The myth of "Sthaviravada"

Excellent post by Dmytro:


There’s a popular buddhological construct of “Sthaviravada” - an enigmatic early school, quite different from Theravada.

Caodemarte summed it up nicely:

Caodemarte wrote:
Early Buddhist schools - Wikipedia

“Noted Canadian Buddhist scholar A.K. Warder (University of Toronto) identifies the following eighteen early Buddhist schools (in approximate chronological order): Sthaviravada, Mahasamgha, Vatsiputriya, Ekavyavaharika, Gokulika (a.k.a. Kukkutika, etc.), Sarvastivada, Lokottaravada, Dharmottariya, Bhadrayaniya, Sammitiya, Sannagarika, Bahusrutiya, Prajnaptivada, Mahisasaka, Haimavata (a.k.a. Kasyapiya), Dharmaguptaka, Caitika, and the Apara and Uttara (Purva) Saila. Warder says that these were the early Buddhist schools as of circa 50 BCE, about the same time that the Pali Canon was first committed to writing and the presumptive origin date of the Theravada sect, though the term ‘theravada’ was not used before the fourth century CE (see Ajahn Sucitto, “What Is Theravada” (2012); see also A.K. Warder, Indian Buddhism, 3rd rev. ed. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000), chapters 8 and 9”
Caodemarte wrote:
Since as a distinct movement Theravada claims to have looked back to the 3rd Council (which may or may not have occurred) for inspiration they clearly could not have begun before that date. (Damien Keown’s A Dictionary of Buddhism. 2003. pp. 279-280 states there is no historical evidence that the Theravāda school arose until around two centuries after the putative Third Council).

By its own accounts, Theravada seems to have come out of a Sthaviravadin sub-sect and seems to share certain doctrines. This is not the same as saying Theravada is Sthaviravada as some Theravadin legends dubiously claim, but that they were influenced or inspired by or Sthaviravada or were an off-shoot of a sub-sect seems likely. Sadly, there is zero actual evidence for this apart from one obviously forged Sri Lankan history.

There’s a tiny problem with this “Sthaviravada” construct - it’s a figment of imagination unattested in any Sanskrit sources. This word was invented by some buddhologist, who haplessly sanskritized the word “Theravada”, probably under the influence of another myth - that Sanskrit existed earlier then Pali.

This issue has been discussed in detail on H-Buddhism conference: … &user=&pw= … &user=&pw= … &user=&pw= … &user=&pw=

A recent modification of this myth is that the enigmatic early school, which parted ways with Mahasanghika, was called “Arya-Sthavira Nikaya”. That’s indeed an improvement, since such term is attested in numerous Sanskrit sources.
Nyana wrote:

Also, the 12th century northern Indian author Daśabalaśrīmitra refers to the Sthaviras and quotes extensively from the Vimuttimagga which he states is the “Āgama of the Ārya-Sthavira-nikāya.” And the 19th century Tibetan author Jamgön Kongtrül also mentions the Sthaviras by name and, relying on Vinītadeva’s Nikāyabhedopadeśasaṃgraha, also states that the “Jetavanīyas, Abhayagirikas, and Mahāvihārins are the [three] Sthaviras.” … 85#p210285

However, at the time of Mahasanghika split, Sanskrit didn’t yet exist. Lingua franca was still a language similar to Pali, preserved in inscriptions:
All in all, the Aśokan inscriptions give a broad view of the dialect spectrum of MIA vernaculars in the third century B.C. But it must also be understood that they do not provide anything like a real dialectal map of the time. For the geographical distribution of the dialects - especially of the eastern dialect - can hardly correspond with linguistic reality; the eastern dialect was obviously not the mother tongue of residents of the far north and the central south, though it was used for inscriptions (Kālsī, Eṛṛaguḍi, etc.) in those regions. Moreover, the languages as they are presented in the inscriptions are surely not exact renditions of the contemporary vernaculars.

After the Mauryan period there is a major shift in the linguistic features of the inscriptional Prakrits. The predominance of the eastern dialect of the Aśokan and other inscriptions of the Mauryan period ends abruptly; in fact, not a single inscriptional record in eastern dialect has been found from the post-Mauryan era. The dominant role in all regions except the northwest and Sri Lanka falls hereafter to a variety of Prakrit which most resembles, among the Aśokan dialects, the western dialect of the Girnār rock edicts, and which among literary languages has the most in common with Pāli and archaic forms of Śauraseni. In other words, this dialect partakes of the typical characteristics of the western and central MIA languages: nominative singular masculine in -o, retention of Sanskrit r and l, predominance of the sibilant s, and so on. Like the Aśokan Prakrits, this central-western epigraphic Prakrit is still relatively archaic, with only occasional intervocalic voicing of unvoiced stops and elision of voiced stops. But unlike some of the Aśokan inscriptions, consonant groups from Sanskrit are nearly always assimilated.

The causes of the abrupt dialectal shift from east to west undoubtedly lie in political and historical developments, that is, the decline of Magadha as the center of power in northern India after the collapse of the Mauryan empire and the movement of the center of political power in the following centuries toward the west and northwest. Like the eastern dialect under Aśoka, the central-western dialect of the post-Mauryan era was used far beyond what must have been its original homeland. Thus we find inscriptions in this standard epigraphic Prakrit as far afield as Orissa in the east, for instance, in the Hāthīgumphā inscription (SI 1.213-21), while in the south it is abundantly attested in inscriptions from such sites as Nāgārjunakoṇḍa and Amarāvatī. This central-western MIA dialect was, in fact, virtually the sole language in epigraphic use in the period in question, and therefore seems, like Pāli, to have developed into something like a northern Indian lingua franca, at least for epigraphic purposes, in the last two centuries B.C.

This is not to say that the inscriptions in this dialect, which Senart called “Monumental Prakrit”, are totally devoid of local variations. … But all in all, the standard epigraphic or “Monumental” Prakrit can be treated as essentially a single language whose use spread far beyond its place of origin, and which should not be taken to represent the local vernacular of every region and period where it appears.

R. Salomon - Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan Languages … &q&f=false … /mode/2up/
So the sanskritized term “Sthavira” appeared only later, when Sanskrit was invented and gained wide currency. The original term was “Thera”.

Best wishes, Dmytro


The scholars would have nothing left to write about early Buddhism if they considered the role of Sangayana, in which the Sangha assembled to convene for the longevity of Buddha Sasana and purification of the Dhamma. The current Tipitaka is the Sixth Sangayana version, that is the same to the First Sangayana version. Different Theravada traditions added some new texts that are recognized as they are and not mixed with the original Pali texts. The Sangha is more sincere and genuine than the scholars would like to believe.


Sometimes I feel the so-called modern academic and scholars are just writing for the sake of writing.


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