What Is Pali?


Pali (line)

Pali Definition

Pali is the ancient language used within some Buddhist texts. It is a middle Indo-Aryan language with origins mostly unknown.

Although it faded out hundreds of years ago, Pali is still in use today, and you’ll find Pali used within Buddhist rituals and studies.

Pali shares similarities with Sanskrit, another older ancient language, although Pali is not believed to be derived from the Sanskrit language.

Pali alphabet pronunciation

Pali Deep Dive

Pali is the language used within the early Theravada Buddhist texts and is, therefore, the language used within the Pail canon – the Pali canon is the collection of Theravada scriptures. Pali can also be found within some religious Hindu texts.

Said to be a mixture of several Prakrit languages, Pali originated around the 3rd century BCE and is said to have several dialects.

Pali is an ancient language but there is little scriptural evidence of it in its earliest form.  The earliest Pali inscriptions are dated to approximately the 5th-8th century.  The oldest dated manuscripts were located in Nepal and can be dated back to the 9th century.

Like Latin, Hebrew, and ancient Egyptian, Pali as a language was often thought of as having supernatural powers.

The Buddha’s use of Pali is said to be because he did not want to use Sanskrit as it was a language generally associated with those who were well-educated.

How are Sanskrit and Pali different?

Both Sanskrit and Pali are ancient Indo-Aryan languages, but classical Sanskrit is much older.

Sanskrit was popular during the Vedic period, and it was influential on culture, religion, and language.  Pali is considered, though, to be a simpler language than Sanskrit.

11th-century Buddhist Pancaraksa Pali manuscript on spells and goddess rituals.
11th-century Buddhist Pancaraksa Pali manuscript on spells and goddess rituals.

Pali In Your Life

Pali as a language died out around the 14th century, although it was used elsewhere until the eighteenth century.

Today you’ll need a good grasp of the Pali language if you want to get serious about studying yoga and Buddhist scriptures in the Theravada tradition.

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Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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