Dharmaguptaka and Sarvastivada's languages

Hello, everyone. I have some questions about the languages that were used by Dharmaguptaka and Sarvastivada.

The questions are:

  1. Was Sarvastivada’s language always Sanskrit? If it wasn’t, what was the original language that was used by this school? Is there any trace of the original language in the Sanskrit texts? And why was it changed?
  2. Dharmaguptaka, which was a fellow Northern Buddhist school, always used Gandhari. Why didn’t this school convert its language from Gandhari to Sanskrit? (Not that I want it to change its language or anything).
  3. In the Chinese Agamas of both schools, is there any trace of Gandhari, Sanskrit, or Prakrit? If there is, is it difficult to determine which text comes from which Indic language?
  4. This question is actually off-topic: Are Sati and Appamada the same thing? If not, what are their differences?

Usually, yes. There may be some texts in Prakrit or other dialects, but it would be very much the minority. The Sarvastivadins usually used a language fairly close to classical Sanskrit, so there are fairly few indications of a Prakrit heritage. Nevertheless, there are some, and it is not unusual to find more Prakritisms in verse (just as the Pali has more Vedic forms in verse).

As to the reason why, this is harder to say. I don’t believe there is ever a discussion in the ancient texts about this. My guess would be that it’s a combination of semi-random factors. It may have to do with the influence of a specific scholar or school; or perhaps the geographical distribution; or perhaps the language that was prevalent or current at the time the texts were finalized.

The Sarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka were both, as you mention, in the N-W; but it seems that the Sarvastivada were more widespread, also being found in central India, and, it seems, spreading east through Bangladesh and Myanmar. So perhaps they settled on a more “global” language, whereas the Dharmaguptaka were more localized, and used a more specific dialect, only spreading to China after the language was already fixed. But really this is just speculation.

Once settled, I think there would be a premium on not changing the language; no doubt they felt their texts were more authentic. Would you ask the French why they don’t just make it simpler for everyone and use English?

I believe that the dominance of Sanskrit really came somewhat later. The texts in Gandhari were settled around the turn of the millennium at latest, but there’s no real evidence for widespread use of Sanskrit in inscriptions until several centuries later.

Yes, there is, and there has been some effort to infer the original language from the translations, but it is an extremely difficult and tenuous task. Consider the difficulties:

  • Chinese writing is not phonetic, so it is hard to determine what the exact sound is being represented.
  • The arguments can be circular, as the pronunciation of ancient Chinese may be inferred from the Indic translations themselves.
  • Chinese dialects vary greatly, both geographically and over time.
  • Terms or names may not literally represent the text being translated; it may be a customary rendering or preferred form of the translator. (Such as today, a translator might use the form karma even when translating Pali.)
  • Depending on the source, Indic texts may not be internally consistent.
  • Some texts were translated from oral recitation, meaning the accent of the reciter would be a factor.
  • The most information is usually found in proper names, but proper names are frequently spelled in different ways, even within the unusually rigorous Pali tradition.

Despite this, scholars can be very clever, there is some level of confidence in the attribution of Indic source languages in some cases.

They’re not really the same, although of course, like all Dhamma words, they overlap and support each other. Sati refers to the aspect of continuity, of “bearing in mind” the topic or focus of contemplation. Appamāda means “diligence”, the absence of laziness, the readiness to apply effort when needed, not letting one’s guard down.


Bhante, thank you very much for answering my questions again.