Rig Veda, ta'ntra, nUl, and sUtra

thompson at jlc.net thompson at jlc.net
Sun Apr 13 21:22:22 UTC 1997

S. Palaniappan
>The unique thing about the Indian situation is the exact equivalence between
>Dravidian and Vedic, in the use of pA or ta'ntu. The root in both mean
>'stretch'. There is no sense of 'rotation' or 'spinning' involved. Both mean


>As for Semitic origin, one can look for it. But, geographically, there is
>Iranian lying between Vedic and Semitic. If Avestan does not have a word for
>'warp' derived from 'ta'n', I doubt if such effort is needed. There is a
>proverb in Tamil which translates into, "When you have butter in hand, why go
>all over looking for clarified butter?"
When I was a student I dabbled in folklore studies with Alan Dundes.  He
had many memorable things to say, but I have found most useful his words of
caution AGAINST arguments based on either UNIQUENESS or on UNIVERSALITY.
Such arguments, he suggested, were especially vulnerable, for the reason
that they were ENTIRELY discredited with the discovery of only one

Now, to discredit S. Palaniappan's argument re the uniqueness of the
Vedic-Dravidian origins of the speech = weaving metaphor, all one need to
do is to find one counter example, where the same metaphor occurs.  That is
precisely why it is a good idea to check out Semitic, Chinese, Lakota,
Finnish, or ANY other language [-family].  I think we should all be very
sceptical when it comes to arguments based on uniqueness.

But in fact we don't have to go so far away as the Near East.  The material
that I have examined in the RV itself is not as clear-cut as one might
think.  There is good reason why the standard handbooks gloss ta'ntu as
both "thread" and "warp": there are passages where the term does not seem
to mean "warp" at all.  For example, there are several passages where
ta'ntu appears in the plural or is marked by a numeral [trita'ntu; cf. also
ta'ntu trivR'ta].  In such passages "thread" seems the more appropriate
interpretation.  Furthermore, the phrase ta'ntu trivR'ta collocates ta'ntu
with the Skt root vRt- [cf. etymology of "warp"], which perhaps shows that
the distinction between spinning and weaving is less clear in Vedic than it
is in S. Palaniappan's mind. It seems to me that if you look closely at the
semantics of tan-, ta'ntu, ta'ntra, it appears rather similar to the
semantics of Avestan vaf-, Greek hyphaino, Old Eng. wefan, etc.

Furthermore, nearly every passage re weaving that I have encountered in the
RV is figurative, metaphorical and obscure, wrapped in what Bloomfield once
called "the Vedic haze."  You don't very often get clear-cut reference to
realia in the RV.  Everything is typically a veiled reference to some
other, say sacrificial, activity or phenomenon.  It is clear to me, at
least, that the Vedic poets were less interested in presenting us with a
clear picture of contemporary weaving and spinning technology than they
were in the elaborate schemes that were operating within their own heads.

So it may well be that S. Palaniappan doesn't have "butter" in his hands at
all, but rather a far more dangerous thing, an axe to grind.  And in
response to Paul Kekai Manansala's note, if you prefer you can ignore the
Near East and Europe.  Check out Marcel Griaule's "Conversations with
Ogotemmeli" [Oxford Univ. Press, 1965], especially ch.10 on "The Word and
the Craft of Weaving".  After reading it, one will surely have to abandon
the argument based on uniqueness, for the Dogon of Mali seem to think of
weaving very much as the Vedic RSis do.

Best wishes,
George Thompson

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