tantra and paa, suutra and nuul

Palaniappa at aol.com Palaniappa at aol.com
Sat Apr 26 02:23:01 UTC 1997

Let me first apologize for the length of this posting. I feel, however, that
this way we can answer many questions related to the issue of

In studying this problem, I do agree that the weaving metaphor might have
been used by different cultures all over the world. However, it is not enough
just to see if there is any use of weaving metaphor in other cultures. 

My approach to solving this problem is based on what Jan Gonda discusses in
his book �Old Indian� (p. 177-178).  He says �Awaking to the insight that
also in an ancient language real synonyms must have been an extremely rare
occurrence a few scholars embarked upon an investigation into the semantic
differences of words which are commonly but incorrectly regarded as such.
Thus studies were made of words belonging to the important fields of speech,
inspiration, production of poetry, and producers of sacral texts by which
interesting differences, special uses etc. were brought to light.� (As
examples of this approach, he cites along with other works his own �The
Vision of the the Vedic Poets� and Grassman�s identification of the semantic
distinction between �sa�rva� and �vi�zva� )  Pursuing this further, he also
says, �A thorough examination of semantically related terms proves indeed to
be very fruitful........Studies of this type were, at least in part, intended
to argue in favour of an adapted application of the theory of semantic fields
 to the examination of the Old Indian vocabulary. There is indeed no reason
not to suppose that the Vedic corpus will show us in many respects pictures
of closely knit and articulated lexical spheres in which the significance of
each unit is determined by its neighbours so that the semantic areas
reciprocally limit each other, and while covering the whole sphere divide it
up between them�.

Having stated my approach, let me say that the problem we are trying to
address is the shifts that have takenplace within that overall field of
weaving between spin, spindle, thread, strand, string, twine, weft, warp, on
the one hand and  ubh, vE, vApa,vAbha,Uta, otu, vartani, tanti, ta�ntu, and
ta�ntra on the other. (The English words, most of which are clearly traceable
to IE roots, are surrogates for Indo-European outside India.) To understand
this shift, one has to look at the technology of weaving at first.

Spinning involves drawing out and twisting the fibres of materials like
cotton to form a continuous thread. In the European tradition, the word
�spin� is supposed to be derived ultimately from IE *spe- or *spi- meaning
�to stretch� according to some etymologists. If this is correct, then it
means that the twisting aspect was not emphasized in the word �spin�.
(Twisting or turning is an absolute necessity in spinning natural fibres. The
fibres form a helical structure.) But the fact that early IE recognized the
basic nature of spinning is indicated by the word �thread� which is derived
from a word meaning �that which is twisted�. If indeed �spin� did not have
any sense of �twisting� in the beginning, in course of time, it has come to
acquire the essential meaning of �twisting� or �turning�. �Spindle� is
obviously related to �spin�. �Twine� also has a basic meaning of �twisted or
doubled� thread. �String� is a �line for binding or attaching anything;
normally one composed of twisted threads of spun vegetable fibre� is probably
derived from an IE root meaning �to draw close, press tight, contract�.
�Strand� refers to each of the strings or yarns which when twisted together
or �laid� form a rope, cord, line, or cable. In terms of threads, the meaning
of �stretch� seems to be relatively sparse in IE.

Having spun the thread, let us look at weaving. IE seems to have considered
the �weft� the focus of the weaving process. The name �weft� derives from
*webh- meaning  �to weave� ,i.e., to pass the weft thread over and under
successive threads of the warp. But the name �warp� comes from words meaning
�throw� or �turn� with the ultimate IE root being apparently *uer- meaning
�to turn�. But �warp� is not thrown in the weaving process. It is the shuttle
carrying the weft thread which is thrown or passed back and forth (thus
turning) around the warp threads. (Skeat, in giving the etymology of warp
links it to A.S. 'weorpan' meaning 'to cast, throw, hence, to throw the
shuttle'. Also, in a woven cloth like a saree, if one were to remove all the
warp threads, the remaining weft threads will form a flattenned helix.) Thus,
the warp also seems to have been named with the focus on the action of the
weft as the one around which the weft is thrown/turned.

Now, let us look at the Indic situation. �vartani� meaning �spindle� is
derived from �vRt� meaning �to turn� and is of post-Vedic attestation. But,
as we shall see later, 'vRt' does occur in the sense of twisting threads in
Vedic. So we can assume Vedic probably had a concept of spinning derived from
'to turn'.  �ve, ubh, vApa, vAbha, Uta,� are all related to �weave�. �otu�
means ��weft� and is derived from �ve�. Thus the word for weaving and weft in
Vedic are similar to their European counterparts conceptually.  �ta�ntu�
means �(warp) thread� or �warp�  and is derived from �tan-� meaning �to
stretch� ultimately derived from IE *ten-. �tanti� meaning �cord, string� is
derived from �tan-� also. �tantra� meaning �warp� is derived from that root
as well. Regarding the use of �tan-� in Vedic, Gonda says  in The Vision of
the Vedic poets (p. 114), �The use of the verb tan- is instructive: it occurs
also to denote the performance of a sacrifice or prolonged act of worship,
implying that like the warp of a woven fabric it is put on the stocks and
elaborated (e.g. 1, 170, 4; 3,3, 6 agnir... tanvAno yajJam purupezasam dhiyA;
10,130,2)� Later, in page 157, he also says, �Expressing such ideas as
�extending, spreading, being protracted, continuing, stretching� this verb
may be used in connection with various activities which in some way or other
remind one of processess such as weaving, performing prolonged ceremonies.�
Words for thread or warp deriving from �to twist� or �turn� are conspicuous
by their relative absence in Vedic. While �ta�ntu� seems to mean either a
thread or a warp thread, �ta�ntra� seems to mean �warp� alone. What should be
noted is that warp is not denoted by a word derived from �to throw or turn�
but one derived from �to stretch�. (But in Ossetic (Iranian) , there is a
word �urd� for warp. This suggests a difference between Iranian and Indic)
Also, the relative importance of the warp has increased compared to the rest
of IE. For one, �ta�ntu� is named so on the basis of a characteristic of the
warp per se. Also, in several instances, when weaving is described, only
�ta�ntu� or words deriving from �tan-� are collocated. Weft or �otu� is not
mentioned unlike in RV 6.9. In post-Rig Vedic usage, the bRhadAraNyaka
upaniSad 3.6.1, also underlines the significance of the warp as the fixed or
unchanging element, as J. Patrick Olivelle noted earlier. Later �tantra�
comes to mean standard form or model. Discussing a section of Baudhayana
zrauta sUtra, Gonda says, �In section 3 an explanation is offered of the
distinction between the �warp� (tantra) and the �woof� (AvApa) of a
sacrificial rite, that is of the framework, standing model, or those
components which it has in common with other rites and those that vary from
ritual to ritual and are therefore the special characteristic features.(The
Ritual sUtras, 510)

Now coming to RV 9.86.32, we have �sa� sU�riyasya razmi�bhiH pa�ri vyata
ta�ntuM tanvAna�s trivR�taM ya�thA vide�. This is translated by Griffith as
�He hath assumed the rays of sUrya for his robe, spinning, as he knows how,
the triply-twisted thread.� Here �vR-� is used in the sense of twisting as
when individual strands/threads or twisted to form a thicker thread/cord. As
we have noted earlier, individual sacrifices are metaphorically expressed as
(warp)threads, and here the three sacrifices of morning, noon, and evening
are referred to in a composite way. (This also reminds me of a Tamil verb
�puri� which means both �to twist� and �to perform� which is used in
connection with the sacred thread of brahmins (�mUnRu puri nuNJAN� - thin
cord with three twists/strands) as well as their performance of sacrifices,
etc. (�Otal vETTal avaipiRarc ceytal Ital ERRal enRu ARu purintozukum
aRampuri antaNar� - brahmins desiring Order/Law(?) who conduct themselves by
performing the six actions of reciting vedas, sacrificing, making others do
these two, giving, and receiving).

Thus, there seems to have takenplace a significant shift in the perspective
of the Indo-European descendants in India with respect to weaving. It can be
seen in the comparison below.

IE outside India					                   Vedic
----------------------------				          ----------------------
spinning derived from �stretch�			     spinning derived from �turn�
warp named after the action of weft			warp named after its own action
thread/warp derived from �turn�			     thread/warp derived from �stretch�

Both perspectives are reasonable being based on the weaving technology, but
emphasize different aspects. So, it is possible that different cultures with
similar technology might arrive at terms similar to either one or both of
these. But in the case of IE in India, because of the presence of Dravidian
with the words for spin derived from �to turn� and thread/warp derived from
the root meaning �to stretch�, I would ascribe the usage and ultimate
survival of �tantra� to Dravidian influence.  An anology might make this

Let us assume there is a village in India. A group of persons in the village
traditionally wear a piece of cloth  over their upper part of the body. Due
to some reason, like a famine, some members of this group leave the village.
Some settle in other villages with similar customs. One person goes to a city
and settles there. Initially he wears the same cloth as he did in the
village. After sometime, he is found to be wearing shirts instead of the
piece of cloth he used to wear in the village. All his relatives in his
native village, and others settled in other villages still wear the
traditional cloth. Two persons are discussing the behavior of the villager.
One says that there is no real change in behavior because the villager wore
some upper garment both before and after coming to the city. And even if one
were to concede the change in behavior, there are many villagers in other
parts of the world such as Europe who also wear shirts and so the change in
behavior could be due to independent evolution of the villager�s desire and
not due to any exogenous influence. The second person says that the change
from the piece of cloth to shirt is a behavioral change indeed and that the
villager saw the city people wearing shirts and was influenced to change his
own attire also. Personally, I would say that even though the arguments of
both persons are possible theoretically, the more probable one is the latter.


S. Palaniappan

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