Dr. Yojana Bhagat, a leading Indian scholar of Pali, in an interview with the Daily Mirror spoke about the importance of this language and its literature as an interdisciplinary subject to research into different areas of study. Dr. Bhagat, the Coordinator and Assistant Professor attached to the Department of Pali at Mumbai University, was in Sri Lanka recently. The following are excerpts of the interview.
- Pali is now an international language
- It offers research components in many disciplines
- Buddha Dhamma has answers to all questions
- Not only monks, but also lay students should be encouraged to learn it
- Pali literature has ancient medicine, architecture, management, economics etc
- Pali is studied in the western world
- Pali words shouldn’t be translated into other languages
- It has words with varying meanings depending on contexts
- Pali gave birth to many languages including Sinhala
- It’s not just the language of Buddhism
- It’s not necessary that you speak the language
How do you view the importance of the Pali language as it’s no longer a spoken language?
Pali is not a dead language. It is very much live. People don’t speak it in daily life. But, it’s very much an international language. It’s studied all over the world. A lot of research is being carried out regarding the language. It’s not just the language of Buddhism. It contains the teachings of the Buddha. If you learn the Tripitaka, it has answers to all the questions one has. There is an answer to any question you ask. It has answers to the questions why; you are born, dead, angry, sad etc. Another feature is that it has many things that provide for interdisciplinary research. In Pali literature, you have ancient medicine, architecture and the best of psychology. Modern psychology isn’t up to the mark compared to what the Buddha taught. You have all the practices in meditation. You have management skills, law and administration. All these are there. It’s not that the Buddha taught these things in specific terms. But, you can extract from his teachings to know all about these. You have to study the original form of the languae. That is why Pali literature is so important. You have to study the original language, not translated versions. It’s because the Pali words have different connotations in varying contexts. If you take the word ‘Dhamma’ it refers to the Buddha’s teaching in one context. If you say Dhammanussati, it is thought. When you talk about Dhamma, it changes meanings depending on the context. If you know the exact meaning and exact reference, then only you get the right meaning. The word ‘doctrine ‘is not the English equivalent of Dhamma all the time. Earlier, people used to use the words lord for Buddha, congregation for Sangha. That is not true. Now these words are not translated. The Buddha is the Buddha, Dhamma is Dhamma. We cannot find equivalents in other languages for these words.
But the cultural aspect of Buddhism is important. It’s found in Sri Lanka. That is the purpose of our visit. We don’t know how to conduct Bodhi Pooja or to offer alms
How is it possible to make it a more live language and make people communicate with it?
In my opinion, what is there in that language is more important than speaking with it. It’s not necessary that you speak the language. If you start speaking the language, you have to use daily words like car, telephone. These words are not there in Pali. Then, you have to coin some new words for these. In Pali, it doesn’t make any sense. It has the teachings that have to be kept pure.
How do you analyze the importance of Pali for Sri Lanka because it contributed to the birth and development of the Sinhala Language?
It is very important. It is the Mother to many languages, not only to Sinhala. Even in India, all the languages originated from Prakrit. Prakrit is the original language. One of its spoken forms was Pali. It was a spoken language. In India, there were Prakrit and Sanskrit. Sanskrit is a formed, designed language spoken by the elite people like Brahmins at that time. Pali was the spoken language of all the people. The Buddha spoke in that language. In all Indian languages like Gujarati, Marati and Bengali, you have Pali. If you learn Pali in reference to your regional language, it will be very easy.
According to your observations, how keen are students on learning this language in India and the rest of the word?
In India, we are developing. At the University of Bombay, we are inspiring students to learn Pali and do interdisciplinary researches. That is to obtain new knowledge. If a doctor wants to research into ancient medicinal practices taught by the Buddha, then, he can undertake it by learning Pali and develop something new in the field. I have management students studying Pali. They study Jataka stories related to the Buddha’s teaching to extract management aspects. One can study architecture in Pali. Then, one can understand why Stupas were built. We can know why it was called ‘Cetiya’. We can know what a Pirivena is, how a monk should stay in a room and how big the room should be. The Buddha taught all these things. The Buddha is very clear about even how your room should be.
How are you going to cooperate with the Sri Lankan Universities towards the development
of this discipline?
In India, we don’t have a Buddhist culture as such. Students are learning Pali as an interdisciplinary subject. But the cultural aspect of Buddhism is important. It’s found in Sri Lanka. That is the purpose of our visit. We don’t know how to conduct Bodhi Pooja or to offer alms. We are trying to revise that in India, especially at the University of Mumbai.
How do you view the musical sounds of the Pali language?
Now, we talk about recitations. When we chant, it’s about how to memorize things. The Buddha has taught in such a manner that these can be memorized very easily. It was an oral tradition. When Arahat Mahinda Thera came from India, he brought it in oral form. To remember the oral things, the Buddha has given stanzas in such a beautiful way. The Buddha was a great teacher. He taught in such a way that people sitting in front not only remember things, but also understand. While teaching only, he got others to repeat things twice or thrice. Then, he would ask questions. Persons sitting in front were also involved in the learning process. He was a great teacher. Recitations were always like it. The Buddha possessed the greatest techniques of teaching.
Here, I am told that students don’t like to learn Pali because they don’t find jobs. I think it shouldn’t be the problem. There is a lot of scope for research in Pali. People shouldn’t look to India or Sri Lanka only. We have scope outside our countries for Pali. People in other parts of the world look at the Pali literature. The person who knows Pali becomes the authority. I went to Oxford because I knew Pali. They invited me to learn more from them. In Oxford, they have Pali. All the scholars of Pali are westerners.
I have management students studying Pali. They study Jataka stories related to the Buddha’s teaching to extract management aspects
In Germany, they have Pali. The western countries learn Pali. In Sri Lanka, you find German scholars who have written such beautiful books. We are using these books. Bhikkhu Bodhi and Narada Thera are among them. They have done great jobs here.
What is the kind of cooperation you have from other Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia towards the development of Pali?
I have students from Myanmar reading for their doctorates. They don’t know English. But, they communicate with me in Pali. It’s an international language. They communicate, among other things, how they intend to do research. I think research must to be encouraged here. Then, students can benefit and move to the world outside. For that, a little of English is important. There are so many Sinhala books not translated into English. Mostly monks resort to study Pali, not other students. They have to be encouraged. An example is architects having to study Pali. Doctors have to learn this language. Management students should do so. You have a Buddhist economy. I have economics students doing Buddhist economy. There are lawyers studying Buddhism. All these interdisciplinary aspects are very important. It’s also important for your personal growth through meditation.