With the identification of the scrolls, scholars should be able to chart more precisely the spread of Buddhism from India to Central Asia and on to China, Korea and Japan. It is likely, Salomon says, that some of the Chinese texts were translations from Gandhari. Moreover, the texts will provide clues about early doctrinal divisions between Indian and East Asian Buddhism. Salomon does not expect, however, that the research will cause fundamental change in Buddhist doctrine.

This "Fasting Buddha" is typical of the art of ancient Gandhari. Image courtesy of Richard Salomon.

Salomon describes the translation plan for the scrolls as "my homework assignment." He feels strongly that disclosure of the documents to the scholarly community should take place at the earliest possible time. He and his UW colleagues are at work now, trying to produce legible, digitized images of the scrolls which can serve as the basis for the painstaking analytic work of deciphering letters, then words, translations of those words--and finally ascribing meaning to the literary fragments.

The scrolls were the product of several different scribes, some of whom wrote larger and more legibly than others. Salomon and his associates can recognize the different handwritings and they have given the scribes of various passages appropriate nicknames; "Big Hand" is a favorite because of the size of his letters.

The idea is to get the ball rolling, to begin publishing in short order. Still, the scholarly time horizon may appear long to the layman. Salomon describes his goal simply. "We hope for major parts of the interpretation of the texts to be published within our professional lifetimes."

Stories about the texts appeared last summer in the New York Times and the Times of London, as well as in numerous other newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations around the world. Salomon received a flurry of inquiries from reporters and interested laymen. Although he knew his findings would be of interest to scholars, he admits he was surprised by the interest from the general public. "Most of my career has involved conversations with a half-dozen scholars, so the experience has been somewhat unsettling," he says.

Being thrust into the limelight, if only for a few weeks, was something he could never have anticipated at Columbia University, where he began as a classics student. As a 19-year-old, he started studying Sanskrit "on the basis of little more than a whim."

"Within the first week of class, the rest of my life was in front of me. It was a very lucky experience," he says. As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Salomon specialized in Indology, and specifically in the field of inscriptions. He later developed a subspecialty in Kharosthi, a script that originated in an area bordered by what is now northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan--the region where Gandhari was spoken. "This was a place, near the Khyber pass, where cultures met--the Indo-Europeans came, the Turks came, Europeans came, Alexander the Great came--everybody came through this area because of the geography. And the period we're examining was one of great cultural diversity in that region. During and after my time in graduate school, a lot of material from this region began turning up, and obviously it's still turning up."

Salomon describes his career before arriving at the UW in 1981 as taking him "everywhere and nowhere," a series of short-term postdoctoral fellowships and temporary teaching positions as a scholarly "migrant laborer and pinch hitter." "You don't have to study Sanskrit to starve. It's a good way, but not the only way. I guess you have to be a little `nuts'--that is, dedicated--to stick it out. There were bad times, but I'm glad I stuck with it. Only affluent societies have the luxury--but I don't mean frill--of supporting research that has no practical application. I'm seldom jealous of the larger dollar amount of support that more practical projects can get. I don't believe society `owes' me support. But I am grateful to live in a society that supports this kind of scholarly research."

Buddhist Doctrine from a Non-Buddhist

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