pots, brahmin names, and potters

Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Mon Dec 14 04:36:46 UTC 1998

In a message dated 98-12-13 18:27:26 EST, hart at POLBOX.COM writes:

<< As far as the brahmins are
 concerned, their hierarchy seems to rest on the opposition between being
 uninvolved or involved in the handling and division of the relics. >>

This is a very interesting question. This seems to be a case of early entrants
to brahminhood discriminating against later entrants/aspirants. Consider the

In a message dated 98-12-11 11:56:55 EST, Dr. G. Simson wrote:

<< I am afraid there is no "traditional explanation" of the name
 dhUmrasagotra. Andre Bareau discusses the episode in detail in his book
 PARINIRVANA ET LES FUNERAILLES, Vol. II (Paris 1971), pp. 288 ff. He also
 discusses the Chinese  versions of the name (my translations of Bareau's
 French: "Lineage of the Perfumes" referring possibly to a Sanskrit name
 dhUpagotra, and "Lineage of Smoke") and is of the opinion that these names
 are invented to connect this brahmin in one way or the other with the smoke
 of the funeral pile or with the incense offered to the relics. They are
 certainly not "common names for brahmins", but ad hoc inventions (dhUmra
 meaning "smoky", from dhUma, "smoke"). >>

In a posting entitled "Smoking, seasoning, and cooking in Dravidian" on May
31, 1998, I discussed the meaning of Dravidian word "kuy". I am showing a
portion of that below.

"�..One set of  meanings given for "kuy" by Tamil Lexicon is "burnt
odors, incense, odorous smoke". In fact, the original meaning of  "kuy" is
embedded in the word "kuyin" (DEDR 1765) meaning "cloud". A comparison of the
word "kuyin" meaning "cloud" and the lines "kurUuk kuyppukai mazai magkulin2
parantu�" indicates that the original meaning of the root "kuy" is also "to
smoke" same as "pukai".

That the basic meaning of "kuy" is smoking is also indicated by related words
in other Dravidian languages. The recent finding that the alternation of
radical u>o is possible even without the presence of any derivative vowel "a"
(See DEDR 4281   Ta. puy, poy - to be pulled out), allows us to link Tamil
"kuy" with central and north Dravidian words such as the following.

DEDR 2226 KonDa gOyi smoke (of kitchen). Pe. koy smoke; kOd- (kOtt-) to smoke
(intr.); kOt- (kOtt-) id. (trans.), burn incense. ?Pa. gUJ- to smoke; gUJi,
gUJjkud smoke. ? Go. (W. Ph.) kusso smoke; (SR. Ch. Mu.) kosso, (Mu. Ma.)
kosoy, (G.) kosoyi soot; (Tr.) kossO soot on bottom of cooking-pot (Voc. 954).
?Kui kuhula smoke. Although DEDR does not show them, Kurukh kuhkuhrnA meaning
"to rise up in clouds (said only of smoke and dust)", kuhRa'Ana "to apply
smoke to, to fumigate", kuilA "charcoal" (Source: An Oraon-English
Dictionary); and Malto kuhe "mist fog" (Source: Malto-Hindi-English
Dictionary) also seem to be related "to kuy".

Based on the above analysis, I have come to believe that the word meaning
smoke seems to form the basis for deriving one of the Dravidian words meaning
potter, "kuyavan2" as one who makes/is associated with smoke. (DEDR 1762 lists
Ta. kuyam, kuyavan2, and kO as cognates meaning potter.) Consider the
following Classical Tamil poem.

kalam cey kO E kalam cey kO E
iruL tiNintan2n2a kurUu tiraL parUu pukai
akal iru vicumpin2 Un2Rum cULai
nan2am talai mUtUr kalam cey kO E
aLiyai nI E ����.
�������. neTumAvaLavan2
tEvar ulakam eytin2an2 Atalin2
an2n2On2 kavikkum kaN akal tAzi
van2aital vETTan2ai Ayin2 en2aiyatUum
iru nilam tikiri A peru malai
maN A van2aital ollum O nin2akku E  (puRanAn2Uru 228.1-15)

Here, the poet asks a potter who is making the burial urn to inter the Chola
king, "O potter (kO)! who makes the pot  in the old town's tall kiln which
raises darkness-concentrated  smoke which spreads in the sky. You are to be
pitied�Since neTumAvaLavan2 reached the world of the devas, if you desire to
throw a wide urn to inter him, can you somehow do it with the wide world as
the wheel and the big mountain as the lump of clay?" Another CT poem
(akanAn2Uru 308.5) describes a country as one where the clouds covering the
hills are like the smoke from the potter's kiln (kalam cuTu pukai). Certainly,
the smoke from the potter's kiln was significant enough that the poets linked
it with the clouds so readily.

I was struck by the name dhUmrasagotra  in the text Dr. Simson mentioned. It
would almost seem to be a Sanskrit translation of the Dravidian word for
potter and offer another clue to the transformation of potters into brahmins.
In explaining the term kulAlikAmnAya for one of the Tantric traditions, J. A.
Schoterman  (The SaTsAhasra saMhitA, 1982, p.8)  says, "In a rural community
the presence of a potter is almost indispensable because of the product he
manufactures, namely a pot. Besides as the producer of this important daily
utensil the potter appears to have carried out "certain ritual tasks which may
date from prehistoric urn burial and have augmented to make him virtually the
priest to certain lower classes" (Kosambi 1977:21). Next to this the potter is
credited with the invention of the clay-plaster in bone-setting (Kosambi
1977:22). All this makes it clear that the potter played a significant role in
the socio-religious life of an Indian village community from very early times
onwards. The pot manufactured by the potter is an important daily utensil, but
next to this the pot is often regarded as DevI Herself or Her local
manifestation�.During Tantric rituals and ceremonies DevI is born again in the
pot for the duration of the ritual�.From the foregoing the relation of the
potters with one of the AmnAyas becomes acceptable." Unfortunately, I do not
have Schoterman's book. So I cannot give the Kosambi references. Even here,
the brahmin may indeed have been considered to be a brahmin. But the name
seems to betray his intended cultural origins. Also  my research has shown
that the past status of potters has been severely underestimated. The valuable
Tamil epigraphical data reveal that they were the chief accountants of major
orthodox brahminic temples in Tamilnadu such as the one at tiruvArUr.

The ambiguity in brahmin-potter relationship brought out in the ghaTIkArasutta
in majjhima-nikAya is also very interesting. (I. B. Horner's translations are
given in quotes.) In this story, "in the village township of vebhaLiGga, the
potter named ghaTIkAra was a supporter-the chief supporter-of the Lord
Kassapa" and "a brahman youth named jotipAla was a friend - dear friend - of
the potter ghaTIkAra."  In the story, in his enthusiasm to encourage the
brahmin to visit Lord Kassapa, the potter youth first "laid hold of the
brahman youth by the waist-band" and spoke. Later he "having laid hold of the
brahman youth by the hair - he had just performed an ablution of his head -
spoke. Then it occurred to the brahmin that if the potter ghaTIkAra , being of
lowly birth, should grab his hair after he had performed an ablution of the
head, the intended visit must have been significant. The potter does not have
any hesitation in touching the brahmin. The brahmin does not openly criticize
the potter for touching him. It seems as though the social separation of
brahmins from potters had not been completed at the time. The Mahabharata
episode where the pANDavas disguised as brahmins staying in a potter's house
also seems to reflect this. Compare this with the view of zankara (who comes
after a millennium)who, in trying to prove that janazruti could not have been
a zUdra, says that only persons of the same varNa can be mentioned together.
He says, "For as a rule equals are mentioned together with equals."
(Commentary on Vedanta Sutra 1.3.35)

Another thing to note is that the personal names of both characters in
ghaTIkArasutta seem to be nothing but descriptive of their castes (ghaTIkAra -
maker of pots and jotipAla - protector, keeper of fire, i.e., brahmin). If a
similar pattern were to be assumed in the MPS story, then the name
dhUmrasagotra/doNa would indicate the ancestral calling of the brahmin which
would have been that of a potter. I do not think the relationship between the
potter scribes and brahmins of 13th century Tamilnadu was very different from
the one we find in ghaTIkArasutta. The only thing is Tamil society has
preserved the original high status of the potter for a much longer time than
other parts of India.

Can we say that, comparatively speaking, the Pali texts seem to be more
descriptive of the real society at the time than the Sanskrit texts which seem
to be more prescriptive of what an "ideal" society they wished for?

S. Palaniappan

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