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Which Dhammapada?

Colin Dale, Middle Way (Volume 68:4 p. 215) February 1994

Our Pali Dhammapada (Dhp) is only one of several existing versions. These are briefly but expertly surveyed by Professor Norman in his book on Pali literature [1]. It is not even clear that Dhp is the oldest of these texts, though it conceivably may be. Let us just list the others.

Professor Norman says there are differences of opinion about the poetic quality of the verses of Dhp, and certainly Professor Brough is pretty scathing on the subject - and he is quoted with obvious approval by Bernhard, the editor of Uv, which certainly has a lot of padding. But Brough's words can be taken as referring at least principally to the "extra" verses in GDhp, and so not necessarily to Dhp. Though some lovers of our text may have sung its praises too uncritically, it certainly does not in general seem to deserve Brough's strictures: indeed the author of the witty wordplay of Dhp.97 (to take a single example) was, I think, no mean poet. But poetic merit apart, the various versions differ considerably, and when the same or similar stanzas occur in different redactions, they are often in quite a different order. There is no conclusive evidence as to priority, but Dhp and PDhp seem to be closest to whatever was the original version. As to the sources of the material, Professor Norman points out that more than half of the verses in Dhp occur elsewhere in the canon, while some seem to come from non-Buddhist (Brahmin or Jain) sources. The suggestion that each and every stanza was uttered by the Buddha on a particular occasion is thus a fantasy of the (unknown) commentator. But in any case, the idea that, e.g., each of the clearly parallel verses 1 and 2 was addressed by the Buddha to a different person on a different occasion would be hard to believe!

The stories attached to the different stanzas of Dhp - however they got there - are very interesting and instructive, and it is noteworthy that they were translated into English [8] many years before the actual exegetic material of the commentary in which they are incorporated [9]. This fact had an advantage in so far as the translators of this were able to draw on all the other known versions, including PDhp, for their very valuable notes.

A word must be said about translations of Dhp. There are at least 40 so-called translations into English of this work, but it must be said that more than half of these are rehashes of existing versions, often cobbled together by people with little or no knowledge of Pali! It is curious to see how many of them open with the words, sometimes as they stand, sometimes slightly adapted, with which Max Muller's rendering of 1881 begins: "All that we are is the result of what we have thought", which is perhaps not a bad paraphrase, but scarcely a translation of the original: Manopubbangama dhamma "the dhammas (states, conditions) are preceded by mind". A number of these versions also suffer from another defect: that of trying to assimilate Buddhist thought to that of Vedanta or the like. A particular offender here, alas, is the Penguin version by J. Mascaro, and another well-known version, by Radhakrishnan, is similarly at fault. The most reliable version is still that of Narada Thera, of which there are various editions, or that of Buddharakkhita Thera [10]. These translations make no mention of the other recensions we have mentioned. For these we must turn to the work of Carter and Palihawardana [9], which includes a verse-translation of the text. This is generally sound, though it opens rather oddly: "Preceded by perception (my italics) are the mental states" - with absolutely no explanation of this unusual rendering of mano-. If they wanted at all costs - but why? - to avoid writing "mind" here, "volition" would perhaps have made better sense (not that I am proposing this).

I certainly agree wholeheartedly with Titus Gomes about the value of studying the Dhammapada. And perhaps we can consider it to some extent a miniature "Buddhist Bible" if we want such a thing, as it certainly includes, in some shape or form, most of the essentials of the Buddhist teaching, at least in the Theravada form [11]. It is not quite true, at least outside of Sri Lanka, that all Bhikkus have to learn it by heart before their ordination - but it might be a good idea if they did!

  1. K. R. Norman, Pali Literature (vol.VII, fasc. 2 of A History of Indian Literature, ed. J. Gonda), Wiesbaden 1983, pp. 58-60.
  2. Ed. F. Bernhard, 2 vols., Gottingen 1965-8.
  3. W. W. Rockhill, Udanavarga. A Collection of Verses from the Buddhist Canon. London 1892: (reprinted Delhi 1982); The Tibetan Dhammapada. Translated and edited by Gareth Sparham, Delhi 1982.
  4. The Gandhari Dharmapada. ed. J. Brough, London 1962. An enterprising local character seems to have split the MS into three parts. One part he sold to the Russian vice-consul, and one to the French explorer Dutreuil de Rhins. The fate of the third part is unknown. As early as 1897 it had been recognised that the portions preserved in St Petersburg and Paris were parts of the same MS, but wars and revolutions delayed complete publication of the available material till 1962. See Brough's introduction. There is a remote chance that the missing part may turn up.
  5. See Samuel Beal. Dhammapada, translated from the Chinese, 1878 (reprinted Calcutta 1952). It is curious that both Beal and Sparham [3] use the Pali name Dhammapada (instead of Sanskrit Dharmapada) in the titles of their versions.
  6. By N. S. Shukla, Patna 1979; by G. Roth in H. Bechert (ed.), The Language of the Earliest Buddhist Tradition (Gottingen 1980), pp. 97-135; by Margaret Cone in Journal of the Pali Text Society, vol. xiii, pp. 101ff. Neither this nor GDhp has been translated into English.
  7. Norman [1], p. 60.
  8. E. W. Burlingame, Buddhist Legends, translated from the original Pali Text of the Dhammapada Commentary (Cambridge, Mass 1921), reprinted London 1969.
  9. The Dhammapada. A New English Translation with the Pali Text and the First English Translation of the Commentary's Explanation of the Verses..., by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawardana. New York, Oxford, 1987.
  10. Trans. Buddharakkhita Thera, Bangalore 1965. Narada's and Radhakrishnan's versions include the original Pali.
  11. Brough [4], p. 243, suggests that manomaya in Dhp 1, 2 might represent a Vijnanavada point of view ("mind-made"). GDhp and other versions have forms corresponding to Pali manojava "swift as thought", which is not quite parallel with the first two terms and gives a dubious sense. The true reading is uncertain.

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