What Language Did the Buddha Speak?

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

by Jayaram V

In ancient India, Sanskrit was the official language of the elite. Educated people and scholars had to learn Sanskrit to study the scriptures and secular subjects, since it was the language in which the religious and secular literature of the times was composed. Besides Sanskrit, ancient Indians also spoke many other languages, which were collectively referred to as Prakrit. People regarded Sanskrit as a civilized language or the language of civilized and noble people (aryas), while they looked down upon Prakrit languages as the languages of the common people or ignorant masses who had no access to proper education.

The Buddha was born at a time when Sanskrit was the language of the elite groups who belonged to various religious schools, belief systems and ascetic movements. However, we do not clearly know what the mother tongue of the Buddha was, or in which language he and his parents spoke. It is possible that they spoke more than language, which is very common in India even today and which has been so since the earliest times due to its diversity.

Considering his family background and the place of his birth, scholars believe that Magadhi or Magadhi-Prakrit might have been his mother tongue. It was the local dialect in the area, where he was born and where he spent much of his life. Hence, logically it is possible that he might have spoken in that language to communicate with others. The area where it was spoken comprised the ancient kingdom of Magadha, which approximately covered the present day Bihar, parts of UP, Nepal and Bengal.

However, it is difficult to believe that the Buddha, who was popularly addressed as Aryaputra, spoke only one language or not conversant with Sanskrit. Probably, he spoke more than one language. India has always been home to diverse groups and cultures, and knowing more than one language helped people to extend their reach and influence. It has been a common practice from ancient times for the educated elite of India and the merchant classes to learn more than language. Hence, there is no reason why it would have been different in case of the Buddha.

The Buddha spent his whole life, travelling from place to place, and preaching to common people. It would have greatly been inconvenient if he used only one language to communicate with diverse groups of people and teach them the subtle aspects of Dharma. He belonged to a royal family and was the legal heir to his father’s kingdom. As it was obligatory for the children of royal families, he must have been taught Sanskrit and a few other languages as part of his grooming.

Therefore, it is very likely that the Buddha knew more than one language and used them according to his convenience when he travelled to different parts of India to preach the Dharma. He was probably proficient not only in his mother tongue but also in other popular languages of his time namely Sanskrit and Pali, besides a few other local dialects. When he spoke to the common people, he might have used Prakrit, but when he spoke to the Brahmanas and merchant groups, most of whom he converted, he might have spoken in Sanskrit or Pali, the languages with which they were familiar and the languages in which their religious beliefs were grounded.

After the spread of Buddhism to various parts of India, Sanskrit and Pali became the official languages of Buddhism. Most of the ancient Buddhist literature was composed in these two languages, and their status as official languages was confirmed by the four Buddhist Councils, which were held after the Buddha to preserve his teachings and standardize the texts to avoid distortions. Outside India, Buddhism continued to rely upon the ancient Pali and Sanskrit texts. However, in course of time Chinese and Tibetan languages also became part of the Buddhist sacred languages.

Thus, Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan are presently considered the four major sacred languages of Buddhism. The Chinese and Tibetan versions of the languages in which the texts were composed are no longer spoken languages. Hence, the four sacred languages of Buddhism, are no more spoken languages. Scholars still rely upon the ancient texts, but use translations and commentaries for their study and interpretation.

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