Early Buddhist manuscripts

Richard Salomon rsalomon at u.washington.edu
Thu Aug 1 18:36:25 UTC 1996

In response to the inquiry of H. Marlewicz and others, the following
preliminary report on the newly-discovered Kharosthi manuscripts is meant
to provide some more details about them than has been
given in most of the recent media reports on this discovery.

By the way, please note that, in the otherwise accurate New York Times
article referred to by J. Silk (and in some other newspapers as well),
the photograph of the manuscript fragment was printed upside-down!

Richard Salomon
Department of Asian Languages & Literature
University of Washington
Seattle WA 98103


     The British Library has recently acquired a collection of fragments
of manuscripts that are likely to be the
earliest surviving specimens of Buddhist texts in any language.
These texts are written on birch bark scrolls in the Gandhari
(northwestern Prakrit)
language and in the Kharosthi script, which were current in
ancient Gandhara in the early centuries of the Christian
era.  Their exact provenance is unfortunately not known, but they are
believed to have originally come from somewhere in Afghanistan.
     The fragments contain portions of about twenty
separate scrolls, ranging in size from a few words to several
hundreds lines of writing.  So far, only a few of the texts
have been definitely identified, though the scope of the find and
the main genres included in it can be broadly determined.
The scrolls include didactic verse texts, such as a
rendering into Gandhari of the "Rhinoceros' Horn Sutra," previously
known only in Pali (Khagga-visaana-sutta); a few sutra texts,
with or without commentaries; abhidharma and other technical and
scholastic texts, mostly as yet identified; and various avadanas,
which do not seem to have direct parallels in other Buddhist
traditions and which may represent local compositions.
     The texts may be provisionally dated to the first century
AD.  Among the grounds for this dating are a clear reference in an
unidentified fragmentary text to the Great Satrap Jihonika,
who is known from inscriptions and coins to have ruled around the
early part of the first century.
     The manuscripts were found inside one or more clay jars
bearing dedicatory inscriptions in Kharosthi script, some of which refer
to the Sarvastivadin sect, which was previously known
to have been influential in Gandhara.  It is therefore
believed that the manuscripts belonged to the
library of a Sarvastivadin monastery.  Some of them bear
secondary interlinear notations which seem to indicate that their contents
had been copied over onto new scrolls.  Therefore the set of
manuscripts may comprise discarded remnants of old and decrepit scrolls
which had been recopied and were then accorded a ritual
"burial" in the jars.
     Gandhara has long been known to have been one of the
great centers of Buddhism during the early part of the
Christian era, as is well attested by abundant archaeological,
art historical, and inscriptional remains.  But until now, only
one specimen of a Gandharan Buddhist text in manuscript
form, namely the Gandhari Dharmapada (definitively published
by John Brough in 1962), has been known.  The new
manuscripts should enable us determine much of the scope and
composition of the long-hypothesized, and now actually
discovered, Gandhari Buddhist canon.  More broadly, they will
provide us with earliest documentary evidence of the contents
of any of the Buddhist canons.
     The British Library has established an agreement with
the University of Washington for the study of the new
manuscripts.  The primary goal of this program is to begin
issuing as soon as possible a series of publications
dedicated to them.  In particular, an introductory volume providing a
general overview and sample text will be published within the reasonably
near future, hopefully within the next year or two.  It
must be emphasized, however, that at the moment the project is still in
the preliminary cataloguing stage of deciphering, transliterating,
arranging and
reconstructing the fragments, and identifying them, where possible, by
comparison to known Buddhist texts in other languages.  While all attempts
are being made to
complete these tasks promptly, this is proving to be a
laborious and time-consuming process, especially in view of the poor
condition and fragmentary character of the manuscripts.  We can assure
interested scholars and members of the public that these documents will be
published as soon as possible,  but at the same time request some patience
on their part, as it is important that this be done in a careful and
accurate manner.
	With regard to the provision of further information about the
manuscripts in advance of the planned published editions, a short
statement, including sample
picture, will be appearing shortly on the India Office and Oriental
Collections (British Library) home-page on PORTICO.  Also, Prof. Richard
Salomon will be presenting preliminary reports on the material at the
American Academy of Religion meetings in New Orleans on November 23,
1996, and at the American Oriental Society conference in Miami in March
1997.  He also hopes to present the material at an appropriate venue in
Europe within the near future, possibly at the ICANAS meetings in Budapest
in July 1997.

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