When a dead language came alive after almost a century

Dr. Hema Goonatilake, a participant at the first ever international Pali conference held in Sri Lanka, recounts a memorable experience

The first ever international Pali conference in Sri Lanka was recently organized by the Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies of the University of Jayawardenapura. It is useful at the outset to assess the historical significance of this conference.

The earliest recorded existence of the Pali or Magadhi language in Sri Lanka goes back to the 3rd century BCE when Thera Mahinda brought in the Pali Tripitaka. In the 1st century B.C.E, Sri Lanka became the adopted home of Pali when our Bhikkhus committed the oral transmission of the Tripitaka to writing at Aluvihara in Matale. The next major initiative was the writing of all the commentaries, subcommentaries, compendiums, and other expository works related to the Pali Tripitaka.

The participants at the conference

The Pali version remains the most authentic and complete of the Tripitaka versions, except for the Sanskrit Tripitaka, which is available almost in full in the Chinese translation as Agama Sutras. Sri Lanka became known as the ‘fountainhead of Buddhism’ mainly because it played the unique role of preserving and disseminating the original teachings of the Buddha to various parts of Asia.

It was the Sri Lankan Sangha who made Pali the lingua franca of the then Buddhist world. Pali has no written script of its own, and therefore it was written in the script of the host country. Gordon Luce and N.A. Jayawickrema have shown how Pali was written in Sinhala script initially in Myanmar and Thailand respectively.

The spread of Pali language from Sri Lanka in the early centuries is evident in the Mon kingdoms of present-day central Myanmar and present-day central Thailand. An old Mon inscription of Tham Narai in Saraburi province in Thailand, dated 550-650 CE. mentions that town people from Anuradhapura lived there. Siran Deraniyagala had established from carbon dated archaeology that Anuradhapura has been the largest city, south of Indraprastha (modern Delhi) since the 9th century BCE. The close relations between Davaravati and Anuradhapura were further collaborated when Mendis Rohanadeera identified three verses in Noen Sa Bua inscription of Prachinburi as those from the Pali work Thelakatahagatha, written in Sri Lanka. There is also evidence that a Pali text, the Vimuttimagga written in the Abhayagiri Vihara in the 2nd century CE by Thera Upatissa was known in 505 CE in Funan (present-day Cambodia).

The Pali Tripitaka and Pali literature from Mahavihara began to make a major influence on Myanmar after Vijayabahu I in the 11th century sent envoys with gifts and a letter written with his own hand in Pali to Anawrahta of Myanmar, seeking his assistance to defeat the Colas. It was after this period that the Mahavihara version of the Pali Tripitaka was adopted in Myanmar and a large number of Sri Lankan Bhikkhus taught there canonical and non-canonical texts such as the Mahavamsa. Many inscriptions were written in Pali language and in Burmese script. An interesting correspondence between a Myanmar Bhikkhu and a Sinhala Bhikkhu from the Ramba Viharaya is in the form of a Pali poem, the Manavulu Sandesa. It was however, after the unification of the Sangha in the 12th century that Sri Lanka exercised its greatest impact on all South East Asian countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

This Pali conference, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka was an experience of a life time. Personally for me, it was like a dream. I felt as if I was among my favourite scholar monks of the 19th century such as Venerables Hikkaduwe Sumangala, Waskaduwe Subhuti, Weligama Sumangala etc.

The opening ceremony was a simple one administering the Five Precepts to the laity and the Buddhavandana by monks headed by the Ven. Akuratiye Nanda Thera, Editor-in-Chief of the Sinhala Dictionary. The keynote address was given by Ven. Prof. Nabirittankadawala Gnanaratana Thera, head of Dept. of Pali & Buddhist Studies, University of Kelaniya. History was unfolding. I could not believe my eyes - all extempore - no notes – just flowing. The main theme of his address was the distortion of the Buddha's teaching by some contemporary monks. The examples he gave were hilarious – of course for persons who know Pali. Paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination), he said, is interpreted by some as pati+iccha+samuppada (that wishes to originate). Another example is that sotapatti is interpreted as “sotanam+dhammam+aapannam (the one who hears the dhamma is a sotapanna).

He called them Chabbaggiya (group of six) monks who advocated improper practices during the Buddha’s time. “They are ‘household monks’ with monetary objectives,” he reiterated. “They should be given the age old punishment of ula thiyanava.”

Academic sessions began after the tea break. The first session was chaired by Prof. Ratna Wijetunga, retired Pali Professor at the University of Sri Jayewardenapura, and the second by Ven. Makuruppe Dhammananda Thera, a senior lecturer of the University of Kelaniya. The latter had a high sense of humour. His opening words were: “I came fast from Maligakanda to be in time for the session, but when I saw the erudite monks and the eminent lay scholars, I got frightened and felt like running back faster.” When it was close to 11.30 a.m., he said, “The dana should be as rich as the conference, and therefore, we should not face ‘vikalabhojana’ and miss the sumptuous meal.” Listening to him indeed was so much fun.

The first three sessions were all in Pali. Except for two lay young men – a royal pundit and a first year student (maybe ex-monks), all 12 presenters were monks. The discussions that followed and the presentations were even more interesting. The monks were debating various moot points with ease and grace. They spoke Pali like their mother tongue. Impromptu compositions recited in between the sessions by Ven. Dr. Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera, a senior lecturer at the University of Jayewardenapura as well as the chief incumbent of Pepiliyana Sunethradevi Pirivena added a poetic flavour to the event.

The second half of the conference was in English and Sinhala with papers presented by 18 monks, two lay men and I, the only woman. The last session was chaired by Prof. Oliver Abeynayake, a former Professor of Pali. He sounded genuine and honest when he said, he had taught Pali for 46 years, but never tried to speak in Pali. I felt I was a little lucky. I had no alternative, but to speak in Pali for two weeks at Wat Paknam in Bangkok in the late 1980s where I lived among nuns to do a participant observation study. I had to converse with the chief monk who did not speak a word of English – purely out of obligation. The second occasion was when I spoke in Pali with the nuns in Burma several years ago while staying in a nunnery.

The conference which was sponsored by the Sambuddhattva Jayanti Secretariat was organized by a dynamic team of young Pali lecturers, Venerables Dr. Magammana Pannananda, Dr. Medgampitiye Wijithadhamma, Dehipagoda Vijitananda and Witarandeniye Chandasiri. Another monk who worked behind the scenes is Venerable Mahamithawa Pannananda of the Sambuddhattva Jayanti Secretariat, one of the initiators of the Magadhi Institute which has been set up recently to promote Buddhist Studies.

The conference proved beyond doubt that the study of Pali has not declined in Sri Lanka. A ‘dead language’ has come alive after almost a century! It is a significant contribution in this 2600th year of the Sambuddhattva Jayanthi to show the world that Sri Lanka is still the Home of Pali Buddhism.
The writer is a member of the Presidential Steering Committee of the Sambuddhattva Jayanti

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