"Pāli ain't a Prakrit" ~ Ollett

In his open access, 2017 monograph on the Prakrit language(s), Andrew Ollett argues that applying “Prakrit” to an entire sweep of Middle Indic languages obscures more than it explains and thus he proposes restricting our use of the term to those works written in the self-described “Prakrit” tradition starting in the first centuries of the Common Era.

In his defense he cites, for example, the seventh-century philosopher Kumārila Bhaṭṭa, who dismissed Pāli as “not even Prakrit” and shows how Pāli was, indeed, influenced by “Prakritization” — a movement which is invisible if we see Pāli as Prakrit:

Language of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India <= free download link

I’m curious to hear what the erudite linguists of this forum make of his thesis. Should we be sure to classify Pāli only as “a Middle Indic language” from now on? :pray::grin:


Especially Bhantes @sujato and @Dhammanando :pray::grin:

Pali, literally ‘text’, a Prakrit, is based on a dialect (one of Middle Indo-Aryan dialects) from the region of Ujjeni (Ujjayani), capital of Avanti, in western India, according to Japanese scholars (p. 6, note 16):
Page 6 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (107.4 KB)

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Thanks for posting this, it looks very interesting.

The question of whether Pali would be more aptly termed Prakritic or Middle Indic is one to which I’ve given very little thought and on which I don’t as yet have any strong opinion. Perhaps I shall have one after reading Ollett’s piece.



I have read something to that effect and also its contrary. I have also read that no one knows for sure where the language of the text comes from. I would be interested in reading about the state of research in this field, but that’s off topic here.

About region of Ujjeni:

“Ancient period

In the 4th century BCE, the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta annexed Avanti to his empire. The edicts of his grandson Ashoka mention four provinces of the Mauryan empire, of which Ujjain was the capital of the Western province. During the reign of his father Bindusara, Ashoka served as the viceroy of Ujjain, which highlights the importance of the town. As the viceroy of Ujjain, Ashoka married Devi, the daughter of a merchant from Vedisagiri (Vidisha). According to the Sinhalese Buddhist tradition, their children Mahendra and Sanghamitra, who preached Buddhism in modern Sri Lanka, were born in Ujjain. ”


The scriptures of Buddhists and Jains are composed in overwhelmingly incorrect (asadhu) language, words of the Magadha or Dakshinatya languages, or even their dialects (tadopabhramsa). Therefore false compositions (asannibandhana), they cannot possibly be true knowledge (shastra) … By contrast, the very form itself (the well-assembled language) of the Veda proves its authority to be independent and absolute.

-also sayeth Kumārila Bhaṭṭa.

Tibetan historian, Buton, 14th century: the Sthaviravadins use Paisaci (which he does not call Prakrit).

Rajasekhara (approx 900CE) in Kavyamimamsa:
The people of Avanti, of Pariyatra, and of Dasapura [Chattisgarh] use Bhutabhasha [Paishachi].

There is a chapter dedicated to Paisaci in Vararuci’s Prākrita Prakāśa, and in another work by Hemacandra. I wonder if the description given therein matches Pali.

If it does, these eminents had considered Pali a Prakrit, albeit an archaic one.

If it doesn’t, the great historian Buton was perhaps mistaken in his identification.

(Edit: I checked, nothing specifically like Pali in the 14 Paisaci aphorisms. But given that this text considers Sauraseni as the base language, for which many more aphorisms are given, there is still overall similarity. Maybe Buton was using the term Paisaci as a geographical designation for the language of the Deccan, or maybe in the sense of admixed or “low” vernacular).

You could see Pali as MIA, or you could see Pali as Old Prakrit. The reason why Kumārila Bhaṭṭa doesn’t want to see Pali as Prakrit is that he doesn’t want to give it the status of a regular grammatical language, because his whole argument against Buddhism is based on the linguistic inferiority of Buddhist texts.

One legend was that Kumārila Bhaṭṭa’s nephew, Dharmakirti, went on to become a great Buddhist philosopher just to refute him. If Kumārila Bhaṭṭa was alive today, he would probably be a VHS or RSS (these are Hindu supremacist groups) member. He was a fundamentalist, not a linguist.


Yeah, a bit hard to please, huh? :laughing:

Nice! Thanks for this reference! :blush:

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IIRC, a few centuries down the line Sthaviravadins in Pataliputra (Ashoka’s capital and center of Buddhism under his reign) became corrupt and lost the lineage, though bastions remained in Ujjain and Kanchi up until Buddhagosa’s time, as he was trained on the continent and was one of the leading experts in Sri Lanka because of it.

Some locate Pali’s origins in Vindhya hills in Avanti kingdom between Ujjain and Mahishmati, though overall I am not sure it has been ascertained beyond doubt.

But as I see time and again, humans in all epochs seem very uncomfortable with uncertainty and doubt, preferring to make bets based on incomplete data (nowadays) or even making legends up altogether (old days) rather than admitting and accepting the limitations of their knowledge.

Thankfully we now have the methods of science and archeology that help us refrain from overconfidence, but the old psychological trend is still very active.

But I have digressed far enough. Back to the topic :grin:

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Ha ha, he sounds like fun at parties.

Making family meals even more awkward.

Sounds like! A category of distinction that is, I’m afraid, still all too relevant when considering claims about Pali in modern Theravada.

I’m wondering who, exactly, he means by Sthavira? Are we sure he means the Sri Lankans?


The Sthaviravadins are the ones who use Paisaci. :innocent: :grin::grin::crazy_face:

I guess he isn’t talking about the Sammitīya & Sarvāstivāda, as they are listed separately as using Apabhramsha and Sanskrit.

As I don’t speak Tibetan, my ability to comment further is limited sorry. I hope someone more knowledgeable can help me. But I would have assumed he meant the Sthaviravada as practised in Sri Lanka and pockets of what is now India. The purpose of his writing had been to produce an encyclopedia of Indian thought in Tibetan, he supposedly had access to many texts, I think he would have known about the Sri Lankan Sthaviravada schools.

I don’t think he knows about the Dharmaguptakas. Or maybe they are northwest Paisachi users. I suspect it is more likely that the SL branch would use the term Sthaviravada self-referentially, however. It is not really that clear.

Edit: just tagging this on here…but some people say that Konkani language comes from Paisaci (Pali?). Konkani language - Wikipedia
Example: Pali undura (rat) = Konkani undura (rat)


I think it is primarily a matter of definition, where the choice of the definition you use is ruled first and foremost by pragmatic concerns.

As Ollett lays out in Chapter 1, there is a 'broad’definition that boils down to ‘all MIA that are not Sanskrit and not vernaculars’. And there is a narrow definition that takes into account the socisl, cultural and religious roles that were ascribed to the Prakrit languages by the Pre-Raj Indian society.

I would agree that dyachronical linguists should use the narrow definition. The text of the Ashokan pillars as well as the Pali canon belong to an era where Sanskrit as the codified and streamlined Vedic was still in its infancy (or maybe even non-existent yet). The Prakrit of Jain scriptures is undisputedly a product of a much later linguistic development than Pali or Ashokan. So, the use of Pali and Ashokan most likely pre-dates the tri-partite or bi-partite division of IA languahes by native grammarians. That means that historical linguistics would do well by steering away from simplistic and all too broad definition of Pali as Prakrit.

At the same time, for us as Buddhists , for the general public, etc. there is nothing wrong with using the broad definition. Most of the time they don’t need all the fine details if the linguistic history of India. Most don’t even realize that Sanskrit may be younger than Pali.

tl;dr: Pali is hardly a Prakrit but if you call it a Prakrit in a general context not requiring precision of expression it is fine.