Was Buddha literate?

Is there any evidence in the EBTs that the Buddha could read or write?

From what we know from history, writing wasn’t invented yet at the time of the Buddha.

Do you have a reference? I’m new to the topic. Brahmi Script - World History Encyclopedia says " Despite the lack of earlier examples, some scholars argued that the Brahmi script had originated earlier than the 3rd century BCE. This claim is based on the composition of a set of texts, the Brahmanas, which were attached to the Vedic literature during the 6th century BCE."

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Also, the vinaya has several reference of writing. E.g. SuttaCentral

This is not about writing, but learning generally. They learnt by reciting at that time, not using books.


Indeed, this is an important distinction.

The earliest writing in India was on media such as leaves or inscriptions, both of which lend themselves to short forms. The earliest extant writings are the Ashokan edicts, which together make up just a few pages. Presumably writing would have also been used for trade; probably trade caravans would have carried lists of their goods, etc. There are also references to personal letters in the Jatakas.

Of course it’s possible, even likely, that among such brief early texts there were verses or passages of the Dhamma. But what has survived is the extensive canonical collections.

These were written down on either palm leaf manuscripts or birch leaf manuscripts, both of them requiring an extensive and careful preparation before usage. These technologies were not developed until some time, maybe a couple of hundred years, after Ashoka.

So the scriptures were passed down in a oral tradition not until the advent of writing, but until the advent of manuscripts.

This really leaves open the question of the degree to which writing was present in the Buddha’s day. If it was, it certainly wasn’t considered spiritually meaningful. Again, this is in stark contrast to Mahayana sutras, which frequently exhort us as to the merit of making manuscripts, preserving them, and so on.


Namo Buddhaya!

I don’t know about the pali here but the english looks like evidence

"Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to heedless and idle games such as these — eight-row chess, ten-row chess, chess in the air, hopscotch, spillikins, dice, stick games, hand-pictures, ball-games, blowing through toy pipes, playing with toy plows, turning somersaults, playing with toy windmills, toy measures, toy chariots, toy bows, guessing letters drawn in the air, guessing thoughts, mimicking deformities — he abstains from heedless and idle games such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue. Kevatta (Kevaddha) Sutta: To Kevatta

Bhante Sujato has

guessing words from syllables

Which from what I can tell is for akkharikaṁ. From the PED:

a game (recognising syllables written in the air or on one’s back). DN.i.7; Vin.ii.10; Vin.iii.180. So explained at DN-a.i.86. It may be translated “letter game”; but all Indian letters of that date were syllables.

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I bet it was a difficult game considering how those alphabets look

Are you sure you don’t mean birch bark?

Using birch bark for writing is something that’s poorly preserved (e.g. I think only one old Norse birch text survives - a kid’s homework scratch birch) but really easy for short temporary texts. If you’re using birch for anything, or even clearing it away to use the land for agriculture, you’ll end up with sections of bark separating from the wood, and you don’t need any sort of ink to write on it - a little blunt stylus made of any hard material will do (or I think you can even use your nails). The bark marked by the stylus darkens perceptibly making fairly clear writing. I think it’s barely harder than drawing in dirt with a stick.

That’s different from scrolls (which take dedicated skills and a good knife to make) or the manuscripts you’re talking about (where the inner bark is formed into flat pages and bound into a ver recognizable book). I just want to bring this up because it’s plausible as a medium for either writing or proto writing (like a picture of an ox head with tally marks literally indicating a number of oxes)

A lot of surviving early writing (from places which used inorganic media like clay) isn’t just merchants per se, but accounting / stock keeping. So, there’s absolutely no reason to expect we’ll ever know, but that might have been another form of writing present at the time.

The idea that akkharika referred to writing was postulated by TW Rhys Davids more than a century ago, here repeated by Thanissaro. It is suggested by the commentary, which explains it as “guessing the letters drawn in space or on the back”.

But akkhara in the EBTs refers to a syllable rather than a written letter. Of course the reality is that we don’t really know exactly what a lot of these games were. But as a rule, we shouldn’t propose a new and consequential meaning for a word when a common one does just fine.

The game could be any one of a number of word games. But in oral culture, it is common to begin a verse, and to identify it by its first syllable or phrase. In the Sangha, we commonly refer to chants in this way. Sometimes the initial syllable is recited as a key to prompt others.

I think it’s this kind of game, where you guess a word or phrase from just a syllable, the shortest possible element. Basically this but for words rather than Beatles songs!


Could the Buddha remember his past lives? Yes.

I’m sure he remembered having encountered books and pencils lol

Sorry yes of course.

Indeed yes. Of course there’s no need to preserve such information once it is out of date, so it has disappeared. It’s possible, likely even, that more writing will be found in archaeological sources, but until then we can only really say that there’s no definitive evidence for writing in the time of the Buddha.

FWIW personally I think it’s likely there was writing but used only for secular purposes. No great reason for this, I just find it hard to imagine that out of nowhere suddenly Ashoka is using a sophisticated writing system. But then, who knows?

Where can we learn about what the Ancient Indian education system would have looked like, especially in the time of the Buddha and his region/social class?

For example, did children go to some kind of school? What did they learn? How long and to what degree? Was it only for specialized trade? Etc. etc.

Would the Buddha have been educated in the skills necessary by his own family, relatives, and family-hired tutors? Such as learning necessary political, accounting, warfare, trade, and other skills to carry on whatever his family had in mind?


Absolutely no reason to think this is what happened in India, but Cherokee went from being 100% oral to the Cherokee having majority literacy in their syllabary in like 5 years (at a time in the 1820s when even Anglo Americans were 2/3rds illiterate). The system was created while cloth by an illiterate adult who had heard of, but did not know how to read, the Latin alphabet. And this is all fairly well recorded in detail.

If I was trying to imagine Asoka suddenly using a sophisticated writing system, I’d use that as inspiration. Not saying he did, but it is conceivable.


Great example, thanks. I must say, relying on one’s own failure of imagination is perhaps the least reliable guide to what people did in the past! People are capable of incredible things.