The Big Buddhist Headache: Language and Sacred Texts

Recently, I made a lengthy rant on Twitter about my frustrations with learning Sanskrit in order to read Buddhist texts. The issue is a surprisingly complicated one, and something I wanted to explore here a bit more.

When you look at religions of the world, Buddhism is somewhat unusual in that it isn’t rooted in a single, sacred text. No Bible, No Quran, etc. Buddhism has many sacred texts, or sutras, all purportedly the words of the Buddha as passed down by his disciples, but nothing was actually written down until centuries later. This is not as bad as it sounds, as by the Buddha’s time, India already had a sophisticated tradition around memorizing sacred texts and teaching them disciples, such as in the Vedas (the forerunners to the Hindu religion). Writing sacred teachings down would put them on the same level as mundane receipts and political documents, and was thus considered profane.

Attitudes changed centuries later, but these sermons of the Buddha that had been carefully passed down were scattered in various collections, and different Buddhist schools had slightly different collections from one another. Worse, the languages used varied.

Which Language?

The Buddha, in his time, warned against using the priestly Sanskrit language to transmit his teachings, preferring instead local dialects, but even at that time, India had many, many dialects. Pāli was a very popular one, and remains so for some Buddhist traditions, but as Buddhism grew, keeping track of Buddhist sermons via local dialects probably became less and less practical.

Thus, in the end, Buddhist texts began to be recorded in Sanskrit. It wasn’t an overnight swap, however. Research into “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit” shows that the transformation was a gradual one: Buddhists would first write things down in a way that looked “Sanskrit-ey” (but not actually Sanskrit), then later generations would write something down that actually used Sanskrit, but still peppered with local colloquialisms. Eventually, later texts were composed in “true Sanskrit”, at least something that Pāṇini would hopefully approve of.

So, what we see is a kind of gradual spectrum from early texts being composed in local dialects (primarily Pāli) and then gradually transforming into Sanskrit.

The difference, by the way, between Pāli and Sanskrit isn’t as dramatic as it sounds by the way. Pāli, like many Prakrits, were local languages that derived from Sanskrit, and still had much in common. Compare a basic word like “king”. In Sanskrit, it is rājaḥ, and conjugates like so (not a complete chart):

Nominativerājaḥ (rājo)rājaurājāḥ
(e.g. “with” or
“by means of”)
(e.g. “to” or “for”)
Note: due to Sandhi rules, rājaḥ frequently becomes rājo to smooth things out.

…and so on. Sanskrit also has Genitive, Ablative, Locative and Vocative cases too.

Pali is a bit more streamlined by comparison being a more colloquial language by nature, so one word for king is rāja (i.e. without the visarga ḥ sound at the end):

Nominativerāja (rājo)rājā
(e.g. “with” or
“by means of”)
rājenarājebhi or rājehi
(e.g. “to” or “for”)
rājāya or rājassa1rājānaṃ
This form appears to be more commonly used according to this Pali textbook written by Ven. Nerada Thera

At first glance, Pali kind of reads like the kinder, gentler version of Sanskrit. The dual form is almost entirely non-existent,2 and the sounds are softer, and lacking the ḥ (called visarga) at the end. You can see they share similar grammatical structures, pronunciation, etc.

So, the first challenge with Buddhist text is this gradual transition from local dialects to literary Sanskrit, whcih took hundreds of years. If you picked a particular Buddhist text, it might be somewhere in the middle of this transition (is it Pali? Sanskrit? Sanskrit with Pali terms, or Pali with a Sanskrit “polish” to it?).

How Is It Written?

The second issue, though is the written script.

Some languages are closely tied with their script: Greek language is written in Greek (obviously), while Korean is written in Hangeul. Other writing systems are not: the Roman alphabet is used in many languages: English, French, Vietnamese, etc. In medieval times, Chinese characters were used by a wide variety of disparate languages: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Khitan, etc.

So, languages are not always tied to a particular writing system.

Sanskrit (and Pali) are one of those examples. Sanskrit has been written down using a wide variety of scripts across the ages, though mostly in a kind of continuum. Early writings were done using Brahmi script, and Brahmi itself evolved into newer and better writings systems over time leading to the most common example today: Devanagari.3 Many, many languages are written in some script derived from Brahmi.

But this includes Buddhist texts, too!

Inscriptions by Emperor Ashoka might be written in old Brahmi script:

An inscription from the Pillar of Ashoka at Sarnath, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

…while texts written in palm leaf might also be written in Sanskrit, but using a derivative script:

The Lotus Sutra written in Sanskrit in an early form of South Turkestan Brahmi script, courtesy of Wikipedia.

You can see that while both are Buddhist (or Buddhist-historical) subjects, they are not necessarily written in the same script. Further examples include later Siddham script, often used in mantras and other esoteric practices by some schools:

The Heart Sutra as written in Siddham script, courtesy of Wikipedia

Then there’s other one-off, but important scripts like Karoshthi and so on.

This is not that unusual by the way when dealing with widely-used languages from antiquity, by the way. Although Greek was always written in Greek letters, the style of writing could be vastly different depending on regional variations, such as those found on papyrus vs. modern textbooks. Latin wasn’t always written in big block letters, it had its own cursive form that was more frequently used, and is frankly obtuse to modern Westerners without some training first.

Why Does This Matter?

For the average day-to-day practice of Buddhism, not much. Buddhism has always been at heart a religion of practice, not dogma. The classic tripod of wisdom, conduct and practice (i.e. chanting, meditation, etc) has two “legs” which involve day to day action. Wisdom is important too but differs from dogma in that it’s not something you believe, but something you learn.

So, you could follow the Buddhist path perfectly fine if you focus on these things, and never bother with ancient languages, relying on respectable translations instead. Studying the sutras is a helpful practice in Buddhism, but there are already plenty of good translations.

However, especially if you get into a more professional position either as a teacher, scholar, monk, nun, or priest where knowing some command of Pali or Sanskrit is really helpful. It won’t necessarily make you a better Buddhist, but may help you be a better teacher to others.

Back in 2019, I tried my hand at learning Sanskrit, with the intention of reading Buddhist texts natively, partly for fun, partly for curiosity, partly because I was frustrated by shoddy, overly sectarian translations. What I found is that Sanskrit courses and texts overwhelmingly focus on Hindu content, and insist on teaching Devanagari script, which makes sense, but neither of which necessarily appropriate for the study of Buddhism.

Thus, my efforts to learn Sanskrit languished for a long time.

These days, I would like to try again, but I believe that to effectively learn Sanskrit for the purposes of studying Buddhist texts, the following caveats might be helpful:

  1. Learning Devanagari is not required. Buddhist texts are written in a wide variety of scripts and even when written in Devanagari, it’s not always Sanskrit. There are some excellent resources for Buddhists texts preserved in Sanskrit, but using the Roman alphabet. This may sound weird, but as you can see in this post, Sanskrit has never been tied to one writing system. One script is as good as another. Seriously.
  2. Much of Buddhism’s corpus of sutras and sacred texts aren’t even “pure” Sanskrit anyway. Just as one might learn ancient Greek starting with Homeric Greek before moving onto Koine, the study of Buddhist texts may benefit by starting with Pāli and then migrating to Sanskrit as needed. Even learning a bit of Pāli might be a nice way to get back in touch with early Buddhism and as close to the Buddha’s words as we might ever get.
  3. Alternatively, rather than trying to find a “one size fits all solution”, find a Buddhist text you are interested in, and determine how it was written, what language, etc, and start from there. Again, there are parallels to ancient Greek. The New Testament isn’t written the same way as Euripides, nor Hesiod. You have to accept that Buddhists are similarly written at different times by different people.
  4. One thing I haven’t mentioned so far was Classical Chinese. Much of the Buddhist canon, now lost in India, is preserved in Chinese and epitomized in the Taisho Tripitaka formalized in Japan in the 1920’s. If you want to study ancient Buddhist texts, studying them in Classical Chinese might just be as useful, if not more useful, in some cases.

Anyhow, this is one amateur’s look at the situation, something I’ve learned the hard way. Your mileage may vary, but if you wish to study ancient Buddhist texts, I hope this helps.

2 According to this textbook, only two words in Pāli have a dual form: dve or duve (two), and ubho (both).

3 Southern Indian languages also use scripts adapted from Brahmi, but through different evolutionary course, hence they look quite different than northern Indian languages.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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