One sometimes hears the opinion that there is no word for “rebirth” in Pali. This is used as support for the project of marginalizing or dismissing the significance of rebirth in early Buddhism. Of course, you are all too smart to be taken in by that level of analysis, right? The presence or absence of specific words for specific things tells us nothing about the concepts, merely about how they are expressed.
In any case, it’s worth noting that there is a word that literally equates to the English “rebirth”. And that is paccājāta. It’s the past participle of the verb paṭi + ā + jāyati, where:
- pati = “re”
- ā = “come”
- jāta = “born”
Literally, “come to be born again”, i.e. “reborn”. It’s used in a context such as Ud 3.6:
Vacchassa, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno pañca jātisatāni abbokiṇṇāni brāhmaṇakule paccājātāni.
For five hundred lives without interruption Vaccha was reborn in a brahmin family.
There are plenty of other terms that mean “rebirth”, if slightly less literally: punabbhava, pubbe nivāsaṁ, or even just jāti.
The moral of the story is: Be deeply suspicious of any argument that draws a significant doctrinal conclusion from a narrow linguistic basis. (Hint: linguists don’t make such arguments.)
There are lots of people who think they know Pali, but very few with any real depth. How to know the difference? Well, here’s a rule of thumb I find useful: real experts don’t just hammer away at their own special theories; they make genuine, lasting contributions to the field. Next time you come across a sexy new theory, ask yourself whether its proponent passes this test. It’s a surprisingly effective filter!