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Pali-A Brief Overview - by S.N. Tandon
Vipassana Research Institute

The word Pali means: 1. A line; 2. a causeway; 3. a sacred text; 4. the texts recording the teachings of the Buddha; 5. a passage from such texts; 6. the language of these texts and its auxiliaries, and also of early Indian inscriptions.
In the case of the "texts recording the teachings of the Buddha", this word is generally derived from the root pal, which means "to preserve", implying thereby the texts which preserve the teachings of the Buddha.

The Pali Language

Pali is a Middle Indo-Aryan language of north Indian origin. It is also known as Magadhi, although it was spoken, or at least well understood, in almost the whole of Northern India in the Buddha's time.

One can get on nodding terms with Pali without much struggle. It is quite easy as compared to Sanskrit, since:
- the number of characters in the alphabet is less;
- its does not use the dual number in its declensions and conjugations;
- in declensions, the dative has almost lost its separate existence;
- the number of cases with separate terminations stands greatly reduced;
- two of the tenses (the periphrastic future and the benedictive) have fallen into disuse; and
- rolling compounds of monstrous length have given way to smaller ones of reasonable length.

Pali is a reverberating, sweet language. R.C. Childers1 has compared it to Italian. According to him, "Pali is at once flowing and sonorous: it is a characteristic of both languages that nearly every word ends in a vowel, and that all harsh conjunctions are softened down by assimilation, elision or crasis, while on the other hand both lend themselves easily to the expression of sublime and vigorous thought."

Pali Grammar No "Bug-bear"

Unlike Sanskrit grammar, Pali grammar is no "bug-bear". The standard work on Sanskrit grammar is that of Panini which has nearly 4,000 aphorisms. The standard work on Pali grammar is that of Kaccana which has merely 675 aphorisms!

It is not essential that one must possess knowledge of the Sanskrit language before one embarks on a study of the Pali language, although prior knowledge of Sanskrit is quite helpful in learning Pali. It has been estimated that nearly two-fifths of the Pali vocabulary consists of words identical in form with their Sanskrit equivalents2 and that the bulk of the remaining words are their simplified cognates3.

Pali Literature

Pali Literature is generally classified under three broad headings: 1. Tipitaka (containing the words of the Buddha4 and some of his distinguished disciples); 2. Atthakatha (commentary on the Tipitaka); and 3. Tika (sub-commentary on the Atthakatha). Besides these, there is some other literature comprising works on grammar, metrics, prosody, etymology, rhetoric, logic, astrology, polity, history, genealogy, medicine, pharmacology, etc.

Barring the Tipitaka and some of the Atthakatha, most of the remaining literature is not available in India but only in some of its neighbouring countries such as Burma, Ceylon, Thailand, etc. in their own scripts. An effort is being made by the Vipassana Research Institute to locate all such literature, most of which is of Indian origin5, and publish it initially in the Devanagari script.

The Tipitaka is arranged in three great divisions: 1. Vinaya Pitaka; 2. Sutta Pitaka; and 3. Abhidhamma Pitaka.6 The first one contains the rules of conduct for the monastic order; the second is a collection of discourses; the third is a compendium of profound teachings elucidating the functioning and inter-relationships of mind, mental factors, matter and the phenomenon transcending all these.

In the Suttanta discourses, the Buddha teaches in conventional terms (I, we, he, she, man, woman, cow, tree, etc.), looking to the intellectual level of the audience. In the Abhidhamma, the teaching is in terms of the ultimate reality, and everything is expressed in terms of khandhas, ayatanas, dhatus, indriyas, sacca and so on.

Priceless Legacy

The Buddha's words are his priceless legacy to the world at large. He expounded the Four Noble Truths: 1. There is suffering; 2. There is origin of suffering; 3. There is cessation of suffering; 4. There is a path leading to the cessation of suffering. This path, which the people had forgotten over the ages, was rediscovered by him as the Noble Eightfold Path, comprised of sila (morality), samadhi (concentration of mind) and panna (insight). These three taken together constitute the practice of Vipassana, which is an unfailing instrument for the total liberation of a human being from all suffering. When liberated, enlightened persons have been found to acclaim exultantly:

"Birth is finished; the higher, sublime life has been fulfilled; what had to be done has been done; there is nothing more left to do."

The Buddha's sermons have only one flavour: the flavour of liberation (vimutti). His manner of teaching Dhamma-the universal Laws of Nature-was unique. He made use of parables and similes drawn from ordinary life which anybody could understand, appreciate and imbibe. For instance:

- He expressed the difference between an impure mind and a pure mind by citing the example of a dirty cloth and a clean cloth. Only the clean cloth will absorb the dye; so also only the pure mind will retain the Dhamma.

- Just as the footprint of all animals can be contained within the footprint of an elephant, all wholesome dhammas are included in the Four Noble Truths.

- Sila is like the bark of a tree; samadhi like its wood; and panna like the inner pith.

- Following a wrong path is a wasteful effort like trying to get oil out of sand, squeezing the horns of a cow to get milk; churning water to make butter; or rubbing two pieces of wet green wood to light fire.

- One who has lost the status of a bhikkhu for transgression of any of the major Vinaya rules is like: 1. a person whose head has been cut off from his body-he cannot become alive even if the head is fixed on the body; 2. leaves which have fallen off the twigs of the tree-they will not become green again even if they are attached back to the leaf-stalks; 3. a flat rock which has been split-it cannot be made whole again; 4. a palm tree which has been cut off from its stem-it will never, never grow again.

The Commentarial Literature

This literature is a big aid in the interpretation of the Tipitaka and is very useful for studying ancient Indian polity, history, geography, and social and economic life. It also deals extensively with usage in grammar and derivation of words. A large number of edifying tales lend special charm to this literature.

The most important Pali commentators are Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala, Upasena and Mahanama. Out of these, Buddhaghosa is by far the most celebrated one. He is credited with writing a large number of commentaries in a very lucid style and also producing a number of other works of exceptional merit. His maiden production was the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification) which is a concise but complete encyclopaedia of Buddha's teaching. About this work, James Gray opined: "If he had written nothing else, it alone would have secured him undying fame." 7

This literature is also full of inspirational material. A reference has been made, for example, to three monks who decide to sit in a closed campus for three months for intensive meditation. Observing Noble Silence, they work very hard. After three months they end their silence and exchange greetings. Then they enquire how far each one allowed the mind to wander. Their individual replies were: "Not beyond our campus"; "Not beyond my residential hut"; "Not beyond the frame of my body". The last one drew applause from the other two.

What Light from Outside?

In short, Pali is a repository of supreme knowledge because it is concerned mostly with the words of an Enlightened Person or detailed explanation of his teachings in the form of commentaries and subcommentaries and kindred literature. The content is so inspiring that even a Western scholar Neumann had to admit:
"He who knows Pali needs no light from outside."


1. The author of "Dictionary of the Pali language."

2. E.g., anga, kamala, citta, nadi, megha, yuddha, etc.

3. E.g., gaha (for grha), thana (for sthana), digha (for dirgha), nigrodha (for nyagrodha), savaka (for shravaka), rassa (for hrasva), and so on.

4. The earlier division of the Buddha's words was nine-fold: i.e., sutta (discourses), geyya (mixed prose), veyyakarana (exegesis), gatha (verses), udana (solemn utterances), itivuttaka (sayings of the Buddha), jataka (birth stories), abbhutadhamma (extraordinary things), and vedalla (analysis).

5. In a text known as Gandhavamsa, which is a modern catalogue of Pali books and authors, written in Pali in Burmese script, there is given a list of authors who wrote Pali books in India. These books are extant in Burma where the Catalogue was drawn up.

6. The main titles of books under these divisions are:
(1) Vinaya Pitaka: Parajika-khandha, Pacittiya, Mahavagga, Cula-vagga, Parivara.
(2) Sutta Pitaka: Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya, Khuddaka Nikaya (comprising Khuddaka-patha, Dhammapada, Udana, Itivuttaka, Sutta-nipata, Vimana-vatthu, Petavatthu, Theragatha, Therigatha, Apadana, Buddhavamsa, Cariya-pitaka, Jataka, Maha-niddesa, Cula-niddesa, Patisambhida-magga).
(3) Abhidhamma Pitaka: Dhamma-sangani, Vibhanga, Dhatukatha, Puggala-pannatti, Kathavatthu, Yamaka, Patthana.
Three other works-Nettipakarana, Petakopadesa and Milinda-panha-are also treated as part of Tipitaka, on account of their importance.

7. Besides Visuddhimagga, there are several other works which are of a monumental nature. These are: Abhidhammattha-sangaha, Nama-rupa-pariccheda, Mahavamsa, Sasanavamsa and Gandhavamsa. The first one among these contains the quintessence of the Abhidhamma. ¦



Vipassana Research Institute
Vipassana Research Institute