1996

The Buddhist Manuscript Projectfootnote 1


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The earliest history of Buddhism is largely lost, because some 400 years separate the death of the Buddha from the first documented efforts to commit the Buddhist scriptures to writing. Moreover, these early written texts, which are the only witness of the oral history of earlier years, themselves no longer exist. But the recent discovery of some eighty fragments of Buddhist texts, which seem to be the earliest surviving specimens yet found, will help to clarify the early development of Buddhism.

The manuscripts are being kept in London in the British Library's India Office and Oriental Collections. Officials of the British Library have asked Professors Richard Salomon and Collett Cox of the UW's Department of Asian Languages and Literature to take on the delicate and intricate task of transcribing and interpreting the texts. The joint "British Library/University of Washington Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project" was launched in September 1996 to support that effort.

It will be no easy task. The texts are written on extremely fragile scrolls of birch bark which were found in clay jars. The conservation department of the India Office Collection has succeeded in unrolling and preserving the scrolls; but in order to prevent further damage from handling, the UW researchers will work on digitally scanned images of them. Working with the texts in digital form allows the researchers to use image enhancement techniques to restore faded, damaged or incomplete sections, and to rejoin and reconstruct the many torn and misplaced fragments by manipulating them electronically.

The texts are written in Gandhari, a derivative of Sanskrit that was the predominant language of northwestern India in ancient times. Inscriptions on the jars date the texts at about the early first century A.D. Further confirmation of that date comes from the mention in one of the manuscripts of a Satrap Jihonika, who is known from other sources to have lived in approximately the same period. "If this dating is correct, as now seems probable, these fragments would not only be the oldest surviving texts of Buddhist literature, but even the earliest Indian manuscripts of any type," stress Salomon and Cox. The researchers believe it likely the texts originate from the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, comprising parts of the modern nations of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Under the joint project, the researchers will carry out the transcription, editing, translation, interpretation and publication of the manuscripts. The researchers plan to prepare the new texts in several volumes over the coming years in a series jointly published by the British Library Press and the UW Press. An initial volume will present a preliminary survey of the materials and a prospectus of the project. The researchers also envision a concluding volume that presents an overall re-evaluation of the early history of Buddhism.

These manuscripts have been described by Sir Anthony Kenny, Chairman of the British Library, as "potentially among the most important acquisitions made by the Library in the entire oriental sphere this century."footnote 1 Salomon affirms: "All in all, it is no exaggeration to say that the importance of these new manuscripts for Buddhist studies could turn out to be comparable in certain respects to that of the Dead Sea scrolls for Judaism and early Christianity."

The Buddha, who lived in the fifth or fourth century B.C.E., was a charismatic teacher whose oral teachings about the path to enlightenment were heard and memorized by disciples. After his death, the disciples organized these sermons into what eventually became a canon, at first preserved by memory and oral tradition, and finally written down, perhaps in the first century B.C.E. Yet, few manuscripts older than about the eighth century A.D. have survived to modern times.

Scholars have long suspected that the Gandhara region, one of the greatest centers of Buddhism in ancient times, must have developed a canon in the local language, Gandhari. Until the recent discovery, much of what scholars knew about this region's activities relating to Buddhism was inferred from sculptural art, inscriptions, and from the content of texts preserved in Chinese translations. With the discovery of the Gandhari scrolls, the crucial missing link is in hand.

The find comprises some eighty fragments containing a variety of texts that range from didactic poems and legends to technical treatises of early Buddhist metaphysics such as the workings of karma and the psychology of perception. "This material is of great importance for Buddhist studies from several points of view," note Salomon and Cox. First, it may provide the earliest documented sources for Buddhist texts that had been translated ages ago into languages such as Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan.

Secondly, the material may provide insight into a time when the process of canon formation was still going on. "This material will enable us to acquire a clearer picture of the development of Buddhism in the northwest region of India, which is a crucial but little-known phase of the history of Buddhism within India, and one which had a primary role in the transmission of Buddhism to Central Asia and East Asia," note the researchers.

Finally, the material may enable researchers to discern features of the underlying language or dialect from which the Gandhari texts were made, giving a clue to the original language of the Buddha himself.


  1. Adapted from material presented by Richard Salomon and Collett Cox in the UW Humanities Research Bulletin, Vol. 1.1, April 1996.

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