A Brief Introduction to Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit

Last year, I celebrated my 40th birthday (whoo!). Thanks to some kind gifts from friends and family I bought some books that I had long kept on my wishlist.  This includes books on Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit:


This book is titled Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary by Professor Franklin Edgerton. It is an older book, first published in 1953 but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of books published since then on the subject. I was surprised to see this book included both a grammar text and dictionary, which was great. The drawback is that this book assumes you already have a good grasp of “standard” Sanskrit and can be pretty dense.

What is Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit?

Well, the history of northern Indian languages somewhat mirrors the history of Western-European languages in that there is a “mother” language that either directly spawned or influenced other languages. For Western Europe, this is Latin. For northern India,1 this was Sanskrit.

But the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, didn’t speak Sanskrit as a first language. He spoke an ancient form of Magadhi (still spoken today) and many of his followers did too.

Once the Buddha passed away, much of his sermons were recited and preserved among early disciples in various vernacular or “prakrit” languages throughout northern India. These local vernaculars all descended from Sanskrit and were close enough to one another that disciples could translate from one to another pretty effortlessly. Of these, Pali was probably the most common because it was a prakrit that was widely used for trade and commerce.

This was not an accident either, as according to the book, there are Buddhist sutras in which the Buddha encouraged the use of local languages because they were more accessible. In the Pali Canon, particularly the Cullavagga 5.33, the Buddha chastises a couple high-caste followers who wanted to put his teachings into the liturgical form (i.e. “Vedic” or Sanskrit prose) to avoid “corruption” by various students:

The Lord Buddha rebuked them: deluded men, how can you say this? This will not lead to the conversation of the unconverted…And he delivered a sermon and commanded (all) the monks: You are not to put the Buddha’s words into Vedic. Who does so would commit a sin. I authorize you, monks, to learn the Buddha’s words each in his own dialect. (trans. Edgerton)

Similar passages appear in the Dharmagupta sects copy of the sutras, and also in Chinese translations of lost texts in India. The point being: the Buddha wanted the teachings to be as accessible as possible, so it was encouraged to use everyday language and avoid liturgical language.

Where does Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit come in?

For reasons not well-understood, the Buddhist community centuries later eventually changed their mind and started using Sanskrit more and more. At first this started by using Sanskrit terms in the teachings they had passed down generation after generation, but eventually the terms and language became more “Sanskritized” to the point that they almost looked like standard Sanskrit (as defined by Pāṇini).

Thus, different generations of Buddhist texts looked more and more like Sanskrit, but a discerning eye can still see the prakrit origins of the words and grammar. Thus it is not “standard” Sanskrit, but “Buddhist Hybrid” Sanskrit.

One of the earliest examples of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is a little-known text called the Mahavastu composed probably in the 2nd century B.C., which, like all such texts, contains both verse and prose form.2 Edgerton points out that the verse sections definitely look like they are composed in a Prakrit language, but with some Sanskrit “polish” while the prose sections look more like Sanskrit. But, as noted by Edgerton, the Mahavastu has a lot of grammatical corruptions in it too as a result of this sometimes clumsy conversion from Prakrit to Sanskrit.

Additionally, the same Buddhist text, if multiple versions were composed, looks more and more like Sanskrit with each new version.

What are some examples of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit texts?

A number of texts that are now a core part of the Mahayana Buddhist canon were composed in various stages of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. Loosely, the three stages are:

  1. Early conversion from Prakrit to Sanskrit (often with grammatical mistakes or corruptions): Mahavastu
  2. Middle stage: The Lotus Sutra, The Gandhavyuha Sutra, The Amitabha Sutra and The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life.
  3. Latter stage (texts are mostly converted to Sanskrit, only some natively Prakrit grammar remains): The Diamond Sutra3, The Lankavatara Sutra

Which Prakrit was used?

It’s not always clear which of the many Middle-Indic or “Prakrit” languages was used as the source material. It may not always be the same one. For example Pāli language terms like those in the Pali Canon were often used, but the grammar might be a different Prakrit. Another prakrit used was Gandhari language, especially in the Immeasurable Life Sutra and Amitabha Sutra.

Oftentimes, it is not distinguishable to Edgerton which Prakrit was used because the grammar used was common to most Prakrit languages at the time.

What are some grammatical examples of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit?

This is by no means an exhaustive list. The Edgerton book above is quite huge, and even between texts, the grammar and degree of Sanskritization varies. Also, I am a beginning student of Sanskrit, and definitely not an expert, but I tried to find examples that at least I understood and could convey here.

Grammatical Case Standard Sanskrit ending Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit
ā-stem Accusative Sing. ām aṃ
ā-stem Instrumental Pl. ābhiḥ āhi
ā-stem Ablative Sing. āyāḥ ātas (with variations)
ā-stem Genitive Pl. ānām ānā

Other noteworthy examples:

  • N-stem words were frequently converted to Sanskrit a-stem endings. For example mūrdhan might become mūrdhaḥ/mūrdho.
  • Dual-endings in Sanskrit, were evidentially not used much (if at all) in the original Prakrit, so when the text was converted to Sanskrit, a dual-ending was awkwardly “bolted on” where applicable.
  • Unlike Sanskrit where verbs have a special “root” (which doesn’t always look like verb in present form), the original Prakrit just used present stem.
  • Sandhi rules for the Prakrit were not the same as Sanskrit. For example, when the first word ends in a vowel, while the second word starts with the same vowel (a and a for example), rather than combining them into a longer vowel (ā for example), one would just get dropped.
  • Another example of differences with Sandhi: unlike Sanskrit, final endings like as and ar might sometimes just drop the “s” and “r” rather than altering the sound.

Anyhow, this page has been an amateur’s attempt to make sense of and distill a complex subject to a wider audience. Hope you enjoyed and if you happen to know about the subject, please post comments below! Thanks!

1 Southern Indian languages are an entirely different subject, but fascinating in its own right. I just don’t know much about it.

2 Even in the earliest Buddhist sutras, sometimes you see both prose and verse forms, but this “mixture” becomes more and more common in later Buddhist texts.

3 I’d venture that all the existing Perfection of Wisdom sutras are similarly written in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit depending on when they were composed. The subject of when each of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras was composed is still a matter of debate though.


What does Faith mean in Buddhism?

Faith is a fun subject to discuss in Buddhism, because it seems that everyone has a different interpretation, and how it relates to their past experience with religion. People who leave other religions for Buddhism often have a negative interpretation of faith, while people who grew up Buddhist might see faith as a given and something that just comes with the territory.

In the famous introduction to Buddhism, What the Buddha Taught, the author Walpola Rahula talks about this subject in the first chapter:

The Buddha went even further. He told the bhikkhus that a disciple should examine even the Tathāgata (Buddha) himself, so that he (the disciple) might be fully convinced of the true value of the teacher whom he followed. (pg. 3)

Indeed, this is mentioned in a sutra in the Pali Canon called the Vīmaṁsaka sutta (MN 47) which unfortunately isn’t translated on Access to Insight, but fortunately I do have a copy of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya which does contain the sutra.

The Vimamsaka Sutta begins with the Buddha saying to his bhikkhu (monastic) disciples:

“Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is an inquirer, not knowing how to gauge another’s mind, should make an investigation of the Tathāgata (Buddha) in order to find out whether or not he is fully enlightened.

He then instructs the disciple to use their eyes and ears to discern if the Buddha manifests any defiled states of behavior, any “iffy” states of behavior, and finally any wholesome states of behavior and in particular if he has consistently shown wholesome states of behavior for a long time (i.e. not just recently).

Further, things the Buddha encourages the disciples to examine are the Buddha’s track record, his conduct: does he live without fear? is he well behaved? is his reputation clean without a hint of concern?

If so, the sutra instructs that it is safe to approach such a teacher, to hear his teaching and to put it into practice.

Finally, at the end of the sutra, the Buddha says:

“Bhikkhus, when anyone’s faith has been planted, rooted, and established in the Tathāgata through these reasons, terms and phrases, his faith is said to be supported by reasons, rooted in vision, firm; it is invincible by any recluse or brahmin or god or Māra or Brahmā1 or by anyone in the world. That is how, bhikkhus, there is an investigation of the Tathāgata in accordance with the Dhamma, and that is how the Tathāgata is well investigated in accordance with the Dhamma.”

Thus, faith in Buddhism is somewhat different than other religions in that Buddhism should be thoroughly investigated first, and only then will confidence and faith arise if proven to be true. If it can’t stand the “acid test”, it shouldn’t be followed. Even if someone has been Buddhist a long time, there’s nothing wrong with taking a step back and asking yourself “should I really be following this?” and then using the eye of discernment to thoroughly investigate the Dharma, and the life of the Buddha as a manifestation of that Dharma.

1 These are two of the many gods in the ancient “Vedic” religion of India in the time of the Buddha, the forerunner to what we call Hinduism today. Māra was the primary antagonist in early Buddhism as a kind of deceiver god, while Brahmā was a creator god, and protector of Buddhism.

The Rat Race

Another great video by 8-Bit Philosophy:

This reminds me of a famous quote from the Dhammapada (trans. Acharya Buddharakkhita):

186-187. There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. For sensual pleasures give little satisfaction and much pain. Having understood this, the wise man finds no delight even in heavenly pleasures. The disciple of the Supreme Buddha delights in the destruction of craving.

Just as the video says that everything can be bought and sold for money, and thus makes us cynical, the Buddha teaches that a life in pursuit of sensual desires eventually leaves us burned out, jaded, and still unsatisfied. Epicureanism is great, until it’s not.

A Garden Full of Weeds

Even if you don’t play Magic: The Gathering, you will still likely enjoy this post. In addition to the card game, there are many short-stories and novels written about the characters and worlds of Magic, and while the quality can vary greatly by author or by story, some can be quite good.

I found this old story from 2014 recently from the world of Theros (a kind of ancient “Greek” world), but it has a surprisingly useful lesson for everyone.


Even if the “gods” of Theros are basically clones of the ancient Greek gods, there’s still obvious parallels, and more importantly there’s an important lesson for each of us on how to live our lives. 🙂

Enjoy and let me know what you think!

Is Buddhism Useful?

This was an interesting video by 8-bit philosophy on whether God is useful or not. The video explores the question of whether believing in God is useful or not, even if we can’t provide His existence scientifically.  It’s a fun, thought-provoking video:

Although Buddhism is basically non-theist, or rather, God isn’t really a feature of Buddhism (nor does it really deny either), this is a good question to ask: is Buddhism useful even if we can’t prove all of it scientifically.

After all, the oldest extant sutras we have of the Buddha were written 400-500 years after his death, and concepts like the cycle of rebirth or karma are near impossible to prove in a rational, scientific standpoint.  Sure, we have logical arguments, and a cohesive system of metaphysics in Buddhism, but can we prove any of that?  Not with current technology at least.

So, while Buddhism doesn’t really have a central deity, there is a certain amount of faith required.

But at the same time, Buddhism does have a lot of this-worldly practical benefits too. Buddhism is, first and foremost, concerned with the mind and with one’s behavior. That’s why so much Buddhism is spent on the nature of the mind, habits, behaviors and ultimately how to mold them into something more wholesome, both for yourself and others.

A person doens’t have to follow Buddhist training of course, in the same way a person doesn’t have to exercise or eat a balanced diet. But a person who does can see tangible benefits here and now.

Indeed, in the Buddha’s own words, he really only taught two things:

“What I teach now as before, O monks, is suffering and the cessation of suffering.

Thus, if the Buddha’s teachings are carefully understood and carried, one has the clear benefit of understanding suffering (something which all beings undergo in some way or another), and how to end suffering. The issue of the Buddhist sutras or whether Buddhist rebirth is less important. That isn’t to say it doesn’t exist either, but rather the question is secondary to your situation right here and now, and the Buddhist training definitely applies to your life here and now, just as it does for future rebirths.

So, is it useful? I think so.

P.S. RIP Donatello

P.P.S. More on the subject from Soren Kierkegaard.

The Ten Unwholesome Deeds in Buddhism

The basic foundation of Buddhist practice is not so much meditation but conduct. People might be surprised when I say that, but if you look at the Buddhist sutras, the Buddha spends a lot more time dispensing advice about personal conduct than he does meditation. This is not to deny the importance of meditation too, but I would argue that Buddhist conduct is the foundation that meditation rests upon, not the other way around.

The most basic, universal code of conduct in Buddhism is the Five Precepts. These are personal vows that disciples undertake and (in varying degrees) uphold.

But another, more comprehensive code of conduct that the Buddhist spoke about was the Ten Unwholesome/Ten Wholesome Deeds. These are a list of ten unwholesome deeds (mental, physical and verbal) and the opposite deeds that are considered wholesome.

One of the best explanations of the Ten Unwholesome/Wholesome Deeds is in the Saleyyaka Sutta (MN 41) of the Pali Canon.

In summary, the Wholesome Deeds are:

  1. Abstaining of taking life, or causing others to take life.
  2. Not taking what is not given to you.
  3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct.1
  4. Abstaining from false speech, only tell the truth.
  5. Abstaining from malicious or divisive speech (i.e. backbiting, sowing discord, etc).
  6. Abstaining from harsh speech (i.e. verbally abusing others).
  7. Abstaining from frivolous speech.2
  8. Abstaining from envy.
  9. Abstaining from ill-will towards others.
  10. Abstaining from distorted views.3

Unlike the Five Precepts, these are not vows you undertake. The Buddha is just giving general about how to live a more peaceful, trouble-free life and can probably look forward to a more positive rebirth in the next life.

1 As explained in the sutra:

he [who abstains from sexual misconduct] does not have intercourse with such women as are protected by mother, father, (father and mother), brother, sister, relatives, as have a husband, as entail a penalty [alternate translation: “as protected by the law”], and also those that are garlanded in token of betrothal.

2 Mainly this means talking about things that are pointless or stupid, or as the Buddha puts it:

[he or she] tells that which is seasonable, that which is factual, that which is good, that which is the Dhamma, that which is the Discipline, he speaks in season speech worth recording, which is reasoned, definite and connected with good.

3 Again, in the Buddha’s words:

He has right view, undistorted vision, thus: ‘There is what is given and what is offered and what is sacrificed, and there is fruit and ripening of good and bad kammas, and there is this world and the other world and mother and father and spontaneously (born) beings, and good and virtuous monks and brahmans that have themselves realized by direct knowledge and declared this world and the other world.’

To me, this means appreciating the Dharma and the fact that all conduct has an effect on the world, and oneself.