L0026543 Burmese-Pali Manuscript. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Pāli is the language of the Tipiṭaka, the Theravāda Buddhist canon, and many later Buddhist works. Pāli is one of the most archaic forms of Middle Indo-Aryan attested, alongside the inscriptional material of the 4th century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D.

Pāli literature is vast. The Tipiṭaka is a huge body of prose and verse works from the early centuries of Buddhism, consisting of three major collections (ti ‘three’ + piṭaka ‘basket’). The Vinaya Piṭaka contains texts on the rules of life in the religious community, including many stories explaining the origins of the rules. The Sutta Piṭaka contains the central teachings of Theravāda Buddhism, in the form of discourses attributed to Gautama Buddha and his immediate followers. The texts of the Abhidamma Piṭaka constitute a systematic presentation of early Buddhist doctrine. Later Pāli works include the commentaries (Aṭṭhakathā) and subcommentaries (Ṭı̄kā) to the Tipiṭaka, and other major works such as Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (5th century A.D.).

Pāli is linguistically interesting because it shows both ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ dialect features; it appears that the base dialect underlying Pāli was western, a lingua franca used over a large area at a period somewhat later than the Buddha. The eastern features found in Pāli result from a recasting of originally eastern compositions into this western lingua franca at a later period. The original eastern language may have been a form of the Prakrit Ardhamāgadhı̄, since the ancient kingdom of Magadha, in modern Bihar, was the location for many significant events in the life of Gautama around the fifth/sixth centuries B.C.

Pāli may be studied as part of an undergraduate degree alongside either Sanskrit (degree in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies) or Classics (joint degree in Classics & Asian and Middle Eastern Studies). The course includes study of the language, literature, Theravāda Buddist doctrine, and the early history of Buddhism in South Asia. It is also possible to study Pāli as part of the joint degree in Religion & Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Pāli classes are also available to students on graduate courses in Indian and religious studies.