Tracing the early paths of Buddhism
A long-lost language opens a window on an age-old culture. Researchers led by LMU Indologist Professor Jens-Uwe Hartmann are deciphering fragile documents that shed light on the early development of Buddhism.
These are extremely delicate treasures: 2000-year-old manuscript scrolls that disintegrate into fragments when one tries to unroll them. They were unearthed in Northwestern Pakistan, in the area then known as Gandhara. “These are not only the oldest Buddhist scriptures we have, they are also the oldest indigenous manuscripts to be found in India, of which the region was then a part,” says Professor Jens-Uwe Hartmann, who holds the Chair of Indology at LMU Munich. In a collaborative project with Professor Harry Falk of the Free University of Berlin and research teams at the Universities of Washington, Sydney and Lausanne, Hartmann and his colleagues have embarked on the challenging task of editing the precious documents.
The oldest of the manuscripts can be dated to the first century BC, close to the period in which the earliest decipherable script yet discovered in India appears. Prior to this time, the teachings of the Buddha, whose lifetime probably straddled the fifth and fourth centuries BC, had been transmitted exclusively by word of mouth. “These manuscripts bring us closer to the very beginning of Buddhism than any other surviving text. That is what makes them so sensational,” says Hartmann.
Gandhara lay astride the route that connected India to the Silk Road, the major link between Rome in the West and the Chinese Empire in the East. Long-distance trade in luxury goods brought great wealth to the region, which was then highly cosmopolitan and a center of cultural interaction and innovation. Gandhara was also an early stronghold of Buddhism, and – together with their other wares – merchants helped to spread knowledge of the new religion eastwards.
Archaeological remains, such as the famous Buddha statues carved into the cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley in Southern Afghanistan or the stupas and monasteries that can still be seen in Pakistan, witness to a time when Buddhism flourished in the area to the northwest of modern-day India. However, documentary evidence for this period was long restricted to inscriptions, coins and one single literary text. Then, in the early 1990s, a plethora of manuscripts reached the West – texts written on long scrolls of birch-bark. “These finds were completely unexpected; indeed, it is astonishing that such documents have survived at all,” says Hartmann.
A Buddhist puzzle
Birch-bark was chosen as a medium for writing on because it is stable and easy to handle. “Individual sheets could be glued or sewn together and even rolled up,” Hartmann explains. The largest single leaves were 39 cm wide and as much as 45 cm long. By sewing or pasting such segments together, scrolls of up to 5 m in length could be produced.
But birch-bark is not a material that can easily withstand the passage of thousands of years unscathed. When it dries out, it becomes extremely brittle, so that the newly discovered documents must first undergo careful conservation treatment before one can be examined in detail. Approximately 100 texts are now known, all of which have survived in a fragmentary state. Many of them are housed in the British Library in London, carefully mounted between glass plates and stored in an air-conditioned chamber. To make the texts accessible for study, each of the mounts was photographed and the images converted into digital files. Because fragments mounted together are often not in their original positions, researchers are first confronted with a bewildering jigsaw puzzle.
Estimated duration of project: 21 years
Undaunted, Indologists are now engaged in a minute analysis of the digital images. The texts themselves are written in Gandhari, one of the many varieties of Prakrit, which were originally derived from Sanskrit and thus belong to the Indo-European language family. Indeed, scattered finds had already suggested the existence of an early Buddhist scriptural tradition recorded in Gandhari. The language was written in kharoshthi script, which is read from left to right. Kharoshthi was the most prominent script in the region at the time and is one of the earliest Indic scripts known. “Most probably as a result of political changes, it fell into disuse and eventually disappeared completely,” says Hartmann. The LMU research team and its international collaboration partners are now transcribing and translating all the surviving text fragments, compiling a dictionary of Gandhari and preparing a survey of its grammar. The ultimate aim is to reconstruct the history of Gandhari literature and chronicle the evolution of Buddhism in the region.
The magnitude of the task facing the team is reflected in the estimated duration of the project, which is being carried out under the auspices of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The whole endeavor is expected to take no less than 21 years, and a total of 8.6 million euros has been set aside for the purpose, making this one of the most extensive research projects in the Humanities in Germany.
The kharoshthi script was deciphered in the 19th century; now even computer fonts are available for it. Nevertheless, reassembling the texts remains a herculean undertaking. The characters are packed close together, there are no spaces to indicate word endings, and there were obviously no generally observed orthographic conventions. So the first problem is to recognize individual words. Then there is the challenge of identifying the fragments that belong to the same text. As a result, Hartmann says: “It is very seldom possible to reconstruct longer passages of continuous text.”
Nothing less than a revolution
At the turn of the last millennium BC, writing was still a relatively recent invention in India, and was initially used for administrative purposes only. “The Buddhists were apparently the first to make use of the medium as a means to preserve their religious lore. That is in accord with their view that their teaching should be open to all,” Hartmann points out.
The researchers expect that their painstaking analysis of the birch-bark manuscripts will afford new insights into a cultural milieu that disappeared many centuries ago. The very survival of the documents testifies to the role that Gandhara played in the spread of Buddhism. The texts also contain information bearing on the development of the Mahayana school, which greatly influenced the forms that Buddhism would adopt in Central and Eastern Asia. “Up to now, no one had any idea how this movement began. All of a sudden, we have texts that give expression to new ideas about the world, the nature of reality and the Buddha himself, and describe new religious practices,” Hartmann says. “These manuscripts will revolutionize our understanding of particular elements of, and developments in, the history of Buddhism.” (nh)