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CIR Lecture: The language of reality - Elite interpretations of Pāli as a sacred language

When:Mo 22-04-2013 16:00 - 17:30
Where:room 253, Oude Boteringestraat 38
Colloquium on Indian Religions

Colloquium on Indian Religions

Abstract by Dr. Alastair Gornall (SOAS, London)

The language of reality - Elite interpretations of Pāli as a sacred language

Anyone who has had even a little exposure to Theravāda Buddhism will have noticed the fundamental role the Pāli language plays in religious practice. It is the language of the tradition’s principle religious literature, the Tipiṭaka. Also, many of its rituals―whether taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha, taking the five precepts of lay morality, or being ordained into the saṅgha, for instance―are exclusively in Pāli or have Pāli liturgy as a central component. While the importance of the Pāli language has often captured the attention of anthropologists, there has been little work on textual interpretations of the nature of the Pāli language and its use in ritual. In this paper, I present a debate in Pāli commentarial literature on the nature of the Pāli language that, as far as I am aware, has not been brought to light before. This debate possibly began in the fifth century and appears to have persisted among Theravāda scholiasts until the present day. After providing a history of this debate, I explore its implications for how we can understand the way Pāli is used by the Theravāda tradition.