Ven. S. Dhammika traces the amazing saga of survival of the oldest
Buddhist scriptures that emerged in a clay pot in war- ravaged Afghanistan
and finally found their way to the British Museum
In the spring
of 1993, an antique dealer in the Peshawar bazaar in northern Pakistan
let it be known that he had some recently discovered artefacts available
for sale. The artefacts consisted of five inscribed clay pots one
of which had what looked like scrolls in it. With the chaos in Afganistan
it was not unusual for works of art to be stolen,
smuggled across the border and be purchased by dealers for resale
to foreign collectors. But many cleverly made fakes were also on
the market, so a prospective buyer had to be careful.
One buyer asked
for photos of the pots and their contents and finally decided to
purchase them for an undisclosed amount. In 1994, this anonymous
buyer gifted the pots and their contents to the British Museum in
London and they arrived there later that year. Exactly where the
pots were first found is unclear although it seems likely that they
came from eastern Afghanistan, probably from one of the numerous
Buddhist ruins around Jalalabad.
When the pots
were examined by scientists at the British Museum they proved to
contain 21 tightly rolled up birch bark scrolls looking for all
the world like old cigarette butts. Buddhism reached Gandhara (Afghanistan
and northern Pakistan) at about the time of King Asoka and in the
following centuries the Buddhist scriptures and other documents
were written down on the tissue thin bark of the birch tree.
The first job
the museum technicians had was to try to unroll the scrolls so that
they could be read. Even when new, birch bark manuscripts were fragile.
Two-thousand-year- old ones could crumble to dust at the slightest
touch and in fact several of the British Museum scrolls had already
been damaged beyond reconstruction during transportation to London.
The scrolls were placed in a bell jar and moisture gradually introduced
so that they would return to their original state of flexibility.
But this had to be done with great care as too much moisture could
smudge the ink or cause the growth of mould. Next, silica gel was
introduced into the jar so as to strengthen the bark. That having
been done, each scroll was carefully teased open, unrolled and then
placed between sheets of glass so that they could be easily examined
without causing further damage. Along with the scrolls themselves
were hundreds of loose fragments, some with letters or parts of
letters on them.
It proved possible
to piece some of these together as one would a jigsaw puzzle and
place them in their original position thus allowing more of the
scrolls to be read. In all, 21 scrolls were unrolled and when examined
they proved to be Buddhist works. They include parts of the well
known Dhammapada and suttas like the Dona Sutta from the Anguttara
Nikaya, the Khaggavisana Sutta from the Sutta Nipata and the Sangthiti
Sutta from the Digha Nikaya. There are also several avadanas, stories
illustrating different Buddhist values and virtues.
Some of these
avadanas are known from other sources, some are not. Smaller fragments
are of an unknown devotional hymn and what appears to be a medical
text. All the scrolls were in what is called Gandhari, this being
one of the Prakrit, or Middle Indo-Aryan vernaculars, derived from
Sanskrit and as such it is closely related to other Indo-Aryan languages
like Pali. The script used is known as Kharosthi which is derived
from the Aramaic script introduced into India after the Persian
invasion in the 4th century B.C.
Museum scrolls have allowed scholars to learn much about the earliest
form of Buddhist books. We know almost nothing about how birch bark
was prepared for writing, but Muslim writer Al Biruni who travelled
through India in the 11th century says this: "In central and
northern India people use the bark of the tuz tree for writing on.
They take a piece of bark one yard long and as broad as the outstretched
fingers of the hand or somewhat less and prepare it in various ways.
They oil and polish it so as to make it hard and smooth and then
they write on it".
As a single
piece of bark would be too small to write much on several pieces
were glued together. The margins of some scrolls were sewn with
a fine black thread to prevent the scroll from fraying at the edges
or cracking. The longest scroll is 154.8 cm long. The ink that was
used for writing the suttas was made from lamp black mixed with
some kind of gum. The pen used for writing was of wood with a split
nib as is clear from some letters on the scrolls which are likewise
split. As the scrolls were already damaged when they were put in
their pot it seems likely that they were deliberately interred having
been worn out by use. Burying old scriptures was a common practice
in ancient times. Only one scroll still has its colophon intact.
It reads: "This manuscript of the Dhammapada belongs to the
monk Buddhavarman, pupil of Buddhanandin and was written in the
were rolled up in such a way that the colophon was on the outside
so that a reader knew what book he held in his hand without having
to unroll the whole scroll.
Museum scrolls have been called the Dead Sea scrolls of Buddhism.
This comparison is spurious. The Dead Sea scrolls were important
because of the startling new light they threw on the origins of
Christianity but the British Museum scrolls tell us nothing at all
about the origins or development of Buddhism. Their importance lies
in other domains. Firstly, dating as they do from about the 1st
century C.E. they are the oldest examples of Buddhist scriptures
ever found. Although not written in Pali their contents differ from
the Pali suttas in only very minor ways thus confirming that the
Pali suttas as we have them today go back to at least the beginning
of the Common Era. Secondly, they will provide a new standard for
evaluating, comparing in some cases correcting already known text
like the Pali text. The Gandhari version of the Khaggavisana Sutta
for example has recently been critically edited and published and
already given new insights into problems in the Pali version.
most remarkable thing about the British Museum scrolls is that they
have survived at all. Afghanistan is in the news today but it is
by no means the first time war has raged in that part of the world.
And the Taliban government's destruction of Buddhist artifacts early
last year is not the first time such a thing has happened either.
For such small and fragile things to be preserved intact through
centuries of chaos and wilful destruction is remarkable indeed.
Even more remarkable is the fact that whoever found the scrolls,
undoubtedly a simple peasant or a soldier, understood that they
could be of value and rather than just destroying them or leaving
them, he or she decided to try to sell them. Such unlikely circumstances
have bequeathed to modern Buddhist scholarship its most precious
The writer is
an Australian Bhikku who is currently in Europe.
ideal Vesak gift
When we believe in the virtues of the Buddha, our minds develop
confidence - Saddha. When confidence increases, the mind goes in
search of merit. Collecting a lot of merit is as beautiful as colleting
flowers to make a garland. Morality helps to develop wisdom. This
is the essence of Veronica Damayanthi Jayakody's 'The Jewel of the
Universe', the English version of 'Ape Buduhamuduruwo' which she
wrote sometime back. Targeting mainly the younger generation, the
book describes in simple language the nine great qualities of the
is not a painting. It is not a statue made out of rock and cement.
It is also not Siddhartha Gautama's body with flesh and blood. The
Buddha once told Vakkali Thero, 'It serves no purpose to look at
my decaying body. The Buddha can be seen through His Dhamma'.
has a deep meaning. The Dhamma is shapeless and colourless. The
Buddhahood seen through His Dhamma too does not have a figure or
colour. It can only be experienced by the mind, writes Venerable
Bellana Gnanawimala Nayaka Thero in his preface to the book. Thus
the book is an attempt to explain the Dhamma in a manner easily
understood by the young mind.
The stanza explaining
the nine great qualities of the Buddha beginning 'Itipiso Bhagawa'
is one stanza recited by each and every Buddhist immediately after
observing 'Pan Sil'. It serves as a constant reminder of the great
personality of the Buddha. Every child learns the stanza by heart
and recites it regularly. The book offers clear explanations of
each quality enabling the young reader to get a lucid picture. The
stanza now becomes more meaningful since he understands it. 'Budu
Guna' - the great qualities of the Buddha thus get entrenched in
the mind. It helps one to increase one's piety while getting to
know the Dhamma.
The text ends
with the often quoted stanza 'Sabba Papassa Akaranam.....'
The giving up of all evil
The cultivation of the good
The cleansing of one's mind
This is the Buddha's teaching.