Snp 3.11 Nālakasutta: About Nālaka

The Nālakasutta is divided into two portions ([snp3.11]). The introductory narrative tells the famous story of how the hermit Asita visited the newborn Siddhattha and prophesied his future Buddhahood. He was old and would not live to see the Buddha himself, so he urged his nephew Nālaka to seek out the Buddha when the time came. Many years later, Nālaka heard that the Buddha had indeed appeared in fulfillment of Asita’s prediction. The second portion of the Sutta tells of how Nālaka went to the Buddha and asked about the way of the sage (muni).

Those who know the story of the Buddha’s life will recall the familiar tale of how Asita was the former chaplain of Siddhattha’s grandfather and teacher to his father Suddhodana. He visited the court of King Suddhodana in his grand palace, where a multitude of brahmin soothsayers had foretold that the prince would become either a wheel-turning monarch or an all-seeing Buddha. They will be well aware of how Asita, examining the boy for the 32 marks of a Great Man, was the first to realize that the other soothsayers were wrong: the boy was surely destined to become a Buddha. And they will know that the reason Asita would never see the Buddha was that he was destined to be reborn for many aeons in the formless realms, where beings are removed from involvement in the material dimensions.

What they may not know is that in this, the earliest version of events, none of these details are found. Asita was not a beloved former teacher, and in fact appears nowhere else in the Suttas. There is no mention of a king, a palace, or a court therein, only Suddhodana with his family in his home. No soothsayers are spoken of, nor the 32 marks. There was no “examination” of the boy and his marks; Asita merely “saw” him lying on his cot. Nor does the text speak of conflicting prophecies, for the boy’s destiny was known even to the mere worldly gods before Asita appeared. Asita is not said to have been destined for the formless realms; rather, he is simply old and will not live long. The rebirth in the formless realms was probably intended to show that Asita belonged to the most exalted circles of brahmanical meditators, while also filling an awkward plot-hole: why could he not simply return to see the Buddha from wherever he had been reborn?

The Nālakasutta is, in fact, a rare witness of a transitional phase in the rapidly-evolving legend of the Buddha. Along with [mn123] and [dn14], it is one of the earliest sources for certain crucial aspects of the Buddha’s mythology, in particular the idea that Siddhattha was, from the time of his birth, a bodhisatta destined for enlightenment. Nonetheless, the dramatic and mythological significance of events is not yet fully drawn out, and the relatively simple account of the Nālakasutta was, for all practical purposes, soon overshadowed by the more developed legends. Yet a Sutta like this speaks quietly with a very specific voice. It deserves a hearing on its own terms.

According to the commentaries, the introduction was composed by Ānanda on the request of Mahākassapa at the First Council. While this confirms that it was not the Buddha’s words, in fact it must be considerably later than this, and probably originated a few centuries after the Buddha’s passing. Jayawickrama identifies a range of late features, including multiplicity of late and Sanskritic words, decorative poetics, and a variety of metres, all of which set the introduction quite apart from the passages that follow.

The introductory verses share these late features with those of the Pārāyanavagga. Both passages are called vatthugāthā, a term used nowhere else. In both cases, an elder sage sets the action in motion by urging their younger counterparts to seek out the Buddha. This legendary narrative serves to frame a set of teachings that stem from an earlier age. Such stories fulfill a need for the Buddhist community in the time that they were composed. The Pārāyanavagga is a conversion narrative, which supports the geographical expansion of the Buddha’s teachings in the south of India. The Nālakasutta fulfills a more universal need: to exalt the Buddha’s teachings within the cosmic and eternal significance of the Buddha as a person.

The Buddha gave only sparse details of his early life, so after his death, the Buddhist community swiftly moved to complete the narrative. It is conventional for the birth of a great hero to be heralded with prophecy. The Buddha’s silence on this topic leaves a gap that yearns to be filled. Never mind that the Buddha consistently spoke against the very idea of using marks and signs to tell the future. And leave aside the inconvenient detail that the very essence of his teaching, from his first words until his last, was the practice of the eightfold path, not the fulfillment of a destiny. The mythic impulse is not so easily dismissed. In the early Buddhist community, as the historical Buddha faded from living memory, there grew an insatiable need for stories to keep him alive.

Myth serves this purpose, for it tells of things that “never were, but are always”. This is a not a paradox, but a simple psychological reality. For those who are born into a religious tradition, there is no first moment when the story of the Buddha is heard. It has always been there, told and retold in story, in painting, and in song, surrounding you from before you had the language to hear it. There never was a time when Siddhattha did not become a Buddha. The prophecy of Asita is not a historical record of a soothsayer and his prediction, but rather, is confirmation of the eternal and inevitable reality of the Buddha. It is not a historical account of what actually happened, but a mythological account of what must have happened.

The sutta opens with Asita’s meditative vision of the gods. They are dancing and singing with exuberance, celebrating the birth of the Bodhisatta. The gods are, in this mythological context, able to see the significance of this event, and even to predict specific details like the teaching of the First Sermon in the “Grove of the Hermits”, i.e. the Isipatana near Benares. Asita then hurries to see the newborn babe, where he confirms the prophecy. But he bursts into tears when he realizes that he is too old and will die before witnessing the magnificence of Awakening.

Asita’s tears at the Buddha’s birth echo the tears of Ānanda, who, when he learned of the Buddha’s imminent demise, could not bear to face life without his beloved Teacher. Did Ānanda—the putative author of this story—wish to emphasize Asita’s emotional vulnerability here, drawing on his own experience? We cannot say, but we can say that this kind of narrative echoing is an outstanding feature of early Buddhist mythic narratives. Ostensibly unrelated texts in different collections are formed with an eye to mirroring related events. While the vatthugāthā as we have it appears to be later than Ānanda, there is no doubt that Ānanda himself was the literary founder of the Buddha’s legend. The texts are profoundly influenced by his methods and sensibilities, and it is, I believe, likely that such details were originated by him.

What can we say about the sage Asita? He appears without explanation or context, yet unhesitatingly takes a position of prominence in the home of a powerful man. It is as if the text assumes that audience will be familiar with him, and will take such confidence for granted. A survey of related early texts suggests that Asita fulfills an archetype that we shall call the “dark hermit”. It is, I believe, the loss of awareness of this archetype that prompted the later tradition to say that he was the family chaplain, since they needed a new explanation for the familiarity and respect with which Asita was received in Suddhodana’s home.

The word asita can have a variety of meanings in Pali, including “black” and “unattached”. The latter seems like a good name for a hermit, and it is indeed the explanation given in some Sanskrit and Tibetan sources, where it is taken as akleṣa. But the text also refers to him as kaṇhasiri “dark splendor”, and later texts also call him kāladevala, “Dark Devala”. It would seem, then, that the relevant sense of asita is “black”. The Pali commentary confirms that this is a reference to his skin color.

His name and status as a “dark hermit” (isi) link him with other passages in a way that is surprisingly revealing. The similarly-named hermit Asita Devala (“Devala the Dark”) appears in the Assalāyanasutta ([mn93]), where the Buddha relates to the prideful brahmin student Assalāyana how Asita Devala challenged seven hermits on the doctrine of caste. In the Ambaṭṭhasutta ([dn3]) we find yet another “black” hermit, this one named Kaṇha, whose story is also told by the Buddha in a conversation with a prideful brahmin student.

All of these passages, while quite different, have a range of features in common. A powerful hermit (isi) named “black” appears in a quasi-legendary narrative. They are an outsider, who though respected and associated with the brahmanical tradition, is not exactly a part of it. They challenge the accepted order of things. Kaṇha is the son of a slave-girl, and his descendants became regarded as brahmins. Asita Devala, likewise challenging the brahmanical notions of lineage, is notably not identified as a brahmin, in contrast with the “seven Brahmin hermits” (satta brāhmaṇisayo).

The “dark hermits” appear in marginal spaces. Asita Devala is in a wilderness hermitage, while Kaṇha learns magic in the south. The latter detail is especially interesting, as during the Buddha’s time, the south of India was largely unknown, and was regarded as outside the sphere of civilized Aryan lands. While the Nālakasutta itself says nothing of Asita’s origins, both the Mahāvastu and the Nidānakathā place him in the south. In the Pārāyanavagga we shall meet another sage who, having made his way to the remote southern lands, encountered an exponent of dark magics there.

All of this evokes a tradition of outsider ascetics of a dark skin color, known for their magical abilities, and associated with the south. It would seem likely that these are a cultural memory, and perhaps cultural reality, of non-brahmin or pre-brahmin ascetics or shamans who predated the arrival of the brahmins in India. They interacted with the brahmins in complex ways, sometimes being adopted by them and changing brahmanical culture from the inside.

All this begs the question: are these various hermits, in fact, one and the same? Several modern commentators have remarked on the apparent “confusion” between the Asita of the Nālakasutta and the Asita Devala of the Assalāyanasutta. But this way of thinking assumes that there were originally different individuals, whose separate identities later became conflated. As a monk, however, I am keenly aware of how, when an ordained person appears to others, they are wrapped in two robes: the ochre robes that protect the body, and the robes of preconceptions and projections. I would suggest that the “dark hermit”, while a genuine reality of life in ancient India, was perceived in terms of an archetype or stereotype. When we encounter a dark hermit in our texts, we are seeing a partially-differentiated figure drawn from the archetype. That is not to say that there is not an actual person at the root of the story, only that their depiction is shaped by cultural stereotypes.

Since kaṇha is simply the Pali spelling of Sanskrit kṛṣṇa, it is further tempting to associate these hermits with the famed god Krishna of later Hinduism. Indeed, it may be that the deity known as Krishna is first attested in Buddhist texts, for a tale in the Ummaggajātaka (Ja 542) tells of how the outcaste maiden Jampāvatī was made queen by King Kaṇha Vāsudeva. Like the dark hermits, he transgresses the expected conventions of lineage. Vāsudeva is, of course, a common name of Krishna. It would be, however, overly literal to claim that these were the same historical figures. These contexts are vague and legendary, framed as reports of days of yore, and associated with weird magics. They tell us something of how such figures were thought of, and how they challenged the narrow assumptions of brahmanical theories of lineage.

All this tells us that Asita the “Black” sage or “Dark Splendour” appears in the Nālakasutta as a figure of legend, a marvelous and revered font of wisdom and magic, come to disrupt the notions of legacy and succession. Unlike the other dark hermits, he is implied to be a brahmin, or at least, so much is suggested when he is described as “master of marks and hymns” (lakkhaṇamantapāragū). “Hymns” are the Vedas, while “marks” are signs discerned as a basis for prophecy, most famously the 32 marks of the Great Man. Like other brahmanical figures of note—including Indra and Brahmā himself—he serves to uplift and validate the Buddha in the eyes of the brahmins.

The descriptions of the gods and the home of Suddhodana are unusually colorful and vivid, although still fairly restrained compared to later Indian literature. Notably, the verses mostly avoid using royal language in the depiction of Siddhattha’s home and family. Suddhodana is not referred to as king, and his residence is described simply as a “home” (bhavana). The infant is referred to as kumāra, which can mean “prince”, but can equally well mean simply “boy”. Given that there is no mention of a king, the humbler translation seems preferable. The lavish descriptors and honorifics are used only of the boy, not for his family or home. The only “royal” language is the antepūra from which the sage departs at the end. This was a kind of walled compound inside which the rulers resided. But the description overall is quite compatible with what we know of the Sakyans from the early sources, namely that they were an aristocratic republic who elected “rulers” (rājā) from the leading clans to serve as rulers for limited periods. In later legend, of course, Suddhodana was elevated to the status of a king, but it seems the current Sutta predates this.

The gods on Meru’s peak refer to the newborn baby as bodhisatta, “one intent on Awakening”, which is the only time this term occurs in the Suttanipāta. The earliest usage of bodhisatta was, it seems, to refer to Siddhattha after he had left home and was actively seeking Awakening. There is no suggestion in the major Sutta passages that such Awakening was predestined, or indeed, that predestination or prophecy was possible. The burden of the vatthugāthā, in fact, is to establish the reality and reliability of prophecy. From here, it was but a small step to infer that the bodhisatta was already destined to become Awakening in a past life long ago.

As to the main teaching passage, it is one of the classic “sage” (muni) texts in the Suttanipāta. In his opening question, Nālaka tells the Buddha that the Asita’s words had come true. This establishes a connection between the two parts, and suggests that, while the details of the vatthugāthā are late, they may have drawn from a genuine story of a sage named Asita who spoke of a Buddha. Nālaka’s brief mention, however, says nothing of prophecy, and might just as well have been spoken in a situation similar to the Pārāyanavagga, where an elder sage encouraged a student to seek out the Buddha. It is rarely the case that such legendary narratives are either entirely factual or entirely invented.

The Buddha urges Nālaka to practice restraint in all circumstances, leaving behind the tempations of the worldly life. He is not sugar-coating it, but warns that the path wil be hard. Seeing one’s oneness with all creatures, one would never harm any of them. The life of as renunciant is solitary, devoted to meditation under a tree, and walking for alms content to receive little or nothing. The text occasionally evokes teachings from elsewhere in the Nikāyas, as when the Buddha says to practice as if “licking a razor’s edge”, per [sn35.235:4.1] or [thag16.2:12.4] with “tongue pressed on the roof of the mouth”, per [mn20:7.2], etc.

The sutta concludes in praise of the virtues of silence.


Are you familiair with the latest articles and books of Brian Levman? In this regard I think he talks about the brahminization of Buddhism:

[This] first section deals with the history of early Buddhism which was largely written by Brahmans centuries after the Buddha lived. Although the Buddha came from a mixed ethnic and linguistic background, much of his background has been obscured by a Brahmanical overprint which obfuscates his connection with the indigenous tribes and presents the Buddha as an exclusive product of an Indo-Aryan Brahmanical culture. Yet parts of the older, earlier culture can still be found in the suttas and especially in the loan-words from the Dravidian and Munda languages adopted into Pāli. Section one of the book will be examining these words and interpreting their significance in terms of the cultural continuity of the autochthonous population in early Buddhism.


No I’m not, thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ll see if I can get hold of the full book.


I’m checking this book out, and holy cow.

Thank you for posting this! Truly mind-blowing and makes so much make sense to me now. I was always curious and a little bewildered about this knowing that the Sakyas were not an Indo-Aryan speaking / community, and the connection to the samanas as indigenous, the non-monarchical systems in the Sangha, the indigenous imagery and loan words, etc. etc. all come together. The Brahmanization also makes so much sense, of course, and was already known.

Also definitely going to have to find a way to get the whole book and check this out:

This is really fascinating stuff.
The idea that the Buddha spoke an indigenous language natively and was largely steeped in that indigenous / non-Aryan culture at a time of heavy loaning and mixing makes so much sense and is game changing in terms of his narrative and our understanding of him as a person. Nothing 100% revolutionary, but drawing it all out and looking at the data is awesome.

With mettā

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You are welcome. The book is very expensive though, but it seems to be mainly based on some earlier articles and you can read those articles. For example Chapter Five you are referring to is this article more or less:

And some other interesting articles of his:


Thank you, checking those out as well.

It also reminds me of the Agañña Sutta and the references in the suttas to people who live off of foraging, live in the wilderness, etc. Someone on this forum recently(?) remarked that there seemed to be references to indigenous people who were still very much around and in the area of the time, living off of traditional hunting and gathering-type subsistence, and that these groups potentially influenced / inspired certain samanas. Of course, with the samana movement coming from indigenous and pre-Aryan religions, this would make a lot of sense. I wonder if the Buddha, when talking about these wilderness-living groups and ideals as pre-dating everything emse, was tapping into the indigenous / Munda substratum that was underlying his culture and region, and the samana movement. It’s not a perfect fit, but it certainly does make the whole thing make a lot more sense and is relatively accurate.

It seems the Buddha was deeply steeped in an aboriginal (pre-Aryan) environment. The majority of people in his homeland, the samana movement and his samana-peers, his family’s religious and cultural customs, the indigenous groups living outside the mainstream societal structure of the time, etc. all formed the larger part of his cultural context, within the mix of emerging Vedic / Brahminical customs and culture.

Enough ranting from me though lol.


Commenting again in reference to this paper by Bryan Levman which is a great summary of the major points and arguments, and brings a lot of things to the table for us to consider.

I was wondering if Ven. @sujato has had a chance to read through this? It discusses Asita as well (as in this post), though it makes the argument that he was possibly a non-Aryan seer. It also raises an interesting argument: were the 32 marks and the idea of the Mahāpuruṣa originally indigenous concepts?

There is some reason to think this may be the case, and that they were assumed/intentionally made-out to be Brahminical despite not being so by the Buddhists. Any thoughts on this possibility, and the relationship to Asita in this narrative here?

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in that relatively short paper that I was thinking of drafting a small discussion post so that others could see and read some of the evidence and potential interpretations given by the author, but it’s quite time consuming so I’m not sure I’ll be able to very soon. This information definitely seems important to make more well-known after some further inspection and analysis though. Even if some of the larger potential claims are less certain, this is not the narrative that most people are told or learn about the Buddha and his life/context. That paper is a great overview it seems, but I’d be interested to hear opinions of this from people more versed in the history and narratives surrounding the Buddha/the texts themselves.

One of the discussions is of Snp 3.1 with the phrase kosalesu niketino. The commentary understands this to be referring to the fact that the Sakyas were indigenous to the land that was then owned/ruled by the Kosalans—i.e. that there was some push-back against them being vassals. The author also connects this to the Jātakas 7 and 465, where King Pasanedi of Kosala is (reluctantly) given a Sakyan girl from a slave mother named Nagāmuṇḍa—a name itself highly suggestive of indigenous totemic ties or indigenous customs that are known to be influential, such as the serpent worship from pre-Aryan aboriginal peoples that influenced the Aryans. This relates to another post, but any thoughts on the plausibility of this as well? In your translation, you didn’t render it in the same way as Norman, who I assume was following the commentary here(?).

The question of the marks/mahāpuruṣa, Asita, the meaning of niketino are my main curiosities. The other things seem to be relatively straightforward and almost certainly the case—the cultural-linguistic borrowing, religious customs and practices, the funeral rites and favoritism to non-Aryan republics and non-monarchal ruling systems, the racist connotations of certain insults and the common references to the aboriginal culture of the region, etc. These first three seem to be much more speculative though.

EDIT: Oh, another thing— Was the Buddha’s real gotta “Ādicca”?? In Snp 3.1 he mentions this, and the Sakyan khattiya gotta seems to have been known and accepted to be Ādicca. There’s been some mention of the Sakyas worshipping or venerating the Sun (God) as well—maybe because of this? Why wouldn’t the Buddha have had the same name, and where does Gotama—a Brahminical gotta—come from? This is an even bigger question, almost. It would be almost too shocking if Gotama was not his original gotta, but it is strange that Ādicca is not. Or is this not strange and I’m missing something?
This article points out the epithet “ādicca-bandhu” (kinsman of the Sun) may be a reference to this, and that perhaps his personal name was Gotama, not his gotta? This would make sense.

It also mentions archaeological evidence that the Buddha likely did not have extravagant brick palaces, but that the largest structure was probably a large tribal / republic meeting hall (santhāgāra)—a thatched hut. His house would have likely, then, been made of wood. This would of course make sense in the larger narrative here (and perhaps the short reference to his jhānic experience under a tree while his father was working), but is somewhat world-shattering from the narrative we are often taught. The article at large definitely makes some errors and has some poor arguments, but this in particular seems relatively reasonable as far as the clan name and less extravagant upbringing in terms of palaces go. I’d be skeptical that the Buddha didn’t have a rather lavish and aristocratic upbringing for his time and place though, which the article seems to make some strange arguments against that don’t hold up, in my opinion.
Any opinions on the name or palace references? Sorry to overload with questions!

With mettā

I talk about the idea of the “dark hermit”, of which he was one, and I agree, he was probably non-Aryan, or at least, the idea of the “dark hermit” (which is more archetypal than personal) probably stems from an indigenous tradition with dubious relationship with brahminism.

Please do!

I believe I noticed this in White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes.

Thanks for pointing it out, actually it is a mistake, I have corrected it now. It must mean “[a country] of a native among the Kosalans”. The grammar seems to be expressing ownership (genitive), which implies it is referring to the king, which is made explicit in the commentary.

BB’s “Ruled] by one native to the Kosalans” is not quite right IMHO; the locative plural kosalesu is regularly used to mean “in the land of the Kosalans” (lit: “among the Kosalans”), rather than “of the Kosalans”.

I agree with Levman, then, it is saying the Sakyans are ruled by a native person in the Kosalan lands.

TBQH I don’t really know enough about how family names worked in those days to be able to say.

Indeed, as well as the pasāda, which Brahmali has shown must mean a “stilted longhouse”. (But longhouses can be pretty nice!)

I’ve been trying to find out what santha means here and drawing a blank. Does Levman say anything?

As usual in academic circles, there are counter arguments to Levman. Stefan Karpik has posted a number of important points here: (PDF) A Reply to Bryan Levman’s The Language the Buddha Spoke | Stefan Karpik -
(Scroll down the page to access the article in pdf).

Some excerpts:

  • Though it is welcome that Bryan Levman’s paper (2019) in this issue,
    The “Language the Buddha Spoke”, seeks common ground with the SOTT (Single Oral Transmission Theory) proposed in my recent paper (Karpik 2019), I hope it does not seem churlish to reject his position almost completely. Examples of the SOTT in my view are the arguments of Gombrich (2018: 84-5) that Pali was the Buddha’s idiolect, of Wynne (Gombrich 2018: 82-3) that it was his dialect and mine that Pali was a sociolect.
    Although I agree with Levman’s claim of an underlying language to Pali, I do
    not think this has any significance; there is an underlying layer to any language.
    What I do deny is that the available evidence is able to date an underlying layer to the Buddha [which Levman claims].

  • Epigraphical Prakrit provides direct evidence of such a standard language across India, while Levman admits there is no direct evidence of a lingua franca/ koine… In common with MOTT (Multiple Oral Transmission Theory) advocates, Levman gives no account of why the underlying layer was discarded and lost, despite repeated injunctions in the suttas to memorise them to the letter; difficulty in understanding archaic language did not deter Vedic reciters or Catholics worldwide using the Latin liturgy in the last century. Nor does Levman engage with my argument that the alleged composite character of Pali is a feature of natural languages (Karpik 2019: 67-69); he merely reiterates the MOTT position that it ‘proves’ Pali is an artificial language.

  • Levman (p.80-81, n.13) claims mantā is an example of -ttā absolutive. It does not look like a -ttā absolutive and is more likely to be an instrumental or nominative of mantā or mantar. I agree with Levman (p.80-81, n.13) that the -ttā absolutives of the Patna Dhammapada are later than Pali, but that merely strengthens my case that -tvā is the original form. Levman does not engage with my point that the alleged Sanskritisation applied only to the alleged -ttā absolutive and mysteriously avoided the other seven Pali absolutive forms.

  • Levman (p.71-72) does not engage with my argument that brāhmaṇa is a loan word. He instead claims it is a re-Sanskritisation (implying 3.500+ corrections in the Tipiṭaka) and he reconstructs pre-Pali *bāhaṇa although several Prakrit inscriptions have br- (Shāhbāzgaṛhī and Mānsehrā bramaṇa, Girnar brahmaṇa, Bharhut bram(h)ana). His argument is confused: he does not acknowledge the Girnar and Bharhut forms; the similarity of the ‘re-Sanskritisation’ with the north-western forms of Shāhbāzgaṛhī and Mānsehrā is a coincidence; in contradiction to the last point (p.72) “an underlying, earlier layer to Pāli was strongly influenced by the north-western or most prestigious dialect”. The different treatment of r in the north-western dialect from Pali is emblematic of why they have not influenced each other. Pali has r dropping (dhamma for dharma); the north-western dialect not only retainsr, it sometimes undegoes metathesis (dhrama for dharma).

  • Levman frequently gets directionality wrong:a. In the PTS editions D I 223 has sabbato-pahaṃ whereas M I 239, Vv114 and J VI 46 have sabbato-pabhaṃ ‘shining everywhere’. (Be has only sabbato-pabhaṃ in all four cases.) Levman (p.66) considers paha to be pre-Pali and is thus alleging a rare fortition. The literature Levman references does not refer to Vv114 or J VI 46, but on the principle of ‘majority wins’ (Campbell 2004:131), I consider pabha the original form and paha a later accidental lenition during dictation to a scribe, based on the analogy of Pali nabha(s) > Māhārāṣṭrī naha ‘sky’ (Bubenik 1966:56; see also Pischel §188). This directionality is confirmed by Oberlies §15.15 (b) who gives OIA prabhū- > Pali pahu- ‘able’ and OIA prabhūta > pahūta > Pali bahūta ‘much’. (There is also an alternative explanation of pahaṃ as a copyist’s error based on a confusion between bh and h, which are difficult to distinguish in Sinhalese characters.)

  • Levman claims an astonishingly fast pace of change from pre-Pali into mutually unintelligible Pali in a mere 200 years from 380 BCE to 180 BCE. Yet in the following 400 years inscriptions from Bharhut (2nd century BCE) to Nasik in the time of Vāsiṣṭhīputra Puḷumāvi (2 nd century CE) hardly show any change in Epigraphic Prakrit, thus making Levman’s thesis improbable. To make a convincing claim of mutual unintelligibility between pre-Pali and Pali, he would need to show different syntax and different lexis. He shows neither…

  • I am not unsympathetic to Levman’s concept of the development of a simplified lingua franca through contact with Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Munda and Tibetan speakers. However, I regard it as helpful to a narrative of the early development of Prakrit in general, rather than Pali in particular, because reconstructions cannot be dated with any precision… The narratives of
    lingua franca and bilingualism are not necessarily in competition, before the formation of the Vedas, in my view, but bilingualism would predominate in the Buddha’s day after centuries of contact.

Levman’s proposals may be correct; but the above reveals how his points are contested. As well, in Pāli and Buddhism, he makes a number of catagorical statements regarding the Buddha’s Dravidian or non-IA origins, which may be true, but he does this without citations – which would be helpful in a semi-academic book like this.

Still, overall, interesting material.

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I read through some of that, yeah. Most of it is just ideas about Pāli, not the discernible things about Sakyan culture or the time of the Buddha, which are the main concern here.

I think we have to be careful what conclusions we come to that are based on certain assumptions of data; but for me, the value of Levaman’s work is in drawing out some of the low-hanging fruit about the socio-historical context and whatnot.

With mettā


And then there’s this: (PDF) The Buddha taught in Pali: A working hypothesis | Stefan Karpik -

There appears to be a growing number of scholars, including Gombrich, who lean towards Pāli being the language the Buddha spoke – or, at least an early version of the language used in the suttas.

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote that if a modern person very proficient in Pāli were to somehow listen to the Buddha, that person would understand 85-90%, in his opinion.

Oh, thanks so much for these, all interesting details. There’s so often a tendency to over-interpret one’s own thesis, and it takes a while for things to settle back into a balance. Which is why it is wise to have a certain resistance to radical new interpretations, not to dismiss, but not being too eager to jump on a bandwagon.

Yes, I think it is an agent noun nominative. I just did some work on this, there is a phrase mantā asmīti which to me must be a parallel to eso 'hamasmi in the sense: “I am the thinker”.

Hmm, not hugely convincing. But I’ll admit, I have been back and forth on this one so many times I’ve lost count!

Indeed. So much of all this is really about academic definition, and isn’t really interesting to native speakers. When I was in Lumbini, chatting with a local Nepali scholar, he happily referred to the Ashokan inscription as “Pali”, even though it’s obviously not identical with what is in the canon.

If an archeologist were to learn English by listening to rap lyrics, would they be able to understand an Australian farmer?


Yeah, these are good points and a good simile! :laughing:

Personally, this is why I don’t quite find the whole “Did the Buddha speak Pāḷi debate?” very interesting. Sure, it is an interesting discussion and there are some interesting particulars to look at. But as someone with a background in linguistics, we’re really talking about a dialect continuum here. The simile of American Rap Music to a rural Australian farmer is quite apt for this reason. The whole debate—though I know many people involved are well aware of this (probably)—seems somewhat caught up on hard and fast notions of a “language.” Many linguists are tending to prefer “language variety” over dialect or language in many circumstances. The distinction between a dialect and language is a notoriously difficult dichotomy that really doesn’t exist, similar to how the barrier between one species and another is not quite as clear cut as many people are led to believe.

Pāḷi is just a variety of Middle Indic with its own history. We can look at its characteristics, their development, etc. and compare them historically to what the Buddha may or may not have said/used in the particular variety he was speaking. But really, it’s just a spectrum of smeared linguistic colors that do not neatly transition from one shade to another. Whether we want to call that Pāḷi or a variety of Middle Indic akin to Pāḷi, it doesn’t really matter.


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I agree. I am not sure what is really at stake. Apart from a very few edge cases, knowing the dialectical history doesn’t really affect our understanding or translation. And we know that there was substantial editing of the Pali texts, regardless of what purely linguistic changes were involved.

It is certain that there were monks from many districts in the Sangha, and even at the First Council, if they were reciting together, they would have had different accents, as is the case today.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Buddha’s native tongue must, of course, have been the upper-class language of the Sakyan republic, whatever that was. All the theories, so far as I know, assume that that was not the language he taught in. So under all these theories the Buddha was teaching in a second language.

Now, it is absolutely normal that regional accents would vary from place to place, and even with people from different cultural strata within that place. I speak English differently if I’m chatting with a local worker in Parramatta than I do if I’m on a Zoom call to the US. It’s almost impossible to not do this.

So it seems to me that it would be highly unusual, if not impossible, that the Buddha for his entire teaching career of 45 years spoke one, and only one, second language. That he never spoke in his native dialect, even when visiting home? That he never picked up local idioms and accents of people in places as far-flung as Campā and Mathura and Dakkhinagiri? That he spoke to unlettered outcastes in exactly the same form as he did to educated brahmins? And even more so, that not a single person who spoke to him in this time ever used a regional dialect? I honestly think this is so unlikely as to be almost incomprehensible. I just can’t imagine how linguists could think this is possible.

Given how uniform the Pali canon is, it must be the result of a leveling of linguistic idioms.

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