Pali, Buddhist Literature in

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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 seventeenth century. An earlier name given to this language in Buddhist literature is Māgadhī, the language of the province Magadha in Eastern India that roughly corresponds to the modern Indian state Bihār. The only Buddhist school using this language is the TheravĀda in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Theravādins erroneously consider Pāli to be the language spoken by the Buddha himself.

During the nineteenth century, Western scholarship discovered that Pāli is not an eastern Middle Indic language and has little relationship to Magadhī, which is known from other sources. By comparing the languages used in the inscriptions of AŚoka (third 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. fourth 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 MahĀsĀṂghika 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 sixteenth 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 first century b.c.e. in Sri 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 church history as preserved in two chronicles (vaṂsa) composed in Pāli: the Dīpavaṃsa (Chronicle of the Island, ca. 350 c.e.) and the later Mahāvaṃsa (Great Chronicle, late fifth century c.e.). Both give a legendary history of political and religious events in Sri Lanka; the latter, which was extended several times, ends with the British conquest in 1815.

Tipiṭaka (Threefold 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.

Vinayapiṭaka (Basket of Discipline). Each of the Tipiṭaka's three parts are made up of collections of texts concerning three different aspects of Buddhist community life and teaching. The first part of the Tipiṭaka is the Vinayapiṭaka (Basket of Discipline), which is further divided into three parts. At the beginning is the Suttavibhaṅga (Explanation of the Sutta), an old commentary in which the sutta itself is embedded. Sutta here does not mean, as in later usage, a discourse of the Buddha, but a set of 227 rules (Paṭimokkha; Sanskrit, PrĀtimokṢa) regulating the life of each individual monk. Some of these rules are among the oldest Buddhist texts preserved, with parallels in the Vinaya or monastic codes of other schools. The meaning of the title Pāṭimokkha is unclear. This text must be recited twice each month by monks in every monastery. In spite of its age, an early development of this text can be traced. Brief rules, such as "in drinking alcohol, there is an offense," eventually developed into much longer and legally complicated formulations. The original brevity reflects the original meaning of sutta (Sanskrit, sūtra), "[set of] brief rule(s)." The first four rules describe offenses entailing an expulsion from the order (pārājika, concerning a chasing away [of a monk from the community]). The offenses described in the following rules are increasingly less grave. The seventh and last groups of offenses contain rules for general civilized behavior, and an appendix enumerates methods to settle disputes. All the rules are embedded in frame stories, which describe the occasion that necessitates the creation of such a rule. The commentary explains single words of the rules and develops their legal applications.

The second part of the Vinayapiṭaka, the Khan-dhaka (sections), contains rules governing the life of the community as a whole. The Khandhaka, which is divided into twelve parts, begins with the enlightenment of the Buddha and the founding of the Buddhist order (saṄgha) and ends with the reports on the first two councils at Rājagṛha and Vaiśālī, respectively. The tenth part of the Khandhaka is devoted to the foundation of the order of nuns, to which the Buddha agreed only after much hesitation.

The third and much later part of the Vinayapiṭaka is a handbook, the Parivāra (ca. first century c.e.). This handbook comprises a collection of texts containing brief summaries of the Vinaya, among them an interesting collection of difficult legal questions called Sedamocanakagāthā (Sweat Producing Verses).

Suttapiṭaka (Basket of the Discourses). The second part of the Tipiṭaka, the Suttapiṭaka (Basket of the Discourses) is divided into four older parts, which are mentioned in the Vinayapiṭaka's report of the first council, and a fifth later addition. The name Suttapiṭaka, however, does not occur in the report on the council describing the formation of the canon. Single texts were called veyyākaraṇa (explanation) or dhammapariyāya (discourse on the teaching) before the name sutta(nta) was introduced at an uncertain date.

The first part of the Suttapiṭaka is made up of twenty-four texts called the Dīghanikāya (Group of Long Discourses). The Dīghanikāya contains, among other things, discussions with the six heretics, and one of the most famous Buddhist texts, the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta (Sanskrit, MahĀparinirvĀṆasŪtra; Great Discourse on the Nirvāṇa), the longest text in the canon and the first lengthy literary composition in ancient India.

The second part of the Suttapiṭaka, the Majjhimanikāya (Group of Middle Length Discourses), comprises 152 texts in which different aspects of Buddhist teaching are explained in the form of dialogues. The last two groups (nikāya), the Saṃyuttanikāya (Connected Discourses) and the Aṅguttaranikāya (Discourses Increasing by One), are structurally unique; the mostly short texts (according to the tradition about 7,500 in the Saṃyuttanikāya and almost 10,000 in the Aṅguttaranikāya) are the first attempts to present the teaching in a more systematic form. Topics in the Aṅguttaranikāya are arranged by number: The first book contains items existing only once, the last one items existing eleven times. (The last two suttantas of the Dīghanikāya follow a similar method for arranging texts.) The first part of the Saṃyuttanikāya, the Sagāthavagga (Section Containing Verses), stands apart, containing some old views that are occasionally close to Vedic concepts.

The Khuddakanikāya (Group of Small Texts), is an unsystematic collection of partly very old, partly very young texts. The Khuddakanikāya's famous Dhammapada (Words of the Doctrine), a collection of 423 verses, is one of the most popular texts with Buddhist monks and laypersons. The Khuddakanikāya also includes one of the oldest parts of the canon, the Suttanipāta (Group of Discourses), a collection of small independent texts, mostly in verse. It seems likely that some titles quoted in an inscription of Aśoka are in fact referring to texts of this collection. If correct, this is the oldest Indian epigraphical evidence for extant Buddhist texts.

Another collection mentioned in early inscriptions are the jĀtaka stories. Some of the 547 stories, which describe the former lives of the Buddha as Bodhisattva (Pāli, Bodhisatta), are illustrated and provided with titles in the bas-reliefs of Bharhut in India. Only the jātaka verses are part of the Tipiṭaka. The collection of prose stories, called Jāṭṭakatthavaṇṇanā (Explanation of the Birth Stories), is regarded as a commentary and was composed in its present form about a millennium later than the verses, which, for the most part, are not specifically Buddhist. The best known is the 547th, the Vessantara jātaka (Sanskrit, ViŚvantara), which describes the last birth of the Bodhisattva, before he ascends to the Tuṣita heaven, from where he is reborn on earth to reach enlightenment.

Among the other collections in the Khuddakanikāya are the Verses of the Elders (Thera-and Therīgāthā), which are supposed to have been spoken by disciples of the Buddha. Those ascribed to "elder nuns" (Therīgāthā) are the oldest literature known from ancient India supposed to have been composed by women. As such they are unique in Middle Indic as well as in Sanskrit literature. Some texts of the Khuddakanikāya are early commentaries, with one text, the Paṭisambhidāmagga (Path of Discrimination), which would fit better into the third part of the canon, the Abhidhammapiṭaka.

Abhidhammapiṭaka (Basket Concerning the Teaching). The title Abhidhamma is interpreted later by Buddhists as "Higher Teaching." The seven texts of this final part of the canon comprise the Kathāvatthu (Text Dealing with Disputes), where conflicting opinions on different points of the Buddhist teaching are discussed. According to tradition, this text was composed during the reign of Aśoka by Moggalliputta Tissa. Therefore, this is the only text in the canon with an author and a date. The other texts of the Abhidhammapiṭaka mostly contain enumerations of different dhammas elaborated by unfolding a summary (mātikā), which appears at the beginning of the respective text. as the frame of an Abhidhamma text. Parts of the Vinayapiṭaka, and particularly the Sāṃyuttanikāya, can be similarly condensed and are handed down as "skeleton texts" to be unfolded in recitation. The last Abhidhamma text, the Paṭṭhāna (Conditional Relations), can be expanded in such a way that it becomes infinite, as the commentary says.

Commentaries and subcommentaries

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 Sri Lanka by Mahinda during the time of Aśoka (third 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 fifth century c.e., Buddhaghosa composed his still valid handbook of Theravāda orthodoxy for the Mahāvihāra in Anurādhapura. This Visuddhimagga (Path to Purification) is the centerpiece of Buddhaghosa's commentaries on the first four nikāyas. As stated in the respective introductions, each of the four commentaries comprises a full explanation of the Buddha's teaching in combination with the Visuddhimagga. Contrary to the claims of the Theravāda tradition, Buddhaghosa wrote, or supervised the writing, only of these texts, huge in themselves. The commentaries on the Vinaya-piṭaka, on the Abhidhammapiṭaka, and on part of the Khuddakanikāya are anonymous.

A commentary of uncertain date (probably between 450 and 600 c.e.) on seven of the collections of the Khuddakanikāya was composed by Dhammapāla (although Lance Cousins has recently suggested Jotipāla as the author of this commentary). It is important to note that Dhammapāla's sequence of Khuddakanikāya 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.

Subcommentaries constitute another layer of Pāli literature. After older subcommentaries on the Abhidhammapiṭaka (ascribed to Ānanda) and on Buddha-ghosa's commentaries (ascribed to Dhammapāla), the next subcommentaries were written during the reign of Parakkamabāhu I (r. 1153–1186), who reformed and unified the Buddhist order in Sri Lanka. Consequently, much weight was put on explaining the Vinayapiṭaka. This task was entrusted by the king to Sāriputta and his disciples.

Pāli literature in Southeast Asia

With Theravāda also firmly established in Southeast-Asia (Burma [Myanmar], Thailand, and Cambodia), new branches of Pāli literature developed. During a short period in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth 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 Conquerer) by Ratanapañña, and subcommentaries to the Vinayapiṭaka and Abhidhammapiṭaka 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 Sri Lanka and Burma, mostly copied during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A singular exception is a fragment of a Pāli manuscript preserved in Kathmandu containing four folios from the Vinayapiṭaka 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 Abhidhammapiṭaka and on writing handbooks on Abhidhamma matters.


It is striking that the older Pāli literature is almost exclusively confined to the canon and its commentaries. Handbooks on the Vinayapiṭaka or Abhidhammapiṭaka, such as those written by Buddhadatta, a contemporary of Buddhaghosa, or on hermeneutics, such as the Peṭakopadesa (Instruction Concerning the Tipiṭaka) and the Nettipakaraṇa (Guide to Interpretation), both predating Buddhaghosa, are rare exceptions, as are the chronicles. It is only after the twelfth 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 Eugène 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.

See also:Entries on specific countries; Commentarial Literature; Languages; Sinhala, Buddhist Literature in


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Lienhard, Siegfried. A History of Classical Poetry: Sanskrit, Pāli, Prakrit. A History of Indian Literature, vol. 3, facs. 1. Wies-baden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1984.

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Oberlies, Thomas. Pāli: A Grammar of the Language of the Theravāda Tipiṭaka. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2001.

von Hinüber, Oskar. A Handbook of Pāli Literature. Berlin: Gruyter, 1996.

von Hinüber, Oskar. Entstehung und Aufbau der Jātaka-Sammlung. Mainz: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, 1998.

von Hinüber, Oskar. "Structure and Origin of the Pātimokkhasutta of the Theravadins." Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 51 (1998): 257–265.

von Hinüber, Oskar. "Lān Nā as a Centre of Pāli Literature during the Late Fifteenth Century." Journal of the Pali Text Society 26 (2000): 119–138.

Oskar von HinÜber