etymology in the Sanskrit tradition

Tue May 21 15:17:23 UTC 1996

Dear readers of the list, 

An important point which is disregarded in the recent Indology-forum discussion 
on ETYMOLOGIES in the Sanskrit tradition is that there are quite divergent 
attitudes towards these within this tradition itself. 
   While I wonder whether the contrast between pre-Paninian (Niruktian) and 
post-Paninian is as strong as Wujastyk suggested (Thieme and Bronkhorst suggest 
that Yaska was really post-Paninian), there is a very clear and important 
contrast between etymologies provided in the Nirukta (which continues a trend 
started in the Brahmanas) and the attitude of the Mimamsakas towards 
   The etymologies provided in the Nirukta and the Brahmanas may be called 
"hermeneutic etymologies", serving to explain texts (including mantras) and 
rituals without any historical-linguistic claims. The use of "hermeneutic 
etymologies" as a literary/exegetic device is a near universal phenomenon in 
literary and oral traditions in the world. This term can be suggested to 
distinguish these clearly from the "linguistic (/historical) etymologies" of 
comparative and historical linguistics, which are practically absent in earlier 
traditions. Even if there is sometimes an overlap with linguistic etymologies, 
hermeneutic etymologies cannot count as such because they are pronounced in an 
entirely different context of intellectual and cultural aims and 
presuppositions. The term <<hermeneutic etymology>> is not new, it has been 
used by P. Verhagen (context: Sanskrit in Tibet) and T. Goudriaan (context: 
Tantric etymologies) and probably by others. 
   While texts like the Brahmanas claim that their <<hermeneutic etymologies>> 
reveal a <<hidden truth>>, they belong merely to the arthavaadas 
(<<recommendations>>) according to the Mimamsakas, for whom they do not have a 
strong truth claim as they are subordinate to the vidhis (positive and 
negative) or injunctions. For Mimamsa the literal meaning of words and 
sentences in the Vedic literature is generally to be preferred to any indirect 
meaning which might be attributed to it. 

On etymologies in India see recently: Max Deeg, Die altindische Etymologie nach 
dem Verstaendnis Yaaska's und seiner Vorgaenger, Verlag J.H. Roell, 1995, who 
overemphasizes in my view <<magical>> aspects of the etymologies. The author's 
collection of pre-Yaaska etymologies is useful, and I like his references to 
the importance of <<etymologies>> in the work of modern thinkers like 
Heidegger. I would also like to refer to a forthcoming publication of myself, a 
contribution to The Emergence of Semantics in Four Literary Traditions, 
publisher: J. Benjamins. My own contribution deals with semantics in the 
Sanskrit tradition, three other contributions deal with the Greek, Arabic and 
Hebrew tradition. In all four traditions etymologies play an important role 
(though we do not use this term in the book, they are in fact all <<hermeneutic 

Jan E.M. Houben, 
Research Fellow, 
International Institute for Asian Studies, 
P.O. Box 9515, 2300 RA   Leiden, NL. 
(e-mail: jhouben at RULLET.LeidenUniv.NL)

>>>>>>Some time ago Dominik Wujastyk wrote:

>The kind of etymologizing above that Girish suggests is fanciful is
>characteristic of pre-Paninian thinking, especially in Yaska's Nirukta.

and Madhav Deshpande << Such linguistically fanciful etymologies are critical 
for our understanding of the
synchronic comprehension of those terms and concepts by the respective

and Swami Gitananda asked for a better term to replace <<etymology>>


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