The Gandh?ran Buddhist texts are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts yet discovered, dating from about the 1st century CE to 3rd century CE, and are also the oldest Indian manuscripts. They represent the literature of Gandharan Buddhism from present-day northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, and are written in G?ndh?r?.
They were sold to European and Japanese institutions and individuals, and are currently being recovered and studied by several universities. The Gandh?ran texts are in a considerably deteriorated form (their survival alone 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 P?li and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit versions of texts. Other Gandh?ran Buddhist texts--"several and perhaps many"--have been found over the last two centuries but lost or destroyed.
The texts are attributed to the Dharmaguptaka sect by Richard Salomon, the leading scholar in the field, and the British Library scrolls "represent a random but reasonably representative fraction of what was probably a much larger set of texts preserved in the library of a monastery of the Dharmaguptaka sect in Nagar?h?ra."
In 1994, the British Library acquired a group of some eighty Gandharan manuscript fragments from the first half of the 1st century CE. These birch bark manuscripts were stored in clay jars, which preserved them. They are thought to have been found in western Pakistan, the location of Gandhara, buried in ancient monasteries. A team has been at work, trying to decipher the manuscripts: several volumes have appeared to date (see below). The manuscripts were written in the G?ndh?r? language using the Kharoh? script and are therefore sometimes also called the Kharoh? Manuscripts.
There is evidence to suggest that these texts may belong to the Dharmaguptaka school. There is an inscription on a jar pointing to that school, and there is some textual evidence as well. On a semi-related point, the Gandh?ran text of the Rhinoceros Sutra contains the word mahaya?a?a, which some might identify with "Mahayana." However, according to Salomon, in Kharoh? orthography there is no reason to think that the phrase in question, ama?tra?a bhoti mahaya?a?a ("there are calls from the multitude"), has any connection to the Mahayana.
The Senior collection was bought by Robert 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 jars bear inscriptions referring to Macedonian rather than Indian month names, as is characteristic of the Kaniska era from which they derive. There is a "strong likelihood that the Senior scrolls were written, at the earliest, in the latter part of the first century A.D., or, perhaps more likely, in the first half of the second century. This would make the Senior scrolls slightly but significantly later than the scrolls of the British Library collection, which have been provisionally dated to the first half of the first century." Salomon writes:
The Senior collection is superficially similar in character to the British Library collection in that they both consist of about two dozen birch bark manuscripts or manuscript fragments arranged in scroll or similar format and written in Kharosthi script and Gandhari language. Both were found inside inscribed clay pots, and both are believed to have come from the same or nearby sites, in or around Hadda in eastern Afghanistan. But in terms of their textual contents, the two collections differ in important ways. Whereas the British Library collection was a diverse mixture of texts of many different genres written by some two dozen different scribes, all or nearly all of the manuscripts in the Senior collection are written in the same hand, and all but one of them seem to belong to the same genre, namely sutra. Moreover, whereas all of the British Library scrolls were fragmentary and at least some of them were evidently already damaged and incomplete before they were interred in antiquity,} some of the Senior scrolls are still more or less complete and intact and must have been in good condition when they were buried. Thus the Senior scrolls, unlike the British Library scrolls, constitute a unified, cohesive, and at least partially intact collection that was carefully interred as such.
The Buddhist works within the Schøyen collection consist 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 8th century CE. In addition to texts in Gandh?ri, the Schøyen collection also contains important early sutric material in Sanskrit.
The Buddhist texts within the Schøyen collection include fragments of canonical Suttas, Abhidharma, Vinaya, and Mah?y?na texts. Most of these manuscripts are written in the Brahmi scripts, while a small portion is written in Gandh?ri/Kharoh? script.
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.
In 2003, the Library of Congress purchased a scroll from a British antiquities dealer. Called the "Bahubuddha Sutra", or "The Many Buddhas Sutra", the scroll arrived in pieces in a pen case but retains 80% of the text with the beginning and ending missing due to age. The content is similar to the "Mah?vastu." The text is narrated by Gautama Buddha and "tells the story of the 13 Buddhas who preceded him, his own emergence and the prediction of a future Buddha."
In 1892 a copy of the Dhammapada written in the Gandh?r? Prakrit was discovered near Khotan in Xinjiang, western China. It was broken up and came to Europe in parts, some going to Russia and some to France, but unfortunately a portion of the manuscript never appeared on the market and seems to have been lost. 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.
About the "Split" collection, Harry Falk writes:
The local origins of the present collection are not clear. Several part[s] of it were seen in Peshawar in 2004. According to usually reliable informants the collection of birch-barks was found in a stone case in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area, comprising the Mohmand Agency and Bajaur. It was split on arrival and some parts are now in a Western collection, while others went to a Government agency and yet other parts may still be with the private owner.
In 2012, Harry Falk and Seishi Karashima published a damaged and partial Kharoh? manuscript of the Mah?y?na Aas?hasrik? Prajñ?p?ramit? S?tra. It is carbon dated to ca. 75 CE, making it one of the oldest Buddhist texts in existence. It is very similar to the first Chinese translation of the Aas?hasrik? by Lokak?ema (ca. 179 CE) whose source text is assumed to be in the G?ndh?r? language. Comparison with the standard Sanskrit text shows that it is also likely to be a translation from G?ndh?ri as it expands on many phrases and provides glosses for words that are not present in the G?ndh?r?. This points to the text being composed in G?ndh?r?, the language of Gandh?ra (in what is now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, including Peshawar, Taxila and the Swat Valley). The "Split" ms. is evidently a copy of an earlier text, confirming that the text may date before the first century of the common era.
The Bajaur Collection was discovered in 1999, and is believed to be from the ruins of a Buddhist monastery in the Dir District of Pakistan. The name derives from the Bajaur district, whose boundary with the Dir district is marked by the banks of the where the monastery was situated.
The collection comprises fragments of 19 birch-bark scrolls and contains approximately 22 different texts. Most of the texts are not the work of the same scribe, with as many as 18 different hands identified. The fragments range from small sections only a few centimeters in length to a nearly complete scroll nearly 2m long. It is dated to the 1st-2nd Century CE, and written using the Kharosthi script. The fragments were fixed in frames and used to produce high-quality digital images at the University of Peshawar, with collaboration with the Freie University of Berlin.
Notable texts from the collection include the earliest identified Vinaya text, in the form of a Pratimoksa sutra, and a relatively complete Mahayana text connected with the Buddha Aksobhya showing a well-developed movement in the vein of Pure Land Buddhism. While the majority of the texts in the collection are Buddhist texts, two non-Buddhist works are included in the form of a loan contract and an Arthasastra/Rajnitit text, one of the few known Sanskrit texts composed using the Kharosthi script.
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 "Gandh?ran Buddhist Texts" series, beginning with a detailed analysis of the G?ndh?r? 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 fragments of the Gandh?ran manuscripts: Raymond Allchin, Mark Allon, Mark Barnard, Stefan Baums, John Brough, Harry Falk, Andrew Glass, Mei-huang Lee, Timothy Lenz, Sergey Oldenburg, Richard Salomon and Émile Senart. Some of the published material is listed below: