“Dhammapada” : Across Pali, Chinese and Tibetan linguistic traditions

Author S Radhakrishnan
“The Dhammapada”, a part of the “Khuddaka Nikaya” of the “Sutta Pitaka” has in the version 423 verses divided into 26 chapters. It is an anthology of devotion and practice, which brings together verses in popular use or gathered from different sources.

Though it may not contain the very words of Buddha, it does embody the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching, summoning men to a process of strenuous mental and moral effort. “Dhamma” is disciple, law, religion, “pada” is path, means (“upaya”), way (“magga”). “Dhammapada” is thus the path of virtue. “Pada” also means the base; “Dhammapada” is then the base or the foundation of religion. If pada is taken as a part of a verse, then “Dhammapada” is “scriptural texts” since it contains passages from the various canonical books.

There are and versions of the “Dhammapada” too which differ slightly from the Pali text, though they all agree in substance. The Chinese version has 39 chapters while the Pali has 26. In the former there are 8 chapters at the beginning, 4 at the end, and Chapter 33 in addition to those found in the Pali version. Even in the chapters which are common to the Chinese and the Pali versions there are 79 more verses in the Chinese than in the Pali.

We cannot with any definiteness fix the date of the “Dhammapada” as that depends on the date of the Buddhist canon of which it forms a part. Buddhist tradition, with which agrees, holds that the Canon was settled at the First Council. Yuan Chwang’s statement that the “Tipitaka” was written down at the end of the first council under the orders of shows the prevalent view in the seventh century A.D.

The “Mahavamsa” tells us that in the reign of (88 to 76 B.C) ‘the profoundly wise priests had therefore orally perpetuated the Pali of the “Pitakattaya” and its “Attakatha” (Commentry), but that at this period the priests, foreseeing the perdition of the people, assembled and, in order that the religion might endure for ages, recorded the same in books.

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