PALI, the language used in daily intercourse between cultured
people in the north of India from the 7th century B.C. It
continued to be used throughout India and its confines as a literary
language for about a thousand years, and is still, though in a
continually decreasing degree, the literary language of Burma,
Siam, and Ceylon. Two factors combined to give Pali its
importance as one of the few great literary languages of the
world: the one political, the other religious. The political factor
was the rise during the 7th century B.C. of the Kosala power.
Previous to this the Aryan settlements, along the three routes
they followed in their penetration into India, had remained
isolated, independent and small communities. Their language
bore the same relation to the Vedic speech as the various Italian
dialects bore to Latin. The welding together of the great Kosala
kingdom, more than twice the size of England, in the very
centre of the settled country, led insensibly but irresistibly to
the establishment of a standard of speech, and the standard
followed was the language used at the court at Sāvatthi in the
Nepalese hills, the capital of Kosala. When Gotama the Buddha,
himself a Kosalan by birth, determined on the use, for the
propagation of his religious reforms, of the living tongue
of the people, he and his followers naturally made full use of
the advantages already gained by the form of speech current
through the wide extent of his own country. A result followed
somewhat similar to the effect, on the German language, of the
Lutheran reformation. When, in the generations after the
Buddha's death, his disciples compiled the documents of the
faith, the form they adopted became dominant. But local
varieties of speech continued to ei
The etymology of the word Pali is uncertain. It probably means “row, line, canon,” and is used, in its exact technical sense, of the language of the canon, containing the documents of the Buddhist faith. But when Pali first became known to Europeans it was already used also, by those who wrote in Pali, of the language of the later writings, which bear the same relation to the standard literary Pali of the canonical texts as medieval does to classical Latin. A further extension of the meaning in which the word Pali was used followed in a very suggestive way. The first book edited by a European in Pali was the Mahāvaṃsa, or Great Chronicle of Ceylon, published there in 1S37 by Turnour, then colonial secretary in the island. James Prinsep was then devoting his rare genius to the decipherment of the early inscriptions of northern India, especially those of Asoka in the 3rd century B.C. He derived the greatest assistance from Turnour's work not only in historical information, but also as regards the forms of words and grammatical inflexions. The resemblance was so close that Prinsep called the alphabet he was deciphering the Pali alphabet, and the language expressed in it he called the Pali language. This was so nearly correct that the usage has been followed by other European scholars, and is being increasingly adopted. It receives the support of Mahānāma, the author of the Great Chronicle, who wrote in Ceylon in the 5th century A.D. He says (p. 253, ed. Turnour) that Buddhaghosa translated the commentaries, then existing only in Sinhalese, into Pali. The name here used by the chronicler for Pali is “the Māgadhī tongue,” by which expression is meant, not exactly the language spoken in Māgadha, but the language in use at the court of Asoka, king of Kosala and Māgadha. With this use of the word, philologically inexact, but historically quite defensible, may be compared the use of the word English, which is not exactly the language of the Angles, or of the word French, which is not exactly the language of the Franks. The question of Pali becomes therefore threefold: Pali before the canon, the canon, and the writings subsequent to the canon. The present writer has suggested that the word Pali should be reserved for the language of the canon, and other words used for the earlier and later forms of it; but the usage generally followed is so convenient that there is little likelihood of the suggestion being followed. The threefold division will therefore be here adhered to.
For the history of Pali before the canonical books were composed we have no direct evidence. None of the pre-Buddhistic sites have as yet been excavated; and, with one doubtful exception, no inscriptions older than the texts have as yet been found. We have to argue back from the state of things revealed in the texts, of various dates from 450-250 B.C., and in the inscriptions from that date onwards. The inscriptions have now been subjected to a very full critical and philological analysis in Professor Otto Franke's Pali und Sanskrit (Strassburg, 1902). He shows that in the 3rd century B.C. the language used throughout northern India was practically one, and that it was derived directly from the speech of the Vedic Aryans, retaining many Vedic forms lost in the later classical Sanskrit. His list of such forms is much more complete than that given by Childers in the introduction to his Dictionary of the Pali Language. The particular form of this general speech which was used as the lingua franca, the Hindustani of the period, was the form in use in Kosala. Franke also shows that there were local peculiarities in small matters of spelling and inflexion, and that the particular form of the language used in and about the Avanti district, of which the capital was Ujjeni (a celebrated pre-Buddhistic city), was the basis of the language used in the sacred texts as we now have them. Long ago Westergaard, Rhys Davids and Ernst Kuhn, had made the same suggestion, mainly on historical grounds, Mahinda, who took the texts to Ceylon, having been born at Vedisa in that district. The careful and complete collection, by Franke, of the philological evidence at present available, has raised this hypothesis into a practical certainty. The inscriptions are at present scattered through a number of learned periodicals; a complete list of all those that can be approximately dated between the 3rd century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D. is given in the first chapter of Franke's book. M. E. Senart has collected in his Inscriptions de Piyadasi (Paris, 1881-1886) those inscriptions of Asoka which were known up to the date of his work, subjecting them to a careful analysis, and providing an index to the words occurring in them. What is greatly needed is a new edition of this work including the Asoka inscriptions discovered during the last twenty years, and a similar edition of the other inscriptions. The whole of the Pali inscriptions so far discovered might fill somewhat more than a hundred pages of text. An outline of the history of the Pali alphabet has been given, with illustrations and references to the authorities, in Rhys Davids's Buddhist India, pp. 107-140.
The canonical texts are divided into three collections called Piṭakas, i.e. baskets. This figure of speech refers, not to a basket or box in which things can be stored, but to the baskets, used in India in excavations, as a means of handing on the earth from one worker to another. The first Piṭaka contains the Vinaya—that is, Rules of the Order; the second the Suttas, giving the doctrine, and the third the Abhidhamma, analytical exercises in the psychological system on which the doctrine is based. These have now nearly all, mainly through the work of the Pali Text Society, been published in Pali.
The Vinaya was edited in 5 vols, by H. Oldenberg; and the more important parts of it have been translated into English by Rhys Davids and Oldenberg in their Vinaya Texts.
The Sutta Piṭaka consists of five Nikāyas, four principal and one supplementary. The four principal ones have been published for the Pali Text Society, and some volumes have been translated into English or German. These four Nikāyas, sixteen volumes in all, are the main authorities for the doctrines of early Buddhism. The fifth Nikāya is a miscellaneous collection of treatises, mostly very short, on a variety of subjects. It contains lyrical and ballad poetry, specimens of early exegesis and commentary, lives of the saints, collections of edifying anecdotes and of the now well-known Jātakas or Birth Stories. Of these, eleven volumes had by 1910 been edited for the Pali Te.xt Society by various scholars, the Jātakas and two other treatises had appeared elsewhere, and two works (one a selection of lives of distinguished early Buddhists, and the other an ancient commentary), were still in MS.
Of the seven treatises contained in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka five, and one-third of the sixth, had by 1910 been published by the Pali Text Society; and one, the Dhamma Sangaṇi, had been translated by Mrs Rhys Davids. A description of the contents of all these books in the canon is given in Rhys Davids's American Lectures, pp. 44-86.
A certain amount of progress has been made in the historical criticism of these books. Out of the twenty-nine works contained in the three Piṭakas only one claims to have an author. That one is the Kathā Vatthu, ascribed to Tissa the son of Moggalī, who presided over the third council held under Asoka. It is the latest book of the third Piṭaka. All the rest of the canonical works grew up in the schools of the Order, and most of them appear to contain documents, or passages, of different dates. In his masterly analysis of the Vinaya, in the introduction to his edition of the text, Professor Oldenberg has shown that there are at least three strata in the existing presentation of the Rules of the Order, the oldest portions going back probably to the time of the Buddha himself. Professor Rhys Davids has put forward similar views with respect to the Jātakas and the Sutta Nipāta in his Buddhist India, and with respect to the Nikāyas in general in the introduction to his Dialogues of the Buddha. And Professor Windisch has discussed the legends of the temptation in his Māra und Buddha, and those relating to the Buddha's birth in his Buddha's Geburt. It seems probable that the Vinaya and the four Nikāyas were put substantially into the shape in which we now have them before the council at Vesäli, a hundred years after the Buddha's death; that slight alterations and additions were made in them, and the miscellaneous Nikāya and the Abhidhamma books completed, at various times down to the third council under Asoka; and that the canon was then considered closed. No evidence has yet been found of any alterations made, after that time, in Ceylon; but there were probably before that time, in India, other books, now lost, and other recensions of some of the above.
Of classical Pali in northern India subsequent to the canon there is but little evidence. Three works only have survived. These are the Millnda-pañha, edited by V. Trenckner, and translated by Rhys Davids under the title Questions of King Milinda; the Nctti Pakaraṇa, edited by E. Hardy for the Pali Text Society in 1902; and the Pctaka Upadesa. The former belongs to the north-west, the others to the centre of India, and all three may be dated vaguely in the first or second centuries A.D. The first, a religious romance of remarkable interest, may owe its preservation to the charm of its style, the others to the accident that they were attributed by mistake to a famous apostle. In any case they are the sole survivors of what must have been a vast and varied literature. Professor Takakusu has shown the possibility of several complete books belonging to it being still extant in Chinese translations, and we may yet hope to recover original fragments in central Asia, Tibet, or Nepal.
At p. 66 of the Gandha Vaṃsa, a modern catalogue of Pali books and authors, written in Pali, there is given a list of ten authors who wrote Pali books in India, probably southern India. We may conclude that these books are still extant in Burma, where the catalogue was drawn up. Two only of these ten authors are otherwise known. The first is Dhammapāla, who wrote in Kāñcipura, the modern Conjevaram in south India, in the 5th century of our era. His principal work is a series of commentaries on five of the lyrical anthologies included in the miscellaneous Nikāya. Three of these have been published by the Pali Text Society; and Professor E. Hardy has discussed in the Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft (1897), pp. 105-127, all that is known about him. Dhammapāla wrote also a commentary on the Netti mentioned above. The second is Buddhadatta, who wrote the Jinālankāra in the 5th century A.D. It has been edited and translated by Professor J. Gray. It is a poem, of no great interest, on the life of the Buddha.
The whole of these Pali books composed in India have been lost there. They have been preserved for us by the unbroken succession of Pali scholars in Ceylon and Burma. These scholars (most of them members of the Buddhist Order, but many of them laymen) not only copied and recopied the Indian Pali books, but wrote a very large number themselves. We are thus beginning to know something of the history of this literature. Two departments have been subjected to critical study: the Ceylon chronicles Dy Professor W. Geiger in his Mahāvaṃsa und Dīpavaṃsa, and the earlier grammatical works by Professor O. Franke in two articles in the Journal of the Pali Text Society for 1903, and in his Geschichte und Kritik der einheimischen Pali Grammatik. Dr Forchhammer in his Jardine Prize Essay, and Dr Mabel Bode in the introduction to her edition of the Sāsana-vaṃsa, have collected many details as to the Pali literature in Burma.
The results of these investigations show that in Ceylon from the 3rd century B.C. onwards there has been a continuous succession of teachers and scholars. Many of them lived in the various vihāras or residences situate throughout the island; but the main centre of intellectual effort, down to the 8th century, was the Mahā Vihāra, the Great Minster, at Anwrādhapura. This was, in fact, a great university. Authors refer, in the prefaces to their books, to the Great Minster as the source of their knowledge. And to it students flocked from all parts of India. The most famous of these was Buddhaghosa, from Behar in North India, who studied at the Minster in the 5th century A.D., and wrote there all his well-known works. Two volumes only of these, out of about twenty still extant in MS., have been edited for the Pali Text Society. About a century before this the Dīpa-vaṃsa, or Island Chronicle, had been composed in Pali verse so indifferent that it is apparently the work of a beginner in Pali composition. No work written in Pali in Ceylon at a date older than this has been discovered yet. It would seem that up to the 4th century of our era the Sinhalese had written exclusively in their own tongue; that is to say that for six centuries they had studied and understood Pali as a dead language without using it as a means of literary expression. In Burma, on the other hand, where Pali was probably introduced from Ceylon, no writings in Pali can be dated before the 11th century of our era. Of the history of Pali in Siam very little is known. There have been good Pali scholars there since late medieval times. A very excellent edition of the twenty seven canonical books has been recently printed there, and there exist in our European hbraries a number of Pali MSS. written in Siam.
It would be too early to attempt any estimate of the value of this secondary Pali literature. Only a few volumes, out of several hundreds known to be extant in MS., have yet been published. But the department of the chronicles, the only one so far at all adequately treated, has thrown so much light on many points of the history of India that we may reasonably expect results equally valuable from the publication and study of the remainder. The works on religion and philosophy especially will be of as much service for the history of ideas in these later periods as the publication of the canonical books has already been for the earlier period to which they refer. The Pali books written in Ceylon, Burma and Siam will be our best and oldest, and in many respects our only, authorities for the sociology and politics, the literature and the religion, of their respective countries.
Selected Authorities.—Texts: Pali Text Society (63 vols., 1882-1908); H. Oldenberg, The Vināya Piṭakam (5 vols., London, 1879-1883); V. Fausböll, The Jatāka (7 vols., London, 1877-1897); G. Turnour, The Mahāvaṃsa (Colombo, 1837); H. Oldenberg, The Dīpavaṃsa (London, 1879); V. Trenckner, Milinda (London, 1880). Translations: Rhys Davids and H. Oldenberg, Vinaya Texts (3 vols., Oxford, 1881-1885); Rhys Davids, Milind (2 vols., Oxford, 1890-1894), Dialogues of the Buddha (Oxford, 1899); H. C. Warren, Buddhism in Translations (Cambridge, Mass., 1896); Mrs Rhys Davids, Buddhist Psychology (London, 1900); K. E. Neumann, Reden des Gotamo Buddho (3 vols.., Leipzig, 1896-1898); Lieder der Mönche und Nonnen (Berlin, 1899); Max Müller and V. Fausböll, Dhammapada and Sutta Nipāta (Oxford, 1881). Philology. R. C. Childers, Dictionary of the Pali Language (London, 1872-1875); Ernst Kuhn, Beiträge zur Pali Grammatik (Berlin, 1875); E. Müller, Pali Grammar (London, 1884); R. O. Franke, Geschichte und Kritik der einheimischen Pali-Grammatik und Lexicographie, and Pali und Sanskrit (Strassburg, 1902); D. Andersen, Pali Reader (London, 1904-1907). History (of the alphabet, language and texts): Rhys Davids, American Lectures (London, 3rd ed., 1908); Buddhist India (London, 1903); E. Windisch, Māra und Buddha (Leipzig, 1895), and Buddha's Geburt (Leipzig, 1908); W. Geiger, Mahāvaṃsa und Dīpavaṃsa (Leipzig, 1905); E. Forchhammer, Jardine Prize Essay (Rangoon, 1885); Dr Mabel Bode, Sāsana-vaṃsa (London, 1897).
- Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1903), p. 398.
- Westergaard, Über den ältesten Zeitraum der indischen Geschichte, p. 87; Rhys Davids, Transactions of the Philological Society (1875), p. 70; Kuhn, Beiträge zur Pali Grammatik, 7-9.
- No doubt identical with Upagupta, the teacher of Asoka (cf. Vincent Smith, Early History of India, 2nd ed., 1908, and refs.).
- Journal of the Pali Text Society (1905), pp. 72, 86.