Pāli language & Buddhist classic literature

1. Pāli language & Etymology

The term Pāli, used today in both Buddhist and Western cultures as a designation of a language, is a relatively modern coinage, not traceable before the 17th century:

An earlier name given to this language in Buddhist literature is Māgadhī, the language of the province Māgadha in Eastern India that roughly corresponds to the modern Indian state Bihar.

The only Buddhist school using this language is the Theravāda in Śrī Lanka and Southeast Asia. Theravādins erroneously consider Pāli to be the language spoken by the Buddha himself.

During the 19th century, Western scholarship discovered that Pāli is not an eastern Middle Indic language and has little relationship to Māgadhī, which is known from other sources.

By comparing the languages used in the inscriptions of Aśoka (3rd century B.C.E.),

it is possible to demonstrate that Pāli, while preserving some very old Eastern elements, is clearly based on a western Middle Indic language,

one of the languages that developed out of Vedic Sanskrit, which was used in India roughly until the time of the Buddha (ca. 4th century B.C.E.).

Although Pāli is clearly younger than the time of the Buddha, it is the oldest surviving variety of Middle Indic.

The dialect used by the Buddha himself when instructing his disciples is unknown and irretrievably lost. It might have been some early variety of Māgadhī.

The oldest Buddhist language, which can be traced by reconstruction, is Buddhist Middle Indic, a lingua franca that developed much later than the lifetime of the Buddha.

Buddhist Middle Indic is the basis of Pāli and the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit used by the Mahāsaṁghika Lokottaravādins.

Even though Pāli, as an artificial language, was never actually a vernacular of any part of India, it was by no means a “dead” language:

Changes in the phonetic shape of Pāli, most likely introduced by Buddhist grammarians at various times, can be observed, although dating them is problematic. None of these changes were far-reaching, although they seem to have continued well into the 16th century, if not later.

The oldest literature preserved in Pāli is the Canon of the Theravāda Buddhists, the only Buddhist canon extant in its entirety in an Indian language. Consequently, it is linguistically the oldest form of Buddhist scriptures known.

This, of course, does not mean that other scriptures in different younger languages or translations necessarily preserve only later developments of Buddhist thought and tradition.

Though generally conservative, Pāli literature probably developed over several centuries before it was committed to writing:

According to the Theravādins, this redaction happened during the 1st century B.C.E. in Śrī Lanka, when various disasters decimated the number of Buddhist monks and threatened the oral tradition.

Like the Vedic texts, early Buddhist literature was composed during a period of pure orality in India, before script was introduced during the reign of Aśoka.

This early oral tradition has left obvious traces in the written literature, particularly in the numerous formulas typical of oral composition, which were used to facilitate memorization.

The writing down of the Theravāda Canon is related in Theravāda tradition as preserved in 2 chronicles (Vaṁsa) composed in Pāli:

1. the Dīpavaṁsa (Chronicle of the Island, ca. 350 C.E.) and
2. the later Mahāvaṁsa (Great Chronicle, late 5th century C.E.).

Both give a legendary history of political and religious events in Śrī Lanka; the latter, which was extended several times, ends with the British conquest in 1815.

2. Tipiṭaka (3-fold Basket)

According to the Theravāda tradition, the texts committed to writing comprised the complete Tipiṭaka (Sanskrit, Tripiṭaka), the Threefold Basket—the designation for the canon in all Buddhist schools.

Although a similar name is also used by the Jains for their holy scriptures, the choice of the term basket for a collection of texts cannot be explained.

The Threefold Basket is, however, not the oldest division of the canonical texts:

An earlier division into nine limbs (nava aṅga) was abandoned at a very early date, most likely when the collection of texts grew into a large corpus and had to be regrouped following different principles.

3. Commentaries and sub-commentaries

The Tipiṭaka was the object of explanatory commentaries at an early date:

According to tradition, both Tipiṭaka and commentary, the Aṭṭhakathā (Explanation of the Meaning), were brought to Śrī Lanka by Mahinda during the time of Aśoka (3rd century C.E.).

The commentary actually preserved is a revision of an earlier, now lost, explanation of the Tipiṭaka composed in old Sinhalese Prākrit.

During the 5th century C.E., Buddhaghoṣa composed his still valid handbook of Theravāda orthodoxy for the Mahāvihāra in Anurādhapura. This Visuddhimagga (Path to Purification) is the centerpiece of Buddhaghoṣa’s commentaries on the 1-4 Nikāyas.

It is considered the most important Theravada text outside of the Tipiṭaka canon of scriptures.

The Visuddhimagga′s structure is based on the Ratha-vinita Sutta ("Relay Chariots Discourse," MN 24), which describes the progression from the purity of discipline to the final destination of Nibbāna in 7 steps.

A commentary of uncertain date (probably between 450 and 600 C.E.) on 7 of the collections of the Khuddaka-nikāya (‘Minor Collection’) was composed by Dhammapāla.

It is important to note that Dhammapāla’s sequence of Khuddaka-nikāya texts deviates from the one common in the Mahāvihāra, and that he used a different recension of two texts, suggesting that he was following traditions of South Indian Pāli literature, which probably flourished through the first millennium C.E., but is now almost completely lost.

Sub commentaries constitute another layer of Pāli literature:

After older sub-commentaries on the Abhidhamma-piṭaka (ascribed to Ānanda) and on Buddhaghoṣa’s commentaries (ascribed to Dhammapāla),

the next sub-commentaries were written during the reign of Parākaramabāhu I (r. 1153-1186), who reformed and unified the Buddhist order in Śrī Lanka. Consequently, much weight was put on explaining the Vinaya-piṭaka. This task was entrusted by the king to Sāriputta and his disciples.

4. Pāli literature in Southeast Asia

With Theravāda also firmly established in Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia), new branches of Pāli literature developed.

During a short period in the late 15th and early 16thh centuries, Pāli literature flourished in Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand):

A chronicle of Buddhist teaching concentrating on developments in Southeast Asia, the Jinakālamālinī (Garland of the Epochs of the Conqueror) by Ratanapañña, and sub-commentaries to the Vinaya-piṭaka and Abhidhamma-piṭaka by Ñāṇakitti indicate a remarkable, but short-lived, literary activity.

At the same time, cosmological texts such as the Cakkavāḷadīpanī (Elucidation of the World Systems), composed in 1520 by Sirimaṅgala, brought new elements into Pāli literature.

Another literary genre that flourished in this period (and that remains particularly popular in Thailand) is the Jātaka. Numerous apocryphal Jātakas were written in vernacular languages, as well as in Pāli:

The best known Pāli collection is the Paññāsajātaka (Fifty Jātakas), which formally imitates the canonical collection.

This was also the time when the oldest extant Pāli manuscripts were copied in ancient Lān Nā (Northern Thailand).

Palm leaf manuscripts are also known from Śrī Lanka and Burma, mostly copied during the 18-19th centuries:

A singular exception is a fragment of a Pāli manuscript preserved in Kathmandu containing 4 folios from the Vinaya-piṭaka written during the eighth or ninth century in Northern India.

In Burma, a long and fruitful philological activity began with Aggavāmsa’s Saddanīti composed in 1154. This grammatical treatise deeply influenced the whole later Pāli tradition.

Strong emphasis was also put on explaining the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and on writing handbooks on Abhidhamma matters.

5. Conclusion

It is striking that the older Pāli literature is almost exclusively confined to the canon and its commentaries.

Handbooks on the Vinaya-piṭaka or Abhidhamma-piṭaka, such as those written by Buddhadatta, a contemporary of Buddhaghoṣa, or on Hermeneutics, such as the Peṭakopadesa (Instruction Concerning the Tipiṭaka) and the Nettipakaraṇa (Guide to Interpretation), both predating Buddhaghoṣa, are rare exceptions, as are the chronicles.

It is only after the 12th century that Pāli literature began to develop outside (and beside) the canon. However, these later literary activities, particularly the later literature from Southeast Asia, are comparatively little studied.

When Pāli studies began in Europe with the publication of a Pāli grammar by Eugene Burnouf (1801-1852) and Christian Lassen (1800-1876) in 1826, emphasis was on research on older literature.

The canon was first printed after T. W. Rhys Davids (1834-1922) founded the Pāli Text Society in 1881; the society continues to publish translations and canonical and commentarial texts in Pāli.