New book by Gombrich "Buddhism and Pali"

Did anyone already get to read Gombrich’s new book, and how did you find his arguments?


Sadly, it is not yet in Audible. But the blurb is captivating.

Yes, I read it. It’s a slim volume, and most of it is personal recollections and basic introduction. For someone with no idea of what Pali is and how it relates to Buddhism, it’s a good read.

The most interesting part is where he speaks of his hypothesis that Pali contains certain distinctive features that are best explained if it is the personal language used by the Buddha himself. This, of course, agrees with the traditional view, and disagrees with the modern consensus that Pali is a somewhat later dialect. However, I found his arguments for this to be pretty thin. It’s an interesting idea, and I’d like to see a more detailed argument.


Thanks for this assessment. I was wondering how deep the argument goes. After all the hypothesis that Pali is a later western (and artificial) language was brought forward by renowned linguists. I have some issues with that idea as well, but I guess you have to know your way around the ancient Indian dialects to make a valid statement.

In my recent dip into ancient Jainism I was looking up the acaranga sutra in the original Prakrit and found that it was much further away from Sanskrit than Pali (e.g. Pali attā I Sanskrit ātman I Gandhari atva I Prakrit aya). Shouldn’t the Prakrit be the closest to what the Buddha spoke? not sure about that…


What do the linguists think about the idea that Pali might be the language of Kosala, not Magadha? The sakyas had come under the rule of the Kosalans, so doesn’t that make more sense? Johannes Bronkhorst has developed the influential theory that Buddhism primarily emerges from the spiritual traditions of Greater Magadha, during a time when Brahminism and Sanskrit culture were nonexistent or negligible influences on the culture of the region. But even early Pali texts show the Buddha in frequent interaction with brahmins and the Buddha’s doctrine sometimes seems like self-consciously syncretized fusion of Brahmanic and Samana traditions. And it seems possible that Kosala, being somewhat further west, would have had more interaction with brahmins.

You might be interested in Cunningham’s original publication “Inscriptions of Asoka. Vol. I” from 1877. He has transcriptions of the texts in the different dialects and variations. My Indian dialect skills are close to zero, but maybe you can find something?

You know, it’s surprisingly difficult to find detailed argumentation on this point. From a previous thread we have a couple of papers:

If anyone knows anything else, please share!


It could be that the English philologists who have had such a powerful influence on Buddhist scholarship are building on probable analogies drawn from their knowledge of the history of their own language. I have been listening to a very interesting lecture series on the history of English, and the most recent lecture was about the challenges facing the famous early printer William Caxton as he attempted to produce books that could be read by a wide audience in a country where there was great regional dialectical difference in the vernacular. He had to produce his own fusion of these regional dialects to succeed.


Indeed, and this is why I’m a little skeptical of arguments that try to pin down Pali based on “peculiar” features of the language. Any language has odd features, little quirks that don’t sit well with the normal way of doing things.

Inspect the CSS that styles these words. The font weight (bold, regular, etc.) is determined by the property font-weight. The font family is set with font-family. The style (upright or italic) is determined by font-style. Special variants in the font are determined by font-variant. And the color is set by color. Wait, what? Why isn’t it font-color? Who knows! But at some time, someone decided to set the font color just with the key “color”, and that’s what we use.

Such quirks can, it is true, must have come from somewhere. But where? Quirks can arise in all kinds of ways. Without widespread, pervasive patterns, it is hard to know whether we’re just chasing rainbows. But “widespread patterns” means statistics, and it means comparative statistics, one language as opposed to a set of several others. Without such an approach, we are really left with one expert saying he finds something odd, and another expert saying he finds something else odd. But statistics are hard, and the workers are few.


Because the color applies to anything drawn in the foreground.
A “greater” consistency holds forth. :grin::innocent:
All the font- stuff is text specific.


This is a discussion between Prof Richard Gombrich and Dr Alexander Wynne about Prof Gombrich’s latest book “Buddhism and Pali”, published by Mudpie Books:


Gombrich also discusses the book in an interview available from New Books in Buddhist Studies.


Volume 16 (May 2019) of the Journal of the OCBS features The Buddha taught in Pali:
A working hypothesis
[PDF available] by S. Karpik. (I haven’t read Buddhism and Pali, so I don’t know how much of the argumentation is new.)


The Theravada tradition claims that the Buddha taught in Pali. This conflicts with most current scholarship. Yet insights from linguistics and close reading of sources suggest that the Theravada account has not been disproved, that it could be correct, and that it even represents a stronger hypothesis than the current consensus. Instead of authorising translation of his teaching into dialects, the Buddha promoted a fixed transmission and the use of standard language. That the Buddha spoke Māgadhī is a late tradition; Tipiṭaka commentaries instead defined Māgadhabhāsā, ‘Magadha language’, as Ariyaka, ‘Aryan’, the canonical term for the Indo-Aryan language. Pali has the expected features of a natural standard language and can be seen as a precursor of Epigraphic Prakrit. This working hypothesis suggests a bolder stance for Pali studies of claiming that Pali is in all probability the formal language of the Buddha.

Thanks Robbie. I just read this, and it’s a great piece of work. I’ll have to go back and digest it more fully, but on initial read it makes a strong case to dislodge many of the consensus views in modern academia about the nature of Pali. He supports Gombrich’s strong claim that the Buddha spoke Pali.

To summarize:

  • The Buddha was not Magadhan nor did he spend the majority of his time in Magadha.
  • The language known today as “Magadhi” (i.e. the language of the Ashokan edicts) is not the same as the Magadhan language mentioned in Pali commentaries, which was, rather, Pali AKA Ariyaka.
  • Differences in the early linguistic context, such as between Pali and the language of the Ashokan inscriptions, are largely a matter of different accents and do not affect mutual intelligibility.
  • Pali/Ariyaka was the original language of the Buddhist canon.
  • Pali/Ariyaka is essentially the same as Epigraphic Prakrit. It was the lingua franca of the mid-west of northern India.
  • Arguments to the contrary lack decisive evidence.
  • The linguistic features of the Pali texts can readily be understood without invoking otherwise unattested “translation”, or multiple original texts.
  • No text in a language earlier than Pali has ever been produced (Indic EBTs other than Pali are in Sanskrit, hybrid Sanskrit, Gandhari, etc., all of which are clearly later linguistically.)
  • The opposing “multiple origin” theory conflicts with the principles of falsifiability (Popper) and simplicity (Occam).
  • That the language is original does not, of course, mean that the texts in that language are original. Obviously additions and changes in Pali texts are evident.

In a separate piece that Gombrich circulated by email, he argues (or rather expands what he mentions in the book) that pāḷi could be derived from the Sanskrit root paṭh and its verbal adjective pāṭhya: to be recited. There were two corpus of literature being passed down: what was recited, and what was explained, the explanation of the meaning (atthakathā) —this contrast can be found in the Vissuddhimagga. Thus the language of the former came to be known as pāḷibhāsā, the language of recitation. Or the locative pāḷiyaṃ in the Vism, “in pali”, came to be understood as referring to the language.
Gombrich also sketches the possible phonetic changes from pāṭhya, and in his Popperian style says that if anyone disagrees they should propose a better explanation. (I assume he’d have no problem in his piece being posted publicly but just in case, for the moment, I’ve preferred to just summarise his rationale.)


My question is this: While the origin, historicity, and nature of Pali is a fascinating topic, just how important is this question to practice? Does the answer have impact on our Buddhist practice?


It’s correct that searching for the truth of dhamma in history, differences in the translation of words, or abhidhamma is a fruitless exercise. The truth is found through studying the internal integrity of the teaching in the suttas and directly experiencing it by application to life. The former tendency is the result of western scientific conditioning.

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Yes, to a certain extent. Some terms for example still are not clear etymologically, like jhana, or dukkha. We still understand more or less what they mean from the context, but if these terms were transfered from another prakrit, the original would include more information regarding the word root and linguists could come to a better conclusion about the original meaning.

Jhana for example can be simply (and correctly) translated as ‘meditation stage’, but tracing it back to its exact root could shed some additional light on the concept and might actually add to our understanding of the meditation practice - e.g. if jhana were derived from ‘fire’ or ‘burning’ that would be an interesting clue to our practice, no?


Different hypotheses about the origins and evolution of Pali are connected to different hypotheses about the origins and evolution of the Pali Canon, as well as with different hypotheses about where and when the Buddha taught, who his earliest teachers might have been, etc. Judgments about the temporal stratification of the Pali Canon and other Pali literature can only be enhanced by a clearer understanding of the origins of the language in which they are written.


Thank you both for taking the time and effort to answer my question. I sincerely believe – perhaps wrongly, but hey – that the Buddha Dhamma at its core and essence can be transmitted in any language, so universal and all encompassing is it. One could, I suppose, say that, given the nature of translation as you implied, one runs the risk of falling further and further from the Buddha’s original intention. Perhaps that can of worms is a subject for another day.

PS: I read Professor Gombrich’ book which led me to his (OCBS) on-line Pali course which I’m following and studying
as we speak.