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Unravelling the scrolls that may rewrite Buddhist history

Newly discovered scrolls from Gandhara open a window into a crucial phase of Buddhism’s history

By Arshad Awan |
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PUBLISHED November 13, 2022

Dating between the 1st and 3rd centuries BCE, and considered the most senior Indian manuscripts, Gandharan Buddhist writings are the oldest manuscripts discovered to date. Written in Gandhari, these reflect Gandharan Buddhism literature from the present-day northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan.

Curators have at last been able to unroll and digitise these fragile documents acquired by the Library of Congress in Washington earlier. These Gandharan scrolls are in a severely degraded state and their survival this far is considered remarkable. In several cases, their reconstruction could be possible through modern preservation techniques and traditional textual scholarship in comparison with known Pali and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (a modern linguistic category applied to the language used in a class of Indian Buddhist texts) versions of texts. Unfortunately, other Gandharan Buddhist books discovered in the last two centuries were either lost or destroyed.

Professor Richard Salomon at the University of Washington, attributes these texts to the Dharmaguptaka sect. The scrolls constitute a random, but reasonably representative sample of what could be a considerably larger collection of books kept in Dharmaguptaka sect monastery library, in the ancient city of Nagarahara.

Similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls that altered our knowledge of Judaism and early Christianity, this collection of twenty-nine scrolls promises to shed light on a pivotal period in the history of Buddhism in the subcontinent. The incomplete birch bark scrolls discovered in a group of inscribed clay vessels are written in Gandhari Prakrit and Kharosthi script, date back to roughly the beginning of the Christian period and i probably the oldest Buddhist writings ever uncovered.

In 1994, the British Library received over eighty fragments of Gandharan manuscripts from the first half of the 1st century CE, including twenty-seven birch bark scrolls. Preserved in clay jars, these birch bark texts are believed to have been discovered in ancient monasteries in western Pakistan, the area of Gandhara. A team of curators and scholars has been attempting to decipher the documents and numerous volumes have been published. As the manuscripts were composed in Gandhari using Kharosthi script, these are sometimes referred to as Kharosthi manuscripts.


What the scrolls contain

The collection contains a variety of literature, including the Dhammapada, Buddha’s teachings such as the Rhinoceros Sutra, avadanas and purvayogas, commentaries and Abhidharma texts. An inscription on a jar and some literary evidence relates the texts to the Buddhist school of Dharmaguptaka. On a semi-related note, the Gandharan text of the Rhinoceros Sutra contains the word Mahayana, which some identify with Mahayana, one of the three main existing branches of Buddhism. But according to Salomon, there is no reason to believe that the phrase in question, amatraa bhoti Mahayana [there are calls from the multitude], is related to Mahayana in Kharosthi orthography.


The oldest scrolls

In 2003, the US Library of Congress received a scroll penned roughly two thousand years ago in Gandhara, an ancient Buddhist province located in the present-day northern border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This birch bark scroll, also known as the Gandhara scroll at the Library of Congress, is one of the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in the world. Radiocarbon dating places its formation somewhere between the first century BCE and the first century CE, which makes it an outstanding example of the recently unearthed Gandhari Buddhist literature.

Only a few hundred Gandharan manuscripts are currently known to experts around the world. Not only are these the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence, but also the oldest manuscripts from the greater South Asian region. This literature provides significant insight into the early history and evolution of Buddhism.

Gandhara and its glory

At the height of its glory, Gandhara was home to a succession of affluent and powerful kingdoms. It became one of the world’s most important Buddhist centres and a conduit for transmitting Buddhism from India to China and other parts of Asia. Despite Gandhara being an important interaction point between India and the West, and having found significant archaeological evidence of Gandhara’s thriving culture, no recorded proof of its literary and religious canon existed before this discovery.

Gandhara emerged as important cultural crossroad of Greek, Iranian, and Indian traditions, more than two thousand years ago. Numerous rulers and dynasties ruled the region, including Alexander the Great (mid-4th century BCE), the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (mid-3rd century BCE), and the Kushan emperor Kanishka I (127–150 CE). Between the reigns of Ashoka and Kanishka I, Gandhara became an important centre for Buddhist art, architecture, and learning. One of the region’s most distinguishing traits is the Hellenistic style of Buddhist sculpture, which includes Buddha statues with wavy hair, clearly defined facial features and garments similar to Greco-Roman deities. Several centuries later, Gandhara also facilitated the diffusion of Buddhism down the Silk Road from its South Asian homeland to Central Asia and China.

The compilation and study of sacred scriptures, which in Gandhara frequently took the form of birch tree bark, was essential to the dissemination of Buddhism. Gandharan scrolls are often interred in terracotta jars within a stupa, a domed edifice typically housing Buddhist literature or relics. Only the beginning and end of the original text are missing from the scroll that has been partly preserved due to the region’s high altitude and dry climate. Given that many other Gandharan manuscripts known to researchers are more fragmentary, the scroll’s completeness is notable. As the colophon is missing, the exact names of the author and scribe are unknown. The scroll is written in Gandhari, an Indo-Aryan branch of languages derived from Sanskrit in Kharosthi script.

The British Library’s Gandhara scroll has been dubbed the Bahubuddha Sutra [The Many Buddhas Sutra]. Salomon notes that the probable identification of this scroll as the Bahubuddha Sutra is based on its resemblance to a Sanskrit work of the same name found in the much longer Mahavastu, or Great Story, a chronicle of Buddha’s previous lifetimes. The discovery of an earlier Bahubuddha Sutra attestation in Gandhari informs about the formative period of Buddhist literature. This scroll, probably from the first century BCE, bring us incredibly close to the Buddha’s lifetime during the 5th and 6th centuries BCE.

More Buddhas than one

The account of Siddhartha Gautama, who attained enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, and became Buddha, is presumably well-known. Before his birth, various Buddhist traditions including the earliest Mahayana school of ancient Gandhara, relate to past Buddhas whose lives span a cosmic understanding of history. This Gandharan scroll told in the voice of the Buddha provides brief biographies of 13 Buddhas who were followed by his birth and enlightenment, and concludes with a prophecy about the arrival of Buddha Maitreya. The memoirs also include additional information such as how long each Buddha lived, what social class he was born into, how long his teachings lasted, and how each Buddha anticipated the ultimate emergence of Siddhartha Gautama as Buddha. Notably, the lifespans of the Buddhas diminished over time, from the first Buddha Dipankara to Siddhartha Gautama’s eighty years. The concept of numerous Buddhas is prevalent in Buddhist literature, but the earliest occurrence of this system described in the Gandhara scroll clarifies its evolution.

The potential significance of the new discovery

Although the last found fragments from Gandhara are comparable to the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts as they provide actual samples of the textual corpus of a much earlier phase of Buddhist tradition than previously known, they are unlikely to contain anything as radically foreign as their Christian counterparts. The assessment of the new fragments has not yet uncovered anything that is at odds with early Buddhist teaching as traditionally understood, and it is unlikely that additional analysis will provide anything more.

The significance of the new collection is on a different, possibly less stunning level. These fragments provide an unprecedented direct glimpse into what appears to have been a monastic collection or library of the school of Dharmaguptaka in or around the first half of the first century AD, and are by far the earliest examples of this type of Buddhist texts ever discovered. These are probably the earliest and most coherent Buddhist manuscripts known.

Providing missing links

The new scrolls include local Gandharan folklore and traditions, which suggests that early Gandharan Buddhism regional centres might have had a more distinct and localised character than previously perceived. Specifically, the references in some of the new texts to at least two members of the contemporary Indo-Scythian ruling houses of the early first century AD, previously known from coins and inscriptions, are a remarkable and unexpected discovery that bolsters the historical value of these texts.

These allusions permit us to situate the literary history of the discovered manuscripts within a historical framework, illuminating the previously hidden formative period of Gandharan Buddhism during the Indo-Scythian period. Our view of Gandharan Buddhism has been largely influenced by the Kushan Empire (1st to 3rd century AD) which, we now suspect, overshadowed and obscured the preceding Indo-Scythian period in later north Indian Buddhist tradition in which the Kushan period and the reign of Kaniska were portrayed as a golden age.

At the beginning of the Christian period, the Indo-Scythian dynasties played a role comparable to that of the Kushans in fostering Buddhism and Buddhist institutions. The new manuscripts now reveal this hitherto unknown but significant epoch. This historical context may have a considerable bearing on another major topic of interest, which is their likely relationship with the Dharmaguptaka sect which have been a mysterious presence in Indian Buddhism until now.

They are known to have played a significant role in the early spread of Indian Buddhism throughout central Asia and China and the collection provides the missing link, or at least one of the needed links, between Indian Buddhism and its earliest manifestations in Central and East Asia. The new information, in conjunction with other recent epigraphical discoveries, suggests that the early success and subsequent decline of the Dharmaguptakas may have resulted from shifting patronage patterns as the Kushans replaced their Indo-Scythian supporters. The latter were more favourable to the better-known Sarvastivadin sect.

Novel content of the scrolls

The quantity of novel content contained in the new manuscripts is another significant and unexpected aspect. In general, a substantial amount, though by no means all of the textual material found in the later manuscript traditions is more or less common to one or more canonical traditions. For instance, several central Asian Sanskrit manuscripts contain passages that are simply variants of those already known in Pali and other languages. To some extent, this is also true of the new Gandhari manuscripts.

Surprisingly, the vast bulk of about two dozen separate writings these include have not yet been identified with works in other Buddhist languages and traditions. If this pattern persists as more detailed studies of the individual texts are conducted, it would indicate that the textual corpus of the Gandharan monastery from which these texts originated, and of early Gandharan Buddhism in general, may be significantly more distinct from the extant corpora than was initially anticipated. So even though the doctrinal viewpoints offered in the new materials are not dramatically in conflict with what is familiar from other traditions, the modes and forms of their presentation and study may differ from what we now know.


If this trend stays true, it has far-reaching and perhaps profound consequences for our understanding of the concept of a Buddhist canon as a whole. For instance, we may be dealing with a period of development that is still pre- or proto-canonical, meaning that the contents, order, and delineation of a canon in the stricter sense of the term are not yet fully developed.

It is also crucial to remember that these manuscripts date back to a time when, if traditional tales are to be believed, writing was only recently embraced as a replacement for or in addition to the previous practises of memorisation and oral recitation of Buddhist scriptures. If this is the case, then we may be dealing with materials from the early phase of a lengthy period of gradual transition from a primarily oral tradition to what eventually became a largely written one. Examination of these materials is likely to shed light on the complexities of the interrelationship between these modes of text transmission and the patterns of canon formation that arose from them.

The comments on sets of verses are a large category of writings that appear to have patterns and genres distinct from those of more familiar Buddhist corpora. Although the individual verses explained in these comments are, for the most part, Gandhari translations of material well-known in other traditions, the nature, organisational principles, and function of the writings is vague. Presumably, they depict local teaching methods and preaching Buddhist doctrines, which should provide an interesting counterpoint to the well-known Pali commentaries, whose now-lost progenitors were claimed to have been written in the local Sinhalese dialect. Therefore, these new fragments may be the earliest surviving examples of an ancient tradition of vernacular commentary.

Such texts, along with others, may also provide us with unique insights into the methods of preaching and instruction used in Gandharan monasteries and the texts favoured for such purposes. For instance, a particular subset of writings in the new collection has an intriguing connection to a list of works recommended for study by novice monks in a Vinaya document preserved in Chinese translation. Based on these clues, it appears that the last discovered collection has a typical sample of the many types and classes of works studied in the monastery where they were held, including basic texts, commentaries, explanatory works and technical treatises. In other words, we have not a collection of fragments from a whole, systematised canon, as is often the case with later, more established and standardised traditions, but rather a random selection of texts actively employed for study and recitation.

Among the more technical texts in the new collection are a number of Abhidharma or Abhidharma-related pieces that are likely to be of great interest to scholars studying the evolution of Buddhist theory. Gandhara was an important early centre for Abhidharma studies, according to later Buddhist traditions, which have been preserved primarily in Chinese. Now, for the first time, we have early examples of authentic Gandharan Abhidharma texts, which are likely to represent a vital formative phase and significantly modify and improve our understanding of Buddhist scholastic thinking.

Setting a new benchmark

The new material conspicuously lacks significant references to or indications of Mahayana beliefs and goals. In Buddhist studies, the Mahayana’s historical, geographical, and doctrinal origins have long been a source of concern and discussion, and many feel that the Gandhara region had a major part in its development.

On a broader scale, the extraordinary discovery of a substantial corpus of Buddhist texts in Gandhari may provide a new benchmark for evaluating and comparing the previously known corpora of early Indian Buddhist works in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and other translations.

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.


Arshad Awan is a Lahore based author, educationist, brand strategist, historian and journalist. He can be reached at arshadawan@msn.com. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer.