Gandharan Text at the US Library of Congress May Rewrite the History of Buddhism


Gandharan Buddhist literature from the first and third centuries BCE, discovered in northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, continues to intrigue researchers. The text, which is held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, represents the oldest writings discovered to date, and is considered the most senior among Indian manuscripts.

“This is a unique item because it is very old compared to similar manuscripts and, as such, it does bring us, historically speaking, relatively close to the lifetime of the Buddha,” Jonathan Loar, reference librarian in the Asian Division at the Library of Congress, said in a statement when the manuscripts were first made public two years ago. (CNN)

Researchers at the Library of Congress have successfully unrolled and digitized the delicate documents. Unfortunately, the original scrolls are in bad shape and curators have had to rely on modern preservation techniques, along with traditional scholarship to translate them. This involves making comparisons to Pali and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit versions of the Gandharan text. A number of other Gandharan manuscripts have been lost or destroyed in the last 200 years.

The researchers who found scrolls containing the Dhammapada, the Rhinoceros Sutra, and various Abhidharma commentaries say that evidence points to the texts being written by members of the Dharmaguptaka Buddhist school.

The translated scrolls represent just a fraction of a larger collection of manuscripts that reside in the Dharmaguptaka sect monastery library in the city of Nagahara. The scrolls themselves, which were essential to the spread of Buddhism, were usually made of birch bark and stored in terracotta jars. The jars were then placed inside stupas for safe keeping. Many of these scrolls have been partially preserved due to the high altitude and dry climate of the Gandhara region.  

In the past, only small fragments of Gandharan manuscripts were successfully recovered by researchers, so the fact that such a complete sample was found during recent expeditions is extraordinary. Unfortunately, who wrote the scrolls is not known, however they are inscribed in Gandhari, a language derived from Sanskrit in the Kharosthi script.

There are approximately 24 manuscripts in the collection of Gandhari writings that are original or matching with texts from other Buddhist traditions. Researchers believe that if this trend continues, it may signify that the library in the Gandharan monastery could be distinct from what is the currently accepted Buddhist canon.

The difference would lie not in the teachings themselves, which are in accordance with what has been found in other Buddhist traditions, but in the way they are presented. This would suggests that the manuscripts could be from a pre- or proto- canonical period of early Buddhism.

This line of thinking would fit with the popular narrative that the Gandharan scrolls were written during a time when writing was not fully accepted as a means of communication with monks, who primarily relied on memorization and oral transmission to pass on the Buddhadharma.

As researchers continue to examine the manuscripts, the complex relationship between the oral and textual transmission of the teachings will become more apparent, with various patterns of canon formation rising to the surface. Much of this complexity can be explained by the important role that Gandhara played in the ancient world as a nexus for various cultures and religious traditions. This resulted in the centralization of the Buddhist teachings in the area and the spread of those teachings to other parts of the world.

As Arshan Awar, a researcher and journalist in Pakistan, wrote earlier in November:

In the same way that the discovery and analysis of early Sanskrit manuscripts contributed to the correction of the prevailing Pali-centric view of Buddhism, it is anticipated that the new Gandhari texts will alter the status quo by providing a new point of comparison for previously known traditions. Though hard to foresee the long-term effects of this discovery, it may usher in a new era in Buddhist studies.

(Tribune Magazine)

Two thousand years ago, Gandhara was a touch point for Greek, Iranian, and Indian religious traditions. The region was conquered and ruled by a number of historical figures, including Ashoka, a Mauryan emperor who ruled during mid-third century BCE, and the Kushan emperor Kanishka 1, who ruled from 127–159 CE.

During this period, Buddhist art, architecture, and learning flourished in Gandhara. One unique characteristic of Buddhist art from Gandhara is the Hellenistic influence: as seen in Buddha images with wavy hair and dressed in the Greco-Roman style. Buddhism gained such a strong foothold in the region that it eventually traveled along the Silk Road to China and beyond.

See more

A rare 2,000-year-old scroll about the early years of Buddhism is made public (CNN)
Unravelling The Scrolls That May Rewrite Buddhist History (Tribune Magazine)
Gandhara, the ancient kingdom that gave world its first Buddha sculptures (The Print)

Related news reports from BDG

Ethics Complaint about Gandharan Manuscripts Leads to Admonishment of Australian Academic
US Library of Congress Gives Glimpse into Early Buddhist Texts from Gandhara
British Museum to Return “Stunning” Gandharan Buddhist Artifacts to Afghanistan
UPDATE: A Glimmer of Hope for Afghanistan’s 5,000-year-old Mes Aynak Archaeological Site?
UPDATE: Archeologists Detail Importance of Buddhist Artifacts Found in Pakistan
Jogye Order Confers Award on Pakistan’s Ambassador to South Korea

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments