What language did the Buddha speak?

Textual analysis and comparative discussion on early Buddhist sects and texts.
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Assaji
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by Assaji » Sun Jul 17, 2011 6:10 am

Hi Mike,
mikenz66 wrote:I'm no expert so I can't comment on the technicalities, but surely the argument here is largely one of definitions. Whether or not one calls the language of the Vedas "Sanskrit", the issue is surely whether the Buddha understood that language. Since many Suttas appear to be commentary on Vedic ideas, (e.g. http://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=29&t=7464) it seems likely that he was.
Both Buddha and Pāṇini (the key inventor of Sankrit) call the Vedic language "chandaso" (verses):

285. Tena kho pana samayena yame.lakeku.taa naama bhikkhuu dve bhaatikaa honti braahma.najaatikaa kalyaa.navaacaa kalyaa.navaakkara.naa. Te yena bhagavaa tenupasa'nkami.msu,
upasa'nkamitvaa bhagavanta.m abhivaadetvaa ekamanta.m nisiidi.msu. Ekamanta.m nisinnaa kho te bhikkhuu bhagavanta.m etadavocu.m- "etarahi, bhante, bhikkhuu naanaanaamaa naanaagottaa naanaajaccaa naanaakulaa pabbajitaa. Te sakaaya niruttiyaa buddhavacana.m duusenti. Handa maya.m, bhante, buddhavacana.m chandaso aaropemaa"ti. Vigarahi buddho bhagavaa …pe… "katha~nhi naama tumhe, moghapurisaa, eva.m vakkhatha- 'handa maya.m, bhante, buddhavacana.m chandaso aaropemaa'ti. Neta.m, moghapurisaa, appasannaana.m vaa pasaadaaya …pe… vigarahitvaa …pe… dhammi.m katha.m katvaa bhikkhuu aamantesi- "na, bhikkhave, buddhavacana.m chandaso aaropetabba.m. Yo aaropeyya, aapatti dukka.tassa. Anujaanaami, bhikkhave, sakaaya niruttiyaa buddhavacana.m pariyaapu.nitun"ti.

Culavagga V.33.1 = Vin. II.139

:anjali:

Dmytro
Last edited by Assaji on Sun Jul 17, 2011 7:10 am, edited 1 time in total.

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tiltbillings
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by tiltbillings » Sun Jul 17, 2011 6:15 am

Dmytro wrote:Hi Mike,
mikenz66 wrote:I'm no expert so I can't comment on the technicalities, but surely the argument here is largely one of definitions. Whether or not one calls the language of the Vedas "Sanskrit", the issue is surely whether the Buddha understood that language. Since many Suttas appear to be commentary on Vedic ideas, (e.g. http://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=29&t=7464) it seems likely that he was.
Both Buddha and Patanjali (the key inventor of Sankrit) call the Vedic language "chandaso" (verses):
I think maybe you mean Pāṇini, the great 4th C BCE grammarian.
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723

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Assaji
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by Assaji » Sun Jul 17, 2011 7:09 am

tiltbillings wrote:I think maybe you mean Pāṇini, the great 4th C BCE grammarian.
Sure, just now I have returned to correct this.

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by mikenz66 » Sun Jul 17, 2011 8:28 am

Thanks, Dmytro for the clarifications about the relationship between the Vedic and Sanskrit languages.

:anjali:
Mike

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by mikenz66 » Sat Feb 01, 2014 7:48 pm

As series of argumentative posts have been deleted. Please stay on the topic.

:anjali:
Mike

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Marten
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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by Marten » Thu Mar 27, 2014 9:13 pm

I like to read here, but am always afraid to post something because I know so little. That being said, here's something I've been pondering and wondering why I can't spot the flaw:

Obviously we have a huge number of teachings preserved in Pāli. Whether there are lost teachings preserved in other languages no longer in use or whether the teachings/suttas we have have been translated into Pāli from some other language will persist as a great mystery, I'm sure; yet, it seems to me that the Buddha picked Ānanda for very complex reasons.

The suttas inform us that Ānanda had a wonderful memory; but is that all?

Did Ānanda remember the teachings in the lingua-fraca of the day (Pāli)? To me, Ānanda seems to constantly be portrayed as a kind of foil, the straight-man who doesn't get the Buddha's meaning so that the meaning can be further teased out. If Ānanda had such a great memory, then, perhaps, he didn't have much insight, hence not becoming awakened until the last minute?

Could it be possible that Ānanda was a savant?

No, I don't really mean Rain-Man, but someone who could simply recite what he heard in Pāli? is that any more mysterious than those fantastic persons who can tell you what day it was upon which a date in 1937 fell, or can do complex mathematics mentally!?!

The Buddha seems to have had tremendous admiration for Ānanda, despite having to almost dumb-down his teachings so that Ānanda could understand them.

I cannot figure out why my theoretical basis for Pāli is something others have not before spotted - although that it may be too simplistic and fantasy-based is probably a not-unreasonable thought. I'd definitely appreciate knowing what others think, because I have not been able to find any mention of Ānanda in this area of inquire: what language did the Buddha speak.

Many thanks

:anjali:

M

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by cooran » Thu Mar 27, 2014 11:16 pm

Hello Marten,

The Buddha set in place a system for summarising and preserving the Teachings so they would not be forgotten or altered. Thousands of Bhikkhus memorised the teachings and used to regularly chant them together. They were called Bhanakas - e.g. The Digha Bhanakas, that Majjhima Bhanakas.

This thread may be of interest to you:

Why didn't the Buddha write his Teachings down?
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=7946

With metta,
Chris
---The trouble is that you think you have time---
---Worry is the Interest, paid in advance, on a debt you may never owe---
---It's not what happens to you in life that is important ~ it's what you do with it ---

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by Marten » Fri Mar 28, 2014 5:14 pm

Thanks for this Cooran - I am a little familiar with the validation of an aural/oral tradition. As I recall reading somewhere, in the Buddha's time, "writing" was used for unimportant things like keeping track of business transactions. But this doesn't quite address the issue of language and how the suttas got preserved in Pāli. I have read that some of the Chinese "versions" of the suttas suggest that they came from languages other than Pāli, but that, also doesn't explain the huge body of Pāli literature or address the importance of Ānanda in the preservation of the literature, suttas, teachings.

In the Western medieval period, anything "important" was written in Latin - although it probably was not really an actual spoken language other than in the Vatican. Even in the Renaissance period, Latin remained the language of all types of academics. Perhaps in the time of the Buddha, Pāli was similarly regarded?

I also don't understand why Ānanda isn't given more consideration for preservation of the texts in Pāli. Those long rains retreats would have been ideal times for making sure the suttas were preserved in the most precise language! And Ānanda seems to have been the most regarded for the ability to remember and therefore preserve - preserve and pass on. Even today, highly technical writing does not emerge fully complete out of nothing, it goes through a very long process of review, revision, consideration and re-evaluation before it is published - and even the published version may be subject to revision so that, eventually, it becomes the standard of preservation and clarity. Why wouldn't the rains retreats have been utilized to do exactly the same with the Buddha's words in the most universal and widely understood language of the time? Or, perhaps Pāli was the language decided upon by the early saṅgha.

If one remembers Fahrenheit 451 - individuals specialized in particular books. Why wouldn't the rains retreats have been similar with Ānanda being the principle source for the "authorized" version!

When I was young, French was an almost universal language, definitely the language of diplomacy. Now, English, one of the most difficult of languages, is becoming universal. I am grateful that the suttas have been preserved in Pāli. It is about as close to the Buddha as we can get, other than practising the teachings themselves.

With thanks

:anjali:

M

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by Bakmoon » Sun Mar 30, 2014 5:44 pm

Well, although the Buddhist texts are traditionally regarded as being written in the language of Magadha , the Buddha himself wasn't originally from Magadha. He was from the area around Kapilavatthu, which I think (that is to say, I'm just guessing) was far enough from Magadha to have its own distinct dialect, but close enough that it would have been understandable in Magadha without much difficulty, so I would guess that the Buddha spoke whatever dialect was spoken around Kapilavatthu (I think I heard somewhere that they spoke a form of Kosalan around Kapilavatthu but I could very well be wrong.)
The non-doing of any evil,
The performance of what's skillful,
The cleansing of one's own mind:
This is the Buddhas' teaching.

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by Kare » Sun Mar 30, 2014 6:16 pm

Bakmoon wrote:Well, although the Buddhist texts are traditionally regarded as being written in the language of Magadha , the Buddha himself wasn't originally from Magadha. He was from the area around Kapilavatthu, which I think (that is to say, I'm just guessing) was far enough from Magadha to have its own distinct dialect, but close enough that it would have been understandable in Magadha without much difficulty, so I would guess that the Buddha spoke whatever dialect was spoken around Kapilavatthu (I think I heard somewhere that they spoke a form of Kosalan around Kapilavatthu but I could very well be wrong.)
I think I have written something about this before, but never mind - here we go again.

The language of the Pali canon was called Magadhi by the commentators in Sri Lanka. According to the chronicles the canon reached Sri Lanka at the time of king Asoka. Therefore we have to ask: What was Magadha at the time of Asoka?

At the time of the Buddha Magadha was a minor, but aggressive kingdom in eastern North India. We may call this "original Magadha". The Buddha was not born in Magadha, so there is no reason to assume that he spoke the local dialect of that region. He was born further to the north east, in Kapilavatthu, which then belonged to the kingdom of Kosala. In the years after the death of the Buddha Magadha conquered its neighbors and expanded, so that at the time of Asoka the kingdom of Magadha comprised both Kosala and other areas, in fact most of northern and central India. We may call this "greater Magadha".

So where did the canon come from when it reached Sri Lanka? It came from Magadha, from "greater Magadha", and to the sinhalese "Magadha" may have had approximately the meaning of "India". To the sinhalese regional and local nuances of dialect probably mattered little. Their canon came from the mainland, from "Magadha", and it would be natural for them to say that the language of the canon was "something from Magadha", that is "Magadhi".

We can see many other examples in history of names being moved around on thee map and used for an expanded area after conquests. Rome was originally just a town. Then it became the name of an empire. You could be a Roman even without having set your foot in Rome. And even after the empire fell, Anatolia (Asia Minor) was called "Rum" by the turks, since that area once had belonged to the Roman empire. The famous poet Rumi, "the Roman" never had anything to do with Rome. He got his name not because he came from Rome (he was born in eastern Iran), but because he lived most of his life in Anatolia, in Rum.

After Asoka, after the Magadhan dynasties fell, the name Magadha again was "shrunk" into the area of "original Magadha", which developed its own dialectal peculiarities. So when this later Magadhan dialect, Prakrit Magadhi, became standardized as a Prakrit language, it caused endless rounds of confusion among scholars. Since they knew the late Prakrit Magadhi, and since the read that the commentators said the Pali canon was in Magadhi, some scholars thought that the canon originally was in some kind of Prakrit Magadhi and had been translated into Pali. This is one of the reasons behind some persistent rumors about the Pali canon being a translation.
Mettāya,
Kåre

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by Freelance ExBuddhist » Mon Apr 07, 2014 12:11 pm

I was paid (a very small sum) to consult Nicholas Ostler on this issue --and I'm thanked for it (briefly) in his book _Last Lingua Franca_.

This does not mean that I endorse the views about Pali stated in that book; however, this was very much one of the points of confusion that I tried (at length) to educate him about --and he did revise his manuscript to reflect what I had explained to him (to a limited extent). However, he did not want to let go of the notion that is written on the front cover of his book, i.e., that Pali was "a Lingua Franca", so he opens and closes with this bias.

I differ from the explanations offered by Kare in several important respects (but I do see that he is making a worthwhile contribution, that is probably educational to many people on this forum).

A few clarifications are necessary.

(1) Pali was always in the class of "artificial languages".

This means that Pali was always different from the natural language spoken within the household (and in the marketplace) by common people --AT LEAST to the same extent that Shakespeare's English was different from naturally spoken English in the households (and marketplaces) of England during Shakespeare's life.

That's a limited comparison, but a useful one: for much of the history of the English language, there has been a contrast between "theatrical English" and the commonly-spoken language (not today!) --and we still have a contrast between "legal English" (almost an artificial language) and the commonly-spoken language.

(2) The Pali language was defined by the creation of the Pali canon: it emerged out of a cultural context in which various Prakrits were used (as artifical, written languages) to various purposes. This was not unique in this era of India's history: we have a stunning parallel in the emergence of Jain Prakrit, as the Jain religion codified its earliest (extant) holy texts during exactly the same period of time.

Jain Prakrit and Pali (qua Buddhist Prakrit) are different languages, but they are similar enough to match exactly this description: they both emerged from a cultural context in which various Prakrits were used to various purposes, and the vast majority of words share etymologies (i.e., where spellings differ, they often have, nevertheless, a common underlying form).

(3) Kare is correct that Magadha is very nearly a red herring: many, many different languages were spoken there, and it is likely that the Buddha himself communicated in more than one language, if he did walk over the geographic span described in the canon, and did speak to many different ethnic groups, caste groups, etc., as described in the canon.

The recording of what the Buddha had said in Pali would have been an artificial process, in the same sense that writing a description in poetry is artificial --and in the same sense that we "translate" events into legalese. The various monks involved in that process would have been familiar with one Prakritic tradition or another, and the imposition of uniform spellings on the results resulted in a distinctive Prakrit for Buddhism --just as (simultaneously!) the same region was home to the emergence of a distinctive Prakrit for Jainism.

(4) The extent to which anyone involved with that earliest chapter of composing poetry and prose in Pali (and rendering informal speech in to the very artificial style of discourses in the canon) was influenced by Sanskrit (rather than Prakrit) would relate very strongly to the caste identity of the persons involved. Everyone now supposes that significant numbers of the first Buddhists converted from Brahmin Hinduism, and were familiar with Vedic written tradition, etc., and, likewise, there were converts from the Jain tradition, etc. --along with myriad other religious traditions that have no extant evidence (that they ever existed) aside from their echoes within the pages of the Pali canon.

So, yes, the composition of the Pali Canon has more Sanskrit influence than (e.g.) Munda influence (although you can find a few Munda etymologies in there!) --but we are basically talking about a tradition that emerged from the lively Prakritic language context of its day (something that is difficult for modern people to imagine).

(5) So... what language did the Buddha speak? Well, within the geographic area that he (reportedly) came from, the main evidence to consider would be his presumed ethnicity. Is anyone willing to really look at what the ancient texts say about his ethnicity? In my experience, the answer is no:
https://medium.com/study-of-history/a25589c26ebe

That article discusses several aspects of the Buddha's reported physical appearance, from baldness to blackness, and the cultural perception of him within ancient India. In terms of the Buddha's "mother tongue", you can look at his ethnicity, and the small town (and small tribe) he was supposed to come from, and draw up your own "best guess" based on the historical evidence.

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by bharadwaja » Mon Apr 14, 2014 11:49 pm

My theory is that Pali was not a language at all, it (or they) rather was/were the script(s) used to write down the earliest Buddhist canon.
I've explained this at length in the thread --- http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.ph ... 93#p284193

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by Freelance ExBuddhist » Tue Apr 15, 2014 6:13 am

I'm sorry, Arhat, but there is no evidence to support that theory.

There is no evidence that Pali ever meant a system of orthography, and, on the contrary, there's abundant evidence that any/every available system of orthography was applied to the language, i.e., with diversity (from the earliest times that we have evidence pertaining to).

In theory, some new archaeological dig could suddenly prove your theory right; but, given what is now known, there is no evidence to support that theory.

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by bharadwaja » Tue Apr 15, 2014 7:59 am

That depends on your own knowledge of that evidence, ExBuddhist, as opposed to trusting your sources of belief blindly. For most Buddhists all knowledge is belief, very few if any know anything significant on their own. In other words, belief is the rule, true knowledge is exceptional. Your agreeing with tradition and modern scholarship uncritically on the history of Pali sounds more like belief than knowledge.

I have seen the evidence for myself and I have clearly explained why I hold the theory I've put forth. You've not commented on the specifics so I presume you're just stating your received beliefs rather than offering your personal assessment of the evidence which I have discussed about in that thread. So maybe you have your own answers to the questions I have posed there, what are they?

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Re: What language did the Buddha speak?

Post by Freelance ExBuddhist » Wed Apr 16, 2014 10:45 am

arhat wrote:... You've not commented on the specifics so I presume you're just stating your received beliefs rather than offering your personal assessment of the evidence which I have discussed about in that thread.
No, that was my assessment of your claims stated in that thread. As others pointed out, also, you are engaging in speculation. There's nothing bad about that; there's nothing evil about it; however, when you speculate (by definition) you make claims that are not supported by evidence.

Thus, I have said, simply, "there is no evidence to support that theory".

The facts you discuss in that thread do support the understanding that (a) Pali was an artificial, written language (and not a mother-tongue, not a naturally spoken dialect, etc.), but (b) they do not support the understanding that Pali "was/were the script(s) used to write down the earliest Buddhist canon".

If that's your pet theory, fine; I do not say it is impossible, but it is a speculation that is not (now) supported by any evidence.

There is considerable evidence to support the notion that ancient Buddhists believed that Pali was (literally) the language spoken by the gods, and (more rarely) that it could be used to communicate with wild animals, etc. Evidence is a tricky thing in the history of religion, as it tends to indicate what people believed, and not what we should believe today.

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