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date: 27 September 2023

Epigraphy and the Study of Buddhism: South Asia’s Northern Corridorlocked

Epigraphy and the Study of Buddhism: South Asia’s Northern Corridorlocked

  • Richard SalomonRichard SalomonWilliam P. and Ruth Gerberding University Professor Emeritus, University of Washington


Inscriptions constitute a fundamental source for the study of the history of Buddhism in India. Thousands of inscriptions with Buddhist content have been found in the Indian subcontinent, ranging in date from the 3rd century bce to the 13th century ce. The great majority of inscriptions record donations or benefactions to Buddhist institutions. Such gifts may take the form of a stūpa or elements thereof, utensils given to a monastery, images, or, especially in later periods, a grant by royal authority to a monastery of the agricultural revenue from a village or villages. Examples of the many aspects of Buddhist practice that are illuminated by epigraphic materials are the status of the contemporary canon, the cult of the relics of the buddha, the popular perceptions of karma and merit, the origin and development of buddha images, the geographical distribution of the various nikāya lineages, and the origin and history of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Before the beginning of the Common Era, Buddhist inscriptions were always written in one or another variety of Prakrit. In the early centuries of the Common Era, Buddhists in north India adopted a hybrid dialect combining features of Sanskrit and Prakrit, known as “Epigraphic Hybrid Sanskrit,” and parallel to the “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit” of Buddhist literature from a similar period. Then, from about the 4th century ce, Buddhists adopted classical Sanskrit as their preferred epigraphic vehicle.

Most of the earlier inscriptions are written in Brāhmī script, and later ones in the various regional derivatives thereof. But until about the 3rd century ce, the numerous inscriptions of Gandhāra and adjoining areas in the northwestern reaches of the subcontinent were written in Kharoṣṭhī script and in the Gāndhārī Prakrit language.

Inscriptions reveal a great deal both about the overall contours of the history of Indian Buddhism and about the details of its monastic and doctrinal structures. In the earlier centuries, inscriptions typically recorded donations by individuals or small groups in the form of funding for a single component of a large stūpa complex, notably at the great stūpa sites of Sanchi and Bharhut. Succeeding centuries see a gradual shift toward larger-scale donations by royalty or wealthy individuals. During the later phases of Buddhism in India, inscriptions are increasingly concentrated in a limited set of sacred sites such as Bodh Gaya, Kasia (Kuśinagara), Saheth-Maheth (Śrāvastī), and Sarnath, indicating an overall contraction in monastic institutions and communities.


  • Buddhism

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