Buddhism uses lots of confusing Sanskrit technical terms. The ideas are simple and ordinary.
January 20, 2013 - 11:00 am
In a complete violation of literary tradition, I’m going to start this column with a digression. Kids, don’t try this at home.
Buddhism is divided roughly into three traditions, or “yanas”, a word that basically means “raft”: Hinayana, the “little raft”, Mahayana, the “big raft”, and Vajrayana, the “diamond raft”. Hinayana is also known as Theravada, or “the teachings of the elders” — especially, as you can imagine, by Theravadans. Honestly, the size of your raft isn’t important; all of them derive from the same source, but with one major difference: Theravada or Hinayana uses literary sources in a language called Pali, while Mahayana sources are in Sanskrit.
Pali in turn comes from a language called Prakrit, or more precisely is a prakrit: Prakrit means “common language” or even “practical language.” The comparison with “practical” isn’t a coincidence. English, like nearly every other language you hear in Europe, derives — along with Prakrit and Sanskrit and Pali — from the same source language that was spoken in what is now northern India. Linguists, elegantly, call this language “Proto-Indo-European“, or, familiarly, as PIE.. Who says there’s no poetry in science?
Sanskrit, by contrast, means “ornamented” or “fancy” language. Classical Sanskrit is a literary language that really developed hundreds of years after the historical Buddha lived, and is used for Buddhist literature in the Mahayana tradition. I lean toward the Mahayana tradition, and a good bit of the original translations of Buddhist literature were made by the Victorian hippies from Sanskrit, or from literary Chinese translations of Sanskrit.
The problem is that when Buddha was actually teaching, speaking to pretty much anyone who walked past, he was undoubtedly speaking Prakrit of some sort. Religious texts were in a sort of liturgical language we call Vedic Sanskrit from which Classical Sanskrit derives, but it doesn’t seem to have been anyone’s normal language, just as Latin nowadays isn’t used very often except in Church contexts, and as I say, Classical Sanskrit hadn’t even been invented yet.
Now, Classical Sanskrit is a beautiful, eloquent, expressive language, but things written in Sanskrit tended to be purposefully eloquent. Then you add those Victorian hippies, with their desire for Oriental things to be mysterious and odd, translating the Sanskrit, and you get things that frankly sound like they were composed by total goons. On bhang.