sutra and suta

Palaniappa at Palaniappa at
Wed Feb 12 06:50:26 UTC 1997

I am currently exploring the etymology of the Tamil term 'nuul' denoting text
as well as thread or yarn. It is commonly suggested by Western scholars that
the term is a loan translation of the Sanskrit word 'suutra' which has
similar meanings. My analysis seems to suggest that it is more complicated
than that. 

On the Tamil side, I find that Tolkappiyar uses the verb form 'nuval' (which
can be eaily reconstructed to be the earlier form of 'nuul' by standard
linguistic processes) within the text along the lines of, "instead of
'nuval'ing it here, I have only 'nuval'ed the duration of the air coming out
as sound with meaning". 

The word 'nuval' has been used in Old Tamil to mean various meanings such as
'to utter, to say, to sing, to sing the praise'. The word for spinning the
yarn, 'nuul' also seems to be derived from 'nuval' (See DEDR 3726) 

There is another  word 'panuval' which could mean 'cotton/cotton yarn' or
'text' in the same way 'nuul' can mean either 'thread' or 'text'. The
prefatory verse of Tolkappiyam uses both 'nuul' and 'panuval' to mean text.
In one particular instance in an Old Tamil text , where the borrowed nouns
'suuta' and 'maagata' are used, the action of praising by 'maagata' is
described using 'nuval'. In Old Tamil, very rarely Indo-Aryan verb forms are
used. Almost all the borrowings are noun forms. If Tolkappiyar is assumed to
have coined the loan-translation of the verb form 'nuval' to describe his
rule-making in Tolkappiyam, it cannot account for several cases where the
verb 'nuval' is used to describe the bards singing the praise of
kings/chieftains in poems which form the oldest strata of Old Tamil poetry.
This raises interesting questions about the conventional direction of loan
translation. Is this a case of loan translation in Indo-Aryan or is this an
areal phenomenon?

To do a good comparative analysis, I need some information regarding the
Sanskrit words 'sutra' and 'suta'. 

According to Turner, 'suutra' occurs in Atharva Veda in the meaning of
'thread'. But, when did the word 'suutra' come to mean 'text'? Do the srauta
suutras internally refer to themselves as suutras? Do the authors of these
suutras use the verb form of 'suutra' to refer to their creating the text?
(According to Monier Williams, Patanjali uses 'sosuutryate' referring to
Panini's sutra III.I.22. I would like to know if Panini himself uses the verb
form of 'suutra' to refer to his action of composing Ashtadhyayi. 

Jan Gonda follows Sharfe's explanation and says " The name sutra (literally
"thread"), which is applicable  to both the whole work and its individual
sentences or paragraphs, has been variously explained, but there can be no
doubt that it is taken from the image of weaving and of woven material made
out of threads. A thread stretched out lengthwise as a warp to be crossed by
the woof may continue - then sutra becomes a name for the whole work - or it
may be cut on both sides of the frame - then sutra denotes the single
paragraphs." (Source: "The Ritual Sutras") He also says that other
explanations do not, or not satisfactorily account for the double use of the

As for the word 'suuta', is the meaning 'charioteer' the older one? Does the
meaning 'royal herald or bard' appear only in the epics as Monier Williams
indicates? Did the bard also serve as a charioteer? According to Monier
Williams the word 'suuta' is of doubtful derivation. Is it correct? (MW also
says that lexicons give the meaning 'carpenter'. Does anybody connect this
word to 'suutra' from which are derived 'suutrakara' (carpenter), 'suutra
samgraha' (one who grasps or holds the reins)? Is the verb form of 'suutra'
ever used to describe the action of composing by a 'suuta' (bard)? 

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