K.R. Norman has passed on

Discussion published by Rupert Gethin on Sunday, November 8, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

I write with the sad news of the death of K.R. Norman, who has died at the age of 95.

Roy or Mr Norman, as he liked to be known, was one of the great scholars of Middle Indo-Aryan philology. His academic career was spent almost entirely in Cambridge. He completed an MA at Cambridge in 1954 and went on to become Lecturer in Indian Studies (1954–1978), then Reader in Indian Studies (1978–1990), before being appointed Professor of Indian Studies in 1990, shortly before his retirement in 1992.

His scholarly contribution to the field of Pali studies has been immense, but his output covered also Jaina studies and the Ashokan inscriptions. His publications include translations of the major verse texts of the Pali canon: Elders’ Verses I (Theragāthā), 1969; Elders’ Verses II (Therīgāthā), 1971; The Group of Discourses (Suttanipāta), 1992, 2nd ed. 2001; The Word of the Doctrine (Dhammapada), 1997; each of these translations includes meticulous philological annotations.

He also published two significant monographs, Pāli Literature (1983) and A Philological Approach to Buddhism (1997; 2nd edition 2006), and leaves behind eight volumes of his Collected Papers (1990–2007). From 1981 to 1990 he was editor of A Critical Pāli Dictionary, overseeing the publication of seven fascicles (11–17) of vol. II.

As well as being a Fellow of the British Academy and a Foreign Member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, he was the longest serving member of the Council of the Pali Text Society (1959–2010) and also served as its President (1981–1994).

It is safe to say that all those who work on ancient texts in middle Indian languages will remain deeply indebted to his work for a long time to come.

With best wishes,

Rupert Gethin
University of Bristol


I’m sorry to here of Norman’s passing. I love his translation of the Sutta Nipata. The prose in Pingiya’s Praise of the Way to the Beyond moves me to tears.


I never knew Mr. Norman as a man, but his character and integrity shone through in his meticulous and always even-handed work. He brought a distinct and highly specialized set of skills to bear in understanding Buddhist texts, and was fearless in seeking out more precise ways of understanding our linguistic heritage. Such work requires meticulous, long-term dedication, with no thought of fame or reward, for there is little to be found in a field such as ours.

His studies and translations have informed my own studies ever since I read his editions of the Theragatha and Therigatha at Wat Nanachat over twenty years ago: I can still see the kuti I read them in. Much of the purely linguistic discussion went over my head—as it still does—but I absorbed as much as I could. Much later, when making my own translations, there was no question but that I would return to these works as foundational texts.

When reading the Buddha’s words, there are many loose and impressionistic adaptations. But if what you want is a precise and linguistically acute translation, those of Norman cannot be bettered. Such work has fallen out of fashion in academia, as Norman stuck to the old-fashioned idea that the methods of reason and careful inquiry could lead us closer to the truth, producing results that were useful and meaningful. Such methods, grounded on a lifetime’s patient study of all the ancient Indic languages that still survive, produced a body of work of lasting value that will remain required reading for serious students of ancient Indic linguistics.


To quote Richard Gombrich, Norman is our Norm-man. He was my all-time linguistic hero, a real professional who took Prakrits and metre seriously.


With the passing of Peter Masefield in September this year, this is the second major loss to the Pali Text Society in under two months.

Prof. Norman’s Philological Approach to Buddhism: The Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai Lectures 1994 is well worth a read. In particular, I should expect the opening lecture, Buddhism and Philology, to be of interest to nearly everyone here.

From the opening:

In the autumn of 1993 I attended a conference in America on the State of the Art in Buddhist Studies…

… My contribution to the conference was a paper on “Pāli studies in the West: present state and future tasks”, delivered in a session on Textual and Philological Studies. It was greeted with no great enthusiasm. People I met at various social functions thereafter during the course of the conference said “Ah, you are Mr Norman, aren’t you? Your paper was about texts, wasn’t it?” and hurriedly changed the subject, although one or two people did express interest, in a way which showed that they had never thought seriously about textual and philological studies before.


Let me give you another illustration from my own experience. When I was first appointed as a Lecturer in Middle Indo-Aryan Studies, I found in my very first term that there was an option available called “Sanskrit and Indo-Aryan philology” and I was responsible for teaching the Middle Indo-Aryan part of the latter, centring the course around the Aśokan inscriptions. More than that, I discovered that there were, in my very first term, candidates taking this option. And so at high speed I set about producing a course of lectures on Middle Indo-Aryan philology beginning with the Aśokan inscriptions. I consulted all the editions of the inscriptions available to me, read all the secondary literature on which I could lay my hands, and I produced a course of lectures during which I dealt, in my opinion, in a satisfactory way with all the many problems in those inscriptions. I showed those attending my lectures how the inscriptions should be translated and interpreted. I was so pleased with my achievement that I inserted a course of lectures on the Aśokan inscriptions into my own standard teaching. And so, year after year, I lectured on the Aśokan inscriptions, using those same notes I wrote so long ago. Well, not quite the same notes, because as my understanding of Middle Indo-Aryan philology increased, and as my appreciation of the philological approach to these matters grew, I realised that I had tried to say what the words meant, but not how or why they meant it. As I came to grapple with the question of how they meant it, I discovered that, in many cases, I did not know how the inscriptions could possibly mean what I had said they meant, and as a result of not knowing how they could mean what I had said, I had great doubts about what they did actually mean. And so my study of the Aśokan inscriptions led to a situation where every year I understood less and less. To paraphrase the words of another honest seeker after truth: the only thing I know about the Aśokan inscriptions is that I know nothing about the Aśokan inscriptions.

I can almost hear some of you thinking, “If that is what philology does for you then thank goodness I am not a philologist”.

And Wikivisually has links to some of Norman’s online papers:

• Samprasāraṇa in Middle Indo-Aryan (1958)
• Notes on Aśoka’s Fifth Pillar Edict (1967)
• Dr. Bimala Churn Law (1969)
• Some Aspects of the Phonology of the Prakrit Underlying the Aśokan Inscriptions (1970)
• Notes on the Bahapur Version of Aśoka’s Minor Rock Edict (1971)
• Notes on the Greek Version of Aśoka’s Twelfth and Thirteenth Rock Edicts (1972)
• Aśoka and Capital Punishment: Notes on a Portion of Aśoka’s Fourth Pillar Edict, with an Appendix on the Accusative Absolute Construction (1975)
• Two Pali Etymologies (1979)
• A Note on Attā in the Alagaddūpama-sutta (1981)
• The Nine Treasures of the Cakravartin (1983)
• The Pāli Language and the Theravādin Tradition (1983)
• The Pratyeka-Buddha in Buddhism and Jainism (1983)
• The Origin of Pāli and Its Position among the Indo-European Languages (1988)
• Aspects of Early Buddhism (1990)
• Pāli Philology and the Study of Buddhism (1990)
• Studies in the Minor Rock Edicts of Aśoka (1991)
• On Translating from Pāli (1992)
• Theravāda Buddhism and Brahmanical Hinduism: Brahmanical Terms in a Buddhist Guise (1992)
• ‘ Solitary as Rhinoceros Horn ’ (1996)
• The Four Noble Truths (2003)
• Why are the Four Noble Truths Called “Noble”? (2008)

Finally, back in 2007 the PTS produced a 450-page festschrift in his honour, with something to interest almost everyone:


• Oskar von Hinüber - Preface
• Petra Kieffer-Pülz - Stretching the Vinaya Rules and Getting Away with It
• Bhikkhu Bodhi - The Susīma-sutta and the Wisdom-Liberated Arahant
• Paul Dundas - A Note on the Heterodox Calendar and a Disputed Reading in the Kālakācāryakathā
• Margaret Cone - caveat lector
• Gregory Schopen - The Buddhist Bhikṣu’s Obligation to Support His Parent in Two Vinaya Traditions
• E.G. Kahrs - Commentaries, Translations, and Lexica: Some Further Reflections on Buddhism and Philology
• P.S. Jaini - A Note on micchādiṭṭhi in Mahāvaṃsa 25.110
• Kate Crosby - Saṅkhepasārasaṅgaha: Abbreviation in Pāli
• Sodo Mori - Recent Japanese Studies in the Pāli Commentarial Literature: Since 1984
• Lambert Schmithausen - On Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra VII.1
• Richard Salomon and Stefan Baums - Sanskrit Ikṣvāku, Pāli Okkāka, and Gāndhārī Iṣmaho
• Mark Allon - A Gāndhārī Version of the Simile of the Turtle and the Hole in the Yoke
• Steven Collins - Remarks on the Third Precept: Adultery and Prostitution in Pāli Texts
• Minoru Hara - A Note on vinaya
• Peter Skilling - Zombies and Half-Zombies: Mahāsūtras and Other Protective Measures
• Nalini Balbir - Three Pāli Works Revisited
• Rupert Gethin - What’s in a Repetition? On Counting the Suttas of the Saṃyutta-nikāya
• William Pruitt - The Career of Women Disciple Bodhisattas
• Siegfried Lienhard - On the Correspondence of Helmer Smith and Gunnar Jarring


Anicca Vata Sankhara… May he attain peace and the bliss of nibbana