Buddhist Sanskrit: Hybrid?

The original texts of Buddhism are usually divided into two great traditions, each with its proper language. Canons of the early Hīnayāna Buddhism are gathered in the Buddhist hypothetical original language called Pāli. Canons of the later Mahāyāna Buddhism 1 were kept in a complex language sometimes called Buddhist Sanskrit or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. Is it fair to qualify the Buddhist Sanskrit as a “hybrid” language? What are the facts underlying a supposed hybridization of an original language, here Sanskrit? Ultimately, why would that “hybrid” label matter? The purpose of the present paper is to estimate the accuracy and the implications of the label “hybrid” applied to the Buddhist Sanskrit medium. Our first step will be to go back to some basic facts and words of the Buddha himself concerning languages in general. Secondly, we will examine the linguistic traits found in Buddhist Sanskrit, with a focus on the importance of Sanskrit. This will lead us to the questioning of various linguistic labels such as “mixed language” or “hybrid language”.


Buddhism and languages

In the Cullavagga, a story tells us that the Buddha, inquired by his disciples, stated clearly that he did not only allow but asked for the use of various languages for the spread of his teachings: he rejected any standardization. At his time, the variations between vernaculars were so small that talking of proper ‘translation’ would be incorrect (Edgerton, 1998). Indeed, if, as the Indian saying reminds us, there was a proper idiom for each village, the differences in sounds and grammatical forms, from a language to another, were few. This closeness is rooted in the fact that they were all of the same linguistic sub-family: the Middle-Indic branch of the Indo-Aryan family. As we can already see, from the very time of the Buddha, a situation of multilinguism was an anchored fact of reality, which Buddhism would have to deal with for its propagation. Some scholars (Lévi, Lüders, Hiän-lin Dschi) argued for the existence of an original language of Buddhism, a hypothetical “Old Ardha-Māgadhi” (Edgerton, 1998), but this discussion seems to lead only to an infertile debate on which language is the “real” language of Buddhism. Numerous facts show the importance of various languages in the development and spread of Buddhism: they are all responsible for its success.

What makes some languages become the “languages of Buddhism”, mainly, is the presence of modern traces of writings in these languages. Edgerton (1998) presents four main languages in which the Buddhist religious texts have been kept: Standard Sanskrit, Pāli, the dialect of the ‘Prākrit Dharmapada’ and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (BHS). But, as he underlines, there must have been canons in other languages, which disappeared in the course of time.


Examination of the Buddhist Sanskrit

How did the Buddhist (Hybrid) Sanskrit texts came to life? Franklin Edgerton believes that the BHS tradition comes back to an old Buddhist canon, composed in a Middle Indic vernacular and not in Sanskrit. This canon would have gone through different stages of “Sanskritization”, that is, modification of morphology and morphosyntax of the original texts to get closer to the particular language of that period: Sanskrit. The “Sanskritization” is particularly noticeable in the prose section, since the metrical structure of verses made any modification a hard task.

We can consider BHS as a mixture of various languages. Standard Sanskrit would be one of them, but it keeps also traces of many other Middle-Indic languages, such as Pāli and other Prakrits. F. Edgerton and S.K. Singh remind us that the vocabulary of Buddhist Sanskrit was so particular to this language that it cannot be considered as a mere, later modification of Standard Sanskrit. Some words found in the Buddhist Sanskrit canons would never occur in standard Sanskrit, or only with a completely different meaning.


Linguistic labelings and implications

Is Buddhist Sanskrit a mixed language? A language can be considered as mixed if it comes from two linguistic sources of equal importance. It usually happens in situations of complete bilinguism, like in the area of boundaries between two countries. Could Buddhist Sanskrit be a mixed language? The simplified description of Buddhist Sanskrit as a mix of Sanskrit and Pāli would tend to that conclusion. But this point of view is inaccurate, as Buddhist texts were never in a situation of linguistic tension between an elitist Sanskrit and a particular Prākrit spoken by the people. Rather, as explained earlier, the linguistic situation was, as early as Buddha’s time, of multi-lingual character. If Buddhist Sanskrit is a mix of languages, it is not only of Sanskrit and spoken Prākrit.

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Like other Indo-Aryan languages such as Pāli, Prakrits and even Sanskrit, Buddhist Sanskrit is made of elements pertaining to other languages, but only in the limits of its great family: the Indo-European languages. Then, for no reason Buddhist Sanskrit should be called “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit”, unless we qualify all the other languages of “Hybrid” as well.

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Is Buddhist Sanskrit a hybrid language? The notion of “hybrid language” hardly has a proper definition. Edgerton, in his classic work Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary, gives an extended history and presentation of Buddhist Sanskrit but never explains his choice of calling it “Hybrid”. In some sources, the “hybrid” label seems like a simple extension of the notion of “mixed language”: a “hybrid language” would not be a combination of only two but of more than two languages. In other sources, such as the study of the hybrid character of Israeli Hebrew by Ghil’ad Zuckermann (2006), a language is qualified of “hybrid” when it gathers elements of languages of various ‘great families’, i.e. Indo-European, Afroasiatic, Uralic, etc. Is it the case of Buddhist Sanskrit? The answer is clearly negative. Like other Indo-Aryan languages such as Pāli, Prakrits and even Sanskrit, Buddhist Sanskrit is made of elements pertaining to other languages, but only in the limits of its great family: the Indo-European languages. Then, for no reason Buddhist Sanskrit should be called “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit”, unless we qualify all the other languages of “Hybrid” as well.

Why has Buddhist Sanskrit been qualified of “hybrid”? This question brings us to the other words of that language’s appellation: Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. Sanskrit always had a prestigious status. At Buddha’s time, it was the language used for religious practices and education of the elites. For centuries, Sanskrit was considered as the mother of hundreds of languages, if not, of all the languages of the world. Even in the modern days, many Indologists from Europe spread such an idea. Coming from this powerful status to the conception of a pure language is a quick process. Particular works of grammarians, such as Pāṇini for Classical Sanskrit, make languages look as eternal productions of the Human, unchanged by the time. But by no mean a language could be pure and unitary. The landscape of Sanskrit is various and multiple, from the Chāndas language of the Vedas to the Sanskrit of the Mahābharata and Rāmayaṇa epics, the Sanskrit of the Purāṇas and even forms of Jain Sanskrit.

Therefore, we can draw the final hypothesis that, in the extension of the prestigious status of Sanskrit, some scholars might have desired to qualify Buddhist Sanskrit of “Hybrid” to reduce it to a mere corrupted version of ‘the great Sanskrit’.





Personal notes from the class of Buddhist Sanskrit Language and Literature (Department of Buddhist Studies, Delhi University), taught by Prof. S.K. Singh and Dr. Veena Dar during the months of August and September 2010.

Edgerton, F. (1998). Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary, Volume I: Grammar. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass.

Zuckermann, G. (2006). A new vision of Israeli Hebrew: Theoretical and practical implications of analyzing Israel’s main language as a semi-engineered Semito-European hybrid language. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, 5, 57–71.


Image courtesy: Pearly Jacob



  1. But also some texts of Hīnayāna Buddhism such as the Mahavastu of the Mahasanghikas.