October 4, 2002

A Lost Buddhist Literary Tradition Is Found


In certain cliffhangers on late-night television, dashing and strangely underdressed archaeologists in faraway places unearth artifacts of uncertain provenance. The discoveries cast new light on an ancient civilization. In reality, archaeologists are less swashbuckling, but once in a great while they do turn up objects -- ancient manuscripts, say, inscribed in little-known languages -- that have that effect.

Through some stunning finds over the last decade, researchers studying early Buddhist manuscripts here at the University of Washington and at the British Library are confirming a longstanding hypothesis that an ancient tradition of Buddhist literature existed in Gandhari, a dialect of Prakrit, an early Indic language that developed from Sanskrit. They are confident that that canon may soon take its place next to the four other great traditions of Buddhist texts: the living traditions of Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan, and the ancient, fragmentary one of Sanskrit.

The Gandhari canon may prove to be a crucial link in understanding the way Buddhism moved northward along the Silk Road, into Central and East Asia, even as it largely died out in India, where it was born in the fifth or fourth century BC. "We're putting this language on the map of major languages of the ancient world, which it really was," says Richard G. Salomon, a professor of Asian languages and Sanskrit here, and the director of the British Library-University of Washington Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project.

Mr. Salomon is in charge of reconstructing, decoding, and publishing a collection of manuscripts of a kind that he and his colleagues feared they would never live to see. Until recently, concrete evidence of the Gandhari tradition consisted of a single manuscript, discovered in 1892 and published 70 years later as The Gandhari Dharmapada (Oxford University Press), edited by the late University of Cambridge scholar, John Brough.

Specialists knew that other manuscripts existed. In the 1830s, for example, one French archaeologist wrote of finding some, "but when they touched them, they literally crumbled in their hands," says Graham W. Shaw, the director of the British Library's Oriental and India Office Collections.

Although no other substantial Gandhari manuscript had come to light, Mr. Salomon was among a handful of researchers who studied the language, from the Brough edition, from secular documents in a related language, and from inscriptions on pots, coins, and archaeological ruins. Mr. Salomon specialized in those arcane inscriptions, which are in Kharosthi, a script based on the Aramaic alphabet.

In 1994, his preparation paid off when he was contacted by officials at the British Library, who had acquired a collection of what appeared to be many more Gandhari-dialect manuscripts written in Kharosthi. An anonymous donor had given the library 29 extremely fragile and brittle fragments of manuscript on birch-bark rolls. "Paper and vellum are like cast iron by comparison," says Mr. Shaw. "The sheer fact that any kinds of manuscripts on this material have survived is a miracle."

Library experts and Mr. Salomon determined that the manuscripts dated from the first century AD, and that made them the oldest known Buddhist manuscripts anywhere, and the oldest Indic manuscripts known to have survived. Judging by comparisons with other artifacts and by comments in travelers' and early archaeologists' journals, Mr. Salomon deduced that the manuscripts probably had been found in a jar in a cave near Jalalabad in what is now eastern Afghanistan, close to the ancient region of Gandhara.

Gandhara was the seat of a series of powerful dynasties from the third century BC to the fourth century AD. Well-known from abundant archaeological remains, it was a crossroads of cultural influences from India, the West, China, and East Asia, and a melting pot of Greeks, descendants of Scythian invaders from the North, and many others. Archaeological remains and other evidence show that it was also an important center of Buddhism. "It only stood to reason that there'd be a literary component of that culture," says Mr. Salomon. "Some of the pieces were in place, and now the literary language falls right into place, too."

Mr. Salomon, whose curly hair and heavy spectacles make him appear rather more bookish than swashbuckling, visibly winces as he takes stock of how long it has taken for the tradition to emerge. "Many Gandhari manuscripts were destroyed, lost, thrown out," he says. "Believe it or not, they were not recognized as valuable objects, even by scholars -- certain archaeologists -- who should have known better."

The British Library collection has grown from 29 to 57 fragments, and to triple its original volume, with the addition of other groups of manuscripts that were sitting unidentified in private collections. They include sermons, tales, and commentaries, many of which are well-known from other Buddhist literary traditions. One such find -- eight small, contiguous fragments, making a piece about the size of a page from a standard paperback, from a large commentary on the benefits of meditation -- has just been acquired by the University of Washington Libraries, while the other manuscripts are at the British Library. Because the documents are so fragile, the Washington researchers study digital and photographic images of them.

To date the manuscripts, researchers have used such techniques as comparing their contents with inscriptions on coins, and names or events mentioned in other texts. Similar sleuthing suggests that the Kharosthi scrolls came from the library of a Gandharan monastery of the Dharmaguptaka sect of Buddhists; that they date from the first century AD; and that they were found in modern-day northern Pakistan or eastern Afghanistan. Interlinear notations such as "copied" indicate that the manuscripts were discarded ones that had been replaced by freshly made ones. Apparently, says Mr. Salomon, the monasteries had well-organized scriptoriums and large libraries even at that early stage.

That leads him and his colleagues to believe that the texts have enormous significance because they support the "Gandhari hypothesis" that Mr. Brough and some other scholars long ago proposed: that some early Chinese translations of Buddhist texts were prepared from Gandhari rather than Sanskrit originals.

Greeted with skepticism at first, that possibility now appears certain. The new discoveries reveal "a missing link between the birth of Buddhism in India and its later forms in China and elsewhere in Asia," says Michael Witzel, a professor of Sanskrit and Indian studies at Harvard University.

The link is quite complicated, Mr. Witzel says. The newly found manuscripts are "not from the formative stages of Buddhism." The religion's original language was probably a lost eastern-Indian dialect, as later Pali texts from western India suggest. But since that tradition was probably never written down, says Mr. Salomon, "this brings us as close as we're ever going to get to the earliest written form of the Buddha's words."

Even though the Gandharan finds predate all other Buddhist holdings, the tradition links up with the other strains of Buddhism in "very complicated, messy ways" that do not tell any straightforward historical tale, Mr. Salomon explains. "In a way, that's disappointing. But that's a superficial reaction. Then it's daunting. And then it's exciting. It really does shake things up."

In trying to identify exactly what the relationships are, he and his colleagues, including Collett D. Cox, an associate professor of Buddhist studies here, and Mark Allon, an Australian Research Council fellow at the University of Sydney, are minutely comparing them with parallels in Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese, and are even finding a few parallels in the Tibetan tradition, which developed later, but from a different stream. For example, among the texts in the collection is the Anavatapata-gatha, a collection of sermons on the nature of perception that the Buddha is said to have delivered on the banks of Lake Anavatapata. Those are known from later versions in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan.

Also found was a version of the verse compilation known in Pali as the Khaggavisana-sutta of the Sutta-nipata, the Buddha's sermons on the horn of the rhinoceros (sutta-nipata). In both the Pali and Gandhari "Rhinoceros Sutra," the rhinoceros, as an animal that wanders alone, symbolizes detachment from material things.

Many texts in the collection, however, do not have such analogues. "A large proportion of this literature," says Mr. Salomon, "existed only in that region, and is not part of pan-Buddhist literature. That is again daunting" -- because it makes translation even harder -- "and yet wonderful."

Wonderful, agrees Mr. Shaw of the British Library, because the writings in the new manuscripts are proving to be closer to those in Chinese Buddhist versions than to those in the Pali canon, which has generally been regarded as the standard. "There were obviously various Buddhist canons circulating in early days in different dialects," he says. The manuscripts also throw light on the way that Buddhist tradition was transmitted. "Oral transmission had been the preferred or normal way -- memorization, recitation, and so forth," says Mr. Salomon. "What we're now finding out is that, in the first and second century AD, the notion of writing things down took off in a big way."

For those reasons the manuscripts are, says Mr. Witzel of Harvard, "the Qumran manuscripts of Buddhism." His allusion is to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and their importance in understanding early Christianity and its Judaic roots. Scholars in the broad field of Indic studies generally agree that the comparison of the two writings, which date from the same time, is apt. Mr. Salomon concurs, but he adds, referring to the famous squabbles that have bogged down the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls: "From the beginning, I've structured this project's strategies to be the exact opposite to the Dead Sea Scrolls. That entails actually doing research and publishing it, rather than dickering around for 40 years, or whatever they were doing."

Setting a brisk pace by academic-publishing standards, the project has released one major volume a year since 1999 in a series from the University of Washington Press. Achieving that efficiency -- even publishing the texts at all -- is a matter of old-fashioned "philological slogging," says Mr. Salomon. "Technology helps, but the bottom line is knowing the words and the letters and the languages and the cultures." He knows 12 ancient and modern languages

The Kharosthi Club

Any Friday afternoon here, he and his colleagues are in session for what they like to call "the Kharosthi Club," trying to tease out secrets that ancient Gandhara does not give up easily. In a classroom, the researchers pore over images of the tattered manuscripts, badly obscured by creases, with missing fragments and distorted or jumbled script. The damage occurred when the documents were painstakingly unrolled by British Library conservationists, and fragile leaves of birch-bark manuscript inevitably adhered to others.

"Are you interpreting that loop as part of that letter, or the one to the right or the left? Or the one above?" asks one researcher, holding the image of the page this way, then that.

"This needs the treatment," concludes Mr. Salomon, meaning that the original manuscript page, still housed at the British Library, must be viewed under infrared light. "That brings out things that are literally not there to the naked eye," he says.

In each session, the Kharosthi Club -- seven or eight University of Washington researchers of the language and script, a good proportion of the world's total supply -- spend an afternoon that may extend well into the evening parsing out locatives from genitives without endings, grappling over orthographic issues, testing possible ways of reading letters or words, and making judgment calls: Is a reading justified on the basis of, say, the handwriting of a particular scribe? In some cases, even an educated conjecture cannot be made, so some words go untranslated, as often occurs in the translation of ancient texts.

To piece together fragments of manuscript, the researchers often must work with images of small tatters of bark, fitting them together as one might assemble a raggedly cut jigsaw puzzle. That work is facilitated by computer-graphics software, but still, as Mr. Salomon says, "there were no high-tech miracles." For him, performing the philological, editorial, historical, and literary-critical work of the project has been a case of being in the right place after preparing to get there for a long time, beginning with his studies of Sanskrit as a Columbia University undergraduate in the 1960s. "As luck would have it, this stuff pops up, so that'll be almost exclusively my field for the rest of my working life," he says.

In addition to numerous volumes about the manuscripts, he envisages a dictionary of Gandhari, and a grammar -- and, over all, a boom in Gandharan literary studies. He and his colleagues Ms. Cox, Mr. Allon, and one postdoctoral fellow, Timothy Lenz, have completed four volumes in the series. A doctoral candidate, Andrew Glass, has contributed significantly to sections on paleography and orthography in two books.

"It's a growth industry," says Mr. Salomon. He and his colleagues already had a sense of Gandharan culture, but of the manuscript finds, he says: "It's like the flesh being added to the bones."


Copyright 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education