I had a pleasure of meeting Bakhtiyar Amanzhol at the Musical Geographies of Central Asia conference. His presentation Musical Instruments of Tengrianism was very informative and interesting but I could not quite agree with the etymology of “Tengri”:
“The historical roots of Tengrianism extend deep into history. The earliest references to Tengri date back to the 4th century B.C.: in ancient Mesopotamia the name of a king would be written with an honorific title, “Dingir” (God). It has been argued that by the twelve-thirteenth century A.D. this form of worship had become a religion in its own right, with its own ontology, cosmology, mythology and demonology. Variants of the word tengri, usually meaning “god”, are found in a wide range of Turkic languages, and there have been many speculations about its etymology. The Russian researcher of Tengrianism, Rafael Bezertinov, conveys a sense of its meaning for Altaic worship by collating the Turkic word “таң” which means “sunrise”, with the ancient Egyptian word “rа” which means “sun”, and the Turkic, Altaic word “yang”, meaning “consciousness”. “
I find the etymology, proposed by Rafael Bezertinov particularly doubtful.
Although the name “Tengri” is attested in the 11th century, there is no doubt that the roots of this religion go deeper by thousands of years into pre-hystory. I fully agree with Mircea Eliade that in its essence Tengrianism is the closest to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European religion. It is also evident that the three-layered worldview of Tengrianism is identical to the Vedic triloka world structure. Also the Skr. śamana ” the act of calming, appeasing, allaying, tranquillization, pacification” is directly cognate to shaman. It would, therefore, be interesting and justifiable to analyse “Tengri” from the point of view of the oldest fully attested Indo-European language – Vedic (Sanskrit).
As we know, sounds that appear in other IE languages as /e/ or /o/ are represented in Sanskrit by /а/. Also, Sanskrit, being predominantly a syllabic language, would require a vowel between /n/ and /g/ in compounds. Therefore, the Sanskrit variant may be imagined as *tanagr(i). By its structure, this word is clearly a compound which can be represented as *tan – agr. The radical tan is well attested in Vedic meaning, particularly, `to extend, spread, be diffused (as light) over, shine, extend towards, reach to’ (Monier Williams Dictionary). Tengri is directly associated with the sky and its usual epithet is “Father Sky” ( cp. Mongolian Tenger Etseg “Sky Father”). In this expression “tenger” stands for “sky”. The Skt. tana `extended, spread over’ is also a literal description of the sky so we can legitimately affiliate ten and Skr. tan.
The second component can be linked to agra meaning not only “foremost, anterior, first, prominent, projecting, chief, best” (cp. Rus. огромен/ogromen (sounds as “argomen”) `huge, vast’) but also, importantly “uppermost part, top, summit.
Joining the two meanings we may interpret tengri as `(he who is) extending, spread, diffusing (as light) over, shining, extending towards (people), reaches to foremost, (who is) the anterior, first, prominent, projecting, chief, best, (who is) the uppermost part, top, summit”. In short, a fitting name for the chief god!
Alternatively, if we do not add the medial /a/ and view the second part simply as gr, it may be linked to the Skr. radical gṝ (sounds similar to gree) meaning `to call, call out to, invoke’. In this case “tengri” may be interpreted as `(he who is) extending, spread, diffusing (as light) over, shining, extending towards (people)= the sky + (which is) invoked’.