkata, West Bengal, India), May 12, 2012, 9:11 PM.

Professor Pashaura Singh's tribute about our common friend, Prof J.T. O'Connell communicated much of my sentiment. Like him, I was not ready to listen to his sudden passing away at this moment. This tribute evoked a few wonderful memories of Joe O'Connell which are extended over decades. I had the privilege of meeting him for the first time during the Toronto session of the Sikh Studies Conference (1987). I came to know of the conference very late, but Hew McLeod was kind enough to request Joe O'Connell for my inclusion there. He promptly responded, sent a long letter (then email was not available to me) and assured me of a comfortable stay in Toronto. It was through his invitation that I could attend the session and present my paper. Subsequently, when he used to come to Kolkata or Shantiniketan on his way to Dhaka, I had the privilege of meeting him on a few occasions. During one such visit, he was kind enough to visit my house in north Kolkata. It was a day of heavy rain resulting in water-logging of roads. He had to stay back for the night and narrated many of his wonderful experiences while working in different Vaishnava houses for studying manuscripts preserved there. On that evening, he talked about things. Once he humbly submitted how during those days, he had often slept on the floor, after long work during the day time. He occasionally mixed Bengali in his dialogue and my mother had no difficulty in talking with him in Bengali. On another visit, he presented me a copy of Hew McLeod's "Sikhs of the Khalsa" which is still with me. His passing away reminds many of us of that struggling chapter of Sikh Studies, when a few dedicated scholars of the West like Joe O'Connell, with the support of a handful of Sikhs residing there, were committed to make a new beginning of Sikh Studies on both sides of Atlantic. He was one of those who had initiated the struggle in the University of Toronto and fought for it over the years. His fight no doubt played a significant role in giving Sikh Studies its twenty-first century avatar. A new generation of scholars have joined the stream of studying Sikhs, but more than a decade long struggle of Joe O'Connell in Toronto has no doubt largely made it possible.

4: Mark Juergensmeyer (Santa Barbara, California, U.S.A.), May 12, 2012, 10:26 PM.

Forty years ago, when we were trying to establish Sikh Studies in the United States, Joe O'Connell was making similar efforts in Canada. He was a great friend of the Sikh community and instrumental in helping to establish it as an important field of study in this hemisphere. The breadth of his intellectual interests and the generosity of his spirit are inspirations to us all.

5: Doris Jakobsh (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), May 13, 2012, 7:23 PM.

Very sad news indeed. Thank you, Pashaura Singh ji, for this wonderful tribute to a great scholar and friend of Sikh Studies.

6: Rosy (Belgium), May 14, 2012, 2:47 AM.

I had Prof. O'Connell at the University of Toronto for my undergrad classes in South Asian Studies. He had finesse in teaching and loved his students. We still kept in touch after graduation. Very very sad news. He contributed a lot to Sikh Studies and the department at University of Toronto. He would invite his students over to his home for Indian food during the festival season and truly embraced the community.

7: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 14, 2012, 4:15 PM.

There is a Zen saying: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Such seems to be the case with Dr. Pashaura Singh ji. A chance meeting with his mentor left an indelible impression upon him. The personable Prof O'Connell was able to provide the necessary stimuli that inflamed the mind of Pashaura Singh ji to obtain his Ph.D. A fitting tribute would be: 'Go and light other candles'.

8: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, U.S.A.), May 16, 2012, 6:17 PM.

My heartfelt thanks to all those who have paid glowing tributes to the memory of Professor O'Connell. I took the personal information from the University of Toronto website and repeated a mistake that Professor O'Connell did his Ph.D. in the 1950s (see the 5th paragraph above). This is not correct. I request the editor to make a correction to the following sentence: "He was an exceptional scholar who did much for the study of Gaudiya Vaishnavism since his Ph.D. in 1970 was on the social aspects of the Chaitanya movement." Thanks. [EDITOR: Corrected.]

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A Tribute"

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