Different Meanings of the Word Kusala (Wholesomeness)

I have done some resesarch on merit (puññaṃ) lately. At present, I am dealing with the question if it is synonymous with wholesomeness (kusalaṃ). Now, in order to provide a basis and starting point for comparison, I listed the four types of merit and five types of wholesomeness as per the commentaries. I am with the list of the items for wholesomeness right now. I could trace four of the five meanings in the Nikāyas but struggle with one of them. I have one or two examples for No. 4, but they are a weak. Do you know of any contexts where kusalaṃ is used in the sense of “being without distress”? Thank you!

This is what I have come up with at present:

  1. Freedom from ailment (ārogyaṃ); for example: “Are you healthy (kusalaṃ); are you free from malady?” (Jā II: 77 [Jā 532]).
  2. Blamelessness (anavajjaṃ); for example: “‘Honored sir, but what is a physical way of behaving that is wholesome (kusalo)?’ – ‘A physical way of behaving that is blameless […]’” (MN II: 318 [MN 88]).
  3. Being composed of aptitude (kosallasambhūta) or being competent (cheka); for example: “What do you think about this, Soṇa? Previously having been a homeowner, were you skilled (kusalo) in playing the lute?” (AN II: 330 [AN 6.55]).
  4. Being without distress (niddaratha).
  5. (Karma) having a pleasant result (sukhavipāka); for example: “[…] indeed, whatever the Tathagata, having previously been a human, had firmly undertaken among wholesome phenomena […], due to the carrying out […] of that karma, he rearose […] in a good destination, in a heavenly world” (DN III: 119 [DN 30]).

To share for the sake of completeness: I have settled now on the weaker alternatives.

  • Being without anxiety (niddaratha).[f.n. 1] For example (possibly): “[…] unwholesome phenomena […] invested with anxiety […] [f.n. 2]” (DN III: 47 [DN 25]); “[…] he is anxiety-free, without evil [f.n. 3] […]” (Dhp; 43, v. 205)


[1] This point could be subsumed under No. 2.
[2] […] akusalā dhammā […] sadarā […]. For sadarā, the primary modern printed editions record the variant reading of sadarathā as contained in the Siamese edition (DN III [Siamese Edition]: 31).
[3] […] niddaro hoti nippāpo […].

Could you post the exact Pali for these? I’m not sure which phrases these refers to.

Also I just noticed in Satapatha Brahmana we find tadeke kuśalā manyamānā, “some think they are clever in this respect", which is reminiscent of lines such as Viggayha nānā kusalā vadanti in Snp 4.12.

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Sure, bhante: First example: […] akusalā dhammā […] sadarā […] ( I based my choice for this example on the fact that sadarā is the variant reading in the primary modern printed editions of sadarathā as contained in the Siamese edition (DN III [Se]: 31). Second example: […] niddaro hoti nippāpo […].

I don’t find them to be particularly strong cases, especially the first one since a connection to kusalaṃ is just established indirectly and that via a near-synonym for niddaratha, i.e., niddaro. The first one is better, but it still doesn’t show a canonical instance where kusalaṃ clearly does reflect the meaning of “being without anxiety.” It is certainly implied since even the highest stages of enlightenment are said to consist of wholesomeness as well as freedom from anxiety, but still, it’s basically just a description.

Thank you for the supporting evidence from the Śatapathabrāhmana. Have you read Cousin’s paper on kusala? ((PDF) Good or skillful? Kusala in Canon and Commentary | L.S. Cousins - Academia.edu). He sums up the root meaning in Sanskrit literature to be that of “skilled” (in the sense of your “clever”) or “wise,” saying that it also has the meaning of “welfare,” “well-being” (p. 149), a sense that is also reflected in Pāḷi.

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The sanskrit wordnet gives the following synonyms for kuśala :

  • in the sense of being without distress/disease/afflictions – nirāmaya, kalya, vārta, kalya, uttama, kuśala, kuśalavat, nīruja, kuśalin, kuśali, nirvyādhi, paṭu, ullāgha, laghu, agada, nirjvara, vigada, viroga, anāmaya, aruk aroga, arogin, arogya āyuṣmat, ārogyavat, nirātaṅka, ayakṣma, sahārogya, sustha, susthita

  • in the sense of being clever/intelligent – catura, caturaka, nipuṇa, niṣṇa, niṣṇāta, viśārada, paṭu, pravīṇa, prājña, vicakṣaṇa, vidagdha, paṭumati, paṭiṣṭha, paṭīyas, peśala, praṇata, pratīta, aṇuka, abhijña, ullāgha, ṛbhu, ṛbhumat, ṛbhuṣṭhira, ṛbhva, ṛbhvan, ṛbhvas, karaṇa, karmaṭha, karmaṇya, kalāpa, kaliṅga, kalya, kārayitavyadakṣa, kuśala, kuśalin, kṛtakarman, kṛtamukha, kṛtin, kṛtnu, kriyāpaṭu, cheka, chekala, chekāla, tūrṇi, tejīyas, dhīvan, dhīvara, dhṛtvan, dhṛṣu, nadīṣṇa, nayaka, nāgara, nāgaraka, nāgarika, nirgranthaka, nirgranthika, proha, prauṇa, bahupaṭa, budha, budhda, matimat, manasvin, marmajña, vijña, viḍaṅga, vidura, vidvala, śikva, sudhī, suvicakṣaṇa, samāpta

  • in the sense of being comfortable/happy – sukhin, kuśalin, kuśala, prasanna, prahṛṣṭamanas, bhadra, subhaga

  • in the sense of expertise/profeciency/skill – nipuṇa, pravīṇa, abhijña, vijña, niṣṇāta, śikṣita, vaijñānika, kṛtamukha, kṛtin, kuśala, saṅkhyāvat, matimat, kuśagrīyamati, kṛṣṭi, vidura, budha, dakṣa, nediṣṭha, kṛtadhī, sudhin, vidvas, kṛtakarman, vicakṣaṇa, vidagdha, catura, prauḍha, boddhṛ, viśārada, sumedhas, sumati, tīkṣṇa, prekṣāvat, vibudha, vidan, vijñānika, kuśalin

  • in the sense of knowing in detail about something – tajjñaḥ, kuśalaḥ, nipuṇaḥ, vijñaḥ, abhijñaḥ, kuśalaḥ

  • in the sense of actions that are considered good/proper/acceptable/blameless – sādhu, bhadra, ārya, śiṣṭa, uttama, praśasta, praśasya, śasta, śasya, śubha, kuśala, kalyāṇa, san, sattama, śreṣṭha, sāra, sāravat, vara, nirdoṣa, aduṣṭa


SN2.23 seems to use puññaṃ as a synonym for kusalaṃ: So khvāhaṁ, bhante, evaṁ dīgharattaṁ katānaṁ puññānaṁ evaṁ dīgharattaṁ katānaṁ kusalānaṁ dhammānaṁ pariyantaṁ nādhigacchāmi, “I did not reach any limit, venerable sir, to the meritorious deeds that I did for such a long time, to the wholesome deeds that I did for such a long time …”

However, this is only synonymous in such context, where it refers to karma. In some contexts, such as “skilled at playing the lute” you quoted, you wouldn’t use puñña of course.

I have wondered whether in context of karma “skillful” or “wholesome” is a closer fit for kusala, though.


Right. :slight_smile: As far as I can see, now, meaning No. 3 above for kusalaṃ is the only one having no overlap with any sense puññaṃ can adopt. Compare the fivefold list above to the four meanings of puññaṃ:

  1. The fruition of merit (cf. No. 2 above).
  2. Good way of conduct pertaining to the sense and fine-material spheres (cf. Nos. 2, 4, and 5 above).
  3. The state of re-arising being a [mark of] distinction in a good destination [of rebirth] (cf. No. 2 above).
  4. Wholesome volition (cf. Nos. 2, 4, and 5 above).

Juxtaposing both lists demonstrates that both terms are synonymous – at least partially, with considerable overlap. Linguistically speaking, they are synonyms. Now, the close entanglement of both terms in worldly contexts is close to being incontestable, as Keown wrote:

Even the most simple ‘deeds of positive merit’ are kusala, and the designation of ‘kusala’ is not restricted to lofty or spiritually sophisticated activity. […] If they were opposed in some way and had such different soteriological implications there is little doubt that the Buddha would have taken care to point it out. […] every virtuous action is both kusala and puñña (Nature of Buddhist Ethics, 1992: 122–3; cf. Premasiri: Interpretation of Two Principal Ethical Terms in Early Buddhism: 72).

However, their synonymy in matters pertaining to the realm of the transcendental has been challenged by others, but not entirely successfully, I believe. I posit that there is no justifiable basis to assert that the word merit is not also used in settings that have to do with higher spiritual attainments, actually. There aren’t many examples in the Nikāyas, but that may be due to the fact that puññaṃ is merely not a technical term, at least not in the way kusalaṃ is.

Given the muliplicity of meanings, the connotation of “skill” is definitely carried over when speaking of kusalaṃ in these contexts as well.


puṇya (pāli: puñña) is derived from the verb-root pū (to purify) and is normally not synonymous with kuśala.

The translation appears odd. It rather means - “I have not exhausted (reached the end of) the store of merit, which I had gained by doing acts of puṇya and acts of kuśala for a long time”. Puṇya and Kuśala actions - both leading to merit - doesn’t necessarily imply that puṇya and kuśala are one and the same.

As to the synonymy, I think the above has demonstrated that they are, although that depends a bit on what we understand by synonymy:

For two items to be synonyms, it does not mean that they should be identical in meaning, i.e. interchangeable in all contexts, and with identical connotations – this unlikely possibility is sometimes referred to as total synonymy. Synonymy can be said to occur if items are close enough in their meaning to allow a choice to be made between them in some contexts, without there being any difference for the meaning of the sentence as a whole (Crystal, 2008: A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics: 470, emphasis in original).

So, they are not total synonyms, a concept that has been challenged to exist in the first place, but partial synonyms with overlap in all except one meaning, which is enough to call them simply “synonyms.” As to the etymology, you are basically right, but this can be said on top of that:

The word puññaṃ is, namely, derived from the Pāḷi root , meaning pavanaṃ (“winnowing,” “purifying”; Dhātup: 14; Sadd II: 54). Both Mayrhofer (1996: 142) and Monier-Williams (1899/2008) also contain supportive evidence for such a derivation for the Sanskrit cognate puṇyam. This root, in turn, can be traced back to Indo-European roots peu-, peu ̯ə- or pū̆- (“to sift,” “to clean,” “to purge,” “to purify”). It is thus related to Latin pūrus (“pure”; Pokorny, 1959: 827). Based upon the above evidence, its consistency in meaning throughout a considerable period of time is easily noticed. However, other roots have also been brought into the discussion as possible candidates.

An alternative derivation is from the Pāḷi roots pūr and pūj, respectively meaning “filling up [or ‘satisfying’]” and “honoring” (Vibh-mṭ: 93); the former refers to the fact that the doing of merit fills up or satisfies the dispositions of an individual, and the latter corresponds to what has been said in the last section while defining the word puññaṃ, about the karmic fruit that is honorable (pujja; Vibh-mṭ: 93). For the Sanskrit cognate puṇyam, a derivation from root pṝ has been suggested as well, which is the equivalent of the Pāḷi root pūr, having the same meaning of “filling up” (“füllen”) as stipulated by Wackernagel (1896: 192) as well as “leading across” (“hinüberführend”) and “fostering” (“fördernd”) as included in Mayrhofer (1996: 142). Cousins (1996: 153) maintains that a connection of Pāḷi puññaṃ to Sanskrit puṇyam is probable.

With the meaning of “being virtuous [or ‘holy’]”; “acting in a virtuous manner,” Monier-Williams (1899/2008) also referred to root puṇ as possibly underlying this Sanskrit cognate; in primary Pāḷi sources (as well as Sanskrit ones), this particular root carries the meaning of “beautiful deed” (subhakriye; Dhātup: 41). However, as far as the Pāḷi tradition itself is concerned, Cousins’ (1996: 153) statement that “it is uncertain precisely which of several possible roots it [i.e., the word *puññaṃ*] is related to” only applies to the alternatives of , pūr and pūj since, as mentioned above, it clearly stipulates these but omits puṇ.


  • Dhātup: Andersen, D. & Smith, H. (Eds.) (1921). The Pāli Dhātupāṭha and the Dhātumañjūsā. Bianco Lunos Bogtrykkeri.
  • Vibh-mṭ: Vibhaṅgamūlaṭīkā.
  • Sadd: Saddanītippakaraṇaṃ IIdhātumālā [PDF file] (1999). Vipassana Research Institute.
  • Cousins, L. S. (1996). Good or skilful? Kusala in canon and commentary. Journal of Buddhist Ethics , 3, 136–64.
  • Crystal, D. (2008). Synonymy. In A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics (6th ed.). Blackwell Publishing.
  • Mayrhofer, M. (1996). Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoarischen (Vol. II). Universitätsverlag C. Winter.
  • Monier-Williams, M. (2008). Puṇya. In A Sanskrit-English dictionary etymologically and philologically arranged with special reference to cognate Indo-European languages (Vol. 2). Indica Books (original work published 1899).
  • Pokorny, J. (1959). Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Vol. I). Francke Verlag.
  • Wackernagel (1896). Altindische Grammatik. Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.
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√puṇ seems a probability (although the grammatical derivation seems unclear ), but according to what grammatical rules does √pṝ (pāli √pūr) or √pūj (skt./pāli) give rise to ‘puṇya’ (pali: puñña)? - none that I can see.

√puṇ is given with the meaning ‘karmaṇi śubhe’ in the Pāṇinian Dhātupāṭha 6.59 (pretty much the same as what you’ve mentioned above i.e subhakriye) - it means not a “beautiful deed” (a deed that appears pleasant or agreeable to someone), but rather in a moral sense “good/virtuous/righteous/holy deed”.

In the context of the relevant Pāḷi text, roots pūr and pūj appear more to be edifying etymologies, with the actual derivation being from root pū.

I had to make a choice that is consistent with translations of other related terms and subha itself. I also don’t see how “beautiful” in an ethical sense is far off, if at all really, from what you’ve suggested, but if you can show me a context in Pāḷi literature (not Sanskrit since it is a different language) that shows “beautiful” isn’t applicable, I adjust quickly and beautifully. I rather see it in the light of subhakamma, with subha here being akin to sobhana (“shining,” “beautiful”). The word subha can also mean iṭṭha (“likeable”), kanta (“beloved”), manāpa (“pleasing”), consistent with the things that merit is associated with.

Puṇya is normally taken as the opposite of pāpa (yodha puññañca pāpañca, ubho saṅgamupaccagā - Dhp 412) - if you apply the meaning ‘beautiful’ to it, pāpa cannot be taken as the opposite of beautiful.

Let’s see the compounds in which it occurs - you can try substituting the meaning ‘beautiful’ or ‘ethically beautiful’ to see if they still make sense:

akatapuññena (Skt: akṛtapuṇyena) = by one who hasn’t done virtuous/meritorious deeds
appapuññā (skt. alpapuṇya) = having done little or no virtuous/meritorious deeds
apuññabhāgiyaṃ (skt. apuṇya-bhāgīya) = connected to apuñña (sin, demerit, non-virtuousness)
apuññābhisaṅkhāro = volition to commit sinful acts
apuññavantaṃ (skt. apuṇyavant) = one devoid of merit, or one having earned demerit
katapuññatā (skt. kṛtapuṇyatā) = the bhāva/nature of one who has done virtuous/meritorious deeds
mahāpuññakkhandho (skt. mahāpuṇyaskandha) = a great mass of merit
puññābhisando (skt. puṇyābhiṣyanda) = flow/stream of virtue/merit
puññābhisaṅkhāro = determination/intention to do meritorious/virtuous deeds
puññadhārā (skt. puṇyadhārā)= a shower of merit
puññakāmā (skt. puṇyakāma) = desire to gain merit
puññakammā (skt. puṇyakarman) = a virtuous/righteous/meritorious act
puññakato (skt. puṇyakṛta) = same as katapuñña
puññakiriyā (skt. puṇyakriyā) = an act of merit/virtue
puññakkhayā (skt. puṇyakṣayāt) = (due to) dimunition in the store of merit.
puññakkhettaṃ (skt. puṇyakṣetra) = field/domain of merit
puññamahī (skt. puṇyamahī) = immensity of merit/virtue
puññantarāyakaro (skt. puṇya-antarāya-kṛ-)= one that acts as an obstacle to earning/doing merit
puññapāpaphalūpagā (skt. puṇya-pāpa-phala-upaga) = one who experiences the fruits of merits and demerits.
puññapekkhāna (skt. puṇya-apekṣamāṇa) = one who seeks to gain merit
puññaphalaṃ (skt. puṇya-phala) = the fruit of meritorious/virtuous actions
puññappaṭipadā (skt. puṇya-pratipad) = the way leading to merit
puññasammatāni (skt. puṇya-sammatāni) = actions that are agreed/considered to be meritorious
puññatthāya (skt. puṇyārtham)= in order to gain merit
puññavantaṃ (skt. puṇyavant) = one who has accumulated merit
puññavipāko (skt. puṇya-vipāka) = the result of meritorious action
satapuññalakkhaṇaṃ (skt. śata-puṇya-lakṣaṇa) = having the signs of (having done) hundreds of virtuous actions

Canonical-Pali is a Buddhist register and has its own idiosyncracies - that is not in doubt. Pali (as a linguistic register) has been closely adapted to the needs and worldview of Early-Buddhism - but that doesn’t make it an entirely different language vis-a-vis Sanskrit. If that were the case, parallel early-Buddhist canons in Sanskrit and Gandhari using cognate vocabulary could not have existed. We would not be able to do word-by-word grammatical and phonetic comparisons between Pali forms and Sanskrit forms which most scholars have been doing not just in modern times but since ancient times.

The Buddha could not have been speaking in an exclusively/uniquely-EBT language like Pali to start with (O.V.Hinuber calls it an artificial language) - he would have had to speak in a language that was understood clearly by most non-Buddhists primarily. Pali dictionaries and commentaries anyways have heavily relied on sanskrit grammar and lexical sources to make sense of words and expressions. Regarding the underlying language of the Pali canon, I have spoken a bit elsewhere on this forum. If on comparison with Sanskrit grammar and lexical sources, the meanings make the sense that the Pali conveys, we’d be on much surer ground.

Those meanings of subha are not applicable usually for puñña.

A few choice synonyms are presented for puññaṃ in the Pāḷi tradition: “Goodness” (kalyāṇaṃ), “wholesomeness” (kusalaṃ) as well as “merit” (puññaṃ) indicate “attractiveness [or ‘beauty’]” (subhaṃ ; Saddanīti II: 54); merit furthermore stands for “that which is beauteous” (sundaraṃ), “a means of purification” (pavitram ; Abhidhānappadīpikā: 140, v. 976), “good way of conduct” (sucaritaṃ), and “brightness” (sukkaṃ ; Abh: 14, v. 85). Of course, these meaning are reflected also in the canon. In any case, if someone wants to suggest that even learned Pāḷi grammarians have it completely backwards, I won’t go along …

All this doesn’t mean that each and every synonym – which are always partial in nature, never absolute – for puññaṃ will fit every context. In fact, if we would look at synonyms for pāpa rather than the word itself, we would find words that are more direct antonyms to subha.

Yes, looks possible to me when considering what is essential. Consider the definition of a widely-referenced dictionary (Merriam-Webster) for the word “beautiful”: “[…] exciting aesthetic pleasure.” Or consider Collins: “If you describe something as beautiful, you mean that it is very attractive or pleasing.” Why this word shouldn’t be able to take on a moral sense I don’t know.

Not entirely different, but different nonetheless. I think no one would argue that Sanskrit, especially Classical Sanskrit, is the same as Pāḷi. There isn’t even consensus if Pāḷi is derived at all from Vedic or a parallel development. The Buddha spoke against his teaching being rendered into Sanskrit (please let’s not go there since that would open up another huge discussion unrelated to the relatively simple OP). The point is simply that they are not the same.

Well, that’s one opinion, a respectable one, but still only one among several others.


Not sure about the exact distribution, but if you want to put a restriction in place by saying “usually,” perhaps you are right, although I think the sense of “beautiful karmic action or outcome” can always be attributed to puññaṃ. The early generations of teachers (contained in the commentaries), even hearkening back to the time of the Buddha, are quite clear about that fact, and a link can even be established on canonical grounds:

“Bhikkhus, the liberation of mind by lovingkindness has the beautiful as its culmination, I say” (subhaparamāhaṃ, bhikkhave, mettācetovimuttiṃ vadāmi; SN 46:54).

Both the concept of puññaṃ and kusalaṃ touch on the transcendental as well. We find the four divine abidings even specifically, next to the attainment of arahant-ship, described as merit (see DN 26). Obvioulsy, then, the concept of “beauty” encompasses more that just physical appearance. Don’t be so superficial, man; true beauty is found within. :slight_smile:

Regarding puñña and kusala, I have said my (native) opinions about them as I have a native sense of what they mean, you can follow whatever else you find appropriate. Sure, as you say not all meanings are appropriate in every context, but you will still need to make up your mind on which meaning fits which context.

Yes - they are different - no disagreements there - however most are surface-level differences. Also, of all languages that you could call similar to Pali, Classical Sanskrit (or late-vedic) is probably the nearest. Early-Vedic (which is normally called Vedic), on the other hand, is very far from Pali.

Classical Sanskrit too had vedic archaisms at that time, and it’s not just Pali that has them - and therefore there is no philological need to invent a parallel evolution for Pali from Vedic (rather than linearly from Sanskrit), or go even beyond Vedic into Proto-Indo-Iranian (to explain what amounts to a few, possibly Iranic, loanwords).

As I have said elsewhere – there is no hard and fast rule demarcating classical sanskrit from vedic sanskrit, and vedic grammatical and other archaisms did continue in classical sanskrit even after Pāṇini (for example Patañjali, in his 2nd century BCE commentary on Pāṇini’s grammar, the Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya, written in classical sanskrit, uses the vedic ‘tavai’ infinitive affix – “tasmād brāhmaṇena na mlecchitavai nāpabhāṣitavai”). Other classical sanskrit texts from the period do have such archaisms too. So Pali is not uniquely non-derivable from classical sanskrit in that respect - it is a popular misconception.

I’ve said about this here - and I restate:
I have read such claims and I find them greatly exaggerated. Those words that are cited as evolved from variant pre-Pali dialects are less than 1% (or even 0.1%) of the Pali vocabulary - and they may very well be Iranic (Old-Persian / Median / Avestan / Scythian) loanwords - if at all they are of Indo-European origin. I dont even think such words exist in the later Pali texts or commentaries. So they are very likely Iranic loanwords from a time when the Achaemenid Empire ruled parts of North-Western India (which I believe was the homeland of Canonical Pali & Gandhari) from Persia. The period of Achaemenid suzerainty was when the Buddha lived and died.

They vast majority (circa 99%) of Pali word forms are phonetically simplified variants of classical sanskrit words and are therefore capable of being etymologized from classical or vedic sanskrit. Can any scholar prove (or has any scholar proven already) that this is not so?

Besides there is some clear evidence about the Buddha’s spoken language from the Ud 5.6 – a statement that Soṇa Kuṭikaṇṇa recited (abhaṇi) the aṭṭhakavagga “with svaras” (sarena) to the Buddha, and at the end of the recital with svaras (sara-bhañña-pariyosāne), the buddha lavished praises on him for his clear and correct enunciation. But what exactly are the svaras? I take them to be the vedic svaras (the tone accents) - he recited the verses with the tone accents. The accents (svaras) exist in classical sanskrit (where they are optional) as well as vedic (where they are compulsory), so what other language other than Old-Indo-Aryan (Classical Sanskrit or Vedic) could Soṇa Kuṭikaṇṇa have recited the aṭṭhakavagga to the Buddha in? The Vedic svaras (tone accents) are inherited from the Proto-Indo-European, see Proto-Indo-European accent - Wikipedia and Vedic accent - Wikipedia . For more about this topic, see my posts here

It’s already been discussed. I don’t think he did. In any case, a lot of Buddhists thereafter defied him by doing exactly that. Maybe the Theravādins alone persisted with that notion.

Many of them are superficial opinions though. Very few are really thought out in depth.

Sure. As far as I can see, the Pāḷi tradition understood quite well what the senses are, with an internally consistent picture in the canon itself of what the terms under discussion mean or can mean. I would wager the above demonstrated that.

Can you direct me to any publication arguing that Pāḷi is derived from Classical Sanskrit? I mean I am no expert by any means on the subject, but I just heard about Vedic being a candidate but never CS. That is how I summarized some of the opinions elseswhere earlier (see under the link for exact references):

Basing himself upon morphological and lexical features, Oberlies states that Pāḷi cannot be a direct continuation of Vedic, but Geiger and Pischel stress its closer relation to Vedic rather than Classical Sanskrit, the latter from which Pāḷi, they maintain, cannot directly be derived. Wackernagel (as quoted by Karpik) and others (Karpik, Oberlies) argue for a parallel development of Vedic and the Prakrits in general, among which Pāḷi and the other Middle Indo-Aryan dialects are sometimes classified (Geiger, Norman). Pischel maintains that “[…] it does not seem probable that all the Prakrit dialects sprang out from one and the same source.” Woolner and von Hinüber, on the other hand, see them as (essentially) derived from Vedic. For Levman “the actual answer appears to lie in the middle.”

Thanks for the link. Yes, I think the fact that the Theravādins did actually stick to the Buddha’s advice in this case speaks for the fact that they took pain to conserve Buddha-vacana, a feature often especially attributed to this school, actually. I now saw that I also engaged in discussing the topic of sakāya niruttiya and chandaso earlier here; if I may share as well.

The Pāḷi tradition is clear about it, which I would simply refer to as additional evidence, as the Samantapāsādikā has it, indicating that it was not Sasnkrit per se but the way of recitation (as you actually pointed out): “let us commit [or ‘entrust’] to the chando: let us commit to the way of recitation like the Veda is done in the honored speech. […] ‘own tongue’ means the common speech belonging to Magadha (māgadhiko vohāro) in the manner spoken (vuttappakāro) by the Perfectly Enlightened One.” I also once asked Patrick Olivelle about what he thinks chandaso refers to in the passage under discussion. His reply was this:

With regard to “chandas”, which is your main question, the term has several related meanings. First, it is one of the Vedāṅgas, the limbs of the Veda, and in that context it refers to meter. It also had a related meaning of chant (probably metrical texts were chanted), and was connected especially with the Brahmins of the Sāma Veda. So we have the “chāndogya upaniṣad” belonging to the Chāndoga brahmins.

In grammatical literature chandas is used with reference to the language of the Veda (as Pollock has pointed out), especially in contradistinction to “bhāṣā” which was the spoken Sanskrit of the time. The distinction in grammar between the two is often pointed out. This distinction parallels the other distinction you find in grammatical works between “Veda” and “loka” — that is what is found in the Veda, including its language, and what is found in the world, the normal discourse and speech patterns.

So, the Buddhist reference [i.e. that of *sakāya niruttiyā*] clearly parallels the latter meaning, and must refer to the way Vedic texts are composed, especially the metrical part, and the language in which it is composed — which is supposed to be eternal and fixed. This also facilitated the memorization of the texts — after all there were no written texts then; the Veda was all in memory.

Rhys Davids & Oldenberg, Geiger, Winternitz, Brough, and Gombrich also agree that chandaso refers to Sanskrit. As was pointed out by Pollock, chandas was used by Pāṇini (fl. ca. 5th century BCE) for “the idiom actually used for the Vedic texts themselves.” Whatever the case may be, the incidence at least shows that the Buddha was not in favor of some feature that relates to Sanskrit.

Hmm; you may be right. Did you yourself write on the topic in some publication (academic paper, book etc.)? I would be interested to know about it.

No publication that I’ve seen has analysed all canonical Pali vocabulary to determine what % of it relies mainly on Vedic grammar, what % of it is explainable through classical sanskrit, and what % can’t be explained by either of them - have you seen such a study published anywhere? None of those names that you quote above appear to have done such an exercise - as far as I know.

Academics usually cite (rely-on) one another’s opinions in their publications (but rarely do they have 100% consensus-ad-idem on any topic to make such a reliance meaningful) - so one isn’t sure who was the last person who actually applied his own mind independently and comprehensively on the topic - and who is simply bouncing off their conclusions based on on other people’s opinions or misconceptions. The scholars you have named don’t agree on what exactly is/was sanskrit, what exactly is prakrit, etc. They have fuzzy definitions that they change according to need.

I’ve recently worked on thousands of Pali words to trace their Sanskrit equivalents for the DPD - and my personal experience tells me the vast majority are directly traceable to classical sanskrit etymologically. Therefore I am basing my opinions not on other people’s opinions (whether published or not), but on my own (ongoing) work. Once I trace the etymology of many more thousands of Pali words, I will be able to say much more definitively on the issue.

Prakrits were not dialects - there were no distinct ethnicities of Prakrit speakers found anywhere in Indian history to my knowledge. There is no one-to-one systematic sound-shifts between any single prakrit and any modern Indo-Aryan language that anyone has proven conclusively. So what made Pischel think they were dialects?

The two brothers were not evidently complaining about the the buddha’s own language or about any specific regional common/standard language, when they said “etarahi, bhante, bhikkhū nānānāmā nānāgottā nānājaccā nānākulā pabbajitā. Te sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṁ dūsenti."

The commentarial interpretation therefore appears incorrect when it opines that ‘sakāya niruttiyā’ refers to ‘vuttappakāro’ or ‘māgadhiko vohāro’ - as that would make the original complaint (of a diversity of bhikkhus linguistically and semantically distorting the buddhavacana in their own peculiar subjective ways) meaningless.

There is no recourse to ‘probability’ required here. All vedic mantras (of all vedas) are and were chanted - and this is known to all vedic scholars as it is an extremely common occurence even today. Chanting is not specific to the Sāmaveda. Olivelle is a great scholar - he should have known what he was talking about - not sure if he was trying to suggest something different here.

Chando-ga (< Chāndogya) refers not to mere chanting the metrical hymns but actually singing them - as grāmageya gānas, āraṇya gānas, ūhā gānas and ūhya gānas, (see page 26 here). The ga at the end of the word Chandoga is from √gai (to sing) -
as the Monier-Williams dictionary points out: chando-ga m. (√gai) ‘singer in metre’, chanter of the SV. , Udgātṛ priest, AitareyaBrāhmaṇa. iii, 32 ; ŚatapathaBrāhmaṇa. x ; ŚāṅkhāyanaŚrautaSūtra. &c.
The same is said by the Sanskrit-Sanskrit dictonary Vācaspatyam: chandoga puṁ - chandaḥ sāmavedaṃ gāyati , √gai.
Again the same is known also from the Śabdakalpadruma Skt-Skt dictionary: chandogaḥ, puṃ, chando vedaviśeṣaṃ sāmetyarthaḥ gāyatīti. √gai.

We don’t need Pollock to point out what is in fact practically universally known for millenia - that chandas in grammatical texts refers to vedic and that it is used in contradistinction to spoken sanskrit. The distinction between Veda and loka also are widely known for a very long time.

Scholars cannot “agree” that chandaso refers to classical sanskrit - because it rather refers to the language and hymns of early vedic metric poetry. I dont see where they agreed about it and on what basis.

As I have said in point 8 here - the word chandas does not mean prose (or versified) classical sanskrit. Chandas here means the metric style and language of the early vedic mantra hymns. So the distinction in the passage was not between Classical Sanskrit and Pali but between the spoken language (Classical Sanskrit) and versified Vedic.

You can read more about this in my discussion with Stefan Karpik here.

Very well. Perhaps you can write a paper where you give some examples and see if it will convince scholars that Pāḷi is derived from CS? Could really be. I mean I would like to have a look. I am just asking myself now if you can rule out that they are simply cognates as opposed to, as you say, there being a historical development from CS to eventually Pāḷi. CS is usually taken to be chronologically later.

It isn’t that evident to me, really, at least on the basis of the text itself. That they speak of nānānāmā nānāgottā nānājaccā nānākulā pabbajitā seems to support the thesis that the Māgadhabhāsā (our Pāḷi) was something akin to a transregional language. I mean you may put forth arguments against that on different grounds, but at least the text above supports it (in fact others in the commentaries as well). For example, the Samantapāsādikā (Sp I: 94) equates Māgadhabhāsā seemingly with the Aryan language as a whole, thereby possibly referring to a supra-regional language. I also don’t see how this statement in the Vimativinodanīṭīkā (125) doesn’t adequately describe the incident:

They ruin (dūsenti) the word of the Buddha with their own language (sakāya niruttiyā) as it relates to the canon (pāḷi): ‘Surely, those of inferior birth who have learned [or ‘memorized’; i.e., the buddhavacana] corrupt the language of Magadha to be spoken by all with ease’ – this is the meaning.

Some may still need him … :slight_smile:

But you don’t concede that the Buddha then spoke against rendering his teachings into this language and its particular style?

Ah, I see. You mean the Buddha is there depicted as having spoken Classical Sanskrit and that he advocated that it should not be versified? Do I understand you correctly?

That would have to be an etymological dictionary of canonical Pali.
It is a topic I am interested in, but time will say whether I’ll be able to work on it.
My idea was to contribute enough sanskrit content to the DPD so that it would eventually serve the same purpose.

I don’t see the basis of such a conclusion. We have the Aṣṭādhyāyī and several other secular and non-secular written texts from the 4th century BCE and earlier in classical sanskrit, and there is no doubt about their age, or the age of the language in which they are written. Pali is not chronologically earlier than Classical Sanskrit (i.e. late-Vedic) - there is no indepedent attestation of Pali I am aware of that is dated before classical sanskrit.

People who make such claims must make clear what they mean/understand by the term Classical Sanskrit - because their arguments stem from underlying assumptions that later turn out to be baseless.

You may watch Prof. Richard Salomon describe the relationship between Sanskrit, Gandhari and Pali at (from 13:15 onwards in this video, and again the Q&A from 35:30 onwards) – https://www.youtube.com/live/jzRutSQsdUA?feature=shared&t=795

There are classical sanskrit texts from the Buddha’s era that have vedic archaisms in them. For example:

  • the Kāṭhakagṛhyasūtra, written in classical sanskrit employs the vedic infinitve form ‘kartave’ (tvaṃ tā ehi vivahāvahai puṃse putrāya kartave rāyaspoṣāya suprajāstvāya suvīryāyeti).
  • So does the Vārāhagṛhyasūtra (prajāṃ sṛjāvahā ubhau puṃse putrāya kartave)
  • The Mānavagṛhyasūtra has the vedic infinitive affix tavai ( tā eva vivahāvahai puṃse putrāya kartavai)

Would these therefore not be classical sanskrit texts - and would they become vedic-era texts? Why would Pali texts that have similar vedic archaisms be treated any differently from classical sanskrit texts from the period that also contain such archaisms?

There is not one single Sanskrit - there were several dialects of Sanskrit - and they were not all uniform as is commonly imagined by most people.

Linguistic archaisms in Pali are by themselves not a good enough reason to date Pali texts as being older than classical sanskrit texts of that era.

That doesn’t follow. There is no indication that either the Buddha or the bhikkhus who were ruining the Buddhavacana were doing so in our Pali. Also I dont see how Pali was a trans-regional language - is there any evidence Pali is or was relevant to the general public (outside Buddhism) either now or at any time in the past?

Assuming the vinaya passage is authentic (and not interpolated by the Pali tradition to give legitimacy to their own textual tradition), the Buddha would have been saying that his teachings should not be converted to early-Vedic metric hymns simply to make them tamper/ruin-proof. It is not an argument against either classical sanskrit or versified poetry in general.

Yes the language he was speaking would have been classical sanskrit and the suggestion there made by the brothers was to transform the Buddhavacana into specifically early-Vedic verse (and not classical sanskrit verse). It is in that context that I mentioned the incident of Soṇa Kuṭikaṇṇa from the Ud 5.6 (see above) - where the language in which he chanted the Aṭṭhakavagga would have to be classical sanskrit because he was chanting it with the vedic svaras (such a possibility only existed in classical sanskrit).

That would be a massive task, but I think a more or less long paper would be a good start to spark of discussion. I am afraid that the DPD will not receive the same credit as actually published material with a reputable institution, as correct as it may be.

Isn’t it scholarly consensus, basically? You are the only one I know to suggest that Classical Sanskrit is earlier than Pāḷi and that the Buddha spoke the former. I mean they conducted several symposia on that topic … Not that has to mean anything ultimately but just saying.

Well, there is explicit identification in the Pāḷi tradition itself, which constitutes an important part to the puzzle. So, I don’t concede your “no indication.” When we consider the evidence that speaks for the ancient origins of the commentaries, possible going back to the Buddha (at least in part), probably they knew a bit more than a tad about which language the Buddha spoke.

What do you make of the Hathigumpha Inscription? Norman posited that it is feasible to regard the home of Pāḷi as being outside the region where the true Māgadhī was spoken but still within Magadha, somewhat in the center of the east-Indian region, not far from Kaliṅga, the region of the Hathigumpha Inscription, which is basically Pāḷi. He considers it feasible that Māgadhī – as depicted within the Aṭṭhakathā tradition as the language of the Tipiṭaka – is a variant of the Māgadhī dialect proper and that the Buddhist tradition can thus be correct. To similar conclusions came already Winternitz, seeing the Māgadhī dialect proper at the base of Pāḷi, and Geiger, to quote the latter:

A consensus of opinion regarding the home of the dialect on which Pāli is based has therefore not been achieved. Windisch therefore falls back on the old tradition—and I am also inclined to do the same—according to which Pāli should be regarded as a form of Māgadhī, the language in which Buddha himself had preached.

But I am trying to understand your position a bit better. So, how would you sketch the origins of Pāḷi then? Do you think that it was ever spoken anywhere? Or do you think that it was a pure literary language? You posit that the Buddha spoke Classical Sanskrit. When, why, and how did the shift happen to Pāḷi according to your theory?