Gandhāran Buddhist texts

The Gandhāran Buddhist texts are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts yet discovered, dating from about the 1st century BCE to 3rd century CE,[1][2] and are also the oldest Indian manuscripts.[1] They represent the literature of Gandharan Buddhism from present-day northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, and are written in Gāndhārī.

They were sold to European and Japanese institutions and individuals, and are currently being recovered and studied by several universities. The Gandhāran texts are in a considerably deteriorated form (their survival alone is extraordinary), but educated guesses about reconstruction have been possible in several cases using both modern preservation techniques and more traditional textual scholarship, comparing previously known Pāli and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit versions of texts. Other Gandhāran Buddhist texts—"several and perhaps many"—have been found over the last two centuries but lost or destroyed.[3]

The texts are attributed to the Dharmaguptaka sect by Richard Salomon, the leading scholar in the field,[4] and the British Library scrolls "represent a random but reasonably representative fraction of what was probably a much larger set of texts preserved in the library of a monastery of the Dharmaguptaka sect in Nagarāhāra."[5]

Gandhara birchbark scroll fragments (c. 1st century) from British Library Collection

In 1994, the British Library acquired a group of some eighty Gandharan manuscript fragments from the first half of the 1st century CE. These birch bark manuscripts were stored in clay jars, which preserved them. They are thought to have been found in western Pakistan, the location of Gandhara, buried in ancient monasteries. A team has been at work, trying to decipher the manuscripts: several volumes have appeared to date (see below). The manuscripts were written in the Gāndhārī language using the Kharoṣṭhī script and are therefore sometimes also called the Kharoṣṭhī Manuscripts.

The collection is composed of a diversity of texts: a Dhammapada, discourses of the Buddha such as the Rhinoceros Sutra, avadanas and Purvayogas, commentaries and abhidharma texts.

There is evidence to suggest that these texts may belong to the Dharmaguptaka school.[6] There is an inscription on a jar pointing to that school, and there is some textual evidence as well. On a semi-related point, the Gandhāran text of the Rhinoceros Sutra contains the word mahayaṇaṣa, which some might identify with "Mahayana."[7] However, according to Salomon, in Kharoṣṭhī orthography there is no reason to think that the phrase in question, amaṃtraṇa bhoti mahayaṇaṣa ("there are calls from the multitude"), has any connection to the Mahayana.[7]

The Senior collection was bought by Robert Senior, a British collector. The Senior collection may be slightly younger than the British Library collection. It consists almost entirely of canonical sutras, and, like the British Library collection, was written on birch bark and stored in clay jars.[8] The jars bear inscriptions referring to Macedonian rather than Indian month names, as is characteristic of the Kaniska era from which they derive.[9] There is a "strong likelihood that the Senior scrolls were written, at the earliest, in the latter part of the first century A.D., or, perhaps more likely, in the first half of the second century. This would make the Senior scrolls slightly but significantly later than the scrolls of the British Library collection, which have been provisionally dated to the first half of the first century."[10] Salomon writes:

He further reports that the "largest number of parallels for the sutras in the Senior collection are in the Saṃyutta Nikāya and the corresponding collections in Sanskrit and Chinese."[14]

The Buddhist works within the Schøyen collection consist of birch bark, palm leaf and vellum manuscripts. They are thought to have been found in the Bamiyan caves, where refugees were seeking shelter. Most of these manuscripts were bought by a Norwegian collector, named Martin Schøyen, while smaller quantities are in possession of Japanese collectors.[15] These manuscripts date from the second to the 8th century CE. In addition to texts in Gandhāri, the Schøyen collection also contains important early sutric material in Sanskrit.[16]

The Buddhist texts within the Schøyen collection include fragments of canonical Suttas, Abhidharma, Vinaya, and Mahāyāna texts. Most of these manuscripts are written in the Brahmi scripts, while a small portion is written in Gandhāri/Kharoṣṭhī script.

Among the early Dharmaguptaka texts in the Schøyen Collection is a fragment in the Kharoṣṭhī script referencing the Six Pāramitās, a central practice for bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna Buddhism.[17]

One more manuscript, written on birch bark in a Buddhist monastery of the Abhidharma tradition, from the 1st or 2nd century CE, was acquired from a collector by the University of Washington Libraries in 2002. It is an early commentary on the Buddha's teachings, on the subject of human suffering.

In 2003,[18] the Library of Congress purchased a scroll from a British antiquities dealer.[19] Called the "Bahubuddha Sutra", or "The Many Buddhas Sutra", the scroll arrived in pieces in a pen case[20] but retains 80% of the text with the beginning and ending missing due to age.[18] The content is similar to the "Mahāvastu."[20] The text is narrated by Gautama Buddha and "tells the story of the 13 Buddhas who preceded him, his own emergence and the prediction of a future Buddha."[18]

In 1892 a copy of the Dhammapada written in the Gandhārī Prakrit was discovered near Khotan in Xinjiang, western China. It was broken up and came to Europe in parts, some going to Russia and some to France, but unfortunately a portion of the manuscript never appeared on the market and seems to have been lost. In 1898 most of the French material was published in the Journal Asiatique. In 1962 John Brough published the collected Russian and French fragments with a commentary.

The local origins of the present collection are not clear. Several part[s] of it were seen in Peshawar in 2004. According to usually reliable informants the collection of birch-barks was found in a stone case in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area, comprising the Mohmand Agency and Bajaur. It was split on arrival and some parts are now in a Western collection, while others went to a Government agency and yet other parts may still be with the private owner.[21]

In 2012, Harry Falk and Seishi Karashima published a damaged and partial Kharoṣṭhī manuscript of the Mahāyāna Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.[22] It is carbon dated to ca. 75 CE, making it one of the oldest Buddhist texts in existence. It is very similar to the first Chinese translation of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā by Lokakṣema (ca. 179 CE) whose source text is assumed to be in the Gāndhārī language. Comparison with the standard Sanskrit text shows that it is also likely to be a translation from Gāndhāri as it expands on many phrases and provides glosses for words that are not present in the Gāndhārī. This points to the text being composed in Gāndhārī, the language of Gandhāra (in what is now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, including Peshawar, Taxila and the Swat Valley). The "Split" ms. is evidently a copy of an earlier text, confirming that the text may date before the first century of the common era.

Scholarly critical editions of the texts of the University of Washington and the British Library are being printed by the University of Washington Press in the "Gandhāran Buddhist Texts" series,[23] beginning with a detailed analysis of the Gāndhārī Rhinoceros Sutra including phonology, morphology, orthography, paleography, etc. Material from the Schøyen Collection is published by Hermes Publishing, Oslo, Norway.

The following scholars have published fragments of the Gandhāran manuscripts: Raymond Allchin, Mark Allon, Mark Barnard, Stefan Baums, John Brough, Harry Falk, Andrew Glass, Mei‐huang Lee, Timothy Lenz, Sergey Oldenburg, Richard Salomon and Émile Senart. Some of the published material is listed below:

* see publication list above, particularly The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhāra (2018) by Salomon *
Allon, Mark. "Wrestling with Kharosthi Manuscripts," BDK Fellowship Newsletter, No 7, 2004.