Is Pali Language, a product of Mahavihara?

69th death anniversary of Cumaratunga Munidasa


by K. A. I. Kalyanaratne

Manager, Training and Publications

Postgraduate Institute of Management and

Member, Central Committee, Hela Havula

Knowing that there is nothing exceeding knowledge anywhere, strive to acquire it, according to your individual ability

It is with much relish that the writer wishes to quote the above verse taken from Kumara Gee in penning this short essay on the 69th death anniversary of Cumaratunga Munidasa.

Many a generation would have read this small poem and got inspired by its wisdom. Such has been the efficacy of this personality. If a small verse could perform such wonders, what would have been the impact he created by his incomparable and exhaustive industry. This, for certain, is a field serious researchers should explore. "It is no secret that the exhaustive industry Cumaratunga Munidasa was involved in, and more specifically his eminently popular set of children’s readers like Kumara Gee, Nelavilla, and Dorata Weduma and readers produced for those in higher grades, including Kiyavana Nuvana, Shiksha Margaya and Prabandha Sangrahaya, in fact, readers that have been continuously adopted for several decades, have been recognised by educationalists, and more importantly by teachers, as the most fondly read and cherished by the children. Even those who received their education in English, would even later reminisce the special phrases and idioms that they came across in these readers. In fact, they were like veritable palimpsests, popping up occasionally at appropriate moments. The writings of Cumaratunga had the prowess to cling to the hearts and minds of his readership. The force with which they were written wouldn’t get them erased so easily from our minds. His writings had such a magnetic pull.

Cumaratunga’s probing mind and urge for creativity and innovation

This opening stanza of the ‘Virith Vekiya’ (a poetic discourse that explicitly explains the processes and principles of Sinhala versification) succinctly spells out a basic virtue Cumaratunga Munidasa had steadfastly upheld throughout his exemplary career. His dictum is that one should not be swayed / carried away by the strength or stature of the preacher, unless the utterance is convincing and buttressed by fact and reason.

Cumaratunga Munidasa who strongly believed in originality and creativity, criticised Venerable Sri Rahula, a scholar of high repute, for his ‘heavy dependence on Sanskrit works for poetic thought. ’Cumaratunga being no mean scholar, was able to defend his stance purely on facts, although Ven. Sri Rahula was considered a ‘national idol’ by the literati. The end-product of this controversy was the famous ‘Kukavi Vadaya’, ‘which proved to be the springboard for Cumaratunga to embark on a dynamic career as the originator of a powerful cultural movement. (It, in fact,)contributed to the promotion of a questioning spirit’. (Prof. K.N.O.Dharmadasa).

Charged with a perpetual urge for creativity and innovation, and backed by an insatiable desire to search into unresolved issues in Sinhala and the island’s history he searched for areas that demanded his probing mind. One such gray area that had been shrouded in obscurity is the origin of the Pali language.

Belief by early scholars that Pali was an

ancient middle Indian language

Many a scholar did not tread beyond the accepted thinking and to raise doubts about the origin of pali. Pali, in fact, was considered as an ancient middle Indian language, and the thinking that was entertained was that Pali was either the Buddha’s own mother tongue or at least a language closely related to the Blessed One’s own language. For over 2500 years Buddhist tradition handed down a vast amount of scriptures all written in Pali, which contains the accumulated wisdom of the Buddhist teaching.

Consideration that Pali was a refined form

of Magadhi Bhasa

The logic that was upheld was that as the Buddha was born in the Magadha desa, and as Pali had been referred to as Magadhi bhasa, the Buddha’s vernacular was Magadha or the Pali language. Some others upheld the view that Pali was a derivation of Magadhi, and therefore, it was the refined version of the more archaic Magadhi dialect.

Based on this line of thinking, and the Pali Canon (Pali: Tripitaka) being the standard collection of scriptures in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, as preserved in the P?li language, and as early Buddhist canon was composed in North India, and preserved orally until it was committed to writing during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE, approximately four hundred and fifty four years after the passing away of the Buddha, many a scholar was of the firm conviction that Pali had its origin in north India.

Through observation and deduction Cumaratunga raised a fundamental argument as to why Emperor Asoka, a monarch who was so close to the teachings of the Buddha, was not familiar with the Pali language, if Pali was considered in high esteem as the vehicle of Buddhism. A further point raised by him is that there has been no evidence what so ever to date to establish that there was a single treatise or inscription/edict in India written in Pali. Similarly, there isn’t any evidence to prove that even in any latter periods there was a single classical work that had been produced in the Pali language.

Findings of Dr. E.W.Adikaram on Buddhaghosha

and the Pali Language

Dr. E.W.Adikaram, in his ‘Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon’ writing a comprehensive account of the works and times of Buddhaghosha, says that there is no clear evidence to show how long he stayed in the Island or how long he took to complete his assignment, yet, whatever that period of time was the volume of translation (of Commentaries) he did and the other Buddha literature he had produced during his stay here, are by any count, considerable.

Commenting on his works per se Dr.Adikaram says that "Of his work there can be no doubt that it’s only equalled to his extraordinary industry. But of originality and independent thought there is at present no evidence." It is interesting to note that he did not make reference or even surmise as to how Buddhaghosha, a migrant from India, mastered the Pali language to produce such an array of books on the Dhamma. If there was even an iota of reference on Buddhaghosha’s mastery of Pali, with his probing mind, Dr. Adikaram would have been the last person to ignore such indication.

Further expositions on the works and times of Buddhaghosha

Another scholar who researched on the works and times of Buddhaghosha was Ven. Polwatte Buddhadattta. In his article contributed to the "The Ceylon Historical Journal" (Vol. II. Nos. 3-4. P.24) he surmises the background that led to Buddhaghosha’s visit to the island. But he was quite emphatic on the monk’s presence at the Mahavihara, the great Theravada Buddhist centre, and his undertaking of the exhaustive assignment that demanded a profound knowledge of the Dhamma. In this exposition too, Ven. Buddhadatta was silent on the acquisition of the Pali language by the learned monk. These researches only led to the indications that Buddhaghosha undertook to render into Pali the texts that were in the Sinhala language (hela atuwa), and that Pali was considered as the ‘scriptural language of the Theravada, and as a lingua franca in the exchange of ideas, texts, and scholars between Sri Lanka and the Theravada countries.’ However, the fact remains that Buddhaghosha’s works resulted in the sustainability of the Pali language in the island.

Ven. Walpola Rahula and L.S.Perera were few others who delved into the early history of Buddhism and the works of Buddhaghosha, but they had been careful not to get involved in a debate on the Pali language itself.

It was in this dubious backdrop Cumaratunga Munidasa attempted to initiate a debate so as to shed some light on this gray patch in the origin and development of this specific language, which transmitted the Buddhist doctrine in its unsullied form. A few noteworthy points to remember in this context is that Pali right throughout did not possess a special / specific script. It is accepted that the word ‘Pali’ means ‘text’ or ‘canonical text’. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, refers to Pali as a literary language of the Prakrit language family, it says that Pali was first written down in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE. Further, Ven. P. Buddhadatta, in an article written to "The Ceylon Historical Journal" (Vol. II. Nos. 3-4. P.24) is inclined to believe that it was at the collective request of all the monks at Mahavihara, the great ancient Theravada Buddhist centre, decided to reside in that monastery and undertake the unparalleled feats of mastering the Pali language, studying the Dhamma, and taking up the challenge to render into that language the entire Tripitaka, which was in Sinhala (then known as ‘Hela Atuwa referred to in Pali as Seehalattakatha).

On the origin of the Pali language, Cumaratunga Munidasa argued that:

1. It is hard to believe that emperor Asoka, an ardent admirer and follower of the doctrine of the Buddha, did not know Pali, if that was the language used by the Buddha in his great mission.

2. There isn’t any evidence of literary or classical works of Indian origin using the Pali language.

3. Moreover, there isn’t any evidence of even a classical work written in Pali, even during any latter period. All such works that are existent to date are found to be written in the languages of the respective authors.

4. Although there were three convocations held in India after the passing away of the Buddha, none of these been conducted in the Pali language. It is strange to think of this situation if Pali was a language of Indian origin.

5. It is also difficult to consider that the monks who composed Hela Atuwa preferred Sinhala more than Pali, because Sinhala was held in higher esteem than Pali.

Having deliberated on all these points/pointers Cumaratunga Munidasa concludes that,

"If Pali did not originate in India, and if there is no record or evidence to say that it originated elsewhere, and if Arhant Mahinda, who brought Buddhism to this country, did not know Pali, and even if it was confined to the temple for such activities like the writing of scripture books and the conduct of (Vinaya Karma) disciplinary activities, and if it was Sri Lanka that provided the scriptures in Pali to such countries like Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand), why isn’t it proper to say that it (Pali) was a creation of this country (or originated in Sri Lanka)?"

There are a considerable number of seats of higher learning including universities and more importantly the Pali and Buddhist University, the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, as well as the Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, which have developed research as a special discipline. Let them be the centres that would take the challenge from here onwards to unravel the knotty issues that have thus far shrouded the origin of the Pali language. The learned world would be indebted to Sri Lanka if such studies/researches are undertaken aimed at a more conclusive outcome on this issue.

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