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.
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:
- Early conversion from Prakrit to Sanskrit (often with grammatical mistakes or corruptions): Mahavastu
- Middle stage: The Lotus Sutra, The Gandhavyuha Sutra, The Amitabha Sutra and The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life.
- 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.