The Theosophical Forum – June 1936

PALI: NEW LIGHT ON A LITTLE KNOWN LANGUAGE — G. de Purucker

[The following, which clears up certain moot questions concerning the origin of the Pali language and literature, and the causes of its disappearance as one of the Prakrits or native tongues of India, was dictated by Dr. de Purucker (over his morning coffee, we might add) in kindly response to questions submitted to him by the Associate Editors on behalf of the present Oriental number. Taking up certain points on which scholars confess their inability to agree, and throwing as it does an entirely new light on others, this contribution, we believe, will be greatly valued by all who are interested in this and kindred subjects. — Eds.]

Pali really is a Prakrit-language of ancient India, and was undoubtedly the cultured form of that language spoken over a probably large part of India at the time when the Buddha lived. Pali itself had its less cultured forms which were spoken by the masses, the uneducated, just as we have the same thing in certain European countries today, or in Japan, or in China. There is the language of the literary classes, and the popular slangy language of the masses. Connected with Pali linguistically, was Sanskrit, which was really the sacred language of the Brahmanas and held more or less private or secret by them. The Sanskrit even in those ancient times was the vehicle for the archaic Wisdom-teachings of the Aryan peoples of India, such as the Vedas, and the Puranas, and the Upanishads, and the great Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But Pali was one of several other languages of culture in ancient India, all which were of so-called Prakrit character, although very little is known about these other literary languages. Pali has survived to the present time because for some curious reason it became the linguistic vehicle in which were enshrined the teachings of Buddhism, i. e. of Southern Buddhism, much as Latin has survived because enshrining the teachings of early medieval Christianity. Just as there were in ancient Italy many other Italic tongues, each one having its literary or cultured form, and likewise its popular idiom, so was it in ancient India.

No, Pali is not a "washed-out Sanskrit." Sanskrit was rather a mystery-language which was "composed" or "builded up" to perfection by initiates of the Sanctuaries; and because it was thus constructed into an almost perfect expression of human thought, at least for that day, it was called samskrita, which means "composed," "constructed." Thus Pali is not a true child of Sanskrit, but is and was the literary form of one of the ancient languages of India popularly spoken over an apparently wide stretch of the Indian Peninsula, and which has survived for the reasons above stated. So much for the language.

As regards Buddhism: this noble religious philosophy had wide vogue and spread over almost the whole of India, and it was in its heyday in the times of Chandragupta and Asoka, two great Buddhist monarchs who were mainly instrumental also in encouraging Buddhist missionaries and supporting them, i. e., those who carried Buddhism into Northern Asia and into the lands to the east and south of India. This was during the heyday of Buddhism in India. Brahmanism of course, with various other Indian systems, survived through those hundreds of years of Buddhist glory in India mainly because Buddhism is essentially tolerant and mild. But little by little, after the passing of the Buddhist heyday in India, Brahmanism again got the upper hand, and this for various reasons, one reason being a partial decay of the original Buddhist spirit of enthusiasm in the Buddhists themselves; partly also because Brahmanism is a form of high religious and philosophical thinking which is native and therefore sympathetic to Indian thought; and partly because, as H. P. B. and myself have pointed out, Buddhism originally was really a sort of Brahmanism of the Sanctuaries which the Buddha communicated to everyone who could and would take it, and thus, being extremely recondite in its deeper aspects, made less appeal to the masses on the whole than did the cultus and ceremonials, the pageantry and forms, and the mythological literature, of Brahmanism. Thus, little by little Buddhism faded out from India, but increased pari passu in China, in Tibet, and in all the countries to the north of India, as well as in Siam and Burma and Ceylon and Java, the countries south and east of India, thus in time forming the two great Buddhist philosophical and geographical divisions which exist in the present day.

The Buddhism of the North was, from its first inception, highly mystical, philosophic, and typically esoteric in type. The Buddhism of the South was, from its beginning, highly philosophical but less mystical in presentation and far more pragmatical in spirit than the Buddhism of the North. Now, the real teaching of the Buddha in most of its branches can be gained, at least exoterically, by welding together both the Mahayana of the North and the Hinayana of the South.

It is natural that European Orientalists, like the late Professor Rhys Davids, should ascribe reasons for the downfall of Buddhism in India which seem to these European Orientalists as being sensible and probable causes; and they are not to be harshly criticized for this supposition, because they have no other means of judging why Buddhism finally failed in India. But the real truth was that Buddhism, coming from the inner Sanctuaries of Brahmanism itself, and being as it were an esoteric side of Brahmanism in those days, swept the land like a spiritual fire as long as the Buddha and his arhats and his immediate disciples were there to guide it; but the later Indian Buddhists lost this spiritual fervor of enthusiasm and clarity of insight and gradually sank back into Brahmanism in its various forms. There, then, is the whole thing in a nutshell.

Finally, there is a very important although typically occult and esoteric reason for the passing of original Buddhism out of the Indian Peninsula, and it lay in a situation which is extremely difficult adequately to describe, and yet was the main contributing cause of the Buddhist decline there. The facts are as follows: In his immense love and pity for mankind, and in his desire to bring certain fundamental secret teachings of the Sanctuaries to the attention of the multitudes for their spiritual succor and intellectual and moral health, Gautama the Lord Buddha made on the whole in so doing an almost perfect presentation of the philosophic and ethical side of the Ancient Wisdom-Religion; but, shortly before his Nirvana, he realized that there had been an insufficiently adequate elaboration of the mystical and religious aspects or portions of the Wisdom-Teachings, except in so far as the Buddha's immediate circle and his arhats were concerned. In order, therefore, to correct this insufficiency, Gautama the Buddha some fifty or more years after his passing, brought about the birth and being of the Avatara, the great Sankaracharya, the Buddha himself supplying the psychological apparatus of this great Hindu Teacher of the Adwaita-Vedanta. Thus it was that, although born in the South of India, and some fifty or more years later than the passing of the Buddha, Sankaracharya was, so to speak, a "reappearance" as Sankaracharya, of the human part of Buddha Gautama. The Theosophical reader will understand at once what is here meant when he recollects the Theosophical teaching of the doctrine of the Avataras. As Sankaracharya grew to manhood and began to do his work, his teaching, which almost from his own day and up to the present time has been called the Adwaita-Vedanta, or non-dualistic Vedanta, spread like wild-fire over the Indian Peninsula; and this really great Teacher drew into the circle of his Doctrine the larger part of the most intuitive and philosophical minds in India of all ages since his day, so that even in our own times, the Adwaita-Vedanta is perhaps the most popular and most widely accepted form of philosophic and mystical Brahmanism known.

Indeed, so closely akin and so similar in philosophical and mystical teaching and outlook are the Adwaita-Vedanta of Sankaracharya with the Mahayana-doctrines of Northern Buddhism, that the bigoted critics of both describe the Adwaita-Vedanta as a "masked or disguised Buddhism," and similarly describe the Northern mystical Buddhism as a "masked or disguised Adwaita-Vedanta." The criticism is absolutely true in fact, because the Adwaita-Vedanta and the esoteric Buddhism of Gautama were virtually identic. Thus it was that the Avatara Sankaracharya, the "reappearance," as above said, of the "human part" of the Buddha-Gautama, was perhaps more instrumental than any other single cause in bringing about the fading out of the philosophical and ethical Buddhism of the beginnings — a strange paradox which gives us food for deep thought.

It is also true that the mystical Mahayana-Buddhism of the North was on the whole a truer presentation of the complete doctrines of the Buddha as he taught them to his arhats than was the more formally philosophical presentation of original Buddhism as we find it even yet imbodied in the doctrines of the Southern School, called the Hinayana.

Hence, if the student will combine the Adwaita-Vedanta of Sankaracharya with the magnificent mystical and occult philosophy and sublime ethic of early Buddhism, the latter now mostly imbodied in the Mahayana, he will have not only the original Doctrine of the Buddha-Gautama as the latter taught it to his arhats and his immediate pupils, but will likewise see the identity of such unification of the two with the archaic Esoteric and Occult Wisdom of the ages, today called Theosophy.


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