Pali is the name given to the language of the texts of Theravada Buddhism, although the commentarial tradition of the Theravadins states that the language of the canon is Magadhi, the language spoken by Gotama Buddha. The term Pali originally referred to a canonical text or passage rather than to a language and its current use is based on a misunderstanding which occurred several centuries ago. The language of the Theravadin canon is a version of a dialect of Middle Indo-Aryan, not Magadhi, created by the homogenisation of the dialects in which the teachings of the Buddha were orally recorded and transmitted. This became necessary as Buddhism was transmitted far beyond the area of its origin and as the Buddhist monastic order codified his teachings.
The tradition recorded in the ancient Sinhalese chronicles states that the Theravadin canon was written down in the first century B.C.E. The language of the canon continued to be influenced by commentators and grammarians and by the native languages of the countries in which Theravada Buddhism became established over many centuries. The oral transmission of the Pali canon continued for several centuries after the death of the Buddha, even after the texts were first preserved in writing. No single script was ever developed for the language of the canon; scribes used the scripts of their native languages to transcribe the texts. Although monasteries in South India are known to have been important centres of Buddhist learning in the early part of this millennium, no manuscripts from anywhere in India except Nepal have survived. Almost all the manuscripts available to scholars since the PTS (Pali Text Society) began can be dated to the 18th or 19th centuries C.E. and the textual traditions of the different Buddhist countries represented by these manuscripts show much evidence of interweaving. The pattern of recitation and validation of texts by councils of monks has continued into the 20th century.
The main division of the Pali canon as it exists today is threefold, although the Pali commentarial tradition refers to several different ways of classification. The three divisions are known as pi.takas and the canon itself as the Tipitaka; the significance of the term pitaka, literally "basket", is not clear. The text of the canon is divided, according to this system, into Vinaya (monastic rules), Suttas (discourses) and Abhidhamma (analysis of the teaching). The PTS edition of the Tipitaka contains fifty-six books (including indexes), and it cannot therefore be considered to be a homogenous entity, comparable to the Christian Bible or Muslim Koran. Although Buddhists refer to the Tipitaka as Buddhavacana, "the word of the Buddha", there are texts within the canon either attributed to specific monks or related to an event post-dating the time of the Buddha or that can be shown to have been composed after that time. The first four nikayas (collections) of the Sutta-pitaka contain sermons in which the basic doctrines of the Buddha's teaching are expounded either briefly or in detail.