Kharosthi Manuscripts

Gandhāran Buddhist Texts

The Gandhāran Buddhist Texts are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts yet discovered, dating from about the first century CE and also the oldest Indian manuscripts yet discovered. They were sold to European and Japanese institutions and individuals, and are currently being recovered and studied by several universities.

The Gandhāran texts are in a considerably deteriorated form (their survival at all is extraordinary), but educated guesses about reconstruction have been possible in several cases using both modern preservation techniques and more traditional textual scholarship, comparing previously known Pāli and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit versions of texts.


The British Library Collection

In 1994 the British Library acquired a group of some eighty Gandharan manuscript fragments from the first half of the first century. They were written on birch bark and stored in clay jars, which preserved them. They are thought to have been found in eastern Afghanistan (Bamiyan, Jalalabad, Hadda, which were part of Gandhara), and the clay jars were buried in ancient monasteries. A team has been at work, trying to decipher the manuscript: three volumes have appeared. The manuscripts ware written in Gāndhārī using the script, and are therefore sometimes also called the Kharosthi Manuscripts.

The collection is composed of a diversity of texts: a Dhammapada, discourses of Buddha (for example the Rhinoceros Horn Sutra), Avadanas and Purvayogas, commentaries and Abhidharma texts.

There is evidence to suggest that these texts may belong to the Dharmaguptaka school, an offshoot of the Theravadins (Salomon 2000, p.5). There is an inscription on a jar to that school, and there is some textual evidence as well. On a semi-related point, the Gandhāran text of the Rhinoceros Sutra contains what may be a polemic against the Mahāyāna. (Salomon, 2000, p. 127)

The Senior Collection

The Senior collection was bought by R. Senior, a British collector. The Senior collection may be slightly younger than the British Library collection. It consists almost entirely of canonical sutras, and, like the British Library collection, was written on birch bark and stored in clay jars.

The Schøyen collection

The Schøyen collection consists of birch bark, palm leaf and vellum manuscripts. They are thought to have been found in the Bamiyan caves, where refugees were seeking shelter. Most of these manuscripts were bought by a Norwegian collector, named Martin Schøyen, while smaller quantities are in possession of Japanese collectors. These manuscripts date from the second to the eighth century CE.

The Schøyen collection includes fragments of canonical Suttas, Abhidharma, Vinaya and Mahayana texts. Most of these manuscripts are written in the Brahmi scripts, while a small portion is written in Gandhari/Karoshthi script

University of Washington

One more manuscript, written on birch bark in a Buddhist monastery of the Abhidharma tradition, from the 1st or 2nd century CE, was acquired from a collector by the University of Washington Libraries in 2002. It is an early commentary on the Buddha's teachings, on the subject of human suffering.

The Khotan Dharmapada

In 1892 a copy of the Dhammapada written in the Gandhārī Prakrit was discovered near Khotan in Xinjiang, western China. It came to Europe in parts, some going to Russia and some to France. In 1898 most of the French material was published in the Journal Asiatique. In 1962 John Brough published the collected Russian and French fragments with a commentary.

Published Material

Scholarly critical editions of the texts of the University of Washington and the British Library are being printed by the University of Washington Press in the "Gandhāran Buddhist Texts" series, beginning with a detailed analysis of the Ghāndārī Rhinoceros Sutra including phonology, morphology, orthography, paleography, etc. Material from the Schøyen Collection is published by Hermes Publishing, Oslo, Norway.

The following scholars have published fragements of the Gandharan manuscripts: Mark Allon, Richard Salomon, Timothy Lenz and Jenz Braarvig. Some of the published material is listed below:

1999 - Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara: The British Library Kharosthi Fragments, by Richard Salomon, F. Raymond Allchin, and Mark Barnard
2000 - A Gandhari Version of the Rhinoceros Sutra: British Library Kharosthi Fragment 5B (Gandharan Buddhist Texts, 1), by Andrew Glass and Richard Salomon
2000 - Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection I, Buddhist Manuscripts, Vol. 1., by Braarvig, Jenz. Oslo: Hermes Publishing.
2003 - A New Version of the Gandhari Dharmapada and a Collection of Previous-Birth Stories: British Library Karosthi Fragments 16 + 25 (GBT vol. 3), Timothy Lenz, Seattle: University of Washington Press.

See also



  • Salomon, Richard. Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhāra, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1999, ISBN 0-295-97769-8.
  • Salomon, Richard. A Gāndhārī Version of the Rhinoceros Sutra: British Library Fragment 5B Univ. of Washington Press: Seattle and London, 2000.
  • Allon, Mark. Wrestling with Kharosthi Manuscripts, BDK Fellowhip Newsletter, No 7, 2004.

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