Pali canon

Pali canon (päˈlē) [key], sacred literature of Buddhism. The texts in the Pali canon are the earliest Buddhist sources, and for Theravada Buddhists, who claim to conserve the original teachings of the Buddha, they are still the most authoritative sacred texts. Pali, the language in which the canon is written, is a Prakrit (vernacular dialect) of classical Sanskrit (see Prakrit literature). The word Pali literally means a "line" or "norm," hence the extended meaning of "scriptural text."

The teachings of the Buddha were first transmitted orally, and were not committed to writing until the 1st cent. B.C. Over the succeeding centuries, the Buddha's teachings were both systematized and expanded upon. The canon is generally called the Tripitaka [threefold basket]; the name refers to the baskets passed from hand to hand by construction workers, and is thus a metaphor for the passing on of tradition. The first part, the Vinayapitaka [basket of discipline], contains rules for Buddhist monks; it was kept secret from laymen. The Suttapitaka, or Sutrapitaka [basket of teaching], is divided into five nikayas [collections]. The first four, containing discourses and verse statements of varying lengths and forms, are the main authority for the doctrines of early Buddhism. The fifth nikaya is a miscellany of anecdotes and dialogues. Some of these anecdotes are related to the Avadanas [stories of great deeds] found in the Sanskrit literature of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. The Jatakas, fables of the Buddha's former births in various animal forms, occur also in the fifth nikaya. The third and final basket is the Abhidhammapitaka [basket of metaphysics], mainly an analytical and methodological elaboration of the previous pitakas. Probably the best-known work in the Pali canon is the Dhammapada [path of righteousness or truth], an anthology of maxims arranged in 423 stanzas. Of the extracanonical works, the Milindapanha [the questions of Milinda], which describes the dialogue between the Indo-Bactrian king Menander (Milinda) and the Buddhist sage Nagasena, is outstanding.

After the decline of Buddhism in India, Pali literature was preserved in Sri Lanka, where a vast body of commentary and elaboration of the canon developed. In later times the most notable writer in Pali was Buddhaghosa, who flourished in the 5th cent. Pali is still written in Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent in SE Asia. The Pali Text Society, founded in London in 1882, has published several hundred volumes of texts as well as English translations of Pali literature.


See M. Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature (3 vol., 1927–63); S. C. Banerji, An Introduction to Pali Literature (1964); W. Geiger, Pali Literature and Language (tr., rev. ed. 1968); H. Nakamura, Indian Buddhism (1980).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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