The renaming of the ancient script Brahmi to Dhammalipi in the Class XII Pali language textbook published by the Maharashtra State Bureau of Text Book Production and Curriculum Research has divided teachers and historians in Maharashtra and led to a searing debate.
Pali Pakaso is the name of the textbook published by Balbharati, the state textbook and curriculum bureau. With the eruption of the controversy, Balbharati’s Pali textbook review committee is now reviewing the book.
While some academicians, on either side of the debate, say that the first written evidence of the script were the edicts of Emperor Ashoka in 3 BC, others say that the Brahmi script was in use at least two centuries prior in 5 BC. In Maharashtra, academicians insisting on retaining the name Brahmi feel the move to rename the script has political motives.
This year, Balbharati has published 10,000 Pali textbooks for Class 12 which are now out for sale. The ancient Indian language has been a subject of choice for students mainly from the Marathwada and Vidarbha region in the state. Teachers of the language say that like Sanskrit, students often choose to learn Pali as it is a “scoring subject” and its grammar is easier than Sanskrit’s.
In 2019, in the Class 12 examination held by the Maharashtra Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education, 9,120 students registered to take the examination in the subject of which 8,999 appeared and 8,727 passed. Pali had a pass percentage of 96.98 per cent in 2019.
Pali is also the preferred subject of students wanting to pursue higher studies in archaeology, epigraphy or numismatics. According to school education department officials, apart from Maharashtra, Pali is taught at the school level in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Mizoram and Manipur too. The Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies also offers an online course in Pali.
Leading the argument for changing the name of the script to Dhammalipi is Nashik-based Atul Bhosekar, Director, Trirashmi Research Institute of Buddhism, Indic Languages and Scripts (TRIBILS).
“We have been promoting this theory for ten years after conducting research, and in 2014, TRIBILS published a book ‘Iyam Dhammalipi’ which we shared with various universities and professors to seek their views on it. The Pali committee that has accepted the name as Dhammalipi has done so on its own after all academic considerations and analysis,” said Bhosekar.
According to Bhosekar, German Indologist Georg Buhler, who coined the name Brahmi in the second half of the 19th century, was influenced by French Indologist Terrian De Lacouperie, and was ‘very biased’ in his opinion. “Biased in the sense that he started naming all these scripts as derived from Lord Brahma…. Not a single scholar then, or later, questioned how the name Brahmi came about,” argued Bhosekar.
Bhosekar said, “Buhler was influenced by Indologists in those days or people who believed that the universe is made by Lord Brahma and therefore, the script is made by him and therefore it should be named Brahmi.” He said that the word Dhammalipi, which should be the actual name of the script, had been wrongly translated by Indologists including Buhler.
The issue began to simmer with a June 11 letter to the textbook committee by Abhijit Dandekar, Associate Professor of Epigraphy, Palaeography and Numismatics at the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune. He wrote that there was no script by the name of Dhammalipi in ancient India.
Referring to Richard Solomon’s Indian Epigraphy, 1998, Dandekar added that research of Indian and Chinese texts, carried out by several scholars for over a century, shows that the name of the script is Brahmi.
Manjiri Bhalerao, Associate Professor, Shri Balmukund Lohia Centre of Sanskrit and Indological Studies, Pune, who has also written to Balbharati, said, “Unless and until we have concrete evidence of the name Dhammalipi it should not be introduced at the textbook level. When these students go for higher studies, they will become a laughing stock because not just in Maharashtra, but everywhere else too, the script is known as Brahmi,” said Bhalerao.
Historians and scholars are also firmly of the view that the script pre-existed Ashoka and his dhamma edicts.
Speaking to The Indian Express, professor of history at Ashoka University and author of the seminal Ashoka in Ancient India (2015) Nayanjot Lahiri said renaming Brahmi as Dhammalipi would be giving students a “skewed education”.
She said, “The archaeological evidence of the earliest Brahmi comes from Tamil Nadu. This is much before it was used by Emperor Ashoka for the propagation of Dhamma. There are scientific dates that go back to the 5th century BC. Pali again is not something that is associated only with the propagation of Dhamma. I really feel it is meaningless to be doing these kind of things. The name Brahmi is anyway mentioned in ancient texts.”
Head of the Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology department at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Anita Rane Kothare said at least 40 students learn Pali in her department. “Brahmi is a script and Pali is a language. Ashoka proposed Dhamma through his edicts. It was called Dhammalipi, maybe, by people who followed Buddhism later but the script was always called Brahmi. It has nothing to do with Buddhism. Brahmi as a script has been used for Ardhamagadhi and Pali both. The Ardhamagadhi language was used by Jains. Ashoka never called it Dhammalipi at all.”
Kothare said the script may have existed at least since 5th-6th century BC and said that facts or history should be studied without bias. “This is provoking a barrier between Hindus and Buddhists. A common Buddhist man doesn’t know Brahmi or Dhammalipi. This is instigated by the educated,” said Kothare.
Meanwhile, letters continue to pour in at Balbharati mostly in support of Dhammalipi.
“I have sent all the letters to our Pali textbook committee to take into account all the references and evidence and give their findings at the earliest so we can decide our future course of action,” said Vivek Gosavi, Director, Balbharati.
Gosavi said that Balbharati had received three letters in support of Brahmi – two from Pune and one from Mumbai – but had received over 70 letters in support of the name Dhammalipi from Amravati, Nagpur, Parbhani, Solapur, Beed, Pune and Mumbai.
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