Gandhari, Buddhist Literature in

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Gāndhārī, formerly known as Northwestern Prakrit, is a Middle Indo-Aryan vernacular of the ancient region of Gandhāra in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent around modern Peshawar in northern Pakistan. Gāndhārī is closely related to its parent language, Sanskrit, and to its sister language, Pāli. Gāndhārī was written in the Kharoṣṭhī script, running from right to left, unlike all other Indo-Aryan languages that were written in Brāhmī script and its derivatives, which ran from left to right. In the early centuries of the common era, Gāndhārī was used as a religious and administrative language over a wide area of South and Central Asia.

For many years, Gāndhārī was attested primarily in Buddhist inscriptions, coin legends, and secular documents. Only one manuscript of a Buddhist text, the GāndhārīDharmapada, discovered near Khotan in Chinese Central Asia in 1892, was known. But in the 1990s, many fragmentary Gāndhārī manuscripts on birch bark and palm leaf came to light. Most of these now belong to three major collections: the British Library scrolls, the Senior scrolls, and the Schøyen fragments. These texts are still being studied and published, so that knowledge of Buddhist literature in Gāndhārī is at a preliminary stage. But the texts clearly show that, as previously suspected, Gāndhārī was one of the major Buddhist languages, with an extensive literature that probably constituted one or more independent canons or proto-canons.

The Gāndhārī manuscripts date from about the first to third centuries c.e. They include the oldest surviving manuscript remains of any Buddhist tradition and present a unique source for the study of the formation of Buddhist literature. Although the circumstances of their discoveries are not well documented, most of the manuscripts apparently came from Buddhist monastic sites in eastern Afghanistan, such as Hadda and BĀmiyĀn, where they were buried in clay pots or other containers.

The twenty-nine British Library scrolls constitute a diverse collection of texts and genres written in various hands and formats. The most prominent genres are legends (avadĀna or pūrvayoga), sūtras, scholastic and abhidharma texts, and commentaries on groups of verses. The Senior collection, consisting of twenty-four scrolls, is more unitary in that all of the manuscripts were written by the same scribe and most of them are sūtras. The Schøyen fragments comprise over one hundred small remnants from miscellaneous texts, very few of which had been identified as of 2002.

Gāndhārī sūtras include versions of well-known texts such as the Rhinoceros sūtra (Pāli, Khaggavisāṇa-sutta) and the Saṇgīti-sūtra, both in the British Library collection. The same collection also includes a fragment of a group of short sūtras arranged on a numerical basis, like the Aṇguttaranikāya of the Pāli canon and Ekottārikagama of the Sanskrit canon. Among the many sūtras in the Senior collection are Gāndhārī versions of the Sāmaññaphala-sutta, which is part of the dīghanikāya in the Pāli canon, and of the Cūḷagosiṇga-sutta of the Pāli Majjhimanikāya, as well as several others that correspond to Saṃyuttanikāya suttas, such as the Veḷudvāreyya-sutta and Pariḷāha-sutta. The Schøyen collection includes fragments of a Gāndhārī version of the MahĀparinirvĀṆa-sŪtra.

The Gāndhārī sūtras are broadly similar to the parallel texts in Pāli, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan, but they differ significantly in structure, contents, and wording. The same is true of Gāndhārī versions of other canonical or paracanonical texts, such as the Dharmapada (Pāli, Dhammapada), which is attested both in the Khotan Dharmapada scroll and in a small fragment in the British Library collection. The paracanonical Songs of Lake Anavatapta (Anavataptagāthā) is similarly preserved in two fragmentary scrolls in the British Library and Senior collections.

But the majority of the Gāndhārī texts have no known parallels in other Buddhist traditions, and many of them are evidently peculiar to the Gandhāran regional tradition. For example, several of the British Library avadānas are marked as local literature by references to historical figures of Gandhāra, such as the Great Satrap Jihonika. Such references provide important clues for the dating of these texts in or around the first century c.e. In general, the Gāndhārī avadānas and pūrvayogas are characterized by an extremely terse style, indicating that they are summaries of longer stories, designed to serve as mnemonic aids for expanded oral presentations. This makes them difficult to interpret when no parallels are available.

The abhidharma and other scholastic texts in the British Library and Schøyen collections also have few, if any, direct parallels, and thus appear to be products of local monastic scholarship that were not preserved in the Buddhist literatures of other regions. Prominent in the British Library collection are commentaries on series of verses of the type that in other Buddhist literatures are found in texts such as the Sutta-nipāta, Dhammapada, and Theragāthā. But the selection and ordering of these verses is peculiar to these texts, and as yet is not clearly understood.

The doctrinal content of the Gāndhārī Buddhist literature is consistently representative of mainstream or HĪnayĀna Buddhism. With a few possible exceptions among the Schøyen fragments, which represent a slightly later phase of Gāndhārī literature, they contain no reference to MahĀyĀna texts or ideas. Although it is difficult to identify specific sectarian affiliations for many of the Gāndhārī texts, at least some of the British Library scrolls probably represent the literature of the Dharmaguptaka school, since they were found inside a pot that bore a dedicatory inscription to that school. A Dharmaguptaka affiliation is also supported by the British Library Saṇgītisūtra, which is similar to the version of the same sūtra preserved in the Chinese Dīrghāgama (Chang ahan jing), which is probably a Dharmaguptaka collection.

The discovery of extensive remains of a Buddhist literature in Gāndhārī, hitherto almost entirely unknown, provides support for the long-standing "Gāndhārī hypothesis," according to which many of the earliest Chinese Buddhist translations were derived from Gandhāran archetypes. This confirms that Gandhāra was the principal jumping-off point for the spread of Buddhism from its Indian homeland into Central Asia and China.

See also:India, Northwest; Mainstream Buddhist Schools; Pāli, Buddhist Literature in; Sanskrit, Buddhist Literature in


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Salomon, Richard. Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhāra: The British Library KharoṣṭhīFragments. London: British Library; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Salomon, Richard. A GāndhārīVersion of the Rhinoceros sūtra: British Library KharoṣṭhīFragment 5B. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Richard Salomon