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A Dravidian poem translated into Pali? Apadana-atthakatha/Visuddhajanavilasini |(534 13-537 28, vv 12–48)

Issue: Vol 38 No. 2 (2021)

Journal: Buddhist Studies Review

Subject Areas: Religious Studies Buddhist Studies

DOI: 10.1558/bsrv.21195


This article examines a poem in the Kaludayittherapadanavannana which expands on the poem attributed to Kaludayitthera in the Theragatha; the poem in the Kaludayittherapadanavannana did not make it into the final canon. The hypothesis of this paper is that the poem may be a popular Dravidian song adapted to Buddhist use and translated into Pali, and this is the primary reason it was excluded from the canon. This conclusion is based on several factors. 1) The author of the Pali poem was not well versed in the Pali language and made constant mistakes in translation. 2) Gratuitous repetition; the poem itself is not very good poetry, containing the kind of needless repetition one associates with a popular song. 3) 13.4% of the words in the poem are direct lifts from Dravidian words; this compares to only 3.9% of the words in the Theragatha poem itself, of which this poem is an extension. While this does not prove that the source was a Dravidian poem, it raises the probability quite significantly. In addition, this kind of literature—making lists of biota in the natural world for comparison, personification and poetic effect— is common in Dravidian Sangam literature. 4) The poem contains wrong or awkward phrases in Pali which can be better understood as Dravidian imports, and 5) an extensive and growing body of linguistic evidence shows that the adoption of Dravidian terminology into Buddhist thought and practice was not an uncommon occurrence. It has long been assumed that the Buddha spoke more than just Indic languages, and that his oral teachings in Dravidian or Munda languages were lost. Although this poem is probably not in itself a teaching of the Buddha, but a popular Dravidian song adapted for Buddhist purposes, its analysis is the first attempt to show that some Pali transmissions may be adaptations or translations of indigenous languages; the ramifications and conclusions of such a hypothesis, if proven, open up a whole new area of Buddhist studies, i.e., the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings through indigenous, non Indo-Aryan (non-IA) languages.

Author: Bryan G. Levman

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