Dhammapala was the name of at least two great Theravada Buddhist commentators. It is not entirely clear about when the two lived, but it is some time between the fourth century CE and no later than the tenth century CE. One who lived at the Badara Tittha Vihara, near the east coast of India, just a little south of where Chennai now stands, wrote the commentaries on seven of the shorter canonical books, consisting almost entirely of verses, and also the commentary on the Netti, perhaps the oldest Pali work outside the canon. Extracts from the latter work, and the whole of three out of the seven others, have been published in Pali by the Pali Text Society. These works show great learning, exegetical skill and sound judgment. But as to the meaning of words, or to discussions of the ethical import of his texts, very little can be gathered from his writings of value for the social history of his time. For the right interpretation of the difficult texts on which he comments, they are indispensable.
Though in all probability a Tamil by birth, he declares, in the opening lines of those of his works that have been edited, that he followed the tradition of the Great Minister (Maha Vihara) at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, and the works themselves confirm this in every respect. Xuanzang, the famous Chinese pilgrim, tells a quaint story of a Dhammapala of Kanchipura (the modern Konjevaram). He was a son of a high official, and betrothed to a daughter of the king, but escaped on the eve of the wedding feast, entered the order, and attained to reverence and distinction. It is most likely that this story, whether legendary or not (and Xuanzang heard the story at Kanchipura nearly two centuries after the date of Dhammapala), referred to this author. However, it might also refer, as Xuanzang gives it, to another author of the same name.
Another writer, probably also called Dhammapala, since he was supposed by the 12th century to be the same, though scholars do not accept this, wrote subcommentaries on the commentaries on the Digha, Majjhima and Samyutta Nikayas.
A third Dhammapala wrote Saccasankhepa, a handbook of Abhidhamma.
See also: Theravada commentaries