Experts at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) are in the process of analysing Indian Buddhist texts that are over 2000-year-old which have recently come to light. The precious manuscripts have already yielded some surprising results.
The texts of Ghandara
The oldest surviving Buddhist texts, preserved on long rolls of birch-tree bark, are written in Gandhari, an early regional Indic language that is long extinct. The scrolls originate from the region known in ancient times as Gandhara, which lies in what is now Northwestern Pakistan.
For researchers interested in the early history of Buddhism, these manuscripts represent a sensational find, for a number of reasons.
The first is their age. Some of the documents date from the first century BC, making them by far the oldest examples of Indian Buddhist literature. But for the experts, their contents are equally fascinating. The texts provide insights into a literary tradition which was thought to have been irretrievably lost, and they help researchers to reconstruct crucial phases in the development of Buddhism in India. Furthermore, the scrolls confirm the vital role played by the Gandhara region in the spread of Buddhism into Central Asia and China.
At LMU a team of researchers led by Indological scholar Professor Jens-Uwe Hartmann and Professor Harry Falk of the Free University of Berlin has just begun the arduous job of editing the manuscripts.
Most of the texts survive only as fragments, which must first be collated and reassembled. The magnitude of the task is reflected in the planned duration of the project – 21 years.
The project of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities is being funded by a total grant of 8.6 million euros from the Academies Program, that is coordinated by the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities. It is one of the largest research programs in the field of the Humanities in the Federal Republic.
Fragile resource online
The research is not with the manuscripts themselves, but with digital scans. The originals are not only extremely fragile, but are held in various collections scattered around the world.
A large proportion of the surviving material is stored in the British Library in London.
The ultimate goal of the project is to prepare a modern edition of all the Gandhari manuscripts, making them available for further investigation and research. In addition, the researchers plan to produce a dictionary of the Gandhari language and it’s grammar based on the contents of these documents.
However, the project will be primarily concerned with illuminating the development of Gandhari literature and the history of Buddhism in Gandhara. It is already clear that the results will lead to a new understanding of the earliest phases of Buddhism in India.
Opening up new knowledge
Discoveries of these documents continue to be made and the understanding of the script and people is revolutionized by the recovery of 77 long birch-bark scrolls and around 300 palm-leaf manuscript fragments from Buddhist monasteries in the Gandhāran heartland.
Birch bark (bhoja-patra), like palm leaf, was a primary material used in India for writing before the introduction of paper and most of these early manuscripts have been destroyed, but accounts in ancient Greek literature even reveal birch bark’s usage in India at the time of Alexander’s invasion.
The oldest extant examples date to the 2nd or 3rd century CE, written with black ink in variants of the Sanskrit script. A recent publication on these manuscripts from the British Library states: “As the Dead Sea Scrolls have changed our understanding of Judaism and early Christianity, so early sets of scroll fragments promise to improve knowledge of the history of Buddhism.”
At the core of the project is the construction of a comprehensive database in which all relevant information and results are collected, stored and linked together. The database will serve as the major source of electronic and printed publications on the topic, and regular updates will give the international research community access to the latest results.