Rare 2,000-Year-Old Text of Early Buddhism Now Online

Portion of the Gandhara scroll. Source: Library of Congress, Wash., DC
Portion of the Gandhara scroll. Source: Library of Congress, Wash., DC

The US Library of Congress has restored and made available online the Gandhara Scroll, a manuscript dating back to around the first century B.C., that offers insight into early Buddhist history. The scroll is one of the world’s oldest Buddhist manuscripts.

The scroll originates from Gandhara, an ancient Buddhist region located in what is now the northern border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The scroll tells the story of buddhas who came before and after Siddhartha Gautama, the sage who reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in eastern India around the fifth century B.C. and the religious leader on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.

The scroll is available for viewing at loc.gov/item/2018305008.

Says Jonathan Loar, reference librarian in the Asian Division at the Library of Congress:

“This is a unique item because it is very old compared to similar manuscripts and, as such, it does bring us, historically speaking, relatively close to the lifetime of the Buddha.”

According to Richard Salomon, director of the British Library-University of Washington Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project, it is significant that the Library’s scroll is about 80 percent complete and only missing the very beginning and end. Many of the other Gandharan manuscripts known to scholars are more fragmentary.

The Gandhara Scroll is one of the most complicated items ever treated at the Library of Congress. The scroll arrived folded and packed in an ordinary pen case. Due to its fragility, conservators practiced an unrolling technique on a dried-up cigar, an item that only approximates the difficulty of working with a compacted birch bark scroll. Says Loar said:

“Digitizing the scroll offers both scholars and Buddhist communities worldwide access to a lesser-known part of Buddhist history. This being as old as it is and also one of only a couple of hundred Gandharan manuscripts known to scholars means the Library’s scroll can shed new light on Buddhism’s formative period.”

A facsimile of the Gandhara Scroll was created this year by the Library to support additional research of the treasure.

The Library purchased the single scroll from a British antiquities dealer in 2003. It is the oldest holding in the Library’s Asian Division.

The digitization of the Gandhara Scroll reflects advancement toward a goal in the Library’s new user-centered strategic plan to expand access, making unique collections, experts and services available when, where and how users need them.

The Asian Division, founded in 1928, currently has custody of more than 4 million physical items in over 130 different Asian languages found in seven collections: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Tibetan. The Asian Reading Room, located in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, room 150, is the public gateway to access the Asian collections on-site.

The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library, offering access to the creative record of the United States — and extensive materials from around the world — both on-site and online. Visit them online at loc.gov.

Source: Sheryl Cannady, US Library of Congress

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