Based on the quote below, it seemed that the Buddha did not allow his teachings to be translated to the royal or priestly language of Sanskrit, that was the liturgical language of Brahmanism, the language of classical literature and the language used by the royal court.

The common people at the time did not speak Sanskrit in their daily conversations. They spoke various dialects of Prakrit. The Buddha wanted his teachings to be transmitted in the dialects of the common people.

It appears that Pali, although not a genuinely spoken language of the past, seems to be a mix of various Prakrit dialects from Buddha's time, that underwent partial Sanskritization.

It also makes sense to me that the Pali Canon was transmitted mostly by oral tradition and was written down only late in its history compared to Mahayana texts because Sanskrit was the main written language for a long time in northern India. This is similar to the role of Latin in European history.

I also guess that the Chinese scholar monks who visited India, took with them the Sanskrit Mahayana texts back to China, instead of the Pali Canon, partly because the Sanskrit texts were committed to writing much earlier, while the Pali Canon was still transmitted mostly orally at the time.

If the Buddha did not want his teachings to be taught in Sanskrit, why and how did the Indian Mahayana texts (agamas, sutras, vinaya etc.) end up being in Sanskrit?

According to the (Theravada) Vinaya from Cullavagga, fifth Khandaka, chapter 33:

And so sitting those Bhikkhus spake to the Blessed One thus:

'At the present time, Lord, Bhikkhus, differing in name, differing in lineage, differing in birth, differing in family, have gone forth (from the world). These corrupt the word of the Buddhas by (repeating it in) their own dialect. Let us, Lord, put the word of the Buddhas into (Sanskrit) verse.'

'How can you, O foolish ones, speak thus, saying, "Let us, Lord, put the word of the Buddhas into verse?" This will not conduce, O foolish ones, either to the conversion of the unconverted, or to the increase of the converted; but rather to those who have not been converted being not converted, and to the turning back of those who have been converted.'

And when the Blessed One had rebuked those Bhikkhus, and had delivered a religious discourse, he addressed the Bhikkhus, and said:

'You are not, O Bhikkhus, to put the word of the Buddhas into (Sanskrit) verse. Whosoever does so, shall be guilty of a dukkata. I allow you, O Bhikkhus, to learn the word of the Buddhas each in his own dialect.'

  • This question built upon wrong assumption, if the OP is not with special agenda. I doubt the OP's asking in his sincerity, from various posts by the OP in this forum, he is a Theravadin. And, very important, the scripts being translated to Chinese Sutras were not Sanskrit, they were from different dialects, major script was Prakrit. Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 23:48
  • Some fragments of original scrolls are still kept in some monasteries esp. those dedicated to the great Dharma Masters such as Kumarajiva and Xuanzang, also scrolls discovered in Dunhuang Caves are in dialectic scripts, not Sanskrit. Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 23:49
  • The 1st Buddhist Council had organized the 12 sections (major portions were Chinese Mahayana Sutras) of Sutras and written down on white-cloth in 4 scripts (excluded Pali script for it was not invented until 1000 years later by Buddhaghosa), recorded in Agamas and Vinayas. I wonder if that piece of equivalent Pali Sutta remained untranslated yet or missing - ? I will write an answer when have time. But I'm afraid here too many pretenders who don't care or respect truth. Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 23:49
  • @Mishu米殊 You're welcomed to write an answer. From reading, I found that there were around 18 schools of Indian Buddhism originating from Mahasamghika and Sthaviravada (not Theravada), who have suttas or agamas in either Pali or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (BHS). Pali is partially Sanskritized mix of Prakrit dialects, while BHS is post-Vedic Sanskrit with some Prakrit influence. Old, middle and new parts of the canon have linguistic variations - so not 2 (Pali, BHS) but more. So, it's not black or white. It's all many shades of gray. It's unfortunate that most of these schools are extinct today.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 14:46
  • 1
    @Mishu米殊 Actually, Sujato Bhikkhu isn't really against Mahayana. He wrote in the Sects and Sectarianism book that he doesn't agree with the Dipavamsa: "They (Mahayana) are ‘schismatic’ and it is impossible to accept them as part of the same communion. This view, ultimately traced to the Dīpavaṁsa, underlies the position taken by many mainstream Theravādins today. I intend to show how the Dīpavaṁsa’s position is incoherent and implausible, and that a more reasonable depiction of the origins of Buddhist schools can be constructed from a sympathetic reading of all the sources."
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 6, 2019 at 17:27

2 Answers 2


I'm afraid any answer to this is going to be speculative, so not a perfect SE question. Here is my theory:

Most of the early Mahayana texts were written either in Hybrid Sanskrit or in Gandhari Prakrit because their authors were the descendants of Aryans living in the Gandhara region. Historically, that area has always been much more "sanskritized" than the rest of India, see below for my explanation as to why. So when Buddhism reached Gandhara, it was only natural for the educated locals to write their thoughts about Buddhism in a language that they both spoke and knew how to write - and that was Hybrid Gandhari Sanskrit.

Here is some background information in support of this thesis:

  1. As you all know, Classical Sanskrit is an idealized written form of the language that the original Aryans actually spoke (some modern scientists call it "Prakrit" and other call it "Vedic Sanskrit"). Sort of like Classical Latin is an idealized written form of the language that the original Romans actually spoke.
  2. Originally, Aryans came from Iran and settled in what today is south of Afghanistan, along what used to be Sarasvati river. Then, when the tectonic shifts in Himalayas made Sarasvati change its course and start falling into Ganges, the Aryan tribes started migrating further east, carrying their language and culture with them, and mixing with the indigenous population. This led to a range of dialects emerging along the Ganges, from the purest form of Vedic Sanskrit in the west to the most corrupted vernaculars in the east. This process was accompanied by social stratification, with "more civilized" Aryans on the top and "less civilized" locals at the bottom - this was how the infamous casts or varnas begun.

    Sorry about the map labels being in Russian, I drew it a long time ago and don't have time at the moment to fix the labels. But from the overall shape and the colors, I hope you can see the state of Aryan assimilation by the time the Buddha comes on stage. The blue states on the left are more Aryan, speaking almost pure Sanskrit - and the orange states on the right are more the original people, speaking their own languages partially mixed with Sanskrit to form various dialects like e.g. Pali. The region of Gandhara is not highlighted on my map, but it is that area with multiple rivers to the left of the leftmost Indian state.

    Map of Ancient India

  3. There was a big university there in Gandhara, called Takshasila University - and thanks to the proximity of Persian and Greek Empires I suppose this region was a lot more educated and literate than the rest of India, back in the day.

  4. Most of the Mahayana scripts written in Sanskrit (either Hybrid or Gandhari) were discovered at archaeological sites located in the Gandhara area.
  5. Many of the great Mahayana lineages recognized in Tibetan Buddhism, trace their beginning to enlightened masters from Oddiyana which is basically the same area.
  6. Sarvastivada school left their version of Canon written down in Sanskrit, and we know that Sarvastivada was essentially centered in that same very region of Gandhara/Oddiyana.
  7. Milinda-Panha (Questions of King Milinda) - a late Canonical text whose story is set in Sagala, a city just to the east of Gandhara region, was probably originally written in the Gandhari language.
  8. At least some of the Mahayana sutras only available in Chinese show linguistical evidence of having been translated from the Gandhari dialect of Sanskrit.

All this is to say that ancient people of Gandhara/Oddiyana who wrote Buddhist texts in Sanskrit did not violate Buddha's rule prescribing people to "learn the word of the Buddhas each in his own dialect" - because Sanskrit was a written version of the language they actually spoke.

Then, from Gandhara, Buddhism has spread to other countries including China via the Silk Road, as well as Tibet.

  • Thanks, Andrei. Here is an equivalent map in English.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 13:44
  • Yes, perfect. One thing it does not show though is the degree of Aryan assimilation as it changes from west to east, as I show with blue and orange colors.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 15:27

Further to Andrei's answer, I imagine that Sanskrit or equivalent might have been like English is in India today -- i.e. many people know it (as a living language) and use it normally whenever they communicate with someone from/in a different State -- less of a "dead" and priests-and-academics-only language than Latin is now, maybe the bourgeoisie (such as that was) and any travellers (maybe wanderers) would have known it too, and so it's not surprising to find Sanskrit's being used everywhere other than in the native State[s].

But it's nice of the Buddha to approve of the teaching's being in the vernacular, and preserving it that way.

As evidence there is this ...

Sanskrit historically served as a lingua franca throughout the majority of India.

For some further background there is also this which claims that -- in the 7th century AD -- it was the urban merchants who tended to support Buddhism -- and that these merchants were influenced by the ruling class, and influenced by which remote States they were trading with -- unlike the peasants (farmers), who were more isolated in the country-side and more "Hindu" than "Buddhist".

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