Tantrism and the Concept of Image in Tamil/Dravidian

Palaniappa at aol.com Palaniappa at aol.com
Sun Jun 29 21:54:18 UTC 1997

In Tamil, �pA� as a root means �to extend or spread�. From this,  words such
as �pA� meaning �warp�, �pAy� meaning �to flow�, etc. are derived. �pAvai� is
one such word which is very interesting from the viewpoint of the origin of
�tantra�.  pAvai can be split into

pA  - the root meaning �to extend, spread�
v     - the glide
ai   - a suffix 

DED 3379 shows �pAvai� to mean �puppet, doll, image, picture, portrait, pupil
of the eye, woman, damsel�. While DED does not show it, in Classical Tamil,
the word also means � stem of plants, priestess/dancer, and goddess�.
Basically the meanings fall into three groups, image-related, females, and
plant stem.. Let us look at an example where pAvai means �plant stem�. 

............................... payampamal aRukait 
taZaGkukural vAnin talaippeyaRku InRa 
maNNumaNi yanna mAyitazp pAvai 
taNNaRu mukaiyoTu .................................	(Aka.136.11-14) 

This can be translated as �the �aRukai� grass which grew densely in the hole
dug for capturing elephants, and which in response to the roaring clouds�
first rains brought forth washed blue gem-like dark leafed stem (pAvai) with
cool fragrant buds�.  Why is this stem called �pAvai�? Let us look at the
description of the plant in another poem.

maNi vArntanna mAkkoTi aRukai                   (KuR. 256.1)

This can be translated as �the dark creeper aRukai which is like the flowing
of blue gems�. A comparison of the two poems tells us that �pAvai� here means
a �long/extended stem�. This fits well with the basic meaning  of the root
�pA� meaning �to extend, spread�.  This suggests that for other two groups of
meanings also, the basic semantics must be based on �to extend or spread�.

Let us look at the words with �image-based meanings.  They are �puppet, doll,
image, picture, portrait, and pupil of the eye�. The common element in all
these is either a two-dimensional or three dimensional representation/figure
of an original. The pupil of the eye is also called �pAvai� because that is
the area of the eye where an outsider can see the reflected image of what is
seen (NaR.184.7). (In fact, English pupil is also similarly derived from
Latin pupilla, figure reflected in the eye.)

Now why would the word  for �image� be derived from a root meaning �to
extend, spread�? That is because, an image or copy is the means by which the
presence of the original is extended or spread to other loci. Thus when a
statue of a deity , say Ziva, is installed in a temple in Tamilnadu, Ziva�s
abode is not only KailAza but also the temple. It is this concept of an image
which is fundamental to iconic worship. That a statue or figurine created by
an expert artist as a simple material object can be infused with divinity
later on is indicated by the following text.

vallOn taiiya varippunai pAvai murukiyanRu anna  (Mat. 723)

This can be translated as �like the well-decorated statue made by the expert
is infused with the divinity of Muruku�. Similarly, another poem (Aka.22)
describes how Muruku is guided along the path to come to the place of
worship. Significantly, the same word, ARu, could be used for path and river.
When one thinks of rivers and paths as �extended� entities, one can see how
the root �pA� makes eminent sense in the word �pAvai�. 

The meanings related to females, are based on metonymical extensions of the
base word meaning picture, statue, etc. The fact that only females are called
�pAvai� is interesting. It was probably because most of the figurines were of
females. (I am sure even in modern times, Barbie doll probably outnumbers GI
Joe.) Even in Classical Tamil, in only one instance, pAvai is identified with
male, Muruku. Discussing the numbers of figurines found in Indus Valley,
David Kinsley (Hindu Goddesses, p.214) writes, �Hundreds of female figures
have been found in the Indus Valley civilization. The very number of
figurines has prompted one scholar to proclaim that there must have been a
female figurine in every household....A few male figures have been found, but
in comparison to the female figurines their numbers are fairly insignificant
(although several of them are striking and among the most dramatic figures
found). Thus the Tamil lexical evidence and Indus Valley archeological
evidence seem to be similar when it comes to the issue of figurines. An
interesting fact is that mother goddesses such as the one at Kolli mountain
and KoRRavai/DurgA were called �pAvai�. The well-adorned priestess who
performed ecstatic dances was also called �pAvai�. (She was also called
�cAlini�, the name of  the star ArundhatI.)

A significant thing about �pAvai� in its connection with �aRukai� is that as
a plant, �aRukai� is known for its nature to extend as a creeper, take root,
again extend in different directions and take root, and so on. Thus, �aRukai�
which is used in many rituals, is a fitting model to describe the �mobility�
and �localization� aspects of Tamil/Dravidian religion as well as the
spreading of cults. It is probably because of the importance of �pAvai�
custom in the Tamil/Dravidian culture, different religions, Zaivism,
VaiSNavism, and even Jainism tried to adapt it to their purposes. For
instance, in Classical Tamil, one comes across girls performing a �kuravai�
dance for �pAvai� in the month of Tai (Aka.269.14-20). Here there is no other
cultic presence is implied. But in Aka.181, we find the �pAvai� custom in
connection with Zaivism where Ziva is also linked to four vedas and the
court-yard of the banyan tree. Of course, the works �TiruppAvai� and
�TiruvempAvai� are products of this effort.

Given this view Tamil or Dravidian concept of �pAvai�, let us see if this can
add to our understanding of the meaning of �tantra�. When it comes to the
etymology of the word �tantra�, there are several theories but most of them
are based on the root �tan�. For instance, Wendell Charles Beane (Myth, Cult,
and Symbols in Zakta Hinduism, p.126-127) says, � At any rate, the root
(tan), as it related to the word Tantra, bears the meaning of �loom, web�,
along with other specific connotative literary and sectarian significations.
In the soteriological sense the meanings proposed by both Eliade and
Chakravarti tend to apply. On the one hand, the tantra is �what extends
knowledge�; on the other it is �that which spreads and saves�. Douglas
Renfrew Brooks (The Secret of the Three Cities, p.5) says, �Literally in
Sanskrit a �loom� or the warp of threads extended lengthwise on a loom,
�Tantras� weave together concepts and prescriptions for action to create
distinctive, synthetic types of spiritual discipline (sAdhana). Often
etymologized by reference to the verbal roots tan-, �to stretch, expound,�
and tra-, �to save�, the Tantras expand the possibilities for human
liberation and empowerment in the increasingly degenerate Kali age�. N. N.
Bhattacharyya in his History of the Tantric Religion (p.2) says, �The
etymological interpretations point to the fact that Tantra was a general term
for any system serving as the guiding principle of any work and that the use
of the word in a strictly religious  sense was a later growth. In the
religious sense Tantra first came to mean �the scripture by which knowledge
is spread� (tanyate vistAryate jJAnam anena iti tantram)�. 

Let us look at some key features of Hindu worship. In his book Selected
Studies (p.266), Jan Gonda says, �Without the special consecratory mantras a
temple or the image of a god remains a mere building or a �profane� image,
not an object filled with the divine essence, worthy of worship, capable of
helping the devout in their attempts to reach their higher goals. Thus
Rudra-mantras are to be muttered in establishing an image of Rudra,
ViSNu-mantras in consecrating an image of ViSNu�. Later discussing the
doctrines of Tantrists, he says (p.284-286), �The efficacy of mantras
constituting their cardinal tenet, the spiritual background of their worship
is primarily an effort to awaken the power (�consciousness�) of the mantra in
order *to  visualize the deity* from inside....A mantra is therefore
considered to be the rUpa (form) of the deity� (emphasis mine). The
importance of the image in Tantrism is further elaborated by Jan Gonda as,
�As we now know the image of an Indian deity must conform strictly to the
traditionally correct vision of the deity. Otherwise, it would be useless for
the purposes of worship. When fashioning an image the attitude of the
artist-who must be a member of one of the upper classes-is to be the same as
that of the devotee(bhaktaH) who while contemplating it in daily worship
endeavours to realize his identity with the god he worships and whose
presence is sustained by the image.� 

Andre Padoux also in his book �Vac� (p.46-47), says, �Also relevant to
micro-macrocosmic correlations is the Tantric ritual, an outstanding element,
since all Tantras, Agamas, and so forth, in all traditions are essentially
ritualistic texts, and since this ritual is abundant. Let us simply mention
here the cult, the pUjA, which, altogether different from the Vedic
sacrifice, is a worship, often very complex, performed with the help of an
image(mUrti, bera, arcana), whose shape is that of the deity, or with that of
a symbolic support of the deity�s presence, to which the worshiper pays

Given the importance of �image� in Tantrism discussed above, in light of the
Tamil/Dravidian concept of �image� as an extension of the presence of the
original,  one can hypothesize a connection between the two systems. Consider
the word �tantra�. The first part of the word, �tan�, means �to extend,
spread�. As for the second part, �tra�, Gonda (Selected studies, p. 253)
says, �The Sanskrit words in -tra- < Indo-European -tro-, when neuter, are,
generally speaking, names of instruments or sometimes names of the place
where the process is performed.� This leads us to a meaning �location or
means by which (something) is extended or spread�. This is precisely the
Tamil concept of image, �pAvai�. Thus it looks like Tantrism is derived from
the basic Tamil/Dravidian �pAvai� or iconic view of divinity.

Comments from list members are appreciated.


S. Palaniappan

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list