Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pālī Language

The language of ‘tipit᷂aka

It has been widely comprehended and accepted that Pālī is considered the language of Theravāda Buddhism [Orthodox doctrine of Buddhism] or tan᷂tibhāsā (conventional language) is identical or/and developed from an ancient dialect called ‘māgadhī’ (the dialect used in the ancient Kingdom of Magadha – one of the Indian political powerhouse in the time of the Buddha). Presumably He used the language to propagate his doctrine. It is believed, after the attainment of the complete liberation [nirvana], that Pālī has been used to preserve his teachings in the form of oral recital [muk᷂khapāt᷂ha] until later has been recorded in various actual alphabets throughout Buddhist traditions. 
However, this notion is merely accepted by the Theravāda school in which the idea evidently is gradually influenced and fully adopted as the revered language from at᷂th᷂agāthā scriptures [commentaries] which were mostly produced in 5th Century B.C. (Wannapok, 2010, 252). Western scholars like Maurice Walshe, in his ‘the long discourses of the Buddha’ translation, pointed out that “its exact origins are the subject of learned debate…it may be said that the traditional equation with the language of ancient kingdom of Magadha, and the assertion of Pālī is, literally and precisely, the language spoken by the Buddha himself, cannot be sustained. All the same the language the Buddha actually spoke was in all probability not very different from Pālī”. (Walshe, 1987, 48) Thus, the assertion of the confidence, in which the language was really spoken by the Buddha, from the Theravādin commentaries on such matter is still unclear.

Additionally, through various researches and studies on this particular matter in the history of Buddhism, it is uncertain to assert that the language used in ‘tipit᷂aka’ is possibly identical, influenced or developed from that of the dialect in the ancient kingdom of ‘Magadhī’, or any other dialects in the region. Furthermore, the precise meaning of ‘Pāli (Pālī) itself is still puzzled and debatable by scholars. Therefore, the confirmation of it as a name of one particular language is problematic. However, if this puzzle has been disentangled by some next wise scholar, it will definitely clarify the identity and status of the language used in ‘tipit᷂aka’ as well.
In this personal trivial space here, I would like to share some views from many prominent scholars on this matter.

‘Pālī’ is not a proper name of one particular language
Subhūtithera, who has collected a well-recognised Buddhist scripture called ‘abhidhānanap᷂padīpikāsūci’, provides tentative meanings of the term ‘Pāli’ (or Pāl᷂i) in 3 possible implications; 
  •  Pāl᷂dhama or Pariyat᷂todhama (the teachings or scriptures to be studied) from which the line appears that ‘pāl᷂iyā at᷂tham᷂ up᷂parik᷂khan᷂ti’ – [monks] contemplate the real meanings of the scriptures (teachings).  
  • Pāl᷂i – ‘Edge’ (for example an edge of a pond) – It appears in the scripture that ‘tal᷂ākas᷂sa pāl᷂i’ means ‘an edge of a pond’. 
  • Pāli – ‘Row or line’ as it is stated that ‘pāl᷂iyā nisīdim᷂su’ – [monks] seated in line.

Rhys Davids and Villiam Stede both have dedicated all their entire lives working on the Pali-English dictionary for the Pali Text Society have also provided some possible assumptions of the meanings of Pāli. Eventually the interpretation is, somewhat, identical with previous notion of Subhūtithera a ‘Edge’, ‘Line’, and ‘Scripture or Teachings’. Furthermore, Scholar like Sir Monier Monier, who devoted his time working on the Sanskrit – English Dictionary, suggested 6 possible meanings of this term as;

  •  ‘Edge of the ear’ or ‘Ear’ – (Basically it is medical term used by Ajan Suṥruta.
  •  ‘Edge’, which matches the second meaning provided by Subhūtithera.
  •  ‘Line’ or ‘Row’ such as ‘ratanapāli’ = ‘the row or line of gem’. This assumption matches the third meaning provided by Subhūtithera, and the first meaning provided by Rhys Davids and Stede.
  •  ‘Canal’ and ‘Bridge' 
  •  ‘A boiling pot’
  •  ‘Measuring standard’ which states that 1= parasatha

As we have learnt from mentioned views previously, there is no such firmed evidence to assert the status of Pālī as one particular spoken language. In addition, the prominent Sanskrit-English Dictionary merely suggests the implication of the word ‘bhāsā’ as ‘speech, language’. Especially in this context, it only refers to those of local dialects (prākrit) which widely used in ancient Indian context in the time of the Buddha opposite to Sanskrit- the Vedas holy language.

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