Rig Veda, ta'ntra, nUl, and sUtra

thompson at jlc.net thompson at jlc.net
Fri Apr 11 01:27:00 UTC 1997

I have to confess that I have only the crudest understanding of how weaving
works, so in looking over BAU 3.6, I was intrigued by Patrick Olivelle's
conclusion that the "third term" upon which the weaving takes place must be
the warp, and also his assertion that "this meaning also makes sense
because the warp is the fixed and permanent element, while the woof
represents movement and change."

Is it reasonable to assume that the Skt. term that Patrick has in mind is
ta'ntu, and that the RV phrase Rta'sya ta'ntu stands behind this BAU
passage?  I am aware that in the next BrAhmaNa [BAU 3.7] use is made of the
term sUtra instead, but the metaphor there seems to be that of a string of
beads, as Patrick suggests.  On the other hand, the "ota and prota" theme
returns in BAU 3.8, along with the term brahmodya.  It may seem far-fetched
to some of you, but I think that there is a significant link between the
"to and fro" of the weft and the "to and fro" of the brahmodya [about which
see my forthcoming article in JAOS 117.1].

The term ta'ntu is typically glossed as "thread" ["Faden"] or "warp"
["Aufzug"]  [see in particular, Grassmann, Geldner, Renou]. I have always
been struck by the ambiguity of such glosses.  But having reviewed its use
in the RV in light of this recent discussion [and a brief scan of
Elizabeth Barber's book *Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years*, 1994, W. W.
Norton; she is both an Indo- Europeanist and a specialist in textile
history], I think I see better now what is meant by the term ta'ntu.  A
striking feature of the RV passages in which the term occurs is the *very*
frequent association of ta'ntu with forms of its cognate verb tan-.  What
such collocations show, it seems to me, is that ta'ntu as string or thread
refers to thread *stretched taut* [tata'], precisely like the threads of a
warp.  Besides the association with Rta' and yajJa' already mentioned,
ta'ntu is also twice associated with the Vedic poet, kavi'
[kave'H...ta'ntu... at 10.5.3, cf. also 159.4]. So the metaphorical concept
"thread or warp of speech" seen at RV 6.9 and 10.71 is well attested
elsewhere in the RV.

Of course the taut threads of a warp [ta'ntu tata'] imply a framework or
loom, without which there is no warp [as Barber, with her first-hand
knowledge of the art, attests].  But the Vedic word for "loom" -- ve'man?
or is this "yarn'? -- isn't even attested in the RV.  Perhaps someone can
identify the [or a] Vedic term for "loom" for me....  Might the term ta'ntu
also suggest "loom", in particular as framework for weaving?

My over-arching concern is this: there is a well-known motif, in the
proto-philosophy of Vedic, of asserting a "network" [ta'ntu"] of
correspondances [bandhus] between the Vedic macrocosm and the microcosm.
It seems to me that the vocabulary of weaving has played a significant role
in this philosophy.  Does anyone have further insight into this central
Vedic motif?

By the way, the IE vocabulary for weaving [cf. IE cognates of ve-] is
discussed at length in Ruediger Schmitt's thorough *Dichtung und
Dichtersprache in Indogermanischer Zeit*, as well as the anthology edited
by him, *Indogermanische Dichtersprache*. There is thus a strong
presumption, it seems to me, that the Vedic metaphor is an IE inheritance.

Thanks in advance for comments, etc,

George Thompson

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