Concept of text and its ramifications for Indian pre-history

Palaniappa at Palaniappa at
Sun Apr 6 19:42:14 UTC 1997

My initial investigation of two related terms nUl in Tamil and sUtra in
Sanskrit led me to discovering important conclusions regarding Indian
pre-history. The list members have seen the progress of this work in the
various postings of mine. Here are my final findings as of now.

We have to consider three pairs of words. The Tamil/Dravidian and
Sanskrit/Indo-Aryan equivalents are shown below.

no.		Tamil/Dravidian		Sanskri/Indo-Aryan 
----		---------------------		------------------------
1.		     nuval(nUl)		              sUtra
2.		     pA			                        ta�ntu
3.		     panuval			               ta�ntra

When the Aryans came to India, they could have developed different metaphors
to denote verse or text, as their western counterparts did, from words
meaning �to weave� as George Thompson had noted. But the words which have
come to dominate the Indo-Aryan languages in the sense of text are �tantra�
and �sUtra�. 
The Sanskrit �ta�ntu�  means �warp�, and Sanskrit �sUtra� means �thread� or
The Dravidian �nuval� can mean �thread� as well as
�utterance/praise/sound/call/song/text�. It is derived from a compound
meaning �web of the spider�. The Dravidian pA from the root �pA� meaning �to
stretch, to spread�  means  �warp of a loom� as  well as �verse/song�.
Dravidian �panuval�, apparently a compound of the other two means �warp
thread/warp, song, book�. The first two Dravidian words have been traced to

The Sanskrit word �ta�ntu� comes from a root �tan� meaning  �to stretch� and
is used to refer to the warp of the loom in Rig Veda, the earliest Indo-Aryan
text in India. We also find that �ta�ntu�, the warp, is beginning to be used
in the sense of �song/praise� in the Rig Veda. In the tenth maNDala, we also
find �ta�ntra� which is also derived from �tan�/�ta�ntu� used synonymously
with �ta�ntu�. Only later �sUtra� comes to be used in the sense of text. The
word �tantra� denoting the (secret) texts or spells  also means �web of the
spider� later. The adoption of �ta�ntu� and �ta�ntra�as the word to mean
�warp� parallels the Dravidian adoption of �pA� and �panuval�. Since, in the
Indo-European languages, the word �warp� seems to come from a word meaning
�to throw�, the �woof� or �weft� comes from a word meaning �to weave� and
�thread� comes from a word meaning �to turn�, it seems probable the Sanskrit
terms are translations of Dravidian concepts into Indo-Aryan. (If there is an
Indo-European tradition of using the 'warp' as the basis for text, then we
may have to re-work the hypothesis.)

According to Comparative Dictionary of Indo-Aryan languages, the Sanskrit
word �sUtra� is derived from the root �sU� meaning �to provide, bring forth,
bear young� or possibly from the root �sIv� meaning �to sew�. Till now, the
usage of �sUtra�, meaning �text� has been explained, by scholars such as
Scharfe, as having been taken from the image of weaving, i.e., a �thread
stretched out lengthwise as a warp to be crossed by the woof�. But if this
had been the case, then the authors of these texts already had the warp
thread par excellence in �ta�ntu�or �ta�ntra�. Why was �ta�ntu� or �ta�ntra�
not used to denote the texts? The reason must have been that it was already
used to refer to the tantric texts which must have been negatively viewed by
the author/authors of the �sUtra� texts. So when they looked for an alternate
word, there was already a Dravidian word for texts which also meant �thread�.
So they probably used the Indo-Aryan equivalent of the Dravidian word which
also had a general sense of �production�.  (Note that nuval includes meanings
of producing thread as well as sound.)

When it comes to �ta�ntra�, it was probably coined by the pre-Vedic Aryans or
Vratyas whose culture was a syncretistic one composed of Aryan as well as
Dravidian elements. In such a situation, it is possible that they adopted the
Dravidian concept of �warp� being used in the sense of �verse� or �text� and
so adopted �ta�ntu� and �tantra�. As the intrusion of the pre-vedic elements
into the Vedic culture progressed, these terms entered the Vedic culture
also. The disapproval of �tantric� culture probably led to the adoption of
the synonymous �sUtra�.

These findings suggest that the interaction of Dravidians and Aryans (earlier
with pre-Vedic Aryans and later with Vedic Aryans) was probably at a much
higher intellectual/literary level than had been assumed until now. The
association of �ta�ntra� with pre-Vedic society can also be inferred from the
term  for Vedas in Tamil, �maRai� or �maRainUl� meaning secret or secret
texts. Till now, it has been believed that the terms which should have been
applied to the upanishads came to be applied for the Vedic hymns . But the
Classical Tamil texts refer to chanting/singing of �maRai� in public. I do
not think the upanishads were sung or chanted in public. So this term, I
feel, probably goes back to the pre-Vedic days. But the Dravidian concept of
�nUl� should have had no concept of secrecy. That is why they had to use the
modifier �maRai�. The concept of secrecy with respect to texts should have
developed among the Vratyan practitioners of �ta�ntra�.

Thus we have three sets of terms or symbols corresponding to three cultural
streams in India. For texts, nuval/nUl for the Dravidian, t�antra for the
pre-Vedic Aryan, and sUtra for the Vedic Aryan.  Similarly, in religion, we
have �murukan� symbolizing Dravidian, �ziva� signifying the pre-Vedic Aryan,
and �indra/viSNu� signifying the Vedic Aryan religious streams. It was no
coincidence that in order to reconcile the three, �murukan� was related to
�ziva� as son and to �indra� and �viSNu� as son-in-law. Of course, �murukan�
was made to teach the �praNava�, the utterance par excellence, to �ziva�. 

This leads to interesting possibilities, was the concept of a
refined/well-made language, (and the associated concept of lower language),
and sophisticated grammatical analysis due to the
Indo-European/Indo-Aryan/Sanskrit genius per se? Or could they also be due to
earlier impulses which have also manifested in Dravidian/Tamil? Compare the
parallels in Sanskrit-centamiz, Prakrit-koTuntamiz, (the Tamil diglossia),
the grammatical traditions with meta-languages as Sanskrit and Tamil, the
importance of grammar for the Jains as evidenced by Tamil tradition, etc. 

One may have to take a whole new look at Indian cultural history. 


S. Palaniappan

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