Editorials by Sangharakshita


Buddhism and the Indian Languages

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, March 1956

There is a story in the Tipitaka to the effect that a disciple of the Buddha, who before his conversion to Buddhism had been a brahmin, one day approached the Blessed One with the request that He be pleased to allow His Teaching to be rendered into Sanskrit verses. The Buddha's reply was emphatic and unambiguous. Addressing the assembled brethren, He declared: 'I permit, O monks, everyone to learn the Dhamma in his own language (Sakaya niruttiya)'. To us at the present day these words may seem quite unremarkable. But when they were first uttered their import was revolutionary. That Sanskrit, the deva-bhasa, or language of the gods, should be dethroned and each and every local dialect allowed to take its place, was to the fossilized brahmin mentality of the day an unthinkable sacrilege. Even now there are not wanting, in the citadels of brahminical orthodoxy, those who in all seriousness maintain that the gods actually do speak in Sanskrit and in no other tongue.

One of the results of the Buddha's unexampled freedom from religio-linguistic prejudice is that Buddhism can boast of a larger canonical literature in more languages than any other tradition. While Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam is each based on a single book, or small collection of books, the scriptures of Buddhism constitute whole libraries. The Royal Siamese Edition of the Pali Tipitaka comprizes forty-five volumes; The Tibetan Kangyur and Tangyur number three hundred and thirty-seven huge tomes printed from wood blocks; the Chinese Tripitaka comprises more than sixteen hundred works which, in the standard edition, fill one hundred volumes of a thousand double-columned pages each. Then there is the Mongolian version of the Tibetan Canon and a Japanese translation of the Chinese Canon, both of which enjoy canonical authority in their own countries, as well as a mass of independent sutras and sastras which have survived in the original Sanskrit. It is therefore hardly surprising that we find Buddhism on the whole quite free from the bibliolatry which is so common a feature of almost all other religions. In truly orthodox Buddhism the Dharma is never confounded with its verbal expressions.


We have adverted to the Buddha's insistence that everyone should be permitted to learn the Dharma in his own language because it has a special significance for us in these days. During the current year, in which we celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Lord Buddha's Maha Parinirvana, a number of organisations and institutions in various Buddhist lands will be making efforts for the wider dissemination of Buddhism in India, the original home of the Dharma. In the absence of trained personnel, whether members of the Sangha or laymen, these efforts will, for the present, necessarily be largely confined to the distribution of Buddhist literature, either free or nominally priced.

So far, whatever literature has reached us here in India has been in English. For this there is still a great, indeed growing, demand. But if we are to reach the Indian masses, millions of whom are now for the first time in centuries becoming conscious that in Buddhism is a force that can elevate and enrich their lives as can no other teaching, - and if we are to be true to the Buddha's own injunction -, it is imperative that the whole of India be literally flooded with simple and attractively written books, pamphlets and leaflets in Hindi, Bengali, Nepali, Marathi, Gujerati, Punjabi, Tamil, Telegu, Malayam and Kannada. The gift of the Dharma, as we need hardly remind our readers, excels all other gifts. But it must be made in a way which will really go home to the business and bosoms of those for whom that supreme gift is intended. What better way of reaching a man's heart, what more admirable way of teaching him the mighty truths of Buddhism, than through the medium of his own mother tongue, with which are interwoven so many of his tenderest associations, his noblest hopes, his sublimest aspirations?

We therefore appeal to our friends in every corner of the Buddhist world to inaugurate, as part of their Jayanti programme, a movement to have as much Buddhist literature translated into as many Indian languages as possible. In India itself steps have already been taken in this direction, and some of the most important portions of the Scriptures have been in print in Hindi, Bengali and other languages for the past several years. But to produce in the fourteen major languages of India enough Buddhist literature to reach its three hundred and forty million inhabitants is obviously far beyond the capacity of any single institution of any single country. Christians boast that the Bible is available in more than a thousand languages and dialects; usually it is distributed free. It should be a matter of shame to the entire Buddhist world that not even a small but justly celebrated text like the Dhammapada can be read in all the languages of India.

We suggest that every Buddhist country should finance Buddhist publications in as many Indian languages as possible. Ceylon, for instance, could easily undertake the publication of Buddhist texts in Tamil. Burma could be responsible for the production of Hindi Buddhist literature. And so on. In those countries where facilities for printing books in the Indian languages do not exist funds could be raised for the purpose and sent to India. Eventually it should be possible for organistions like the Union of Burma Buddha Sasana Council, the Buddhist Council of Ceylon, the World Fellowship of Buddhists, and the Buddhist Association of Thailand, to maintain their own publishing houses in India. Only when, in this way, streams of Buddhist literature inundate the thirsty soil of India, will we have fulfilled the Buddha's exhortation not only to preach the Dharma but to preach it to every man in his own language.