Pali Literature

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Pali Literature


works in the Pali language. The first works of Pali literature appeared at the beginning of the Common Era in India and Sri Lanka. As Buddhism spread, other works originated in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

Pali literature as a whole is Buddhist, and its core is the Tipitaka, the Buddhist canon. Other versions of the canon exist, including Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. The Pali canon, a product of the Theravada school of Buddhism, is the most complete version, forming a vast literature with a great variety of genres and themes. The canon is divided into three sections: Vinaya Pitaka, Abhidhamma Pitaka, and Sutta Pitaka. The Vinaya Pitaka describes the Buddhist monastic discipline and the organization of the early Buddhist community. The Abhidhamma Pitaka contains an exposition of the basic Buddhist doctrine, the dhamma. The Sutta Pitaka is one of the most remarkable parts of the canon in its artistry, breadth of content, and variety of genres and styles.

The Sutta Pitaka consists of five main parts: Digha-nikaya, Majjhima-nikaya, Samyutta-nikaya, Anguttara-nikaya, and Khuddaka-nikaya. Among the most noteworthy individual works in the Sutta Pitaka are the Dhammapada, a collection of verse sayings that has great artistic merit; the Suttanipata, one of the oldest parts of the canon, which contains Buddha’s thoughts on the path to salvation; and the Jataka, some 550 legends, chiefly of folkloric origin, about the incarnations of Buddha. The Sutta Pitaka also includes the Theragatha and Therigatha, anthologies of ancient Buddhist lyric poetry; the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta, an account of the last days and death of Buddha; and the Dhamma-cakkappavattana Sutta, Buddha’s famous Benares sermon. Closely connected with the canon is the Paritta, an anthology of texts used in incantations and magic rites.

Outstanding noncanonical works include the Milindapanha, a masterpiece of philosophical literature composed no earlier than the late second century, and the Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, and Culavamsa, historical chronicles that recount events in the history of Sri Lanka.

Pali literature flourished in Sri Lanka from the fifth century, with an enormous literature of canonical commentary being produced. Buddhaghosha is noteworthy for his famous commentary Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification), a compendium of Buddhist doctrine and philosophy. Buddhadatta was the author of five guides to the canon, and Dhammapala also wrote famous commentaries.

A new period in the history of Pali literature began in the 12th century. To this period date the Jinacarita, a narrative poem about Buddha; grammars, lexicons, and works on poetics by Kacchayana and Moggallana; and subcommentaries to commentaries on the canon. In Burma and Indochina, Pali literature developed later and with a significant dependence on the works written in Sri Lanka.

Pali literature, as one of the great literatures of the past, is studied in Europe, the USA, India, Sri Lanka, Indochina, and Japan.


Minaev, I. P. Ocherk fonetiki i morfologii iazyka pall St. Petersburg, 1872.
Elizarenkova, T. Ia., and V. N. Toporov. Iazyk pall Moscow, 1965. (Bibliography.)
Bode, M. H. The Pali Literature of Burma. London, 1905.
Malalasekera, G. P. Pali Literature of Ceylon. London, 1928.
Law, B. C. A History of Pali Literature, vols. 1–2. London, 1933.
Sankrityayana, R. Pali sahitya ka itihas. Lucknow, 1963.
Warder, A. K. Pali Metre. London, 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
"Women and the Arahant Issue in Early Pali Literature." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 15.1 (1999), 57-76.
(48) The reference here echoes a simile found in several locations in Pali literature, which compare beings overcome by desire to moths enticed (and hence destroyed by) fire.
(On the formation of titles, compare also von Hinuber, Entstehung und Aufbau der Jataka-Sammlung [Mainz: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, 1998], 7-12; A Handbook of Pali Literature [Berlin: de Gruyter.
But are these portions a later interpolation in the Pali literature? The view of flesh eating is sharply criticized and contradicted by the Mahayana Sutras, also purporting to be the spoken words of the Buddha, which categorically assert that flesh eating is contrary to the spirit and intent of the first precept since it makes one an accessory to the slaying of animals and therefore contravenes the compassionate concern for all life that lies at the core of Buddhism.
For the latter he hopes his book provides "a detailed and multilayered account of the world of traditional Pali literature, and of its place in history, one which does not presuppose any previous knowledge of Buddhism or of South and Southeast Asia" (xiv).
Cross-references to manuscripts in the possession of other libraries and printed versions bear further evidence that this catalogue, beyond merely listing manuscripts, contributes much to our knowledge of Pali literature and the history of book production in Burma.
The second volume in the same series, Oskar von Hinuber's A Handbook of Pali Literature (1996), was prohibitively expensive when it first appeared, but was later made available as a reasonably-priced paperback.
In a new three-volume series, the first two fascicles of which are here being reviewed, he raises three questions which could not be treated in detail in his Handbook of Pali Literature (1996).
Despite the availability now of later Pali texts in printed form and on sometimes rather faulty CDs from Burma and Thailand, CPD will continue to concentrate on texts from the Canonical literature until the time of later works "such as the Mahavamsatika (8th/9th century?)." Pali literature from Southeast Asia will be for the most part ignored.
Hinuber, A Handbook of Pali Literature (Berlin, 1996), [section]179.