T. S. Eliot and the Pali Text: A Guide

16 Jun

(This is merely a draft!)

Pali is a dead language, surviving to us today as the literary language in which the Agama scriptures are described. It is one of the vernacular dialects of Sanskirt. Closely related to Sanscrit, Pali was the ancient Indic vernacular language, originally a natural, spoken dialect. Today, Pali survives in the Agama scriptures of Hinayana Buddhism.

The Pali Canon was composed in North India and solely remembered by heart. Whe the monks recited the words of Buddha the entire words (Tipika) were committed to writing during the Fourth Buddhist Council held in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE on palm leaves. (Which took place in a cave called the Aloca lena near Matale, Sri Lanka.)

Gautama strictly condemned the committing of his teaching to writing in Sanskrit. Sanskrit is a lingua france, a language monopolized by the uppermost governing caste. Such a medium was something Gautama was strictly up against. Instead, he chose the ordinary vernacular languages and dialects. He wanted to make strict use of everyday discourse.

Modern Buddhist scholarship in Europe had long focused on the study of  Agama scriptures. Although Agamas had been long neglected in Mahayana Buddhism, Hinayana Buddhism considered the Agama sutras as the basis of all scriptures, regarding the Agamas as the important early record of what Gautama actually said. Agama, a Sanskrit word means “basket” while in Pali the word nikaya (literally “collection”)

During his graduate years, T. S. Eliot read part of the Pali scriptures (note 1). In the fall term of 1912, Eliot read Anguttara-Nikaya. In the spring term of 1913, he read Digha-Nikaya and Majjhima-Nikaya (Murata, Eritto 26).

Agama scriptures translated into Pali:

  • Digha-nikaya (“Collection of Long Discourses長部経典): 34 discourses in three series, many dealing with the training of the disciple.
  • Majjhima-nikaya (“Collection of Medium-Length Discourse” 中部経典): 152 discourses, many of which tell of the Buddha’s austerities, his Enlightenment, and early teaching
  • Samyutta-nikaya (“Collection of Kindred Sayings”相応部経典): these are divided according to subjecct: 56 相応, 7762 sutra
  • Anguttara-nikaya (“Collection of Gradual Sayings”増支部経典): 11 集, 9557 sutras
  • Khuddaka-nikaya『小部経典』: 15分

What portion of the huge amount of discourse did Eliot really read? In addition to the Pali scriptures, there are commentaries on all of the scriptures, commentaries made by the elders of the Buddhist Order. “The works of Buddhaghosha Thera (Elder) rank very high in exegetical literature” (Baruah 101). Which Buddhaghosha’s commentaries did Eliot read?


1) Buddha’s doctrinal teachings are preserved in the Pali scriptures called Tipitaka. Tipitaka means the Three Baskets of the Canon: 1) the Basket of Discipline, 2) the Basket of Discourses and 3) the Basket of Ultimate. The second “Basket of Discourses”  or “Sutra/ Sayings Basket” (Sutta Pitaka) contain discourses, mostly ascribed to the Buddha, but some to discilple. The Basket is divided into five Nikayas or collections as follows:

Agama scriptures translated into Chinese:

『中阿含教』: 中編の経典60 volumes, 224 sutras; Samghadeva

『増一阿含経』』(ぞういつ-): 法数ごとに集められた短篇の経典 51 volumes, 472 sutras; Samghadeva

『長阿含教』(じょう-):長編の経典 22 volumes, 30 sutras; Biddhayasas

『雑阿含経』(ぞう-):短編の経典集  50 volumes, 1362 sutras; Gunabhadra

In Japan, agama scriptures have long been neglected as inferior scriptures. After the introduction of modern European scholaship in the Meiji period, however, the situation has drastically changed.  In Europe T. W. Rhys-Davids, V. Fausboell, H. Oldenberg and so forth founded the Pali Text Society in 1882. Masaharu Anesaki and others led the way to evaluate the Pali scriptures. The Teravada Buddhist tradition has thus been transplated in modern Japan. (*Nikaya: 尼)


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