Pali is the name that has been given to the language spoken in the north of India, from and before the 7th century b. c. to about the 5th century of the Christian Era. It is still the literary sacred language of Burma, Siam, and Ceylon, although its use is said to be decreasing. In other words, in the lands where Southern Buddhism flourishes (to use the term in a geographical sense), the language now known by the name of Pali is still used in the religious observances of the Buddhists, as their canon was written in this language.
There were two principal reasons which made Pali one of the most important literary languages of the world: first, a political factor: the rising and the welding together of the Kosala-power into a kingdom, during the seventh century b. c. It is the opinion of scholars that the Aryan influx into the land now generally termed 'India' occurred through three main routes, and that minor settlements were left along the route; and it is held that the language of these isolated groups or communities bore the same relation to the Vedic language as the present-day Italian bears to ancient Latin. In other words the language was closely akin to Sanskrit; but it was a spoken language, whereas Sanskrit was a 'sacred language' — the language of the sacred scriptures, the Vedas. The language that was spoken at Savatthi, the capital of the Kosala kingdom, in Nepal, soon became the form of speech which was generally adopted. A comparison may be drawn in what occurred in England during the welding process of Angles and Saxons which finally resulted in the 'Anglo-Saxon language' (now known as 'English').
The second factor was of a religious nature. Gautama the Buddha was a Kosalan by birth, and it is very probable that he used the Pali language in giving forth his teachings, and therefore the subsequent philosophical writings of his disciples were similarly couched in this language. All the early Buddhist scriptures that have come down to our day are in Pali, although many later Buddhistic writings are in Sanskrit.
The etymology of the word Pali is uncertain. It probably means 'row, line, canon,' and is used, in its exact technical sense, of the language of the canon, containing the documents of the Buddhist faith. But when Pali first became known to Europeans it was already used also, by those who wrote in Pali, of the language of the later writings, which bear the same relation to the standard literary Pali of the canonical texts as medieval does to classical Latin. — Encyclopaedia Britannica
But C. J. Joshi, M.A., formerly Professor of Pali and Marathi at Baroda College, India, writes in his A Manual of Pali:
The Pali language was derived from ancient Sanskrit; its former name was magadhi, the dialect of the Magadha country, now called Bihar. Magadhi received its new name Pali from the Sanskrit word pali (a line), which has the secondary meaning, the text, as distinguished from the commentary. The commentaries refer to the original Magadhi Tripitaka as pali; gradually the connotation of the word was enlarged and it came to be applied to every composition in Magadhi and consequently to the language itself.
The language was the Vernacular of ancient Magadha, in which the great Buddha preached his Doctrine to the people, and Asoka inscribed his immortal messages to generations.
Scholars have also drawn attention to the fact that Pali may be divided into three classes or stages: (1) the language before the writing of the Buddhist canon; (2) the language of the canon itself; (3) the later developments and minor variations arising after the period of the canon. However, the term Pali is generally applied to the three classes enumerated.
Professor Otto Franke, in his Pali und Sanskrit, shows that in the 3rd century b. c. the language used throughout northern India was practically one, and that it was derived directly from the speech of the Vedic Aryans, retaining many Vedic forms lost in the later classical Sanskrit. The basis of the language used in the Buddhist canon, or sacred texts, was that used in Ujjayini the capital of the Avanti district.
To those familiar with the Sanskrit alphabet and the Devanagari characters, it will be of interest to know that the Pali alphabet uses the same letters, and that it is the same as the Sanskrit except for a very few modifications.
As regards the literature: three works are extant in the pre-canonical Pali (i. e., what is referred to above as class one), namely the Milinda-panha (a religious romance translated by Rhys Davids under the title Questions of King Milinda, which originated from the north-west of India); the Netti Pakarana and the Petaka Upadesa(from the center of India). These two were believed to have been written by a disciple of the Buddha, but scholars now place them as belonging to the era preceding the Buddha.
The works containing the Buddhist doctrine are known under the name of Pitakas — an interesting word, for its meaning is a 'basket'; not a basket in which things are stored as in a box or chest, but the basket which the Indian workers use at excavations for filling with earth and handing from one worker to another. In this word the meaning is clearly given as to the intention of the Pitakas, i. e., that the doctrine should be handed on from one disciple to another. The Pitakas are simply collections of the scriptures available at the time of their gathering, and are divided into three sections: (1) the rules of the Buddhist order, known as Vinaya; (2) the writings setting forth the doctrine of Buddhism, generally called Suttas (Sanskrit, Sutras); (3) analytical exercises in the system upon which the doctrine is based — the Abhidhamma.
The Suttas form the part that is of the greatest interest to us, for in these are found the teachings of Gautama the Buddha. They are small tracts, rather than a complete text or scripture, each sutta containing a single aspect of a teaching or doctrine, set down briefly in writing, amounting to only a page or two, with the intention of its being an aid to the memory; those expounding the doctrine or acting as teachers to disciples, carrying on a running commentary upon the particular text in hand. When several of these suttas treating on the same subject were gathered together thus forming the basis of a dialog, such collection was termed a suttanta. A collection of these suttantas then formed a Nikaya, of which there are four main ones. Another interesting series of anecdotes is gathered together in the collection known as the Jatakas (or 'birth-stories').
Of all the various Suttas, the one of greatest importance may be said to be the Dhammachakka, often called 'the Wheel of the Law' (a literal translation of the words — or more freely rendered, 'the Proclamation of the Law of the World-Order'). This Sutta opens with what is termed the first sermon, addressed by the Tathagata to his five former associates in the practice of yoga, in the Mrigadava forest (near Kasi), in which the Buddha declared the Noble Eightfold Path — the Middle Way which avoids the two extremes — consisting in the practice of: Right views; right thoughts; right words; right actions; right living; right exertion; right recollection; right meditation.
The work known as the Buddhist textbook, the Dhammapada ('the Path of the Law') was compiled at a later date than the Suttas. It consists of a gathering together of gems of thought uttered by the Tathagatha, amounting to 423 verses, each subject (of which there are 26, each being a chapter or section) containing from ten to twenty stanzas. It is unquestionably the loftiest exposition of the Buddhist moral and ethical code.
One of the methods of relating anecdotes about Gautama the Buddha (Pali, Gotama), at the same time illustrating his teaching, may be given. A young mother was distraught because of the death of her little boy, who had just reached the age when he was commencing to run. With the dead child clasped to her bosom, she went from house to house seeking for medicine to revive her little one. At one of the dwellings, one who had entered upon the first steps of the Way as enunciated by the Teacher, replied to her entreaty: "No medicine can I give to thee, there is one alone who can do that."
"Do tell me, I pray thee, who he is," said the young mother, Kisagotami.
"Seek thou the Lion of the Law, the Lord of Mercy; he alone can give thee medicine."
Kisagotami speedily sought out the Buddha, and asked what herbs should she bring him for the medicine (as it was then the custom for the patients themselves to gather the herbs that were used for the making of the remedy).
"Bring me some mustard seed," said the Teacher, "but it must be obtained from a house where no son has perished, where no husband, where no parents, where no slave has perished!"
Overjoyed with the thought of obtaining so easy a remedy as mustard seed, Kisagotami hastened away, asking from house to house for the mustard seed, still clasping her child.
"Why, yes, here is mustard seed," said her neighbors, "take it!" But before taking it she would ask: "Has son, or husband, parents or slave died in this house?" "Alas, yes," was the constant reply. At one abode she was told, "Lady, what is it that you ask? The living are few, but the dead are many."
Not finding a single house that could supply her with the mustard seed, a light dawned upon Kisagotami. She buried her child in the forest, and returned to the Buddha, paying reverent homage.
"Have you the mustard seed?"
"No, Lord. The people say that the dead are many and the living few."
"It is even so." And the Buddha discoursed upon the impermanency of all aggregated beings, till the doubts of Kisagotami were cleared away and her grief assuaged. She accepted her lot and became a disciple, straightway entering 'the first path.