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The term papañca, as it occurs in the Pali Canon, has presented considerable difficulty of interpretation. Attempts at its definition, by the commentators as well as by present-day scholars, have given rise to divergent conclusions. It is, however, generally agreed that the determination of its significance is fundamental to a proper understanding of the philosophy of early Buddhism.
In Canonical passages the term appears in a variety of forms and associations, sometimes as a verb or a verbal-derivative (papañceti, papañcayantā, papañcita) and sometimes as part of a compound (papañca-saññā, papañca-saṅkhā, papañca-saññā-saṅkhā, papañca-saññā-saṅkhā-samudācaraṇa-paññatti, papañca-saṅkhā-pahāna, papañca-vūpasama, papañca-nirodha, chinnapapañca, papañcārāma, papañcarati). Its antonym too, is seen to occur, even beside it in certain contexts (nippapañca, nippapapañcapada, nippapañcapatha, nippapañcārāma, nippapañcarati, appapañcaṇ). This variety of usage, on the one hand, greatly facilitates our quest for a definition, while on the other, it imposes an exacting test of validity for whatever definition we venture to offer.
The word papañca appears 74 times in the Suttas; in various compound forms, 101 times. Papañca-saññā-saṅkhā appears 14 times.
If we collate the different contexts in which some reference to papañca has been made, one of our first impressions would be the prominence it enjoys in a good number of them. When a list of terms relating to a common topic is set out in the Suttas, one often finds that the most important among them is either placed first, or else is counted last. Now, the term papañca is in fact enumerated last in as many as seven such contexts.