The Pali Language and Literature

Pali (or Pāli) is the name given to the language of the texts of Theravāda Buddhism. The commentarial tradition of the Theravādins states that the language of its canon is Māgadhī, the language supposedly spoken by the Buddha Gotama, who lived probably during the fifth century BCE in eastern India. The term pāli originally referred to a canonical text or passage rather than to a language and its current use is based on a misunderstanding of the expression ‘language of the texts’ (pāḷi-bhāsā) which occurred several centuries ago. The language of the Theravādin canon is a version of a dialect of Middle Indo-Āryan, other than Māgadhī, created by the homogenisation of the dialects in which the teachings of the Buddha were orally recorded and transmitted. This process occurred as the Buddha’s teachings were transmitted  beyond the area of their origin and as the Buddhist monastic order codified his teachings.

The oral transmission of the Buddha’s teaching continued for several centuries after the death of the Buddha, and even after the texts were first committed to writing. The Theravādin tradition recorded in the ancient Sinhalese chronicles states that the Pali canon was written down in the first century BCE. The language of the canon continued to be influenced by commentators and grammarians and by the native languages of the countries in which Theravāda Buddhism became established over many centuries. No single script was ever developed for the language of the canon; scribes used the scripts of their native languages to transcribe the texts. Although monasteries in South India are known to have been important centres of Buddhist learning in the early part of the second millennium, no Pali manuscripts from anywhere in India, except for one in Nepal have survived. The majority of the manuscripts available to scholars since the PTS began can be dated to the 18th or 19th centuries; and the textual traditions of the different Buddhist countries represented by these manuscripts show much evidence of interweaving. The pattern of recitation and validation of texts by councils of monks has continued into the 20th century.

The main division of the Pāli canon as it exists today is threefold, although the Pali commentarial tradition refers to several different ways of classification. The three divisions are known as piṭakas and the canon itself as the Tipiṭaka; the significance of the term piṭaka, literally ‘basket’, is not clear. The text of the canon is divided, according to this system, into Vinaya (monastic rules), Suttas (discourses) and Abhidhamma (analysis of the teaching).  Although the Theravāda exegetical tradition characterizes the Tipiṭaka as ‘the word of the Buddha’ (buddha-vacana), there are texts within the canon either attributed to specific monks or related to events post-dating the time of the Buddha or that can be shown to have been composed after that time.