Rig Veda, ta'ntra, nUl, and sUtra

Palaniappa at aol.com Palaniappa at aol.com
Thu Apr 3 16:03:55 UTC 1997

In a personal communication to me Vidyasankar Sundaresan said, "In connection
with the spider and the loom metaphors, you might be
interested in the following, if you haven't already thought of it. The
muNDaka upanishad compares how the world comes from brahman, by using the
metaphor of the spider. But there is no word in the text connoting 'web'
or 'weave'.. The only verbs used there (srjate ca grhNate ca) relate to
sending forth and drawing back. In the brhadAraNyaka, gArgI asks
yajnavalkya about the substratum on which the world is woven as it were?
Here, there are true words relating to weave (otaS ca protaS ca). The
metaphor here seems to be the loom designed by human beings, with threads
used as warp and woof. 

I was also struck by the coincidence of your posting with some of my own
thoughts recently. A few weeks ago, I was wondering how to make a Sanskrit
term for 'world wide web'. I rejected "jAla" as having too many negative
connotations. Other than Uta/ota (deriving from the root ve, to weave),
which are pretty obscure words (I doubt if 'ota' is used anywhere
else than in the brhadAraNyaka), I could not come up with any positive
Sanskrit word for 'web'!"

This communication led me to take a fresh look at the Sanskrit side. What I
found there was very interesting. Let me at the outset concede I am not a
Vedist. My observations are based on translations/statements by other

My hypothesis is that Dravidian 'nUl' and Sanskrit 'sUtra' are not directly
related but only through the Sanskrit word 'tantra'. 'nUl' and 'tantra' seem
to be more directly related.  In several Rig Vedic passages such as 1.142.2,
"Spin out the ancient thread for him who sheds, with gifts, the Soma juice",
8.13.14, 10.53.6, 10.57.2, 10.71.9, spinning out seems to mean 'to praise',
'to sing the praise' or as noun, 'vedic mantra'. This will correspond to the
semantics of 'nuval'. The association of female weavers in 2.3.6 and 10.71.9
suggest correspondences with classical Tamil texts. Thus, I think the
semantics of nuval will help in interpreting the vedic 'tantu' or

My guess is even though 'tantra' seems to have a meaning of 'utterance' far
earlier than 'sUtra', it was the search for a 'positive' word for 'text'
which resulted in the use of the synonymous 'sUtra', 'ta'ntra'/'tantra'
probably having acquired negative connotations in the mind of the orthodox
because of association with secret/magical utterances/texts/spells. 'sUtra'
in the sense of text seems to first appear in the bRhadAraNyaka upaniSad.

While Dravidian concept of spider was that the thread comes out of its mouth,
the Sanskrit concept was that the thread comes out of the navel. See the word
'tantu-nAbha' in the upanishads. This suggests that the Sanskrit 'tantu'
meaning 'utterance/text' is not that directly related to the meaning 'thread'
as opposed to the Dravidian 'nUl' which is.

I would welcome comments from the scholars in the list.


S. Palaniappan

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