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The Languages of Buddhism

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Thought it might be worth starting with some observations edited from Peter Harvey, Buddhism, and several Wiki inserts (noted):

The languages in which the editions of the Buddhist canon are preserved fall into two categories.

First, there are the languages and dialects in which the texts circulated in India. These include local Prakrits such as Magadhi (also Maghadi), Pali and the North-Western Prakrit as well as Sanskrit.

(Note: Prakrit can mean both "original language" and "natural language." We don't know today whether Prakrit is older or younger than Sanskrit, which means "refined language.")

The Buddha himself denied preference to any one language and adopted for his preaching the local dialects of the regions through which he travelled.

Thus, it is incorrect to speak of an original language of Buddhism...however, it is probably true to say that the Buddha's discourses were based on an early variety of Old Maghadi. Except for a few archaic root forms, no traces of Old Maghadi have survived.

"Grammarian Kachchayano wrote of the importance of Magadhi: 'There is a language which is the root (of all languages); men and Brahmans spoke it at the commencement of the kalpa, who never before uttered a human accent, and even the supreme Buddhas spoke it: it is Magadhi.'"

(Robert Spence Hardy,The legends and theories of the Buddhists compared with history and science...)

A variation of Old Maghadi is still preserved in the language of the Theravada Canon -- Pali. Pali was the language of Vidiśā, India, which sent Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka.

These missionaries had memorized their sermons in Pali, and the language became accepted by the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka as the 'language of the texts' (Pali-Bhasa). It is perhaps the closest approximation to the 'original' language of Buddhism.

With the beginning of the Christian era, Prakrits became increasingly rivalled by [and blended with] the use of Sanskrit--modern scholars refer to this cross-breed as Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. Eventually, Prakrits and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit were replaced with a more correct form of Sanksrit.

Of the numerous languages of translation which preserved the canon outside India, Tibetan and Chinese are the most important, as they constitute the only languages into which the Indian texts were directly transmitted. Most other languages are secondary, in that they are based on either Tibetan or Chinese.

This privileged position is reinforced by the towering volume of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist writings, for no other cultures have preserved nearly as many scriptures in their respective languages.

Above all, Tibetan translations stand out for their great accuracy and consistency, achieved by adapting the Tibetan language in translation specifically to Buddhist terminology. [An example of this in English might be "triple gem," a new English phrase specific to Buddhism.]

In Buddhism, the concept of a sacred language has little immediate applicability. We saw that the Buddha himself refused to give preference to any speech.

If belief in the power of sound is anything to go by, Buddhism clearly has in Pali and Sanskrit two tongues approaching the concept of a sacred language. However, since neither of them is accepted by all Buddhists they cannot be regarded unreservedly as such.


In Buddhism, the concept of a sacred language has little immediate applicability. We saw that the Buddha himself refused to give preference to any speech. If belief in the power of sound is anything to go by, Buddhism clearly has in Pali and Sanskrit two tongues approaching the concept of a sacred language. However, since neither of them is accepted by all Buddhists they cannot be regarded unreservedly as such.

In a sense the term Pali, like Sanskrit, does not refer to a language at all. Richard Gombrich pointed out that it actually means ‘sacred scripture’ and is a descriptive term for the Theravada scriptures and the language they are in. It is a standardised and consistent language based on earlier dialects.

It is not exactly what the Buddha said, it is a standardised form of what the Buddha said. It is close to the Prakrit Magadhi languages that the Buddha probably spoke in, but it is not identical to them." (Peter Friedlander, "Buddhist Studies - Lecture Notes", School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Australia,

"At no time was Sanskrit a spoken language, much less during the Vedic period. It has always been the language of a few seeking sacred knowledge. All dialects--Magadhi, Ardha-Magadhi, Sauraseni, and Paisachi--are Prakrit, out of which was processed Sanskrit as a language of necessity--a scientific technical language to give expression to intellectual, moral and spiritual expansion...isolated from the broad masses.

As their religion gained popularity and prominence, the Buddhist scholars endeavoured to create a new language easier than Sanskrit: Pali, using Sauraseni and Magadhi as the base, to write down their vast, flourishing literature...Like Sanskrit, Pali is not a spoken language, though it was used extensively by scholars for the study of Buddhist literature, and for intellectual transactions, especially communications of higher thought." (S. N. Sadasivan, A Social History of India)

Interesting. That's more or less my understanding as well, which is that Pali, an early form of Prakrit related to Hindi and Sanskrit, is thought to be a composite of several dialectal forms and expressions most likely based on the language the Buddha himself taught in, which is generally held to be a dialect of Magadhi Prakrit; although there's still a great deal of debate among scholars as to the exact dates and place of origin of Pali itself.

The commentarial tradition of Theravada holds that Pali is identical to Magadhi; but as the introduction to A New Course in Reading Pali: Entering the Word of the Buddha notes, it doesn't share many of the distinctive characteristics found in Magadhan inscriptions, primarily from the time of Ashoka (approximately 300–232 BCE). Nevertheless, it's considered by many scholars, such as Wilhelm Geiger and Walpola Rahula, to at least be closely related to Magadhi, especially in the sense of being a type of popular speech.

Whatever the case, it's believe that at the time of the Buddha (approximately 400 BCE), many of the great wandering ascetics (samana) in the northern area of India known as Magadha, like the [buddha]] and his contemporary Mahavira (Nigantha Nataputta), taught in the popular vernacular of the people used for general communication and commerce, as opposed to Vedic Sanskrit, the sacred language of Vedas used by brahmins. This was not only done because they rejected the authority of the Vedas, but because they wanted to make their teachings more widely available.

It seems to me that some confusion is the result of talking about the languages as if they occurred simultaneously--the Buddha's spoken languages, and the later liturgical languages.

Unless new, codified sayings of the Buddha from the Buddha's own time period come to light, we probably have to continue to assume that the codified, Pali oral sermons and codified, Pali written scriptures came much later, and not necessarily in the same language (or even form) the Buddha used to deliver the information. This might prove to be wrong, but for now, we need more data to help prove otherwise, it seems.

It's very much like the way information is preserved in any tradition, I suppose--some Original Sailor said something like,

"The eeuenynge maad, ye seien, It shal be cleer, for the heuene is lijk to reed; and the morwe, To day tempest, for heuen shyneth heuy, or sorrowful."

(In the evening, ye say, it shall be clear, for the heaven is like to red; and in the morrow, today tempest, for heaven shineth then, or sorrowful.)

Which is much easier to pass on to current generations as:

Red sky at night, sailor's delight Red sky in morning, sailor take warning

The modern version contains the same valuable information, but is shorter, in fixed form, designed to rhyme, and in a local (and/or modern) version of the language--all of which factors increase its likelihood of transmission and survival among a particular audience.

I suppose the question of the day, though, is whether the codified Buddhist canon, or any part of it, was composed directly by the Buddha and adapted to different languages over time, or composed, as a way of preserving his teachings, by those who'd committed the gist of his teachings to memory.

The Hocak people for example do not versify their teachings; a teaching is generally in long story form, without rhymes or poetry of any kind. Someone is considered to have correctly learned a teaching when he/she is able to repeat it concept for concept, rather than word for word. The Irish, on the other hand, versified much of their sacred pre-Christian teaching.

I think it's an important point, i.e., that Pali, Sanskrit, etc. aren't sacred languages in the sense of being inherently better or more sacred than other languages. The main reason reason they're so important in Buddhism is that most of the teachings attributed to the Buddha, his immediate students, and his early followers throughout Asia are preserved in these languages, and it's important to understand them so that we can read them and/or translate them properly into our native languages.


One of the most significant aspects of Buddhism is that it embraced dialects without any hesitation as fit vehicles for its scriptures. Gautama Buddha, thus, inaugurated a linguistic revolution. This position of Gautama Buddha was against the tradition of holding Sanskrit as the most sacred, if not the only sacred language, for Hindu Scriptures. Early Buddhist scriptures were all written in Pali, perhaps the dialect spoken by Gautama Buddha himself.

Although Pali, thus, acquired an important place in Buddhism, the Buddhist monks and scholars were encouraged to use the dialects and languages of the people whom they were trying to lead to the Buddha Marga.


Pali is considered to be one of the dialects of Middle Indo-Aryan. It appears that the Pali used in early Buddhist Scriptures, followed in Theravada Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, has many features common to other Indo-Aryan dialects as well.

So, some scholars consider Pali to be a mixed language, rather than a distinct dialect. Some others consider it as the Avanti dialect spoken in Ujjain. Some consider Pali to be only a literary language, at least after it was used extensively in Buddhist Scriptures well beyond India.

Over the centuries, Buddha's command that the Buddhist monks use the colloquial language of the people to communicate his teachings is not wholly practiced. In Buddhism Pali now occupies the position given to [Sanskrit]] in Vedic Hinduism.