We Buddhists recite our prayers and devotional verses in a dead language – Pali. These prayers were composed more than 2,000 years ago. Few of us know what the words mean, because Pali is not our mother tongue.
Sinhala Christians pray in Sinhala, and Tamil Christians say their prayers in the Tamil language.
But we go on chanting with raised voices, even using loudspeakers, devotional stanzas that tell us not to kill, steal, commit adultery, lie and indulge in liquor – all in Pali, which most Buddhists in this country do not understand. We repeat the words like parrots. The Pali verses have no impact on our minds.
I have discussed the matter with a number of senior monks. They say it would be difficult to change our traditional practice. Many believe that Pali was the language used by the Lord Buddha in his sermons.
Pali came to our island during the Anuradhapura period of our history. Pali was used in the flourishing universities of the time, such as Nalanda. Pali opened the vast storehouses of knowledge on Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Medicine and Astrology.
Sri Lanka’s princes and the children of ministers and rich merchants flocked to the universities in India. There were also students from Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and China.
A famous scholar monk – the Venerable Buddhagosha (a Tamil national from India) – was invited by king Parakramabahu to translate all the available Sinhala versions of the Dhamma into Pali.
The Ven. Buddhagosha lived in Anuradhapura, enjoying royal hospitality and patronage while he completed the gigantic task of translating the religious literature into Pali. This is how the Thripitaka, the Mahavansa and other texts recorded in Sinhala in temple libraries across the island came to be Pali texts.
Over time, people began to believe that the Pali version was the original, and that the Lord Buddha preached his sermons in Pali. This is the background to the Pali Buddhist texts – all the prayers, stanzas and precepts.
We live in the 21st century. We will never go back to living the way our ancestors did in the Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa periods of our history. Society evolves with the times. While respecting our culture, customs and ancient religious practices, we must also adapt to our present circumstances.
Let us translate the Pali versions of the precepts, gathas and prayers into Sinhalese, our mother tongue. I appeal to the President, who oversees the Ministry of the Buddha-Sasana, to give this proposal serious thought.
Dr. D. Malwatte Mohotti