There is an idea proposed by some that the Pali commentaries have a crucial role in establishing our earliest readings of the Pali texts. The argument is that all our manuscripts are much later than the commentaries. In cases, therefore, where a commentarial reading is unambiguous, it provides our earliest independent witness for the text.
Now, clearly there is something to this. The commentaries are sometimes invaluable in establishing both the reading and the meaning of the Pali text. But we can sometimes get the impression that somehow we can reconstitute “the” text before the commentators, which would then become the authoritative source.
This idea is dubious on many grounds, not least of which is that the commentaries cannot possibly have been based on a single unified Pali source. The commentaries stem from the unifying and editing work of Buddhaghosa, based on multiple earlier independent commentaries. All those earlier works must have been based on different manuscripts. Even any individual commentary is probably based on multiple manuscripts, referred to at different times, accumulated through the generations, consulted by different scholars. So the commentarial tradition must rely on a deeply unknowable complex of earlier canonical manuscripts. At best we can speak of “a” reading attested in the commentaries, but cannot assume that this was the only one before them, even if it is the only one they mention.
But leaving aside this problem, the notion that the Pali text can be established based on the commentaries does not withstand even a cursory review of what the commentaries actually contain.
- The commentaries only comment on a few words. How much of the text, exactly, is commented on? Well, let’s do a very rough count, based on the sutta I happen to be translating right now, DN 18 Janavasabha. The text has close to 3000 words. The commentary comments on about 126 words. That’s about 4%. The meaningful percentage is somewhat higher than that, for many words are repeated. Still, it’s only a small fraction of the text.
- Most words don’t have variants. Only a small percentage of words have variants. In our Mahasangiti text, DN 18 has 37 words with variants. Obviously, collating more manuscripts will increase this; equally obviously, most of that increase will be trivialities. So the amount of words with variants is maybe 2%.
- The overlap of words commented on and words with variants is tiny. Given the above percentages, it should come as no surprise that in our sample text, there are hardly any words with variants that are actually commented on. One of them is the name of the town, Nādika. Then there is the series of obscure terms on psychic powers, which I discussed in my previous essay. This is the only case in this sutta where the commentary is of any use in establishing the text; which leads us to the next issues.
- Text and commentary were handed down together, and often reflect each other. Frequently we find that variants in the commentary reflect the spelling of words in that tradition; a Burmese commentary will spell words as they are found in the Burmese tradition, and so on. This doesn’t mean that none of the commentaries can be used, but it does reduce their usefulness further.
- The manner of comment often does not meaningfully clarify the reading. It is not enough to simply have a comment on a word with variants; the comment must be of a sort that is actually fit for purpose. The aim of the commentators was to explain the meaning of the text, not to establish the readings. To take the case of the relevant variants in DN 18, the commentary has iddhipahutāyāti iddhipahonakatāya, which rules out the variant bahulīkata. That variant is, however, already excluded by lectio difficilior, so the commentary simply serves to confirm this. However, it also rules out my proposed emendation bahudha. So then we are left to consider whether the text before the commentary had already suffered change, or whether the emendation is incorrect. The Chinese parallels don’t offer any help on this point, so the commentary remains our earliest witness. So in this case it may well be useful. For the other variant, iddhivisevitāya for iddhivisivitāya, this again runs into lectio difficilior, and seems to me to be a case of the text being normalized to agree with the commentary. Which leads us to the next point:
- The commentary normalizes problematic passages. Since the commentators were engaged in sect-building, they were invested in creating a single, authoritative doctrinal explanation for the texts. To their credit, they almost always avoided making changes to the source texts, even in cases where they obviously disagree with the later Theravadin doctrines. Nevertheless, in cases where the original reading is unclear or problematic, they tend to impose a normalized dogmatic meaning, reading it in terms of their established doctrines. Given that it is precisely in such cases that an independent witness is required, this substantially reduces their usefulness. Using an approach known as redaction criticism, we are justified in suspecting that, where a text reconstitutes the commentaries, it is an apology for Theravada orthodoxy.
- Other methods are often more useful. Often questions of variants can be resolved by other means; by comparing manuscripts, or simply through grammar, sense, spelling, and so on. Where we have canonical parallels, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan texts can often be helpful in establishing the reading. While all these methods obviously have their own problems and limitations, they do have the advantage that they cover more of the text, and offer the possibility of uncovering corruptions that had crept into the Pali even before the commentaries. Where they are useful they further diminish the usefulness of the commentaries.
None of this is to say that the commentaries are useless. Of course they have an important place in Pali studies. But it is simply a fantasy to imagine that in any meaningful sense we can establish the Pali canon on firm grounds through the commentaries. In our sample text, the commentary helps establish maybe one word out of 3000. In establishing the Pali text, commentaries are occasionally helpful as a reference, but that’s all.