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

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Portion of the Gandhara scroll.

The 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.

“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,” says Jonathan Loar, reference librarian in the Asian Division at the Library of Congress.

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.

“Digitizing the scroll offers both scholars and Buddhist communities worldwide access to a lesser-known part of Buddhist history,” Loar said. “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.

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