Commentary on the Pali language of India and Sri Lanka - Indo-Buddhist Heritage Forum

Commentary on the Pali language of India and Sri Lanka


The “aṭṭhakathā” is an exegetical work on Pali Canonical texts. In Sanskrit literature, the same feature is called “bhāṣya”. Its aim is to elaborate the meanings of the Buddhist teachings in the Canon. There were two reasons for the compilation of commentaries on the Pali text. The first of these, as recorded in the Sutra, is that some of the teachings promulgated by the Buddha are incomprehensible. The second is the inconsistency related to people’s skill in understanding the Dhamma. As a result, commentaries were essential to assist in understanding the original teachings of Pali literature.The Pali language originated in Magadha with the name Magadhi (Magadha + e = Magadhi). Another dialect similar to Magadhi used by Jain Mahavira is Ardha Magadhi. At the time of the Buddha, the Pali language called Suddha Magadhi was called Pure Language (nomix with any other language). Also, King Ashoka used a language similar to Pali. According to the Samantapasadika Vinaya Atakatha (Commentary on Vinayapitaka), the Pali language came to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century AD with Mahamahinda Thero. Scholars have determined that this is the starting point where Pali was introduced to Sri Lanka.

The Samantapasadika Nama Vinaya Attakatha in Pali (An Old and Rare Book)
The Samantapasadika Nama Vinaya Attakatha in Pali (Credits : Exotic India Art)

The development of Pali to international language standards can be described in two areas namely grammatical development and literary development. There are two grammar traditions introduced by Sri Lankan scholars namely Kachchayana and Moggallayana traditions. Mahakacchayana and Maharupasidhi were written for the Kachchayana tradition and Mahamoggallayana book for the Moggallayana tradition. These traditions were very helpful in the development of Pali language

The Literal development is huge when we consider it. There are many books written in Pali language. They can be explained as canon, commentaries, sub-commentaries, anthologies or manuals, chronicles and various other literary works.

सुमङ्गलविलासिनी दीघनिकाय - अट्ठकथा - The Sumangala Vilasini Dighanikaya-Atthakatha (An Old and Rare Book)
Sumangala Vilasini Dighanikaya-Atthakatha (Credits : Exotic India Art)

Canonical literature is the name given to the Tripitaka texts. Commentary is an allegorical treatise that explains difficult points in canonical texts. There are many commentaries like Sumangalavilasini, Papanchasudani, Sarathappakasini, Manorathapurani etc. The Upa-Commentary is a confusing book that explained the difficult points of the commentaries, some of which are Vajirabuddhitika, Vimativinodhaneetika, etc. A handbook can be described as a concise, yet comprehensive collection of information on a subject, especially a book or other publication such as Abhidhammattasangha, Suttasangha, Namarupasamuchchaya etc. Annals can be described as a true written record of important historical events such as Mahavamsa, Deepavansa, Bodhivamsa etc. in the order in which they happened.

The Rise of Pali in Sri Lanka & India

The Pali language is evocative. It has a lyrical rhythm. In singing, Lalithya is sajjati in tone, and Karnarasayana raises the sound. The Pali language has been preserved in several Theravada Buddhist countries, especially when it is being recited by the monks so that the meaning is spiced up, and is kept alive by the Buddhist scholars, monks, and devotees. Thus, Pali has become the medium of Theravada Buddhism. When the Aryan-speaking peoples migrated to northern India around 2000 BC, they are thought to have brought many varieties of the language with them. In the course of time, some of these sub-languages developed unique literary forms along with grammar. Of these, the most important dialect was Sanskrit.

Although Pali is widely accepted as an ancient language, no epigraphic or textual evidence survives from the early period. The earliest Pali samples discovered are inscriptions believed to date from the fifth to eighth centuries, and were found in mainland Southeast Asia, particularly in central Siam and Lower Burma. These inscriptions usually consist of short excerpts from the Pali canon and non-canonical texts, as well as multiple examples of Yedharma utati stanzas. Surprisingly, the oldest Pali text dating back to the 9th century was found in Nepal. It is in the shape of four palm leaves, including a part of chullavagga written in a transitional script derived from the Gupta script.

The oldest manuscripts from Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia date from the 13th to the 15th century, and only a few instances have survived. Very few manuscripts survive more than 400 years and complete copies of the four sects are known only in 17th and later century specimens.

The Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions, which emerged shortly after the Buddha’s parinirvana, began to use Sanskrit, the classical language of India, to propagate the Buddha’s teachings. After that, an alternative Sanskrit dialect called “Buddhist Sanskrit” came into use.

In real time, Pali language also came to be known as the “Language of the Philosophy of Mankind”. This is because, before the emergence of the Western Enlightenment tradition, it was a vast literature on the subject of religion and the medium of expression of philosophical thought throughout the world.

Tripitaka IBH Forum
The Tripitakas

The Pali language is the medium in which the legend or Tripitaka on the teachings of Theravada Buddhism is presented. The legal system for the education of monks is presented in the Vinaya Pitaka, the main collection of Buddha’s teachings in the Sutra Pitaka, and the most profound psychological dharma mass in the Abhidharma Pitaka.

It is also important to consider the spread of the Pali language which has been accelerated over time. As mutual commercial relations and message exchange strategies developed, the use of Pali language also spread as Buddhist monks and envoys proliferated throughout the respective geographical areas. As it was, Pali became the “universal language” of Buddhist countries in South and Southeast Asia for well over a thousand years. Later, each country developed its own Pali literature and history. The language incorporates regional variants, making it difficult to assign to a specific location.

Like the Buddhists, the Jains deviated from Sanskrit and instead used Arthamagadhi to write their books. However, most Buddhist treatises in North India and South Asia, except for the peninsula, were written in Sanskrit in the second century. It is unclear what prompted the Buddhists to accept Sanskrit after half a millennium. Although Pali survived in other parts of the world until the eighteenth century, it died out as a literary language in mainland India in the fourteenth century. Pali is now primarily learned to gain access to Buddhist scriptures and is commonly sung in a ritual context. Secular literature such as Pali historical chronicles, pharmacopoeias and inscriptions are also very important in terms of history.

Great centers of Pali learning continue to be found in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian Theravada countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Various groups have encouraged awareness of the language and its literature since the 19th century to revive Pali studies in India, such as the Maha Bodhi Society founded by Anagarika Dhammapala. Whatever the earliest roots of the Pali language, it is certain, by a plausible argument, that it was the language used to preserve and maintain the Tripitaka. This is because, at least in the first century after the Buddha’s death, the scriptures were not written down, and were maintained by the tradition of writing books. They were started to be documented as early as B.C. 1st century in Sri Lanka during the Vattagamini dynasty. These Pali texts were written on tanned palm leaves. It so happened that the monks also had to face the war invasions from South India and it was an effort to protect the scriptures.

It is difficult to know how Pali ceased to be used as a main or spoken language and then became a religious institution. Even after the Pali language became a common language in society, it continued to be used in temples and monasteries. There, religious texts were not only preserved, but also led to the compilation of commentaries and the exchange of ideas between the Theravada monks belonging to various castes at that time. In many Theravada countries where the Pali language was spoken, it was written in the local alphabet tradition of each country, and the pronunciation or cry almost always corresponded to the differences that existed in each country.

Pali died out as a literary language in mainland India in the fourteenth century, but survived elsewhere until the eighteenth century. Today, Pali is mainly studied to gain access to Buddhist scriptures and is often chanted in a ritual context. Secular literature, including Pali chronicles, medical texts, and inscriptions, is also historically significant. Great centers of Pali learning exist in Sri Lanka and in other Theravada nations of Southeast Asia such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Since the 19th century, various societies for the revival of Pali studies in India have promoted awareness of the language and its literature, including the Maha Bodhi Society founded by Anagarika Dhammapala. The Pali literature of Ceylon is of great extent and importance andalso of multifarious interest, it is of value alike to the historian and the student of folklore, to the philologist, and the student of comparative religion. Broadly speaking, it may be classified under three main heads.

The Pali language was introduced to Sri Lanka after the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. From then until today, there are many evidences that the Pali language was used in the teachings of Buddha Dharma in Sri Lanka as well as in social practice. This language has developed in India and has gradually been shaped according to the influence of Sri Lanka. Considering all these activities, there is evidence that the Pali language had an important place in India as well as in Sri Lanka. Mahindagamanaya received cultural and artistic heritage as well as linguistic inspiration to Sri Lanka. Pali language can be introduced as the best example. Even today, institutions and private institutions that teach Pali language in Sri Lanka and carry out teaching activities without the support of Jaye can be seen. This shows that these languages inherited by Sri Lanka did not fade with time. The Pali language can also be introduced as a symbol of the spiritual friendship between India and Sri Lanka.

Commentary on the Pali language of India and Sri Lanka - Indo-Buddhist Heritage Forum


Before the development of modern Sanskrit derivatives, a group of languages known as Prakrit or Middle Indo-Aryan languages arose from the classical languages of India. Pali is a Central Indo-Aryan language of North Indian origin, used as a classical and sacred language in the Theravada Buddhist canon. Overall, Pali appears to be related to the older Indo-Aryan Vedic and Sanskrit dialects, but not directly derived from either. Both India and Sri Lanka have made great progress for the advancement of the Pali language since ancient times. The understanding that exists in the country is clearly implied through the presentation of this linguistic and inspiration in India to Sri Lanka. Along with the development of the Pali language, the development of Buddhism can also be seen. Because the Pali language can be introduced as a means of propagating the Buddha Dharma. Although there were two stages in the use of media, written and oral, written language became the primary way to explain the Buddha’s Dharma to the world through Pali, a matter that has remained the same since then. Referring to these details in above, the Pali language can be considered as international language in Eastern countries which Theravada Buddhism was spread.


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