The Original Language of the Buddha and His Teachings

Extracted from the book "Buddhist Sutras: Origin Development" by Kogen Mizuno.

"The original language of the sutras seems to have been Magadhi, which Shakyamuni used in preaching. Of all the Indic language versions of sutras used as Buddhist texts today, those written in Pali are the most numerous and are widely used in the Southern Buddhist countries Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. According to Southern Buddhist tradition, Pali is regarded as the language that Shakyamuni spoke, and therefore is called Magadhi or the fundamental language. However, recent studies show that although a little of the Magadhi influence is still evident in the Pali language, the basic characteristics of the two languages are different.

"The two important language families of India are Indic and Dravidian. All Buddhist sutras were originally compiled in Indic languages, which developed in various parts of India over a period of three or four thousand years. In present day India more than ten major languages- including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Bihari, Marathi, and Punjabi- belong to this family, and together they number several hundred dialects. Sanskrit and fourteen modern languages are now officially sanctioned by the Indian constitution, and in a large house it is possible for several of the recognized languages to be in use, since servants from different areas and family members would all speak in their own languages or dialects.

"This rich linguistic heritage was noted in earlier times, when, for example, in plays one could identify a character's occupation and social status through the prescribed language he or she spoke. Kings, ministers, and Brahmans spoke Sanskrit, the most highly esteemed and inflected language; queens, princesses, nuns and courtesans spoke a graceful language called Shauraseni; the general populace, such as merchants and artisans, spoke Magadhi; and the lower classes spoke Paishachi. Even lyrics had their own pleasant to the ear language, Maharashtri. 

"The five languages just mentioned originated in the dialects of different areas, but the languages in Shakyamuni's time belonged to a period earlier than that of these five languages. However, even in Shakyamuni's time, regional languages already differed, and each language had its own unique characteristics, as we can see from the edicts of Ashoka, issued about two centuries after the death of Shakyamuni. Ashoka had his edicts carved on large rocks and stone pillars, and one particular edict was written in a different language in each of the eight areas where it has been found. The languages of the edicts in India, which can be divided into four or five regional groups, correspond to the five languages used in drama of later periods. In time they became regional languages of the Apabhramsha family, and still later they developed into the modern Indic languages. 

"The language Shakyamuni spoke was the one in general use around the middle reaches of the Ganges, where he was active. Since the area was later called Magadha, its language was called Magadi (or Old Magadhi), and because many of Emperor Ashoka's edicts have been found in this area, we have an idea of what the Magadhi Shakyamuni spoke was like. 

"In the time of Shakyamuni, the Vedas, the holy scriptures of Brahmanism, were transmitted in Vedic Sanskrit, which was the forerunner of classical Sanskrit. Both Vedic Sanskrit and classical Sanskrit are elegant, highly inflected, complex languages. The Vedic scriptures were transmitted only to the educated upper classes, never to the lower classes. Shakyamuni, who wanted his teachings to reach all classes of society equally, thought that the lower classes would be the focus of his ministry and therefore preached his teaching in Magadhi, the everyday language of the common people, so that even the lower classes could understand him." 

An excerpt from "Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India" by Gregory Schopen

"We know, and have known for some time, that the Pali canon as we have it- and it is generally conceded to be our oldest source- cannot be taken back further than the last quarter of the first century BCE, the date of the Alu-vihara redaction, the earliest redaction that we can have some knowledge of, and that-for a critical history- it can serve, at the very most only as a source for the Buddhism of this period. But we also know that even this is problematic since as Malalasekera has pointed out '...how far the Tipitaka and its commentary reduced to writing at Alu-vihara resembled them as they have come down to us now, no one can say.' In fact, it is not until the time of the commentaries of Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala, and others- that is to say the fifth to sixth centuries C.E.- that we can know anything definite about the actual contents of this canon. 

"We also know that there is no evidence to indicate that a canon existed prior to the Alu-vihara redaction. Although Ashoka in his Dhabra Edict specifically enjoined both monks and laymen to recite certain texts, which he named, he nowhere in his records gives any indication that he knew of a canon, or the classification of texts into nikayas." 

I personally have great faith in the memory-power of the monks who memorized the Buddhist Sutras from the time of the Buddha and transmitted them verbally from generation to generation for about 400 years before they were actually written down. And in terms of dating the earliest recorded Sutras, it is my understanding that parts of the Sutta Nipata in Pali and parts of the Mahavastu in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (from the Shravastivadin tradition) are the oldest known recorded Sutras- both dating back to about 350 years after the Buddha. Again, I didn't mean to be too long-winded in this explanation, but I thought people might be interested in knowing a little more, if they didn't know already, about these questions of language and the Buddhist Sutras. 

A little footnote: according to our tradition and the historical records of Ancient China the earliest Sutra translated from the Indic languages into Chinese was the Sutra in 42 Sections in 69 C.E. 

Sincerely, in Dharma, Heng Shun


© 2008| Questions and Comments: contact sangjie-tieba@comcast.net