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Gandharan Buddhist Texts

By Devik Balami at
Gandharan Buddhist text

Gandharan Buddhist Texts are believed to be the oldest Buddhist manuscripts some of which preserved today at different libraries dates from the 1st century. These texts are written in Gandhari language. In the present context, the texts are preserved in the library, collections scattered around the world.

Brief history behind the fall of Buddhism in Gandharan region

With the continuous Buddhist activity from the period of Ashoka, the Great; Gandhara became the hub of Buddhist activity during the Kushan Dynasty. This period was golden era as the Gandharan art, architecture and culture were flourished to its high point. From this period onwards, the iconic Buddha Statues were also constructed. As time passed by the Kushan was invaded by Sassanid and Sassanid couldn't manage to take over the region. It ultimately falls into the hands of Kidarites (descendants of previous Kushans).

The Kidarites ruled the region up to the middle of the 5th century CE following the traditions of their predecessors, the Kushans. The Gandhara was then ruled by the White Huns. Since they adopted the Shivite faith, the region gave importance to Hinduism and slowly, the importance of Buddhism began to fade away.

As the region was ruled by the White Huns, the Buddhist arts, texts were not focused at all. They were stolen, transferred, and sold to people of other countries. That's why Gandharan Buddha statues and Buddhist arts and texts are scattered around the world. Seated Buddha Statue is currently housed in British Museum while standing Buddha statue in Tokyo Nation Museum.

The Buddhist texts were earlier sold to European and Japanese institutions, and individuals but now these are recovered and are studied by several universities.

Gandharan Buddhist Texts collections around the world

The British Library Collection

The British Library acquired around eighty Gandharan Texts fragments in 1994. These texts are believed to be from the first half of the 1st century CE which was written on birch bark and stored in clay jars. The texts were excavated from the western Pakistan where ancient monasteries of Gandhara were buried.

The manuscripts were written in the Gandhari language using the Khorosthi script. The collection contains a Dhammapada, discourse of the Buddha such as the Rhinoceros Sutra, avadanas and Purvayogas, commentaries and Abhidharma texts. The inscription on the jar and some textual evidence suggest that the texts may belong to the Dharmagupta School.

The Senior Collection

This collection of Gandharan Buddhist text was bought by a British collector, R. Senior. This collection consists of almost entirely of canonical sutras which were written on birch bark and stored in clay jars. The jar has an inscription which refers to Macedonian. It is believed that the senior scripts were written in the latter part of the first century CE or in the first half of the second century. Therefore, the senior texts are written later than the text preserved in the British Library collection.

The Schoyen collection

The texts within the Schoyen collection are written in birch bark, palm leaf, and vellum. These collections are believed to be found in the Bamiyan caves and dates from the 2nd to 8th century CE. Most of the texts are bought by a Norwegian collector, Martin Schoyen while few quantities are in possession of Japanese collectors.

The Schoyen collection includes fragments of a Canonical sutra, Abhidharma, Vinaya, and Mahayana texts. These texts are written in Brahmi scripts while some are written in Gandhari/ Kharosthi script along with Sanskrit.

University of Washington

The University of Washington also preserves a Buddhist text written on birch bark which focuses on the Abhidharma tradition, and early commentary on the teachings of Buddha. The text is believed to be from the 1st or 2nd century CE.

The Khotan Dharmapada

The text was found near Khotan in Xinjiang, western China in 1892. The text contains Dhammapada which is written in the Gandhari language. Since the manuscript was broken, it was scattered to several parts of the world: especially Europe, Russia, and France. Some of the pieces were never found.

The Split collection

The origin of this collection is not clear. According to the reliable informants, the collection was found in a stone case in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. The collections were split and now is stored some parts in a Western collection, Government agency and other parts with the private owner. The text is written in Kharosthi language in birch barks, focuses on Mahayana Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra. The collection belongs from 75 CE, therefore, it is one of the oldest Buddhist texts.