Study Pali, Pali Schools


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Do you have a concurrent interest in ancient languages, history and/or Buddhism and a desire to increase your understanding of early Buddhist writings?  Have you considered pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree in Pali, a Middle Indo-Aryan language of India?  Pali is best known as the language of the earliest extant Buddhist canon, the Pali, or Tipitaka canon, and as the language still used in the liturgy of Theravada Buddhism.  Therefore, a knowledge and comprehension of this ancient language can help students gain access to Buddhist scriptures, either for personal reasons or as part of a religious or historical degree program.  To help you become more familiar with this degree program, below we have provided a brief synopsis of Pali, its history and how it is used today, and outlined some of the eligibility requirements for admission into these programs.
 
About Pali
 
Etymology and Classification
 
As mentioned above, Pali is best known as the language of Theravada Buddhism.  In terms of its etymology, the word Pali itself can be literally translated to mean “line” or “(canonical) text,” which seems to signify that the written form of Pali, used primarily in Buddhist scriptures, is somewhat different than the vernacular translation of and commentary on said scriptures.  This has caused some debate between scholars, one of whom, Robert Childers, has argued that the true or geographical name of the Pali language was actually Magadhi, and that because Pali means “line, row, or series,” the early Buddhists extended the meaning of the term Pali to mean a “series” of books or canonical texts, rather than the writing therein.
 
From a classification standpoint, Pali is a literary language of the Prakrit language family that was first written down in the first century in what is now Sri Lanka.  It was not, however, used as the spoken language, only for writings related to Buddhism.  As a Middle Indo-Aryan language, Pali is different from Sanskrit, not only with regard to its time of origin, but also due to its dialectal base, which has different morphological and lexical features than its Sanskrit counterpart.
 
Why Pursue a Degree in Pali?
 
As you might have guessed, Pali is not widely used today, but there are a number of reasons why a degree in this language may be an appropriate course of study for certain students, especially those studying ancient languages, history or the religion of Buddhism.  Today, Pali is primarily studied as a means towards gaining access to Buddhist scriptures, and the language is still used today in chants within a ritual context.  Understanding this language, then, will help students of Buddha expand their knowledge and even participate in the rituals.  However, there are also many non-religious or secular pieces of literature that still survive from the early days of Pali, including historical chronicles, medical texts and inscriptions, all of great historical importance for students interested in the ancient southern Asian region.
 
Great centers in which Pali is one of the main subjects of learning still remain throughout the Theravada nations of the Southeast Asian world, including Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.  Additionally, since the 19th century, various Indian societies have revived and promoted awareness of the Pali language and its literature, the most notable of which is the Maha Bodhi Society.
 
Admission Requirements for Graduate Degrees in Pali
 
Although Pali is offered as an undergraduate program at a select few universities throughout the world, it is most commonly offered as a graduate-level program.  Therefore, most colleges and universities require students to possess an undergraduate (B.A.) degree in a related field, one offered through the departments of language, history, religious studies or other appropriate department.  A 2.75 grade point average in all undergraduate coursework is typically the admission standard required by most institutions, and strong reading, writing and research skills are definitely a plus.  Prior knowledge or academic pursuit with regards to Pali is usually not required, but students should have a basic understanding of the regions of Southeast Asia in which the language is primarily used and promoted.