Dr. R.  Banerjee (Chinese and Central Asian Scholar) Dr. R.  Banerjee


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R. Banerjee


LITERATURE (PALI). The word 'Pali' primarily signifies 'Text' or 'sacred texts' or the text of the Buddhist canon' as opposed to the connentaries, but gradually it bacame the name of the language in which the canon (Tripitika) of the Theravada Buddhism and the ancillary texts were written. The Theravada tradition, however, mentions the language as Magadhi and claims that it was the actual speech of the Buddha. The major part of the literature written in Pali is religious and philosophical. The most important of which is Tipitika (Tepitika. Skt. Tripitika) of the Theravada Buddhism. The Tipitika contains the teachings of the Buddha (Buddhavachana) though the tradition of Sri Lanka and Burma insists that Pali Tipitika is the original Buddhavachana. There are reasons to believe that different rescensions of the Tipitika. belonging to other schools and written in mixed Sanskrit or different forms of Parkrit co-existed with the Pali Tipitika.

The history of the development of the Pali canon is yet to be throughly investigated. It is supported by all Buddhist traditions that the Tipitika was compiled in different Coulcils. The Theravada canon was compiled in different Councils. The Theravada canon was finally settled and written down in a Councils. The Theravada canon was finally settled and written down in a Council convened by King Vattagamani Abhaya (Ist cent. B. C.). This Council is known as the Fourth Council. Till this time the Pali Tipitika was handed down in oral tradition. The First Council was held immediately after the death (mahaparinirvana) of the Buddha, in the Saptaparni cave near Rajgriha under the chairmanship of Mahakassapathera. Five hundred direct disciples including Upali and Ananda participated in that Council and they recited the teachings of the Buddha as they remembered them. It is believed that 'Dhamma' (i.e., 'sutta', discourses and) and Vinaya (i.e., monastic rules) were codified through this recitation. This compilation may be called the beginning of the Tipitika not only of the Theravada school but of all other schools, since schism in the Buddhist church is a much later phenomenon. The tradition also narrates that one hundred years (or one hundred and ten years according to Hiuen Tsang) after the death of the Buddha another Council (the second) was convened at Valukarama in Vaishali, where seven hundred learned Bhikshus participated. Most probably this Convention was necessitated for reconciling certain minor differences in the interpretation of the monastic rules. This Council also made no endeavour to write down the teachings. During the time of Emperor Ashoka (3rd cent. B. C.). The Buddhist church witnessed severe schism and it was divided into several sects. The emperor, an ardent leader of the Theravada school, convened another Council (the third) to finally settle the Tipitika according to the school he himself adhered to. When his son, Mahindathera, and daughter, Sanghamitta, led a mission to Sri Lanka, they carried with them the oral Tipitika to that country. It is now impossible to ascertain what exactly the language of that oral tradition was.  It must have been some form of Prakrit spoken in the central and eastern India or an amalgam of various dialects. It is, however, certain that the Pali Tipitika grew out of this oral tradition to be modified during the next two centuries in which form it was finally written down in the literary Pali language in the Fourth Council.

The work Tipitika means 'a threefold basket' consisting of the Vinayapitaka, the Suttapitaka and the Abhidhammapitaka. They contain Buddhavachana or the teachings of the Buddha.

Pali literature falls into two main divisions, namely the cannocial literature consisting of three pitakas as mentioned above and the non-canonical or extra canonical texts consisting mainly of the commentaries, sub-commentaries and chronicles besides some classical works including the Milinda-panha

Pali canonical literature has nine angas or 'limbs' viz.,

  1. Sutta (the teachings of the Buddha mostly compiled in prose);
  2. Geyya (Sermons in mixed prose and metrical forms);
  3. Veyyakarana (expositions);
  4. Gatha (stanzas);
  5. Udana (ecstatic utterances);
  6. Itivuttaker (brief sayings);
  7. Jatakas (stories of the former births of the Buddha)
  8. Abbhuta dhamma (description of suppernatural power) and
  9. Vedalla (solution of problems in questions and answers).

The pitakas are described briefly below.

Vinayapitaka: The Vinayapitaka can be described as an account of the Buddhist chruch. Vinaya literally means guidance and contains the rules of monastic discipline, the rules for admission to the Sangha, the periodical confession of sins as well as those pertaining to housing and use of medicines. These rules are supposed to have been laid down by the Buddha himself as occasions necessited their promultation.

There are five books of the Binayapitaka which are arranged into three parts according to subject -matter. They are:

  1. Sutta-vibhanga subdivided into Parajika and Pachittiya; 
  2. Khandhaka-mahavagga and Chuilavagga; and
  3. Parivara.

The vibhanga contains an elaborate explanation of all the rules laid down by the Buddha for the monks and nuns. These rules are included in the code book called Patimokkha, which is a nucleus of the Vinayapitaka. The Patimokkha is divided into eight sections, viz., 

  • Parajika
  • Sanghadises,
  • Aniyata,
  • Nissaggiya, 
  • pachittiya, 
  • Patidesaniya
  • Sekhia and
  • Adhikarana dhamma

These rules provide remedies in the event of any transgression by the monks and nuns. The Patimokkha is recited twice a month on full and new moon days known as the uposatha days. Before the recitation, the monks make confession of their guilts.

The second part of the Vinayapitaka is Khandhakas or treatises, consisting of two books, Mahavagga and Cullavagga. They (i.e., the khandhakas) deal with all matters relating to the order or Sangha.

Mahavagga consists of the first ten khandakas and gives a splendid account of how the Buddha attained supreme Enlightenment and preached his doctrines for the welfare and happiness of the people.

Further, it contains special precepts for admission of the monks and nuns into the order as well as for the uposatha celebration and life during the rainy season, and food, clothing, seats, conveyances, dress and certain medicines (for certain specified diseases) to be used by the monks. Finally, it mentions the legal procedure to be adopted by the order especially in case of schisms.

Chullavagga, which is a continuation of Mahavagga deals with the disciplinary code and conduct with regard to minor matters. It consists of twelve khandhas. The first nine chapters deal which disciplinary proceedings and settlement of disputes among the fraternity and other things such as the daily life of the monks, their residence, furniture and the duties towards one another. Chapter X describes the duties of the nuns, while the  chapters XI and XII are a kind of appendix to the Chullavagga furnishing an account of Rajagaha and the Councils.

The khandhaka also contains some very important texts called Kammavacha in the form of 'official acts', relating to admission into the order, suspension from and rehabilitation into the order, religious jurisprudence, Sangha properties, etc.

The third part of the Vinaya is the Parivara which seems to be of a later origin. It originated probably in Ceylon. It is a manual of instructions compiled in the form of questions and answers. The Parivara is called the key since it makes Vinaya explicit.

Suttapitaka: Suttapitaka consists of the original discourses of the Buddha, and is the most authentic source of our knowledge of dhamma. It falls into five divisions called Nikayas (and sometimes also agamas) grouped according to the size, style and particular arrangement of the suttas. They are Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya and Khudhaka Nikaya.

Digha Nikaya, the first book of the Suttapitaka, is a collection of long discourses. It is divided into three parts called Sila Khanda, Mahavagga and Patheya or Patikavagga. This work consists of 34 very lengthy suttas, with the Barahmajala-sutta translated as the excellent net' or perfect net' as the first one. It is a very important sutta, explaining moral precepts and various philosphical views. Another very important sutta of this collection is the Mahaparinibana-sutta which furnishes a historical account of the Master's last days.

Majjihma Nikaya which is the second book of the Suttapitaka, is known as the 'Middle Collection' or the collection of discourses of medium length. It contains about 150 suttas (pannasa): divided into three groups 

  1. Mulapannasa (1-50);
  2. Majjihmapannasa (51-100) and
  3. Upripannasa (101-152)

All the fundamental doctrines such as the law of kamma and rebirth, the four noble truths, the eightfold path and various kinds of meditation are expounded in this work.

Samyutta Nikaya is the third Nikaya of the Suttapitaka. Rhys Davids translates it as the 'grouped sutta' or 'the book of the kindered sayings'. Samyutta Nikaya consists of fifty-six groups or samyuttas or suttas.

Anguttara Nikaya is the fourth book of the Suttapitaka. It is a collection of characterised by numerical groupings. It contains 2308 suttas arranged in eleven sections called Nipatas.

In the whole of Suttapitaka. Anguttara Nikaya constitutes the most important source book of Buddhist psychology and ethics. The Anguttara contains a unique chapter entitled 'Etadaggavagga' wheein the Buddha enumerates the names of those disciples who had achieved prominence in certain fields of spiritual attainment.





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