The British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments

In 1994, the British Library Oriental and India Office Collections acquired a collection of twenty‐nine fragments of manuscripts written on birch bark scrolls in the Gāndhārī (a dialect of Prakrit) language and in the Kharoṣṭhī script. They were contained inside a clay pot, also bearing an inscription in the same language, in which they had been buried in antiquity. Preliminary analysis of these documents indicated that they dated from about the first century A.D., which would make them the oldest surviving substantial collection of Buddhist manuscripts, as well as of any kind of Indian manuscripts.

The exact findspot of these manuscripts is unfortunately unknown. But in the past several manuscripts of the same type have been reported to have been found in or around Haḍḍa near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, although none of these have ever been published and most of them apparently are now lost. It is therefore likely that the new manuscripts came from the same region. This area closely adjoins the region known in ancient times as Gandhāra, the homeland of the Gāndhārī language and Kharoṣṭhī script, which were current from about the third century B.C. to the fourth century A.D.

Gandhāra has long been known as one of the main centers of Buddhist art and culture during the early part of the Christian era, as attested by its abundant archaeological, art historical, and inscriptional remains. But until now, only one specimen of a Gandhāran Buddhist text, namely the famous Gāndhārī Dharmapada (definitively edited by John Brough in 1962), was known. The new manuscripts therefore provide unprecedented insights into the scope and composition of the long-hypothesized, and now actually discovered, body of Gandhāran Buddhist literature. More broadly, it will provide us with the earliest documentary evidence of the contents of any of the Buddhist canons.

The twenty‐nine fragments comprise portions of twenty or more originally separate scrolls, ranging in size from a few words to several hundred lines of writing. The texts comprise a wide variety of Buddhist texts of various genres, including:

  • Verse compilations such as Gāndhārī versions of the “Rhinoceros Sūtra,” previously known in Pali as the Khaggavisāna‐sutta of the Sutta‐nipāta, and of the “Songs of Lake Anavatapta” (Anavatapta‐gāthā), which is known in later versions in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan.
  • Canonical sūtras and commentaries, including a large fragment of the Saṅgīti‐sūtra with a previously unknown commentary.
  • Abhidharma and other technical and scholastic texts, mostly as yet identified.
  • Large numbers of avadānas or edifying legends, many of which seem not to have direct parallels in other Indian Buddhist traditions, and which therefore may represent local or sectarian compositions.

While some of the texts, including the examples noted above, can be directly identified with or at least related to texts extant in other languages such as Pali, Sanskrit, or Chinese, the majority of them, including many of the avadānas and the commentaries, appear to have no parallels in the previously known Buddhist literatures.

Among the grounds for dating the collection are references in two separate texts of the avadāna class to the Great Satrap Jihonika and to the Commander Aśpavarma, both of whom are known from inscriptions and coins to have ruled in Gandhāra in the early part of the first century. Furthermore, the manuscripts were associated with a group of clay jars bearing Kharoṣṭhī inscriptions, one of which mentions the names of two other historical personages, the royal official Suhasoma and his wife Vasavadatta, who are also known from other inscriptions to have lived at about the same time.

The inscription on the jar in which the manuscripts were found records its dedication to the teachers of the Dharmaguptaka school, suggesting that the manuscripts belonged to the library of a monastery of this school. This sectarian affiliation has been confirmed by the discovery of strikingly close parallels between some of their texts and Dharmaguptaka texts extant in Chinese. For example, the Saṅgīti‐sutra text referred to above has a much closer relationship to the Chinese Dharmaguptaka version of this text than to the other versions of it that are extant in Pali and Sanskrit.

It is therefore reasonably certain that the British Library Kharoṣṭhī scrolls represent a sampling of the textual corpus of a Dharmaguptaka monastery of the late Indo‐Scythian period. It now appears that the Dharmaguptaka school had a much more influential role in this early phase of Gandhāran Buddhism than has hitherto been realized, and this fits in with its prominent place in early central Asian and Chinese Buddhism. For Gandhāra, with its strategic location at the crossroads of the routes between India, the west, and central and east Asia, played a critical role in the spread of Buddhism beyond its Indian homeland, and the new evidence strongly supports the theory that the Gandhāran followers of the Dharmaguptaka school played a prominent role in this process.

Moreover, the discovery of a substantial corpus of Buddhist manuscripts in the Gāndhārī language supports the “Gāndhārī hypothesis” proposed in the past by Ernst Waldschmidt, John Brough and other scholars. According to this theory, at least some of the earliest Chinese translations of Buddhist texts were prepared from originals, not in Sanskrit as previously assumed, but rather in Gāndhārī. Since the existence of such a body of Gāndhārī literature is now a matter of fact rather than of hypothesis, there is good reason to believe that the newly discovered manuscripts are closely related to the archetypes of the earliest Buddhist texts in Chinese. Thus these new discoveries constitute a missing link between Buddhism in its Indian homeland and its later manifestations in China and other parts of Asia.

Project History and Goals:

The University of Washington Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project was initiated in September 1996 in order to promote the study, editing, and publication of the new manuscripts. The project was located in the University of Washington's Department of Asian Languages and Literature at the invitation of the authorities of the British Library. The directors of the project in London and Seattle have placed the highest priority on publishing the manuscripts as quickly as possible without comprising appropriate scholarly standards. All concerned parties are eager to avoid the sorts of delays and misunderstandings that have beset other important discoveries of ancient manuscripts in the Indian world and elsewhere.

Since the inception of the project, several other collections of similar materials have come to light. These additional manuscripts have come under the purview of the EBMP for study and publication. The amount of material now under study by the EBMP has thus approximately tripled since the project began in 1996.

 Project Contributors, Contact, and Funding Information