Ancient Greek Monks & the Writing of the Pali Canon: Recent Research by Ajahn Sona

Ajahn Sona’s recent research into the possible transcription of the Buddha’s teachings many centuries earlier than previously thought by Greek(!) monks in Gandhara could represent a significant shift in how we think about the early phase of the Sangha and teachings. If this hypothesis holds up, it has implications for our understanding of how Abhidhamma and even the Mahayana emerged. I’m curious about others’ thoughts!

Ancient Greek Monks & the Writing of the Pali Canon | Ajahn Sona Q&A


Interesting idea… Is his research published in writing anywhere?


Not yet, though he told us he’s working on a paper. I’d like to read it as well! But I think this is the first time he’s described the exploration in detail publicly.


I see… well, I look forward to reading it eventually then! :grin:


Ajahn Sona himself posted his theory earlier this year on this forum. So you can already read the outline and Bhante Sujato’s response. :wink:


Oh! I hadn’t seen that; a brief exchange, but to the point :grinning: I’m curious where this line of inquiry goes. Thank you!


Prof. Salomon was mentioned in the talk, his most recent book gives a good overview of the Gandhari scrolls. I think the conclusion he goes toward in his book is that specific suttas, commentaries, etc. were written down, like anthologies, but not the complete canon. So in Sri Lanka they chose to write down the complete canon for the first time, unlike in Gandhara where only specific things were written for specific purposes. Anyway, a lot of interesting details can be found in Prof. Salomon’s book:


I look forward to seeing the developed research.

The thing is, it’s more than possible that the texts were first written down somewhere in the continent that we are unaware of. It’s mere historical happenstance that the sources of Buddhism that survived, and hence the information that we have, comes from the extreme north-west and the extreme south-east. On the other hand, it is also not uncommon that innovation is driven on the margins rather than the center.


Where do the Gandhari texts that Mark Allon is working on fit into this discussion?

EDIT: Wikipedia tells me Gandhari was a prakrit, but I can’t work out how close to the Greek of the period it was.

Here, for instance, is an interesting observation by Richard Salomon: “The origin of Brahmi script is more obscure, but the most likely explanation is that it was arbitrarily created by or under the sponsorship of Asoka himself, apparently with Karosthi as a partial model”

Ajahn Sona here, Greek was not close to Gandhari. Greek was the international language which would have been used alongside Gandhari. There are Greek coins with Greek on one side, Karosthi/ gandhari on the other. The situation was similar across the whole Greek empire. Aramaic and Greek were spoken in Israel for instance.

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Namasekan, Ajahn : ) That fact about bilingual coins is very interesting, and I also appreciate Bhante @sujato’s reflections that innovations often occur on the margins. Even this far into the comment thread, I feel out of my depth, but I do genuinely find this fascinating. A paper consolidating the case into a readable form will be very helpful. Any idea of a possible date? Thank you again for opening these doors :grinning: :pray:

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Nisabho, I actually will release my ideas and research on this topic via a video with substantial illustrations, animations, maps etc etc. After all, video is the the new writing… but indeed, catering to those who still read, I will put out an online essay as well! These days we monks have access to an amalgam of media forms, using art, spoken words, science (DNA) and the immense resources of the internet to recover the past. When?..probably within a few months.


I watched the video posted above where there was a passing mention that the Śākyas were of Persian origin. Where does that conclusion come from?

That has been around the ideosphere for a while, but it’s largely rejected by scholars. In the Buddha’s day, they were a native people.

In DN 3, the brahmin student Ambattha calls the Sakyans ibbha, literally “people of the elephant”, using a native word (rather than the IE hatthi). When brahmins encountered local people they called them ibbha because they had tamed elephants. See Chāndogya Upaniṣad 1.10.

This agrees with Snp 3.1:18.4, where the Buddha describes his own people as “natives” (niketino), those who have a long connection with the land.


There are a number of sources for Sakyan origins. Michael Witzel is one. He is a comparative mythologist and Indologist, Witzel is the Wales Professor of Sanskrit, Harvard University and the editor of the Harvard Oriental Series. He collaborates with a number of other specialists in various fields that apply to flow of mythology, cosmology, language and culture all the way back to African sources and throughout Asia especially to India. Some of the participants include DNA researchers such as David Reich, the author of “Who we are and where we came from”. These genetic studies can solve issues which archaeology cannot. The movements of large cultural groups throughout Asia are coming to light. This type of research and DNA technology has only been available apparently, in the last 7 years or so.


There was also a mention in the video that the Buddha forbade Sanskrit - but that is evidently a gross misinterpretation. The passage in question (in the Theravāda Vinaya) raises many more questions than it answers, but sanskrit is not the topic of discussion there. It goes like this:

Tena kho pana samayena yameḷakekuṭā nāma bhikkhū dve bhātikā honti brāhmaṇajātikā kalyāṇavācā kalyāṇavākkaraṇā. Te yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkamiṁsu, upasaṅkamitvā bhagavantaṁ abhivādetvā ekamantaṁ nisīdiṁsu. Ekamantaṁ nisinnā kho te bhikkhū bhagavantaṁ etadavocuṁ—“etarahi, bhante, bhikkhū nānānāmā nānāgottā nānājaccā nānākulā pabbajitā. Te sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṁ dūsenti. Handa mayaṁ, bhante, buddhavacanaṁ chandaso āropemā”ti.

Vigarahi buddho bhagavā …pe… kathañhi nāma tumhe, moghapurisā, evaṁ vakkhatha—“handa mayaṁ, bhante, buddhavacanaṁ chandaso āropemā”ti. Netaṁ, moghapurisā, appasannānaṁ vā pasādāya …pe… vigarahitvā …pe… dhammiṁ kathaṁ katvā bhikkhū āmantesi—

“na, bhikkhave, buddhavacanaṁ chandaso āropetabbaṁ. Yo āropeyya, āpatti dukkaṭassa. Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṁ pariyāpuṇitun”ti.

The brahmin brothers Yameḷu and Kekuṭa are described as having excellent voices (kalyāṇa-vāc) and excellent diction (kalyāṇa-vākkaraṇa). They appear to be aware (and are really concerned) that some other bhikkhus, bearing a diversity of nāma (names), and being from different gotras (clans), jātis (classes/castes) and kulas (families) were “dūsenti” (i.e. spoiling/corrupting) the buddhavacana (the teachings of the buddha) through “sakāya niruttiyā” (a phrase that we will look at in greater detail below). The brothers suggest the solution - “buddhavacanaṃ chandaso āropema” (“let us elevate the buddhavacana to the level of the metrical vedic mantras i.e. chandas”). The buddha is alarmed by this suggestion and castigates them, saying - "How can you foolish men say such a thing? That would not make it (the buddhavacana) any more clearer to those who already lack the clarity. I permit learning the buddhavacana through “sakāya niruttiyā”.

Here are my observations on this passage:

  1. Evidently the Buddhavacana is available in a particular pre-existing language, and the brothers through their own correct knowledge and understanding of the buddhavacana in its original form, were able to come to the conclusion that those other errant bhikkhus were corrupting the buddhavacana.
  2. Instead of correcting those errant bhikkhus by teaching them the original/correct buddhavacana, they come to the buddha asking for permission to evidently make changes to the buddhavacana itself, which sounds very odd.
  3. Is the complaint really about what the errant bhikkhus were doing, or is there something wrong about the original buddhavacana itself that needs rectifying?
  4. The errant bhikkhus were evidently novices who didnt know the buddhavacana as the buddha finally says “anujānāmi sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanam pariyāpuṇitum” i.e. grants permission to “learn” the buddhavacana … thus reinforcing the idea that the bhikkhus did not know the proper buddhavacana, otherwise why would he need to allow them to “learn” (pariyāpuṇitum) it?
  5. The brothers say that the errant bhikkhus were spoiling the buddhavacana by “sakāya niruttiyā” (the word nirutti is feminine, so its adjective sakā is also feminine - and both words are evidently in the instrumental case, but instead of using the plural form sakāhi niruttīhi referring to a multiplicity of niruttis collectively spoiling the buddhavacana, it is stated in the singular as sakāya niruttiyā. So this raises the question - was there only one nirutti (common to all the errant bhikkhus) that was defiling the buddhavacana?
  6. Nirutti here could have one of several meanings - language, speech, pronunciations, expressions, etymology, interpretations etc. It doesnt look like it means their own ‘language’, for if it meant ‘language’, how would changing the buddhavacana’s language change the own language of the errant bhikkhus with which they were defiling the pre-existing buddhavacana? For the same reason, nirutti cannot mean speech/pronunciation/expressions/etymology etc either as changing the buddhavacana’s language wouldnt evidently ipso-facto change the speech/pronunciation/expressions/etymology/interpretation etc of the errant bhikkhus. If the bhikkhus were spoiling it, the solution evidently doesnt lie in changing the buddhavacana, and if the problem was inherently with the pre-existing buddhavacana itself, then why blame some bhikkhus for spoiling it?
  7. What language did these 2 brothers learn the buddhavacana in? Evidently their complaint is not about themselves (the sakā nirutti of the brothers themselves), or about the sakā nirutti of the senior monks, or that of the buddha himself - but about some other ‘novice’ bhikkhus who didnt have a proper grasp of the correct buddhavacana in its original form. Did the brothers learn the buddhavacana in the “chandas” form (as they claim that to be the solution)? If so, it would have already existed in chandas form, so they would have no need to convert the buddhavacana to chandas. If the brothers learnt it in a different nirutti, why not teach it to the errant bhikkhus in that nirutti used by the brothers themselves - and why convert it to chandas?
  8. The word chandas does not mean prose (or versified) sanskrit. Chandas here means the metric style and language of the early vedic mantra hymns. What could be the plausible advantage of elevating (“āropema”) the buddhavacana into the form of early vedic mantra style poetry? Do we as readers understand the suggestion of these brothers correctly?
  9. The buddha here refers to his own teachings in the 3rd person as “buddhavacanam” (the buddha’s words) rather than say “mama vacanam” (my words), which sounds a bit odd. On the whole, the incident looks like a narrative framed after the buddha’s demise and put into the mouth of the late Buddha. Evidently there were other early Buddhist sects with their nikāyas in a non-pali register (that they may have considered to be the original) and they may have likely accused the pali tradition of spoiling the buddhavacana by transmuting it to pāli. The Pali tradition therefore may have had to insert this rule (claimed to be received from the buddha’s own mouth) into their own vinaya to ensure that those bhikkhus following the pali tradition could use it to defend the idea that the buddha allowed bhikkhus (who were being accused of spoiling the buddhavacana) to learn it in “his” own language, the “his” meaning the Buddha’s (not the language of each bhikkhu), which to the pali tradition was Pali itself.
  10. In any case, we dont find historically that any Indian EBT tradition allowed its bhikkhus to learn the buddhavacana in any language of their choice, or their own language whatever it may be. Each tradition for many many centuries has sought to understand the buddhavacana in the traditional language that they preserved it in. So in the case of the Pali tradition, they probably knew that sakāya niruttiyā doesnt mean each bhikkhu’s own language/dialect.

If there is something else significant about this vinaya passage that I’ve missed, please let me know.

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Looks like we cross-posted, but as far as I know, none of this research directly impacts the question at hand. Or am I missing something? I know of one scholar who put a lot of effort into this idea with notably unpersuasive results.

(I am still partial to the idea that Bavari = Babylonian, but that is another matter!)

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Of course, the Sakyans were not recent arrivals in India. I don’t recall the specific time period but perhaps a thousand years or more prior to the Buddha. Nevertheless, as with the much earlier Vedic arrival, they preserved some linguistic and cultural features from their earlier roots. This whole area of research may really make advances with genetic studies. There will be push back from some archaeologists though, since their research and publications which have consumed 30 years of their lives may be suddenly irrelevant. And certainly this whole immigration idea raises the hackles of Hindutva nationalist types. Witzel has been in a battle with them in the U.S. since they wanted all theories of Sanskrit and Vedic sources having come from outside of India removed from American school textbooks! Witzel attended many school board hearings and inquiries to prevent that from happening.

Thanks Bhante. Tho I’m forced to wonder how many loan words made their way from Greek into local languages.

Since I posted that quick remark I’ve watched the video. It’s intensely interesting on a number of fronts. These include your remarks about internet multimedia being the “new writing” available to monks. I discovered your video talks a few months ago and was refreshed by the planning and focus that clearly went into their presentation. When live Dhamma talks are recorded it is great, but they are often skilfully geared to a specific audience. Your recent work presents the Dhamma systematically in a more neutral but intensely serious way, meeting a different need. This seems an appropriate moment to thank you for your work. :pray: :pray: :pray:

Here’s a link to Ajahn Sona’s YouTube playlists.