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What language was used by primitive Buddhism? This is problem yet unsolved among the learned circles. Based upon some new materials I wish to propose my personal views concerning this problem.

In the Cullavagga, V. 33.1, there is narrated the following story:

Now there were two Bhikkhus surnamed Yamelutekula, who were brothers born in a Brahman family. They had good voice and were expert in conversation. They came to the presence of the Blessed One, to whom they paid their homage and sat aside. After having taken their seat, the two Bhikkhus said to the Blessed One, “Bhante, now the Bhikkhus with different family names and personal names, of different social ranks and families, have come to join the Order. With their own vernaculars they have marred the Buddha’s words. Please permit us to express the Buddha’s words in Sanskrit.” The Buddha reproached them, saying, “You fools, how dare you say, ‘Please permit us to express the Buddha’s words in Sanskrit’. Fools, by doing so you could neither induce those who did not have faith in the Buddha to have faith him, nor could you enhance the faith of those who already had it in the Buddha. You could only help those did not believe in the Buddha and change the mind of those who already believed in him.” After having reprimanded them, he preached the Dhamma for them, and then said to the Bhikkhus, “Bhikkhus you are not allowed to express the Buddha’s words in Sanskrit. Those who act contrarily be considered as having committed the offence of Dukkata.”[i]

And finally the Buddha said: Anujānāmi bhikkhave sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṃ pariyāpunituṃ

A comparatively important problem of primitive Buddhism, the problem of language, is involved in this story. Buddhism during the period of its initiation may be considered, in many respects, as a sort of resistance or revolution against Brahmanism, the principal religion that occupied the position of predomination at the time. It was but natural that it should have opposed with determination the use of Sanskrit, the language of Brahmanism. In spite of the fact that during the 5th and 6th centuries B. C., the development of the Sanskrit language had reached its zenith, and if used, it would bring many advantages for the propagation of the Buddhist doctrines, but for the sake of carrying out his own ideas, the Buddha would not consider the use of that language and scolded the two Bhikkhus as “fools”. Problem because they were the descendants of a Brahman family, these two Bhikkhus still had some old conceptions in their brains. That was why they made the proposal to the Buddha for the adoption of Sanskrit and incurred his rebuke.

If Sanskrit was not used, then what language did they use? For the propagation of religion, the “policy of language” was a comparatively important problem, which must be settled. The Buddha’s last sentence in the above story was for the solution of his problem.

But the point is that this sentence itself is rather ambiguous, and when literarily translated it reads:

“I permit you, O Monks, to learn the word of the Buddha in his own language.”

   In the translation the meaning is comparatively clear, but the ambiguity lies in the original Pāli words sakāya nituttiyā (one’s own language), which might be interpreted either as “the Buddha’s own language” or as “the monk’s own language”. For many years in the past this has been the point of contention among Sanskrit scholars and Buddhist research workers.

T. W. Rhys Davids and H. Olderberg interpreted this term as “the monk’s own language”[ii], while W. Geiger was of the opinion that it meant “the Buddha’s own language”.[iii] Since they raised this dispute, many Sanskrit scholars and Buddhist research worker have joined in the discussion and a hot debate has been carried on. Generally speaking, they may be divided into three groups. One group of scholars agreed with Rhys Davids and Olderberg, another group accepted the opinion of Geiger, while the third one proposed a new interpretation of their own. Those who denied Geiger’s opinion included F. Weller,[iv] A. B. Keith[v] and M. Winternitz.[vi]

E. J. Thomas proposed a new interpretation of the term and rendered the word “nirutti” as “grammar”, thus translating the sentence as “I order you, Monks, to master the word of the Buddha(Buddhavacanam) in its own grammar”.[vii]

But this is hardly justifiable, because the word nirutti can by no means be interpreted as “grammar”.[viii]

P. C. Bagchi had another new theory. He said that it was not a question of using one’s own dialect for reciting the Buddhavacanam, but using one’s natural intonation for the recitation. His theory, however, dose not have sufficient ground, because nirutti cannot be interpreted as “intonation”.

It seems that W. Geiger was in a rather isolated position, but he had a powerful basis for his argument. He quoted the commentary of Buddhaghosa, the authoritative commentator of Pāli texts, as the basis of his theory. He said, “Here the words sakā nirutti refers to the dialect of Magadha spoken by the Samyak-sambuddha”.[ix]

Then how is that so? To explain these questions and to settle these disputes, we must make a study of the dialect spoken by the Buddha himself and the compilation of the Buddhist scriptures.

As we all know that Sākyamuni was born in the frontier regions of North India in the territory of present Nepal. But he spend most of his time travelling in the then kingdom of Magadha (approximately in the present province of Bihar) for the propagation of his doctrines. Thus the language he spoke might most probably be the dialect of Magadha. Conjectured from different respects, no written record of the Buddhist texts in whatever language existed during his lifetime.

According to Buddhist tradition, not long after the Buddha’s Nirvāna, his disciple Mahākaśyapa assembled five hundred Arahants at Rājagṛha to recite the Buddhist scriptures. That assemblage was known as the “Council of Five Hundred Arahants”, because five hundred persons took part in the meeting. One hundred years after the Buddha’s Nirvāna, the Buddhists again held another council at Vaiśālī, in which seven hundred persons were present, and so it was known as the “Council of Seven Hundred Persons”. According to earlier tradition, the chief purpose of this council was to wipe out the ten points of erroneous views concerning the Vinaya.[x] But according to later tradition it is said that this council lasted eight months, in which the participants recited and collated the Buddha’s teachings.[xi] This supposition is apparently a bit exaggerated. It is possible, however, that one hundred years after the Buddha’s demise, some of the Buddhist scriptures which were taught only orally, had been committed to writing at that time. Thus this tradition might have implied some historical facts.

According to the opinions of scholars in general, it was probably at the third Buddhist council that the possibility of compiling the Tipitaka on a large scale presented itself[xii]. That was the time when Aśoka, a great protector of Buddhism (whose ascension occurred in about 273 B. C.), was on the throne. The eminent monk Tissa Moggaliputta assembled the monks at Pātaliputra(present Pantna) to compile the Buddhist texts. We have mentioned above that the language spoken by the Buddha for the propagation of his doctrines might have been the dialect of Magadha. If that was the case, when the Buddhists compiled the Buddhist texts, after the demise of the Buddha, out of the fragmentary scriptures orally taught to them, the language they used must also be the dialect of Magadha. But it cannot be pure Magadhi, for it is unimaginable that the purity of the language could be retained after the duration of a long time when Buddhism had been spread to more and more regions. Therefore, the German scholar H. Lüders called this language used in primitive Buddhist texts as ancient semi-Magadhi. As Tissa Moggaliputra belonged to the school of Sthaviravāda (or Theravāda in Pāli), the scriptures compiled under his supervision also belonged to this school. He also despatched monks to various places to propagate the teachings of Buddhism. The one who was sent to Ceylon was Aśoka’s younger brother Mahinda (also said to be his son).[xiii] According to the tradition of the Buddhists of Ceylon, the extent Pāli Tipitaka was brought to Ceylon by Mahinda. And Pāli means the language of Magadha (Māgadhā nirutti or Māgadhikā bhāsā), or in other words, Pāli is the language spoken by the Buddha and the Pāli Tipitaka is the only orthodox Canon of the Buddhists.

Now let us go back to the point about the explanation of the two words sakā nirutti given by Buddhaghosa, and we may understand that it was his standpiont that made him to interpret them in such a way. As he was an authoritative commentator on Pāli texts and stood for them, he would surely try with utmost effort to procure an orthodox position for the Pāli texts. And here lies the reason why his interpretation is unreliable and subjective.

From linguistic characteristics we may also elucidate that the Pāli language of Magadha. There have been various pinions concerning the problem of the region in which the Pāli language was prevalent. Westergaard[xiv] and E. Kuhn[xv] considered that Pāli was the local dialect of Ujjayinī. From a research of this problem in the field of inscriptions, R. O. Franke came to the conclusion that Pāli was the dialect of the region in the central and western part of the Vindhya Ranges.[xvi] Sten Konow was also the opinion that the zone of Vindhva Ranges was the home of the Pāli language,[xvii] because he discovered many similarities between the Pāli and the Paiśāci languages, and he fixed the home of Paiśāci at Ujjayinī.[xviii] At first, H. Olednberg advocated that Pāli was the dialect of Kalinga,[xix] and E. Muller followed his opinion.[xx] But afterward H. Olednberg gave up his view and established a new theory, saying that Pāli was the predecessor of the Magadhi language.[xxi] Meanwhile E. Windisch[xxii] and W. Geiger[xxiii] returned to the lod theory, considering Pāli as the dialect of Magadha.[xxiv]

Although the above-mentioned views vary from one another, there is a comparatively concordant point; that is, most of the scholars advocated that the Pāli language was a Western dialect, and such was truly the fact. The declensions of the Pāli words are similar to those of the language used in the Girnār Inscriptions of the Aśokan Pillars, such as the locative case in -amhi and -e. the accusative case in -ne, etc. But on the other hand, the Magadha language was an eastern dialect, in which r had become as l, and s as ś, while the nominative case of words ending in -a ended in -e, …etc. There is vast difference between the two languages and they should by no means be confused with each other.

Based upon the above evidences. I feel we can safely come to the conclusion that sakā nirutti neither means the “Buddha’s own language” nor implies “grammar” or “intonation”, but it indicates the “monks’ own language”. The Buddha permitted the monks to learn his word with their own dialects and vernaculars.

If the above evidences are considered as insufficient, then some more new testimonies can be produced. The story from the Cullavagga as quoted above, has many variant versions in the Chinese translations of the Tipitaka. Some of them are enumerated as follows: 

    In the Vinaya-mātrkā-sūtra:

There were two Brahman Bhikkhus, named Usaha and Samadha, who went to the Buddha and said to him, “The disciples of the Buddha came from different cases of different places in different countries. Their language are not the same and their pronunciation is incorrect, and thus they distorted the right teachings of the Buddha. May the Blessed One allow us to carry out debates and compile the scriptures according to the Chandas way (referring to Sanskrit), so that the sentences may be arranged in order and the pronunciations corrected, in order to unveil the teachings of the Buddha.” The Buddha told the Bhikkhus, saying, “In my teachings emphasis is not laid on rhetoric. What I mean is that the doctrines should not be misunderstood. They should be taught in any language which is understood by the people, according to their suitability.” Therefore, his teachings were taught according to the circumstances of the land.”[xxv] 

    In the Dhramagupta-vinaya, Vol. LⅡ

There was a Bhikku named Bravery who was the descendant of a Brahman family. He came to the presence of the Buddha, and after having worshipped him, he sat aside and said to the Blessed One, “Venerable Sir, the Bhikkhus come from different castes and have different names. They misinterpreted the teachings of the Buddha. May the Blessed One permit us to rearrange the Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit” The Buddha said, “You are fools! That would be a defacement to mix the Buddhist scriptures with a heretical language.” He further said, “Recite the scriptures in the language of the country according to custom of the people.”[xxvi] 

    In the Mahisāsaka-vinaya, Vol. ⅩⅩⅥ:

There were two Brahman brothers who were versed in the Chandas-veda and later became monks in the Buddhist Order. They heard that the Bhikkhus were reciting the scriptures in an improper way, and said to them scornfully, “You venerable sirs have become monks for a long time, and yet you don’t know the masculine and feminine genders, the singular and plural numbers, the present, past and future tenses, the long and short vowels, and the heavy and light accents. In such a way you are reciting the scriptures!” The Bhikkhus were ashamed to hear this remark, and the brothers went to the Buddha and reported the case to him. The Buddha said, “They are allowed to recite the scriptures in their own native tongue, only that they should not misunderstand the Buddha’s meaning. No one is allowed to mix the Buddha’s word with a heretical language. One who acted contrarily would be considered as having committed the offence sthūlātaya.”[xxvii] 

    In the sarvāstivāda, Vol. ⅩⅩⅩⅧ:

Once the Buddha was in Śrāvastī. There were two Brahmans, one names Gopa and the other one Yapa, who had a devout faith in Buddhism and become Buddhist monks. They had formerly learned the heretical four Vedas, and after having become monks they recited the Buddhist scriptures with Vedic intonations. Then one of them died, and the one who was alive forgot some passage of the scriptures and could not recited them fluently. He could not find a companion and was unhappy in it. Thus he told it to the Buddha, who said to the monks, “From now onwards anyone who recites the Buddhist scriptures with a heretical intonation will be considered as having committed the offence of Dukkata.”[xxviii]

     In the Mūlasarvāstivāda-nikāya-vinaya-samyuktavastu, Vol Ⅵ:

Once the Buddha was in Śtrāvastī. At that time the Ven. Śāriptra ordained two Brahmans into the Order. One of them was called Ox-given and the other one Ox-born. Both of them studied the recitation of Buddhist scriptures. Afterwards they travelled about and came to a village, where they obtained many offerings and took up their lodgings there. Now these two persons had formerly learned the grammatical method of Brahmanic hymns. So when they recited the Buddhist scriptures, they habitually followed their old method. Then one of them suddenly died of illness. The one who was living was grieved by the death of his friend, and forgot most of the scriptures through negligence. Thus he returned to Śrāvastī and came to the Jetavana Grove. After having taken rest, he went to see the Ven. Kaundinya, to whom he paid his respect and said, “Venerable Sir, let us review the scriptures together.” “Very well, I shall recite them for you,” was the reply. After the elder had recited some passages of the scriptures, the monk said to him, “Venerable Sir, your recitation of the scriptures is mistaken. The vowels are not pronounced as long ones, and so there is something missing.” The elder said in reply, “I have always recited the scriptures in this way.” Thus the monks took his leave went to see Aśvajit, Bhadra, Mahānāma, Vāsas, Yaśas, Pūrṇa, Gavāmpati, Vimala, Subāhu and Rāhula, to each of whom he said, “Venerable Sir, let us review the scriptures together.” “Very well, I shall recite the scriptures for you,” was the reply. After the elder had recited some passages, etc., the monk took his leave and went to see the Ven. Śāriputra, to whom he paid his respect and said, “Upādhyāya, let us review the scriptures together.” While they were reciting the scriptures together the monk elongated vowels, and Śāriputra pronounced them with double length. The monk said, “Venerable teacher, all the other elders are mistaken in their recitation. Only you, Venerable teacher, are correct in pronunciation and grammar.” Śāriputra said to him. “You are a fool. You are mistaken yourself, and yet you slander those wise men, saying that they do not know how to recite the scriptures. None of the elders is mistaken in the recitation.” Having been rebuked, the monk remained silent. Then the monks reported this to the Buddha who thought in his mind. “All this trouble is caused by the elongation of vowels in the way of singing hymns when the monks recite the scriptures. Therefore the monks should not elongate the vowels in the way of singing hymns when they recite the scriptures. Any monk who recites the scriptures in the Chandas (Sanskrit) way shall be considered as committing a transgression. But one is not considered so, if the vowels are elongated according to his own dialect.”[xxix]

The above are quoted five different versions of the story. It is not unusual to find different versions of one passage, one version or one srory in the Buddhist scriptures. There are similarities and dissimilarities in the above quoted different versions of the story. The similarities indicate that they were derived from the same origin, and the dissimilarities denote that they have been developed along different lines. In spite of fact that some of them are in detail and some are brief, but the fundamental contents are the same. Comparing with the story contained in the Cullavagga, the fundamental contents are the same. Therefore, we may also say that these variant Chinese versions are derived from the same source as the Pāli version. It is necessary to make this point clear, because it is on this basis that we can ascertain the interpretation of the Pāli version of the story in accordance with the Chinese versions.

In these Chinese versions the same thought is expressed concerning the “policy of language”; namely, the use of Sanskrit was absolutely disallowed, while the use of dialects and vernaculars was quite permissible. With this point in view, meaning of the last sentence spoken by the Buddha as mentioned in the story in the Cullavagga is perfectly clear and has left no room for doubt. This sentence which has caused contention for many years without a decision should thus be rendered only as: 

    “I permit you, O monks, to use (your) own language to study the word of the Buddha.” 

This conclusion seems to be quite plain and simple, and yet it factually solved the problem of comparative importance in the history of Buddhism–the problem of language of primitive Buddhism. As we have mentioned above that Buddhism, during its first period of propagation, was a sort of resistance against Brahmanism. Therefore it attracted many followers among the oppressed masses. These people was of different social ranks, speaking different languages and coming from various castes of various places. If Sanskrit was adopted, or the language of Magadha was used as the medium of study, it would certainly cause many difficulties and would have as unfavourable influence upon the spread of Buddhism among the masses. Therefore, primitive Buddhism adopted a liberal policy of language, disallowing on the one hand, the used of Sanskrit which was the language of Brahmanism, and on the other hand, not sanctifying the Magadhi dialect spoken by the Buddha so as to raise it to the position of the only scriptural language. It permitted the monks to use their own dialects and vernaculars for the study and propagation of the Buddhist teachings. This had a great advantage for approaching the masses and going deep into them. According to my personal view, the fact that Buddhism during its first period of propagation had such a great force among the masses, and that it could spread so fast, was inseparable with its policy of language. On the other hand, at later times Buddhist scriptures had many variant versions in quite a number of variegated languages, unlike Brahmanism which could basically preserve the unity and purity of its canons, and this was also due to liberal policy of language adopted by primitive Buddhism.


 注  釋

[i] The Vinaya Pitakam, ed. by Hermann Olerberg, vol. Ⅱ, The Cullavagga, London, 1880, p. 139.

[ii] Vinaya Texts, Ⅲ, Sacred Books of the East, ⅩⅩ, p. 151.

[iii] Pāli-Literatur und Sprache. Strassburg, 1916, p. 5.

[iv] Zeitschrift fur Buddhismus, n. F. Ⅰ, 192, pp. 211 ff.

[v] Indian Historical Quarterly, Ⅰ, 1925, p. 501.

[vi] A history of Indian Literature, Ⅱ, p. 62.

[vii] The Life of Buddha, New York, 1927, pp. 253 ff.

[viii] Cf., M. Winteritz’s, A History of Indian Literature, Ⅱ, pp. 602 ff.

[ix] Samantapāsādikā, ed. Saya U Pye, Ⅳ,pp. 416-20.

[x] Cullavagga, ⅩⅩ, Sacred Books of the East, Vol.ⅩⅩ, pp. 409 ff.

[xi] dipavaṃsa, v.27 ff.: Mahāvaṃsa, Ⅳ.

[xii] E. J. Thomas, The Life of Buddha, pp. 170 ff.: Copleston, Buddhism, pp. 154, 171, 175.

[xiii] Barth, Religions of India, London, 1921, p.130: Copleston, Buddhism, pp. 176 ff.

[xiv] Über den ältesten Zeitraum der indischen Geschichte, p. 87.

[xv] Beiträge zur Pāli-Grammatik, pp.6 ff.

[xvi] Pāli und Sanskrit, pp. 131 ff.

[xvii] The Home of Paiśāci, ZDMG. 64, pp. 95 ff.

[xviii] Grierson, The Paiśāci Languages of North-Western Indian, Asiatic Society Monograghs, vol. Ⅷ. 1906, in which it is said that Paiśāci was the dialect of North-Western India.

[xix] The Vinaya Pitakam. Vol. London, 1879, pp. L. ff.

[xx] Simplified Grammar of the Pali Language, London, 1884, p. 111.

[xxi] Die Lehre des Upanishaden und die Anfänge des, Buddhismus, Göttingen, 1915, p. 283.

[xxii] Über den sprachlichen Charakter des Pāli, Actes du XIVe Congrés International des Orientaliste, prem. partie. Paris. 1906, pp. 252 ff.

[xxiii] Pāli-Literatur und Sprache, p. 5.

[xxiv] Concerning this problem there are numerous literatures. Cf. Chi Hsien-lin: “Die Verwendung des Aorists als Kriterium fur Alter und Ursprung buddhistischer Textes,” Collected Publications of the Academy of Sciences of Göttingen, the Section of Languages and History, 1949, p. 288, Anm. 2.

[xxv] The Revised Taisho Edition of the Tripitaka, vol. ⅩⅩⅣ, p. 822.

[xxvi] The Revised Taisho Edition of the Tripitaka, vol. ⅩⅩⅣ, p. 955.

[xxvii] The Revised Taisho Edition of the Tripitaka, vol. ⅩⅩⅡ, p. 174. Cf. the Mahisāśāka-vinaya, vol. Ⅵ (The Revised Taisho Edition of the Tripitaka, vol.ⅩⅩⅡ. p. 39): “The Bhikkhus came to become monks from different countries, and their intonation for the recitation of the scriptures was incorrect. Some laymen sneered at them and said, ‘How is it, monks, that you are under the direct instruction of the Buddha and yet do not know the masculine and feminine genders and the singular plural numbers in grammar?’ Upon hearing this the monks felt ashamed and told it to the Buddha, On account of this event the Buddha assembled the monks and asked them, ‘Was it really so?’ They replied , ‘It was really so, Sir.’ Then the Buddha reproached the laymen from a distance, saying, ‘You folls, why should you have sneered at these foreign monks, saying that their pronunciation and grammar are incorrect in the recitation of the scriptures?”

[xxviii] The Revised Taisho Edition of the Tripitaka, vol. ⅩⅩⅢ, p. 274.

[xxix] The Revised Taisho Edition of the Tripitaka, vol. ⅩⅩⅣ, p. 232.

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