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date: 01 October 2022

Canon and Commentary in the Earliest Buddhist Manuscriptslocked

Canon and Commentary in the Earliest Buddhist Manuscriptslocked

  • Stefan BaumsStefan BaumsInstitut für Indologie und Tibetologie, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München


The earliest Buddhist manuscripts were written in the Kharoṣṭhī script and Gāndhārī language, initially on birchbark scrolls and later on palm-leaf pothi-format manuscripts (i.e., bound or wrapped palm-leaf folios). The core area of this manuscript culture was the region of Gandhāra in northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, but its influence extended to neighboring areas and, along the Silk Roads, into Central Asia and China. After sporadic finds throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (including one substantial Dharmapada manuscript in 1892), approximately 150 such early Buddhist manuscripts have come to light in the past thirty years. They provide a direct view into a transitional period, ranging from the 1st century bce to the 4th century ce, in which Buddhist literature switched from a primarily oral to a primarily written mode of transmission and underwent a process of canonization. Scholastic texts employing new exegetical procedures were composed and Mahāyāna texts began to appear. The change of manuscript format from scroll to pothi eventually enabled new textualities, in particular the production of very extensive written texts including complete sections of a Buddhist canon that approached the content and form known from other Buddhist traditions. All major genres and divisions of Buddhist literature are attested among these manuscript finds, which are gradually being edited, providing a new basis for scholarly understanding of the early history of Buddhism and the way that texts were used in early Buddhist monasteries.


  • Buddhism

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