Unrolling precious scrolls
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.

The British 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 Dharmodyan Forest."

The scrolls 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.

The British 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.

Perhaps, the 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 gift.

The writer is an Australian Bhikku who is currently in Europe.

An 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 Buddha.

"Buddhahood 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'.

This statement 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.

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