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Pali & Prakrit Language


The linguistic history of India spans from the Indus civilization. According the history of Indo-Aryan language, there are three stages of the development of these languages:

Old Indo-Aryan language (1500 BC 600BC) belonging to Vedic Sanskrit, Middle Indo-Aryan language (600 BC 1000AD) containing Sanskrit (formal - only of Brahmins) and Prakrit ( Pali, Ardhamagadhi, Magadhi, Saurseni, Maharashtri, Paisachi, Apabhramsa for common masses) Modern Indo-Aryan language (1000AD till date) containing languages like Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujrati, etc. Among the above three stages, the Middle Aryan language is important as far as Pali literature is concerned. Unlike other religious leaders, Mahavira and Buddha preached in common man’s dialect to propagate their doctrines. On the contrary, all Brahmanic teachings were in Vedic Sanskrit language. According to Wilhelm Geiger, Pali was developed in 4 stages:

Verse portions of Sutta Pitaka Prose portions of the Pali Canon Pali Commentary & Sub-commentary Pali poetical composition

Pali & Prakrit Language

Other scholars like Rhys David (in Buddhist India) as well as B.C.Law (in History of Pali Literature-I) classified the development of Pali in 10 stages.


From the earliest times to the first century A.D., inscriptions were composed exclusively in Prakrit. Ashoka left behind 30 inscriptions in Prakrit. Even in literature Prakrit came to be used particularly in plays. Prakrit itself consists of different dialects. There were several other Prakrits of lesser importance. By the time of the Guptas, the Prakrits were standardized and had lost their local character. The vernaculars had already developed beyond them. What Panini did for Sanskrit, others did for the Prakrits and these languages began to resemble more. The languages actually were based on the conventions of dramatic theory and they never represented popular life nor did they reflect in any way the linguistic conditions of society. Some plays are composed exclusively in Prakrit and they are technically called Sttakas. The Karpuramanjari (about 900 A.D.) in which Rajasekhara depicting love between man and woman is the most important work of this type.

Continuing the secular aspect of Prakrit, a number of stanzas were written both on love and maxims. The most remarkable amongst such texts is the Gatha Saptasati of Hala one of the Satavahana rulers. This book consists of 700 stanzas about love

Pali & Prakrit Language

depicting the varied phases of South Indian rural life. The king probably ruled in the 1 st century A.D. The poems are notable for their conciseness and for their great economy of words and masterly use of suggestions. Some poems contain simple and natural descriptions and references to the lives of peasants and the lower class. More important is the fact that narrative literature and epic poems are fairly extensive in Prakrit. The most noteworthy among them are the Brihatkatha of Gunadhya composed in Paisachi dialect and Setubandha of Pravarasena.

Apart from secular literature, Prakrit was also used for religious literature like the Jaina canonical works. It was during the 5th century A.D. that most of the Jaina canons were written down. In Prakrit literature the Jaina writings have very little literary- the poetry of the Jainas is better than prose. Its poetry is written in lively vernacular style.

Furthermore it is to be stated here that scholars treated Apabhramas as a kind of Prakrit. It boasts of extensive literature particularly narrative stories. The first writer to make use of it was Ashvaghosa. The others who followed the example were Bhasa (3rd century A.D.) and later Vishakhadatta and Kalidasa.

In the Apabhramsa, the meter doha was adopted as powerful form of expression of religious and philosophical thoughts. Both Jaina monks and contemporary writers of Tantrik Buddhism utilized this meter. Incidentally, stray poems dealing with morals, maxims, ethics, religious discourses and legions’ were commonly

Pali & Prakrit Language

written in Apabhramsa. Among the Jains, the texts on the life and activities of Jaina heroes were written in Apabhramsa. It may be noted here that Apabhramsa, Sanskrit and Prakrit had a great influence both on Gujarati and Hindi as late as the 16th century.

Furthermore, Prakrit is of linguistic importance since it is illustrative of the linguistic evolution from Prakrit to Apabhramsa and finally to a new regional language. Apabhramsa meaning falling downwas a corrupt form of Prakrit dialect. It is believed to have originated in the north-west and traveled from that region along with the migrant people who scattered and settled in central and western India after the Hun invasions. The Prakrit as used by Jains was greatly influenced by Apabhramsa. It is here that the link between the older and the new languages of Maharashtri and Gujarati is evident.

Scholars agree that Prakrit language is older than the Vedic language and the latter was a refinement of the former.


Pali evolved as a common man’s language nearly 3000 years ago. It was also known as Magadhi since it was used in the Magadha kingdom. During those times Sanskrit was reserved only for the selected few, whereas Pali, a commoner’s language was ever-flowing and flexible in adoption. The earliest known literature

Pali & Prakrit Language

depicting India’s cultural, political, religious and social history is written in Pali. Both Buddha and Mahavira spoke in common man’s language to propagate their philosophies. Actually the term Palibhasa or Pali was not known until 6 th or 7 th century A.D. Pali was known early as Magadhi. As per Winternitz, Pali is a language of literature which has been exclusively employed by the Buddhists and has sprung like every literary language with a mixture of various dialects. ORIGIN OF PALI:

Some of the notable scholars have given account of how Pali originated W. Geiger says that “if we accept Pali as the form of Magadhi which was used by Buddha, then the Pali canon would have to be regarded as the most authentic form of Buddhavachana” (Pali Language & Literature, W. Geiger). Rev. R. Siddhartha says, Pali is one of the oldest Indian languages of which we have records at the present day. Its real name, that is the name by which it was known to those who used it was Magadhi” (Buddhist Studies,Chap.XXIV, pg 641-56).

R.C. Childers mentions that “viewed as a body of sacred literature, the

Buddhist canon is called Pali” (Dictionary of Pali Language, R.C.Childers) James Alwis states “at the time of rise of Buddhism, Sanskrit was not regarded as the vernacular speech of people. Pali which was the language of

Pali & Prakrit Language

Magadha was used at that time” (The Buddhist Scriptures and their Language, James Alwis)

Dr. Oldenberg feels that Pali was the language of Kalinga. According to him, the character of Pali language was exactly like the character of the inscription of Khandagiri of Kharvela.

M. Winternitz agrees that Pali can be mentioned as a language of literature which issued by the Buddhists and like the rise of every literary language, it has taken its shape from an admixture of several dialects. Literary Pali was used as a spoken language and it became a medium of literary instruction in the University of Taxilla (History of Pali Language, B.C.Law) Pali literature falls into two main divisions the canonical texts consisting of three pitakas and non-canonical texts including commentaries, sub-commentaries and chronicles. The Pali literature has nine angas(limbs)

  • 1. Sutta (teachings of the Buddha in prose)

  • 2. Geyya (sermons mixed in prose and metrical forms)

  • 3. Veyyakarana (expositions)

  • 4. Gatha (stanzas)

  • 5. Udana (ecstatic utterances)

  • 6. Itivuttakar (brief sayings)

Pali & Prakrit Language

  • 7. Jatakas (stories of former births of the Buddha)

  • 8. Abbhuta dhamma (description of supernatural powers)

  • 9. Vedulla (question an answers)

The entire Pali literature can be grouped based on periodicity as follows:

Tripitaka -Buddha vachana (from Buddha’s Mahaparinibbana till 1 st Century A.D.) Anupali anupitaka, atthakatha and independent sources (1 st A.D. till date) The Anupitak literature can be further grouped based on periodicity:

1 st A.D. to 4 th A.D. - Pre-Buddhagosha’s period having literary works like Nettipakaran, Petakopdes, Suttasanghaho, Milindpanho, Mahavamsa and Dipvamsa.

5 th A.D. to 12 th A.D. - Buddhagosha’s period containing works like Vissudhimagga and its atthakathas, Buddhadatta & Dharmapala’s atthakathas, Kacchayana’s grammar, Abhidhammathosangho and

atthakathas of Tripitaka. 12 th A.D. till date commentaries, sub-commentaries and analysis of atthakathas written in the earlier period, are the mark of this period.

Pali & Prakrit Language


The study of Pali is essential for reconstruction of the history of ancient India. Pali

literature is vast and rich in materials and the Pali commentaries furnish us with a great store-house of invaluable information regarding literary, linguistic, social, economic, political, architectural and religious history of ancient India. The psycho-ethical analysis of dhamma, classification of various types of consciousness, mental processes form a highly special contribution in Pali to Indian wisdom.

Pali & Prakrit Language IMPORTANCE OF THE STUDY OF PALI: The study of Pali is essential



Pali Language & Literature, K.L.Hazra, vol. 1

The History of Pali Language, B.C.Law

The Pali Language Dr.N.K.G.Mendis, Nova Scotia, Canada

Prakrit and other Issues Dr.Usvatte Aratchi, The Island , 25 th Sept. 2011